Racing Your Training Runs: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Save it for the race, dude.
Save it for the race, dude.

If you’re a regular reader of Salty Running, I bet you might be a little competitive, which can be a great quality for a runner to have. At races, of course, where the point is to do your ultimate best and to place as high as you possibly can, it can come in very handy. When we tap into our inner competitor it can give us that extra boost we need to make a big breakthrough or nab a PR.

I’m willing to bet nearly every one of us has gotten carried away being competitive during a training run as well. At its best, it’s more than just a laughable ego trip, it can actually be good for you. But at its worst it can be harmful to your training. Bringing your A-game to a regular run can be good, but it can also be bad and sometimes it can even get real ugly.

A couple years ago it was a regular occurrence that I’d be out running and hear someone laboring behind me, pushing himself to overtake me. As he’d pass, his look of accomplishment and superiority would quickly turn to surprise, then almost to shame, as he realized maybe his conquest wasn’t so great after all. From behind, I looked completely normal, but from the side it was obvious I was very pregnant! I’d bite my tongue to keep from saying, “Great job buddy, you ran down a seven months pregnant woman!” because who knows? Maybe these people needed that burst of adrenaline to energize their runs, or maybe passing someone fueled their confidence.

TFW you look back at the lady you just passed and she smiles at you like you're a dipshit
TFW you look back at the lady you just passed, realize she’s 7 months pregnant, and agree with her when she looks at you like you’re a dipshit.

Result: The Good.  There’s nothing wrong with sometimes racing people on a training run. Sometimes it’s even a necessity, like when you’re an awkwardly close distance to a person and need to put in a quick surge to break it up. The best scenario is that you get in an unexpected workout by amping up an ordinary run.


I had several college teammates who treated every run as a competitive event. They always had to be one step ahead. This unfortunately led to what were supposed to be easy recovery runs that turned into all out battles for who controlled the pace. But often these teammates, who didn’t distinguish between training and racing, had lackluster race results. While everyone else on the team stepped it up a notch and gave it their all for races, those who raced daily in practice didn’t have another gear to turn to.

Result: The Bad. Don’t wear yourself out every day in training, and especially don’t do it competing with other people. Always going to the max and treating every run like a competition will leave you depleted physically and mentally for actual races.


My neighbor recently told me about a run he went on while traveling for business. He was doing an out and back along the Chicago waterfront path. At his turn around point he noticed another runner about ten meters behind him. The other runner quickly closed the gap and my neighbor described the next few miles as an increasing head-to-head sprint, a battle of pride between two strangers. When he finally reached his max, instead of simply slowing down, he peeled off at the next intersection, pretending that was his destination. Waiting a few minutes for the other runner to get out of sight, he then jogged the rest of the way back. He said he spent the remainder of the day completely wiped out and exhausted!

Result: The Ugly. Getting caught up in the heat of the moment won’t destroy your long-term training, but you may end up zonked the rest of the day or even longer! Especially watch out the day before a tough workout or long run.


Save blowing by some random dude and grinning like it's NBD for the race.
Save pissing off some random dude and grinning like it’s NBD for the race.

I’ll admit it, I occasionally run someone down out on the trail to pump up my own ego, but most of the time I try to ignore what paces other people are running and just stay within my zone. I don’t want to get caught up into competitiveness on easy days.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t push yourself in training, or that it’s not okay to sometimes race the anonymous runner who smugly passes you huffing and puffing on your easy day. It’s good to be competitive and can give you an extra workout you weren’t expecting. Just don’t make it a habit; if you catch yourself racing someone else every day, try to remember there should be a clear distinction between training and competitive racing. Run your workouts hard, your easy runs easy, and, when it really matters, you’ll mentally and physically know you have one last high gear you can use to race your best.

Have you ever gotten caught up racing someone during a training run, or has someone tried to race you? What was the result?

I have fun trying to sprint, enjoy long runs in the mountains, and everything in between. Former competitive runner (3 x marathon OTQ & trail marathon national champion) currently working through a lingering injury. I write about trying to stay competitive while raising young kids and moving into a new post-competitive stage.

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  1. Yeah, this happens a lot. I def try not to get caught up in it. The worst is when it happens during group runs and the one random person that barely runs with the group needs to show out

  2. I feel like I don’t get passed that often, but I remember once when this girl was literally racing me, and I thought…I’ve got 6 more miles lady! she stopped before me. Also, love the pregnancy reference…it always puts a nice pep in my step to surprise people out there.

    1. Oh yes, that is so true too! When you’re out on a long run, and someone (who you clearly assume) is just running a couple of miles, is out there racing. I have to bit my tongue from asking them how long they’re holding their pace for!

  3. I used to do this all the time in high school and college. less for the ego boost than because I thought we were supposed to run hard all the time. Doh!