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Why try it: Running can kick-start a healthier lifestyle or help you bust through a workout plateau. "Putting a 5K race on your calendar is the perfect motivational tool. In little more than a month you'll see significant changes in your fitness level," says Newton Running Ambassador Jeff Devlin, the founder of Devlin Coaching in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, who created this 5K plan.
What to expect: The plan, which will transform you from a walker into a runner in just six weeks, includes three days of running, two days of cross-training or walking, and two days of rest.
Why try it: "The 10K can transform you into a true distance runner who has the confidence to take on even greater challenges," says Brooks-sponsored athlete Melody Fairchild, a running coach in Boulder, Colorado.
What to expect: This eight-week plan is designed for runners who regularly log about 15 miles a week at least 30 minutes at a time. Adding longer runs, hills, and intervals boosts endurance, strength, and speed.
Why try it: Women voted the half-marathon their favorite of all race distances, according to a 2013 survey by Running USA. The appeal? "A half is more manageable than a full marathon, so it's less intimidating," says John Honerkamp, a coach for New York Road Runners. (But it still has the word marathon!)
What to expect: You'll hit the pavement four days a week, but this plan, designed for runners who already log about 10 to 15 miles a week, alternates between harder and easier weekly workouts so your body can adjust to the increasing mileage. "Focus on your effort rather than your time," Honerkamp says.
Training for your first -- or second, third, or 20th! -- race is all about sticking with a program. But a little insider advice can make the miles you run that much easier.I've been trying to cut down on my carbs. Can I still do this while training?
Carbohydrates aren't diet demons. In fact, they're a runner's best friend, says FITNESS advisory board member Leslie Bonci, RD, a coauthor of Run Your Butt Off. "When you're running a race or training, your body needs to tap into stored carbs for energy." But OD'ing on some starches can easily pack on the pounds. To help, "Fill about a third of your plate with grains and split the rest among protein, fruits, and vegetables," Bonci says. And get more out of every bite by choosing healthier carbs like sweet potatoes, quinoa, brown rice, or lentils, which pack more fiber, vitamins, and minerals.How do I know if I'm ready to do a longer race?
"You'll know you're ready to move up when you achieve your goal time with your current race," says Newton Running Ambassador Jeff Devlin. For instance, if you hit your goal of beating one hour in your last 10K, chances are you can handle a greater challenge. A good rule of thumb to follow: Target a race distance no longer than about double your current weekly long run.Should I worry about my form if I'm new to the sport?
Consider it an opportunity to get off on the right foot -- literally. "As a beginner, you can address form from the start and commit to running that way," Devlin notes. But it's never too late to fix your technique. Your stride should be quick, light, and quiet. "If your steps are heavy and noisy, you're most likely overstriding and striking with too much impact on your heels." Shorten your stride and lean forward slightly; the ideal impact should be at the mid- to forefoot, where your shoe meets the ground.Are my treadmill runs going to prepare me for the outdoors?
You may need to make a few tweaks to compensate for some of the work the machine is doing for you. "Begin by setting the incline to 1 percent to make up for the lack of external factors like wind resistance and varying terrain," says New York Road Runners coach John Honerkamp. Whenever possible, try to train outdoors.Injury-Proof Your Miles
Train ouch-free with these core and lower-body strength moves. Do them at least twice a week.One-Leg Bosu Jump
Targets quads and butt
Standing on right leg, jump onto Bosu (or use a pillow), landing on left leg. Jump off Bosu, landing on right leg; keep knee soft. Do 12 reps; switch sides and repeat. Do 3 sets of 12 reps per side.Side Plank with Leg Lifts
Targets obliques, hips, and thighs
Lie on left side, legs stacked, left elbow under shoulder. Lift hips and knees off floor; raise right leg about 1 foot, toes forward. Lower leg and repeat. Do 3 sets of 12 reps per side.Plank Donkey Kicks
Targets abs, butt, and hamstrings
Loop resistance band around bottom of right foot, holding ends in hands. Get in full plank. Bring right knee toward chest; then extend right foot behind you. Do 3 sets of 12 reps per side.
Moves designed by D. S. Blaise Williams, PhD.
Obsessing about what to wear? Elevate your performance with these fashionable, functional pieces.
Love your heart-rate monitor but hate the cumbersome chest strap? Just snap your device into the All Sport Bra with Heart Rate Monitor by Lululemon Athletica and you're good to go. ($64, lululemon.com)
The Lucy Pack And Dash Tank has pockets galore for stashing all your goodies, plus precut slits for pinning on your bib. ($55, lucy.com)
Get a jump start on your race recovery with the 110% Juggler Knickers. The compression tights feature strategically placed pockets that let you slip in an ice pack to alleviate muscle soreness once you've crossed the finish line. ($150, 110playharder.com)
Lightweight Brooks D'Lite Racer 2 1/2" Shorts feature easy-to-reach elastic holders for your energy gels. And the neon pink fabric means nobody can miss you as you run by! ($50, brooksrunning.com)Amazing Races
These gotta-try events are worth the trip.
The MORE/FITNESS Women's Half-Marathon celebrates its 10th anniversary as the country's biggest female-only half. (April 14, morefitnesshalf.com)
The Zooma Women's Race Series includes a mix of 5Ks, 10Ks, and half-marathons in five resort locations throughout the country. (Dates vary, zoomarun.com)
Take a prerace outdoor yoga class or enjoy a free post-race music festival at Lululemon Athletica's SeaWheeze Half-Marathon in Vancouver, British Columbia. (August 10, seawheeze.com)
The nighttime Rock 'n' Roll Las Vegas Marathon & 1/2 travels along the famous Strip and features live bands at every mile. (November 17, stripatnight.com)
At each kilometer of the Color Run 5K, volunteers shoot off a blast of colored powder. Your race T-shirt will never look the same again. (Dates vary, thecolorrun.com)
One million watts of light and sound transform the Electric Run 5K into an outdoor dance party. (Dates vary, electricrun.com)
-- Samantha Shelton
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2013.