What Counts as a PR?

PRs are what we competitive runners live for!
PRs are what we competitive runners live for!

Oh my gosh! I just ran a 5k PR on the treadmill!

YES! I ran a 10k, 15k, 10 mile and half marathon PR in my marathon!

I just ran a minute 5k PR, but everyone (and my Garmin) think the course was 3 miles instead of a 5k.

My GPS said the course was 13.4, but at 13.1 I had a 30 second PR, but was over a minute off my PR when I finished.

Are these personal record performances? No. And here’s why.

We use PRs to brag about our accomplishments, to find suitable training buddies, as entries on our running resumes and on applications to get into races with qualifying standards or to join racing teams or competitive clubs. While for some of these purposes, being a little imprecise with the PRs is no big deal, but for others, being honest and following some rules are necessary to conduct ourselves with integrity. So what are these rules?

Let’s get basic for a moment. What exactly are PRs? PRs, or personal records, are the fastest you have ever raced at a distance.ย We can extrapolate some rules from this definition.

RULE #1: Only official times run in races count as PRs.

Let’s use an analogy. When you were in high school, if you prepared to go to college you would have taken the SATs or ACTs. Leading up to those tests, you likely took practice exams. Would you submit your best practice scores with your applications? Of course not! The same is true for your best times. Running outside of a race is practice for racing. It’s important that we limit PRs to race settings because then your performance is on a measured course and the time is independently measured (meaning not by you using a stopwatch, GPS or treadmill display) and the results are verifiable.

There’s a reason that races have rules, are carefully measured and have sophisticated timing equipment – left to their own devices many runners would fudge the numbers on their performance. I often think I ran xx time, only to see I actually ran a couple to a few seconds slower in actuality. It’s in our nature to be a little overly optimistic! But it’s also in enough people’s nature to fudge the numbers that we have to have these rules. And come on! It’s in all of our best interests to be honest.

Possible Exception: Independently Timed Time Trials on Measured Courses

The only time you might include a time outside of a race setting as a PR if you ran a time trial, independently timed on a measured course (like a track). When I say independently timed, I don’t mean by your GPS watch, I mean by someone other than you with a stop watch. The closest thing I have done to racing a mile as an adult is participating in a time trial on the track with my training group timed by my coach. Because it was independently timed (by my coach), I ran it in front of (well behind) witnesses and it was on a measured course (a track), I feel it’s an acceptable PR. On my running resume or in an application, I’d indicate that that time was earned in a time trial.

Possible Exception #2: The Race Has a Weird Official Time Policy

This might only apply to me! I ran a certified half marathon and the racing company that put on the race decided that they’d only record gun time for the top 3 runners, but chip time for everyone else. While it’s noble that they want to only recognize the top 3 runners based on gun time, they could still use the chip time as the official time like they do for everyone else (they could have also told us about this when we lined up and I wouldn’t have lined up a couple of rows back!).

Of all the half marathons to run a 1:29:59!
Of all the half marathons to run a 1:25:59!

I wouldn’t care except for this one race I happened to run a 1:25:59.59 chip-time as evidenced by this screen grab of my age group, while my gun time was 1:26:00.50. I use this the 1:25:59 as my PR because it’s verifiable in print and I think the policy is arbitrary. Sure, it’s one second. But that’s a huge second that I actually in reality hustled my butt off for! This is a completely random thing, but since I’m telling everyone else to be honest, I better be too, right?! If I was applying for something serious, I would certainly use the official time since that is all that can be verified by the average search and I would not want to appear dishonest on an application, but when I am reporting my PRs I say 1:25:59! Annoying!

RULE #2: Splits from races are not PRs for the distances shorter than the actual race.

Running your 5k split of a 10k race faster than you’ve ever run a 5k before doesn’t count as your 5k PR. WHAT? I know. Sounds harsh, but it doesn’t. First, mile markers are not necessarily spot on and if you’re basing it off of your GPS – it might be even more unreliable! Second, if you tell people your 10k PR they will know you’re faster than your 5k PR, so don’t sweat it!

Possible Exception: The Race is Certified and Records Your Split Times

Boston is a certified marathon and records every 5k split. Those distances and times are legit and verifiable. But just as with the time trial exception, I would recommend disclosing that the PR was run within a longer race time on a running resume or race application.

RULE #3: Only times run in races that are the advertised distance count as PRs.

The only way to really know you ran the right distance is to run on a track or run on a course measured by one of these – a Jones Counter used by USATF course certifiers. Image via wikipedia.

