Running Your First Long Distance Race

Now that the holidays are far behind us and the sun will soon start to warm things up a little bit, many people start hitting the gym. It can be hard to get motivated when it’s below freezing outside, but once everything starts to thaw, it doesn’t seem so painful to strap on some sneakers and get moving again. The time has to come to put down the hot chocolate and turn up the volume on your workout playlist.
For some people, this means going out for a nice jog. But some others take it a step further and embrace the marathon season. With spring come several races around the country. If you’ve always wanted to run a half (or full) marathon but are intimidated by the process, here are some things you should know:

  • Ease into the long distance. If you’ve never run more than a mile or so, you might want to try out a 5K or 10K race before committing to a half or full marathon. (If you’ve never run a full, try out a half first.) There are plenty of events around the country that you can participate in to get a feel for what running long distances is like. Just be sure to hit the track plenty before even your 5K. You don’t want to show up to the start line untrained. You’ll be more likely to injure yourself or get winded if you’re not prepared.
  • Baby steps. When training for a race of any distance, you have to start small. Very few people can wake up and just run 13 miles. For a half marathon, you want to allow yourself at least 12 weeks prior to the race. Don’t worry, this amount of time makes training manageable and allows you to gradually up your distance every week. Ideally you want to set aside one morning as your “long distance run day”—usually Saturday or Sunday of every week. Starting with 2 or 3 miles, increase your distance by just 1 (and no more than 2) miles every week. Spend your weekdays doing maintenance runs (2-4 miles) and strength-training. This article provides a great suggested schedule.
  • Find a team. There are several organizations that offer team support for long distance training. Many charities provide some training and teams of people running the same race as you, in exchange for fundraising for the cause at hand. (I have run several races with Team in Training, which supports the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, but there are many others). If you don’t want to raise money, you can find a meetup group or even rally some of your friends. What’s harder than running a 10-mile training run for the first time? Running it by yourself.
  • Train not just your body, but your lifestyle. As you’re training, you want to develop a routine for your long distance days. The night before, have a carb-heavy dinner. Try to avoid spicy food and alcohol, as these can cause digestion issues and dehydration the next day. On the day of your long run, wake up at the same time every week (preferably very early, since most races start by 8 a.m.), and eat a small breakfast with a combo of simple and complex carbohydrates. A good example is a small bagel with peanut butter, or toast and a banana. Eat about an hour before your workout. If you do this week after week, your body will know exactly what to expect on race day.
  • Hydrate! The night before a long run, the morning of, and throughout your workout you should be consuming liquids. If you’re running for an hour or more, make sure you’re replacing lost electrolytes with a sports drink. Running and athletic stores sell special bottles, belts, and backpacks for long runs that can make carrying fluids easy.
  • Eat while you run. It sounds funny, but for long distance runs (usually starting at 7 or 8 miles), you want to start training with fuel. Running stores have several options that run the gamut from gels to chews to jelly beans. Each packet typically has about 100 calories worth of fuel, plus B-vitamins and sometimes caffeine. They’re small enough to carry with you on a run. During training, find what flavors and brands work for you, and use those on race day.
  • Nothing new on race day! Use your 12 weeks to create a routine so that on race morning, you know exactly what you’ll wear, eat, and drink. You want as few variables as possible to make the experience an enjoyable one.
  • Have fun! Running long distances can be incredibly fun, rewarding, and addictive. Watch out: many people who run their first half marathon end up running another, or even a full marathon. But an addiction that helps you get fit, encourages carbo-loading, and amps up your serotonin levels is not bad at all!

This is me right after my first half marathon. I have run four others since.