Running is hard. Sticking to a training plan is hard. But knowing that you have a race in a month is a great motivator to keep you going when you'd rather be watching TV. If you've never run a race before, putting one on your calendar might seem scary: Will I feel out of place? What should I wear?
Illustration by Tara Jacoby
Races are more fun, and more welcoming, than newbies often realise. Even if you're not the competitive type, the energy and atmosphere of race day can make for a great experience. So let's warm up those cold feet and demystify what actually happens at a race, and what you can do to prepare.
Well in Advance
Weeks or months ahead of time, you're already making your first big decision: whether to sign up for a race, and which one.
A 5K (about three miles) is a popular first race distance, but you can really start anywhere. My first-ever race was a 10k (six miles) and since then I've gone up and down the distance scale, racing as long as a marathon (26 miles) and as short as a 2k (just over a mile). Your body isn't keeping track of your entry forms or finisher's medals; it just knows what it's been trained to do. If you've trained for the distance, you're ready to run it, no matter how big or small your racing resume.
You can even pick a race the same day you take up the running habit. Training programs like Couch to 5K aim to get you ready to run a 5K in about two months. For the best experience, give yourself some extra time beyond the exact number of weeks the program says it will take. Life intervenes, and you don't want to feel underprepared if you fall behind. That said, don't forget that even if you had to walk the whole thing, you'd be able to cover the distance in an hour — and there are plenty of folks who walk 5Ks, so you wouldn't even be the last one across the finish line.
For longer distances, you probably have the experience to know what you're doing training-wise. If not, you should find yourself a coach, a running group, or some other source of good information. Our guide to choosing and using a training program might help.
You can google for local races, or ask friends for recommendations, but I really love Runner's World's Race Finder. It's a pretty comprehensive calendar of races across the country, and gives you all the essential info for each. Here's what you'll want to find out:
- Date: Pick something that works with your training schedule.
- Location: So you can find something nearby — or in a destination you'd like to travel to.
- Price: Local 5K's are often in the $US25 range and include a free T-shirt; bigger races may cost more, going into the hundreds for popular marathons. (Note that extremely popular races may have a lottery system or other restrictions on who can sign up.)
- Size: If you either love or hate crowds, use the number of participants to rule out the races that aren't your style. I'll take a tiny race over a big one any day, but some people thrive on the roar of the crowd.
- Previous results: If you have a sense of how fast you might run the course, check out last year's finish times to see where you would stand. This can reassure you that you won't be last, or if you're a fast runner you can daydream about scoring an age-group medal.
- Course map and description: Some races describe themselves as having a "fast, flat course." These are great for your first time. Others are designed to be challenging, with rough trails or infamous hills.
- Special features: I always look for any mention of food; winter races that promise pizza and hot chocolate are the best. Some races go through unusual scenery (like this one that starts underground in a mine), encourage costumes, or occur at night or on holidays.
Once you've picked your race and put it on your calendar, it's time to start training and visualising. Think about the race sometimes when you run, especially if you're worried about being nervous. Rehearse the feelings you'll want to have: for example, "I only have a mile left, and I'm feeling great!"
In an effective visualisation, you know what you'll be wearing, what the scenery will look like, and how you'll feel mentally and physically. Use these visualisations to rehearse any tough situations the day might throw your way: What if it rains? What if you get tired too soon? What if you're feeling great and are tempted to leave your running buddy in the dust? (Most running buddies will tell you to forge on ahead, but now is a better time to have that conversation than in the heat of the moment.)
Also, consider your goals for the race. The best goal for your first race is just to finish with a smile on your face. Setting a time goal could mean setting yourself up for disappointment — why ruin that moment?
If you really feel the need to get specific, use tiered goals: maybe your main goal is to finish, but then you have an "it would be nice" goal of beating a previous time for the distance.
As the Race Approaches (About Two Weeks Before)
A couple weeks before your race, you should start making plans for the big day. Visualise every little detail about what's going to happen, from your breakfast to your clothes to your transportation plans.
A word about timing: If your race is a long one, like a marathon, you'll need to start road-testing everything before this point. Every long training run (say, 12 miles or more) is an opportunity to try out your food, gear, and mental strategies. By two weeks before the marathon, you'll be in taper mode, with your long runs behind you. If you're gearing up for a 5K though, it's fine to start thinking about those things now.
Since your race will probably be in the morning, your breakfast matters. Make sure to get in a morning run or two before race day, and test out how it feels to run on your preferred fuel — whether that's an empty stomach or a bowl of oats and banana slices.
Likewise, test out the clothes you plan on wearing. If something chafes or flaps or itches, you'll know what you need to fix. Consider what else you'll be wearing or carrying: a phone, a watch, a jacket around your waist. Decide on your gear, and write it down in checklist format so you won't forget.
If you plan to listen to music during the race (assuming your race allows it; some discourage headphones) now is the time to build your perfect playlist — and, of course, road-test it along with your chosen headphones.
Remember that course map that was on the race's web site? Go back and study it, if you haven't already, and consider scoping out the course in person. If you want to run the course — which is the best way to get to know it — don't time yourself, because running a race course at race speeds is called a race. You don't need to race until race day. Instead, head out for a leisurely jog around the course — or if it's long, do half one day and half another. Leave your watch at home and aim to just get to know the course. Where is each mile marker? How will you know when you've gone halfway?
If it's not practical to jog the course, don't forget you can bike it, drive it, or at least check it out virtually with Google Maps.
One last thing you need to test out before race day: your warmup plan. Some people warm up before every race; others prefer to start cold and warm up as they go. I understand not wanting the hassle of fitting a warmup into the hubbub of race morning, or the fear that you'll run out of gas if the race distance is already a challenge for you. But there is a good reason to warm up for short races.
