If you haven’t raced, it’s about time to consider it. Whether you use it as the end goal of a training plan, an accountability mechanism for your new fitness kick, or just a personal challenge, racing is well worth it. That’s not to say it will be easy—that’s sort of the point—but it’s still doable. Follow these steps to take the guesswork out of getting to your first start line.
#1. Choose Your Challenge
You need to decide on distance and venue. Races range in length from 100 meters to 100 or more miles, and while you could likely train up to any distance, some require far more preparation, time, propensity for pain, and grit.
Many runners try a 5K first, because it’s long enough that you don’t have to worry about being the fastest, but short enough that you can likely finish it still running strongly. On one hand, it’s the perfect way to kick off an exercise program. On the other, if you’re focusing on speed, training for the 5K can be as tough as any of the longer races.
Some runners tend to be what coach and author Greg McMillan calls “endurance monsters”—they prefer to log more miles at a more moderate pace. If you love going long, try the half marathon as your first distance. Most beginners will need at least two months to prepare to run steadily for 13.1 miles, working up to a minimum of about 20 miles per week and a long run of eight to ten miles.
If you’re what McMillan calls a “speedster”—you typically run away from training partners on short sprints but get dropped when the miles add up—you might want to skip the road race scene altogether and head to the track. There, you can find sprint-length races of one lap or less or middle-distance races like the half-mile.
Running races differ not only in distances but also in culture.
Road races: Typically, these are open events with mass starts. You can either self-select your starting pace group—based on your predicted finish time—or start toward the back of the pack and fall in with a group running at a speed that feels good to you that day. At most races, you’ll find a pack for every kind of runner. They’re also plentiful: You can find a race in most cities almost every weekend, ranging from the mile to the marathon.
Shorter track races: These tend to attract your fastest runners with a hardcore crowd. Search for “all comer” or “masters” (over 30) track meets near you to find open events. Fields are small and sorted by heats based on times and/or age groups, so the field for every heat is small.
Trail races: If you choose this race, you’ll head off-road, into the woods, and sometimes over mountains. If you dig steep climbs, changes in scenery, and technical terrain, a trail race is for you. They can be as short as 5K or up to 100-mile ultramarathons. Trail terrain varies widely. Be sure to find a good description of the course before signing up to make sure you’re ready for the challenge.
#2. Get Geared Up
As you train more, experts recommend rotating between two or three pairs of running shoes to vary the stress on your body. Runners often own a lighter pair and a more supportive pair, with the lighter option doubling as your racing shoes.
Track racers usually wear spikes, but they aren’t necessary to compete. If you do buy them, introduce spikes to your workouts slowly, gradually letting your body get used to the way they change your stride.
Trail shoes have a more aggressive tread for traction, they hold the foot more securely on uneven surfaces, and they often provide puncture-resistance from pokey things underfoot. While not essential for most terrain, trail shoes can help tame tough trails and make a great second option for runners who regularly venture off-road.
Chuck Engle, known as the Marathon Junkie because he races one nearly every weekend, says that a reliable pair shorts are the only other thing you really need. They shouldn’t bind or chafe, and they should breath and wick moisture.
Although certainly not required, some items are nice to have. A running watch will help you keep track of your running time, pace, and, if GPS-enabled, distance. Several free phone apps will also track time, distance, and pace but are harder to read on the run. A pair of sunglasses or a hat will protect you from prolonged sun exposure, and an armband or waist belt will carry your phone and fuel, should you be doing a long run of 60 minutes or more.
On race day, Engle recommends packing your bag early, even a couple days before the event. That way you know everything is clean and ready, and you won’t stress about what could’ve been left.
#3. Train Correctly
Preparing for a race is mostly about building endurance and stamina. Although anyone can bang out a quick sprint, running steadily for anything longer than 25 or 30 minutes requires teaching your muscles and cardiovascular system to be stronger and more efficient. You should find a training plan specific to your distance, but here are some guidelines.
Go often: “Consistency is key,” says McMillan. Getting out and running nearly every day is the only way to transform your body. A good rule of thumb is whether you can hold a complete conversation on the run. Back off if you can’t complete sentences. Use an online system like Strava or MapMyRun to track your workouts and stay accountable.
Go fast: Once or twice a week, pick up your speed. Toward the end of your run, increase the pace until you hit a practical sprint for ten seconds. Slow down and coast until you’re fully recovered, then put in another surge. Repeat four times to start. Work up to ten surges.
Go long: Include a longer, slower effort once a week, increasing gradually until you’re running for more than an hour. These runs will help prepare your body for any race distance and are essential if you’re training for a race longer than a half marathon.
Go steady: Add a weekly tempo workout. Speed up to a level that is fast but not too tough—you should feel like you could keep the pace up for several miles. Hold this pace for 15 to 20 minutes before you slow to your normal conversational pace. These workouts will improve your ability to run faster for longer, help you hone your pacing skills, and “give you a lot of bang for your buck if you don’t have a lot of time,” says Nathan Wadsworth, former elite runner and coach at Elite Training Solutions in Wichita, Kansas.
Get specific: Make sure you spend time on the same surface and terrain that you’re going to race on. This prepares both your body and skills for the specific challenges of the race.
Get fueled: A good running diet is basically just a healthy diet. As often as possible, replace highly processed foods with fresh fruit and vegetables. Pay attention to how much you eat. Don’t compensate for runs by eating more or treating yourself to something overly indulgent. You don’t want to be dieting before your race—you need adequate fuel to run well—but you don’t need to carbo-load for a race shorter than a marathon.
#4. Final Preparation
Don’t cram: A big part of racing is showing up rested and ready. That begins about a week out with the taper. You want to keep running, including your fast surges, but do fewer miles every day. Most important, don’t try to test yourself or put in an extra-hard or extra-long workout to get ready—it takes about eight days for training to affect the body, so you’ll just tire yourself out.
Take care of details: Two days before your race, run easy for a few minutes or take a day off entirely, and just do a couple miles with one surge the day before to feel loose and ready.
Show up: On race day, eat a light breakfast at least 90 minutes before the gun. Get to the race early enough to register or pick up your number, go to the bathroom, and still have plenty of time to warm up without stress. For your warm-up, run for ten minutes or so and do some leg swings or plyos. Don’t do anything new, no matter what anyone else is doing.
Take your place: Line up in an appropriate spot—near the back or with other runners of similar ability (don’t be afraid to ask). Before the start, remind yourself that the most efficient way to race is to set an even pace that you can sustain to the finish. When the gun goes off, ignore the others taking off too fast, settle into a comfortable pace, and pay attention to your body’s signals. As the miles add up, don’t be afraid to work harder. When you cross the finish line, celebrate becoming a racer.