How to Run When Not Training for a Race: Why and How

When you have that big race coming up, it’s a lot easier to be motivated because you have a well-defined goal. What happens when suddenly the race is over and you only have regular life to look forward to?

When the race is over and you’re not concerned about performance and speed, you can focus on running technique including adjusting your own gait to prevent injuries. Setting well-defined running goals in the absence of an upcoming race is is key to improving and maintaining performance.

Maybe you don’t even ever want to run a race, how do you make running effective when all the other training plans seem to be revolved around running a race?

How to Run While Not Training for a Race

Running without a goal is running without direction. Without a direction, you can’t know if you’re progressing.

Picking a Goal

Your goals for running don’t have to be training for a race–in fact, running doesn’t have to be about improving performance, or running farther, or faster. But even so, it’s important to have a goal you can work towards.

Here are examples of some goals that you can work towards besides running a race.

  • Maintaining Fitness: Perhaps all you want to do is to stay in shape. You’ve reached a point with your body where you’re satisfied and you just want to maintain what you have. Setting a baseline goal where you don’t fall below certain distance or speed goals. For example, you might say “I want to always be able to run 10 miles in 2 hours.”
  • Better Heart Health: If you have a history of heart disease in your family, then running is an excellent way to challenge your heart, improve HDL (good) cholesterol (source), as well as to keep body weight down. The key to a good heart goal is to run at a pace where your heart is challenged. Running with specific heart rate targets is a great goal.
  • Running for Better General Health: Even if you don’t have a specific health concern, running farther or running faster will improve your health. So setting goals around distances or speeds can help push your body towards a healthier you.
  • Improving Running Technique: If you are taking a break from races and want to focus on the fundamentals, then perhaps your goal would be to run without pain in an area that’s bothering you.
  • Lose Weight: While running alone doesn’t generally help people lose weight without carefully monitoring your diet, it’s an excellent way to raise your metabolism to make the dieting process more effective. Weight goals are great because you have a specific target to shoot for.
  • Meditation: Perhaps you don’t have a fitness goal, but you are using running as a way to improve your mental health. Well, you can always set a time goal for running: “I’m going to run for 15 minutes every day.” And your goals instead are around learning to clear your mind, or having one thing to think about and focus on.
  • Other: There are thousands of reasons someone might have for running, even including an opportunity to socialize. Perhaps your goal can be to get to a fitness level where you can have a conversation with your best friend while you run together without panting and gasping for air.

You are in charge! You can find a goal that works for you and center your running around that goal. What does that mean exactly? Well, let’s figure that out:

Make Plans Around Your New Running Goal

Let’s talk about what kind of plans you could make depending on your running goal:

Maintaining Fitness

This may simply work out to be a habit: Run 2 miles every morning.

If you’re just trying to maintain the same level of fitness, then you don’t have to increase your running distance and running speed every week. It’s always important to surprise your body, though, so it doesn’t get acclimated.

You may find that running 2 miles may not have the same effect on your body as it did in the beginning. If you feel like your fitness is slipping, include high-intensity runs (such as sprinting or hill training), occasionally to keep your body sharp.

Improving Heart Health

Exercising can lead to a longer life, and specifically can lower your risk of heart disease. (source)

One concrete goal to shoot for is to say: “I want to lower my resting heart rate to 70 or below.” A lower resting heart rate is an indicator of a more healthy heart. (WebMD)

Every heart is different, and you should always consult a licensed health professional before making drastic health changes. If you’re having trouble running a mile, then your resting heart rate goal may look very different from someone who can run 15 miles in a single run.

One awesome exercise principle to use while trying to improve heart health is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).

HIIT, applied to running, means bursts of high intensity, such as running up a hill, followed by periods of low-intensity. Sprinting for 15 seconds and jogging for 30, or a similar kind of workout are also examples of HIIT.

During the high-intensity portion of your workout, your heart rate climbs high, and then it lowers slowly as you go through your low-intensity portion of your workout. This makes your heart better able to adapt and improves its strength. Check out our article, here, to learn more about HIIT training in regards to running.

WARNING, if you are not used to exercising, don’t start with HIIT until your body is used to regular exercise. Studies have shown that your risk of heart attack is highest when you’re working your body really hard when your body is not used to it. (source)

With the help of a heart rate monitor, you can then set goals around your heart rate for a particular run. For example: “For this run, I want to stay in my target heart rate for 20 minutes.”

Finding Your Target Heart Rate

If you’re not sure what your target heart rate is you can use a simple calculation:

Target heart rate is generally expressed as a percentage (usually between 50 percent and 85 percent) of your maximum safe heart rate. The maximum rate is based on your age, as subtracted from 220.

