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Training for a sports event

Whatever event you’re training for – from a charity fun run to a full marathon or the toughest endurance event – how well you prepare for it can make a huge difference on the big day itself. Well thought-out preparation can boost your performance and reduce your risk of having an injury. Exactly how you tackle that preparation will, of course, depend on your level of fitness and the type of event you’re training for. However, there are some things that will apply to most training situations.


Physical preparation

First you need to give yourself sufficient time to achieve the level of fitness you need. Too little time may mean you won’t have done enough training. But too much training could sap all your energy, leaving you feeling worn out on the day of the event.

Many people who run marathons, for instance, train for five or even six months before the big day. But if you’re taking part in a 5k run, you may just train for several weeks. One rule, however, is to build up your training slowly. Try not to jump in at the deep end – increase your pace, intensity and distance gradually. By easing yourself into your training, you’ll be helping to prevent injury.

Don’t forget to mix things up too. If you’re a runner, don’t simply do the same route each time you train. Try to alternate flatter, easier runs with runs that incorporate hills – this will help you develop your strength as well as your speed. And as well as training for your specific event activity it’s a good idea to do some cross training to help build your strength. So if you’re training for a running event, try adding some cycling, swimming or yoga to your training plan.

There are lots of training plans to suit different levels of fitness and different types of events online – these are available to download at some charity websites, including Cancer Research UK.


A few weeks to go…

It may seem logical to keep increasing your training right up to the event you’re training for. But in reality, this means you may be mentally and physically worn out on the big day. And it explains why most athletes and sports people taper their training in the week or few weeks leading up to an event.

Tapering doesn’t mean you stop training altogether. It simply means cutting back on the amount of time and the intensity of your training sessions to help you feel fresh and full of energy for the event itself.

How soon you start to taper depends on the event you’re training for – if you’re doing a marathon you may need to start tapering three or four weeks before the day, or just a week if you’re doing a 5k (in general, the longer you’ve been training, the longer you need to taper your sessions to recover and peak at the right time).


What should you eat?

The right nutrition is arguably as important a part of your preparation as your physical training. You’ll need regular carb-rich meals to keep your energy levels up while you’re training hard for your event, and plenty of protein to help your muscles recover after your work-outs.

As your event edges nearer, you may want to consider the following:

  • With just a week to go, try not to introduce any new foods to your diet as you don’t know how your digestive system will react to them. Instead stick to foods you know won’t upset your stomach.

  • The night before your event have an evening meal that has some lean protein but lots of healthy carbs. Try not to eat too late, however, as it could stop you getting a good night’s sleep.

  • On the morning of your event have a carb-rich breakfast that will give you plenty of energy. A small amount of lean protein is also a good choice, but avoid protein foods that are high in fat such as peanut butter or cheese.

  • Don’t forget to pack some healthy snacks to eat when your event ends. It’s important to replenish your energy levels by eating or drinking something as soon as possible afterwards – a protein drink with good amounts of both protein and carbs, for instance. Then about an hour to 90 minutes afterwards try to have a healthy balanced meal.


You’ll also need to drink plenty of water, not just when you’re training but while you’re resting too. You don’t want to go into your event not properly hydrated, so try to drink a good 1.5 litres of water a day in the weeks beforehand to make sure you perform at your best. Drink a couple of glasses of water just before you start, and have some sips of water during the event too. If the event is going to last more than an hour, you may also need a sports drink to help replenish your levels of vital minerals called electrolytes that are lost through sweating.

Also don’t forget to get plenty of rest. Sleep is also an important part of your training so try to stick to a regular routine – go to bed and get up at the same time, even on days when you’re not training. This will help get your body into a solid sleep routine.

Some experts think it’s a good idea to get more than the usual eight hours of sleep a night in the run-up to an event. In one study, Stanford University experts found that getting a minimum of 10 hours’ sleep a night for a period of time improved athletic performance for basketball players (i). The idea is if nerves get the better of you and you don’t sleep very well the night before an event, the lack of sleep won’t affect you because you’ll have banked extra sleep ahead of time.

To stand the best chance of sleeping well the night before your event, start to wind down early and do something you find relaxing for a few hours. Avoid drinking anything that contains caffeine after midday and a heavy meal in the evening. Also make sure you have everything ready for the day ahead – if you’ve prepared well you shouldn’t have anything to worry about that could stop you getting a good rest.

If, however, you’re too excited to sleep as well as you would like, try to schedule in some time for a 20-minute nap a couple of hours before your event starts if the timing allows.


Mental preparation

Physical preparation isn’t the only important element of training for an event – you have to be mentally prepared too.

There are lots of techniques you can use. If you have a trainer or a sports coach, they can recommend strategies that may work well for you. In the meantime here are a few things you can try:

  • See yourself succeed
    Try to visualise what it will look like when you cross the finishing line. Imagine what it will feel like in as much detail as possible. Practise this as often as possible, as experts think visualisation programs your brain to achieve success and boosts your motivation to make sure the end result you’re visualising has the best chance of happening.

  • Plan for problems
    Whatever the situation, things seldom go exactly as you plan, no matter how well you plan them. And often enough the unexpected will happen. If you try to anticipate problems – such as difficult conditions or things that may distract you – you can also imagine yourself coping with them effectively. This may make you better prepared for any snags that may happen, as you will already know how to manage them effectively.

  • Take your mind off it
    When you’re training for an event it’s easy to become obsessed with the day itself and your performance. But if you want to be in the right frame of mind to do well, try not to think about it constantly. Make time for some relaxing, not just of your body but also your mind. Do whatever works for you – read a book, listen to some soothing music, practise yoga or meditation. Taking a mental break, even if it’s just for 10 minutes every day, will help keep your mind fresh.


References:

  1. , et al. The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players. Sleep. ; 34(7): 943–950 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16790484