Knowing When Not to Race

Last Saturday at 10:30 p.m., I was dressed for the race from head to toe. I had my shoes on, anti-chafe applied and bib pinned. I looked race ready an hour and a half before Penyagolosa’s midnight start but my appearance was deceiving as I was still unsure whether I’d toe the line.

I was ready and excited. Still, a rib I’d broken three weeks earlier throbbed. Physically, I was fit and well-tapered. But I was coming off three weeks of crazy European travel. I hadn’t been slept more than five hours since I’d come home and I was on the tail end of either a stomach bug or food poisoning. At the same time, my mind was occupied by family stresses back home.

I was eager for my first race of the season but doubted that a rugged 110k kilometer race was right move given the circumstances. At 11 that night, my boyfriend Ryan finally convinced me to slip out of my race gear and step into the shower. As much as I wanted to kick off the season with a bang, I knew the race could put me at risk for setbacks later in the year. I’m not the first runner to be on the fence about a race. Here are guidelines for what to consider when you can’t tell if a competition is a good idea.

When You’re Sick

If you’re sick and thinking about doing any sort of exercise, it’s generally considered OK to tough it out if your symptoms ail you above the neck. In other words, a head cold, congestion or a bad bout of the sniffles shouldn’t keep you from running. But if your body’s giving you trouble below in the neck or below—like body aches, sore throats, chest congestion or stomach troubles—it’s far better to rest than work.

I mostly follow the neck and under guideline. But I’ve found that like with most rules, there are exceptions. I raced the 2018 UTMB with a horrible chest cold and didn’t regret a thing. Most runners I know have had similar experiences. Most famously, Constantina Tomescu-Dita won the 2004 LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon after spending a week in bed with a fever.

My advice: you need to evaluate your emotional stake on the race. If it’s an important event, and you’re sure you’ll regret missing it, head for the starting line. You can always drop out if the race is beyond you at the moment. If there’s no drive to pin on a number, then you’re probably sick enough that racing would worsen your condition. It’s important to note that the stress racing puts on your body will most likely prolong the illness and set your training and recovery back. UTMB was my A race, so I accepted that I’d need more time to recover after the race. However, if it had been just a tune-up race for something later in the season, I would have considered sitting it out to preserve the rest of my season.

When You’re Hurt


A good rule of thumb: If the pain is so intense you can’t run with your usual form or stop thinking about it, you’re probably not going to finish the race.

Still, remember that there are degrees of pain. Not every pain warrants pulling out of a race. For instance, running on tendonitis or plantar fasciitis probably won’t lead to any long-term damage if you run on them. Just make sure you’re comfortable with the pain and to see a doctor to insure it’s not something more serious, like a stress fracture. Other examples of non-serious pains are IT band syndrome (where you feel pain on the outside of the knee) and shin splints.

Again, it’s critical to weigh the importance of the race when you decide to start a race despite a minor injury. If you are cleared from a doctor and it’s your A race, might as well give it a go. But if you have another, more important, race on the calendar, skip it. With my broken rib, I was able to run on it mostly pain-free. However, wearing a fully-loaded running pack with pounds of gear could have caused further damage.

When You’re Sleep Deprived

A 2007 review paper by Thomas Reilly and Ben Edwards at the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom intertwined some of helped us shed some light on the subject for athletes.

In a 2007 review paper, Liverpool John Moores University Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences researchers Thomas Reilly and Ben Edwards sifted through a variety of studies on athletic performance after both long bouts of being awake and several days’ worth of restricted sleep at night. Unsurprisingly, they found that sleep-deprived athletes were more prone to errors, poor tactical decisions and fatigue in repeated high-power exercise. However, Reilly and Edwards found that the body physiologically performs at the same level when sleep deprived.

Although it hasn’t been studied extensively, it’s generally accepted that racing while sleep deprived won’t cause long term damage. Therefore, racing when sleep deprived will not put you at risk for training and racing setbacks down the line. But the mental effects mean you’re unlikely to run your best race and since being tired makes you liable to make bad decisions or commit errors, you could be at greater risk for injury. So again, it comes down to your emotional stake in the event.