How to Pick a Goal Race


I have an ever-growing bucket list of races I want to run right now. Seriously, not a week goes by where I don’t add a new race to the list of “someday I could run this.” My list recently has grown to include (if I can totally dream here) the St. George Marathon, Big Sur Half-Marathon, Portland Half-Marathon, Seattle Rock and Roll Half-Marathon, and the likes (can you tell I’m totally obsessed with the Pacific Northwest right now? I want to go see some mountains.) It’s a combination of personal competition, knowing that I have not reached my peak speed yet, and wanderlust, that intense desire for the husband and I to pack our bags and see the sights of Oregon, Washington, Utah, Maine, Massachusetts, and so on. Running is a great way to see some awesome scenery, right?

Photograph courtesy of: Wikipedia Commons

However, racing too much can get expensive, especially if it you have to travel for the race. Even if you have the funds, frequent racing has a high chance of leading to physical burnout. Whether or not you aim for a PR or not, 13.1 or 26.2 are still a lot of miles to frequently log on your feet. Especially if you are a marathoner, frequent racing without recovery between races or training cycles will eventually cause overtraining. The symptoms of overtraining include fatigue, elevated resting heart rate, moodiness, problems sleeping, and a compromised immune system – not good things. Elite runners are well aware of the dangers of overtraining, and so they only race a few goal races per year. It’s advisable that us non-elite runners do the same and race modestly. If you race modestly, you are less likely to overtrain and therefore more likely to have the strength and energy to PR.

If you really do want to race – say you have the opportunity to pace a friend who is new to the distance or you can’t pass up the opportunity to run in a beautiful location – there is always the option to run the race without actually racing. Many runners, especially those who have raced before, possess a strong grasp of what constitutes race effort for a given distance. I could run a half-marathon at my goal half-marathon pace (currently 8.10-8.15 min/mile) or I could run at my usual long run pace (8.45-9.00 min/mile) or even easier. Choosing a slower pace would allow me to run the race without being as physically exhausting and therefore requiring a week or two of recovery.


However, if your goal is a personal record, age group award, or Boston qualifier, you need to be more selective about when and how often you race. With enticing races all across the country, four major distances to choose from, and the personal pursuit of always doing better, how do you choose your goal race? Here are four tips for how to pick a goal race.

1. Location

Location of a race is one of the most important things to keep in mind when choosing a goal race, but you have to consider more than just what cities you want to visit or what sights you want to see. Are you sensitive to jet lag and will be tired if you fly to a different time zone to race? If so, then you are probably best to stick in your general region for your goal race. Do you want to race somewhere cold or somewhere warm? That could make the difference between choosing the Honolulu Marathon or the Twin Cities Marathon. The ease of travel should also be a consideration – is it easy for you to get to an airport, and then is the race and nearby hotels close to an airport? It may be best for your first race at a new distance to choose a nearby race so you don’t add the stress of travel on top of the stress of your first marathon or half-marathon.

2. Time of Year

Since I live in an area that gets a ton of snow and freezing temperatures in winter, I end up having to run most of my runs on the treadmill. This is not optimal for training, especially if you are training for a half or full-marathon – who wants to regularly run 12-20 miles on a treadmill? A spring race then may not be the best goal race for me (unless I want to become best frenemies with the treadmill). Likewise, if you live somewhere that gets extremely hot and humid in summer, you may be better off training for a spring race than a fall race.If you are feeling ambitious, it’s best to pick one goal spring race and one goal fall race – that way you have lots of time to recover between training for the races.  

3. Terrain

Are you a fan of hills or do you prefer fast and flat terrain? If you dread hills, then you probably don’t want to sign up for a race like the Pike’s Peak Marathon. If you get bored on flat courses, then maybe the Chicago Marathon isn’t the best choice for you. Also, you need to account terrain into your training. If your goal race is a hilly race, then you should incorporate hills into your long runs and tempo runs to mimic how the race will feel. If you don’t live in a hilly area, then you will need to utilize the incline on the treadmill to train for that race.

4. Size of the Race

Many of the well-known races – Boston, Chicago, New York, Marine Corps – draw in a tens of thousands of runners and often use a lottery system for registration. Meanwhile, local races tend to be smaller in scale. There’s a trade-off: larger races will offer clearly marked courses, frequent water and fuel stations, and tons of crowd support, but smaller races will avoid crowded miles and offer you a better chance of placing in your age group.


Most importantly, you want to pick races that motivate you in your training and are exciting for you!


Questions of the Day:

How often do you race?

What races do you want to do?

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