Run, Forrest, Run: 8 Race Training Tips to Get You to the Finish Line

Race season is approaching — are you ready? It’s time for you to get off the sidelines and run one of your own, whether it’s a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or full marathon, and we’re here to help. Running competitive races can seem like a daunting task, but many have found that they’re actually fun, and quite addicting once you start.

The endorphins you get from your post-race victory are unlike anything you’ve probably experienced before, and just in case you’ve got the running bug and are ready to lace up and get moving, we’re throwing some tips at you to give you a running start. All running vets would agree that these eight training tips are the secret tricks you need in order to make sure you have a good race on the big day, so now you really have no excuse. Just say yes, and train like a champion.

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1. Buy good shoes

The first thing you need to do before you even think about running long distances is make sure you have the appropriate running shoes to do so. And no, those worn-out, athletic-looking shoes in your closet are not going to cut it. Serious runners invest in good running shoes for a reason, and that’s because they pay off. Failing to have good running shoes not only puts you at risk for injury, it also increases the chances that you’ll suffer blisters and chronic foot and leg pain. Are you convinced yet?

Once you’re ready to make the investment, Runner’s World suggests that you go to the nearest speciality running store, where experts can watch how you run and help you select a pair of shoes that offer your feet the support they need. Because each person’s feet are different — some have flat feet, some a high arch, some pronated feet — each type of foot requires a slightly different shoe for maximum support. In addition, the store associates can help measure your foot and ensure you are selecting the correct shoe size. You should consider sizing yourself up, because the extra room in the shoe allows your foot to flex and your toes to move forward with each stride.

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2. Build a running base

Once you have your shoes, you’re ready to get running, but if you’re preparing for your first race, make sure you start slowly and build your running base, or a set number of miles that you feel comfortable with and that your body is accustomed to. One surefire way to suffer a running-related injury right off the bat is jumping into training too quickly and building up your mileage too fast, or not giving your body enough time to recover from your training runs. This will only lead to injury and not get you ahead of the game, but rather, behind it.

Depending on what distance race you’re running, your running base will be different, but it is important to get to a point where you are comfortable with a set amount of miles so your body can adjust to that mileage and then be in good shape to support more of it. It is also important to establish a running base before jumping into a training plan, because training plans often assume that runners have already built their running base. Thus, making the mistake of believing that a 12- or 14-week plan will take you from the couch to the finish line could be a costly one.

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3. Stick to a program

Especially if you are a racing newbie, it’s a good idea to find a training program that caters to your race distance and stick to it. The most popular include Hal Higdon training programs, Greg McMillan training, and Jenny Hadfield plans. These programs ease runners into the high mileage that certain races require and also dictate when athletes should rest and cross train.

The majority of training plans last around 12 weeks, but this can vary based on the distance of the race. Runners should study a number of various plans carefully before picking one that fits them by finding the plan that best accommodates their schedule and matches their current fitness level. Choosing a program that is out of one’s realistic reach only results in injury.

A typical racing program gives a breakdown of each month and what exercise/distance is encouraged for that day. Though there is always wiggle room and runners are encouraged to adapt the plan to their liking, they should attempt to follow it as closely as they can, as the programs are usually constructed by experts, and there’s a method to the madness.

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4. Find a group

As you start your training, consider finding a group of runners to train with. There are a number of benefits to training with a running group, but camaraderie and accountability are among the most significant advantages. Some runners prefer to exercise alone, but if you can find a group of people who can entertain you while you run and also challenge you, then you’re killing two birds with one stone. In addition, though you may be tempted to skip your training runs on a few mornings, if you have people waiting for you at the park or track, you’re much less likely to stand them up.

Training groups can be relaxed or as sophisticated as you prefer. If you have a few friends who are willing to run your distances with you, great. If not, you may want to look into official training groups that are made up of runners who are all training for a specific race. Because there are runners in every city, these groups are easy to locate, and a quick Google search can easily link you up with them.

Some sophisticated training groups have leaders, while in others, everyone is on the same playing field. Different runners have different preferences, but having a leader can be helpful because he or she can offer their veteran advice on racing and also make sure that no one is overexerting themselves or taking it too easy. They can also map routes.

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5. Cross train

You also need to make sure you cross train if you are training for a race, no matter what the distance. Race training is not only about running — it’s also about strengthening all of your muscles so that your body can support the high mileage that goes into racing. In reference to running, Runner’s World says that cross training is when a runner trains by doing another kind of fitness workout such as cycling, swimming, a fitness class, or strength training to supplement their running. On top of preventing injury, it builds strength and flexibility in muscles that running doesn’t employ.

