Monday, February 17, 2014

Training For Your First Race: Do's and Don'ts

So you just signed up for a running race and you have a few months to train, but you really don't know what to do...
It's at this point when I'm usually asked "Where do I start?!?" And the answer isn't always that simple. It depends on all sorts of factors like the race distance, goals for the race and what sort of condition the runner is currently in. So despite these complexities, I'm going to try to simplify things a little bit so that you at least know how to start training.
-Decide how much time you can commit
-Set reasonable goals for your race
-Start slowly
-Follow the 10 percent rule to increasing your weekly distance
-Ensure variety in your training
-Practice controlling your breathing
-Stay hydrated
-Try yoga or other core/hip strengthening to help prevent certain injuries
-Ignore aches and pains
-Jump up in distance
-Forget to eat a balanced meal post-run
-Skip recovery days
-Train hard right up to your race
-Freak out before your race - just relax and have fun!
-Start training again right after your race

This post is clearly written as an introduction, meaning it's not a complete training plan, just a few tips and tricks that might help you out.
Also, I'm going to assume your goal for the race is simply to finish, perhaps in a time that you'd be okay telling your friends. Why? Because actually training to finish in the top of the field is tough work, takes a lot of time, and would probably lead to injuries if you're only just starting out.

First, you need to figure out where you're at in terms of your running ability. This is best done by going out for a run at a pace that feels comfortable to you. Record both your time and distance for the point where you start to feel an inkling of being tired - this will be your "base distance". Loops around your neighborhood or a short running trail will make sure that if you get tired you are still able to walk home at any point.
Now a word of advice: don't over do it on these first runs! You may not be used to running for a couple reasons: 1) your aerobic capacity (the body's ability to take in and use oxygen) is not yet adapted to running and you could feel light-headed if you go out too fast for too long and 2) your muscles, tendons and ligaments take time to adapt to the new stresses that will be placed on them during running. Doing too much now will only hurt you later, so be realistic in your first runs. Sure you might be able to go out tomorrow and run a marathon, but you'll also probably end up in the hospital or at physio for some serious injuries.

On the training side of things, it's good to have an idea of the time you can commit to running and what a typical week will look like. I would suggest 3 to 4 good quality training days each week with some other activities that you enjoy once or twice a week and a couple of recovery days that can include gentle stretching, (gentle) yoga or relaxation. One of your training days is your "long run". This is where you build up the distance and time that you can run for and is a good indication of your training status. The other training days should consist of a short fast run, a moderate distance run, a hilly day and/or a fun day. All of these different runs help build up strength and stamina to help with the long runs, and to increase variety and make sure you're having fun.

The Trail Effect Blog: Helping you get to the start line of your first running race!
Getting to the start line is the first step to a great race!
As you start your training plan, you'll first want to get used to running your base distance. Do this distance (or a little shorter) as your longest run for 2 to 3 weeks depending on how easy and natural it feels to do it. If you're feeling good with no aches or pains or excessive tightness, progress up in distance using the magical "10 percent rule". It states that you shouldn't increase your distance in a single run, or in a week, by more than 10 percent. The reason for this is that most running injuries are related to overuse, or too much too soon!

While on the topic of the "long run", I should mention that I've never trained for a marathon by running a marathon. In fact, my longest run before a marathon usually tops out at 21 miles (some suggest 20). It just takes so long to recover from the longer workouts (if you haven't been running for years and have a ridiculous base of strength) that your other training days are affected. Plus you may start to experience injuries as small issues with your running biomechanics and form are amplified with the repetition over a long run.
So if you're training for a half-marathon, I might suggest doing 10 to 11 miles (17 to 18km) as your longest run. For a 10km race, 8km is probably sufficient. This longest training run should be done about 3 weeks out from the race, with a slightly shorter, but still long, run the week after (this is my approach so, as they say, 'your mileage may vary')

The Trail Effect Blog: Running competitively
Just try not being competitive with that many people around!
The other runs during the week that I talked about above will most likely be run at a faster pace than
your long run. This will help on race day when you try to push yourself that little bit faster than in training.
"But I won't push it on race day" you say. Yeah, right! Although I'm all for pacing during a race, it can be really difficult to hold back and it's almost inevitable that with hundreds (or thousands) of other runners, you'll feel a bit competitive.

To make sure you're really getting the training benefits you think you are, it's often suggested that training plans adopt a 3 on, 1 off scheme. That is, 3 weeks are hard training weeks (which do include a recovery day each week) and 1 easy week after that. For the easy week, reduce the intensity of workouts a bit and don't increase the distances at all.

So you've been steadily increasing your weekly mileage and did your longest run successfully, but the race is in just a couple weeks and you're freaking out about what to do now. The answer is just relax! Or in running terms, "taper". This is the intentional reduction in weekly mileage and often an increase in energy intake, though for the half and 10km distances the latter really isn't needed. Keep running, reduce your distance, do a little short-fast running, do some stretching, maybe get a massage, and most of all stay hydrated before your race. Also, the day before a race I usually go for a really short run in which I do some short pick-ups (speed bursts) of varying intensity, and some loosen up movements (like high knees, butt kicks or grape vine) followed by a good stretching session.

Good luck in your race, and remember to have fun training and racing!


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