In 2015 more than 17 million adults finished a running event in the US. Of course, that number is much higher, since not every race sends its participants’ info to RunningUSA.org, the compiler of this data. Of those runners whose data was collected, 57% were female and 43% male. That distribution follows the trend over the past 5 years that shows women are more inclined to sign up for, compete in and finish some type of running event than men.
What type of events are the most popular?
The 5K, 10K, half marathon and full marathons are far and away the most participated in among running races. This is probably because those are the types of races which are most frequently offered as well. The trend over the past 5 years of women dominating the amateur running scene is one of the reasons the 5K has become the most popular race.
In 2015 a full 45% of the finishers in all running races tracked came from a 5K event. The half marathon was the next most popular to enter and finish, followed by a 10K and a full marathon.
Let’s take a look at the UK and elsewhere around the globe. Jens Jakob Andersen, of the Copenhagen Business School, has done some global running research. He shows that while running in the UK is down slightly, almost imperceptibly from 2014 to 2015, running around the world has increased substantially. Globally, 13% more runners participated in a marathon last year than the previous year.
In Russia there was an incredible 300% increase of participants year to year, while China (260%) and the Philippines (212%) also showed significant increases. The female versus male ratio which has been changing the last few years is present in the UK and elsewhere, and not just the United States. This seems to be more of a re-balancing than any trend that needs to be studied too hard.
The good news overall? A lot of people are taking up running for the many health benefits it offers.
If you run sporadically yourself, maybe you are thinking about getting serious. The best way to do so is to dedicate yourself to entering an organized event. Running a couple of miles once or twice a week may not be pushing you enough physically and mentally. If this is the case with you, which type of race should you enter? Should you start off slowly with a 5K, or just jump right into the deep end of the pool and begin training for a marathon?
Training to run your first race is something that needs to take into account a lot of variables. Think about your unique situation. Look at your short-term and long-term running and fitness goals. Keep those in mind as we break down which of the 4 most common running distances is perfect for your first race.
Which Race is Right for You?
Human beings are fatter than ever before. Heart disease has skyrocketed, as have incidence rates of cancer and diabetes. All of these are excellent reasons to take running seriously. As a health booster, running is accessible to anyone. If you are in good enough shape to put one foot in front of the other, you can run just about anywhere. Because of the poor health of the average adult, and the simplicity of running (there is no expensive gym membership or fitness equipment to buy), this physical activity will always be popular for a number of reasons.
If you are seriously considering running in your first organized race, congratulations are in order. You are taking your health seriously. Perhaps you are a former athlete that misses the thrill and personal rewards that competition offers. Whatever the reason, entering, training for, participating in and finishing a long distance run can do a lot of positive things for your health, as well as your self-image.
Couch Potato to 5K:
Alright, it’s time to be honest with yourself. Are you a lethargic couch potato? Do you sit more than 8 hours a day, because unfortunately, a lot of people do. Determining your current level of fitness is the starting point for choosing what type of race you will run for your first event.
If you have enough time to prepare, and willpower, you could easily run a marathon for your first race. However, most people that decide to run in an organized event for the first time want to get started soon. That means you probably want the shortest amount of preparation time that makes sense for your situation. Let’s take a look at the particulars of the 4 most common running distances, to help you get an idea of what you’re up against.
• 5K – You probably know that a 5K race is 5,000 meters long. The ‘K’ stands for kilometer, which is 0.62 times as long as a mile. That makes this popular “first race” 3.1 miles long, or 5 km, and either way you cut it, that is 16,368 feet. (The most popular distance race for beginning participants by far)
• 10K – Double the previous numbers. That means you will be running 6.2 miles, 10 km or 32,736 feet. For a first-time runner, things are starting to look intimidating.
• Half Marathon – A 10K is a long way to run, but it isn’t even half as long as tackling a half marathon. That means 13.1 miles, or 21.08 kilometers. We are getting up in distance now, so let’s not worry about how many feet that length is.
• Marathon – This is the Queen Bee, the Holy Grail of distance running. While there are definitely longer races (50 miles+), the marathon is far and away the most well-known distance race. You will be traveling approximately 26.219 miles, or 42.195 km. That is a long way to run for anyone.
