Training for a fall race? Expert tips for getting in shape

WASHINGTON — Fall means football, foliage and food festivals, galore. But for runners, fall signifies one thing: race season.

From 5K fun runs to major marathons, weekends in September, October and November are packed with races. Whether you’re registered for a big one, or are thinking about signing up for a jog with some friends, now is the time to lace up your shoes and hit the pavement.

Josef Brandenburg, personal trainer and founder True 180 Fitness, offers his best advice when it comes to training for the fall race season.

It’s now September. Is it too late to start training? Well, that depends. If you haven’t run up until this point and are registered for a fall marathon, Brandenburg says it’s likely too late for you to be able to run all 26.2 miles. However, if you are planning on doing a mix of running and walking throughout the race, you’re still OK. Just don’t put training off another day.

Regular runners (Brandenburg defines this group as having a decent base and being able to run between five and eight miles with ease) are not too late to the game. But now is the time to start increasing those miles to get ready for the big day.

What do I need to do to start training? First, make sure you are in a good pair of shoes. Small running stores (and there are a number of them in the D.C. area) have experts on hand who can analyze your gait and recommend a pair that’s best suited for your body and your stride. Knowledgeable staff can also give you an idea of how long your shoes will last (you might need more than one pair when training for a marathon).

Preparing for a run means the focus of your training needs to be on, well, running — often three to five days a week. However, that’s not to say you should neglect other activities. Brandenburg says mixing in two days of strength training can do wonders for runners. It helps improve speed and the time it takes for your muscles to recover between runs. Plus, it helps with injury prevention.

When it comes to training for longer races, runners need to increase their mileage over several weeks. There are a number of half- and full-marathon training programs out there that can guide you through the ideal mileage progression for your goals. Runner’s World has several training programs available for download, designed for everyone from beginners to professionals.

Brandenburg also recommends signing up for a local training group or joining in on community runs (many running stores organize weekly group runs). It’s a great way to meet people and to learn more about the upcoming race.

“If this is your first one, [it’s nice to know] what’s expected so you’re not so nervous when the race actually happens,” Brandenburg says.

Seasoned runners can also help answer questions you might not think of, such as the best socks to wear for a race (you’ll need a pair made out of a moisture-wicking fabric), easy-to-digest energy gels and more.

“All those things that really matter when you start putting that many miles under your belt,” Brandenburg says.

It’s time to clean up your eating act. It’s no secret that what you put into your body impacts how your body is able to perform. When you’re training for a race, whether big or small, it’s important to limit the junk food and up your intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.

What you might not expect to hear, however, is that some people are more likely to gain weight when training for a race. Sounds crazy, right? Brandenburg says there’s an obvious explanation — especially when you get into high-mileage runs.

“A lot of people find that they get really hungry,” he says. “The more difficult it is for you to lose weight, the more likely you are to be someone who is going to end up kind of ravenous. You might end up gaining weight, especially toward the end of the marathon.”

However, there is a way to avoid this. Brandenburg says to keep your carbohydrates in check.

“For the most part, get your carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables and some fruit. And after your long runs, that’s when you’d want to have the starches — but minimally processed stuff,” he says.

And make sure you are getting plenty of water. Staying hydrated is vital to staying healthy.

You finished your race. Now what? Congrats! You made it to your goal and all that work paid off. Now what? Take a break. If you completed a marathon, Brandenburg suggests taking about a week off from running. But that doesn’t mean you should avoid all physical activity.

“Low-level physical activity is very important for the recovery process,” Brandenburg says. He suggests foam rolling, swimming, stretching, walking and other gentle movement exercises.

If there’s another race on your horizon, take some time to taper from your training, and then build back up a few months or several weeks before the race.

Feeling inspired? Sign up for a race this fall: Run Washington keeps a detailed calendar of upcoming races — from major marathons to community 5K walks and runs.  

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