I can’t tell you how many races are not the advertised distance, especially 5ks. 3 miles is not a 5k. 2.97 miles is not close enough. 3.02 is not close enough. 3.1 miles is a 5k.ย I wrote an entire post about how to tell if the race you just ran is short and why it matters. (Hint: it does!) Some people go so far as to say only USATF certified race courses should count for PR purposes. While this might make sense at the very elite levels, for most of us, this is completely impractical because so few shorter races are certified!

Especially for short races, I go by this: if the race director cares and GPS watches are measuring it very close to accurate (within .02 miles) and the race does not seem suspect under the analysis I wrote aboutย here, then I go with it. I feel especially good about it if I can corroborate the time with another race. My 5k PR was run on an uncertified course, but I know the race director and know he cares about accuracy. I also know my watch measured it at 3.11 and others had similar measurements. About a month later I ran another 5k at night on a dark path 8 seconds slower. So, I feel comfortable saying that the first race is my PR.

As for the longer races, since Boston requires that qualifying races be certified, most marathons are certified courses. Also, since many half marathons can be used as Olympic Marathon qualifiers, they too are often certified. But with halfs, proceed with caution! Everyone and their brother seems to be putting on half marathons these days, so there will likely be some hacky races out there. If in doubt, check the website or contact the race director to find out.

***

Of course, if you merely want to brag to your non-running co-workers or something, tell them whatever you want, but when it comes to preparing a running resume or applying for team or race entry or if you want to be straight up and honest about it, it’s important to follow these rules.

What do you think? Do you follow these rules for your PRs? Are there any rules or exceptions you’d add or subtract from my list?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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24 comments

  1. Interesting and right on! one of my fastest runs accounting for mileage equivalents was at a 20 mile, shoe store sponsored training run. Sadly, I don’t count it. (especially since I stupidly went all out and then crashed at the marathon 3 weeks later). In other news, I had no idea you were a lawyer.

    1. Do you think less of me? Haha.

      Bummer about your marathon. Sounds like you blew your wadm3 weeks early. Next time save it up for race day ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. I like your rules and have a caveat to add …

    Beware the USATF Certified course (and even Sanctioned event) that has been improperly laid out on race day!

    After feeling gypped by a string of poorly managed races, I deliberately sought a certified course with intermediate timing mats [to eliminate short-cutters].

    So, I set out on this 10-mile race hoping to pick up a nice PR and some good performance data. Somewhere along the way, the mile markers started to seem oddly placed. But, I attributed this to race-brain and the fact that there were several other race distances sharing the course, each with its own mile markers placed in slightly different locations.
    By the end of the race it was absolutely clear – by both my finish time and GPS – that the course was short … by about 0.4. Others agreed.

    I later compared my GPS track and recollection with the map submitted to USATF … Yep. The pylon for the turnaround on an out-and-back segment had not been placed as indicated.

    Additionally, it was clear that in at least one of the other race distances, the “marshalls” did not ensure that runners took the turn off to complete an out-and-back segment. Some runners ran the full course, many others did not. And, per the results, it didn’t matter whether the turn-around timing mat had been crossed – the only thing that counted was crossing the finish line.

    Race directors – This stuff DOES matter. ๐Ÿ™

    1. Ugh! Horrible! I interviewed a boss at one of the big race production teams here about how they measure their courses (they are notorious for egregiously short courses and incidentally the same company that put on the hm I talked about in the post). Anyway, when I asked him about their reputation for short courses he blew it off laughing and said, “when people ask me if a course is short I just tell them that maybe they had a good day!” He also made the point that they deal with way more complaints if a course measures long than if it measures short, so it sounds like they err on short courses so a) their customers who mostly don’t care (unfortunately) can leave with a happy feeling and b) to avoid lots of post race complaints,

      People keep paying for these shitty races so there’s little incentive to put on an accurately measured race. Annoying!

  3. What about an age-of-PR rule? My fastest 5k PR occurred 10 years ago; while I am getting close to catching that zippy college freshman, I don’t really count it as a PR any longer because it’s not an accurate representation of my current running self. Yes, it’s a time I really ran, but I haven’t run that fast in 10 years! Anything older than, lets say, 3-to-5 years is void, IMO.

    1. I think prs are prs, personally. I could see claiming lifetime versus masters prs or something like that. Prs don’t have to be a reflection of current fitness. They are lifetime bests, so I really think it’s fine to use older ones. Usually applications will ask you to say when and where the pr happened and of course you’d indicate that on a resume too.

