Should You Do a Workout in a Race?

It can be fun to do a workout in a race: less pressure!
It can be fun to do a workout in a race: less pressure!

The perfect race scenario goes something like this: You’re in the middle or at the end of a hard, satisfying training cycle. You’ve had this race on the calendar for a while and now you’re rested up and ready to go. The weather forecast looks great, and you’re prepared to leave it all out on the course, experience a little race day magic, and nail a huge PR. 

A lot of the time, though, it doesn’t go that way. Maybe you have a three-mile tempo at 10k pace on your training plan and your school is putting on a 5k this weekend. Maybe you’re on vacation and your whole family is running a road race during your base-building phase. Maybe there’s a half marathon starting a mile from your house and you conveniently have twelve miles at marathon pace in your training plan for that day.

Should you do it? Should you ever hit up a race to do a workout or should you only enter races to race?

The risks of doing a workout in a race

The big risks with running in a race when you shouldn’t actually race are summed up in these two common scenarios.

The first scenario is that you get caught up in the race atmosphere, your adrenaline kicks in, and you end up running all-out even though you meant to take it a little easier.

The second scenario is that, even though you committed to running slower than race pace, you end up feeling bad about your time being slower, often significantly slower, than what it would be if you raced. Plus, even at the slower pace, it likely won’t feel that much easier to run at workout pace, which might have you (irrationally) doubting your upcoming race goals.

To avoid getting yourself in one of these worst-case scenarios, here are some tips for deciding whether to do your workout in a race.

Purpose, purpose, purpose

I think it’s important to train with purpose, so I like to go into any run with answers to the following questions, but it’s especially important to answer these before using a race for a workout:

  • What is the purpose of this run?
  • What am I hoping to get out of it?
  • How should I run this workout in order to achieve its purpose?

When you figure out how to best handle your workout, then you can decide if doing that workout in a race setting makes sense.

Make a plan and visualize it

Now that you know the purpose of your workout, you can decide how to incorporate the race into that workout. If you have 12 miles at goal marathon pace, running it in a half marathon makes a lot of sense, particularly if you plan to run the first mile as a warm-up and then run the rest of the race at goal pace. However, if you have an easy 18 mile long run and you want to jump in a 5k, it doesn’t make sense to do the 5k at the beginning of the long run because that puts you at great risk of going too fast for those 3.1 miles and then struggling through the next 15. Maybe run the 5k at the end, when you’ll be too tired to go bonkers, but if you do push it a little you’ll actually benefit from that push.

If you are concerned that you will work too hard in a race setting to achieve the purpose of your workout, depending on the workout, it could make sense to schedule yourself for extra pick-ups or tempo running after the actual race portion. Knowing you still have more workout to do after the finish line might remind yourself to keep the effort right to conserve energy for the rest of the workout.

Once you make your plan, visualize it. Picture scenarios that might cause you to deviate from your plan, like a rival passing you, and visualize yourself ignoring those distractions as you complete your workout appropriately.

Have fun!

In addition to some specific goals that can help make for a good race-workout experience, I think one should also make it a point to have fun. Of course there are lots of reasons people run, and for competitive runners, fun may often take a backseat to concrete competitive goals, but to invest as much time, energy, and soul into the sport as so many of us do on a daily basis, enjoyment must play some role. Road races are fun! In some ways, the potential for enjoyment during the event might be even higher than if you were actually racing: the level of pain isn’t as high, you don’t have to be as dialed-in, and hopefully you’re not as nervous.

For some people, the crowds and noise are an unwelcome distraction in a workout. Some might find the experience of being in the middle of the pack, when you’re used to being a front-of-the-packer, too unpleasant (although it might be a good thing to practice being more bunched in), and also, depending on how far back you are, it may be too crowded to actually work out. If, for any reason, you think you are unlikely to enjoy doing a workout in a race setting, it is better to skip it because it probably won’t make for a good workout or a positive experience overall.

Make sure doing a workout in a race won't give you an out next time a race-race gets tough.
Make sure doing a workout in a race won’t give you an out next time a race-race gets tough.

Be careful to preserve the effects of race day magic

While not worrying about competing during a race can make for a great workout and be lots of fun, I want to note that I think it is important to preserve the distinction between racing and working out, though this can mean different things for different people. We’ve already discussed the importance of keeping your workout a workout in a race setting, but it’s also important to not use races for workouts so often that you diminish the possibilities for “race day magic.”

What is race day magic? In an ideal race, though you may have a slight nagging calf pain, or team drama, or stress at work, when the gun goes off you enter another world—a sacred space—where all these other things melt away and every muscle fiber, every thought, every movement are working in concert with the sole purpose of getting you to the finish line as quickly as possible.

The space of a race is so set-apart from the realm of everyday life and everyday running that it can allow you to push far beyond what you thought were your running limits. Every runner at some point experiences race day magic, when we run so much faster in a race than what ever seemed possible in training. Running 5k in a workout at 10k race pace can seem impossible, for example, but in a race you are able to complete twice that distance at the same pace, often even picking it up in the last few minutes. 

It seems that when I step up to that line, there is an unspoken oath between me and my competitors, and between me and myself, that I will push my hardest, dig my deepest, give everything I can to run my best possible race. Of course, I wouldn’t claim this holds true for every single person in every single road race out there, but for runners seeking to improve their times and be their best, keeping that line intact between the race and, well, everything else, is part of what allows us to draw on the race energy and run even faster than sometimes seems possible.

While I still think running races as workouts can be a fun, exciting, and productive workout, my final point is that it’s best to do race-workouts only occasionally; otherwise, one risks compromising the sacred space of races and diminishing the power of race day magic.

Do you ever do workouts at races? 

I am a runner based in Boston. I am also an AmeriCorps member and soon-to-be grad student. I like to write about gender disparities in running and the mental aspects of training and racing.

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5 comments

  1. I really enjoy doing races as workouts at times- I think mentally and physically it’s super helpful. I do agree though that the risk of actual racing is there and can be hard to pull back. One of my favorite race-workout experiences was this past February. I was signed up for a half and my coach and I decided to use it as a workout because it didn’t make sense to race it. I was nervous about holding back, but somehow got in a good groove in first few miles with 2 other guys that were running that pace. I realized that was going to be a PR pace for them….so I paced them! I got my workout in, but also had fun encouraging and helping others meet their goal…it made finishing slower than normal so much easier to handle. Also was encouraging that my marathon pace felt easy enough that I could talk and do other things during it!

    1. Sounds like a great race-workout! That’s a good point–finding people who are going about the same pace you want to be going could definitely help.

  2. I try not to make a habit of this, but I’ve done this a few times. We once ran a 5k in the middle of a 16 miler — ran to the race and back — which worked out okay. We also had someone at the race who could drive people back, and we were fatigued enough by race start that we didn’t do anything too crazy during the race. I’ve also used 5ks and 10ks as part of a long run with a longer, really easy warm up and cool down (in the 10-12 mile range, not super long). And, I’ve occasionally dropped a weekday speed session in exchange for a weeknight 5k.

    I think the sacred space part is key — if I’m doing a race as not-a-race, I make sure I have lots of cues for my mental state. Long warm ups, no racing flats, no tapering, etc.