Has cheering for Team USA this Olympics season inspired you to go for gold in your own distance event? Here in New York City, we’re seeing more and more fitness fans and amateur athletes — including a few staffers from TIME’s own offices — hitting the pavement, training for big road races in the fall.
Running is a popular way not only to stay in shape, but also to introduce yourself to the thrill of competition — and all you really need to get started is some hardy resolve and a good pair of running shoes. So, even you haven’t got Usain Bolt‘s speed or Kenenisa Bekele‘s endurance, you can still chase your personal best (and along the way, reduce your risk of diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cognitive decline and even cancer).
Below is advice from fitness gurus Patrick McCrann, head coach of the training website Marathon Nation, and Jenny Hadfield, running and fitness expert and author of Running For Mortals, to help you train safely and effectively this summer.
(MORE: 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch)
Pick the Training Plan that Works Best For You
There are any number of marathon and half-marathon training schedules available on the Web. Peruse them all to find the one that matches your current training level and progresses from there. “Your current training should match the first week of the training plan,” says Hadfield. “If it’s very similar to what you are doing now, it’s a great program for you. If it jumps up to a much higher mileage than what you’re used to, it’s a risky program.”
Be honest with yourself about whether you’ll be able to stick with the plan: can your current life schedule — work, school, family or other obligations — really accommodate the weekly structure of the plan? “High-mileage plans or multiple-track workouts might sound appealing, but if your life dictates otherwise, you’re going to set yourself up for a very difficult training period,” says McCrann. “Once you’ve worked around that, find a plan that’s just hard enough to test you, but not so hard that you will be burnt out before the big day.”
Scan each plan’s scheduled long runs and review the weekly layout carefully before making your decision.
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Wear the Right Apparel
The most important piece of equipment is your shoes, but a few other key pieces of clothing will make running a lot more comfortable.
- Running shoes: Fit and comfort rule here. To find the right shoe for you, head to your local running specialty store to learn about your particular needs (runners with flat feet will wear a shoe that’s vastly different from those that work for high arches, for example) and fit yourself with the shoes that match your specific running style.
- Sports bra: For women, the right sports bra can make all the difference. Make sure you use a bra that’s designed for high-impact activity and is structured enough to support you, especially if you have big breasts. “When you don’t have good support in the form of a bra, you tend to hold your chest forward and tight which restricts your breathing,” says Hadfield. “It will help your form if you wear something that’s fitted and geared toward high-impact activity.”
- Wicking fabrics: Workout clothes made of special wicking fabric are useful during all training seasons. Unlike 100% cotton clothes, these synthetic fabrics draw sweat off the skin to the outside of the clothing, keeping you cool in summer and warm in winter.
- Fitness Gadgets: There’s an overwhelming number of fitness gadgets and products on the market boasting performance-enhancing features. Personally, we don’t think you need a lot of gewgaws to train for a race. Keep it simple with a digital sports watch to track your time and pace.
(MORE: Do Sports Products Really Enhance Your Workout? Maybe Not)
Fuel Up with the Right Food and Drinks
Glycogen is the body’s main source of energy during high-intensity activity. When your body’s glycogen storage depletes, your muscles begin to fatigue. So, you need to replenish your levels by consuming small amounts of carbohydrates when your runs last longer than 60 minutes. Here are some general guidelines for recharging during training:
- Runs under 60 minutes: Stick to good ol’ H2O. “I am a huge advocate for keeping things simple,” says Hadfield. On short runs, she recommends drinking according to your thirst. “You don’t want to go out and powerload on water. Your body will tell you how much water you need,” she says.
- Runs longer than 60 minutes: As a general rule of thumb, take in about 4 oz. of fluids for every mile you run. So that might mean pausing for energy gel, a sports drink or similar energy source roughly every 30 to 45 minutes, depending on your level of effort. While sports drinks, coconut water and gels are popular with runners, you can also try pitted dates, honey or sweet potato mash (if you can stash them easily on your run). Keep a log of your snacks during your training to find what works best for body so you know what to have on hand for race day. “Remember that every run is a chance to practice your fueling plan for race day,” says McCrann.
