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Updated 13 October 2015

How to get a 21km medal

Each year thousands of runners line-up for the Two Oceans Half Marathon with the hope of getting the finisher's medal. This expert shares some tips on how to do it.

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Each year thousands of runners line-up for the Old Mutual Soweto Marathon. If you’ve done shorter races and decided that this is the year that you take part in a half marathon, there are plenty of things that you can do – exercise and otherwise – that can make all the difference. Here Wayne Allen, a health and fitness expert, shares his top tips to get you across the finish line.

How to train yourself to run 21km

Training to run longer distances is about slowly increasing your training load. The key is adding enough volume so that your body can adapt to the increase, but not too much so that you incur injury.

“The general rule of thumb is to add 10% per week for three weeks and the fourth week is a recovery week,” explains Allen.

Although longer runs are probably the most important session in conditioning your body to go the distance, the trick is the effect of the cumulative load that will enable you to run a 21km.

“For a 21km you should ideally have been running for three months prior to your build up and you would do well to give yourself 12 weeks to prepare.  Your longest week running up to the race should be greater than 25km and your longest run greater than 12km,” he adds.

View food as fuel: With all this additional running, you’ll be burning an impressive amount of kilojoules, and will have developed a much larger appetite. “Choose foods that are nutrient dense and give your body what it needs - without the unwanted calories.

Consider what you will eat before, during and after your sessions, as you can never out train a bad diet.  Not only so that you get through your sessions but so that you can recover in time for your next one too. 

How to approach race day

The week of the race is when your preparation starts. Making sure that you taper – doing shorter distances at race pace – is where you experience the gains in fitness.

The golden rule in preparing: nothing new on race day.  If you buy new shoes, make sure you break them in at least three weeks before the race.  And if you are wanting to change nutrition, make sure have trained on it three weeks before race day.

“On the day, remember that you’re stronger than you think. Injuries aside, when your mind says stop, you’re probably at 50% of what your body can still do,” says Allen.

Being well rested cannot be overstated. Typically the nerves set in and you struggle to sleep well the night before a race, so two nights before the race is the key evening to get good sleep. As a good habit during training, get to bed early and aim to get at least 7 hours sleep.  

Choose your meals carefully. Have a good dinner the night before including protein and carbs such as sweet potatoes, brown rice or quinoa. “For breakfast, have something low GI like oats (eaten +- 2 – 3 hours before the race), then sip on an energy drink an hour before the race to ensure that your energy stores are topped up and you are fully hydrated,” suggests Allen.

What to consider as you prepare for race day

Rest up: Rest days are vital and when you’re training hard, you’ll long for them. “It’s during this period that your muscles recover and when you actually get fitter and stronger. Without rest days you’ll see little improvement and over time will battle fatigue and eventually burn out, so don’t be tempted to fit your missed sessions in here,” warns Allen. A sports massage is also a good way to help your muscles recover.

Do exercises to complement running: Core work is the best non-running exercise you can do.  If you can fit in 15 minutes, three evenings a week, you should start to see results in three to four weeks. If you struggle to do this on your own, Allen suggests a Pilates or yoga class once or twice a week.

Functional exercises – such as forward lunges, jumping lunges and single leg squats − improve strength and address different aspects of the running movement. The intention of these exercises is to reduce the risk of injury and improve running efficiency. “Correct form always wins over number of repetitions and you must warm up before you start, “advises Allen.

Get yourself a training buddy: A training buddy might be the difference between getting out of bed or not for that early morning session. “Running with a partner also helps pacing and gets you through the session quicker, “says Allen. 

Know your multivitamins and supplements: A healthy diet is the best way to meet your nutritional needs, in terms of energy, protein and fats, vitamins and minerals. But as our Western diets are high in unhealthy sugars, salt and fats, supplementation can help.

“As an athlete, your need for certain vitamins and minerals increases. In terms of a multivitamin, stick to a well-balanced, one-a-day type multivitamin and mineral supplement. “I recommend a sport specific multivitamin,” says Allen. 

But prepare properly by doing the distance on the road and backing it up with a sound nutrition plan of solids and recommended supplements. It will make all the difference come race day, and help you recover faster,” concludes Allen.

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