How to train for a race—the right way
Put your best foot forward with these expert tips.
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There’s nothing quite like watching runners triumphantly cross the finish line on race day, knowing how joyous they must feel and the hard work it takes to get there. And then of course, thinking to yourself “I could do that, I could be a runner.”
Training for a race, be it a 5K or a full marathon, takes time and effort—but it can be an incredibly fun and rewarding experience. Before you sign up for that 26.2, this is what experts want you to know about how to train for a race.
Take a look at your current running routine
Before signing up for a race, you’ll want to evaluate your current running abilities. “The first thing I would do is take an honest look back at your last six months or so of training,” says Melanie Kann, a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM)-certified personal trainer and Road Runners Club of America (RRCA)-certified running coach. “If you’ve been mainly sedentary for six months, it might not be realistic to build up to marathon distance in a brief amount of time, but something shorter might be manageable.”
While having aspirational goals can help you achieve big things, like signing up for your first race, being realistic about your current abilities will set you up for success in the long-term. “It’s so easy to think of ourselves at our fitness peak, or where we want to be, but in order to train safely and effectively and enjoyably, it’s important to meet yourself where you currently are, fitness-wise,” Kann says. “Previous running experience is great to have under your belt, but we can’t train for who we were—we need to train for where we are today.”
That means that despite running a half marathon two years ago, if you haven’t run much since, you should consider whether you can put in the time and effort to comfortably complete another long distance or should set your focus on, say, a 5K or 10K to start.
Find a fitting race
When searching for a race, you’ll want to look for a date that gives you enough time to train. While you can search local races online, Kann recommends visiting your local specialty running store if you want to get more involved in a running community. From there you’ll be able to make connections with local running groups, and you may even find a training group for a race you’re interested in.
Most races are open to the public but some will sell out more quickly than others, so you may want to keep registration deadlines in mind. Some also have cut-off time limits, so run-walkers should check if the course must be vacated (and the streets reopened to traffic) by a certain time to make sure they can finish before then.
Commit to a training plan
Though this can vary based on the individual, beginners should spend roughly 12 weeks training for their first 5K, 16 weeks for a 10K, and 20 weeks for a half marathon, according to Timothy Lyman, American Council on Exercise (ACE)-certified personal trainer and director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh. “The rules aren’t hard and fast, [but giving yourself ample time to train] allows you to progress incrementally, recover completely, and avoid injury,” Lyman says.
Ramping up your mileage by 10% each week is a generally safe and achievable goal. This means if you start out running 15 miles a week, bump that up by 10% or 1.5 miles the next week, and so on. When training, you’ll likely run about four days a week, with a mix of short and long runs. It's important to give yourself enough time to recover, so make sure you include one or two rest days a week in your training plan (and stick to it). You’ll also likely want to include one day of cross-training—such as swimming, strength training, or yoga—or active recovery. However, your active recovery may look like an additional shorter, light-effort run—think conversational pace. In the end, your training plan will vary based on your experience and goals.
To come up with a training plan, be honest about how much time and effort you’re willing to put in. If you’re coming off of an injury and need to ease back into a workout routine, or if you have lots of travel or plans coming up that may interfere with your training, take that into account. “The amount of time spent on focused training really depends on the distance, your starting point, and your goals,” Kann says. “But no matter the race distance, a runner can expect to spend time training consistently each week, likely between four to six days a week, with a longer run on the weekends.”
For longer or more competitive races, runners should already have a “base mileage,” of consistent, relatively light-effort runs before they start training in earnest. Average runners can aim for a base of 15 to 20 miles a week, and more experienced runners should aim for 30 to 40 miles. “You’ll want a solid amount of base mileage before layering in speed work and growing your long runs,” Kann says. “Around eight weeks of base mileage will give you a strong foundation upon which you can build your fitness.”
Get a good pair of shoes
Finding a comfortable pair of running shoes that support you as you move is of the utmost importance. “Your shoes are what helps absorb the ground reaction forces generated when the foot hits the ground with each stride,” Lyman says. “Without a good pair of shoes, all those vibrations are absorbed by the body and runners often end up with ankle, knee, hip, or lower back issues. Investing in quality equipment will help you enjoy the activity more and remain safe while doing it, and as a result, runners are more likely to stay consistent with their training and racing.”
What makes a pair of good running shoes is based on individual preference. Kann recommends going to a specialty running store to get fitted for a pair of shoes that gives you enough support. You’ll also want to stock up on high-quality cushioned socks to help avoid blisters.
Work with a professional
Before committing to a race, getting in touch with a running coach is always a good idea, especially if you’re a novice runner. While there’s no shortage of training plans available online, a running coach will be able to more specifically tailor your training to your needs and can help you improve your form and results.
Kann recommends going back to your local running store and seeing if anyone can put you in touch with a trusted coach to help you prepare for the big day. You can also check out the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) website to find certified coaches in your area.
Another reason to consider seeing a running coach or personal trainer is to evaluate your form and identify any potential injuries, in particular if you’ve suffered any in the past. Says Lyman: “I always advocate that someone beginning a training program, no matter what their experience, have a movement assessment performed by a qualified professional to identify any weaknesses or imbalances that might be compounded when increasing training volume. This can help prevent injury before the ‘official’ training plan even begins.”
Set a pace goal
If this is your first race, your main goal will likely be to finish it. This could mean alternating bouts of running and walking, but another good goal for beginner runners is to run the whole thing without taking walking breaks. However, if you’ve run other races in the past, you may set yourself up with a goal time.
Running a shorter practice race and using an online pace calculator is one way to come up with a goal for the real thing. You can also set a goal based on your perceived effort. “Effort level is always a great way to approach a race,” Kann says. “If you think of effort on a scale of one to 10, with four to five being your easy, conversational pace, you’ll want your average marathon effort to be around a six out of 10 (brisk conversational), half marathon effort around seven out of 10 (breathless but sustainable), and shorter distances in that harder seven and a half to eight out of 10 range.”
Those who have raced in the past 18 months or so can use their previous time as a starting point. Ask yourself: Were you happy with your last time? Do you want to finish faster this time around? Do you have enough time to prepare? Assessing how aggressively you trained in the past can help you determine your new game plan.
Be patient with yourself
Know that it’s a marathon, not a sprint—possibly literally. Progress takes time, so show yourself some grace and compassion if you find you’re not marathon-ready after week two. “Many runners tend to want to run too much too soon, but patience is the key to long term success,” Kann says. “It takes the body a little while to adapt to the stresses of running, so make sure to gradually build up that mileage.”
Giving yourself enough recovery time is essential, no matter what distance you’re racing. Allowing the body to fully recover between workouts (again, take those rest days seriously!) and between race training cycles will help you avoid injury and set you up for success in the long run.
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