Training For A Race: How to Accomplish a Major Fitness Goal

Training For A Race: How to Accomplish a Major Fitness Goal

Running is personal.

Some of you may not be able to stand the thought of going for a run, while others can’t get enough. Some take to the outdoors, with all of its sounds, smells, and environmental challenges while others prefer the convenience and ability to literally connect to technology on a treadmill.

Then there are those of you who must have music to get through what otherwise might be torture, whereas some find music and headphones just get in the way.

And the differences continue from there. Runners who love to run during the morning versus lunchtime versus nighttime. Alone or with others. Along city streets or through hilly trails. Long and slow adventures versus fast and short.

Of all the sports or ways to work out, is running is so many things to so many people. For you, is it just a form of physical activity to you or is it more? A way to push yourself, stay healthy, clear your mind, or reconnect with yourself or a running friend…or even more.

One key component of running that comes up in almost everyone’s running story somewhere along the way is racing.

Racing for fun, for a personal best, or for a challenge is exciting! And it’s an experience that cannot be replicated in everyday training or group runs.

Even if you wouldn’t describe yourself as a runner, most likely you’ve thought about or participated in a race at some point in your life. Training for a race is one of the most commonly set New Years resolution ideas that people have.

No matter what your goal is or how new you are to running, we want to help you accomplish your goal. That’s why we are sharing this complete, in-depth guide on how you can train for your next race, whether that race is your first or your 100th!

What is your racing goal?

Before even thinking about planning your training phase and researching which race you are going to run, you first need to figure out what your racing goals are.

Maybe you just want to train for a race and run it as part of an overall weight loss or fitness goal. Or maybe this race is a qualifier for a bigger race you want to run, so you really need to succeed.

Knowing your goal will help you focus your training on the right things. Racing goals can be based on one or all of these examples and more:

  • Time. Running a 5k at a 7-minute mile pace for example. This goal depends on what distance you’ll race.
  • Running a negative split, e.g. running a mile faster than the previous or running the second half of a race faster than the first.
  • Placing. Maybe you want to come in the top ten or finish first among your gender.
  • Overcoming mental obstacles, e.g. setting a goal to put out any negative or self defeating thoughts that come up.
  • Trying a new race distance and see if it’s the distance for you.

Of course, the more specific your goal is the more easily you can determine if you’ve met it and train to achieve it.

Is running a half marathon on your bucket list and you honestly just want to make it across the finish line? Who cares how fast you go or what your time is, right? Wrong. Avoid setting a goal to just finish a race.

If you are new to running/training for a race, your race time may not seem important. But if you’re going to take the time and energy to train for a race, time is important. Give yourself something concrete and objective to work towards. Otherwise it may be harder than you expect to complete.

If you are someone new to running or racing, it will take experimentation and adjustment during your training plan to identify a time that you want to cross the finish line in. You may start out saying you want to run a 10 minute per mile 5k and after 2 months of training realize you could push yourself to run 8 minutes per mile, or vice versa. No matter how slow you think your pace is, at a minimum, establish a goal race time. Adjust it along the way when you start training, but identify one up front to keep you motivated and track your progress.

If you run regularly and are a seasoned runner with a good base (defined and discussed more below), your focus will be more about achieving a personal best or running a faster time. Or you may be training for a new distance, e.g. going from a 5k to a 10k race. So like above, establish a goal race time based on your past experiences or expectations.

Knowing your body, lifestyle and running history will allow you to create a training plan that is effective and safe. But hand in hand with your goal setting is an honest evaluation of where you are at in this moment, both physically and mentally, but also in life.

Begin with base training

Think about your current fitness level and workout routine. Are you currently running and if so, how many miles a week? Are you physically active and fit (maybe biking, swimming, or taking yoga, pilates, group exercise strength classes), but new or returning to running?

Wherever you are, this is where your base starts.

Ultimately, you want to have a strong base before you start training for a race. Base training keeps you safe from injury and burnout; it is basically the running foundation you lay for your future, harder workouts. It’s a time in training when you’re building your aerobic strength, improving how well your cardiovascular system absorbs and transports oxygen.

Depending on your fitness level and running experience, your base training could be 6-12 weeks long. Don’t be discouraged by how long it takes you to build up your ability to run a long distance or at a fast speed. Going slow is actually what you want here.

For new runners, start building up your total mileage each week by running a little longer and more frequently. For example, the timeline below shows the type of progression you can do, easily modifying it depending on your fitness level as well as incorporating cross training (using the bike or elliptical, swimming, etc.):

  • Weeks 1-2: Run 1-2 easy miles at a conversation pace (being able to run and have a conversation with someone) a few times a week.
  • Weeks 3-4: Increase each run to 2 miles, 3-4 times per week.
  • Weeks 5-6: Increase each run to 3-4 miles, 3-4 times per week.
  • Weeks 7-8: Same as the previous week, but incorporate 1 longer run of 5-6 miles.

