Here’s how to start training for a marathon and other long races

We spoke with Dave Ringwood of Formula Running Center about everything from getting started to crossing the finish line.

runners running to finish line at marathon or half marathon race
© TeamDaf / stock.adobe.com

Running solo is an incredible, healthy way to practice social distancing during this time of uncertainty, even as the Boston Marathon has been postponed and the 2020 United Airlines NYC Half Marathon has been canceled.

Races across the globe won’t be going on as planned for a few months, but you can still get out in the fresh air and rack up some miles to stay in shape, especially if you’ve got a little extra time on your hands by working from home.

To help you tackle bigger goals in 2020, we spoke with Dave Ringwood from Arlington-based Formula Running Center about how to train for a half-marathon or a full marathon in just 12 to 16 weeks. Ringwood is a USATF-certified coach who helps local runners reach their goals. Highlights from our conversation are below.

First things first, if someone is thinking about running a half-marathon or marathon as a beginner runner, what should their first steps be?

The very first step should be to choose a race that allows enough time to appropriately prepare. The time between deciding you want to run your race and actually toeing the start line will be filled with new experiences, lessons and moments that deserve your attention. I recommend taking approximately 12 and 16 weeks for the half- and full marathons, respectively.

Next, it is important to identify what days throughout the week work best for training. For longer distance races, I recommend dedicating at least four days per week, so identifying where those best fit around the standard week.

Once you’ve decided your goal race and found time for training, I recommend finding a community (large or small) that can act as a source of motivation throughout your training. This could be in the form of family and friends, a running group or a coach-led program. The motivation derived from a group is invaluable to maintaining a positive attitude over the course of a training program. And speaking of training programs, a coach can provide appropriate training for meeting your race goals in a healthy and fast way! Guess where you can find this type of community and training program? That’s right, FRC!

If someone is thinking about running a half-marathon or marathon as a more seasoned runner (but has not run, say, more than a 5K or 10K), what should their first steps be?

Once a race has been selected, a seasoned runner should turn their focus to the actual training at hand. The training required for a half- or full marathon is significantly different than that for a 5K or 10K, and a seasoned runner will still need guidance understanding the differences.

To that note, I cannot emphasize enough how beneficial a training group or coach is for seasoned runners training for their first marathon. The more experienced one becomes at running, the more detailed the goals become. The workload feels lessened with a positive group surrounding you and the mental stresses are minimized with a coach guiding you along the way!

If a coach or training groups aren’t realistic options for you, the most important first step is identifying a training plan that works for your schedule. Structure is the key to success when preparing for long-distance training.

Let’s discuss the 12- to 16-week period of training. Why is that time frame important?

Typically, a more seasoned runner will need less dedicated time to the training program, simply because they have more “base” miles under their belt, and are likely coming from a place where they are already running. These runners might not need to build up into the mileage, so might be just fine running fewer than 12 or 16 weeks.

On the other hand, beginner runners might be coming from a place where they are just beginning or returning to running, and will need additional time to build up their mileage, and could benefit more from the full 12 to 16 weeks.

And beyond that, every runner is unique. For example, it’s worth noting a runner’s injury history and noting how that might affect time needed during the buildup. If injuries have been an issue in the past, it’s worth spreading the training out a bit more, allowing a more gradual progressing toward peaking on race day. Understanding that each runner is unique is essential to bringing your best self to the start line on race day.

What are some important factors to consider while training?

Speed work, intervals and hill training are all important pieces to incorporate into your training. The key is making sure they are appropriately executed based on the time until your race. Early in the program, intervals are typically longer and less intense. While more speed work is included toward the later stages of training, with intervals moving shorter but more intense.

I typically recommend hills based on the race course. For example, if hills are prominent in the later stages of a race, racers need to prepare for attacking hills on tired legs. A great way to simulate that experience is to finish a long run with a few hilly miles.

Like runners, every race is unique. And the training to prepare for them should be too!

How can runners prevent injury, and is there a point that they should stop training if they notice a problem?

Dynamic stretching (functional movements, bringing much of your body through full range of motion) before working out and static stretching (stretches held in place for an extended period of time) after working out are the bare minimum for preventing injury. For some runners, this is enough to remain injury-free, and they don’t need to consider anything more. Lucky them!

For many others (myself included), more is needed to remain confident in our ability to remain injury-free. A simple preventative measure is to make sure you are adequately hydrated throughout the day. Hydration plays a key role not just during performance, but also for prior to performance. Hydration promotes loose joints that are ready to run.

Additionally, recovery services provide a great opportunity to keep injuries at bay. Foam rolling, massage, compression sleeves, cryotherapy, cold water soaking and infrared saunas are all valuable recovery resources that help keep injuries from occurring!

What should an ideal workout, an alternative to just running, look like for a training plan?

When building training plans, I work the week around what I like to call “quality runs.” Quality runs can include speed work, intervals, hills and/or long runs. I structure most weeks to include two quality runs, with easier/recovery days surrounding them.

The longer of these quality runs will be completed during the weekend, to prepare runners for the weekend race. The shorter will be midweek, to allow appropriate recovery between the two.

For longer races, I recommend at least four total runs per week, but how those runs are structured and how cross training is incorporated depends largely on the runner’s experience, goals and injury history. Beginners will likely need to work up to the four days per week of running, using cross training as recovery, with complete days off on a weekly basis. While extremely seasoned runners might be running every day with doubles included. It’s all about finding each runner’s formula.

What other types of exercising do you recommend when training for this type of event?

I’m a strong proponent of yoga and body-weight exercises, regardless of your experience with either. Yoga is a fantastic way to open up your body and allow it to work as one coordinated structure, rather than isolated parts moving near each other. Yoga is a way to develop your body’s ability to communicate with itself, providing smoother and more natural movements during your run.

Body-weight exercises are fantastic because they do a great job developing a runner’s core through functional movement. At the later stages of a distance race, a strong core that is used to functional movement will do a better job maintaining form, allowing the runner to focus all remaining energy on moving forward.

On race day, what is your best advice to stay calm, energized, excited and ready for the finish line?

Trust your training, trust your plan and trust yourself. The work has been done, you know your plan, and all that’s left to do is go out and do it. Luckily, that’s the most fun part of all!

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