Do I Have to Race to Be a True Runner?

As long as you’re moving, you’re bettering your health. But there are some benefits to race day.

Nancy asks: I just started running three weeks ago, and several of my new runner friends are telling me that I must pick a race to do. But right now, I really don’t have any interest in doing a race of any distance. I just want to improve my health and fitness with running. Do I have to do races to be a true runner?

My short answer is simple: no, you absolutely do not have to do a race in order to be considered a true runner. The question of what qualifies someone as a runner has been tossed around for years, and there are a wide variety of opinions on the subject.

However, none of them include doing races as the qualifying factor.

For me, a person becomes a runner the moment they realise that they enjoy moving more than not moving. When you enjoy running, you run on a regular basis, whether that is two or three days a week – or seven. A runner looks forward to his or her runs and plans days around their runs. If he or she can’t run for some reason, they miss it.

It’s not about pace, distance, or races. It’s about your mindset and about your commitment to get out the door and move.

That being said, the reasoning behind picking a race has its merits. First, choosing a race gives you a deadline. As with so many things in life, runners can procrastinate. It often takes a deadline to motivate you to act, and a race may be a necessary catalyst for some.

Secondly, having a race gives you a definitive timeline for training. By selecting a race, you have designated the specific distance to train for and a timeline for mileage increases based on your race date. Your training plan should begin at your current fitness and mileage level and then gradually build you up. Mileage increases, speed training, and/or hill work are planned based on that timeline.

Third, races are a celebration of accomplishment. They are a reward for months of dedicated training that probably included a curtailed social life, early mornings, along with many other sacrifices. The race shirt, race photos, and maybe a finisher’s medal are all tokens commemorating your effort.

While running is often perceived as a solitary sport, races are truly a social experience. You are out on the road with many others that share your interest. The post-race celebration is a party atmosphere, and you have the opportunity to meet other runners. As Christopher McDougall has said, “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other but to be with each other.”

Races are also a way to measure progress. If you don’t push your limits, your fitness level will eventually plateau. There is something motivating about participating in a race, pinning on the race bib, knowing the clock is ticking, and toeing the start line that makes us push harder.

Whether you opt to do races or not, it will be important to mix up your training routine so it doesn’t become stale or too easy. Keep challenging yourself in some way to keep your body and your mind engaged.

What is most important is your choice to live a healthy lifestyle. If you are internally motivated, you may not need races to get you out the door. Racing is simply an option. As you continue with your walking and running, your goals or interests may change, and if you decide to pick a race at some point, they will always be there.


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