There's a lot to know when preparing for a marathon, bike race or other athletic event, and it's not all common sense—especially if you're a beginner. But amateurs aren't doomed to bungle the first go. Here, fitness experts share seven novice training missteps to avoid.
1. Training too much, too soon. "Most people get excited about their goal and go all out," says Bellingham, WA-based personal trainer and former Penn State running coach Carol Frazey. But overdoing it can quickly lead to injury and burnout. One way to prevent covering too much ground in the first weeks of training: follow the 10 percent rule. Increase your mileage or minutes each week by no more than 10 percent. That means if you currently run a total of 20 miles per week, you can step it up to 22 miles the next week. Follow this rule of thumb until you reach your maximum pre-race goal mileage, Frazey says. And as a general rule, don't increase distance and intensity in the same week.
2. Specializing without foundational skills. "The biggest mistake I see in any sport preparation is getting specialized [in a particular athletic activity] too early," says New York City-based sports performance coach Chris Matsui. "People try to jump into training for a swimming, biking or running event right off the bat." But it's more effective to train from general to specific, Matsui says. First building a foundation of total body strength, endurance and flexibility, as well as working on healing any preexisting injuries, will vastly improve your training for any specific event or activity.
3. Mistiming the taper. Gradually scaling back your training in the weeks leading up to an athletic event is critical, allowing your body to replace glycogen stores and recoup. But everyone's ideal drop-off period is different. "Taper duration is dependent on the length of the race," says Andrew Johnston, a former professional cyclist and author of Holistic Strength Training for Triathlon. In general, the longer the race, the longer the taper should be. Your level of fitness is another factor: an athlete with a deeper training base can have a longer taper, whereas an athlete with less training should keep the taper period shorter to minimize de-conditioning. If you aren't sure how much taper time you need, err on the side of tapering too early. "It's much better to go into a race a little undertrained than a little overtrained," Johnston says.
4. Competing for the wrong reasons. "A first time marathoner—or any endurance athlete—needs to know exactly why they are choosing to train and compete," says Jeff Brown, Boston-based marathon psychologist and coauthor of The Winner's Brain. A strong personal motivator, such as a charity cause, personal accomplishment or the memory of a loved one, is more likely to keep you motivated when the going gets tough, and it can keep you from comparing yourself to others—a common misstep for first-timers, Brown says.
5. Eating new foods on race day. With all the exotic bars, gels and sports drinks one sees at some athletic events, it's tempting to try new fuel sources. But Frazey says it's not worth the risk—you might not get the energy supply you're used to, or worse, you could wind up with an upset stomach. Frazey, who sticks to peanut butter and banana sandwiches before each run, also advises eating at the same times before and during the event as you did in your training. "If you are used to running an hour after eating a hamburger and you feel good during your long run, then eat a hamburger before your race," she says. "The key to nutrition is to stay consistent," she says.
6. Not training your mind. "You can pound the pavement for miles physically, but at the same time it's important to work out your brain," says Brown. Positive self-talk, visualization and distractions are all useful techniques for overcoming training challenges, he says. Doing a dress rehearsal or mini-version of the event during your peak training period can also increase your confidence on the big day.
7. Not thinking beyond the first race. This goes back to your motivation for competing, and hopefully it's long-term fitness rather than a one-day achievement. "Not everyone needs to do a marathon for their first running race, and not everyone should do an Ironman as a first introduction to triathlon," Johnston says. "The effects of endurance training are cumulative, and you build one year upon another." By putting your long-term training goals into perspective, you might realize it makes more sense to start with a smaller event and work your way up. Not only will you run a better race this time around, you'll have many more races to come.
The most important piece of advice for beginners? Remember to enjoy your first athletic competition. "You may make some mistakes," Frazey says, "but being part of an event, pushing yourself to your goal and enjoying the experience is what it's all about."