You’re a fairly new runner and you’ve conquered those first few runs, seen an improvement in your fitness and you’re feeling motivated. At this stage, it’s tempting to set yourself a new goal and start training for your first marathon in 6 months’ time. There’s no need to start running 20 miles every weekend just yet, but some long-term planning will make your build-up that bit more successful.
Set long-term goals
The key is to set long-term goals and not try to cram in too much training at once. Setting goals six months in advance may seem like a long-term approach, but it’s a key way to prevent injuries. “The longer you can give your body to adapt and strengthen to the demands of running the better,” says physiotherapist Mark Buckingham from Witty Pask & Buckingham (wpbphysio.co.uk). “While it is the muscles that are sore in the first few weeks, it is actually the bones and tendons which take much longer to adapt. It takes a period of six to nine months (of running) in bone, six months in tendon and three to four months in muscle.”
Even if you feel physically strong, you still need to factor in the impact. During running, a force of three to four times your body weight is absorbed by the knees. Your muscles, bones and tendons need time to adapt to this impact. “If you increase your training rapidly without consideration to the lack of conditioning in these structures, then you are much more likely to overload, strain and damage them,” adds Buckingham. “So from a point of no training, you need to build up over at least six months to reduce injury risk. If you’ve already been doing a bit of running, or your body is used to doing an impact sport (that involves running), then you might be able to drop this to four months.”
If you want to do your first marathon next spring, for example you should start training in October and build up gradually. You should then aim to reach 10 miles by Christmas. Leaving your training until a 2 or 3 months before the event is not advisable for your first marathon. Especially if you’re a new runner.
Find a shorter race
Entering a shorter race around 3 months into your training will help build your confidence and get you used to pacing yourself during races. “I normally like to run a half-marathon before Christmas and then you can start to build up the long run at the weekend and work your way up from the New Year onwards for a spring marathon,” says Professor John Brewer, Head of School of Sport, Health and Applied Science at St Mary’s University (stmarys.ac.uk).
If you are planning a spring marathon, a half-marathon in early 2017 will build confidence. “A lot of races take place in March and April,” says running coach George Anderson (bygeorgeanderson.com). “Have goals in mind before the 1st January. By setting those goals now, you can ask for training kit for Christmas to support your big race, like a Garmin, trainers or another item that will give you that motivation. Go through the winter period with a goal in mind. You can build up the training with no real pressure at that point.”
Break goals down
Breaking goals down into short, medium and long-term chunks can be a good thing. For instance, you could work back from your main goal, which could be to run a marathon, then do a half-marathon and a 10K before that. “If you haven’t got much race experience then every time you go and line up at the start with thousands of other people, it takes away a lot of race-day nerves,” says Anderson. “Even if you’ve never done the longer distances before, you can use your times to work out where you are and that really does help with race pace.”
Check your technique
Before you start ramping up the miles, make sure your running technique is not likely to cause any problems. “The best way to reduce injury risk is to work on areas of weakness and tightness and improve technique and robustness,” says Buckingham. “Get a physiotherapist to have a careful look at how you run. Look at your technique, as this will be the best way to reduce injury.
Build all-round fitness
Remember, if you want to run a longer race distance, like a half-marathon or marathon, you need to work on other elements of your fitness. The more you increase mileage, the more your injury risk goes up. Strength work and regular stretching may help to alleviate injuries. “I recommend core strength for runners as well as stretching,” says Julie Robinson from Everyone Active (everyoneactive.com). “Most people don’t do nearly enough. Swimming can be fantastic for cross-training over the winter as a low impact cardio option.”
Strength train at least once a week. Bodyweight squats, lunges, the plank, side plank and a lat pull down exercise for the back are good choices. Perform two to three sets of 12 repetitions each time, making sure the last few reps of each set feels challenging.
Keep a training diary
Think about how you feel at the end of each run. Write down each run, how it felt, and how you felt afterwards. Compare the quality of each run with the timing and quality of your nutrition and sleep. Find what works for you.
Building a long-term relationship with running takes patience, as well as a willingness to work on all-round fitness. But it’s definitely worth it. “Working towards a slow increase in mileage means that you will avoid injury, and enjoy the experience,” says Robinson. “So many people do a marathon and never run again because it wasn’t enjoyable. Making sure that your training plan includes recovery days will ensure that you hit the start line well-trained, healthy and ready to run the best you can.”