For many people, the prospect of running a road race is tantamount to space exploration or climbing Mt. Everest. These things are possible, yes. But are they probable? Maybe not. For even the most tenuous beginner, running a road race is both possible and probable. Heck, it’s even enjoyable.
Stride for stride, running provides some of the best health and mental benefits, including improving cardiovascular health, weight loss and anxiety reduction. A recent article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows that even five to 10 minutes of running a day at slow speeds (i.e. less than 6 mph) significantly decreases mortality rates from cardiovascular disease. Running helps you train your breathing, burns cortisol and releases endorphins in relatively high amounts, all of which are useful in managing anxiety. Also, running is one of the most cost-effective and convenient forms of exercise around. Now that you’re convinced that running is fun and good for you, here is a simple beginner’s guide for running your first race.
Pick Your Race
Although running a full marathon is an admirable accomplishment, when you are starting out, you’ll want to pick something shorter, like a 5 kilometer run. There is no reason that you can’t a set goal for a longer distance, but you need to accumulate mileage first to train your body. Once you’ve crushed your 5km race(s), you’ll likely have the base to train for those longer distances.
Start by picking a goal race. Once you’ve got the date set, develop a training schedule that builds mileage and endurance up week after week. You should plan on at least 8-10 weeks of training before race day. It might help your motivation if you pick a race that has personal meaning to you. Many races double as charity fundraisers, so choosing one that supports a cause you care about can make the connection to your goal more meaningful.
There are two completely essential, non-negotiable tools in every runner’s toolbox (although a killer playlist could help round out the top three). First you need good, properly fitted running shoes. Second, you need emotional and mental support.
Never, ever cheap out on running shoes, or use shoes that are meant for a sport other than running. Get help from a professional at a sporting goods or running store to find the right fit for your foot type. If you don’t have the right footwear, you open the door to injury. Also, you should replace your shoes often, every 400-500 miles.
The biggest challenge in running is not enduring the elements or fatigued muscles; it’s the mental challenge. In terms of motivation to run your race, gathering a support system is invaluable. Either enlist a buddy to train with you, or join a community running group. If you’re in this with someone else, the chances of you quitting before you reach your goal drop substantially.
Walk to Run
We’ve touched on the fact that run training is a cumulative exercise. The reason for this is that the more you run, the more you are building up your cardiovascular endurance; you are also building up your V02 intake (getting the most oxygen you can to fuel your exercise) and lactic acid threshold, which is what contributes to stiffness in your muscles initially after exercise.
You need to be able to walk before you can run. Many training programs employ a walk-to-run training schedule, which varies depending on your existing level of fitness. This is a form of interval training, which combines running and walking, usually for a total of 30 minutes. You start out doing far more walking than running; and as the weeks progress, the ratio subtly flips until you realize that you are able to run longer and stronger for the solid training time.
Even seasoned long-distance runners use the walk/run ratio. It’s called 10/1, where you run for 10 minutes and then walk briskly for 1 minute. The walk breaks, in theory, lessen muscle fatigue and let you catch your breath. For many runners, this will physically allow you to run faster, than if you run straight through without rest.
There are numerous training plans available online, and a quick search will give you lots of choice. Runner’s World Magazine has one that’s easy to follow, for example.
Even if you are running to lose weight, you’ve got to make sure that you are eating enough (and enough of the right things) to fuel your training. Your calorie intake will differ based on your weight, metabolism and fitness goals; but as a general daily guideline, include three portions of protein, five portions of complex carbohydrates and five portions of fruits and/or veggies.
Focus on lean proteins and slow-release carbohydrates that will combine to give you the energy boost you need. Foods like legumes, peanut butter, whole grain pastas, quinoa, chicken and fish are all good go-tos.
Don’t forget hydration. Getting dehydrated is not only dangerous, it will impair your running performance. Drink plenty of fluid before, during and after your training sessions. You should also eat lots of foods that have anti-inflammatory qualities, like cherries, raspberries, blueberries and omega-3 rich foods, like fatty fish and flax seed.
Stretching and Recovery
There is a tendency to rush through your post-run stretch, especially if you are pressed for time. Be assured that a little time spent stretching is your best bet to avoiding injury. Injuries are not only painful, but they may you require you to rest for an extended period, which will hamper your fitness goals.
Focus on stretches that really pull out the hamstrings, quads and glutes. Don’t forget your hips, which are often overlooked and are a particularly tight area, especially in our largely sedentary society. Runner’s yoga sessions can be enormously beneficial as well. Include rest days in your training schedule, so that your muscles can rest and regenerate.