The 4 Essential Steps for Running a Perfect Race

To slim down, beat stress, and reward yourself with a huge dose of satisfaction, conquer a half-marathon.

The 4 Essential Steps for Running a Perfect Race

To slim down, beat stress, and reward yourself with a huge dose of satisfaction, conquer a half-marathon.

Bill Bowerman had a name for anyone who laces up running shoes and hits the pavement: hamburger.

Bowerman was the famed University of Oregon running coach who transformed the Ducks into a distance powerhouse and is credited with igniting recreational running in America.

And he loved hamburgers.

“They are never going to run any record times,” he said of the hamburgers on his team, “but they can fulfill their own potential.”

And in that statement is the unequivocal appeal of this purest of individual sports. Every time you run, it’s just you—body and mind—plus time and distance. Condiments optional.

But there are also countless health and antiaging benefits to running: you’ll live longer (Danish researchers studying more than 4,000 men for 5 years found that regular joggers were 34 percent less likely than nonrunners to die of any cause), you’ll reduce your risk of heart disease (results from the National Runners’ Health Study of 8,290 men showed that participants’ risk of a heart attack decreased dramatically with each 10-mile increment in weekly running distance), and you’ll be smarter (a recent German study found that runners who jogged for 30 minutes at least twice a week improved their concentration and visual memory).

And if that’s not convincing enough for you to buy a flashy new pair of flyknit kicks, know that you’ll stay harder, as well. Researchers at Harvard University looked at the sex lives of 31,742 men ages 50 and up; they found that men who ran at least 3 hours a week had a 30 percent lower risk of erectile dysfunction than those who got little or no exercise.

But the best way to reap the great health benefits of running? Sign up for a race. Immmediately.

Yes, crossing a finish line will deliver a much-needed sense of accomplishment, but simply marking your calender today with a future “race day” will give you a leg up. Studies have shown that exercisers who have measurable, deadline-oriented goals (like that 5-K in town next month) are more successful at sticking with a training program than guys who work out without putting their goals in writing.

Even if the last time you laced up running shoes was in high-school gym class 20 years ago, you can become a runner. You can easily finish a 5-K (that’s just 3.1 miles) or a 10-K after 4 weeks of training, and believe it or not, with just a little more effort, you can complete your first half marathon in just 12 weeks.

Here’s how to do it. And while you’re training, gain an edge with our 52 Super Fast Health Boosters.

1
Get Started

All you need are the right pair of shoes and some comfortable clothing. While it doesn’t matter what you wear, always dress for a run as if it’s 10°F warmer outside. This way you’re dressed for how warm you’ll feel at midrun, not the first mile, when your body is still heating up. If you’re in the market for some technologically advanced new kicks, here are the best Running Shoes to Buy in 2017.

The key is to start slowly and gradually build endurance. Trying to do too much too fast is the number-one mistake beginners make, says Greg McMillan, an exercise physiologist and certified track-and-field coach. “Injuries occur when runners push themselves to increase their mileage or speed too quickly.”

2
Assess your fitness level.

If regular exercise isn’t part of your routine, you need to start with walking: 3 days a week for 20 to 30 minutes, with five 1-minute easy jogs scattered throughout. (Easy means you’re not gasping for breath.) “This will get your legs used to the impact very, very gradually,” says marathoner Matt Fitzgerald, author of Performance Nutrition for Runners. When you can comfortably complete this workout, increase the jogging intervals by half-minute increments and decrease the walking breaks until you’re running the whole time.

The next step, or the first if you’re in good aerobic shape, is to start increasing the duration of the runs. “The idea is to challenge yourself until you can run for 50 to 60 minutes,” says McMillan.

Start running for 20 minutes 3 days a week at an easy pace. If you still need to take walking breaks, that’s okay. “You don’t want to get out of breath during these runs; if you do, you’re going too fast,” says McMillan. In fact, pushing the pace doesn’t mean you’re getting a better workout. Research shows that if you can carry on a conversation while training (known as the talk test), then your heart and breathing rates are within your target aerobic zone; if you’re huffing and puffing, you’re running too hard.

When you feel like you could continue running for another 10 to 20 minutes, lengthen two of the runs. For example, you might run 20 minutes on Monday, 25 minutes on Wednesday, and 30 minutes on Friday; the next week it could be 20, 30, and 35 minutes. Once you can run for about 50 minutes, you can start training in earnest. To build more strength, here’s How Playing with Marbles Will Make You Run Faster.

3
Prevent Injury

Following the guide above will ease you into running and help you avoid injuries, but there are other measures you should take to prevent aches and pains. (See here for our detailed explanation of the World’s Greatest Stretch.) Most important after getting properly fitted for shoes: Always warm up. This doesn’t mean just a few stretches but, rather, a slow walk/easy run for 5 to 10 minutes, long enough to break a sweat. Be sure to cool down afterward, too.