      1. I can dig that ๐Ÿ™‚ Even when I use a more current time as a PR I feel like that, too, is inaccurate. There’s always a flip side. Great post though, I think these are pretty solid rules and I agree with Liz above, that would irritate me and who ARE these race directors?!

  4. rule #1, exception (A). I don’t have a coach. I can operate my own stopwatch for most purposes. It is kind of nice to run practice races (aka trials) on courses someone else has already measured. Find them on the USATF web site and use them.

    I take issue with counting downhill races for PR times.

    About measuring. Bedtime reading: Everyone should read the USATF course measurement guide. USATF mechanical measurement guidelines are very strict and account for almost everything involved in obtaining an accurate course measurement and ensure they are never short. USATF doesn’t permit mapping and satellite measuring tools, but this is very accurate for long straight lines. I say you can uses these to measure your own long straight course as long as it can be verified from a precise start and end point references. (we’re talking like total error on 5k of less than 10 feet)

    1. I personally think prs need to be independently timed by a person not yourself. Obviously, this is for things like running resumes and applications. If you want to tell your friends you ran x time in training that’s a different story. At the very least, I would indicate that this time was from a self-timed time trial. But think of it from the perspective of someone reDing your running resume or application: how would you perceive someone who listed a self-timed time trial as a pr versus others who ran similar times in a race and the results of those races are independently verifiable?

      1. Just because we [in theory] race faster than we train doesn’t mean that a personal record is a personal race record.

        Two races are not the same. All a race does is add context to a time by providing a percentile for comparison to others. If PRs don’t have context, why do they need to be from a race? They should be correct, distance and timing, but not necessarily from a race

        1. It’s not necessarily a matter of whether you have actually run the distance/time, it is whether the result is verifiable and legit which is hard to prove if you do it alone – it’s like my act/sat example above. You might have actually scored a 1350 on a practice exam that was a legit exam a few years ago but when you took the actual test you scored a 1290. Are you going to tell the college you actually scored a 1350 on a practice test? No.

          Anyway, this is just my opinion. I’m no god of running who makes the rules, so we can disagree and it’s all ok ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. As far as certified courses, I ran Boston last year and my Garmin had me at 26.4 miles. Obviously I didn’t run the same tangents that they measured.
    I ran a PR at a 5K last year and my Garmin had the distance at 2.97. I didn’t count it as a PR.
    Most of us are not winning medals or collecting checks at the end of these races. It would be nice if everything was precise, but I think that is too much to expect.
    I am reluctant to accept a PR when my watch shows the course being short. But that’s not why I run.

  6. Great post! Just want to note that USATF sanctioning is not the same as certification (not that you confused it at all, but it would be easy to do). You can find certified courses at this link — http://www.usatf.org/events/courses/search/. It was actually recommended to me when making my running resume to include the certification number so elite coordinators would be sure my times were legit. Of course, like Liz said above, this requires that the certified course needs to be followed accurately…

    1. Great points! I really like that certification # tip. I wish we had more certified races here, tho! I’m going to recheck the list and see if there’s anything new ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. Good catch. I threw the sanction bit in specifically in reference to the screwed up race I participated in … I took their going through the extra work of getting the sanction (in addition to the certification) to be further indication that the RD cared about putting on a good, clean race.
      In theory, some hapless runner might have been going for a record or an OTQ – that would have been a shame. (Or sham?)

  7. So glad you covered that TM “prs” don’t count! Unless you calibrate your treadmill, there’s no way of knowing if it is accurate. Also, I learned recently that you have to calibrate your treadmill at a variety of speeds (i.e. 7.0 might truly equal 7.0mph, but 8.0 might spin at 7.9 mph) AND your weight can affect the speed.
    (P.S. Sorry I had to split my comment into two…this computer does not play nicely with most websites & the post comment button disappeared with a longer comment!)

    1. Yes! This is also good to remember when you feel like you’re going to die at a usually perfectly reasonable pace – it could be spinning at 8.5 instead of 8.0 too!

    2. I’ll have to show you pictures of checking my treadmill’s displayed speed by putting my bike on it (Bike speedometer was calibrated against a known distance).

        1. My bike has flat tires. We’ll get to it this winter. Right now there is a brand spankin’ new treadmill in my garage that needs assembly so I can run it to death.

  8. We should do a post on treadmill calibration. No dibs! Haha. Well, I suppose I could write it but I’m not sure about getting down & dirty to actually DO it.