When there’s still some snow on the ground and the temperatures are hovering below zero, that summer race you signed up for may feel really far away. But race day will be here before you know it, and you want to be prepared! From your running gear to your nutrition to your training plan itself, there are certain aspects of preparing for a race that just can’t be left to the last minute.
Maybe this is your first event, or maybe you’ve got a few medals in your collection already but if you still feel like a newbie on the running scene, this article is for you!
When I first started signing up for races, one thing I found frustrating was the lack of quality information tailored to beginners. Most of the training plans I found in books or online were super complicated, or required me to already be an elite athlete to be able to follow them. Many of the resources I found were also written by elite athletes or their coaches and they sometimes lacked the ability to capture the needs of a newbie runner. In those early years I made a LOT of mistakes! So, to hopefully help you be more prepared than I was I’ve boiled down the most useful strategies and tips to help you as a new runner reach the finish line faster!
*before embarking on any new training program if you are a new exerciser or have chronic health conditions or injuries, please check with your doctor first*
1. Set a Goal
If you’re running your very first race this year your goal may be simply to finish the race in one piece, and that’s great! It’s wise to go into your first ever event without too much expectation or pressure. It can be an exciting and overwhelming day, so having a strict time goal may set you up for some disappointment if race day jitters get in your way. If you’ve done a few races already and know the drill, setting a time goal can help you amp up your training and keep you motivated.
Even if your goal is just to cross the finish line and earn that first medal, it’s still important to have a solid training and nutrition plan!
2. Have a Plan
Sitting down and writing out your training plan is one of the most important things you can do to be successful come race day. Getting organized early on and scheduling your training time will help keep you accountable to the plan, and allow you to slowly and safely increase your weekly mileage. It will also allow you to schedule your training around things that come up like vacations or work travel. That way you won’t reach the week of the race and realize you’re undertrained.
Make sure your training program also has some flexibility built in, and start your training a few weeks early so you don’t fall behind on your goal if things go off the rails. You might get a head cold or stomach bug that sidelines you for a few days, or other work/child obligations get in the way of a solid week of training. Life happens!
How to do it:
I’m a spreadsheet fan, but feel free to use any program or method that works best for you (there’s nothing wrong with good ol’ pen and paper!). You may also find a training program online you’d like to follow, but I still suggest creating your own copy of it in case you want to make any modifications.
- Start by writing down your current weekly runs and add up the total miles per week you’ve been running. Make a note of the longest single run you currently do, and what the distance of your race is going to be.
- Make a weekly schedule, from now until about 1 week before your race (elite athletes will often do a longer taper period, but for beginners cutting back 1 week prior is just fine). Include a column in your chart where you’ll add up your total weekly miles, and set your target based on your race distance.
Depending on the distance of your race, these are some general guidelines for how many miles per week in total you want to be running:
- 5K- 10-25 miles per week
- 10k – 25-30 miles per week
- Half Marathon- 30-40 miles per week
- Marathon- 30-60 miles per week
Of course these are just estimates – depending on your current running schedule and fitness levels things can vary, but when planning your weekly runs try to work toward hitting these ranges. If you are currently running less that your goal range, slowly build up those weekly miles.
Periodize your training
Over the course of your training your weekly mileage is not going to be a steady increase each week. Instead, you’ll ‘periodize’ your training program to allow your body some time to recover between progressions. A general rule of thumb is to increase your total mileage each week by no more than 10%, and about every 4th week cut back a little to give yourself a break.
Remember to keep things flexible within your training plan. If you feel really good, it’s ok to push a little harder. If you’re feeling run down or get an injury, it’s time to cut back.
For example (for a 1/2 marathon training plan):
Week 1: 25 miles, Week 2: 27 miles, Week 3: 30 miles, Week 4: 25 miles.
Week 5: 30 miles, Week 6: 33 miles, Week 7: 36 miles, Week 8: 30 miles.
You get the gist…
Plan your daily runs
Most runners want to get faster, and to do that you need to train your body for speed. There are a few ways to do this, but for beginners the best method is to train something called your “lactic acid threshold”.
What is ‘lactic acid threshold?’
Your lactic acid threshold pace is the pace at which your muscles are just able to clear the lactic acid that builds up during higher intensity training. During a training session, we can be running either aerobically, or anaerobically. When we’re aerobic, it means our heart rate is low enough that we’re able to breathe in enough oxygen to clear the lactic acid from our muscles as it builds up.
When we’re anaerobic we’re working harder, our heart rate is higher, and we aren’t able to keep up with the removal of lactic acid from our muscles. This buildup of lactic acid is part of the reason why we can’t run at a very fast pace for as long as we can run at a slower pace.
Our lactic acid threshold pace is the speed at which we’re right on the line between aerobic and anaerobic. Training at this speed allows us to improve our ability to clear lactic acid out of our muscles, which over time helps us run faster for longer. Hence, a faster finishing time.
