Hey, did you guys know I ran a half marathon this past weekend?
I’m almost kidding, since I feel like I posted it all over every social media platform I had – but who can blame me*? The race went great, the location (Angkor Wat Archaeological Park; definitely worth your visit) was incredible, and the training I put into the effort was top-notch.
*I almost turned this post into a mini-rant to counterpoint OTHER peoples’ mini-rants about how “annoying” it is to post your workouts on Facebook; a habit which I not only have NO problem with but find encouraging and inspiring – but I digress; that’s not what today is about.
Today is about half marathon training, my friends – or really, any endurance event training, since I’ve been doing a lot of those things of late. How do I train for a long-distance running or obstacle event? What are the keys to success in these cray-cray distances? And how can you avoid some of the common mistakes new racers make?
First of all – and I stress this so much to clients it’s almost a joke – I don’t run that much. Ok, before that seems absurd, let me clarify – I absolutely do run more than your average person not doing half marathons. But I do NOT run every day, every other day, or really anything over 15K (9.3 miles, American friends) unless I am training for an actual full marathon. What I do do is make every single run count – I hit one speedwork, one strength/hill run, and one distance run per week when I’m in endurance training. The speedwork usually involves a legit rubber track; the strength involves hills (if I can get ’em outdoors), treadmill inclines (if I can’t), or tempo work (like this); and the distance run starts at just 5 miles (8K) and grows to a max 15K (in this hot and humid weather, I find it is more than enough to get a sense of what race pace and fatigue feel like, and also enough to test nutrition and fuel options).
Which brings me to my next point – the centrality of proper nutrition. Hate to be a downer, but guys, it’s not just the big fun carboload meal you eat before the race that “counts” (and for the record, my favorite pre-race meal is NOT a big plate of pasta, but rather, a big slab of red meat – either a burger and fries or steak and potato), but in fact the nutrition program you use on a day-to-day basis throughout training and during the actual race that matters most. I do intermittent fasting each and every day of the week, but I also limit my carb intake in the week leading up to the race. Two days prior, I start to add refined carbs back in force, and then the night before the race, I give myself a healthy dose of simple carbs and animal protein – and believe me, this method makes me feel like I have a jet pack on my back.
As for race-day nutrition, everyone is different – so it is crucial that you find a strategy that works for you well before the actual day. For me, I have trouble eating in the morning due to a mixture of nerves, lack of appetite, and fear of pooping my pants, so I like to load up a later dinner the night before and race on coffee, water, electrolyte beverages, and GU gels alone. Other athletes I know like to wake up with a hearty bagel or muffin, then hit some chews throughout the race; even others I know carry actual food with them on the course (believe it or not, I know one gal who legit races with a cooked sweet potato in her pocket). Lance Armstrong was renowned for taking in nearly 20 PowerGel packets (!) during the 26.2 miles of the NYC Marathon the first time he ran it. Summary point: it does not matter what you need to do for race-day eating; it DOES matter that you practice, practice, and practice again eating EXACTLY what you’re going to eat in EXACTLY the conditions you’re going to eat it to make sure it doesn’t cause you any hassle, GI distress, or general discomfort when the big day comes.
Besides nutrition, the biggest advice I can give new endurance runners is to cross-train with weights. You heard me – don’t be afraid of getting bigger, be focused on getting stronger and more indestructible. Sure, there’s something to be said for being light and fast on your feet, and I absolutely do recommend finding a healthy race weight and adjusting your nutrition program to help you reach it – but there’s also a great deal of value in being powerful (this was the first half marathon in six years that I was able to PR, and I attribute it to a killer kick that allowed me to drop two fellow female competitors that had led me for the entire race in mile 11), recovering easily, and finishing strong.
So what do I mean by cross-training with weights? I mean 2-3 sessions of dedicated, structured resistance training per week. Perhaps for you that’s a bootcamp-style workout, or a circuit training class, or a TRX session – all great options. Maybe you’re the type who likes to follow a traditional training split (like back/biceps, chest/legs) in the gym alone. A third option may be to join a CrossFit or obstacle-racing gym (depending on your goals) and practice functional skills like flipping tires, kettlebell swinging, or rope climbing. Whatever your preference, make sure you’re lifting with proper form (a session with a personal trainer can be an awesome investment here to master the basics), lifting heavy, and lifting with a focus on core development (i.e. choosing free weights or a barbell; not relying on gym machines to do the stability work for you).
Finally, and this underlies all of my advice above – make sure you have a plan. Serious runners get coaches; if you can’t afford one, get yourself a solid running plan online, make your runs and workouts as serious as your work appointments or meetings, and stick to it. I advise 12-16 week plans for new half marathoners; 16-20 for new marathoners. For shorter distances, allow yourself at least 8 weeks to fall into a focused run-and-resistance training routine, and for obstacle racers, make sure you’ve got race-specific (like the aforementioned rope climb) training at least once per week in the 4-5 weeks leading up to race day. And as always – listen to your body. Even the best runners on the most finely-tuned programs get injured when they build mileage too quickly, skip their cross-training, “forget” to stretch or do yoga, and stop sleeping enough to recover fully – so make sure you’re keeping your self-care intact as you ramp up your endurance work, too.
How do you train for a long-distance race? What are some of your time-tested tips?