Admit it: You've admired those healthy specimens you see huffing around the local track, in training for their latest 10K or marathon. You've even laced up your training shoes and started jogging a bit, in hopes of shaping up and improving your health. But you could never aspire to bring home one of those T-shirts commemorating your completion of a race -- much less find yourself No. 1 at the finish line. Or could you?
Here's the good news. Taking part in a race can be a great way to stoke your enthusiasm for running and add competitive spirit to your workout. And whether you're eyeing a 5K, 10K, half marathon, or even a marathon, one thing is for sure -- the right kind of training can help you run your farthest and your fastest.
Nervous? Excited? Don't know where to start? Don't fret, we are here to help. Follow our expert-approved, 10-step plan to train for your next -- or your first -- race.
Step 1. Pick a race, any race.
The first step is to pick the race that you want to enter," says fitness trainer Kathy Kaehler of Hidden Hills, Calif. "This way you have a date in mind, a time frame to train within and a goal," she tells WebMD. Find out about local races by visiting your local roadrunner's club. Not sure if you have one? Visit the Road Runner's Club of America website at http://www.rrca.org for a list of local clubs. Click on your state for a list of local races.
Step 2. Get a physical before you get physical.
"Before you begin, it's a good idea to see your doctor and get a thorough physical examination -- particularly if you have not had one in several years or if until now you have been fairly sedentary," says Lewis G, Maharam, MD, medical director of the New York City Marathon and NYC Triathlon, among others. "This exam should include an exercise stress test (preferably done on a treadmill) to try and make sure that you have no obvious heart problems that might surface if you exercise too hard."
Step 3. Find a running partner or group.
Once your doctor has given you the 'all-clear,' the next step is to find someone to train with. "Partners and groups are motivating because you are accountable to a group and pushed by people -- some of whom are better than you," Kaehler says. "If you can't find a club, then try to find a running partner who is equivalent to your fitness level." Local running stores and your local runner's club can help you find groups. Many major road races, particularly marathons, also have classes for the benefit of runners training for their event. The park and recreation departments in many cities often provide jogging programs for interested parties. In addition, many charity organizations, notably The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team In Training, offer training programs and help runners raise money for the cause.
Step 4. Dress for success
Though clothes do not make the runner, there is no substitute for the right running shoe, Maharam tells WebMD. "There should be about a thumbnail's length between the longest toe and the end of the shoe. Without this much space, you can lose your toe nails," he cautions. Your best bet is to go to a specialty shop to buy running-specific shoes because the staff will better trained at fitting them. Replace your running shoes every 350 to 500 miles because they lose shock absorption and other protective qualities with use. What's more, "make sure you choose synthetic socks," Maharam says. "Unlike cotton, synthetic material wicks away moisture and fluid; preventing blisters and the wearing away of your feet."
Step 5. Train to train
"Most people start running with a health or fitness goal in mind such as losing weight or being healthier rather than a specific race," says master's champion runner and coach Gordon Bakoulis, author of How to Train for and Run Your Best Marathon. "You should really be doing a base of 10 to 20 miles a week before you start training for your first long run." Once you have established a baseline, then training can begin. Remember that the amount of time it takes to train for a race depends on the distance as well as your fitness level, she says. In general, marathon training can take anywhere from six months to a year.
Step 6: Slow and steady ... finishes the race.
"For building up distance, the 10% rule works best," says Bakoulis. "Never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10% over the week before. This helps to prevent the injuries that occur when you run too much or increase your weekly training program too quickly."
Here's how it works: Let's say you now run 10 miles a week, run 11 miles the next week, then 12, and so on. "Within 8-10 weeks, you will be running 20 miles a week, and what's more, this gradual increase will help you grow stronger and fitter as a runner," says Bakoulis, who has completed 26 marathons. "The 10% rule is good to follow no matter what type of race you are gearing up to run. It's tried and true."
Step 7. Feel the need for speed?
Speed training involves intervals of running at faster-than-training speed, Bakoulis says. "Training pace is a conversation pace -- meaning that you can hold a conversation while doing it," she explains. "Don't introduce speed training until you can run 20 to 30 minutes at a conversation pace," she says. Remember, "if your goal is just to finish whatever race you have set your sights on, speed training is not necessary," Bakoulis says. However, "if the goal is to maximize performance, then speed training is important." Speed training gets your body used to racing conditions. Many road runner clubs offer speed-work classes, or you can do it yourself by sprinting the stretches and jogging the curves at your local high school once a week during training.
Step 8. The long and short of it.
The basics of any training program involve a combination of hard runs, easy runs, and long runs. "Alternate your days with hard runs and easy runs," Bakoulis says. "You can do this by running every other day or by running roughly twice as much on the hard days as the easy days." Don't add miles to implement the hard runs. Instead, figure out how many miles you are doing now and divide them up so that you are running more on the hard days, less on the easy days. Get it?
As the race or marathon gets closer, start gearing up for a long run. "For a marathon, a long-run is 18 miles or more, but a long run is shorter when training for a 5K, 10K or another race," she says.
Before your run, do any type of exercise -- a light jog, calisthenics, a bicycle -- until you break a sweat, says Lewis Maharam. "Muscles are like taffy. When they are warm they stretch, and when they are cold they break." Also stretch out important muscles -- your hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and iliotibial band -- before and after your run. "This will not only improve flexibility but prevent injury," he says.
Step 9. Rest your body and your feet.
It's really unnecessary for 99% of runners to run every day of the week. Most people should take at least one, if not three days, off each week," Bakoulis says. "And you don't have to run every day either." Instead, try "non-impact activities such as cycling, swimming, using the elliptical trainer at a gym, or any activity that is not causing you to pound your feet at least once a week," she says.
Step 10. On your mark, get set, go!
Congratulations. You are now on your way to the starting gate and much closer to achieving your goal. Remember, aches and pains can -- and will -- occur during your run. If you feel sore on race day, take acetaminophen (Tylenol). Says Maharan: "The temptation is to take ibuprofen, but it can block prostaglandins and blood flow to the kidneys in race conditions."