At this time of year, many of us will be taking a little time to sit down and plan our race calendar for the year ahead. You might be wondering if this is the year you should give one of those themed events a try.
Non-traditional races are more popular than ever, surpassing the number of finishers of both marathons and half-marathons, with over four million finishers in 2013, according to Running USA.
Popularity aside, do these types of events help improve or hurt running performance? After all, with negotiating things like obstacles, mud pits, colored dye, awkward costumes, sleep-deprived relay legs, plunges into ice cold water, slamming beers and even submitting to electrical shocks, one begins to wonder how beneficial these events can really be. To find out, we surveyed a number of runners across four different ability levels—recreational, semi-serious weekend warriors, front-of-the-pack amateurs and elite/pro—to get their take on these popular races.
Serious Runners Tend to Avoid Themed Runs
There were a small handful of exceptions (mostly in the semi-competitive college group), but for the most part, those who run for a living or for their college tuition avoid themed races for a couple of reasons.
First, this group is understandably concerned with the potential for injury—if they get hurt, it seriously affects their bottom line. And it turns out that non-traditional races not only have a higher frequency of injury, but the injuries can be much more serious. In any running event, there is always the risk of sustaining an injury—stress fractures, heat exhaustion, dehydration and tendon injuries are fairly common at nearly every running event. But many non-traditional races introduce a whole other set of potential injuries, some of which have included spinal fractures, burns from electrical shock, serious lacerations from barbed wire and even drowning. Of course, these kinds of injuries are few, but for elite and pro runners, any chance of sustaining such a catastrophic injury is just too big a chance to take.
The second big reason why serious runners—pros and front-of-the-pack amateurs—reported avoiding these races is that they don't fit into their training plans. Runners whose primary goals are to improve pace or distance, to set PRs or, to place in or win races said that they'd rather run a traditional distance race aligned with a training plan than a themed event that introduces a whole other set of physical concerns.
Casey Kaplan, a front-of-the-pack runner headed for Boston this year, also pointed out that while themed races sound fun, due to their popularity they can often be very overcrowded. The thought of waiting in line to negotiate an obstacle in the middle of race was just too frustrating for him.