How to Start a Long Distance Training ProgramJuly 31, 2023 - Kim Rivera Huston-Weber
Since you're reading this, congratulations. Perhaps you've already signed up for a long-distance race. Or, after picturing yourself at the finish line of a 10K, 10 miler, half marathon or even a marathon, it's your new resolution.
You may be wondering how you get there, given where you are now. Not to worry — we're breaking down how to start a long-distance training program so you're healthy, injury-free and accomplished on race day.
First, select a race
Choosing and committing to a race date is a crucial first step to getting yourself ready to run. Training programs can run anywhere from eight to 30 weeks, depending on the mileage of the race. Select your race date, and then count back to the start date.
"When is your actual race?" says Oliver Batinga, a senior health fitness coordinator with Houston Methodist. "For example, if you're doing a half marathon, that's usually about 12 weeks. Find a training program in that time frame, and you can even start weeks before you should start."
At this point, it's a good time to check in and ensure you have the running gear you need to succeed. If the trainers you pulled from the closet look like they've seen better days, it's time to upgrade.
"Get a new pair of shoes because, in the long run, those will save your joints," Batinga says. "They'll also help you become a more efficient runner."
(Related: How to Start (or Restart) Running)
Choose a training plan
When choosing a training plan, you'll want to select one that fits your current fitness level, running goals and lifestyle. It should contain a consistent schedule of running, cross-training and rest days.
"You want to look for about three to four running days for beginners throughout the week," Batinga says. "And then, as the weeks progress, you'll notice that you may have an extra running day. The duration of the runs will increase as well."
Long-distance training plans exist for all running levels, from absolute beginners to elite marathon runners. Choosing the right program for you comes down to being honest about your current fitness level and how much running experience you have.
"Consider how much you are running per week and how hard you're running," Batinga says. "The programs are specifically designed for particular fitness levels so that you're not pushing to the point where you're prone to injury."
A way to make sure you're meeting yourself where you are is to just go out and run — especially if you've run longer distances in the past and you're returning to running. Can you run a full mile? Two miles? Do you need to alternate between walking and running to reach a full mile? Understanding where you currently are can help you choose the right plan.
"Beginner plans usually are just nice, easy runs — they don't list a run type, just mileage," Batinga says. "When it comes to programs for more advanced runners, they'll list types of runs — speed runs, tempo runs, endurance runs, mile repeats versus just nice, easy runs."
Understanding your race goals and how the training program can fit into your life are two other crucial things to consider.
"You can find one that best fits you and what you're trying to achieve," Batinga says. "When you start off as a beginner, it's simply just to go out and run and condition yourself to complete the race. Then the next race may be like, 'I want to go a little bit faster.' Then you go up into the next program, where you have a little bit of speed work, a little bit of tempo work."
And the best plan will be the one you can commit to.
"We're all so busy nowadays," Batinga says. "Maybe you can only run three days a week, right? So you can just always tweak those programs to fit your schedule."
Get comfortable with cross-training
Cross-training is an essential part of any long-distance running program. Why? You're helping to train your body to make it across the finish line injury-free.
"Running is a high-impact exercise," Batinga says. "Cross-training is for any fitness level, and it's essentially a day not running where you complete a non-high-impact exercise to either strengthen weaker muscles or stretch tight ones."
Successful cross-training can be any low-impact exercise that helps you sustain anaerobic capacity and strengthen your core — including biking, swimming, running, weightlifting, yoga and Pilates. The activities you choose should focus on increasing strength, improving flexibility and core strength, and maintaining muscle mass. Batinga emphasizes that cross-training should be used to correlate your running.
"Say I have tight hips," Batinga says. "I now want to focus my cross-training days strengthening weak muscles and really stretch out my hips and other tight muscles. Tight muscles mean they're working extra to compensate for weaker muscles. This typically results in imbalances that can throw your body out of alignment."
If you just run, run, run, without working to maintain muscle mass through cross-training, your muscles tend to fatigue sooner, Batinga says. That's when people become most at risk for a running injury, as habits such as bad posture can appear and disrupt correct running form.
