A Quick & Dirty Guide to Training for Your First Half Marathon

Disclaimer: I’m not a medical doctor, nor am I a certified coach. The advice below is purely anecdotal and should be taken with a grain of salt. 🙂

My sister-in-law, LJ, recently signed up for her first half marathon in the spring. Woohoo! She asked me to write a post on half marathon training, but also wanted it to be concise (ha). So, here’s my attempt. I hope it will be useful to LJ and to others out there looking to run their first half marathon!

A little bit of background on LJ: her goal race is on March 4th, which gives her 4+ months to train. She’s been running 1-2x a week for a while now, and she’s built up her runs to 4.5 miles. In addition, she’s got a bunch of 5K races under her belt.

When I was thinking of what kind of advice to give to her, I tried to remember how I “trained” for my first half marathon, in July of 2008. At that point, I had run two 10Ks and one 12K. Due to poor planning on my part, I went to Taiwan about a month before the race, where it was way too hot to run. When I got back, I crammed a bunch of runs in — which I really don’t recommend in retrospect. I think I did a 6 mile run, then 8, then topped out at 10 miles. I hadn’t practiced fueling, which led me to bonk pretty bad at the race. But all in all, I did pretty well on race day. My “goal” was to run about 10:00/mile pace, and I ended up averaging 9:54/mile. (I think I was well ahead of that before I started bonking at mile 11.)

So, here’s my advice to first time half marathoners, sort of organized into categories:

Running/Training:

  • The best rule of thumb here is the wise adage: “It’s better to show up to a race under-trained than injured.” Always listen to your body and back off and rest if need be.
  • Long runs: dedicate one run a week to increasing your mileage. A good rule of thumb is to build up over 3 weeks, then cut back one week. (For example, in a 4 week cycle, you’d run 5, 6, 7 miles for the first 3 weeks, then go back to 5 miles for the 4th week.)
  • The key to a good long run is to start SLOW. The goal is to spend time on your feet and get your body used to the pounding. That means even if you need to take walk breaks, do so. There’s no shame in taking walk breaks!
  • The long run is also your opportunity to try out all of your race day gear and nutrition.
  • Weekly mileage: if you can fit it into your schedule, try to run 2x during the week, for whatever duration you can. Physically, this will help improve your fitness while decreasing your chance of injury. Mentally, it does two things: one, it gets you used to running as a routine, and two, it takes less pressure off the weekend long run.
  • If you’re going to do two runs over the weekend, make sure you do the 2nd run (the one that’s not the long run) at recovery pace. For most people, this means about 1-2 minutes slower than your easiest pace. It should feel glacial.

Non-running training:

  • Warm-up and cool-down after every run. Before you run, do a quick dynamic warm-up, like in this video, for example. I always start my runs with leg swings because of my tight hamstrings and hips. Never do static stretches on cold muscles (i.e., the “classic” stretches where you get into a position and hold it for 10-15 seconds) – you could injure yourself. After your run is when you can do some static stretching.
  • If you’re prone to specific injury, like ITB syndrome, or even if you’re not, get a foam roller and massage out your legs. There are tons of videos online for instruction.
  • Light weight training, core exercises, and light to moderate yoga can be complimentary to running, though you’ll want to be careful not to overdo it. If you already do these activities, keep doing them, but I wouldn’t introduce anything new during the training period.
  • Aerobic crosstraining like cycling and swimming can help build general fitness, but running should still be your number one focus during half marathon training.

Fueling:

  • Fueling during your runs isn’t one size fits all. You’ll have to figure out what works best for you, whether it’s gels, chews, sports drinks, etc. It’s ideal to practice during your long runs before the race. Always drink water with gels to avoid GI distress.
  • You’ll also want to practice pre-long run fueling to simulate your race day breakfast. And don’t forget to check how long pre-run you need to stop drinking water to avoid a pit stop.

Mental Strategy:

  • This is your first half marathon! It’s natural to have goals in the back of your mind, but your primary goal is to finish. 13.1 miles is a huge accomplishment! Savor the moment.
  • With the goal of “just finish”, take your time during training, pace-wise. Your aims are to continue building up time on your feet and to stay healthy/avoid injury.

Race Day:

  • Research race logistics ahead of time. When/where is bib pickup? When/where is the start/finish? What’s the parking situation? Is there a bag drop/sweat check? Where are the aid stations and how many of them are there? Finding out all of this information before race weekend will help dampen anxiety/nervousness.
  • Avoid new gear/clothes on race day. The last thing you want to deal with is a chafe-inducing sports bra, shoes that blister, or shorts that are riding up for 13.1 miles.
  • Start slow and don’t get caught up in the race day frenzy. If there are pace groups, commit to choosing a slower-than-anticipated pace and running with the group for a mile as a warmup.
  • If things start going poorly — assess the situation. If you’re injured, seek medical attention at the next aid station. It’s not worth hurting yourself further just to finish. If you’re struggling mentally/physically (but not in acute pain), then see what you can do to get out of that mindset, whether it’s popping in your earbuds and listening to music, having a burst of sugar, or knowing you’ll see your support crew up ahead.

Miscellaneous:

  • Signing up for a 10K and/or a 10-mile race at least 3 weeks before your half marathon can be a great chance for a dress rehearsal. It can also help with race day nerves and ironing out any kinks in your race day routine.
  • How long should your longest run be? I think this depends on your pace. Like I mentioned above, I think it’s better to be safe than sorry, which means for a new half marathon runner, less is more. IMO, 10 miles or 2 hours of running is a good place to be. If you can get to 12-13 safely, than that’s great. I don’t think it’s necessary for a first time half marathoner to run more than 13 miles before the race.
  • How to determine race pace? Even though you shouldn’t necessarily be focused on a goal time, you’ll still want to know approximately how fast you should start the race and the pace for your long runs. There are some good pace calculators online (here, for example). You can plug in your most recent race time and calculate an approximate goal half marathon pace. Remember that this is an estimate based on hundreds of thousands of people, on average. Also, a 5K time is going to be less accurate at predicting a half marathon time than a 10-miler, for example. The McMillan calculator can also help you determine an estimated long run pace.

OK, so that wasn’t very concise, but you all know that’s not my strong suit. 😉 Is there anything I forgot? I’ll take additional questions in the comments section. Hope this helps!

About

Howdy! My name is Jen and I live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I like to eat, run, and blog, but not usually at the same time.

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Posted in Advice, Training
2 comments on “A Quick & Dirty Guide to Training for Your First Half Marathon
  1. Cathryn says:

    This is all such good stuff. The thing I’d stress the most is this: that we only get one first half-marathon. We only get one opportunity to savour every step and run it without expectation or pressure. We should make the most of that!

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