If you take a look over on my personal blog, you’ll see that I LOVE to race. I sign up for races to keep myself motivated, because I love the race environment, to keep myself on a plan, and because I am a slave to bling. If you are a new runner (or even a seasoned runner wanting to try some new distances), you might be curious about how to select a race distance. Now, before you start filling the comment section with “but I’m not fast enough to race” or “I’m not good enough to sign up for a race” I want you to take a step back and STOP. You ARE good enough to race and unless your name is Kara Goucher or Ryan Hall, you probably aren’t going to win, so relax. I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of us don’t race because we think we are going to win. We race because we love it. I, for one, have never even come close to placing in my age group but I keep coming back for more.
Race distances are a varied as there are runners. Most races fall into these categories: 5k (3.1 miles), 10k (6.2 miles), 1/2 marathons (13.1 miles), marathons (26.2 miles) and ultras (anything over a marathon). There are also races of odd distances, like 8ks (just under 5 miles), 15k (9.3 miles), and 25k (15.5 miles). You may even find 1 mile fun runs. Running races fall into two general categories as well – road and trail. On road races, you’ll run all (or at least most) of the race on pavement. Trails can be anywhere – beach, woods, hard packed dirt, you name it. Runners have very strong preferences over which type of race they like to run.
The key to having a great race experience is choosing the right race (and training for it, of course!). There are a number of factors that should go into selecting a race distance.
- What is your current fitness level? Think about what type of running or walking you are doing now (and for the purposes of this post, we are talking running races – there are lots of others, triathlons, cycle races, duathlons, etc). If you are just starting out, signing up for a marathon as your first race might be a bit overwhelming. For most, the 5k is a great place to start. If you are up for a bit more of a challenge, think about a 10k. After you have a race or two under your fuel belt, up the distance if you want a new challenge. Some races also have time limits, so if you are a slower runner or want to walk a race keep this in mind.
- How much time you have to train? This is very important. If you sign up for a race without thinking about how much time you can devote to training, you will probably not have a very good experience. As a general rule, you should plan to run at least 3 days a week if you are training for any distance, plus devote another 2 days a week for cross training (biking, swimming, strength training, yoga, kickboxing, anything that isn’t running). Make sure you plan in at least one rest day as well. You can plan to train for 8-10 weeks for a 5k (if you are starting from the very beginning) and another 6 weeks or so to bump up to the 10k. If you are looking at a half marathon, you will probably need at least 12 weeks to get ready (you should already be able to run 3 miles comfortably). Most marathon plans are 20 weeks long (assuming you can start with a long run of 8 or 10 miles). If you know you have a super busy month coming up at work or you are planning to travel for 3 weeks in the summer, you might want to rethink your plan.
After you have decided on the distance you would like to train for, there are a few more factors you can look into that will help you select the perfect race.
- What time of year do you want to race/train? Once you know how much time you have to commit to training, you can decide when you want to plan your race! Take into account where you live. Typically spring and fall are prime racing seasons in most of the country because the weather is usually pleasant, but depending where you live, you could find races year round. With this in mind, you will be training in the summer for a fall race and the winter for a spring race. But DON’T let that scare you! Embrace all the seasons. Your local running store is a good resource for smaller races close to home, whereas magazines such as Runner’s World, will list larger races. Pick your race and count backwards on your calendar to determine when your training plan should begin.
- How much can you afford to pay? Another factor that you should consider is cost. Most 5ks will run around $25-40 and the longer races go usually up from there. Swag such as tech material shirts (a HUGE plus) and whether the race has a medal or afterparty will usually affect the cost. Picking a race which requires travel will increase your cost – and your stress level. I highly recommend sticking close to home for your first race. Once you’ve been bit by the racing bug, dream big – head to Disney or to a major city like Chicago, New York, or San Francisco for an exceptional race experience.
- What kind of race atmosphere do you want? Do you love crowds and people cheering on every corner? Then sign up for a big-town race. Are crowds not your thing? Look for smaller, local races. They are often lower key and less stressful. You may not have to deal with parking issues, long port-a-potty lines, and the like. Google the race you are looking at with “race report” to find blogs of people who have run before you. Check out the race’s Facebook page or Twitter. Ask questions!
What race is on your bucket list? I’m a bit nuts and have the Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney World on my list. What about you?