Planning to race in a spring marathon?

By Cathleen London, M.D., P.C.
Board Certified Family Medicine Physician

Here are tips for first-timers on using your time wisely this winter.

I clearly remember the excitement of training for my first marathon and triathlon. It was thrilling to set — and ultimately surpass — my performance goals. Racing is a great way to get fit and lose weight because you have a real target. You will notice a subtle mindset shift from ‘working out’ to ‘training’. It is not as easy to blow off a run because you know you will be sorry for every session you have missed.

Even now with many marathons and triathlons behind me, I feel exhilarated whenever it is time to ramp up my training in preparation for a big race. Here are some tips and ideas that I often share with my patients who are eager to try their first race.

A great training program

Follow a training program! This helps to ensure that each training session has an objective. Take some time to review what was good or bad about your past training season, if you had one, and your goals for this year so that your training is more effective.

Decide whether you should hire a personal coach or if self-coaching will work for you. Do you need the accountability of answering to a coach? How good are you at adapting your routine if you get sick or injured? How well can you accommodate your life stresses — work, travel, children — in your training?

If you have the discipline to self-coach, there are a lot of free or low-fee training plans available on the Internet. Find one that works for you. All of the plans have plusses and minuses. I approach winter as my chance to try something new, so I tend to merge different training plans each year.

Getting started

The longer the race, the longer you will need for training. If you are going for your first sprint race, start training at least 8-10 weeks in advance. Gradually increase the distance that you are running each time you train. If you are trying a half ironman, you will require 12-16 weeks of specific training (biking, running and swimming). The goal is for your performance to peak on race day, not during your training, so structure your plan so that you build your volume correctly.

Now is also the time to plan your whole season. If this is your first race, sign up to do another one a month or so later. That will keep you motivated to continue training. The advantage of shorter races is that you can do more of them each season, which is fun.

Tips for following your plan

  • With any plan, your focus on nutrition and recovery is just as important as how well you train. As you build your base and increase the intensity of your workout, are you getting enough rest? What is the quality of that rest? There is data that supplementation with the pure form of L-theanine, called Suntheanine, can help. It helps you to relax and also to focus so that each training session will be more targeted.
  • Recovery: Since I started taking L-theanine and antioxidants, I find that I recover more quickly. A faster recovery enables you to push more, with less soreness.
  • Nutrition: Winter is also the time to dial up your new nutrition so that there are no surprises on race day. Choose to fuel your body with whole foods (not processed foods) that work for you, not against you.
  • Stress: How well you deal with stress affects how well you avoid illness. While antioxidants scavenge the free radicals caused by your training, data on L-theanine shows that it helps to reduce stress. Suntheanine helps me sleep better, and makes me better prepared for the next day, both from a training and work perspective. Start with 200 mgs every four hours to see how it helps your stress level.
  • Focus: Your training sessions need to be targeted, which can be a challenge if you are balancing work, family and training. Because I have a limited amount of time, I prefer to make each session as effective as possible, and I use L-theanine to help me stay focused. You do not want to waste your workout on ‘junk’ miles where you are not paying close attention to your form.
  • Weight: If you have put on a few pounds over the holidays, this is the time to start getting back to race weight. It is easier than crash dieting during the season.
  • Cold weather: Joints and ligaments are more at risk when the temperature drops. Those of us who live in the Northeast move at least some of our training indoors during the winter. I also like indoor riding classes because having others nearby is inspiring. I walk into each class thinking: what am I trying to get during this session? Am I base building? Staying in my heart rate zone? How are my speed and intensity? If you choose to train outdoors, be sure to dress for visibility.
  • Mindset: Have fun! Racers go from the extremes of being miserable to ending the race asking, “When is the next one?” There is a real sense of community in the multi-sport endurance world that is health-driven. What a positive!

As physicians, we do what we can to deal with the obesity epidemic and related health problems, but in the end you are responsible for your own health. Stress reduction is a huge part of being healthy, and exercise plays a major role in managing stress. When I am taking someone from ground zero, either because of health issues or a sedentary lifestyle, we start small — maybe 10 minutes a day — and build from there. For a sprint or marathon, you need to run every day. With a triathlon there are three sports, two of which are non-impact. So I do not have to take a rest day unless my body really needs it. As a general rule, I can keep going which has reduced my stress level tremendously.

Even if you never want to run a marathon, find a form of exercise you like so that you will stick with it. As a single mom who works full time, I get that life is busy. Don’t use that as an excuse. You can find the time, and you will be proud to have achieved your goals.

I will see you at the finish line!

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