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The Smart Way To Tackle Panic Training

You've run out of time to properly train for a race that you signed up for ages ago. Now what?

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You find a race to sign up for, mark it on your calendar, choose a date to start training and immediately put it out of your mind for months. (Does this scenario sound familiar?) Suddenly, it’s six weeks to the race and it hits you: panic. How are you supposed to make up for lost time and still cross the finish line—and maybe even enjoy the race along the way?

As race day approaches, it’s easy to give up on your race without even attempting to get in your training. But just because your time is more limited doesn’t mean that your dream of finishing a half marathon or marathon is out of reach. It just requires resetting your goals and using the days you have left to train efficiently. Here’s what you need to know:

Start Running

When you begin your training, being efficient with time, consistent in your training and careful to avoid injury will help get you to the finish line successfully. “There are three primary workouts I use when the training needs a ‘patch job,’” says Tim Broe, coach of Saucony Freedom Track Club and 2004 U.S. Olympian. He suggests hill reps, tempo miles and a fartlek/long run combo since they help runners quickly get their training in before a big race.

“The key to anyone running well in a race is to have consistent training the best they can,” says Mark Coogan, elite coach for Team New Balance in Boston. “It would be like getting out the door five or six days a week, if you can, and getting your runs in.” Be sure to also mix up distance and pace. If this isn’t realistic based on your current fitness level, shoot for two runs a week and add in cross-training activities such as swimming, hiking, yoga or strength workouts two to three times a week.

If you’re concerned about injury, try to do one of your runs on an elliptical. It mimics the running motion without any of the joint pounding and is a great tool to build strength, Coogan says. This will also give you a break from the impact of running while stimulating muscles that may not be targeted while on runs. Plus, you can easily increase the incline and resistance levels to work on getting stronger.

For your long runs, try to get up to 8 miles before a half marathon and 22 miles before a full marathon. Do one long run a week, preferably on the weekend when you have more time to devote to proper warm-ups and stretching afterward. If you’re short on time, split your long run into two, running the first half in the morning and the second half at night (don’t worry—it still counts).

To save time on your other run workouts, work in a tempo interval. “It’s manageable with moderate stress to the mind and body,” Broe says. “The key to this workout is taking short rests, for example, [run] 6–8 x 800 with one-minute recovery, or 3–5 x 1 mile with 1 minute recovery.”

Hill work can also be a great way to get in a time-efficient workout, plus the mental benefits weigh almost as heavily as the physiological payoffs. Try doing six to eight hill reps for 30 seconds to one minute each. “Find a hill where you can hold at a solid effort without losing momentum, preferably three- to five-percent grade. They need to be quality, but it shouldn’t be a flat-out sprint,” Broe says. “Start with a shorter hill (30 seconds). If that is manageable, extend it to 45 seconds the next time. It will take four to six good hill workouts before you will find control. You’ll want to run hard up, walk halfway back to the bottom and then do a very slow jog for the remainder of the rep. Once at the bottom, catch your breath, reset your mind and attack the next one.”

If you find that increasing your running mileage is getting too challenging, consider trying the run/walk method. This exercise involves doing short running segments followed by quick walks (not at a leisurely pace). “Just make sure you go in with a solid plan—for example, one-minute walk, nine-minute jog—and stick to it,” says Linsey Corbin, a pro triathlete and Ironman champion. “The last thing you want is for your walk breaks to get stretched out throughout the race. Think of the walk breaks as a chance to reset, get in some nutrition and mentally break the race into smaller, more manageable segments.”

Know When To Bail

In the end, don’t be too hard on yourself. Knowing your body and its limits is another important aspect to panic training. Unfortunately, overtraining can result in injury, which may put you out of the running game for much longer than one race. “If you haven’t been running and you start hammering every day, you’re going to get shin splints, stress fractures. You’re going to get some kind of bone issue if you overdo it,” Coogan says.

Take time to assess your fitness level and be realistic about your goals. Many races will allow you to step down to a shorter distance, (like from a full to a half marathon), so you don’t completely have to forfeit your entry fee. At the end of the day, the race should be something you’re looking forward to.

Reset Your Expectations

It’s all about your mindset—you’re probably not going to P.R. this race, but that’s totally okay. Like many races, half the fun is in enjoying the scenic route, making friends along the course and ending with a cold one at the post-race beer garden.

Coogan considers the act of finishing a marathon deserving of bragging rights and worth putting in the last-minute training to cross the finish line. “Running a marathon’s an accomplishment. If you stand at the finish line of a marathon and watch it, it’s emotional, people are crying. It’s incredible to watch,” Coogan says.

But before you move forward with cramming in your pre-race training, make sure you don’t fit any of these descriptions:

  • You’re already battling a serious acute or chronic injury.
  • You’re starting from zero and you’re either three weeks out from a half marathon or four weeks out from a full marathon.
  • You’re pregnant—check with your physician first.

If none of those are you, it’s time to hit the pavement.