"For beginners, we just want to find that balance where whenever you train, you feel comfortable running and are able to hold a conversation," Batinga says. "But if you feel pain, that's your body telling you something isn't right. And so, the main purpose for cross-training is to prevent any type of injury and that's all it is."
Focus on nutrition to run better (and safely)
To run longer distances, you'll need to eat and hydrate in a way that can sustain your energy levels. That doesn't mean you must be overly strict with your eating habits.
"We recommend getting balanced meals and snacks throughout the day," says Amanda Beaver, a wellness dietitian with Houston Methodist. "I typically do not recommend being regimented with diet in terms of counting macros or calories. This can sometimes lead to over-fixation that can lead to missing our bodies' natural signals to eat depending on the needs of the day. Counting macros can sometimes lead runners to getting inadequate calories, protein and carbohydrates."
Beaver suggests that for those training for a half marathon, you should aim for each meal to be one third carbs, one third protein and one third produce. For marathon runners who have higher calorie and energy needs, aim for each meal to be one half carbs, one fourth protein, and one fourth veggies.
"This is an easy rule of thumb to use without having to count calories or macros," Beaver says. "For filling snacks, pair a carb source like some fruit with a protein or fat such as yogurt, nuts or cheese."
When it comes to nutrition, an area to be regimented is your carbohydrate supplementation during long runs and races. For runs that last longer than an hour, the body typically runs out of glycogen supply shortly after that first hour. If glycogen isn't replaced by a snack, sports drink, carbohydrate gel or gummies, we can feel very fatigued. This is called "bonking" or "hitting the wall."
"Ensure you have a carbohydrate fueling strategy," Beaver says. "Experiment with different carb sources to see what works best for you. If the thought of the gels really grosses you out, try gummies. If you prefer food over sports supplements, many runners use dates, fruit snacks, Swedish fish or even pretzels instead of carbohydrate gels."
Runners should have anywhere from 30-60 grams of carbs per hour after the first hour of running. Some runners will need more or less depending on individual needs and the length of the race. For example, those running a 10K may need less, but those running a marathon may need a little more than 60 g of carbs per hour.
As with adapting the training part of the plan to fit into your life, you should also make choices that can help you succeed with fueling.
"If life gets really busy, create a plan for yourself," Beaver says. "Identify fast, easy meals such as cooking salmon fillets in the air fryer or doing breakfast-for-dinner scrambled eggs. Consider grocery store time-savers, such as pre-chopped veggies or potatoes, microwavable rice, pre-chopped fruit and rotisserie chicken."
Trust the program — and yourself
There are times in any training program that can seem grueling. Trusting the program and paying attention to your body's cues can help you succeed on race day.
A key element to successfully completing a training program (and your goal race) is being attuned to what's going on with your body as you train. Noticing signs of overtraining or injury as they happen can help prevent injury.
"I tell my clients, 'You really have to pay close attention and listen to your body, especially the further you are into your running plan,'" Batinga says. "'How do your joints feel? Are you having aches or pain? If you're having pain anywhere and feel your heart rate is racing up too high, you need to slow down and take it easy. If you feel like your legs are just burning because you're going too hard, then slow down.'"
Batinga compares pain to a check engine light in a car — if you're feeling pain while you're running, something's wrong. He emphasizes that beginners should pay special attention to any pain they feel since their bodies may not be as used to strenuous training. Overtraining or training through pain can both lead to more serious injuries that could sideline you from your training and your race.
"If you have pain that has been nagging for days and that has not dissipated with rest, get it checked by your physician and make sure it's nothing severe," Batinga says. "Rest days are to recover and recuperate from intense training days, so you don't want to forego them. There's a reason that rest days exist in these training programs. These programs were created by experienced runners, and there's research behind them — so don't skip rest days."
"Whatever plan you're on, just follow it, right? Follow it," Batinga says. "You can still tweak it, depending on your schedule. But staying as close to that running program as possible will make you more likely to reach your goal. Don't overtrain yourself but listen to your body."