First Race Considerations:
Most veteran marathoners devote 12 to 20 weeks to prepare for a race. These are people that routinely run marathons. If you are thinking about entering a distance race for the first time, keep this in mind. That is not to say that you could not successfully run a marathon without running shorter races. It is just intended to drive home the reality of just how much of a commitment entering, running and finishing a 26 mile run is.
As a beginner, you should seriously consider the 5K.
Preparing to run 3.1 miles without stopping starts to look seriously doable for the beginning runner, especially when compared to the length of a full marathon. You don’t have to log 100+ hours each month training for this shorter distance. However, running 3.1 miles is still a very impressive achievement, something you can be proud of, especially for first time race participants.
The training you will be doing in advance of a 5K is still significant. This means you will be doing your body a world
of good. The mental rewards, and self-image-boosting
feelings, of setting your goals on something and accomplishing
it will be just as significant when you complete your first 5K
as when you complete your first marathon.
If you begin training for a 5K and find yourself not challenged significantly, consider a 10K. Remember that if you train for a 10K and you feel you have bitten off more than you can chew, your training will have easily prepared you for success in a 5K event.
For a lot of reasons, someone entering their first long-distance race ever did should probably consider a 5K first, and possibly a 10K, saving a half marathon or marathon until experience, strength and endurance have all increased.
Don’t go crazy here, setting unrealistic goals that you can’t achieve. Sure, you may have been a former athlete that accomplished some really impressive things. However, if you are just getting back to running after years or decades of absence, don’t get the cart before the horse. Any veteran runners will tell you that “finishing upright” is the only goal you should have for your first-ever race. Once you establish an initial finishing time, your PB or personal best, then you can work to lower it, improving your endurance, and the length of the races you run.
Planning in Advance:
Planning for your race means getting ready in advance. That much is obvious. If you are planning on running a long distance race for the first time, the key is to just get started, and get started smartly. The following tips will help you choose the right type of gear, and give you some idea of how much you should be running each week. Once you have done the proper planning, get out there and put one foot in front of the other, and start running.
First-Timer Prep Time:
Here are some rough guidelines that will give you a general idea of how long you will have to train before you enter your first race. These are averages taken from runners, running coaches, websites and blogs about running, and take into account a wide range of fitness levels. Your training actual time may vary.
• 5K – 2 to 3 months
• 10K – 3 to 4 months
• Half Marathon – 4 to 6 months
• Full Marathon – 4 to 8 months
Weekly Training Distances That Will Prepare You for Each Race:
Obviously, you’re going to be running several times a week and preparing for your race. Generally, a weekly training snapshot will include 2 or 3 shorter runs, and 1 long run. (Sample training routines for each race are included at the end of this report.)
• 5K – 10 to 15 miles total weekly, plus one long run of at least 3 miles
• 10K – 15 to 20 miles total each week, plus one long run of at least 4 to 8 miles
• Half Marathon – 25 to 40 weekly miles, plus an 8 to 12 miler
• Marathon – 30 to 60 miles per week, and at least one 15 to 20 miler
These totals may look daunting for the beginner. Remember, these are the weekly goals you want to eventually obtain. When you first get started, you may not be able to run these weekly totals. Walk if you have to. Don’t worry about it. Start out where you are now, slowly building up. Once you can cover the above listed totals each week for 2 or 3 weeks, you will be more than ready to tackle your first race.
• Shoes – Most runners go for lightweight shoes. They should obviously be specifically designed for distance running, but in most situations, the lighter the better is preferred. This is going to be a very personal decision – what works for you won’t work for someone else. You would be wise to invest more money in a highly rated distance running shoe if you are going to be tackling a marathon, while choosing running shoes for a 5K may just mean lacing up your current kicks.
Go to a foot specialty shoe store, and not your local big box. The prices at a discount store like Walmart or Target may be appealing, but those shoes were not made with runners in mind. Ask to speak to a salesperson that is a runner, or knows a lot about running shoes. Let them know of any injury history you have, your fitness level, and the race that you are looking at running, as well as how long you plan to train before the race.
