In the world of running, the path to achieving ambitious goals is paved with dedication, strategy, and preparation. Just as actors rehearse tirelessly before opening night, runners too have a secret weapon: practice races.
These tune up races, while not the main event, hold a pivotal role in a runner’s journey to success.
They provide a unique opportunity to fine-tune strategies, gauge progress, and build unshakable confidence. Much like a dress rehearsal, practice races offer a glimpse into the challenges and triumphs that await on race day.
In this article, we delve into the significance of practice races and uncover how they serve as invaluable stepping stones on the road to conquering your ultimate running aspirations.
One of the things that’s made my return to running easier after knee surgery was the concept of practice races.
I know that we all go in to races saying “I’m just going to do it for fun.” And then find ourselves going all out, that’s ok. What I want is to change our perspective on how we use those “fun” races.
I finally took a really analytical approach to race day, resulting in some great lessons for me to use for all future half marathon training plans and race day.
What is a Practice Race?
A practice race, in this context, is an actual race event you sign up for, with the primary goal of preparing for a future race.
So instead of aiming for a PR, this race is all about running for fun, gaining experience, and setting the stage for success in an upcoming key race.
It does not have to be the same distance that you are training for! A marathon runner might use a 10K or half marathon… or a 5K runner might do some practice 5K races.
It’s an opportunity to experience real race-day conditions and figure out what to wear and what gear you want to use, test out your fueling strategy in a real race, and practice running in a crowd of other participants.
Why You Should Run a Practice Race
If you’re a new runner or if it’s been a while since you’ve run a race, a practice race can get your mind back in the context of a race environment.
There’s no substitute for the real thing, and by participating in an actual race, you get a genuine feel of the race day environment. This includes everything from pre-race jitters to the adrenaline rush at the finish line.
And since you’re not aiming for a PR, you can use it as an opportunity to experiment with different strategies.
Test your pacing, nutrition, hydration, or any other race-day best practices without the pressure of needing to achieve a specific time. By the end of the race, you’ll have a good idea of what you want to change for next time.
Running for fun also means there’s less pressure, giving you the opportunity to simply enjoy the experience. It can be a refreshing break from intense training, helping you rekindle your love for running.
Things to test:
How to Use a Practice Race
Whether you find yourself not quite ready for your goal race, you’ve gotten that crazy flu floating around or had an injury that slowed down training, or maybe your motivation just waned, there is still hope.
Stop thinking about a PR and think about how this race can set you up for future success.
Learn From the Experience
Instead of focusing on just your watch for this race, it’s time to really take in the whole experience. Your goal is to LEARN everything you can that will make your goal race better. Ask yourself the following questions as you run:
- How did you feel at the start line? Do you need more throw-away clothes to stay comfy?
- Do you need to be awake longer to digest your pre-run breakfast and use the restroom?
- Were you super stressed getting to the start line? If it’s a destination race, can you stay closer next time?
- Was a destination race harder for you because of the travel?
- Do you like being surrounded by others for energy, or do you find the interaction draining?
- Do you like the idea of finding another racer and pacing with them?
- Did music cause you to go out too fast? Maybe start it later in the race as your energy drops.
- Did that gel make your stomach hurt? Would you do better with whole food fuel?
Enjoying the Experience
We’re sooooo tense on race day that we often forget this is supposed to be fun, and worse than that, we waste boatloads of energy that could be going to our legs by scrunching up our face to concentrate or tightening our shoulders.
Simply having a day to practice will remind you on goal day how to let go. I’ve seen it time and again, when folks start having fun on race day they often end up ringing that PR bell.
While you are NOT going out for a PR, this race is a good chance to see how it feels when you push your limits. Did you find your energy waning by mile 10 because you rocketed off the start line? Did you finish still thinking you had something left to give?
Just notice your breathing, your legs, the tension in your shoulders and yes whether or not you were even having fun!
As a Benchmark for a Future Race Distance
This is a good opportunity to utilize a shorter distance race to set yourself up for success in a future, longer race. For example, a half marathon is an excellent opportunity to test your pacing strategy for a full marathon. You can experiment with different paces to find what feels sustainable and efficient.
