The stereotype of a runner is someone who picks out a race and then relentlessly trains to cross the finish line or break their personal record time.

While training for a goal race can be a great way to get into running for many people, it’s not the only route. If competition and high-intensity training aren’t your thing, you can also approach running (or walking) as a practice. Just like someone would start a yoga or meditation practice for their general health or mental well-being.

Running is a very simple activity, so there are many similarities between the two approaches.
However, there are some key differences between training for a race and starting a running practice that can help you pick the approach that is right for you.

Motivation: Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic

When you sign up for a race, you’re motivated by running a certain time, completing a specific distance, or earning a medal. These are all examples of extrinsic rewards, meaning they come from outside of yourself. Extrinsic motivation can be powerful and push you toward achieving an ambitious goal.

On the other hand, approaching running as an ongoing practice allows you to focus on intrinsic motivations. These are the rewards you find within yourself, such as feeling a “runner’s high,” taking a break from daily stressors, feeling part of a running group, or the satisfaction of committing to a healthy habit.

While one type of motivation isn’t better than the other, research shows that extrinsic rewards can be effective in the short term. In contrast, intrinsic motivation is more predictive of long-term exercise habits.

You also don’t have to choose between one or the other. If you want to run for enjoyment or a mental boost (intrinsic motivation), but you also want to participate in races (extrinsic motivation), that’s perfectly fine, too. We just recommend not judging yourself too harshly on performance goals.

Pushing the Limits vs. Finding the Sweet Spot

Training for a race can be intense, especially if you have an ambitious goal or are preparing for a long-distance event like a marathon. Typical training plans include long runs, speed workouts, strength training, and more. This process can be gratifying but also time-consuming and demanding – physically and emotionally. But you must accept the temporary sacrifices to give you the best chance of reaching your performance goal.

A running practice, however, is finding your sweet spot – where you give enough effort to feel good without wearing yourself out. This can be a long-term approach (for some people, a lifetime practice) that allows you to adjust the frequency, duration, and intensity of your runs to suit your daily needs. If you want to push the pace now and then, great. But it’s also fine to stick with a comfortable jog.

Planning: Working Backwards vs. Starting Point

When you work with a coach on a training plan, they often start with the end goal (the big race) and work backward to structure a plan to get you to the starting line in peak fitness. Along the way, you might have some specific workouts or tune-up races to check on your progress.

With a running practice, you can still have a plan – but you can pick an ideal starting point. Since there’s no pressure to be at a certain fitness level by a specific date, you can progress at a conservative and comfortable rate. The focus is on enjoying the experience and being as consistent as possible rather than peaking for a single event.

Dealing with Missed Workouts

When training for a race, every run has a performance-based purpose and is an opportunity to build fitness. That often leads runners to feel extra stress when they miss workouts due to injury, illness, or general life circumstances. Sometimes, a runner will feel compelled to “make up” for lost time, which can lead to overtraining or an even worse injury. It can be difficult to know when to push through a minor issue or take time off from training to let it recover.

With a running practice, there’s really no cause for alarm if you miss a few days here or there. Sure, you might be disappointed if you don’t get your run in. Or if you might miss how a good run makes you feel. But you’re not falling behind on any specific goal. When you’re in the activity for general wellness and the long-term journey, there’s more flexibility and understanding that life sometimes gets in the way – and that’s OK.

Choosing your approach

Both running practice and training for a race offer unique benefits and challenges. Whether you’re motivated by the thrill of competition or the intrinsic joy of running, what matters most is finding an approach that aligns with your goals, lifestyle, and what running means to you personally.