• Water bottle – Select one that matches the contours of your hand and is lightweight.
• Digital watch – You want a watch with a digital readout that is easy to view at just a glance. There are expensive, detailed runner’s watches which do a great job and track all kinds of metrics. You can also opt for a simple $20 plastic digital watch you can pick up just about anywhere.
• Clothes – Obviously, you want to buy clothes made for running, but you want to be practical as well. Steer clear from cotton, because it becomes soaked with sweat, wearing you down, and can cause chafing. This regards your socks as well.
Technical fabrics are the way to go. These are high-performance, lightweight fabrics designed to pull moisture away from your skin. They help keep you cool when it is warm outside, and warm when it is cool outside. Technical fabrics include polyester, nylon and Lycra. As far as size goes, you don’t want your clothes to be too loose and baggy, or too tight.
• Extra considerations – Women should wear a sports bra, and both men and women need to consider lotions and articles of clothing for sun protection. Consider clothes that have plenty of pockets for your ID card, debit card and keys.
Remember, even if you walked an entire 5K you could probably do it in an hour. There is absolutely nothing wrong with switching from running to jogging to walking throughout your first race. As mentioned earlier, finishing upright should be your only goal, whether your first race is a 5K or a marathon.
Where to Run:
If at all possible, match your training run environments to that of the race you’ll be running. If you train on nothing but soft, padded grass and your race is run on concrete, you could have some problems. Run where you feel comfortable and safe, and never train in a solitary, out-of-the-way place. Most major cities have running paths that are used frequently, are well lit, and don’t pose any unnecessary dangers.
Should You Consider Fund-Raising?:
It is very generous to think about raising money for some deserving organization by running. However, you probably should not consider doing this for your first-ever race. Preparing for, signing up for, entering and completing a race means you have a lot on your plate already.
Get the whole routine of running long-distance races down first, and just worry about finishing your first race standing up. In the future you can add fund-raising to your race planning. If you attempt to do this on your first run, you could be overwhelmed with the added responsibility.
Getting the Most Out of Your Training
Diet, Diet, Diet:
A regular running practice can help you lose a lot of weight. That may or may not be your fitness goal. However, it brings up an important point … running burns a lot of calories.
This means you may have to up your calorie count considerably, especially if you are running longer distances. A smart pre-workout meal is high in carbohydrates and low in fat and fiber. In general, you need to start eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. You probably don’t have to be told that processed food, drive-through meals and restaurant food are not the healthiest meal choices you can make.
A simple way to know what to eat is to make half of your plate at each meal carbohydrates. Devote 1/4th to protein, and 1/4th to healthy fats. Get the refined sugar, salt and white flour out of your diet.
Staying hydrated is important as well. If you are planning on a short training session, less than an hour, you won’t need to eat anything, before or during. However, hydration is always important for runners. Fill your water bottle and take it along with you.
Popular Training Apps:
Here are just a few of the many runner’s training applications that take all the guesswork out of training. From running distances and frequencies, to diet and hydration, and even gear suggestions, you should definitely download one of these apps if you are serious about running a long-distance race.
• Free (Android and iOS)
◦ Nike+ Run Club
◦ Strava Running and Cycling
◦ Run with Map My Run
• Paid Options
◦ Couch to 5K
◦ WalkJogRun (iOS only)
◦ Upbeat Workouts For Runners (iOS only)
◦ Full Fitness (iOS only)
Runner’s World is a great magazine for beginning and veteran runners alike. The web version of their magazine has published an excellent article, entitled 27 Apps Every Runner Should Know About. You can check out that highly recommended resource here >>> http://www.runnersworld.com/electronics/27-apps-every-runner-should-know-about.
Sleep Is Important:
Your body can’t perform properly if you don’t let it. This means getting plenty of sleep. Even on the nights before days you will not be training, your body needs rest. Health experts and sleep specialists suggest 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep each and every night. You should also remember that you can’t “catch up on sleep” once you miss it. Studies show that once you damage your body and your mind by not giving them enough rest, the damage is done, and you can’t simply sleep more the following night to make up for it.