How to do it:
I like to do my lactic acid threshold runs (LAT runs) on the treadmill so I can keep a very close eye on my pace vs running by feel. If you have a GPS watch for running that tracks pace it’ll work well for doing these runs outside. I just don’t find the GPS super reliable on an indoor track.
1. Complete a 10 minute warmup (start by walking and progress to a slow jog). Next, increase your speed to just slightly faster than your goal race pace (for example if my goal race pace is 6.5 miles per hour, or about 9:15 pace, I’d complete my LAT repeats at 6.7-6.8 miles per hour, or around 8:50-8:55 pace)
2. Early in your training program complete 1 or 2 single mile repeats at your LAT pace, resting for 1-2 minutes between intervals. After a few weeks, add in a 3rd mile, and eventually a 4th. A few weeks later, start increasing the distance you run at your LAT pace (for example rather than 4 X 1 miles, do 2 x 2 miles). Rather than increasing the speed of your LAT runs, your goal is to run further at that same pace.
3. Finish with a 5 -10 minute cool down, gradually slowing down your pace and your heart rate.
Beginners should do a LAT run only once per week, while more experienced runners may want to add in a second one. Remember though, rest and recovery is key to success so more isn’t always better! If you add in a second LAT run and are having a hard time completing your other workouts, keep it to only once per week.
The Long Run
Your weekly long run should take up about 1/3 of your weekly mileage. So for example if your total weekly mileage is 30 miles, your long run should be about 10 of those miles. Remember, your long run is about increasing the time you can spend running, not speed! The purpose of your long run is to go slooooow. Running in this ‘aerobic’ zone causes adaptations to take place in your muscles which enhance endurance potential. Practice makes perfect, right?
Speaking of practice, your weekly long run is also a great opportunity to “rehearse” things like what running clothing you like best, and what type of carbohydrate, fluid, and electrolyte replacement will work for you. There is nothing worse than getting into a race and realizing your pants don’t stay put or your sports bra chafes, or that the new gels you bought just do not agree with your tummy. Trialing all of these things well before race day will help minimize any surprises and unnecessary stress.
Other Training Runs
Depending on your race, you may want to add in some hill training. Check out the race course ahead of time (it’s usually online on the race website!) If there’s a lot of elevation change you won’t regret preparing your body for making up those hills!
How to do it:
Once per week or once every two weeks, Plan to do a hill training run.
1. Complete a 5-10 minute warm up starting with walking and working up to a light jog.
2. If you’re on the treadmill, set the incline for about 3%, and complete a 1/4 mile run at this incline. Put the incline down to 1% and complete 1-2 minutes of active recovery (can be walking or jogging). Repeat these 1/4 mile ‘hills’ 5 times. Alternatively, if you’re running outdoors, find a hill and run up, walking or slowly jogging back down.
As the weeks of your training progress, gradually increase your elevation to 4% for your hill runs. Depending on your race course you may also want to lengthen your hill intervals to 1/2 mile or even further!
3. Finish with a 5-10 minute cool down, slowly reducing your speed.
Don’t Forget to Strength Train!
Making time for some strength training is a key part of becoming a better endurance athlete. Regular strength training can help keep your running stride strong, prevent injuries, and improve things like posture and balance. Set aside some time once or twice per week for a full-body strength workout, and don’t neglect areas like your upper body and core!
3. Eat Like an Athlete
I know what you’re probably thinking “oh no Steph, I’m not an athlete! I’m just signing up for a 10K that’s all!” Well, guess what? If you have a training program, you’re an athlete and it’s high time you start eating like one. No matter your age, fitness level, or years of experience if you’re a regular exerciser trying to perform your best you need to eat like an athlete.
When it comes to performance, good nutrition and a good training program go hand in hand. Getting enough of the right kind of fuel is absolutely critical for being the best runner you can be!
Athletes need fuel
At the end of the day, what athletes require to perform their best is enough gas in the tank. When we run, we burn approximately 100 calories per mile. These calories come from a mix of both fat and carbohydrates, but the higher the intensity of the run (the higher your heart rate and the faster your speed) the more the body relies on carbohydrates vs fat for fuel. The type of carbohydrate that we store in our muscle to use for energy during exercise is called ‘glycogen’
How to do it:
- One of the most important things you can do before heading out the door for a run is FUEL UP! Trying to complete a tough training session with no energy in your muscles is a recipe for disaster. It’s also a common mistake I encounter with new runners. Undereating before and after exercise, while overeating at other times of day.
I’ll give you an example: You’re getting ready for your first 10K and always exercise first thing in the morning. Prior to this your workouts were no more than 30 minutes, and you’ve never gotten in the habit of eating before hitting the gym. Now as you’re increasing the distance of your runs you feel like you’re not making a ton of progress (having to stop and walk frequently, legs feel heavy, no pep in your step, not getting faster), and you’re frustrated. You also notice that later in the evening after dinner you’re STARVING and can’t seem to avoid the chips in front of the TV.
What’s the problem?
