Choosing the best running race for your year is a big decision. After all, races influence how you train, what running gear you invest in, and your travel budget. With that in mind, we asked our coaches for their advice on how to choose (and prepare for) the best running races for you.
How should you evaluate a running race?
Our coaches recommend reviewing a few basic stats of each race before committing:
- Race distance and difficulty (including distance, terrain, and elevation gain)
- How long you have to train for the race
- Your current fitness and your ability to train properly for the race
- Cost of the race
- Travel required to and from the race (and, if relevant, child care for the duration of your travel)
- Weather conditions
- Level of competition
- Whether you can race with friends
- Whether the race is for a cause
Does running race size matter?
Coach Vivian Vassall breaks down the pros and cons to race size:
“Smaller races are more convenient logistically. A local race series in my city has 10am gun times, tons of free parking, only costs $35, and allows runners to register onsite. These races tend to be a lot more peaceful, and it tends to be easier to focus on your pacing if you have a goal time in mind. Small races are easier for your spectators to actually cheer for you as well. Best of all, fewer runners may increase your likelihood of a podium finish!
Bigger races are far less convenient. They may require you to register months in advance (you may even need to qualify or get picked through a lottery), and they tend to have heftier race registration fees. You may need to show up at the start line hours before gun time, and wait in lines for everything from bag check to port-o-potties. However, big races tend to be a lot of fun, may have festivities like on-course bands and after-parties (Rock n’ Roll marathons come to mind), and the memories created tend to justify all the trouble. Plus, in very large races, there are typically tons of spectators, and you’ll never have to run alone!”
How far in advance should you commit to a race?
Some of us are planners. Some prefer to decide weekend plans on Friday night. We asked our coaches if races should be planned far in advance (assuming you qualified for the event and have the luxury of signing up at your will).
As a rule of thumb, Brian Comer recommends, “Longer races (certainly marathons and ultras but half marathons qualify here too) should be determined 12-18 weeks out while shorter races can be decided on 6-10 weeks out.”
That said, coach Deserae Clark advises that it comes down to whether you are already prepared for the race: “It depends on the difficulty of the race and your current fitness. Longer races take longer to prepare for. If you already have a base built you won’t need to train for as long. Past experience can also be important, especially in ultras. I would suggest planning for more time to train if you are new to racing.”
As a final note, Vivian Vassall points out that races require your training in the days and weeks leading up to the actual race day, so you will want to make sure you don’t have any other stressful events (like your wedding or a big work event) coinciding with the running race.
How do you decide what distance to run, if the race offers multiple events?
Many races offer multiple distances, such as a half or full marathon. How do you know when to choose the distance you know you can achieve versus the distance that would challenge you?
Tom Scott recommends talking through this decision with your coach. Whatever you select, he advises that it be the distance that you can “sustainably train for and complete without pushing yourself beyond your body’s current capability.”
In addition, be sure to consider each race in the context of all your running goals for the year. Brian Comer suggests, “Look at where you are in your training cycle. If you are closer to your goal or peak race, you may want to get more selective and specific and select a distance that serves as a dress rehearsal while further out from a goal race, you could choose to race an ‘off distance’ or select a distance that allows you to try and work on any weaknesses you have.”
What should you try to find out about the course before running the race?
The coaches all agree that you should gather as much information as possible about the course before race day. For some courses, you may even want to run it in a dry-run beforehand!
In general, you will want to find out the total elevation ascent, length and grade of major climbs, geographic features like river crossings, and where your aid stations will be located.
Here is Vivian Vassall’s list of pre-race intel:
- Course profile: Most races have a course map and a course elevation chart on their websites. If you’re a road runner looking to avoid hills, be sure to check the Y-axis of the chart. Depending on the scale, the hills may appear larger (or smaller) on paper than in reality. Also, a “net downhill” course may still have hills – e.g., rolling hills or perhaps one big hill. “Net downhill” just means the finish line is at a lower elevation than the start line.
- On-course support: How many aid stations are there? Which mile markers have water? Fuel (what type?)? Bathrooms?
- Are there pacers? Pacers are official runners who hold signs above their heads displaying the pace they are running. You can run with a pacer to meet a specific goal time without doing any of the thinking!
- Does the race have a cutoff time? Some races pull runners off the course if they cannot finish within a certain timeframe. If you’re a “back of the pack” runner, find out the cutoff time in advance. Find a race with a generous cutoff time to take the pressure off.
