Marathon season is almost here, but even if you’re not much of a runner, it’s not too late to start training for a 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or even a full marathon and successfully cross that accomplishment off of your bucket list. However, if this is something that’s new to you, you’ll want to make sure you do the proper training so that you complete the race (whatever the distance) injury-free and with a smile on your face.
There are a few obvious things to do, like not setting ridiculous time goals for yourself, practicing the course early on, and taking it one week at a time, but it’s not as simple as just that. We spoke to Karen Cunningham, coach and owner of First Step Athletics, to get her thoughts about what she recommends for anyone running their first big race.
Set an honest goal.
Karen Cunningham says she’s found that people are much more motivated when they have a goal in front of them. “As a coach, I can do so much, but I’m not with them seven days a week; when they’ve signed up for a marathon or 5K or even a one mile run, that’s what keeps them going. My passion is getting people moving, so even if they think they can’t accomplish something, I help them set an honest goal and let them know it’s a first step.” You aren’t going to be able to run 13 miles in a month if you’re only running one mile now, but the point is to start moving and try.
Find your inner athlete.
One of the biggest things Cunningham says she has to do for people who want to run a race is be honest with them. “But they have to be honest with me too,” she adds. “They need to tell me what they’re going to put into it, so I can tell what they’re going to get out of it.” She loves to work with beginners and people who aren’t runners and show them what to do and how to do it properly. “I give them the guidance, but they do all of the work. And that gives them pride. They start to respect themselves and their bodies.”
Start slow and enjoy the journey.
The first thing to think about is how much you’ve done before. “Are you walking right now? Going the gym? Are you a couch potato?” Cunningham says the biggest surprise people who want to run a half marathon, but aren’t runners (yet) face is how slow they need to start. “People think, ‘I want to do 13 miles and you’re going to start me out at a mile?’ But it’s important first to see how your body is going to react. Start off walking and with cross-training classes.” She emphasizes she wants people to enjoy the process and the journey and if you push yourself too hard too fast, that won’t be the case.
Get a good pair of running shoes.
There are three things Cunningham says every person who is training for a race needs. First is a good pair of running shoes. “That is critical,” she says. Second, a time commitment, whatever it may be. “If you want to run a 5K, then maybe it’s a couple of hours a week. A half marathon—six hours a week.” And then you build up as you go.” This is where having a coach is very helpful. “It’s important to have a good understanding of everything you’re going to need to learn about, starting with having a good training plan and following it.” That’s the final piece, she says. “As you grow with mileage, things like nutrition become a factor; a coach will make sure you’re getting everything you need.”
Do more than just running.
Running a race isn’t just about running. “That’s one of the biggest mistakes people make,” Cunningham says. “Thy don’t build up their backside, their glutes, legs, and backs. And most injuries are caused by not building up those muscles and not stretching afterwards.” If you’re training for a race, it’s important that you also do a cross-training program where you’re focusing on your legs and abs and doing a core training workout a couple of days a week. “Most people get injured in the beginning because they start out too fast and don’t build the base; then the muscles get strained and torn down and when you get to longer mileage, the muscles just can’t take it.”
Avoid cookie cutter training plans.
“Some online training plans work,” Cunningham says. “But if a coach sees you a couple of times a week, she can watch your gait and see if you’re favoriting something. She can give you stretches to do based on what she’s seeing and talk to you about your shoes.” If you don’t have someone to help you, Cunningham says there’s a higher chance you’ll get injured or not complete your goal. “They might finish,” she says, “but they don’t do well or they’re in a lot of pain.” Her goal is for her athletes to make it through the finish line and feel good afterwards. “No one’s limping or going into the medic tent. They’ve done a good job and now they’re ready to go enjoy the after party.”
Make it fun.
Cunningham says what she wants for anyone running a race, even if they’re not going to be come a real runner, is to cross the finish line and say, “That was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.” She says, “I want them to be successful and then encourage their children and family members to try new things. I want them to get some kind of adrenaline rush from it. And pride. And confidence. Because when people are happy they do more for the rest of the world. Mostly though, you’ve gotta make it fun. And you’ve gotta do it with a smile.” And for those of us who think there’s just no way we can do it? “Just believe in yourself,” she says. “Don’t give up because you’re older or too busy or have self-doubt.” After all, she believes everyone has an inner athlete. It’s just about finding it.