If you are a seasoned runner and/or have been running regularly, the example progression above would be fewer total weeks of base training and consist of a long run plus 3-4 days of running at least 30 minutes.

This phase is all about training your body for the increased mileage and getting aerobic strength!

Developing a growth mindset

Mentally, are you committed to yourself and your training journey?

A fascinating concept that can be applied to anything, but is particularly useful when it comes to running and training for a race, is the concept of a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset, studied by Dr. Carol Dweck.

(A great blog post on this topic and its association with running can be found here on the Salty Running blog.)

A growth mindset is “the understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed.” In terms of running, having a growth mindset means you believe that with effort, you can improve your performance. A fixed mindset is the belief that your abilities are set, fixed, and can’t be changed no matter how much effort you put in.

In running, having a growth mindset might mean that instead of beating yourself up about a difficult run (if you didn’t run as fast or as long as you wanted to or just felt crappy), you instead find ways to change that attitude. Recognize that the difficult run is part of the training/base training process, that you’re learning more about yourself and your abilities, and that there are ways you can do better next time. For example, finding a running partner or making sure you are hydrated and fueled with healthy foods. You might even come up with a running mantra to defeat negative thoughts.

Whether you pencil in motivational quotes in your planner or rely on a trusted friend to be your sounding board, approach training and running with the mindset and attitude that your hard work will transform you and improve your performance every time you get out there and run.

Making room in your life to run

Making the time to train is important, as with any goal. You won’t be successful if you don’t set aside time to put in the work.

If you already have a workout routine, it won’t be too hard to swap out other workouts you do for more running days. But realize you may need more time to train as your workouts get harder/longer, and don’t forget the time it takes to incorporate recovery activities, talked about more below, such as stretching, strengthening, and icing.

Use the weekly and monthly pages in your planner to designate days for your runs and the mileage or time you want to run. This will keep you on track and allow you to track your progress.

And if you run longer or shorter than you planned, note the change and write down how you felt; if you know or can guess why you felt a certain way during a run, add that in. Maybe you didn’t drink enough water one day and felt sluggish.

Using your planner to track your progress and journal your feelings and experiences helps you make training adjustments and provides insight into why you ran slower or faster on a given day.

Your training timeline from start to finish

Before diving into the details of a training plan, it’s important to have a specific training start and end date because you want to make sure you give yourself enough time to train safely and be successful. But it’s also the best way to get focused. Like the first day of a new job or school, it’s a milestone that marks the day’s significance; a series of rituals formalized and made official with that first day.

The end date is easy; that’s the day of your race. So to figure out your start date, calculate how many weeks you need to train based on your race distance, and subtract that number of weeks from the end date.

If you’re training for any of the following common race distances below, here are the *approximate* number of weeks you’ll need to train. Note – giving yourself more time is ok too and the number of weeks to train is not set in stone; there is no magic number.

5k/3.1 miles:

  • If you’re not running regularly or <5 miles a week, ~8 weeks.
  • If you’re more experienced, ~6 weeks.

10k/6.2 miles:

  • If you’re not running regularly or <5 miles a week, ~8-10 weeks.
  • If you’re more experienced, ~6-8 weeks.

Half marathon/13.1 miles:

  • If you’re not running regularly or <10 miles a week, ~12-14 weeks or longer.
  • If you’re more experienced, ~12 weeks.

Marathon/26.2 miles:

  • If you’re not running regularly or <10 miles a week or have never run, ~10-12 months, including the necessary time for base training, to train safely.
  • If you’re more experienced, ~20 weeks.

Runners World is a great resource for running information. Here are a few additional tips to consider in determining and planning your weekly mileage that you’ll need to take into account:

  • Typically, the longer the race, the more miles you will need to run each week to prepare for the race. You may therefore need more weeks to build up to a certain mileage.
  • Similarly, the more aggressive your racing goals are the more miles you’ll need to run, depending on the racing distance:
    • 5K: 20-25 miles per week
    • 10k: 25-30 miles per week
    • Half marathon: 30-40 miles per week
    • Marathon: 30-50 miles per week

With this information, what is your start date and end date? Now, get that in your planner!

Tips for your training plan

There are many training plans and options out there that come from online resources, books, magazines, coaches, or friend’s anecdotes; some for a fee and others for free.

The options can seem overwhelming especially if you don’t have a lot of experience training for a race. You may decide to follow a templated training plan or use that as your skeleton and then tweak it with different workouts as you see fit. A few sites I’ve used are:

By the time you’ve completed your base training, you’ll be ready to implement your training plan with the tips below in mind, preparing and getting yourself organized and ready to go.