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Let Your Body Rest and Recover
Don’t underestimate the benefits of giving your body a break. “For beginners, I think recovery is even more important than training. You can’t have a great race if you show up overtrained and beat up,” says McCrann. “No one has ever said they feel ‘too rested’ on race day.”
All training schedules have built-in rest days — take them. First timers should use their days off to rest fully and let their muscles recover. Stronger athletes may want to do some active recovery and take a yoga class, bike or swim on their off days; pick an off-day workout that doesn’t risk injuring you before race day. Regardless of your training level, your body needs a break from the impact of running. “The difference between exercising in general and training for something is that training is progressive. Week 1 is going to look very different from Week 6 of a training plan,” says Hadfield. “The goal is to progress your mileage and time. In order to do that safely, you need to build in rest days.”
Your body will tell you when you need some real time off. If you’re feeling tired and exhausted, turn down the intensity of your workout or just take a day off.
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Find Your Motivation
When your legs feel like rubber and all you want to do is lounge on the couch in front of the TV, you need an extra push to lace up your shoes. One thing to consider is choosing the right goal from the start — like a race that really excites you, says McCrann. “That can be a race with a distance that’s longer than usual, one that’s unique like a night race or more challenging like a trail run,” he says. Also, many races are organized to raise awareness or fund raise for various causes and charities; if you’re passionate about a certain cause, sign up.
Also, find a local training group or a running buddy who can motivate you and keep you accountable. “Motivation from others is so valuable and also a great way to learn tips for how to better your runs,” says Hadfield.
Don’t Forget to Have Some Fun
Take your time with your runs, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember that you’re running because you actually enjoy it. “You’re going to have good days and you’re going to have challenging days,” says Hadfield. “The good days keep you going and the challenging days humble you.” But each run gets you closer to the finish line.
(MORE: Extreme Workouts: When Exercise Does More Harm than Good)
To help keep you motivated, Healthland will follow three TIME staffers, below, who are training for half-marathons in October. Stay tuned for updates (on our site and on Twitter and Facebook) on their progress this summer, and for their personal tips on how to keep yourself going:
Bryan Walsh, TIME International Senior Editor and Healthland contributor
Walsh tried out for his school’s cross country team when he was 12 years old and says he was “terrible” at it. But he stuck with it anyway and eventually grew to love running. In the last seven months, he says he decided to kick his routine into high gear and start training for distance events. In June, he ran in the New York Governor’s Island 10K, and in August he will start training for the Runner’s World Half Marathon, taking place Oct. 21 in Bethlehem, Pa. “I run for exercise, definitely, but increasingly for fun as well. It’s probably my favorite thing to do all week,” says Walsh.
Liz Ronk, LIFE.com Photo Editor
When Ronk felt bored and uninspired by her gym routine three years ago, her triathlete roommate convinced her to try an easy run/walk training program. Ronk got hooked, and has run 12 races and two half-marathons since then. Ronk is currently training to run Grete’s Great Gallop, a half-marathon taking place in New York City’s Central Park on Oct. 14. “I run because I enjoy it and it makes me happy,” says Ronk. “It’s something I do for myself. The fitness part of it is just a bonus. There is a great sense of accomplishment when you see all the training equal actual progress.”
Liz Grover, TIME Imaging Desk
Grover’s first experience running was during field hockey tryouts the summer before high school, when the coach told her she had to run an 8-min. mile to try out. Grover had never even run a mile before. Now she’s got two 10Ks under her belt and is training for the New York Road Runner 5-Borough Series Staten Island Half Marathon on Oct. 7. Some days are easier than others, Grover says, but she’s confident she will make it to the finish line this fall. “I run mostly for exercise, but it also helps me clear my mind and I definitely feel so much better after a run. I love going running with my friends,” she says.