How to Test Your Running Fitness Accurately Using the “Solo Race” Method

With no large group races happening for over a year now, how are runners supposed to know if our training is working?

More importantly, how are we supposed to brag to everyone on social media without that post-race shiny medal selfie!?

I can’t help you with the medal part (or the need for external validation that I clearly relate to), but I have a practice that will allow you to test your running fitness accurately across your season without needing a big race to do it: The “Solo Race Test.”

This Spring, I was hungering for a race, but with no large group races scheduled, I decided to create my own solo event — a half marathon “race” with 1 participant, 1 volunteer, and 1 race director (all me).

The scenic path in Allston, MA where I ran my half marathon solo race test!

Why do a run test?

As a teacher, one of my least favorite things to hear is, “Is this going to be on the test?”

“It doesn’t matter! Knowledge is important for its own sake!

And yes, it will be, so you better study.”

–Every teacher

But as a runner, I’ve learned to appreciate the run test as a key way to determine my fitness at any given point in the season.

Without a fancy V02 Max machine, there’s no better way to test my progress than to do an all-out effort at a given distance, and compare that to previous efforts at the same distance.

In November of 2020, I decided to schedule my own half marathon to see what I could do, and this past April, I ran the same course after 3 months of winter training to compare my times. The comparison was meaningful because it was the same race course, and I felt more confident since I’d run it before.

If you are an athlete, or aspiring athlete trying to get back in shape, this is a great way to track your progress and determine your current level of fitness.

Get that race-day feeling, but without the crowds, smelly port-o-johns, or waiting for 30 mins at the start line!

Below are some tips for creating your own run test routine.

How to Plan a Run Test:

1. Plan a flat, easy course and do the same course each time.

This way you can compare your efforts from one test to the next. And a flat, fast course will be affirming and fun!

For a mile run, or even a 5k, you can use a 400-meter track. It’s the same every time, there are no hills, and even wind effect is minimized since you’re running in a circle (oval, but you get the idea).

For a longer effort like a half marathon or marathon, you’ll want a course that is relatively flat, somewhat scenic to avoid boredom, and has several loops.

Why loops? So you can get water on each lap, and you’re never too far from your home or car. In case of injury or exhaustion, you don’t want to have to walk/limp/crawl 6 miles home!

See how flat this course is? A 2.5-mile loop around a river; what could be better!?

2. Lay out everything you’ll need in advance.

Just like a “real race,” pick your shorts, phone holder, socks, shoes, hydration, nutrition, and other gear before race day. The night before, charge all of your electronics (GPS watch, foot pod, wireless headphones, cell phone, etc.) to make sure it’s all ready to go.

3. Be your own water station.

If you have family or friends who are dedicated enough to stand there and hand you water for hours, good for you! But if you’re doing this on your own like I am, you can still “hand yourself water” without having to carry extra weight.

Fill one large water bottle with water or your favorite electrolyte drink (I use Shaklee Performance). On your looped course, you can pick up the bottle as you pass it, take a drink, toss it to the side, and keep running. My standard half-marathon route is in 2.5-mile loops, so I’ll get hydration 4 times during that race, about the same as I would use aid stations during a big group race.

Pro Tip: Every well-hydrated runner knows that you always have to pee right before a race starts, no matter how well you plan. It’s like death and taxes. So what do you do without a hundred port-o-johns lined up in a field? If you’re not running from your own home, you’ll need to plan ahead. Simple solution: bring a pee bottle in the car! Yes, even ladies can pee in the car with special equipment! (look up “pee funnel” and thank me later).

4. Involve your family and community!

Your friends may not want to stand around watching your entire race, but you can still include them in your effort, and get support using the miracle of GPS-tracking

You can share your live location with family and close friends on race day using a variety of apps.

Strava offers “Beacon,” which you can share with a few select contacts. Apps like “Find My Friends” can also work. I’ve found the “Glympse” app to be easy to use, and it limits the time you share your location to protect your privacy.

Your fan club can send cheers by text, which you can see on a smartwatch, if you have one. This little boost of support and accountability makes it a special event, and is super motivating!

I hope these tips are helpful for planning your Spring and Summer season – let me know if you’re doing a solo race test, and how you do it!

PS: Did you know I offer race preparation coaching for runners? If you’re setting a Spring or Summer goal to run a 5k, 10k, or even a half or full marathon, I will personally work with you to create a balanced running plan to help you reach your goal and stay healthy while training.

Shoot me a message or comment here and we’ll talk!