- Are there festivities? A pre-race expo? Post-race party?
- Are there age-group awards? If so, how are they broken down? (5-years? Or 10-years?) How many prizes are given? Are you the youngest in your age group? Will you be the only runner in your age group? While you may not be running to win, some smaller races have pretty sweet prizes!
Should you specialize your training for specific running races?
When you know a race is on your schedule, you should 100% specialize your training for that race. For example, Deserae Clark uses the training sessions just before taper to have her athletes “train in similar conditions to what they’ll experience on race day, and at least some of their training runs prior to that as well.”
In addition, Brian Comer recommends running on similar surfaces to the race course.
How often should you run races? Is there such a thing as too many races?
An eager runner could find a race just about every weekend, but should you? Across the board, our coaches recommend you discuss this with your running coach to make the best decision for you as an athlete. Some runners do very well with frequent races while others are better off doing one or two per year.
Annika Brubaker sees over-racing as a problem “if you are always running them at ‘race pace’” (as opposed to taking on some races for fun). Meanwhile, Brian Comer advises:
“For more seasoned runners, I believe there is such a thing as over racing. As a general guideline, for half-marathons or shorter, races should be no more than every other week, with 3 or 4 weeks often being a better gap if the training demands it. Beginner runners can be better served with racing more frequently but should still not be racing every week as that’ll quickly lead to overdoing it.”
Be sure to temper your training after the race for recovery. Brian recommends that for every 5k of the race, you take one day of easy training post-race.
Are there any running race red flags?
Running races are often hosted by volunteer or not-for-profit organizations, and some of them are better organized than others. When evaluating whether the race is good for you, the coaches recommend reaching out to local running organizations to find out who is running the race and what other runners’ experiences have been. (At Team RunRun, our community reviews races in race reports, so that you can go in with plenty of info.)
Brian Comer shared his personal experience: “I learned the hard way that races that are run on a closed course tend to be better. Courses open to traffic can be messy, especially without course monitors or without proper directing of that traffic. Also back to my point on course markings, it’s always a good idea to opt for a race with good, clear course markings.”
Is it worth it to travel to races?
Across the board, our coaches agree: traveling to races is worth it!
That said, there are some considerations to keep in mind. Vivian Vassall breaks it down for you:
- Race size and reputation: While some small, less-popular races are in scenic locations, I recommend considering the race size and reputation of the race before committing to travel to one. Less-established races may not be very organized (e.g., could the race get cancelled last minute? Could you get lost on the course? Could they run out of fuel and water? Is there no bag check?). Larger, well-known races tend to be well-oiled machines.
- Miles vs Kilometers: If you’re travelling internationally, find out in advance whether the race uses the imperial or metric system on the course (or know how to convert the distance in your head!)
- Running at altitude: There is a lot of science in this area that it’s important to learn before committing to the race. Team RunRun Coach Maxx Antush is a great resource for this. To paraphrase him, if you’re going to run a race at altitude: get as fit as possible (i.e., plan to supplement your running with cross training), go on slower easier runs, hydrate more than you need to – as your body will lose water (through evaporation off of your skin) faster than usual in drier climates, and work on slowing down (e.g., by running with and talking to a friend). Most importantly, if you’re going to travel to a race at a higher altitude, aim to get to your destination a month in advance, or just 1-2 days beforehand. Typically, 3-4 days is when altitude sickness tends to set in. On the flip side, I personally was living in Boulder, CO (a mile above sea level) when I trained for my first half marathon, which was in the Seattle (at sea level). It was a pleasant surprise to find I breathed much easier on race day!
Are there any special considerations for virtual races?
In the COVID-19 pandemic, many running races were replaced with virtual races, so that you can still get the competition in without being exposed to hundreds of people at a time. Our coaches recommend a few things for choosing a virtual running race:
- Choose a race that feels personal to you. You’ll need to find internal motivation, since there won’t be crowds cheering you on.
- With that in mind, don’t beat yourself up if you don’t perform the way you normally would. Without in-person competition, you won’t have the usual adrenaline driving you to a faster time.
- Recruit a friend, family member, or local running club to (safely) participate with you. Says Coach Vivian: “You never know when you’ll need water, assistance, or a morale boost. Have then drive a car to various points on your route to cheer you on, and have supplies ready. Plan your route in advance, including bathrooms and water stops. Treat it like you would any other race. Try to run with others, if possible. And, most importantly, make sure you’re on a social fitness app so your virtual fans can show you love!”