If you are unsure how to cross train, Runner’s World explains that the best kind of cross-training workouts are those available to you that that are close to running in terms of muscles used and aerobic systems stressed. The best options include elliptical trainers, cross-country ski machines, stationary bikes, and water running.

If you follow one of the training programs discussed earlier, the plan will incorporate weekly cross training, but if you are mapping your own way, make sure you dedicate at least two days a week to cross training. That’s the amount Active.com suggests, and it also encourages runners to take at least one day a week off.

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6. Rest

Speaking of rest, make sure you do it. Enough. Too many runners get overexcited about their races and forget to give their body a break, often resulting in injury. If you don’t rest, you not only risk short-term injury but also increase the chances of suffering a long-term injury. Training plans usually incorporate weekly rest days, and if you decide to skip them, you don’t give your body a chance to recover, rebuild, and repair.

In addition, make sure you are listening to your body and giving it the rest it needs, even if it requires that you skip a training run or rearrange your schedule. Overtraining doesn’t do you any good, so if one morning you experience exhaustion, soreness, and/or a lack of motivation, don’t sweat it if you feel the need to take an unscheduled rest day. Of course, not all training days can turn into rest days, but a few more than scheduled is nothing to be sorry about. Honor your body if you want it to honor your goals come race day.

In addition, if you have injuries, address them, and resist pushing them under the rug — you’ll pay for it later.

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7. Pay attention to your diet and hydration

While you are training, you also need to stay conscious of your diet and your water intake. First myth to debunk: Running a race will not help you lose weight. Actually, runners often gain weight during training due to the extra amount of calories they have to consume in order to support the extra mileage. Now that we’ve cleared that up, we can talk about food. You will likely experience a significant uptick in your hunger levels when you start training, and you should respond to those signals by eating food that will effectively nourish you and also fuel your runs. Case in point, now is not the time to let your diet run the course of an unchaperoned child on Halloween. You need to make sure you are getting enough protein, carbohydrates, natural sugars, and fats. Dessert can be enjoyed, but proper satiation should always come first.

As Fitness Magazine explains, the number of calories runners need to consume daily depends on the duration and intensity of their workouts. Your runs won’t be effective one if they are under-fueled. On the other hand, training is also not your excuse to eat anything and everything in sight. Be mindful of what you put in your mouth, and it’ll pay off during your runs. If you’re unsure what a runner’s diet should look like, take advice from Kathleen Porter, a registered dietitian. Fitness Magazine published the breakdown for daily meals she encourages: 60 to 70 percent of a meal’s calories should come from carbohydrates, while 20 to 30 percent should derive from from fat sources like oils, avocados, nuts, etc. The last 10 to 15 percent of calories should come from protein.

Also stay conscious of what you’re eating right after your training runs — the window of time when it is especially important for your body to recover. Cindy Sherwin, another registered dietician who spoke to Fitness Magazine, advises athletes to consume a post-run snack that has a carb-protein ratio of roughly 4 to 1. A slice of whole-grain toast with peanut butter and jelly or some fruit with half a cup of yogurt are two examples of snacks that satisfy those requirements.

And then we come to water, the nectar of the gods for runners. Runners need to drink a sufficient amount of water when they are training, before and after their training runs. As a general rule of thumb for hydration throughout your training, you should take in 4 to 6 ounces of fluid every 20 minutes during your runs; during your longer runs (or runs more than 1.5 hours), consider alternating between sports drinks and water. Carbohydrate fluids like Gatorade help replace lost sodium and other minerals, as well as electrolytes lost when you sweat. In addition, after your run, remember to rehydrate with water or a sports drink. Most importantly, listen to your thirst signals.

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8. Research the course

Lastly, make sure you research your racing course as you map out your training runs. The terrain of courses vary significantly — while some are hilly, others are flat. Some take place on concrete while others are trail runs, meaning you could and often will be running through bumpy terrain. Whatever you do, do your research and adjust your training to fit the terrain. If your course has a lot of hills, be sure to cover hills on your training runs. Sounds logical, right? Still, too many runners make the mistake of not researching their courses early enough to adequately adjust their training runs.

Now it’s up to you. Lace up your sneakers and have fun.

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