Even if you're not a naturally competitive person, signing up for a race can give your motivation and your fitness a boost. In fact, when you sign up for a race, you reap most of the benefits long before you even reach the starting line.
But races are like running shoes; fit matters the most. If you pick a race that doesn't fit your schedule, your level of fitness, or even your temperament, then you're setting yourself up for months of unneeded stress, and a race that is much more challenging than it needs to be.
Here's how to pick the perfect race for you—no matter the distance.
If you have been running for six months to a year, you will likely need five to eight weeks to train for a 5-K or 10-K, 10 to 12 weeks to ramp up to a half-marathon, and 16 to 20 weeks to build up to a marathon. Take out your work and family schedules, and consider whether this is the right season or the right year to tackle the right race distance. If work, kids' sports schedules, or other commitments are going to make it difficult to find time to train, you might be better off scheduling the race for another time. Look at some sample training schedules for the event you're considering, and see if the time you'll have the time to complete the workouts. Remember that in addition to running four to six times a week, you will also need to make extra time for long runs, strength training, and recovery.
Many races offer early-bird discounts, and with so many races filling up fast, you don't want to have to worry about getting shut out. But there are other benefits for signing up early. Once you fill out the registration form and pay the fee, your whole perspective on your workout routine changes. Regular exercise officially becomes "training," and this will help you keep your routine on track.
If it's the first time tackling a certain distance, you might want to consider sticking close to home. That will allow you to train on the racecourse. It will also eliminate travel-related worries, which can add unneeded stress to race weekend. It decreases the chances that you have to worry about late planes, lost luggage, or even getting lost on the way to the starting line. If you're a seasoned pro, you might feel more comfortable doing an out-of-town race, or making the event part of a vacation adventure. If you do this, just be sure to make the race the beginning of the vacation. You don't want to spend your whole time off stressing about whether what you're eating and what activities you're doing will make or break your race. Make the trip the reward for all the hard work you did leading up to the event.
Training and racing during any time of year has its benefits and its downsides. Spring training sounds lovely, but a spring race means you will likely do most of your training in the dead of winter, and have to navigate piles of snow, icy patches, and endure long-distance runs on the treadmill. By the same token, if your race is in the fall, conditions might be perfect and cool on race day, but you'll need to do much of your training during the hottest time in the summer. Consider your own likes and dislikes. Consider your access to a treadmill when running outside is not safe or feasible.
Half-marathons and marathons have become wildly popular in recent years. But running long isn't for everyone. Races that are shorter and longer can be just as rewarding. Take some time to think about what distances you personally enjoy running and racing. How do you feel about being on your feet for two to three hours at a time? Do you prefer shorter, faster workouts and races? Training for a race of any distance is going to help you build the foundation of fitness you need for your future events.