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The Fit Five: You Signed Up for a Race, Now What?

Tacking a 5-K, 10-K, or marathon onto your list of fitness resolutions? Use this expert advice to tackle your first big race of 2014.

Whether it's a 5-K or a full marathon, committing to a race—and the training plan that comes with it—is a great way to stay on track toward your fitness goals. But if an endurance event is a new addition to your exercise agenda, you’ve probably got more than a few questions about what’s in store for the next few weeks or months. To help answer some of those questions, we hit up running coach Christina Senft-Batoh, Ph. D., for advice on shin splints, strength training, and race-day nutrition.

Q1: How many weeks do I need to train for a 5-K What about a 10-K? Marathon?

"If you have trouble walking a mile, take at least 12 weeks to train for your first 5-K. Start off by alternating jogging and walking. If you are already able to run a mile, plan on 6-8 weeks. Once you are able to complete a 5-K run comfortably, another 8-10 weeks of training (adding approximately a half-mile to your longest training run each week) will be good preparation for a 10-K. The jump from the 10-K to half marathon, and ultimately the half to the full marathon, is more intensive. Give yourself 12-16 weeks to train for these. Three to four weeks prior to your half or full marathon, take your longest training run. Length should be 10-12 miles for the half, 20-23 miles for the full marathon."

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Q2: How important is cross-training when I'm getting ready for a race?

"Runners often have strong calf muscles but weak shins (tibialis anterior muscle). Cross-training is important for balanced strengthening of all leg muscles. This ultimately leads to greater muscle endurance and sustained speed while helping prevent common running-related injuries such as shin splints. Runners should also take time to focus on core strengthening. Spend 20 minutes twice a week on exercises like planks, bicycles, and squats with overhead presses to improve balance and gait."

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Q3: I'm training for a race, but I've got shin splints. What's the best way to manage the pain, or prevent them in the first place?

"If you find after two weeks of rest, ice, and ibuprofen that you are still in pain, you should see a doctor to rule out a more severe injury such as a stress fracture. Good cross-training options as you recover (and as a part of every runner’s normal training schedule) could include swimming, cycling, or a high-intensity spin class."

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Q4: I'm a decent runner, but I know I could be better. How can I take my race training to the next level?

"To advance past training plateaus, increase the intensity and frequency of speed and hill workouts. This could be accomplished by running additional repeats, increasing the distance of the 'sprint' portion of fartleks, and adding more hills (climbed at a fast pace) to your training runs. Also, as mentioned before, some weight and core training can really help you increase endurance and speed. Lastly, try to run with someone who is faster than you and will push you toward your next PR."

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Q5: What is the best meal I can eat the night before a race? On the day of?

"My biggest recommendation: Don’t eat anything the night before or day of the race that you haven’t had before your training runs. Race day is no time for experimentation. The night before a run, opt for a lean protein, like chicken, with a side of fresh vegetables and a double serving of rice or bread. The morning of the race, stick with carbohydrates and add a bit of protein. You need the carbohydrates for fuel and the protein will help diminish hunger later in the race. Try a bagel or toast with peanut butter. Lastly, don’t forget to stay hydrated! Drink plenty of water and sip on a sports drink, like Gatorade, to make sure you have plenty of electrolytes."

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