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How to prepare for your first race

April 02, 2019 | Brian Kim, MD
man and woman training for a race

I ran my first race in high school as a member of the cross-country team and I’ve been running ever since — distances from 5Ks to marathons. I find running very liberating and still enjoy it very much.

About five years ago, however, while preparing to run my first marathon, I learned a valuable lesson that has helped me prepare for subsequent races. It also informs the advice I give my patients.

Pushing through an injury

I had planned a good training schedule and had been sticking to it. But a few weeks before race day while on a long run — 20 miles — I started feeling pain in my knee from a nagging IT band injury. (The IT, or iliotibial, band runs from the outside of the hip to the outside of the knee and helps stabilize and move the knee joint. It can often become tight or inflamed in runners.)

Determined to complete my training run, I pressed on and ran the last 10 miles in pain. I spent the next two weeks leading up to the marathon nursing my injury and could muster only a few short runs. It was an unfortunate end to what up to that point had been a fairly robust training regimen.

Race day challenges

To add insult to injury, race day was extremely hot. Considering training hiccup and the unfavorable weather conditions, I should have adjusted my race strategy. But my stubbornness got the better of me and I refused to deviate from my goal of finishing by a particular time.

Needless to say, it was a very difficult race. Despite the circumstances, I ran the first several miles of the marathon near my goal pace. About halfway through, however, I hit the wall and spent the rest of the race battling leg cramps and a severe flare-up of my IT band injury.

I did finish, but I learned some very valuable lessons — the hard way.

How to prepare for a race

Here’s my advice for how to prepare to run your first race:

  • Set realistic expectations about what you can — and cannot — physically accomplish within the time frame you have.
  • Remain flexible with your goal.

For example, if the weather on race day is likely to be hot, if you’ve been sick or are recovering from an injury, consider adjusting your race-time goal.

Match training regimen to the race

Each race is a little different, so you need to take into account the course and the length.

  • Train for about six to 12 weeks for shorter races, such as 5ks and 10ks
  • Aim to train for at least 12 to 20 weeks for longer distances, such as half marathons and marathons.
  • Build your endurance foundation with even-paced runs several times a week, gradually increasing the duration of the runs.
  • Once a week, include a day of faster-paced interval runs ranging from 400 to 1,600 meters, with breaks in between, to build speed and strength.
  • Rest at least one day a week, preferably after a long run or hard workout, to allow your body to solidify your training gains.

Listen to your body. Don’t be afraid to abort a training run when necessary.

The runner’s diet

As you train, it’s important to maintain a robust carbohydrate intake to build and maintain body glycogen stores (one of the body’s energy sources).

Establish a fueling routine that you can replicate in the days leading up to race day. Experiment with the timing and content of your meals to minimize gastrointestinal upsets that can occur with running, including:

  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea

The last thing you want to do is surprise your stomach with an unusual meal the night before your race!

On the morning of race day, stick to easily digestible carbohydrates and avoid foods high in fat and fiber — these can be hard to digest and are more likely to cause stomach upset.

Race day tips

To ensure you do your best:

  • Get a good night’s rest before race day.
  • Make sure you’ve broken in any new equipment —such as running shoes — well before the race.
  • Drink to your thirst level before and during the race. Make sure you have extra water if the day is hot or you sweat a lot.
  • For runs lasting longer than 40 minutes, consider including sugary beverages such as Gatorade to replenish carbohydrate stores.
  • After the race, be sure to replenish your carbs and eat protein to rebuild muscle.

Here’s the most important advice of all: Have fun!

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