1. Make each day of the week purposeful.

Designate a day of the week for a certain type of workout. Once you’ve done this, use your planner to mark which day is which workout, including specifics about your workout, paces, and/or distance.

First, start broad. For example:

  • Mondays: Developmental exercises or drills after a warm up, followed by a medium distance easy run, possibly strides. Developmental exercises improve strength, mobility, stabilization, speed, and form. Examples include box jumps, double leg jump, flamingo hops, and hurdle mobility exercises.
  • Tuesdays: Hills or speed
  • Wednesdays: Cross train or day off
  • Thursdays: Interval or speed
  • Fridays: Recovery run (a short, slow run)
  • Saturdays: Long run
  • Sundays: Cross train or day off

Nike+ Running has a good guide on terminology, including types of workouts and types of runs you can familiarize yourself with.

2. Proper warm ups.

Warming up is super important and really doesn’t take that long — so don’t skip it! Focus on incorporating dynamic exercises, not static ones, before jumping into a run or workout. Some examples (with how-to videos and pictures) from Women’s Running and Strength Running include the following:

  • A skips
  • High knees
  • Butt kicks
  • Grapevines
  • Bounders
  • Walking lunges
  • Iron cross
3. Where will you train?

In developing your training plan, you might need a track, trails, treadmill, free weights, or cross training equipment like a stationary bike, elliptical, or pool. If you’re using a training template, you may need to modify it so that it includes what you need and have access to; for example, if you’re training for a hilly 10k race, some of your workouts should reflect that and utilize hills.

4. Pace charts and other tools.

Know what pace to run your workouts in by using a pace chart like the one from Nike+ Running. Or you can use a site like the USCAA’s to calculate your splits. I often use this site to determine my pace for tempo runs, say if I want to do a 4 mile tempo in 7:30 minutes, what do my quarter mile splits need to be? I use this information during my run to ensure I stay on pace and don’t fall behind. Keep track of your progress in your planner so you can see your progression over time.

5. Recovery.

Taking care of your body and letting it rest is just as important as going hard on your hard workout days. Recovery includes all of these things:

  • Stay hydrated before, during, and after your workouts so your body can be its best.
  • Fuel properly before your runs, but also make sure you have some carbohydrates and protein post-run within 30 minutes.
  • Stretch! Be proactive about injury prevention and stretch after your runs, incorporate a post run yoga routine, foam roll, use other tools like massage balls or rollers, such as Roll Recovery’s R8 tool.
  • Use cross training on your off days or rest days to improve endurance while still allowing your body to recover. It also helps keep you from getting bored with running by mixing things up.

Make training fun!

Training doesn’t have to be a bore or depressing! Here are some tips you can use to stay motivated and excited to attack that workout:

  • Mix up the types of workouts you do. Give a fartlek or progression workout a try. Or discover the different ways you can do a tempo run, even on a treadmill, compliments of the Salty Running Blog.
  • Try a new place. Go explore that park you haven’t been to or run through a new neighborhood. A change of scenery can make the time go by much quicker.
  • Use a running app to connect with others.  Try Asics RunKeeper or Strava or any of the many running apps available to share routes, track workouts/mileage, set and share goals, and stay motivated.
  • Join a running club or pair up with a friend. Nothing beats training with others; workouts seem to fly by when you have another person there keeping you company and accountable, pushing you to do your best. Local running stores and running clubs (or Nike and Lululemon stores too) often have weekly runs you can join.
  • Listen to your favorite podcast or book on tape when you run, or if you use a treadmill, watch your favorite shows. Using these “carrots” to motivate you and keep you going are best for regular run days, not hard workouts. And of course, music and playlists are powerful!
  • Find your role model. Though you can’t do this during a run, get inspired by reading what others are doing by following a running blog or professional runner. The challenges they face put your day and workout into perspective. The Salty Running Blog is a wonderful resource for running information and inspiration; there are many bloggers on the site and after reading their bios, you may find someone that resonates with you.
  • Write a letter to your future self. At the beginning of your training, write a letter to yourself to open when you’ve got serious “why am I doing this” doubt. Or, you can open it on a certain date, like 2 weeks before your race. Either way, an upbeat, positive, confidence boosting message to your future self will remind you what you’re doing and why to keep pushing!

What keeps you going?

For me, writing out my plan, running with a partner, and aligning my training with a friend who is far away – knowing she is doing the same or similar workouts – motivates me to push myself and do more.

What has worked for you or what are you excited to try? Share your goals with us at or on Facebook, and let us know how your training goes!

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