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Race Prep: Choosing Terrain and Distance Part 1 of 3

Choosing Terrain and Distance Part 1 of 3

Road Running

Written by: Luke Laga, L.Ac.

I came into my own decisions on these two questions rather quickly, and with the inspiration from a close friend who was just starting to make some noise in the ultra running world. Thirteen years later, he continues to make noise and challenge the best in the sport, and I have accumulated more phenomenal experiences and friendships than I ever could’ve hoped for. 

The sheer number of options for both distance and terrain, makes this an essential question to ask before signing up for a race. 

This month I’m going to focus on road racing. I believe it is most people’s entry point into running, so let’s begin there.

Road-Reliable footing, combined with comparatively flat profiles, makes for plenty of positives and offers a few mechanical challenges at the same time. Road racing offers everything from family-friendly neighborhood 5ks, historical marathons, to grueling ultra distances in extreme environments.

Pros of road racing from my perspective (help me out and write in your list!)

  • Access to good training conditions

    • This has to be my top pro to road running. Almost everyone with access to this blog has a road outside their door. You don’t have to drive to it, you don’t have to meticulously plan for it, you just have to lace up and run. With apps like Strava, you have even more convenient access to adding variety to runs right out, or near, your door. This makes for a very time efficient training schedule.

  • Thousands of races to choose from

    • Without a doubt, road racing has something for you nearly every single weekend of the year. Here in Wisconsin you can find a race of some kind most weekends, even throughout the winter. I currently have a friend running a 5k every weekend. Pretty sure he’s nearing the one year mark. I’ll check in and get back to you.

  • A distance for everyone

    • We’ll get into distance more, however road racing has it. Track events (we’ll group that as “road” for this entry), 5ks and all the way to the 135-mile ultras. Or, why not just run across America? There’s a race for that too.

  • Convenient race day course support

    • Skip the need for vest, personal crew (unless you’re shooting for Badwater or the like), or really worrying about many other race logistics. The races generally have you covered. Water, calories, pacers, start-finish shuttles, and so much more are all provided at most road races. This allows for easier race day preparation across the board.

Cons of road racing (I’ll attempt to avoid getting too opinionated)

  • It’s a grind

    • Literally it’s a grind. Running the same terrain over and over and over can be unforgiving. While it’s part of the challenge, it’s definitely part of the cons of road racing. The road is hard. The road is flat under your feet (even on a hill). There is a reason people walk around like drunk giraffes for days after a marathon…it’s hard on your body. I’ve personally struggled with recovery far more after a road marathon than after a trail 100-miler. The exhaustion of the 100-mile takes days to recover from, however I can walk down the stairs like a bipedal human the following day. 

  • So many people 

    • While trail ultra running is getting difficult to find a race that isn’t based on qualifying for and getting in via lottery, it’s in order to keep the field down to a manageable size (200-400 hundred on average I’d guess). Contrast that to road running where there are little to no caps on how large the field can be. My wife ran the NYC marathon a few years ago with around 60,000 others. It caused for a start line that included standing for over 3 hours before her heat even began. I’ll bet you that that wasn’t part of your training plan. Even neighborhood 5k races can get packed with people. Often at these busy shorter distance races, there are fewer veteran runners, making for fewer people that understand the unwritten etiquette to racing. This can create some chaos.

As for me, I prefer trail races. I prefer trail training. If you know me, that’s no secret. That said, I prefer running over not running, and that includes a good road run! You’ll notice I’ve left out treadmill running. I have more patients that run on treadmills than either road or trail. It’s about health and fitness over the pure joy and satisfaction of running…I think. And I know very few treadmill races. So treadmill runners, keep it up. I would also totally encourage you to grab a friend and come on outside! :)


  • This can be a much shorter conversation. Like I’ve said above, there are so many distances available in road racing and trail racing alike. While you should probably plan to start shorter and build up, I believe it is more important to find “your distance.” 

  • Your distance = your goals + your personality + your training history

  • One of my favorite “new” runners is a former college football player who has recently had enough with football and fighting constant injuries. In its place, he has decided to run break a 16-minute 5k. Do the quick math and that comes out to averaging 5:10 minute miles!

That is his goal + his personality…now he just has to add the training and listen to his body to see if he can get there. I have all odds on yes!

  • I have friends and patients all over the spectrum of distance and speed. The people I find continue to enjoy the sport are the people that listen to their bodies and choose something between comfortable and reasonable, given their experience and their schedules, and pushing themselves a little harder than they thought they could. Don’t let yourself get too safe. Add a variable somewhere if you find yourself uninspired. Go for a longer race, try the same distance faster, or, and this is the best advice, jump on a trail! :)

Have a plan. Let someone hold you accountable. Take care of your body.

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