Vary the terrain so you’re not always pounding the hard pavement. This is especially crucial if you have back pain, in which case you should try to do most of your running on grass, trails, tracks, and treadmills to soften the force of impact. The half-marathon plan you’re about to start incorporates cross-training and weight training, which will make you a stronger, healthier runner while giving your primary running muscles a rest, says Fitzgerald. In addition, our plan includes a weekly speed workout. A 2002 study shows that speed work can reduce risk of injury by almost 50 percent.

Remember: sprinting is one of the 10 Best Cardio Workouts for Men Over 40.

4
Follow This Detailed Training Plan

Now that you’re comfortable running about 5 miles, follow the training schedule outlined in the chart below. Here’s a detailed explanation.

THE LONG RUN: This Sunday run is the most important of the three runs that you will do. The runs start at 4 miles, increasing in distance each week—with the exception of weeks 4 and 7, which are recovery weeks–and work up to 12 miles right before race day. “Do this run at an honest pace–an intensity level of 6 or 7 on a scale of 1 to 10,” says Fitzgerald. “But the most important thing is to make it through the prescribed distance.”

Also, use the long runs to practice taking in fluids. Carry a water bottle, or stash a few bottles along the course beforehand. “You should take a swig of water or sports drink every mile, or every 10 minutes,” says Fitzgerald. “Don’t guzzle. Just listen to your body.”

THE HARD RUN: This Wednesday interval workout is designed to make you a more efficient runner. Start with an easy 5- to 10-minute warmup. Then do four to six hard runs of 30 to 90 seconds each, separated by jogs of the same duration. Cool down with another 5 minutes of light jogging. Try to run these at an effort level of about 8 with the recovery jogs at level 4 or 5. “This workout should be hard, but you want to stay relaxed. You should be able to finish the last interval at the same pace at which you started the first one. If you start out like a bat out of hell, you’re not going to be able to maintain that pace,” says Fitzgerald.

THE MAINTENANCE RUN: This 4- to 6-mile run on Friday maintains your base level of fitness. Again, run at a steady effort level–6 to 7 on a scale of 1 to 10.

THE CARDIO WORKOUT: Once a week, do some form of low- or nonimpact cardiovascular workout for at least 20 to 40 minutes. The elliptical trainer is the best cross-training option for a runner, because it works many of the same muscles running does. Bicycling, deepwater running, swimming, and stair climbing are other good options.

THE STRENGTH WORKOUT: “Most running injuries are caused by instability at key joints, like the hips, pelvis, and knees,” says Fitzgerald. “You need to lift to strengthen your muscles to the point where they can stabilize your joints properly.” Plus, powerful muscles allow you to take longer, quicker strides. You can do any exercises you want, but focus on those that strengthen the legs, abs, and back.

THE 5-K AND 10-K: Not only are these races interim goals that’ll keep you running, but “these are also dress rehearsals for the half marathon,” says McMillan. “Use them to practice your routine so nothing goes wrong in the big race.” They’ll help you decide on the most appropriate clothing and the best foods to eat before the longer race. Shorter races also help you figure out your pace. “You need to learn to distribute your effort across a race,” says McMillan. For instance, if you run the 10-K in 49:43—an 8-minute-mile pace—you should be able to finish the half in 1:49, or about an 8:22 pace per mile. “If you’re motivated by numbers, having a goal pace will help you train better,” says Fitzgerald.

Here’s your perfect 12-week half-marathon training plan:

WEEK 1
SUN: 4-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (4 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 4-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 2
SUN: 5-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (5 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 4-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 3
SUN: 6-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (6 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 4-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 4
SUN: 5-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (4 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 4-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 5
SUN: 7-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (5 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 5-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 6
SUN: 8-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (5 × 30 seconds)
THURS: 5-mile run
FRI: Rest
SAT: 5-K race

WEEK 7
SUN: 6-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (4 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 5-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 8
SUN: 9-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (5 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 5-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 9
SUN: 10-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (6 × 30 seconds)
THURS: 6-mile run
FRI: Rest
SAT: 10-K race

WEEK 10
SUN: 6-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (5 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 6-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 11
SUN: 11-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: Intervals (6 × 30 seconds)
THURS: Rest or strength workout
FRI: 6-mile run
SAT: Nonimpact cardio

WEEK 12
SUN: 12-mile run
MON: Rest
TUES: Strength workout
WED: 4-mile run
THURS: Nonimpact cardio
FRI: Rest
SAT: Half-Marathon Race Day

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