There’s more to training than just doing practice runs, upping your protein intake, and drinking lots of water the day of the event. As a threetime Boston Marathon competitor myself, I find it extremely important to maintain a healthy lifestyle all year round, not just when I’m getting ready to compete. I often assist competitive athletes in my integrative practice so they can get the most out of their training. Each person’s plan is tailored for them, but there are many general things that you can do to make your training the most effective.

Cross Training

Cross training is the practice of training in more than one exercise or sport. Cross training is key to keeping your body tuned up and "injury-resistant."

You can’t avoid all injuries, but you can lessen your chances of getting an exerciserelated injury if you use different groups of muscles in different ways. Only doing one type of exercise such as running or biking means you are working the same muscles and can eventually wear them out or weaken them, which can open you up to being injured.

Every period of exercise can produce a catabolic state, which means your body is breaking down tissue. The longer and harder you work out in one way, the more damage you can cause to your muscle tissue. An anabolic state is when your body is building or repairing tissue. This happens when you rest. It’s during rest, not exercise, that you are actually growing muscle.

Cross training is essential to good training. I like to do a spinning class or bicycle at least one day a week when I’m in marathon training. Swimming is also a great aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise is any exercise in which large muscles move continuously for a prescribed period of time and the heart rate reaches a certain target. Each person’s target may be different and is based on fitness level, weight, age, and other factors. It is recommended you exercise within 55 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate (MHR) for at least 20 to 30 minutes a day for competitive athletes (or three times a week for general health, rather than competition). Your MHR is roughly calculated as 220 minus your age.

Interval Training

Closely related to cross training is interval training. Interval training is where you alternate between two types of activities at the same time—one that is low intensity or anabolic such as weight lifting paired with short high-intensity exercise such as running or jumping jacks which are aerobic or heart-rate increasing.

I like to do my interval training three times a week. I lift weights that target my entire body. In between reps, I do aerobic exercise such as jumping jacks, running in place, or something similar to get my heart rate up. A good rule of thumb in interval training between weights and aerobics is to do aerobic exercise for at least 30 seconds between each weight lifting exercise.

For women, weight lifting especially is a good idea. It helps strengthen bones, which can lose density as we age due in part to the lower amount of estrogen in our bodies.

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Stretch It Out

Something many athletes overlook is the necessity of stretching before and after exercising. I liken it to starting your car on a very cold day. You don’t just put the key in the ignition and take off. You warm the motor up, which in turn warms the interior of the car, making your drive more comfortable for you. I’m not a mechanic, but I’m told this also allows the oil and fuel to move through engine more effectively. Our bodies need and deserve the same thing.

Stretch all the major muscles you’ll be using, such as arms, legs, and buttocks. Joints are also very important to warm up. Hips, knees, ankles, wrists, and neck need a few stretches before exercise, including before anabolic exercise or weight lifting. When you stretch your joints, you circulate the synovial fluid, which lubricates your joints, allowing them to have more flexibility.

Stretching after working out helps in two ways. It both helps to lower your heart rate slower and aids in cooling you down. There are also some studies that have found that stretching after working out helps decrease post-workout soreness.

Nutrition and Supplements

Of course, giving our muscles, joints, and entire bodies the right minerals, vitamins, and high-quality nutrients is also very important while training.

First and foremost is hydration. Drinking water throughout the day, not just during workouts, will make a difference in your ability to train and compete. Many sports drinks are loaded with processed sugar or high fructose. Sugar and artificial sweeteners can actually rob your body of nutrients. You can ask your practitioner for a recommendation of a natural electrolyte replacement product. Also, plain, purified, and properly pH-balanced water should not be underestimated for hydration. I recommend you drink half your body weight in ounces of water every day, not just when training.

The area many in mainstream medicine are just now starting to take notice of is gut health and inflammation response. Getting a full workup by a professional integrative medicine practitioner before you begin training is a very good idea. Your system is unique and so your plan will be too. High bioavailable vitamin and mineral supplementation is key to getting the most out of your training. Additional medicinal herbs and foods can also be a part of your training plan.

If you are a meat eater, lean organic meats are a good protein source. Ask your butcher or grocer if the meat is 100 percent organic or grass-finished. Some animals may be grassfed, but then are grain-finished, meaning they are given grains to fatten them up right before processing. Those grains could contain antibiotics or other chemicals. For vegans and vegetarians a good antiinflammatory protein powder will give your gut the help it needs in processing all the good organic fruits, veggies, and complex carbohydrates you’ll be eating.

Find a Friend

Lastly, one of the best ways to train for a competitive sport or event is to join a training team or just have a workout buddy. Being accountable and sharing in the joys of exercising have been found to help enormously. In one study, people who worked out with at least one partner worked out 200 percent longer than those who worked out alone. Also, partnered or group exercisers showed improvement in performance with faster running times. Dropout rates for those who have an exercise group or partner were also 38 percent lower than for solo exercisers.

So whether you are considering competing,or actually in the throes of preparing to take on a half marathon, a bike race, or a 5K for the first or fiftieth time, grab a buddy, eat right, take your vitamins, stretch, and keep your eyes on the finish line. You’ll make it there quicker and happier if you follow these few simple steps.