10 Need-to-Know Tips for Running Your First Race

The before, during, and after of training for your first "organized run" like a pro.

When I asked my uncle if he wanted to sign up for a 5K race with me, he replied, “Thanks, but I don’t like organized running.” Fair enough, I thought. When you explain a race out loud to someone, it doesn’t sound all that fun: “So, you wake up at 5 a.m. on a weekend to run several miles alongside hundreds (or thousands) of other sleep-deprived suckers.”

But there are magical parts about race day, too, like how your feet transport you several miles before most people have had their first sip of coffee, or how the energy of the crowd seems to ebb and flow around you, or the stale bagel that somehow tastes incredible after you’ve burned a couple hundred calories. But most of all, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of putting in hours of training for something and seeing it through to fruition.

While “organized running” may not be for everyone, a first race is something that will easily become part of the highlight reel of your accomplishments (even if it also happens to be your last). So lace up, get out the door, and try to not take yourself too seriously. Use these tips to make your first race day as smooth and enjoyable as possible:

Before the Race

Find the right plan for you. So you want to race (or your best friend succeeded in talking you into one)? Awesome. The next step is choosing an training plan to outline your course to the finish line. Even if you’re not normally a planner, a training plan will keep you on track and give you the reassurance you need that come race day, you’ll be ready to take off (and actually make it to the finish line). Here are some of our favorites:

  • Runkeeper: This handy app offers a diverse mix of training plans for first-time racers. Their app will amp you up with push notifications that cheer you on and keep you on track in the weeks leading up to your 5K (or whatever distance you’re taking on). Plus, it prompts you to make a short journal entry after each run. So once all is said and done, you can look back through your entries at how far you’ve come.
  • Runner’s World: If you take comfort in micromanaging your miles, Runner’s World has plenty of in-depth, day-by-day training manuals to enlighten you on all things running. They’ll even send you a daily email reminder detailing your course for the day.
  • Nike: To keep your first race a frugal one, check out this free, 8-week 5K training plan that takes you through speed and endurance workouts.

Curate a killer playlist. Make a habit you adding a few songs to your running playlist each day in the weeks before the race. That way, when the day finally arrives, you’ll have a long playlist of favorites that remind you of different stages of your training. Having the right tunes to propel you through mile after mile can be the difference between a bad run and an epic one. Plus, it may actually make your run feel easier. A 2014 study suggested that listening to music makes strenuous workouts feel easier and may encourage people to push themselves harder than they had thought possible. Audiobooks and podcasts are also great options for letting your mind wander while your feet move through the miles.

Invest. While running proves a far more affordable workout option than most boutique workouts, there are a few essentials that you should shell out some cash for—starting with your shoes. Toss out those shabby Nikes from high school and head to a specialty store. Instead of picking the best looking pair of trainers and heading straight to check out, ask an employee to help you figure out which pair best suits your athletic goals. Don’t be afraid to take a few laps around the store to get a feel for how they treat your feet and muscles.

Along with your snazzy new kicks, treat yourself to a race-day outfit: According to a study conducted by the Journal of  Social Psychology, adorning trendy athletic-ware influences our attitude towards ourselves by carrying weighty symbolic meaning. For example, when you think of running clothes, you likely think of Nike. So when you slide on a pair of Nike shorts, you’re not only running, but taking on the symbolic meaning of what it means to run in Nike shorts. So get yourself in the proper mindset to cross that finish line—and “just do it.”

The Morning of the Race

Don’t stray from your normal routine. If you’ve eaten oatmeal and a cup of joe an hour and a half before every one of your training runs, don’t suddenly pivot to a stack of pancakes. Convincing your body that this run is like any other is key to having a good race. Here’s how to fuel for your race—no matter the distance.

Visualize your success. Take five minutes before you head to the starting line to close your eyes and visualize crossing the finish line. A recent meta-analysis published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that visualization is an effective way to teach optimism. Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., wrote, “I suggest you to consider it in two basic steps: visualizing yourself at a future moment in time having accomplished your goals and considering the character strengths you’ll need to deploy to make that vision a reality.” So take a seat, and allow yourself to imagine the full, vibrant picture of how great it will feel as you close out this chapter of your running goals. Then use the optimistic mindset to carry you through the race.

Go over your checklist. Make sure you have your headphones, cell phone, a pack of face wipes for after the race, chapstick, sunglasses, or anything else you may need to be as comfortable as possible during your run. You don’t want to arrive at the race only to realize you’ve forgotten a vital item, and end up running the race without music or dodging the glare of the sun the entire time.

During the Race

Don’t start too fast. When the gun goes off, it will be tempting to take off sprinting while you’re still bursting with energy. But starting off too fast will likely leave you drained during the second half of the race. Try shooting for negative splits by running slightly below race pace for the first 20-50 percent of the race, then speeding up. If you’re feeling good as you reach the last 1/2 mile or so, push yourself through the finish line. It’s much more fulfilling to end on a high note than to crawl across the finish line, panting and wheezing.

Feed off the energy of the crowd. If you start to feel uninspired during the race, take a look around you. All of your fellow runners are in the same boat as you are, so don’t be afraid to offer up a smile, or keep pace with a participant who seems to be following your same rhythm.

After the Race

Don’t forget to stretch. Though it can be tempting to head straight for the post-run carb buffet, skipping a good stretch after your race will make tomorrow absolute hell, and can potentially lead to injury. Find some grass where you can catch your breath and stretch out those quads, hamstrings, calves, and hips, before inhaling that pretzel and banana.

Write your time on the back of your bib. Remember the trophies you received just for showing up for a soccer game in middle school? I like to think of race bibs as the, “Congrats, you participated!” award of the adult world. A great way to keep track of your progress throughout your running journey is to jot your finishing time on the back of your bibs. Whether you stuff them in an old shoe box, or hang stick them to the refrigerator, they make great momentos for reminding you of your journey—and tracking your progress if you decide there are some more races in your future!

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