So You Want to Run Your First Half Marathon…

Jason Fitzgerald
by Jason Fitzgerald
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So You Want to Run Your First Half Marathon…

It’s official: your love of running is here to stay and you’ve decided that it’s time to push yourself a little more. What better way to do so than by training for a half marathon?

In 2014, just over 2 million runners finished half marathons all over the country. The distance is second only to 5Ks in terms of popularity. And now you’re ready to join that rapidly growing number!

But if the distance both excites and scares you just a little, know you’re not alone. While running a half marathon requires a commitment to training, it’s a distance that can be readily accessible if you’re willing to put in the effort.

These nine tips will help you train for your first half marathon and finish the race with a smile on your face. With the right foundation and planning, you can have a great experience that will build your love of the sport.

1. Do your homework.

Select a race that has the potential to give you a great first experience. If you rarely train on hills, picking a hilly half marathon may make the distance uncomfortably challenging. Do you want a small town race or will you feel more motivated by larger crowds? And are you willing to travel or would you prefer your first half to be more accessible and close to home? Make sure to weigh all of these considerations before officially signing up.

If you are completely new to running, you’ll want to allow 6–9 months to prepare to run 13.1 miles. Ideally, you should run some shorter races first — local 5Ks and 10Ks will give you the opportunity to experience the thrill of racing while requiring less substantial mileage.

During half marathon training, you should plan on running a minimum of 20 — ideally 25–30 — total miles each week.

Many plans cover 12 weeks of training that leads up to race day. If you’re a brand new runner, you should spend a minimum of 3–6 months prior to this building the habit of regular running.

Selecting a training plan can be overwhelming with all of the available options. While a coach can write you a personalized training plan, there are many options that can get you to the starting line successfully.

2. Build your mileage.

When choosing a training plan, make sure the volume (mileage) begins at a level that is appropriate for you. Most plans assume that you can already complete a run of at least 5–6 miles, so get comfortable running nonstop for that distance before you jump into half marathon training. From there, your mileage should build gradually. Long runs should typically increase by about a mile every 1–2 weeks, and your longest run will probably be in the range of 10–12 miles.

While you may be able to get by in a 5K or 10K with very minimal mileage, the half marathon will be unforgiving if you skimp too much. Regular long runs and consistent weekly training are essential if you want to be well prepared when you get to the starting line.

3. Allow for recovery.

While your training plan will continue to challenge you as race day approaches, it should also allow for recovery weeks. Mileage, and your long runs in particular, will often increase for about three weeks, and then you’ll have a “cut-back” week that reduces mileage and facilitates recovery. While long runs are an essential part of your training plan, you don’t want to overdo it. Reduced-mileage weeks will help keep you healthy over the course of your training.

Each week of training should be made up of a combination of easy, hard and rest days. Make sure you keep the easy days truly easy, and use the harder days to push yourself. Running every workout at the same pace or effort level will slow your improvement at best, and at worst, could lead to injury.

4. Be consistent.

Staying consistent is the key to success when training for any race, and you can’t be consistent if you don’t stay healthy. While completing the mileage is the primary goal, there are other essentials you shouldn’t neglect. Focus on injury prevention and you’ll be much more consistent; it’s the “secret sauce” to successful running.

If you find it challenging to get out the door consistently for your training runs, try meeting a friend or running with your dog. Knowing a friend is waiting on you early in the morning makes it much harder to skip a workout. If the weather is a challenge, treadmills can be an excellent alternative. But try to get the majority of your runs done out on the road so that your body will be prepared to handle that type of surface on race day.

5. Use variety to stay healthy.

In addition to consistency, variety is another key to healthy, happy running. Variety can (and should!) be incorporated into your routine in a number of different ways. For example, try to rotate between two different pairs of running shoes to give the muscles in your feet and legs some variation. While buying two pairs of shoes requires more expense at the outset, you will be able to wear them for longer (compared to one pair of shoes) since you’ll alternate between the pairs.

Dynamic warm-ups and strength exercises also add variety to your routine and help your body better withstand the repetitive nature of running. Try to run on different types of surfaces as well. Treadmills may be beneficial during frigid or icy conditions, but softer trails or packed gravel paths will give your legs a break from the pavement.

Each week your runs should vary and include some longer and slower miles, recovery runs and faster efforts. Including 5K and 10K races during the weeks leading up to your half marathon can help you build some speed at shorter distances. If you want to schedule these during your half marathon training, you could run a 5K about four weeks into your training and a 10K about 3–4 weeks before your goal race.

6. Practice fueling.

Short races rarely require fueling during the race itself. But since you may be running for two hours or more, you’ll need to consider hydration and fueling more seriously.

Long runs are the perfect opportunity to test out different types of fuel. There is a wide array of options out there, from sports gels to whole foods like dates and raisins, so experiment to see what works best with your stomach.

You’ll also need to take into account the weather on race day, as a hot summer race will require more attention to hydration.

7. Train your brain.

Physical preparation for a half marathon is an obvious necessity, but don’t neglect the mental side of training. Long runs will help you learn strategies for dealing with rough patches. To stay motivated during a race, some runners prefer music, others focus on a positive mantra (think: “Defy your limitations!” or “Keep moving!”), and others will dedicate each mile to loved ones to help them push through.

Prior to your race, picture yourself running the course successfully and feeling strong and happy as you cross the finish line. Visualization can be a powerful tool.

8. Plan ahead.

Even if you have completed local races, half marathons are often much bigger events that require more planning and attention to race-day logistics. If you are traveling to your race from out of town, organization becomes even more essential. Make sure you know the details of race packet pickup, and be aware of any road closures that might affect your travel and parking.

If the race is big enough to have starting corrals, know when and where you’ll need to line up prior to the start. Pad in extra time for security measures and long bathroom lines on race day. It’s far better to relax than rush to the start line, forgetting essentials like gels or your race number.

In addition to planning race-day logistics, it’s also helpful to know as much about the actual course as possible. If it’s a local race, try to do some of your long runs on the course itself, as this can be a big confidence booster. Knowing when to expect turns and hills will help minimize surprises on race day.

9. Execute your plan.

You have undoubtedly heard this advice before, but the longer the race, the more important it becomes: don’t go out too fast! In the excitement of the moment, it’s far too easy to get swept into a pace that is too fast to be sustainable. Plan to spend the first 2–3 miles at 15–20 seconds slower than your planned goal pace.

Once you have eased into your goal pace, focus on running a steady effort over the middle miles. Pay attention to fueling and hydration throughout these miles. If you execute your strategy well, you should have a little left in the tank to help push for some slightly faster miles at the end. Negative splits (where you start slower and finish faster) are the ideal way to run this distance, and will help you feel strong and successful as you cross the finish line.

Half marathons are one of the most popular race distances for a reason — they provide a worthy challenge that can be achieved successfully with the right training. Take the time to build a strong foundation and plan your season properly. You’ll cross that finish line before you know it!

You VS the Year is the Under Armour Challenge to Run 1,000K (621 miles) in 2016. Each week, compete to win exclusive gear, bragging rights, a shot at being named to the UA Run Crew, and more.​ Join the You VS the Year Challenge.

About the Author

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald

Jason is the founder of Strength Running, a USA Track & Field certified running coach and 2017’s Men’s Running’s Influencer of the Year. Learn more about how he can help you run faster.


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