From the Trail des Forts de Besançon.
If you’re running a marathon or any other race in France, you’ll need a medical certificate (or un certificat médical). The medical certificate is document signed by a doctor that says you’re physically fit to participate in the race, and have no conditions that would make racing too risky.
This is a concept that frequently confuses foreigners, as it’s not a common practice in other countries with popular international races. Even Italy, also known for requiring medical certificates, recently relaxed its rules: as of 2019, foreigners running Italian marathons and half marathons as individuals just need to sign a liability waiver.
As an avid marathoner and American who’s lived in France, I’ll be going over how to get a French medical certificate, where you can find a blank one to print, and what you can expect during the medical exam.
Note: I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while now, but it’s unlikely that races (especially big, international ones) will be allowed for at least a few more months, if not longer, given the current circumstances. This is purely informational for the time being.
The most French race ever—a 10k through the vineyards in Beaune. Instead of getting a medal at the end, you got a bottle of wine!
Why Does France Require a Medical Certificate for Running?
You might be wondering why France even requires a medical certificate in the first place for its races. Why can’t you just sign a liability waiver, like in the US? In the US, when you sign a liability waiver, you basically attest that you’re in good physical condition to participate, you recognize the potential risks, and you give up your right to sue the organizers if you get hurt.
I’ve read a few articles, and it seems to be an insurance issue—organizers want to be covered in case there’s an incident caused by a participant’s physical condition. It’s unclear why signing a liability waiver isn’t enough though. It could be that insurance companies want real proof, or that organizers really want to screen for conditions that participants themselves might not know about (this is kind of a flimsy hypothesis, as the thoroughness of the medical exams is not standardized).
Either way, you’ll absolutely need a medical certificate to run an official race, no matter the distance (even if it’s just a 5k!). There are no exceptions, so don’t even bother trying to talk your way out of it. I almost got turned away even for not having a copy of my certificate (I only had the original, and they wanted to keep a copy of it for their records). So, here’s what you need to know to get your certificate.
How to Get a French Race Medical Certificate
Here’s what a typical medical certificate in French looks like.
1. Print out a blank medical certificate.
First, you’ll need to print out a blank copy. The Paris Marathon has a medical certificate in English that will work, and Infernal Trail Race has a French/English medical certificate (along with many other languages, like French/Italian, French/Spanish, French/German, or just French). I would recommend the second certificate for people getting exams in their home countries, as having a French translation can be helpful, in case organizers won’t accept one totally in English. While these medical certificates are from specific races, they are general enough to apply to any race.
If you decide to get a blank medical certificate from another source, make sure it says that you have no conditions that would prevent you from participating in running competitions, not just running (in French, that’s course à pied en compétition). This is extremely important, as there is a distinction between recreational running and running races.
A beautiful 14km trail race in Burgundy called La Madone.
2. Schedule an appointment with a doctor.
Be sure not to do this too early, as your medical certificate is only valid for one year. If you’re planning to do other races in France, try to schedule your appointment so you don’t need to go back and get another certificate.
If you’re in your home country:
If you’re in your home country, schedule a physical with your doctor. You can also just bring a blank medical certificate to your annual checkup, but let your doctor know in advance that you’re bringing it. When you make your appointment, verify that you will be seeing a medical doctor; while nurses can sign off on physicals in the US, the French won’t accept a medical certificate signed by a nurse. This appointment won’t cost you extra if you’re just doing it at your annual checkup, but you might have to pay a small fee otherwise—usually $20 or so. Always check with your doctor’s office though, as surprise medical bills are unfortunately common, at least in the US…
One thing to remember is that you should get your doctor to write the date of the exam DD/MM/YYYY instead of MM/DD/YYYY. You could end up with a medical certificate that’s valid for shorter if the date is written in the wrong order. For instance, a September 5th exam (9/5 in American date format) could be read as May 9th if the month isn’t spelled out. To be the absolute safest, have them spell out the date in words, instead of just using numbers.
If you’re in France:
If you’re in France already, the good thing is that doctors are super used to signing off on these. French healthcare is also amazingly cheap, even without insurance. Doctor’s appointments are a flat rate of 25 euros, all across the country! (Be sure to bring cash in case your doctor doesn’t take debit or credit cards).
To find a doctor, I’d recommend looking up “médecins sans rendez-vous.” These are doctors that don’t do appointments, and only have drop-in hours. This will allow you to see a doctor on the same day you need one, though you may have a bit of a wait (sometimes just 10 minutes, other times more than an hour). If you want to make an appointment to be sure, you can also just call doctors in your area to set one up, or use DoctoLib, a platform that lets you search for doctors and other health specialists, see their availability, and book an appointment online.
The finish line of the Paris Marathon, where I broke 4 hours!
What is the Medical Exam Like?
The exam itself really depends on the doctor and how diligent they want to be. The first time I got my medical certificate in France, I went to a university doctor who was super thorough. I was asked lots of questions (the only thing I remember was whether I was pregnant or had ever been pregnant, as I didn’t know the word “grossesse,” which means “pregnancy” in French). They also ran some tests I’ve never done before, like a lung capacity test where I had to forcefully exhale in a tube.
The second time I had an exam done, the doctor only took my heart rate and asked a couple general questions. She basically just made sure I was alive and signed off on the medical certificate. This is probably one of the main reasons people hate getting these certificates—it often seems just like a formality that doesn’t actually verify your physical fitness.
Be prepared to experience either scenario, or something in-between. If you want to learn more about doctor’s visits in France, my friend Diane from Oui in France has a great post on what to expect when going to the doctor in France (as a non-resident though, don’t worry about the insurance stuff!).
After the Exam
Before you walk out the door of your doctor’s office, double check two things: make sure the date is clear (DD/MM/YYYY or spelled out) AND that your doctor signed and stamped your certificate. The document won’t be valid otherwise.
Once you’re home, make multiple copies of the certificate if you plan to run other French races, and take a photo of the certificate. Larger races allow you to submit your medical certificate online, and you should absolutely do this if you have the option. This allows them to verify your document sooner, and they’ll let you know if there’s anything wrong with it before race day. You also won’t have to wait in line to get the certificate verified physically when you pick up your packet.
If you can’t submit the certificate online, bring a copy to packet pickup, and be prepared to hand it over to the organizers to keep.
I don’t look very happy LOL, but this was an awesome half marathon in Lyon.
I hope this clears up the concept of the certificat médical. It can seem like a hassle at the beginning, but once you have it, you’re set for a year.
I also travel and run quite a bit, so feel free to take a gander at my race recaps, many of which are from races in France.