Remember That You Are an Adult:
This means not skipping days you should be running! Anyone can make excuses, but winners decide not to. You know when you are scheduled to run, so run. If running a race is important to you, stick to your training schedule, and don’t miss a training session. Make a schedule you can stick to, and then do exactly that.
Dealing with Injury:
You can eat right, train properly, stay hydrated, and wear all of the right gear … and still get injured! To some extent, if you run frequently enough you are going to get injured. Minimizing the impact of your injuries is the key. You would probably rather just be a little sore after you run, as opposed to suffering an ankle sprain. The following tips will keep your body healthy and injuries to a minimum.
• Add strength training to your running program
• Keep hydrated (this is a health boosting tip runners and non-runners should be following)
• Warm up before and cool down after training, and after races (more on this in the Example Training Plans section below)
• Start with shorter distances, slowly increasing your mileage as you train
• Use yoga, Pilates or some other stretching exercise program to stay flexible and mobile
• Wear comfortable shoes, not too tight, not too loose
• Listen to what your body is telling you. You know when you have a little left in your tank, and when you should call it quits
• Use proper form. Type “proper running form” into the YouTube search engine for visual examples
• Don’t rush back after significant injury
Once you get injured, take a look at your injury. Is it serious? Is it not a big deal? A soft tissue injury like a sprain could linger if not given enough time to heal properly. On the other hand, blisters can most likely be treated and you are back on your feet in a couple of days. Give your yourself time to heal properly after an injury, but don’t use mild aches and pains as an excuse to take a day off.
Nutrition & Hydration During Your Race:
You probably don’t have to worry about drinking or eating while running a 5K race. The same is true about eating during 10K events, though you will want to be hydrated. Bear in mind that almost all organized races will provide 2 wonderful things so you don’t have to plan for them – water and other forms of hydration, and medical personnel.
Even in a 5K run, hydration is probably going to be provided. For a 10K race, half marathon or marathon, you will have at least water, and possibly some electrolyte-rich drink, offered at strategic points throughout the race (in the case of a 10K, this may just be before and after the race). When you are training, staying hydrated is up to you. So is consuming the right type of food to keep your energy levels up.
When to Eat and Drink While You Run:
Not to beat a dead horse, but most runners, even beginners that train properly, can get through a 5K or 10K race with minimal hydration and no eating. Half marathons and marathons are different animals.
For half marathons and marathons, start drinking fluids early on. Don’t wait until you become thirsty. The specific energy drinks provided at these longer distance races get your digestive system optimally prepared to distribute sugars, electrolytes and other “must-have” minerals and compounds to your muscles.
Your first aid station will show up somewhere near the 5K mark. If offered, drink an electrolyte drink that also has sugar. This will often times be Gatorade or some similar alternative.
Shoot for 6 to 10 fluid ounces of hydration for every 2 to 3 miles you run. You obviously want more liquids if the weather is hot, and you should check the website of the race you are running so you can plot your aid station drinking strategy. (Veteran tip – If you feel or hear a sloshing sensation or sound in your stomach, you probably don’t have to drink from the next 30 minutes.)
After 45 to 60 minutes of running, you need to eat something. You should focus on consuming carbohydrates that are absorbed quickly. This sends a sugar rush to your muscles for much needed energy. Runner’s gels are perfect for this. Bananas, baby food, raisins, sports jellybeans and gummy bears are excellent as well.
Tapering & Preparing for the Big Day
What Foods to Eat Leading up to Your Race:
A relatively “normal” diet is fine for running a 5K or 10K race. This does not mean scarfing down a processed McDonald’s meal right before you run. Processed foods are not good for any human being, whether that person is running or not. When running a half marathon or marathon, you want to begin to plan a specific eating schedule 3 to 5 days before your race.
At 3 to 5 days out from your event, add more pastas and starches to your diet. There is no specific recipe to follow here, just make sure that you are consuming a higher percentage of your total daily calories from carbohydrates. You should be tapering your training at this point (more on that in a moment), so since you are not running as much, you don’t want to overeat and feel lethargic and lazy.
Plan on your “big meal” 2 nights before the morning of your race. Most runners prefer lots of pasta, but you can also opt for rice, pizza, potatoes and other similar carbohydrates. Return to regularly healthy, balanced meals 24 hours before the race, and continue to eat the same types of meals as you did on regular training days.
