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Training for Your First Distance Race (1)

Training for Your First Distance Race

With fall approaching, many are setting their sights on cooler weather and deciding to tackle their first distance race. ‘Distance Race’ is of course a relative term, so let’s count anything 10K up to the marathon. The best way to prepare for this kind of race is to run more. Simply put: some combination of running faster and farther.

However, as with everything in life – too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. Running too much, especially when your mind and body are not prepared for it, can potentially result in boredom, burnout, or injuries. If you are motivated and effective with time management, most of these issues aren’t much of a concern – but injuries can derail even the most dedicated and experienced runners.

Most, if not all, running injuries are overuse injuries (think runner’s knee, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, IT band syndrome, shin splints, etc.). More often than not, the best cure for these injuries is to rest. But we have a problem: how can you avoid overuse injuries when the way to prepare for distance races is to ‘overuse’ your legs by running faster and farther? This brings us to an important point - the way to improve as a runner is to run more, and to do so while avoiding injury. Consistency is key!

There are countless plans online with daily and weekly mileage suggestions for runners targeting a long distance race. This article will not try to re-invent the wheel... many of these programs are excellent. But this article will tackle a major issue, something that is lacking in many runner’s training plans – specifically strength training and cross-training. First we will define what these mean, and then discuss why they are a critical component of every runner’s training plan.

Strength Training for Runners

Strength Training: using strength machines or free weights to target a muscle or group of muscles to contract against resistance. Think of that area of the gym that many runners avoid. Many common running injuries have been linked to muscle weaknesses, for example:

  • IT Band Syndrome has been linked to weak hip abductors and external rotators1,2
  • Achilles tendonitis has been suggested to be caused in part due to weak calves3 and to be reduced with certain kinds of calf-focused strength training4
  • Runner’s knee has been linked to weak quads5 and weak hip musculature,6,7 and common rehabilitation methods include knee and hip strengthening exercises8

Strength training should primarily focus on leg-targeted exercises (Leg Press, Calf Raises, Squats, Deadlifts, Hip Ab/Adduction, Leg Extensions, Lunges, and Leg Curls are some to consider), with a secondary focus on the rest of the body (Abdominals, Chest and Back, Arms and Shoulders). After all, we want to be well rounded.

Using heavy weights (a weight that you can lift for a 3-6 repetition) for all of these exercises is a proven method of increasing muscular strength.9 Your leg muscles get plenty of endurance work during your running, so don’t fall into the trap of using a “light weight – high repetition” model for training. Make sure to follow up a strength day with a short easy run the next day to ensure your muscles fully recover for faster or longer effort runs later on. A recipe for disaster is to perform a hard strength session the day before your first ten miler.

Cross-Training for Distance

Cross-Training: any cardiovascular work that is not running. Included in cross training is swimming, walking, hiking, biking, stair climbing, and non-impact cross trainers (such as the Arc Trainer). The idea here is to provide a cardiovascular workout while still giving the muscles/joints/tendons of the legs a slight rest and a slightly different stimulus.

Cross-training should replace a day of running, and still be of comparable effort or duration. A great example is to go on an hour long bike ride through the park to replace a four mile jog. Swimming is an excellent way to get a full body cardio workout while minimizing impact to the legs.

Strength and cross training should be done 1 or 2 times per week, as time allows. They are not the focus of a running program – but they should complement it. If strapped for time, consider a program where you can develop cardiovascular endurance and leg muscle strength at the same time, for example a power interval protocol on the Arc Trainer.

The Most Important Tip for Distance Training

Finally, one last tip for those training for their first distance race: listen to your body. Everyone is unique – no cookie cutter online running plan knows how your body will respond to your first long run or first 25 mile week. Listen to your body, be smart about when to push yourself, and gain strength and cardio through other means when you can’t (or shouldn’t) run.

Cory Hofmann, M.S.
Senior Research Manager, Cybex Research Institute

Train with the Cybex Workout Center


1. Fredericson M et al. (2000) Hip abductor weakness in distance runners with iliotibial band syndrome. Clin J Sport Med. 10(3):169-75.

2. Noehren B et al. (2007) Prospective study of the biomechanical factors associated with iliotibial band syndrome. Clin Biomech. 22(9):951-6.
3. Mahieu NN et al. (2006) Intrinsic risk factors for the development of Achilles tendon overuse injury: a prospective study. Am J Sports Med. 34(2): 226-35.
4. Alfredson H et al. (1998) Heavy-load eccentric calf muscle training for the treatment of chronic Achilles tendonitis. Am J Sports Med. 26(3): 360-6.
5. Pappas E, Wong-Tom WM (2012) Prospective predictors of patellofemoral pain syndrome: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Sports Health. 4(2): 115-20.
6. Prins MR, van der Wurff P (2009) Females with patellofemoral pain syndrome have weak hip muscles: a systematic review. Aust J of Physiother. 55(1): 9-15.
7. Ireland ML et al. (2003) Hip strength in females with and without patellofemoral pain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 33(11): 671-6.
8. Willy RW, Davis IS. (2011) The effect of hip-strengthening program on mechanics during running and during a single leg squat. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 41(9): 625-32.
9. Anderson T, Kearney JT (1982) Effects of three resistance training programs on muscular strength and absolute and relative endurance. Res Q Exer Sport. 53(1):1-7.