Let me be clear: Many if not most endurance athletes race too often. I consider over-racing to be one of the most common and costly forms of self-sabotage in endurance sports. Check out this past post of mine for a full rant on the topic. But in this post I’m going to toss a curveball at you by talking about the benefits of selectively racing at certain times when common sense might say you shouldn’t.

I’m talking about rust busters, as they are commonly known. The ideal time to do a rust-buster race is at or near the point at which you transition from base training to specific training in preparation for an important event. At this point you are fit enough to compete without hurting yourself yet still far from peak fitness. In terms of distance, rust busters generally should be relatively short so they don’t take too much out of you. For example, if you’re doing an 18-week marathon buildup, you might do a 10K at the end of Week 6.

What are the benefits of this practice? I can think of four:

1. See where you are

Late base training is a time when many athletes aren’t sure how fit they are. At this juncture it’s been a while since your last peak race, which presumably was followed by a break from formal training and then the laying of a new fitness foundation. Athletes may be particularly clueless about their fitness when the present training cycle has a different focus than the last, as is the case for me now. Having raced an Ironman triathlon a couple months ago, I’m now targeting a marathon. I therefore threw myself into a 10K road race last week to get an assessment of my current running-specific fitness level. I will use my result to set appropriate pace and time targets for important workouts in the weeks ahead.

2. Shock the system

To find success as an endurance athlete, you need to be good at suffering. Some athletes are naturally better than others in this regard, but research has shown that even the toughest athletes aren’t equally tough all the time. Rather, individual athletes experience circumstantial fluctuations in mental toughness. Generally speaking, athletes show more toughness and more resilience as they get deeper into their training closer to competition. 

On the flipside, we are seldom weaker as athletes than at the end of base training, when our last race is far behind us and our hardest training still lies ahead. Racing at this time can serve as a remedial course in suffering. Even if you don’t perform especially well (and you shouldn’t expect to), going through the experience may help you dig deeper in, and get more out of, the training that follows.

3. Scratch the itch

One of the reasons so many endurance athletes over-race is that they love racing.  Another benefit of rust-buster races is that they provide a non-self-sabotaging outlet for competitive hunger. By scratching this particular itch at a relatively early point in the training process, you’re likely to be less tempted to disrupt your specific training with ill-timed competitions later on.

4. The post-race bump

Building fitness is seldom a linear progress. More often it’s what the biologist Stephen Jay Gould called a punctuated equilibrium, where periods of relative stasis are broken up by abrupt leaps forward. It has been my consistent experience, both as an athlete and as a coach, that rust-buster races precipitate forward leaps. This makes sense, right? After all, from a physiological perspective, a race is just another workout, only harder, hence a more potent training stimulus.

There, I’ve given you four good reasons to plan and execute rust-buster races. Now go find one!