Two weeks in, and Elisea Toscana Cochrane was hooked. She wanted more. More heart-pounding sweat. More concrete-kicking burn. More wind-whipping speed.
Once the Castro Valley mother’s daily stroller walks became jogs, the craving for the runner’s high made Toscana Cochrane do something she never thought possible: train for a half-marathon.
“I never even thought I could run a mile without stopping,” says Toscana Cochrane, 38. “I was always the type that would complain that I’m short and have flat feet. But now, the sense of accomplishment that I get from long-distance running? No one can take that away from me.”
Tackling a half-marathon is a common New Year’s resolution. Experts say with the right nutrition, training and determination, even the couch potato can meet the 13.1-mile goal in as little as 12 weeks. But because running is a buildable skill, it is vital to learn proper technique to prevent injury and burnout. Some experts suggest you don’t even register for an event until you are a dedicated runner.
“I really believe someone should discover the joy, experience the setbacks, overcome the challenges and establish a regular routine before they think of racing,” says Oakland ultramarathoner Sarah Lavender Smith, whose blog, The Runner’s Trip, chronicles the 16 years and 20,000 miles she’s logged.
But, for many, the goal of a half-marathon is what gets them going. Six weeks ago, Toscana Cochrane started her training program for the March 25 Oakland Running Festival’s Half-Marathon.
With the plethora of free online running resources and a husband who runs, Toscana Cochrane, like many beginners, didn’t seek the help of a trainer or coach.
Instead, she follows an 18-week schedule that started her at 8 miles per week and culminates in 30 miles per week. Most training programs are 12-16 weeks, but, with two children, a full-time job and a sport that is so prone to causing injury, Toscana Cochrane wanted the extra time.
“It gives me the opportunity to add a few weeks in case I fall back for any reason,” she says.
Most running events, from this month’s Coyote Hills Half-Marathon in Fremont, Calif., to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training races, offer opportunities to train with running groups or on your own.
The Oakland Running Festival’s website has a feature that allows both first-timers and seasoned veterans the ability to customize cardio and strength training workouts, map routes, track shoe mileage and connect with other runners on community message boards.
According to experts, the Internet — and specifically social media — has helped to break running of its solitary reputation. It’s certainly true for Beverly Ingram, of Alameda, Calif., who uses the GPS technology of the iPhone app MapMyRun to record, chart and share her runs and routes with friends.
“We’ve gone running instead of happy hour,” says Ingram, who is 33 and training for her first half-marathon this spring.
She turned to running in 2007 after a difficult breakup left her “sitting around the house with a lot of nervous energy.” Her introduction was with Couch-to-5K, an eight-week running plan that gets first-timers jogging three miles with confidence.
Now, in preparation for the Oakland Half-Marathon, she runs three miles after work three times a week and does one long run every weekend, increasing it by one mile each time to build stamina and endurance.
Owner Marty Breen of Forward Motion Sports in Danville, Calif., recommends increasing the weekday runs by one-quarter to one-half mile a week, or about 10 percent, especially if you’re new to running.
“It’s a big goal. Give yourself some time,” says Breen, who encourages beginners who attend the store’s well-known Wednesday-night runs to train for up to six months. “If you don’t, you’re going to wind up injured.”
It happens to all runners, even Olympic hopefuls. As a former All-American track athlete running with the Nike Farm Team in Palo Alto, Calif., Brendon Mahoney experienced every running injury, from shin splints to damaging his iliotibial band, the fibers that run along the outside of the thigh.
It wasn’t until he found a strength conditioning program and relearned how to run properly that he truly enjoyed the art of running. Now, as a running coach and owner of CrossFit training center in San Mateo, Calif., he passes his wisdom on to hundreds of first-time marathoners:
“Technique is the most important thing,” Mahoney says. “Land on your mid-foot, not your heel. Keep your chest up and your core engaged, otherwise you’ll lose efficiency and run slower.”
Curious about stretching? Mahoney recommends dynamic stretches, such as leg swings, to warm up before a run. Save the longer holds for five minutes after your run. Between runs, cross-train with squats, push ups and yoga to build strength.
Mahoney, who blogs about training at http://neverletitrest.com, also teaches his clients how to maximize their performance through nutrition. Carbo-loading is out, he says. Mahoney stresses a Paleolithic diet of protein, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
“We now know that grains and gluten cause inflammation in the body, and for the runner that’s bad for recovery,” he says. “If you’re under constant inflammation, your joints are going to hurt, and it’s going to take longer to get back out there.”
Cameron Attaran got back out there after a four-year hiatus from regular exercise and immediately injured his iliotibial band to the point that he couldn’t walk. Determined to run the Jan. 28 Coyote Hills Half-Marathon, his first, Attaran, 22, of Oakland, Calif., healed, then joined a gym, hired a trainer and purchased an online training package through Runner’s World magazine.
He is now four weeks into his training and already clocking nine miles on his long runs.
Attaran’s ultimate goal is to participate in an Ironman Triathlon within three years. So far, he has spent $2,000 to get there. But it’s worth every penny. He says running has given his life the structure it was lacking.
“It’s so weird,” he says. “I wouldn’t say running is fun, but I really enjoy it and look forward to it. It’s not just the chemicals released in my body that make me feel good. When you get to the top of the Oakland hills and you see that beautiful view of the Bay Area, it’s a small and immediate reward.”
Hitting the pavement for the first time? Long-distance running can be hard on the body. To prevent injury and maximize your performance, follow these training tips from Oakland, Calif., ultramarathoner Sarah Lavender Smith and San Mateo, Calif., running trainer Brendon Mahoney:
• Take it slow. Give yourself three to six months from the date of your event to train.
• Get support. If you can’t afford a personal trainer, take advantage of the many free online training programs. Running is a skill. You must learn correct form to avoid injury.
• Cross-train. To build strength, you have to do more than run. Push-ups, squats, yoga and weight lifting are all good complements.
• Build endurance. Create a combination of easy and intermediate runs during the week plus one long run on the weekend.
• Increase your distances. A 10 percent increase per week is recommended to meet your 13.1-mile goal.
• Eat a Paleolithic diet. Carbo-loading on bread and pasta can cause inflammation to the body, which can slow down recovery. Stick to protein, vegetables, fruit, seeds and nuts. Sweet potatoes are a top food for runners.
• Run with runners. Tap into running’s social side by joining a runner’s group through marathon websites or join a free online network, such as the one at www.mapmyrun.com.