(see Hopkins Medicine for more details)

So, as an example, if I’m 35 years old, then that would mean my maximum safe heart rate would be around 185, so I would want to hang out in the 90-157 beats ber minute to stay in the target heart rate zone.

To get a more comprehensive heart rate chart, check out

Monitoring Your Heart

If you are very focused on heart health, then it makes sense to monitor your progress, constantly.

If you want good but not perfect results, you can use a smart watch such as the Apple Watch (Amazon), or you can use something more medical-grade such as this device (Amazon).

With a heart monitor you can know when you’re not pushing your body enough or if you’re pushing your body too hard.

Improving Running Performance

If you don’t have a race lined up but you’re interested in running faster and longer, then your training plan will look a lot like planning for a race.

Every week you want your running plan to increase distance or reduce running time with the same amount of distance.

Furthermore, mixing up your workout with HIIT is crucial to avoiding fitness plataeus and pushing your body past its limits.

In fact, this study showed that participants improved running speeds up to around 4% if they included HIIT in their training regime.

HIIT can be sprints, hill-training, or even calisthenics.

If you want to get into HIIT but don’t want to memorize a bunch of workout patterns, you should try the Nike Training Club–it’s a free app for iOS and Android, and it has a ton of different HIIT workouts that you can follow. They also have a running app if you want to focus solely on running HIIT workouts.

One thing I wanted to mention is that if you are truly interested in maximum performance, then signing up for a race is a fantastic way to motivate yourself to do that. Races, even if they aren’t your thing, help you to push yourself in ways you wouldn’t otherwise. So, if you’re looking a way to improve your performance, signing up for a race is a good start.

Losing Weight

A lot of people have a negative experience trying to run to lose weight. (study about exercise addiction as one example)

Injury is one of the most common reasons people stop running. In fact, this study found that 108 out of 225 novice runners on a new exercise program stopped running within a few months due to an injury.

The key to success is to not push your body but to set managable goals that your body can do.

If you are just getting into running and want to lose weight, Couch to 5k is an well-known program that can help you get started

Dieting is also important. This study shows that participants who ran over 3 miles a week and dieted lost, on average, around 12 lbs from their starting point.

All this to say, running for the purpose of losing weight does work, but use caution, and make sure to approach your goal from multiple angles.

Improving Running Technique

If you’re not concerned about distance and speed as much as fixing running problems including pain, then your goals can be to run a mile without any joint pain, or something similar.

Addressing running pain can be a difficult process–enlisting the help of competent medical professionals is a great way to shortcut and focus on the most important things to reduce or eliminate running pain.

I’ve done physical therapy for a couple problems over the years, and you’d be amazed at how some pain that you thought was just a part of an activity can actually be addressed.

TL;DR: If something is bothering you while you’re running, consult a medical professional.

There are other resources if you’re trying to analyze and improve your technique–one fantastic book is called Running Anatomy (Amazon).

I learned from this book that a lot of running gait is very specific to the individual, although there are some problem movements that can apply to multiple people. Learning to improve running posture and running technique, however, has to do with strengthening muscles that support running.

If you want to see some example exercises for different parts of your body for running, check out our article here about training for a trail run.

If you’re wondering if running improves your posture, check out our article, here.

Meditation and Mental Health

If you’re not at all interested in running for maximum distance or speed, but you’re interested in reducing stress and depression, then you’re on the right track (source).

In the case of supporting your own mental health, here are some ideas to make your exercise be more effective in reducing stress and depression.

  • Run Outside: Studies have found strong links between being in natural spaces vs. running indoors on a treadmill or in an urban environment. I found a lot of evidence to support that trying to find a space in nature can really help your own mental health–check out my article and all the supporting science behind it if you want to see more details.
  • Run For Time: Worrying about your pace while running makes exercise more of a challenge. You can try running for time and not worrying about your pace. This way if you have a burst of energy, you can run as fast as you want and slow down when you’re ready
  • Avoid Rumination: Stewing in your own thoughts isn’t always the best solution to feeling better about the day. A meditative practice is to try emptying your mind. Although your problems don’t go away, it can really help with anxiety to not focus so much on those problems.

How Much Should You Run When Not Training For a Race?

How much you should run when not training for a race depends 100% on your goals above.

  • If you’re training for general health and fitness, then running 10 miles a week (2-3 running sessions a week) in combination with other exercise may help you reach your goal without issues.
  • If you’re running to lose weight, then running 5-6 days of the week, mixing some days with long runs and others with short but more intense runs can be the ticket. You don’t have to train for long distance, so raising the intensity as high as you can will make reaching your goal more efficient.

That’s just a couple of examples. Depending on your goals your schedule may turn out to be much different.

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