You are ready to tackle your first half marathon! 13.1 miles is a great first endurance event! It is a distance that needs to be respected (you must train for it!), and provides a great physical challenge without as much training time/distance required for a marathon. I have run 28 half marathons to date. I wish I’d known the eight tips below to prepare me for my first half marathon (and, for some after!).
Here goes the list of tips to conquer your first half marathon!
1. Give yourself sufficient time to train. If you are planning on running a half, then you are already running at some level now (right?). If not, you need to pick a race date further out as most plans assume you can currently run about three miles. Many half marathon training plans are at least eight weeks, but for beginners, the range is between 12-20 weeks.
Mark Coogan, team New Balance coach says, “the ideal plan is three to four months long, which gives you a buffer if you get sick, injured, or slammed at work.” Life can and likely will get in the way, so a longer plan allows you to train adequately without getting stressed out.
While you might be tempted to sign up for an event that is next month, resist the urge if you’re not properly trained. The longer training cycle allows you to get stronger while increasing your mileage gradually. This is important to keep injuries at bay, and for you to remain healthy. Bottomline, err on the side of more time!
2. Be smart about pacing during the race (don’t go out too fast!). If this is your first half marathon, then I recommend you not attempt to hit a time goal. Based on your training, and your longest long run (likely 10ish miles), you should have an idea of a pace that you can maintain for the half.
My recommendation is go out more conservatively for the first three-four miles, then run close to your typical pace up until ~mile 10. Then, if you choose to speed up for the balance of the race (roughly a 5K), go for it.
DON’T GO OUT TOO FAST! That is in all caps for a reason. Don’t be tempted to do what 90% of runners do in a race and forget their pace/strategy. I promise, it is MUCH more fun to pass people later in the race than be passed.
“It’s smart for first-timers to think of a half marathon as a 10-mile run followed by a 5K race. Your goal should be to get to that 10-mile marker still feeling pretty fresh. Then, you can turn on the jets: Nothing feels better than passing people left and right in the final miles of a long race.”Meghan Kita, Runner’s World Magazine training editor
3. Know your fueling plan for the half marathon (and practice during your training). You will need to fuel/hydrate on race day. And the last thing you want is an upset stomach after you passed the starting line. Therefore, practice that while training! This relates to what you eat/drink, and when!
Your longer runs will be best to determine which hydration, gels, GU, snacks that work for you. Pick what doesn’t upset your stomach during (and even after) your run. While the packaging will provide a frequency (every so minutes or miles), that may not work for you. If you don’t plan to carry your nutrition, and will use what is provided on the race course, then try those items while training.
Personally, I begin my nutrition/fuel at mile four, and repeat at miles eight and 12. I learned the hard way that if I don’t fuel until I feel like I need it, I have waited too long, and I bonk. Of course, I am hydrating throughout the race, and at every “water stop” as well. After much experimentation with different fueling options, my favorite is Science in Sport gels (Citrus). It is easy on the stomach, does not need to be consumed with water, and takes up little space.
Related post: The Essential Guide to Recovery Runs
4. Try NOTHING new on race day. This applies to anything you eat, drink, wear, apply to yourself (ie: sunscreen). No new shoes, no new fueling, no new clothing… you get the idea. You may consume a Honey Stinger Waffle during your long runs – great! This does not mean it’s okay to consume it right before your race if you haven’t done that before. Therefore, “nothing new” applies to your gear, shoes, nutrition, and when you have your nutrition before/during the half marathon. (PS: this also applies to your breakfast!)
5. Be prepared for fickle temperatures and dress accordingly. Many half marathons are in fall and spring, with chilly pre-race/early race temps, but then it warms up quickly. A few options to ensure you’re prepared, and not shivering at the start line:
1) Wear throwaway clothes. Inexpensive clothing from the Salvation Army, or a clearance rack (or items from the back of your closet that haven’t seen daylight in years) can be worn over your running gear. Once you warm up on the course, you can discard the items. Most races actually will take the discarded clothing, and donate it to local shelters after the race.
2) Arm warmers! These are one of my favorite items for this fickle weather scenario. The arm warmers cover the majority of both arms, and if you get too warm, simply push them down around your wrists.
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6. Make some fans! Seriously, it is always a boost to see friends/family out on the course. My recommendation is to study the course, and give them a cheering spot in the latter part of the half marathon. Once the race is over, have a plan on where to meet them after you’ve exited the finish line chute so you can celebrate together!
Make some more fans: put your name on your shirt, if possible! It is awesome to hear your name being cheered (instead of “go runner, go”) when you need some motivation. Some races will have your name on the race bib IF you register early enough (likely the race website will advise of the cut-off date).
7. Get familiar with the course, and train on those surfaces/elevations if possible! If the half marathon is hilly, train on hills. If flat, train on primarily flat elevation. Of course, I don’t mean exclusively, but you want your legs/endurance to be prepared for race day. If anything, your longer runs should be similar to the race day elevation changes.. The same applies to the terrain. If you choose to run a trail race as your first half marathon, then definitely find some trails to train!
8. Invest in two pairs of shoes for your training. It’s unlikely that one pair will be enough to handle all the miles over the course of your training for your half marathon. If you have two fresh pairs when you start training, you’ll extend their life as alternating them will give them sufficient recovery time between runs (just like your legs need recovery time!). And, studies suggest that rotating your kicks during training can decrease your injury risk. Yes, buying two pairs is a bit of an investment, but you’ll extend the life of the shoe, and decrease your odds of injury while training for your first half-marathon. That’s a good return on your investment!