A runner jogs outside with custom-fit shoes.
A pair of custom-fit shoes is a must-have—they’ll help you avoid common running injuries and maximize your comfort. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Whether you are a novice or avid runner, you may have considered training for a longer race.

Maybe you have run one or multiple races and you’re comfortable with your distance—but have always thought about crossing off that next milestone.

So, what does it take to get there?

Matthew Axtman, DO, a Spectrum Health sports medicine physician, has been in your shoes.

An avid runner, he has tackled multiple 5K and 10K races. Last year, he completed a 25K for the virtual Amway River Bank Run. He also serves as the medical lead for the River Bank Run.

For runners ready to make the leap to a longer race, Dr. Axtman provides expert advice about the factors to consider—training time, nutrition, hydration and injury prevention.

Training schedule

Plan to run a longer race? Spend more time training. The recommended amount of time will depend on your athletic level and running ability. Find the distance you want to complete and create a schedule to get there.

Recommended training schedules:

  • 5K (3.1 miles): Most people can run a 5K successfully, training anywhere from six weeks for more active individuals to two months for beginner runners.
  • 10K (6.2 miles): Allow three months for training and conditioning.
  • Half marathon, 25K and full marathon: Allow at least six months to train and prepare for longer distances.

Expert tip: “With longer distance, don’t worry as much about your time or pace. The biggest thing to consider is that distance,” Dr. Axtman said.

“Keep in mind how far—not always how fast—you’re going. Find a good pace for you and your comfort level to ensure you can make it to the finish line.”

Mind over matter

Running is a physical sport, but there is also a mental component while you train. It’s important to enjoy the experience.

If someone is forcing you to run, you won’t be there mentally. You may develop a negative attitude and can hit a mental block, which will prevent you from advancing.

On the contrary, if you overtrain—run seven days a week and train for a shorter race—and don’t give yourself enough rest, you can run into mental and physical issues that may cause you to stop.

Expert tip: “It’s important to take a rest day so you don’t burn out. Change up your running routes. Find a running buddy or group who challenges you. If you’re not enjoying it, it’s going to drag you down,” Dr. Axtman said.

Overcome the distance

Injuries can happen no matter your distance. A new runner training for their first 5K can be just as prone to injury as an avid runner training for a marathon.

Since a marathon requires a lot more effort than a 5K, longer runs can create the potential for more serious problems if you don’t train properly.

One of the most common running injuries is a stress reaction—an injury where there’s too much stress on the bone and it starts to swell. If you run too much on a stress reaction, that could lead to a stress fracture.

Another common running injury is runner’s knee. This can occur if your muscles are not working properly. They can alter the way the kneecap moves and cause pain along the iliotibial band, along the side of the knee.

To prevent these injuries, include a rest day in your training. This is when healing happens.

Expert tip: “Make sure you cross-train and do other activities that will keep you active. If you just run and don’t do other forms of exercise, it will put wear and tear on the same muscles and tendons quicker. Cross-training could include weightlifting, yoga, Pilates, biking, elliptical or swimming,” Dr. Axtman said.

Protect those feet

You’ll need to protect your feet and have good support while training.

The longer you train, the more shoes you will go through. The recommended distance for each pair of shoes is 300 to 500 miles. Certain components of the shoe will start to break down after that and won’t provide the necessary support.

Find a good shoe that fits your feet and doesn’t cause any pain or issues. Once you find that shoe, stick with it and buy multiple pairs.

Make sure to break in your shoes before you run the race. Don’t run in a new pair of shoes on race day.

For elite runners—have two pairs of shoes for training to break both in at the same time. Overlapping the shoes ensures you have a good pair ready for longer distances.

Expert tip: “Go to a running store and have someone evaluate you. They will be able to look at your arch, feet and stride. If you start training in the new shoes and have pain or discomfort, you can return them and get a new pair,” Dr. Axtman said.

Treadmill vs. outdoor running

If you’re running an outdoor race, you should do most of your training outside.

The difference with outdoor running is the ground reaction force.  When your foot lands on the ground, you have to push down and force your body forward.

When you’re on a treadmill, you’re going with the belt and the machine does that for you.

It will be a different running experience from a treadmill to outside because you will also be dealing with hills and turns. This will require the use of different muscles.

Expert tip: “If you’re dealing with an injury, the treadmill or a rubberized track is a good option for training because it has a little bounce compared to running outside. One thing you can do on a treadmill is run on a 2-degree incline to get more resistance while training,” Dr. Axtman said.

Build a training diet

You should focus on diet the moment you start training for any distance. Find a diet program that works for you and stick with it.

It’s important to make meals a part of your training so when you get to race day, you stay consistent with what you normally eat before and after you run. That’s what your body knows and will work for you.

Avoid a big meal full of high fat content. Fatty foods will sit in the pit of your stomach and take up the energy your body needs to run. Go with a lower fat content diet.

Expert tip: “For longer distances, you may want to increase carb intake the night before so you have enough energy to get you through the race, but be mindful of eating too much the day of the race as this can slow you down,” Dr. Axtman said.

On race day, he advises a lighter breakfast.

“Eggs with toast or oatmeal is always a good choice. Some people don’t like to eat because they are nervous and that can cause nausea. But you should have something to eat to give you the energy you need to get through the run.”

Hydration balance

There is a lot of information on hydration and different equations you can use to see how much you’re supposed to hydrate based on your body, your distance, how much you sweat and how much salt you’re losing.

Most hydration issues come into play when you run farther than a 5K or 10K. Starting around mile six and above is when you really should monitor your hydration for your longer run.

Hydration should be part of your training as well. You will learn throughout your training when or at what mile mark you get thirsty.

Expert tip: “Listen to your body. Drink to thirst. If you’re thirsty, have some water,” Dr. Axtman said.

“You don’t have to down water at every aid station because that can lead to stomach cramps, nausea and bloat.

“If you start getting a headache, feel lightheaded, dizzy or start to have blurry vision—you are dehydrated. Avoid dehydration by knowing how long you have to run and what your hydration needs are.”

In case of injury…

If you become injured, Dr. Axtman suggests getting evaluated at a sports medicine clinic to determine the type of injury and whether rehabilitation is needed. A physical therapist can evaluate your running gait and record it to see if something is off.

“Our group of sports medicine physicians are very experienced with runners and the running community. If you’re dealing with an injury, it’s important to see someone who knows runners,” Dr. Axtman said.

The team’s ultimate goal is to get you back to training and allow you to finish the race.

“Some people are afraid that if they come in for an evaluation, we’ll tell them to stop running and training,” he said. “That may be true in some more serious cases. Most of the time, we want to keep you out there doing the things you love.

“If you have any concerns during your training, do not hesitate to come in for an evaluation so our team can correct simple things before they become major.”