A friend of mine just told me that she’s running her first half-marathon later this year, which got me thinking about any advice I could give her. I ran my first (and second) half-marathon this past year and I learned a few lessons along the way through research, asking friends and through my own personal experience. Some of them may seem like common sense, but I believe if anyone commits the time and effort, than anyone, regardless of fitness level or age, can enjoy long distance running. Anyway, here’s what I’ve learned:
1. Get motivated. If you’re thinking about doing a long race, you probably enjoy running. But if you’re going to train for a long run you have to realize that you’ll need to train at times when you don’t want to. In other words, those mornings when the bed is so warm and the thought of getting up seems like the worst idea ever, that’s when you need to get up and put your shoes on and get outside. Often the anticipation of getting started is the worst part. Nike’s marketing people coined a phrase long ago that sums this point up: when you’re doubting if you’ll have time to run or if you think you can skip a day: “Just do it.” If you can run when you don’t want to run, you’ll succeed in training and building up longer distances.
2. Get proper gear. Obviously you’ll need some well fitting shoes. I also love dry-wick shirts and comfortable shorts. They make dry-wick socks if you are running on hot weather you might like them too. I run with a hat to keep the sun and sweat out of my eyes, some people prefer sunglasses or a headband. You may also want a case for a phone or ipod, headphones that won’t fall out, sunscreen or reflectors if you’re running at night. These items are an investment, but worth is if you use them often to be comfortable.
3. Get distracted. Running is very much a mental game. On long runs you’ll have a lot of time, so if you’re alone you’ll need something to occupy your mind. That could be music, an interesting podcast, or just thinking things through on your own. Whatever you do, you don’t want thoughts of doubt creeping in. The last thing you want to be thinking about is slowing down or taking a break. I find it best to just sort of zone out and get lost in some music or a podcast and let the time go by.
“If you are going to win any battle, you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do… the body is never tired if the mind is not tired.”
-General George S. Patton
4. Stay fueled and hydrated. I used to run on an empty stomach thinking it was the best way to effectively exercise. It is not. Just like a car need fuel, the body needs something to burn if you’re going to maintain a high level of activity for more than 20 minutes or so. There are all kinds of useful products to fuel athletes these days and you’ll have to figure out what works best for you. I’ve found a banana, oatmeal or a cliff bar 20 minutes before a run gives me a good start, if I’m going for more than an hour I might grab an energy gel for some sugar and electrolytes. I also drink at least 24 oz of water before each run, and carry a bottle to sip on as I go. Most people don’t carry water, but I enjoy having it handy for the duration and even to refill at water fountains at parks and along paths. Simply put – fueling your body and staying hydrated will allow you to run further, faster, and more comfortably.
5. Find camaraderie. It’s tough to find people who run the same distance, pace and schedule as you, but there are lots of apps and websites where you can find friends and stay motivated together. Nike+ for example is an app I use on my iPhone that tracks my runs, but also allows me to see what my friends are doing. You can even create “challenges” between groups, for example a group of friends and I recently had a challenge to see who could run a total of 26.2 miles in four weeks. There are also running groups and clubs in many areas. And these days there are so many organized races you can sign up for, from 5k to marathons and beyond, and it can be fun to run in a huge crowd with spectators cheering you along.
6. Sign up for a race. I’ve found that once I’ve signed up for a race, the deadline helps me mentally and physically prepare for that specific goal. Knowing that I’ve made that commitment helps me realize that it’s real, and by spending money on a race there’s an incentive to not flake out and quit.
7. Create an stick to a schedule. There are tons of resources online for runners, including training programs and schedules that can help keep you on track. I found a good system to me was 2 short runs, 1 cross training day and 1 long run per week, with miles added on each week as I got closer to race day. I put all the miles into my calendar and I would receive a text reminder each day with my goal. I found this to be an easy way to keep track of where I was, and where I needed to be. Of course you could also use a paper calendar or any other system, just make sure you stick to it.
8. Find your pace. I’ve found there’s a big difference between running and jogging. While I loose my breath easily and have a hard time keeping up a fast pace, when I get into a comfortable pace I feel like I can jog along for mile after mile. I’m sure this has to do with heart rate, fitness level and form, but it’s important to realize that it’s ok to go slow and steady – as long as you just go.
9. Recover properly. Just like the body needs fuel to burn during a run, it also need proper nutrition after a run to recover. This can mean getting your sugar levels back in check, eating some carbs and protein, electrolytes and of course lots and lots of fluids. A throbbing dehydration headache later in the day can be a huge motivation killer to running, and the best way to avoid them is by taking care of yourself after a long run. Personally I like a big fruit smoothie (1 banana, frozen strawberries, almond milk, low fat yogurt, whey protein powder). Sometimes I’ll drink coconut water or chocolate milk, fruit juice or even a beer. Your body looses a lot when you run, and if you don’t give it something back it won’t be happy with you.
10. Plan for the finish line. After all the training and all the running you cross the finish line and grab a metal, some snacks, and take a few photos – now what? Well your legs, feet, and pretty much everything else will be exhausted and you’ll be a smelly mess. I strongly recommend some flip flops and a change of shirt for when you’ve finished. It may not seem like a big deal, but a dry, clean shirt really does make a difference to your comfort level. Although most races provide snacks, you’ll want to find a big meal after your race, so either have something prepared or have a plan for a local restaurant. After that, all thats left to do is take a satisfying shower and a rewarding nap.