While you likely won’t run both races at the same pace, understanding how to maintain a consistent pace over 13.1 miles can give you insights into managing your energy for the full 26.2 miles.Why You Need a Practice Race: Half or Full Marathon Training Click To Tweet
How to Choose a Practice Race
First, you should find an event that’s similar to your target race but on a smaller scale.
Consider the course, terrain, and timing to make sure it aligns with your training plan. If you’ve always dreamed of qualifying for Boston, consider finding a marathon (or even a half marathon) in the same city around the same time of year and try it out the year before you hope to qualify for your goal race.
This will give you an opportunity to experience travel and similar weather conditions as your goal race. For example, if you flew in on Friday for a Saturday morning race and you found yourself worn out by the travel, next time, decide to fly in on Thursday so you have a day of rest before race day.
Make sure to approach the race with the right mindset. This isn’t about PRing; it’s about learning, experimenting, and enjoying the race.
Keep reminding yourself of this purpose. Since the focus is on fun and preparation, consider running with a small group of friends or teammates. Sharing the experience can make it more enjoyable and relaxed.
Example Lessons from a Marathon Practice Run
When I decided it was time to come back from knee surgery, David and I signed up for the Steamboat Half Marathon as a little tune up. I was surprised at how much I actually relearned doing that race and now I know those things will be important for my upcoming race goals.
Here are tips I took away from my practice race that might help you as well!
Start Line Carbs
My HR shoots up in mile one, which means immediately I’m dipping into carbs. I’m going to try sipping a sports drink while standing in the coral.
Warm Up Better
A longer warm-up will really help my legs be ready to go in those first few miles. Without it, I can tell I’m pushing really hard to hit my desired pace…I tend to skip doing drills, thinking I’m wasting energy, but that’s backfiring.
Here are some of my favorite dynamic warm up moves that I’ll be using again.
Water Stations (bring my own)
These continue to be an issue for me as I break stride and then have trouble getting back without my HR soaring. I HATE stopping to drink, so I kinda sip or just run by because I don’t want to be bothered. Which means dodging other runners or getting dehydrated, which causes bonking.
I’ve now found if I carry a small bottle for the first half with a pre-workout supplement I can sip it and then toss mid-way. That ensures I’m getting something that I know works for me.
Start Closer to the Front
I tend to start farther back in the pack to keep from going out too fast, but then waste a lot of time dodging people to pick up the pace. In this race, I had the guts to start farther forward, and it was worth it.
Miles in a race feel way longer than during practice, and I think, in this case, it was because I kept looking at my watch to see how my HR was doing compared to pace, etc. On race day, you have to let all of that go.
Not checking my watch has often allowed me to run faster than I believed I could. Focus on how the body feels. Practice races are also a great time to see how you feel using a group pacer. It sounds great, but maybe it’s not right for you.
I saw an amazing video the day before the race talking about how stress is a good thing, and when we recognize it’s preparing our body, everything gets easier.
Practice races are also a great time to see how you feel using a group pacer. It sounds great, but maybe it’s not right for you.
Rolling Hills Work For Me
Totally my kind of race! I am strong on the up hills and then love the pick up going down. I have a much harder time on totally flat courses. Which means I need to really understand race course descriptions before picking a PR goal race.
Too Many Turns on A Course
Slow down, speed up…not my thing. If I really have a PR goal I need the straightest course I can find! We had a lot of hair pin turns and that also got my HR up. Again another time to really consider what race I’m choosing for my goal.
3 Song Maximum
Unless the Top 40 countdown is on, I no longer need a mega playlist. I usually turn my music on around mile 6 and only want to listen to one or two songs repeatedly.
I didn’t even know there was actually some science behind this about the repetition allowing me to get in to a zone and of course not futzing with my music because a song comes on that I don’t like. I pick songs that would make me want to sing and dance in the car.
Looking for some additional tips?
- Half Marathon Training Plans
- Marathon Fueling Strategy
- Marathon Pacing Plan
- What to Wear for a Half Marathon
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