Training for a race, whether you plan to run or walk, can provide the extra challenge, fun, and motivation you need to take your fitness to the next level.
Races can make great fitness goals. Training for a 5K, 10K, or longer race can help push you past your comfort zone and boost your motivation to get and stay fit. And you do not need to be a runner to participate in a race. In fact, walking is an increasingly popular way to complete races of all distances.
Putting a step-by-step training plan in place is key to getting ready for your race. Here are 6 steps that can help you get from here to the finish line.
1. Talk with your doctor
If you have a health condition or you haven’t been very active in a while, you may want to talk with your health care provider before getting started. They can help you determine whether it’s safe for you to train for such a goal. Together, you can talk about what distance you might be able to target safely.
In these situations, it is wise to consider a race with a shorter distance. A 5-kilometer (5K) race—which is 3.1 miles—is a popular race for first-time participants. Starting off with more than your body is ready for can be overwhelming, both mentally and physically. And doing too much too soon could possibly lead to injury or cause you to give up.
On the other hand, if you already have a few 5K races under your belt, or if you often walk or run 3 or more miles at a time, you may want to train for a 10K race, instead.
2. Build a fitness base
If you’re just starting out, think about safely building a basic level of fitness before you train for a specific race. It’s important that you ease into a training routine to avoid injury. The best way to do that is to start with some basic conditioning.
The steps below outline a very general, self-paced guide to build your fitness base before you train to walk or run a race.
- Walking. Take a 30-minute walk, 4 to 5 days a week. Do this each week until it feels fairly easy. Be sure to give yourself a pat on the back for your new fitness gains!
- Brisk walking. Start bumping up your walking pace a bit to boost your heart rate. Take as many weeks as you need to get used to the faster pace. Your fitness is improving weekly. Your body is preparing for a bigger challenge.
- Building in some running. When your brisk walks start to feel less challenging, you might want to mix in some slow, relaxed runs of 30 to 60 seconds. If running is your goal, you can gradually increase the time you spend running and/or decrease the time you spend walking.
Give your body time to adapt to each new level to help prevent injury. And keep in mind that walking a race is just as worthy a goal as running one. If running is not your thing, or causes you any kind of pain, stick with walking.
3. Listen to your body
Keep safety as your top goal. No matter your fitness level or which race you are training for, stop right away if you ever feel:
- Sharp pain
- Extreme discomfort
- Sudden weakness
- Numbness or tingling in your arms
If you keep walking or running at this point, you may be putting yourself in danger. If these signs don’t go away, seek emergency medical care.
4. Choose a race and tailor a training plan
If you haven’t already registered for a race, it’s time to choose your race and sign up for it. You might also want to consult a fitness expert, such as a certified personal trainer, to help you tailor a training plan that meets your needs.
Look online for race listings or in the free publications at your local sporting goods store. Or join a running club in your area to get the scoop on local races. One place to look for a club is Road Runners Club of America.
Besides the distance, there a are few things to consider when choosing a race:
- Based on your current level of fitness, when do you think you’ll be ready to participate? Keep in mind that training for a race doesn’t happen overnight. Give yourself several weeks to train. Here’s one 7-week training plan you might want to follow.
- Where would you like the race to take place? Are you willing to travel a bit for it?
- What is the weather like in that location at that time of year?
- What is the course like? Is it mostly flat, or is it hilly? Or will it be a mix of both? Is it on pavement, grass, or dirt? If you can’t tell from the description, contact the race director.
- Do you want to participate in a race that benefits a cause you care about?
5. Keep these training tips in mind
Here are some things to keep in mind as you train:
- Establish a weekly training routine. Train at least 3 to 4 times a week. Make one of your weekly sessions your “long” workout. Each week, try to add a few minutes to it. For specifics, you can find plenty of good training schedules online.
- Start each session with a 5- or 10-minute warmup. This can be as basic as walking around and swinging your arms.
- Walk as much as you like. Just try to keep your walking at a brisk pace.
- Drink plenty of water before, during, and after your training sessions.
- Think about finding a workout buddy. Having someone to share workouts with can help you stay on track, stay safe, and have more fun.
- Cross train. On days you aren’t scheduled to train, do some cross-training. Strength training or yoga can help work different muscles.
- Have a regular rest day. Take at least one full day of rest each week.
- Get enough sleep. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.
- Build endurance before speed. Even if you have a time goal in mind, focus instead on building up to the distance that your race calls for.
- Train for the conditions and the course you’ll face on race day. If the course will be hilly, be sure to include some hills in your training. If you’ll be walking or running over pavement or a trail, train for that kind of surface. If the race starts early in the morning, have some early training sessions.
- Never train when you’re injured or sick.
- Always cool down and stretch after each training session.
If you stick with your training schedule, you will be surprised at what you can accomplish. As the weeks go by, you’ll probably find that you feel fitter and your walks or runs feel easier.
6. Eat well to help support your training efforts
Training increases your body’s nutritional needs. Your body will be more likely to thrive if it’s getting the right fuel. It’s vital to eat a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods. Opt for plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, whole grains, fish, beans, lean meat, and nuts and seeds. Try to limit low-nutrient foods with a lot of added sugar, salt, or other additives (think candy, desserts, chips, fried foods, etc.)
Also, make sure to stay hydrated by getting plenty of fluids throughout the day. Water is a great source of hydration. But you can also get fluids from fresh vegetables and fruits, soups, milk, and unsweetened fruit juices.
Once you’ve crossed the finish line, you will feel a great sense of accomplishment. You might start thinking about what to try next. As long as you continue to feel challenged and happy, it’s fine to stick with one distance.
But if you want to set a new goal by training for a more challenging race, go for it. Just talk with your doctor first. Then, be sure to follow a training schedule that is specific to the event you want to do.
And if you want to hang up your finisher’s medal and retire from races? That’s OK, too—as long as you never stop setting new fitness goals for yourself. What will your next fitness adventure be?
This information is not intended to take the place of regular medical care or advice. Please check with your doctor before using this information or beginning any self-care program. Images used for this article do not depict any members of the Silver&Fit Program.
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This article was written by Gail Olson, edited by Jason Nielsen, and clinically reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson, MPH, RDN.