“Sometimes, they sign up with the idea that having a race on a calendar will ‘make’ them run more consistently,” says certified strength and conditioning specialist Janet Hamilton, a clinical exercise physiologist with Running Strong in Atlanta. “Sometimes, it’s due to peer pressure from their running buddies, who are maybe more advanced runners. Or they sign up thinking that it will help them lose weight. Without the right reasons for training, race day doesn’t usually work out well.”
We’re all about setting a goal and using it to motivate you to get and stay in great shape. But there’s a difference between setting your sights on a manageable target and doing something that’s going to leave you burnt out or (even worse) injured.
Here are six signs that the race you’re signing up for (or have you already ponied up your registration fee?) is more than you can handle right now—and that picking a shorter race might be your best plan. (Don’t worry, it’ll help you be able to tackle that bucket list race later!)
“The most important thing you can do is give yourself time to prepare for a race,” says Hamilton. “There’s no substitute for a generous window of time to train. Adaptation is a cellular process that takes time! Plus, giving yourself plenty of time to train accounts for the fact that life happens and can interrupt training. If you only give yourself the minimum amount of time to train, you need everything to go perfectly—smooth training runs, no life or work interruptions or illness.”
For example, a first-time marathoner should give herself about 24 to 26 weeks to train—and that’s when you’re already able to run 20 to 24 cumulative miles during week one, says Hamilton. Running virgins need a whole year, says running coach Mike Thomson, a certified strength and conditioning specialist with Fast & Fit Coaching in Chicago. He notes that even Olympic athletes—who are in ridiculous shape year-round—take an average of 12 to 16 weeks to train for a race.
You’re already injured—and ramping up your mileage into race day will only make it worse. You’ll either finish the race—but in a much slower time than you would be able to do otherwise. Or more likely, you’ll end up hurting yourself (maybe so much that you can’t even cross the finish line). Neither sounds like the fun race day you were probably hoping for.
While there’s no hard-and-fast rule here, in general, you want to be able to complete a long run of five miles before taking the starting line for a 10-K, 11 miles before a half marathon, and 20 miles before a marathon, says Hamilton. “Can people get by on less? Sure! Some do and survive just fine, but others pay the price with a long, brutal race day and significant injuries.” Fight the urge to jump from four to eight miles in attempt to meet your long-run goals, though, says Thomson. Week to week, it’s best to increase your long runs by no more than 10 percent.
It’s normal to waddle for a few hours after a long run, but if you wake up super sore the next day, it’s a sign that your body isn’t ready for you to increase your mileage just yet. “Conquer that distance or that interval workout without pain before you dial it up a notch,” says Hamilton. “Soreness, stiffness, or fatigue that lasts for days after a run is an indication that you’re pushing well past your limits and may be pushing yourself right into an injury.”
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Mental burnout is just as much a sign of overtraining as is physical burnout, says Hamilton. Plus, if you dread your runs, forcing yourself to complete them anyway pretty much defeats the point of training. It’s supposed to be something you actually like to do and will stick with after race day. If lowering your mileage and postponing that big race can make the whole process more enjoyable, why not?
Every woman is going to miss a training run here or there. And that’s okay. But if you’re constantly missing them, you may not be ready for race day.