Spring has sprung. The sun’s shining, your space heater has relinquished its spot under your desk, you’re likely itching to spend more time outside—and perhaps to work on your physical and mental health. It’s time to lace up for that annual inquiry: Is this the year that I really start running?

Whether you were once a high school track star, more of the sporadic family turkey-trot type, or have never moved faster than a brisk shuffle, there are lots of reasons to build a consistent running practice. Studies have indicated that leisurely running can reduce all-cause and cardiovascular mortality risk; a 2020 review of 116 papers shows strong evidence that running can be an effective way to help address a slew of mental health challenges, including stress and anxiety.

“Some people want to lose weight, while others are on a stress reduction journey,” says Ryan Welsh, RRCA-certified run coach and co-founder of Red Bank Run Club in New Jersey. “I tend to think that idea doesn’t just come out of thin air; there’s a reason that you’ve decided to make this major change for the better in your life. Channel that.”

Having a strong reason for running is a great place to start, but there’s one other thing that can help you on your journey to tallying up the miles: Signing up for a race. Like, right now—as the first thing you do, whether it’s a mile or a marathon.

Why You Should Sign Up For a Race As a Beginner

Signing up for a race requires you to commit to a goal, which can boost overall motivation. When you don’t have a deadline that requires you to get outside and start moving, the motivation can wane. A date circled in red on the calendar changes that, especially when you put your money where your feet will be.

“It’s like putting a down payment on your overall well being,” says Welsh. “It’s not just the race fee, either. You’ll likely need a new pair of shoes, something to track your progress, and those things add up.”

Once you’ve committed to running a given distance on a given day, you’ll want to look for a training plan. Some plans are focused on going as fast as possible, but there are countless training plans for every ability and distance. And, sort of like jazz, a good plan is about the runs you’re not doing: Many newbie runners do too much, too soon, and too fast—then burn out. A good plan will ramp you up slowly. (If you’re a complete beginner, Couch to 5K is famous for a reason.)

How to Know What Race Is Right for You

You’ve probably heard of SMART goal setting before. It’s an acronym—the idea is that good goals are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timebound. When choosing the race that’s right for you, you want to make sure you’re being SMART about it.

For instance, if you have a job that leaves you less than 45 minutes to run each day, it’s probably not the right decision to plan to run a marathon in the next few months. Rather, a 5K may be a better fit. Welsh says that the most important factor in deciding what race to register for is having an honest conversation with yourself about where you’re at from the very beginning.

Welsh also recommends choosing a race that’s convenient and closer to home for your first go, removing the decision fatigue, and making sure you check out the typography of the course (read: is it hilly?) so you know what you’re getting yourself into. And of course: Make sure you have plans to celebrate once you’re done.

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