At 15 to 18 hours before your race, eat smaller meals every 2 to 3 hours if possible. Cut back on fried foods, dairy products, red meat and fats after lunch. Small sandwiches, cereal, energy bars and other light, easily digestible foods are recommended.
At around 4 hours before your race starts, enjoy a small breakfast-type meal. Drink room temperature water, and possibly some fluids with electrolytes if you like. Also, never try eating anything new on race day. You just don’t know how your body is going to respond.
Prepping Your Clothing:
Beginner runners often make this mistake. They don’t run in the clothes they are actually going to be wearing on race day enough to make sure they are comfortable.
Just as nutrition and hydration are extremely important to limit injuries and improve performance, so is actually running in the clothes you will be wearing during the race. Don’t wait until the last week before an event to find out that the pants, shirt or shoes you have been planning on wearing aren’t going to cut the mustard.
What is Tapering?:
Tapering is a veteran runner’s secret to success. For a half marathon and marathon, this should start as many as 21 days before your race. You want to run less and rest more. Whenever you stress your muscles, they tear. They become stronger and more capable as they repair from those tears and stresses. By giving your muscles more time to rest than to tear down leading up to race day, you are actually giving yourself the best possible chance at excellent performance and minimal risk of injury.
Don’t be concerned about your fitness level dropping. Just as many studies have been conducted as there are runners on this topic, and they all show that smart tapering actually increases performance levels, and your fitness does not suffer.
You want to hit your highest mileage week with 21 days still left before your race. Then …
• With 3 weeks to go, cut back on your total weekly mileage by 20% to 25%.
• With 14 days to go, you should be running no more than 50% to 65% of your highest mileage week. Most of these runs should be slower and easier as well. Don’t run more than 6 to 10 miles on any given day.
• With 7 days to go, run no longer than a 4 miles on any one day.
• Cut this back to 2 or 3 easy miles with 3 days to go, and with just 48 hours before your race, don’t run at all.
• It’s okay if you want to jog a couple of miles at an easy pace just to release some pent-up energy the day before your race.
Race Day Tips:
Here are a few simple race day tips compiled by running veterans that will make you look, perform and feel like a pro in your very first race.
• Don’t wear or eat anything new (we highlighted this a couple of times earlier, but it bears repeating).
• Keep calm mentally – getting jacked up on sugar-filled coffee before the race is probably not a smart move.
• Schedule family members and friends at strategic points along the race for motivation.
• Arrive early! This is your first race and you don’t know what to expect, so showing up early is always a smart move.
• Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of questions, of organizers and seasoned veterans.
• Once you are on-site, pick up your race packet early (sometimes you can do this before race day).
• Don’t overdress. This is a rookie mistake. Dress as if the weather is 15 to 20 degrees warmer than it actually is.
• Perform some light dynamic stretching before the race.
• Don’t let your excitement change your running plan. Start your race at the pace you have already planned.
• Line up with runners of similar skill level.
• Don’t forget to enjoy yourself. Remember, finishing upright is your number one goal for your first race.
Recovering from Your Race:
Congratulations! You finished your first race! However, your job is not yet complete. Your recovery time is going to be longer if your race is longer. It makes sense that recovering from a 5K is easier than recovering from a marathon.
Some half marathons and marathons will offer a runner’s buffet. Races are often associated with celebratory events and festivals. This means you may be tempted to gastronomically splurge after your race has been run. That is up to you, with the following tips will probably serve you better.
What you do following your race is going to go a long way toward how you remember this important day. Treat your body right, and you will look forward to racing in the future.
This means walking around for at least 10 to 20 minutes after the race is over. Don’t sit down right away. After your race is over, enjoy a balanced snack or meal that includes healthy fat, protein and carbohydrates. This should happen roughly 30 to 60 minutes post-race. If your stomach is unsettled, stick to a chocolate milk or sports drink.
Some races will offer free massages to participants. Take advantage. After you get home, plan on giving yourself several days rest. If you find yourself with an irresistible urge to move, schedule a few short walks for the first 3 to 5 days after the race.