Well, the problem is that the timing of meals and training is just not in sync. What we need to do is fuel up BEFORE exercise (with mostly carbohydrates), so our muscles have enough energy to complete our workouts without hitting the wall. We also want to plan a solid post-workout meal that includes protein and carbohydrates for recovery and refueling. Eating enough around the time we’re most active is key for successful training, but can also help minimize excessive hunger at other times of day.
Here are a few pre-run snack ideas that provide carbohydrates for fueling all those miles!
For your post-run meal (and other meals throughout the day) these plate models are a great guideline! The carbohydrates are key for replenishing muscle glycogen stores, while the protein will aid in muscle recovery.
For longer runs it’s also a good idea to start practicing with different fuel sources (such as sports drinks, gels, chews, beans, dried fruits, etc) to figure out which one you like the best. 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of activity is a general recommendation when preparing for a 1/2 or full marathon (or anything longer!)
Curious about which supplements might help you perform better as a runner? Click here for everything you need to know about caffeine!
4. Don’t Forget About Hydration!
A key aspect of physical performance is staying hydrated. When we start to get even a little dehydrated we can run into serious performance impairment. In severe cases, dehydration can be fatal for athletes. Keeping fluid intake top of mind during training runs and races is critical for your best performance.
How to do it:
If you consider yourself a bit of a camel, starting drinking more fluids over the course of the day in general. A good way to remember is to always have a large glass of water first thing in the morning and with each meal you eat during the day.
Before exercise, make fluids part of your pre-run nutrition strategy, in the form of water or a sports drink. Have a few sips of fluids every 10-15 minutes throughout your training run rather than waiting until you’re dying of thirst to chug a whole big bottle. It’s much easier on your digestion to have smaller amounts of fluid going in while running that a whole bottle at once.
The exact amount of fluids you need depends on how much you sweat, which can vary widely from person to person and even day to day depending on the environment. The simplest way to know how much fluid you’ve lost from sweat is to weigh yourself before and after a run. Subtract the weight of any fluids you drank during your run (1L water = 1kg) and that’s the amount you need to replace!
During longer runs (lasting more than 90 minutes) You’ll want to make sure you include some electrolyte replacement with your fluids so you don’t become hyponatremic (low blood sodium level). This is a serious concern for endurance runners, especially in hot weather where you’re losing a lot of salt in your sweat. Replacing the fluids, but not the salt can lead to nausea, confusion, dizziness, and will definitely derail any personal records you may have been planning on breaking. Hyponatremia can be deadly so always have a plan for both fluid and electrolyte replacement during long training runs and races.
The amount of sodium you actually need varies from person to person (we all have a different sodium sweat rate!), but a pinch of salt in your homemade sports drink or the amount that comes in store bought gels or beans is likely enough. Personally I like to make my own homemade sports drink since the cost of all those pre-made products can really add up!
For shorter runs where you’re not sweating for a prolonged period of time, and are eating a meal or snack before and after your run, electrolyte replacement is likely not necessary and drinking plain water is just fine!
Try my homemade sports drink recipe on your next long run!
Homemade Sports Drink Recipe
Adjust amounts of fruit juice or sugar as needed for taste preferences
- 1/4 cup lemon, lime, or other fruit juice
- 2-3 tbsp white sugar
- 1 pinch of salt
- 1L cold water
- Mix together to dissolve sugar and salt, and sip on during your long training runs!
A word about weight loss…
Another common misstep I see from new runners is trying to diet for weight loss while increasing weekly mileage to prepare for a race. This can lead to burnout, injuries, illness, and nutrient deficiencies. Remember, the more you run the more fuel your body needs, so underfueling while increasing physical demands on your body is just not a recipe for success! If you feel like you’re working REALLY hard, but just aren’t seeing any progress, take a look at your nutrition. Are you getting enough calories? Are you skimping on your pre or post-workout meals? It can be difficult to balance the need for energy for training with wanting to lose some weight, especially for people who find their appetites become much larger when the start running more.
My advice? Make performance nutrition your number one priority. That means ensuring you’re eating enough to fuel your training and post-workout recovery. If you want to aim for a small calorie deficit, work that into your meal plan at another time of day. Be careful not to go too low on calories, because that will not equal faster weight loss, and it definitely won’t equal faster running. You may also just want to focus on your running goal for now and wait until after the race is over to change gears toward a fat loss plan.
For more specific, detailed nutrition advice tailored to you and your goals, it’s best to seek out the help of a Registered Dietitian who has experience working with athletes! Click here to read more about why EVERY athlete should work with a Sport Dietitian!
For all you new runners out there, I hope this little training guide sheds some light on how to prepare for your first (or one of your first) race experiences. I hope you fall in love with it like I have and can’t wait to start your own collection of finisher medals!
Getting close to race day? Check out my last-minute tips here
Do you want to learn how to optimize your athletic performance with simple, personalized nutrition strategies? Click here to get all the details for my one on one nutrition coaching programs, and Apply for a spot!
About the Author: Stephanie Hnatiuk is a Registered Dietitian and Personal Trainer who specializes in helping athletes reach their peak potential with nutrition.