It was after two decades at the ballet barre that I traded in my slippers for sneakers. I felt ready to conquer a four-mile race in Central Park with just a few months of running under my belt—and I’ll always remember that first race fondly. But the sweaty reality is I really didn’t know what I was doing out there.
Now, while I firmly believe first-timer foibles are necessary for growth, there are a few things I wish I’d known before I made my way to the start line. (Namely that your first mile—unless it’s a one-mile race—should not be your fastest! I sprinted and was fully gassed by the halfway mark!)
But don’t just take it from me—keep reading for veteran runners on what they wish they’d known before their first race.
Find the right running shoes for your feet: “I love bright and neon clothes and accessories, so in high school and college, I always paid more attention to how flashy my shoes looked than how comfortable they were,” says Karli Alvino, coach at Mile High Run Club and leader of MHRC’s new Desk to 5K program. “Then I would race. Then there was pain. Then there were injuries and cramps. Moral of the story: Get a gait analysis, try out the shoes, go for some runs, and return them if they aren’t perfect. Do not settle when it comes to footwear, and don’t bargain shop.”
Less is more (yay): “I wish I had known I needed far fewer things,” says Elizabeth Maiuolo, a biomechanics coach in New York City who has run 160 races. “Less gear, fewer layers, less music, fewer energy gels—but more BodyGlide!”
Practice your fueling strategy before race day: “When I ran my first marathon, I was prepared in that I practiced fueling during all my long runs,” says running coach Megan Harrington. “But I wish I’d practiced fueling during race-pace workouts. I noticed my stomach reacted a lot differently to gels at my easy run pace than it did at my much faster race pace.”
Only you can prevent chafing: “It doesn’t matter if you’re running a 5K or an ultramarathon—anything and everything is susceptible to chafing,” Alvino says. “The inner thighs, underarms, top of the feet, biceps, shoulders, waistline, all of it. Learning how to avoid chafing has been one of my best accomplishments.”
Save your bib number (for nostalgia’s sake!): “I ran my first 5K when I was in high school,” says Megha Doshi, business development and partnerships director at Strava, who has gone on to run more than 100 races. “Sometime during college, I started saving my bibs from every race. Had I known running was going to become a life-long passion, I would have saved that first bib number, too. Decades later, I still treasure that folder of race bibs. Not every race was a personal record, and many were hard-fought battles just to get to the finish, but each is a reminder that no matter how old I get or how fast or slow I run, running is something that has shaped who I am.”
Have fun—and prepare to get a little emotional: “I shouldn’t have worried about how ‘bad’ I might be at racing,” Maiuolo says. “I was so afraid of everyone realizing I wasn’t a ‘real runner,’ whatever that is, instead of just enjoying the experience. Because in the end, it was 50 million times better than I thought it would be! I even cried the entire last two miles of my first race. It was the ride of a lifetime.”
Remember: It’s about more than just competition: “Throughout my competitive athletic career I would not and could not settle for anything less than the first place championship trophy,” Alvino says. “The end result was lots of championships and awards, and plenty of pride, but after all those years, I was left in bad physical shape with numerous injuries, broken appendages, and ulcers from taking too many NSAIDs. It took a long time for me to understand that there’s more to exercise than just the competitive athletic side. It’s so important to remember to be your personal best, in running and in life.”
Don’t expect your first race to be your last: “You say you’ll do one and be done. You won’t,” says Lottie Bildirici, holistic health coach and recipe developer for athletes like Kara Goucher. “You’ll wake up the next morning forgetting what it’s like actually being able to feel your legs—and you’ll probably already be looking up what race you want to do next.”
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