Immediately on returning home, you should take an ice bath and enjoy some gentle stretching. Finally, think about your feelings. Deal with your emotions. Your mental post-race health is just as important as your physical health.
For All Races
Before any training session, short or long, you should warm up properly. A 5 or 10 minute sequence like the Mattock Warm-Up Routine works well. This is a dynamic warm-up routine, which alleviates the possible injury risks that static stretching can cause. Simply standing in one place and stretching has been proven to decrease performance, and raise the risk of injury.
Take some time to walk and cool off slowly after your run is over. Here is a veteran tip – Add 10 to 15 minutes of strength work, resistance training or strength training, after your training session. Follow these tips every time you train. Then incorporate them with the following sample training plans, according to which race you are preparing for.
These plans are for runners, walkers, and runner/walkers. Run when you can, walk when you can, and remember that this is all about getting you to complete your first/ever race.
(Important Note – If the time frames below are too short or too long for your particular situation, change them accordingly. These are just sample training plans, everyone is different, and you may find that tweaking these plans works better for you.)
– 5K Training Plan:
Weeks 1 and 2 – Alternate with 3 days of walking and 3 running. Your running days should be 10 to 15 minutes in length. On the seventh day run 1 mile.
Weeks 3 and 4 – Alternate with 3 days of walking and 3 running. Your running days should be 15 to 20 minutes in length. On the seventh day run 1.5 miles.
Weeks 5 and 6 – Alternate with 3 days of walking and 3 running. Your running days should be 20 to 25 minutes in length. On the seventh day run 2 miles.
Weeks 1 and 2 – Alternate with 3 days of walking and 3 running. Your running days should be 25 to 30 minutes in length. On the seventh day run 3 miles.
– 10K Training Plan:
Weeks 1 and 2 – Alternate with 3 days of walking and 3 running. Your running days should be 10 to 15 minutes in length. On the seventh day run 1 mile.
Weeks 3, 4 and 5 – Alternate with 3 days of walking and 3 running. Your running days should be 15 to 20 minutes in length. On the seventh day run 2 miles.
Weeks 6, 7 and 8 – Alternate with 3 days of walking and 3 running. Your running days should be 20 to 25 minutes in length. On the seventh day run 3 to 4 miles.
Weeks 9 through 12 – Alternate with 3 days of walking and 3 running. Your running days should be 25 to 30 minutes in length. On the seventh day run 5 to 6 miles.
– Half Marathon Training Plan:
Weeks 1 through 4 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 25 to 30 minutes in length. On the third running day run 3 miles.
Weeks 5 through 8 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 30 to 35 minutes in length. On the third running day run 5 miles.
Weeks 9 through 12 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 30 to 40 minutes in length. On the third running day run 8 miles.
Weeks 13 through 14 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 30 to 45 minutes in length. On the third running day run 10 to 13 miles.
With 21 days to go before your race, begin the tapering plan detailed earlier.
– Full Marathon Training Plan:
Weeks 1 through 4 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 30 to 35 minutes in length. On the third running day run 4 miles.
Weeks 5 through 8 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 30 to 40 minutes in length. On the third running day run 6 miles.
Weeks 9 through 12 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 30 to 45 minutes in length. On the third running day run 9 miles.
Weeks 13 through 16 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 30 to 45 minutes in length. On the third running day run 12 to 15 miles.
Weeks 17 through 20 – Alternate with 3 days off and 3 running. 2 of your running days should be 30 to 45 minutes in length. On the third running day run 15 to 25 miles.
With 21 days to go before your race, begin the tapering plan detailed earlier.
No two people are the same. There is no way this “one-size-fits-all” racing primer can understand your particular situation, mindset, willpower, goals and current physical abilities. More than anything, this guide is a great way to get an idea about what is going to happen before, during and after your first race.
Talk to people in the running community.
You probably know a friend who runs, at least on a semi regular basis. Visit chat rooms and forums online. Join running Facebook pages. Purchase a subscription to a running magazine, or download a bunch of Kindle e-books about running to your smart phone or tablet. The more information you have, the better prepared you will be to successfully prepare for and finish your first long distance race.