Safari Charles

Safari Charles (lead runner) with her running group, as she trains for a marathon. (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore Sun / June 25, 2012)

Safari Charles of Owings Mills learned a few important lessons after running her first half-marathon last year.

Wear shoes that fit, or your toenails may turn black. Run with a group for motivation (and for those days your husband would rather sleep in). Carry water on your long runs.

This year as Charles prepares to run her first full marathon at the Baltimore Running Festival in October, she hopes to have learned from last year's experience. She has bigger shoes and trains with the group Black Girls Run, which she says gets her on the pavement consistently. She keeps her body hydrated.

"I was kind of lackadaisical about training for the half," she said. "I didn't prepare as best as I could. You can't run a full marathon without training properly."

Thousands of people like Charles are starting to get their bodies ready for fall races, and many are newcomers who will likely make mistakes. Some will end up with injuries that could have been prevented.

But running coaches and doctors say a little planning and proper training will help people run, rather than hobble, across the finish line.

"It's the only sport where you have to plan months in advance what you eat, what you wear, when you're going to run," said Dr. John Senatore, a veteran marathoner and chief of podiatry at MedStar Union Memorial Hospital in Baltimore. "It takes a lot of thought and planning. The people who get hurt aren't usually the ones who follow a program. They are the ones who train haphazardly."

Getting started

The biggest mistake people make when training for a long race is doing too much too quickly, veteran runners and coaches said.

"People get signed up and excited, then get worried about running 13 miles and go out and try to run 13 miles 20 weeks before the race," said Marie Bolton, general manager at Charm City Run and a certified running coach who has finished eight marathons.

Coaches suggest following a training program that includes three to four short runs during the week and a long run on the weekend. The weekend runs increase in duration each week. Going with a group will help keep runners motivated and on pace. People who train alone may run too fast and get bored during the long runs.

The long runs will get those in training accustomed to being on their feet for hours at a time. Long runs during training should be at a slower pace than times on race day, Senatore said. He also suggests running the last long run three weeks before the race so muscles have time to recover.

Senatore recommends the New York Road Runners training programs. Area running groups use plans by nationally known runners, such as Jeff Galloway, a former Olympian who has trained people since the 1970s. He promotes combining running and walking to complete a marathon injury-free.

Karen Levin, co-owner of Fleet Feet running store in Pikesville, leads Galloway's plan in training runs and said people using the walk-run method can finish just as fast as people who run the whole race.

DeNita Morrison a 40-year-old nurse from Owings Mills who also trains with Black Girls Run, follows a program by Hal Higdon, a well-known trainer who has been running for a half-century. His plan gradually gets people into running.

"He starts you off very slowly and builds you up so you don't feel overwhelmed," said Morrison, who started running five years ago and plans to compete in her first half-marathon this year.

Preparing for a race also usually includes at least one day a week of cross training to help prevent wear and tear on the same muscle groups and help with conditioning. Runners should mix biking, swimming, weight training and other activities between their running sessions.

Advanced and intermediate runners looking to improve their time from previous races can also do speed training, or run short intervals at a fast pace. There are also programs that include training on hills.

Coaches have varying opinions on whether newbies should speed-train or include hill work. Some coaches believe beginners should focus on mileage and worry about speed for the next race. Others say speed work is OK as long as you go only as fast as your body can handle. Don't try to keep up with more advanced runners.