Think about how you feel about two minutes into a training run, versus how you feel at the end. The beginning likely feels cold and sluggish, while your last few minutes feel smooth and full of energy. It's normal for about the first ten minutes of a run to feel awful. The purpose of warming up is to get those terrible first ten minutes out of the way before the race starts.
A warmup can be as simple as ten minutes of easy jogging (or even brisk walking). While you're checking out the race course, scope out locations to jog your warmup too.
The Day Before
By the time you reach race weekend, your training is in the bank. Don't try to cram in that run you missed earlier this week; what's done is done.
In the few days leading up to the race, you should:
- Get enough sleep; one restless night won't hurt your running, but several in a row will.
- Eat well, including some moderate carb-loading if it agrees with you.
- Drink enough to be comfortably hydrated, but don't go crazy with the water bottle.
Make plans to pick up your race packet, which you usually can do the day before the race if you want to. The packet typically includes your bib (the number you wear on the front of your body, usually pinned to your shirt) and may include a timing chip to attach to your shoe. The rest of what's in the packet is mostly pamphlets for other races, possibly some product samples or other swag, and the "free" T-shirt. Do not wear the shirt until after you finish the race.
Check out the race day logistics: where can you park, when do you have to arrive (check whether roads will be closed), and how will you get to the start line? Sometimes there are shuttle buses, but don't be afraid of a ten-minute walk between your car and the start. Hey, there's your warmup!
If you're on your own, larger races often have a gear check for the stuff you won't be running with (a jacket, for instance). Obviously, if you have non-runner friends or family with you, just leave your stuff with them. Either way, carefully write out a checklist of what you'll need to bring to the race, and which things should go in your gear bag versus on your person. Lay out your clothes. Pin your bib to your shirt. Make sure you have breakfast ingredients ready. The less running around you do in the morning, the better.
The Big Day
When the big day arrives, get to the race obscenely early. Or, if you're not a morning person, aim to be there at least half an hour before the start. Extend that to a full hour if it's a big race or if you'll have to wait in line for anything (like packet pickup). Look for a bathroom as soon as you get there; porta-potties tend to get long lines right before the start.
Autumn and spring races tend to be chilly, so wear your jacket until the last possible minute, then gear-check it, or hand it to a friend, and head off for your warmup — which will, fortunately, keep you warm. Other temporary keep-warm options: a thin long-sleeved shirt you can tie around your waist or stuff in a fanny pack; arm warmers you can peel off and stick in your pocket; or a garbage bag with holes cut for your head and arms, which will make you look silly but will keep you warm until you just throw it away.
When it's time to line up (at least a few minutes before the start, earlier for big races), find a spot toward the middle or back of the crowd. The people in front are the people who think they have a chance of actually winning the race; everyone else sorts themselves according to speed. For both psychological and traffic-control reasons, it's better to start from the back and pass people than to start too far forward and be a roadblock for faster people behind you.
The race will probably start with some announcements, singing of the national anthem, and then an air horn to signal that everyone can begin running. As long as there's some sort of chip timing (a chip on your shoe or an electronic sticker built into your bib), you don't have to worry about rushing forward when you hear the horn. A sensor will detect when you cross the start line, and that's when your time starts.
During the Race
Start out cautious, but optimistic. Run just a little slower than you think you should; go by feel rather than a pace readout on your phone or watch. If self-defeating thoughts creep into your head, acknowledge them and set them aside. Just keep moving.
As you get further into the race, consider speeding up if you feel good, but don't be afraid to slow down or even walk if it turns out you started too fast. Pacing errors happen to the best of us. Live, learn, and just keep moving.
As you round the last turn and the finish line comes into view, you'll usually see a big clock. That represents the time that's elapsed since the starting horn, which isn't necessarily the start time that your chip recorded. So if it's a little bit off from what you expected, don't be disappointed. If it's a lot off, still don't be disappointed! You've just about finished your first race, and that's a major accomplishment.
Friends and strangers will be cheering you on as you approach the finish (even at a very small race) so ride that wave of positive energy, and speed up if you have anything left in the tank. There may be a photographer trying to capture your triumphant finishing moment, so avoid grumpily looking down at your watch if you care about the photo. Either way, don't slow down until you've fully crossed the finish line.
After the Race
You're probably exhausted and just want to curl up somewhere and die. That feeling is normal. Stay alive long enough to listen to what the race volunteers are telling you: to line up here or there, to accept a water bottle or a silver blanket, to let them take your shoe chip or your bib tag if that's necessary for their timing system.
Stay on your feet for a few minutes. Some people will feel dizzy or faint if they sit down immediately, but the more likely danger from sitting down is simply that you won't want to get up again. So at least collect your gear and snacks first.
There are many schools of thought on what to do for the best recovery, but the truth is it doesn't matter much. You're not a pro athlete who has to run another race this afternoon; you're a normal human being who can enjoy a leisurely breakfast and take it easy for a few days. Eat something, drink something, pull on a pair of compression socks if you like, and don't schedule anything too strenuous for the rest of the weekend.
Once you've taken care of yourself, you have a decision to make: should you stay or should you go? If you stay, you can cheer on the other runners (remember that wave of energy that carried you to the finish?) and wait for results to be posted. Even if you don't expect to win anything, it can be fun to see where you stand. Results are broken down by gender and age group, so feel free to brag that you finished in the top ten for your group even if there were only 11 people running. My preschooler once won a medal in a "men 5 and under" category. In a small enough race, anything is possible!
The post-race activities may include raffles and other festivities, so perhaps you'd just like to linger to chat with other runners and help yourself to seconds from the food table. On the other hand, if you'd prefer to grab a bagel and skedaddle as soon as you cross the finish line, that's fine too. Go home, rest up, and then pull up your calendar and schedule your next race!
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