19 January 2009

Training advice

Sonja Laxton, one of South Africa's most successful runners of all time and a member of the Runners World Hall of Fame, gives some training advice.

Sonja Laxton, one of South Africa's most successful runners of all time and a member of the Runners World Hall of Fame, gives some training advice.

Many women (and a few men) come up to me for advice on how best to approach their first roadrunning race. How far? How fast? How soon? What do I eat? How do I lose weight?

Those seeking advice come from a variety of backgrounds: some are reasonably fit and experienced and wish to improve their times, while others have never taken part in any sort of race in their lives. Some are young, others not; some are large, others small. Training programmes are very individual, but what I can do present some basic concepts that will be of some help to everyone.

First there are five basic rules before you even hit the road. They apply to all women, for any race, anywhere, and with any background.

RULE 1 - Commit yourself to taking part in the race: Write down the date in your diary and tell your family and friends. That way you will be committed.

RULE 2 – Set a goal: Now you need to clarify exactly what you are aiming to do. Is it just to walk from the start to the finish? That’s fine. Is it to break 70, 60, 50 or even 40 minutes? That’s better. Now that you have a target time in mind, you can plan your training accordingly. But remember, the more ambitious your goal is for you, the more intense will be your preparation.

RULE 3 – Get into a group: It’s very difficult to train alone for a race, especially if you are a novice. Motivation and commitment can easily drop if you have only yourself for company. So it’s vitally important to train with a group – a friend or friends, so that you can help one another along; a running club, where the more experienced runners can guide and motivate you; your social club or sports team or group. My advice is always to train in some sort of group – it will greatly improve your chances of success.

RULE 4 – Get equipped: Good shoes that suit your style of running, are essential. Get advice from an expert at a specialist running store. Bad shoes spell disaster – always! Then you need attractive and comfortable training gear, plus something warm for those chilly mornings. And, if you want to spoil yourself, get a digital running watch to record your times.

RULE 5 – Get into a routine that works for you: There is one word that summarises running such as this: discipline! You need to have regular training sessions in order to get anywhere, and this means a regular routine. Take a look at your life and see where you can fit it in. In the mornings early or perhaps after the family has gone to work/school? What about in the afternoons? And on the weekends – how busy are you on Saturday or Sunday mornings? One thing is for sure – to be successful, you will have to find between five and eight times per week for training, and usually, something will have to change in your life, even if it is only having to sleep less in the morning!

Now, about that training
Once again, a few simple guidelines:

  • Beginners: If you have never competed in an event such as this before, I have no doubt that you will find it a rewarding and fulfilling experience. The most important things to remember are: start slowly, build up gently and give yourself enough time.

    Start slowly: No-one ever started their running career by running 10km fast on day one. The best thing for the average woman to do is begin by walking – at the start just 10-15 minutes a day, building this up to 30 minutes, with increasing effort as you go. Try to get up to this level in a month.
    Then you can start gentle jogging in between the walking, at first just 100 metres, followed by more walking. Later the running can increase to 5 and even 10 minutes at a time. Eventually, you may be able to run for quite long without walking, but this is not necessary.
    Some people will never run at all, just do the entire race walking. This is fine, but be sure to extend those sessions up to an hour if you can.

    Build up gently: the principle of fitness is to steadily put pressure on your body to cope with more strenuous exercise. The body adapts as it goes, allowing you to attempt even more vigorous exercise. As it adapts, changes occur in the cardiovascular system (heart, lungs and blood vessels) that enable you cope with increasing physical demands. But remember, while you are pushing yourself harder, the body takes time to adapt, and you may not see immediate results. But then, suddenly, you will feel that improvement, and what a joy that is!

    Give yourself time: it is unlikely that anyone who has never run a race before will be able to prepare adequately in less than two months. Ideally, you will need about three months to start slowly, build up gently and still have your body ready for 10km or 5km. So, the earlier you start the better.

    Test yourself: it is important to get an idea of how you are doing, so you can either set yourself a specific route (say 3km or 4km) and see how your training times are improving, or else attend one of the local club time-trials.

  • Guidelines for more experienced runners: “Experienced” means different things to different people, but in this context, I mean someone who has run before, and has preferably completed a 10km race.

    Stamina is the basis for all distance running: all long distance running depends on the body’s ability to keep going for a long time, and this means basic stamina training. There is no substitute for long, gentle, comfortable running, and I suggest that 60 minutes be a minimum for a long run. On the other hand, if you want to stay at this 10km distance, there is little need to go out for more than 90 minutes on a long run. Get in that basic distance via the long weekend run and a couple of medium distance runs (8-12km) during the week.

    Build strength: all successful runners need to build muscular strength and this comes primarily via regular hill running. This can be either a session of hill repeats or by including hard hill running into your regular runs. Top runners do both.

    Build speed: it’s no use training at 6 minutes/km and then expecting to race at 5min/km. The body will not understand what you are asking it to do. So to be successful you need to bring in specific speed sessions, where a 5 min/km runner runs for a reasonable time at 4 min pace, and so on. These can be done via fartlek, where you include long fast spurts into an otherwise steady run.
    The best is to run 2 minutes hard, one minute slow for about 30 minutes, or you can even sprint lampposts alternatively fast and slow during a run through the suburbs. Some runners do specific interval sessions on the track, such as 5x600m or 4x800m, but these should only be done by experienced runners used to such mentally demanding sessions.

    Test yourself: as for the novices, you need to know where you are in your training. The methods are to log your times on a specific training route, or run regular time trials.

Good luck with your training, and whatever your goal, I sincerely hope you achieve it.

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