All you need to run is open space (or a machine) and a pair of shoes, so hitting the path or treadmill provides a great outlet for almost anyone. Competitive racers log plenty of solitary miles during training, but many solo runners prefer to get their exercise without the added stress of competition. Hey, whatever works. But should you sign up for the occasional race? We talked to experts to find out how competitive running can impact your progress.
Reasons to Race
“It is a great idea for solo runners to compete in an occasional race,” says Aaptiv Trainer Ackeem Emmons. “It can push you out of your comfort zone and give you perspective. Training can be repetitive, and we are naturally designed to adapt.” With adaptation, he notes, we can get too comfortable, which hinders progress.
When solo runners experience competitive running during a race, “They will discover a pace and a mentality they may not know they have,” adds Aaptiv Trainer Meg Takacs. “Racing is all about attitude. There is a certain level of resistance and strength found in competing. Once this baseline is raised, it never goes back down.”
Also, it’s fun. Running a race, whether it’s a 5K or a marathon, puts you on the path with like-minded people. Emmons says racing—and training—for a common goal is a supportive environment that’s good for everything from networking to making new friends.
Learn to adjust.
Stepping up to the starting line surrounded by hundreds of other runners will get your competitive running juices flowing. With that adrenaline comes a reason to give it your best.
“Mile markers become accomplishments, and pain becomes weakness leaving the body,” Takacs says. “This only happens when you race because you have no other choice than to finish the drill.” She notes that this desire to complete the course can lead to adjustments, both mentally and physically, that will push you to the finish line. These are adjustments that you wouldn’t make when out for a casual jog.
Gauge your skill level.
Emmons says by competing in the occasional race, you can also gain insight into your individual skill level and how you stack up to others. People train and compete differently, giving you plenty to observe and absorb on race day. “The more you expose yourself [to races and other runners], the more you learn,” he notes.
Takacs agrees. She explains that racing makes you more self-aware of your pace, form, and cadence. “You have to constantly adjust your body to keep going. In seeing other people do the same thing as you, you become hyper-aware of your mechanics and technique.”
It’s easy to stay on your couch when rain is in the forecast or to sleep through your alarm and miss a run. But when you’re signed up for a race, you’re much more likely to get your miles in.
“Racing can improve accountability,” Takacs says. “If you have trouble sticking to a routine, paying for a race and training for it is your best bet. This helps with structure and ensures that you are working toward something. There is nothing better than working toward a goal and then finishing it. It makes your training and hard work feel real.”
Entering a race has its drawbacks, too. Pushing yourself too hard during competition, especially by starting too fast, is a common mistake that can lead to burnout or injury. “If you’re not well-versed in competing, you may push yourself harder than your capabilities,” Emmons says. “You know yourself better than anyone else, so listen to your body, do your best, and, most importantly, train smart.”