Can a person who hasn't exercised much transition to the level of physical fitness necessary to face a grueling challenge, such as the annual San Francisco Marathon? Personal trainer and competitive bodybuilder Greg Thurston, 53, says the answer is a resounding, "Yes!"
"If there is something physical you want to do, you can do it," Thurston said. "When it comes to the physical body, it's the only thing in this lifetime that we have control over. We don't have control over the economy, or the government or who loves us, but we do have control over our own bodies."
Thurston said one of the most important aspects of taking part in something like the San Francisco Marathon, which takes place July 26 this year, is just making the decision to do it. "Stand up and say you're going to do it. Tell everyone you know. That gives you the motivation to keep going - people will be asking you about your training and how you're feeling. It will keep you coming back."
Step 1: Learn to run before you "run"
To get on any sort of a physical training track, you have to have a goal in mind. Are you looking to lose weight and burn fat? Are you hoping to tone up, give yourself a more sculpted look? Are you building up to take part in a marathon or something similar?
Thurston, a certified personal trainer, is the owner/operator of Fitness Together in downtown Danville. He said that having those priorities already set is one of the cornerstones to any successful physical fitness program.
"If you're getting ready to do a long distance event like a marathon, you need to get those muscles stretched out, strengthened and get the body's endurance up where it all works together," he explained.
When beginning a training regimen, Thurston said it's best to start with the basics. "When I first start working with someone, I approach them as though they've never done it before. Whether you ran a little in high school, or you're an occasional trail runner, we start like it's the first time."
A beginning workout will start with stretching, to get the muscles warmed up. Stretches that help with the calves, hamstrings and quadriceps are a good start. Care should be taken when stretching not to bounce. Inhale at the start of the stretch and exhale as the stretch begins. Hold the stretch at the furthest point for a few seconds and then release.
Stretching the back, shoulders and core are helpful, too, as running requires all of those muscle groups in order to create a smooth gait and a healthy stride.
Thurston said in many cases he will have new runners get on a treadmill to analyze their running style. "I know it sounds pretty basic, but a lot of people don't know how to run correctly," he said. "They hold their hands too high or they don't swing their arms. Some people run in sort of an up and down way, bouncing down the road. They need to lengthen that stride."
A common injury among beginning runners is shin-splints, a painful condition along the lower front shin. Thurston said that can be caused by running too much on a hard surface but also because many new runners run on their toes too much. "You need to learn to run on your whole foot and kind of roll with it."
Step 2: Get out on the road
Other than for initial testing and for some continuing training, Thurston doesn't recommend the treadmill for beginning runners because results can be misleading.
"Running on a treadmill uses a totally different mechanical group. You have muscle groups that you're not really using that you do use on the road," he said. "You want to train in the environment you're going to be racing in." Thurston said that in preparing for a run like the SF Marathon, runners should get out on the same types of roads, run some hills to get used to the climbs in the city, and in general train for the race course.
Initially, runners should choose a short distance for a workout run, a half-mile to a mile depending on how well they can run and their level of physical fitness. Time how long it takes and then time it the next time you try it. Thurston said at the beginning a runner should try to cover the same distance in less time rather than keep adding on mileage. Over time, you do add distance, but it is a gradual increase rather than leaping from five miles to 10 miles over the course of two workouts.
In addition to running, Thurston recommends working with a jump rope, resistance training and some light weights. A typical workout might consist of a short run, then skipping rope, followed by squats and lunges. "You want to mix it up to keep it fresh, so you don't get burned out and you're still building muscle and endurance."
Step 3: Eating clean
Training for an endurance competition requires fueling your body with foods that can be readily processed without slowing you down. "The main thing you want to do is eat cleaner," Thurston said, "potatoes, rice, yams, things like that."
Thurston suggests six small meals a day. The purpose is to keep the body's digestive system running all day, instead of eating a large meal and slowing down digestion. While some athletes require a very high protein/low carb diet, he said that runners need to maintain a balance of the two.
"An endurance athlete needs a body that will sustain their energy level. To do that you need to have carbs before a workout and then replace the carbs after the workout as well." Each mini-meal will consist of 200-500 calories, depending on the size of the person.
He pointed to Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who at the height of his training would consume as much as 12,000 calories a day.
Step 4: The goal in sight
Generally speaking, Thurston said the average person just starting out should train for at least three months prior to an event like a marathon. He suggests that a training regimen start slowly, perhaps two days on and then one day off. He said that much of it depends on the person. "If you're feeling good and you want to go three days on and then take a day off, go for it. Or if you aren't feeling good after the two days, take two days off. Come to the gym when your body is ready to work," he stated.
Over time, those periods of exercise will increase. The distances will be longer and you will attempt steeper climbs and more difficult courses. Eventually it leads to the event itself.
"That last week, you need to rest up. Maybe do a workout on Monday and Tuesday, and then some stretching and a light jog on Wednesday," he said.
Overtraining can backfire on an athlete, which can hamper performance. "Exercising is addictive. You need to know when to take a little time off. When you come back you'll be amazed at how good it feels," Thurston explained.
Step 5: The race
During the marathon itself Thurston recommends keeping to a comfortable pace, rather than allowing the excitement of the moment to carry you into a pace you might not be able to sustain.
He said the thing to keep in mind is that the goal is not to win the Marathon, it's to cross that finish line.
"That's it. Just finishing is the gold medal. For that one day you get to be Michael Jordan." With a smile he added, "You get to walk in the shoes of people at a very elite level for a day. It's awesome."
We don't have control over the economy, or the government or who loves us, but we do have control over our own bodies.
Trainer Greg Thurston