For some, the ultimate goal of running is to complete a marathon, a grueling race that many runners set for themselves before the complete their first 5k. Even if you’re not ready to start training for a 26.2-mile race, you should consider the benefits that come from preparation for organized events.  Races are a great way to stay motivated and keep running. Even if your ultimate goal is weightless, better long-term health, or less anxiety, looking forward to a race will ensure you keep running and do so with structure.

Signing up for a race and setting up a training plan months ahead of time makes it easier to get out of bed on those days running just doesn’t sound so appealing. Organized events, from 5ks to marathons, help runners benefit from external motivation to push beyond their limits. Races make running, that most solitary of sports, more appealing for those of us who like to socialize. And many races are run to raise money for charities—so you won’t just be running for yourself anymore. If you’re asking yourself, what are my choices? What races are out there? What race is best for me? You’re in the right place. This is our AskRunners guide to running races.

Start Small

5K: 3.1 Miles

Running 5k races are an excellent way for runners of all backgrounds to experience the joy of organized running events. With hundreds of races across the US, there’s no reason not to try a 5k. If you’re interested in finding a 5k in your area, Active.com makes finding races in your area easy. Many of these races are for charitable causes, and sign-up fees help make a difference in your community. Running a 5k is an excellent option for beginner runners, families, co-workers, or anyone who wants to have some fun on a beautiful summer day.

Many themed 5k runs make races fun for you and your running partners. In fact, many of these races are called fun runs. So even if your friends hate running (and how could they?), can they really say no to an instagramable “color run,” a tough-mudder, or a chocolate run? Themed races are a great way to get active with friends. For more fun run 5k’s to consider, here’s a list of 21 themed races to put on your calendar.

Since these races are popular with beginners, it’s important we mention the benefit of proper running shoes. Finding the right running shoes for you is an essential step in preventing injuries at this early stage. If you need some help finding the right shoes, we have a complete 5-step guide for you here.

10K: 6.2 Miles

Similar to 5k races, 10k races are twice the fun. These races are a little more intense, but they often take place in events that also offer 5k races. If you’re not sure about completing a six-mile run just yet, consider working your way up with a 5k first. It just depends on your fitness level. Both races are run in about an hour, or less, making them perfect for new runners.    

If you’re interested in trail running, there are a lot of fun 10k’s that take place off-road. Trail running takes more energy than running on pavement, but there are many benefits to it. For one, trail running has less impact on your knees. It also allows you to build strength when steep hills come into play. We’ve found that trail running is excellent for mobility since you might find yourself dodging roots, rocks, and other obstacles too. If you’re interested in learning more about trail running, check out this 10k training plan put together by mapmyrun.

Step it up a little

Half Marathon: 13.1 Miles

Here’s where we start getting into the more serious races. Most people can’t just wake up one morning and run a half-marathon—you’ll need to prepare. Three months of structured training leading up to a half-marathon should be enough. You’ll also want to get some race experience by running a 5k or 10k before embarking on a half-marathon. This is because running is strenuous not just physically, but mentally as well. Longer races take a lot of concentration, no matter how physically prepared you are. You’ll want to find a pace you’re comfortable with, and keep it. Expect to be a little sore after the race, but with a proper routine, you’ll be just fine.

Especially with longer races, make sure to find a race that matches the conditions you’ve trained in. Don’t sign-up for a race in the mountains when you’re used to running on flat land. And make sure not to rely too heavily on treadmill training because treadmills work the body differently than outdoor running.

Getting Crazy

Marathon: 26.2 Miles

Ah, the marathon. The most prestigious of races. Running a marathon is not for everyone, but the chance to run along-side some of the best distance athletes in the world is one of the most rewarding experiences in the sport. Many of the world’s most famous cities host these races, and the excuse to travel is one of the best parts of competing.

Despite how grand and challenging running a marathon might seem, marathon running is a great way to enter the tight-knit world of distance runners—and raise money for worthy causes while doing so. By completing a marathon, you’ll also be an inspiration to others by showing them the possibilities available to those who commit. And if you have kids, they’ll probably think you’re a superhero.

The original marathon course, the Athens marathon, still holds annual races from Athens to the town of Marathon. It’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring experience that takes place every November. Legend has it that the first “marathon” was ran on this same course when a messenger had to quickly deliver news of a military victory to Athens from the sea-side town of Marathon.

When running a marathon, surrounded by others on the same journey, what you might find is the thrill of competition comes mostly from competing with yourself. Overcoming the challenge of a 26.2-mile race will make you feel as though there is no obstacle you can’t overcome. After all, to finish, you have to overcome the urge to quit, day after day. Only after crossing the finish-line will you feel the sense of accomplishment that every small step led to. You’ll have overcome the six-month commitment of training, the infamous “wall” runners hit around the 21st mile, and yourself.

Of course, you don’t have to head to Athens to complete a marathon. There’s one held on the great wall of China, too, but most major cities host marathons once a year. Boston and New York are on many people’s bucket lists, but you’re sure to find a marathon near you. If you’re interested in getting started and finding a location, visit marathonguide.com for a complete list of Marathons in the US and Canada. If you’d like to find a marathon abroad, an international list can be found here.

Get Insane

Ultra-races: 50k (31 miles) – 100 miles (or more)

If a marathon sounds too easy for you, don’t worry. There’s a challenge out there for everyone. According to the International Association of Ultrarunners, running extreme distances is nothing new to our species. They claim ultra-running is as old as our species itself, but today there are only a few thousand active ultrarunners. These races are elite athletes on long-term and rigorous training plans. These races are challenging, but highly rewarding. By even competing in an ultra-race you’ll be among the best athletes in the world, enjoying incredible and diverse terrain, and certainly earning bragging rights. If you’re interested in competing in an ultra-race, your first stop should be ultrarunning.com for a complete list of events. 

Be Different

Triathlon: 10k run, 40k bike ride, 1500m swim.

Another challenge runners are taking up in ever-growing numbers is the triathlon. If you feel you have plateaued as a runner, these races offer a nice change of pace. Like most races, they require their own training plan and come with their own, tight-knit community. Many runners enjoy success in these races, since their experience as distance runners gives them an advantage over a portion of the race. While runners of other races benefit from investing in the right running shoes, triathlons do require investments in other gear: a racing bike and a wet-suit, among other things.

In conclusion, races are the perfect way of setting achievable goals for yourself at any point in your running career. By choosing the right race and challenging yourself to complete it, you will enter the rewarding world of runners and enjoy the benefits. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Races help give your strides direction by setting landmarks in your running career.

If you’ve completed any of these races before, let us know in the comment box. And please, share some tips while you’re at it. What races have you run? How did you prepare? What challenges did you meet? And how did you overcome them?

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