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Race Training for Beginners: Your Questions Answered

October 18th, 2021 | 6 min. read

Race Training for Beginners: Your Questions Answered
Lauren Hendrix

Lauren Hendrix

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // SCS // FAAOMPT // CSCS // RRS

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Picture this: you’re scrolling through Instagram one day, and you see a picture your college friend posted from a 10k they just did that past weekend. They are sweaty and smiling, wearing their assigned race number with pride as they pose at the finish line. You suddenly feel a longing to accomplish something great for yourself. If your friend could do it, why couldn’t you? So you decide, right there sitting on the couch, that you want to run a marathon. 

Let’s hit the pause button for a second. Let’s backtrack from the finish line cheers, and consider how long that friend had to train for that race. How many hours, days, weeks, months, did they put into being in their best possible shape? What did they eat? How much did they sleep?  

When you’re considering training for a big race for the first time, it is essential to think about everything you need to sacrifice and incorporate into your training plan. If you go into the race unprepared, you might end up hurting yourself. It is vital to know exactly what you need to accomplish to have a successful race, depending on your personal goals. 

At EW Motion Therapy we have worked with runners for many years to keep their bodies in top shape in an effort to help them accomplish any and all of their personal running goals. Our desire is to help you learn more about the commitment you must make for a race so that you can start working toward your goals.

In this article, we will discuss the commitments you should make when deciding to train for a race, including other factors besides running. We will also discuss how training changes depending on the race, and what a program might look like. With this information, you can decide whether you really want to train for that marathon, or just do some volunteer work one Saturday instead. 


What do I have to commit? 

Before you decide to start training for a race, you should ask yourself a few basic questions that will determine your readiness for training. 

Can I commit the time it takes? 

Training for a race is a time commitment almost as much as it is a physical commitment. Training plans for marathons can last up to 18 weeks, and before the 18 weeks begin, you should have a solid physical baseline from which to grow and improve. You can shorten or lengthen the training time, depending on your ability, but you have to commit the time necessary to train well. You also have to consider the time your body needs to recover after the race, which can vary depending on distance and time goals.

What are my goals for the race?

Before you begin anything new, it is important to set attainable goals for yourself to provide direction and motivation. Racing is no different - you must thoroughly consider what your goals would be for the race. Do you just want to finish, or do you want to meet or beat a particular time? Establishing these goals can help you stay focused and ensure that you keep moving forward. 

Achieving the goals you set doesn’t just happen: you have to be committed and have an internal motivation to succeed, not for anyone else but you. Share your goals with your friends and family, so they can hold you accountable and cheer you on. Having an emotional support network is critical for success because it will be difficult to accomplish anything without emotional stability and self-discipline. 


It’s not just running, is it? 

Once you have set your goals and determined that you are committed to them for however long it takes, you can start making your training plan. We recommend doing some research and seeking some expert opinions if you are a beginner - the last thing you want to do is hurt yourself while training and not even get to race at all. 

While how much you run is an integral part of your training plan, there are multiple factors you need to think about other than how far and how fast you need to run. 


Many runners get injured because they have not been feeding their bodies the proper fuel prior to race day. You need to learn what your body requires to perform and recover well. This includes what you should eat and how much you should eat, as well as proper hydration. If you’re dehydrated, your muscles may not recover properly, so you need to hydrate. 


You may not realize it, but sleep is huge for your overall health, and it can seriously affect how you perform and recover if you do not get enough of it. Ideally, middle-aged adults should get 8 hours a night, and young adults need up to 9 hours. If you put high-intensity workouts too close together and do not get enough sleep in between, it slows your recovery, and you won’t feel as fresh and robust during workouts. 


Stress is inevitable in life but learning how to funnel that stress is key to recovery. Stress can produce high cortisol levels, which can decrease performance and increase recovery time, both detrimental to a training program. Try to eliminate unnecessary stressors in other areas of life while training and figure out ways to unwind. There are thousands of free guided meditations on YouTube, and ice baths can work wonders for sore muscles. 


What should my program look like? 

Just because you have never run a race before does not mean you are incapable of doing it: nothing is impossible if you set your mind to it. There are many great programs for beginners, and you just have to find the one that works for your current fitness level. If you are training for the first time, there are programs called “couch to 5k” that are a great way to gradually increase performance without hurting yourself. If you are training for a marathon, you should be able to run for 3 miles without stopping before you begin training.

During training, you should not increase your mileage by more than 10% each week, which usually comes out to no more than a mile early on. Depending on your activity level and the length of time your program will last, you should probably plan to run 3-4 days a week. Here is an example of a beginner’s week with 13 miles total. 

Monday: 1-mile warm-up, 1-mile hill work, 1-mile cooldown 

Wednesday: 1-mile warm-up, 400m repeats, 1-mile cooldown 

Friday: 4-mile long run 

Saturday: 3-mile shakeout recovery run 

As you go along in your weeks, you should gradually increase your mileage until you hit a predetermined maximum. Then, allow yourself a couple of weeks to decrease your mileage and recover before race day. Find a plan that works for you, and do everything in your power to stick to that plan. 


How does training change for different races? 

Depending on which race you train for, your training program will probably look a bit different for each one. This may sound like an obvious statement, but it is crucial to ensure you train smarter, not harder. 

For shorter races like 5ks, you should focus on more speed work. The shorter the race is, you’ll likely run it faster if you are trying to meet a time goal. Schedule more quality sessions during your training that focus less on mileage and more on speed. You should cushion this speed work with a dynamic warm-up and cooldown time on either end. 

For 10ks, half-marathons, and marathons, incorporate more distance. Stamina is the name of the game for these races, and the best way to build stamina is by gradually increasing distance. If you overtrain or build up mileage too rapidly, you will be burned out and exhausted by race day. 

If you would like to get an idea of what your training pace should be, there are many formulas to calculate it based on your mile time. 


How should I train for my race? 

Now you have some helpful guidelines as to whether you should begin training for a race. Accomplishing your goals on race day is exhilarating, and we wish you the best of luck in your journey towards the finish line. 

It can be overwhelming trying to figure out how to train for your race. With so much information on the internet, it can be difficult to know what really works. Figuring out what works for you is vital to not hurt yourself during training.  

We work with many runners in the greater Birmingham area and Tuscaloosa at EW Motion Therapy. We use our physical therapy background to help runners perform at their best and recover from injuries so they can get back to achieving their goals. We also have a program called EW Run. The run evaluation component of this program can help you address imbalances and improve performance. If you are interested in our Run program, you can read more about it here, or fill out our Request an Appointment form to schedule a run evaluation at one of our four locations.