Wondering how to train for your first race? Heed our veteran coach’s advice to avoid rookie mistakes.
Drawing from his 16 years of coaching experience, our expert, Sven Haug, shares how to choose the right distance and train for success in your first race. A former middle distance runner for both the German National team and the world famous Santa Monica Track Club, Sven is a two-time Olympic trials qualifier.
Novice Runners, Beware
Although popular marathon training programs do a great job of gradually building beginning runners’ mileage, many schedule several long runs without adequate recovery, and too close to race day. For the novice runner, a long training run of 24 to 26 miles just two to three weeks prior to his or her race marathon is a risky proposition. Physiologically, this task provides little benefit; the only benefit is boosting one’s confidence about being able to complete the marathon, otherwise this is just too much running with not enough time for your body to recover. A long run of 20 miles should suffice.
Prioritize Recovery and Injury Prevention
One key to racing for novices and elites alike: balancing hard work and recovery. Proper recovery helps runners avoid injury-and enjoy a prosperous running career. For example, many elites don’t do more than a 22-mile long run leading up to a marathon because the benefits of running further do not outweigh the risks of injury and over-training. In this case, any training program should allow for several weeks of recovery-runs not longer than 10 to 12 miles-between the final long run and race day. Prioritize easy runs, cross-training (low-impact and alternative activities to promote recovery, strength, and balance), sleep, and nutrition, too.
Slow progressions in mileage, as well as in bigger-picture training periods (where one period builds on the previous period) allow runners to gain fitness over time. If you are a newcomer to running, you should consider making your first race a 5k or 10k race before jumping into a half marathon or marathon. Use the training period for a shorter race as a foundation on which to build on with consecutive training periods that are more specific toward longer distances. Completing one or two training periods of manageable low mileage will help prepare your body for future increases in mileage.
It can take a full training period for your aerobic system, as well as your muscles, bones, and ligaments to respond to the training load and an uptick in intensity. Training periods range from two to seven months. Usually, the longer the training program, the more thorough the plan, which ideally includes a long base phase-consisting primarily of aerobic, or easy, conversational-paced running-that develops cardiovascular and muscular endurance as well as more intense training phases that focus on speed, strength, and power.
After completing one training block, take some time completely off from serious workouts, running, and racing. This allows your body to recover, rebuild, and unwind-for at least two weeks. You may do some light cross-training during your running sabbatical. However, for one training period to benefit the next, I recommend not taking off more than two months.
Put In The Time To Train
How motivated are you? How much time are you (realistically, now) able to commit to training? Before deciding on the length of your training program, consider how many hours per week you can (and will) devote to training. To avoid over commitment, for example, consider plans that involve running only three or four days per week if a seven-day plan would be hard to squeeze in. Also consider your current fitness and how long running several miles will take you. Are you ready, for example, to commit to spending more than 3 hours running on Saturday mornings while training for a half marathon? Kudos either way-if so, for your motivation, and if not, for being honest with yourself.
Measure Time, Then Distance and Speed
The initial key to successful training is the amount of time you spend running each week rather than focusing on the speed at which you run or a specific race or distance. First, aim to run a certain amount of time during each training session without worrying about the distance you cover in that time. Although the novice runner’s initial goal should be to gradually increase the time she can run without stopping or walking, feeling overtired or severe discomfort merits walk breaks during training runs. As you begin your running program, you should finish each run feeling pleasantly tired, knowing that if you had to, you could comfortably keep running.
Gat Faster by Adding Speed Work
A proper training plan gradually increases the effort required to complete specific sessions. This increases the speed that you can maintain for prolonged periods of time. Speed training includes interval, fartlek, tempo, or hill training sessions.
Biomechanics and Body Weight Matter
Each time your foot strikes the ground while running, the force on your lower joints is six times your body weight. The heavier you are, the greater the stress on your joints and the more likely you are to get injured. This is especially true if your bio-mechanics are not very efficient and some of these forces hit your joints at angles that are not fully supported. Assessing your body weight and understanding your bio-mechanics should be also be a consideration when choosing your distance. Ask an experienced running coach or local running specialty store associate to observe your running form. A good coach or mentor should give you valuable, actionable feedback about running mechanics, training progression, and tips for strengthening your weaknesses.