How to Train for Your First Half Marathon

How to Train for Your First Half Marathon

For runners taking on their first half marathon, the challenge can seem overwhelming. Coach Allie Burdick identifies four key elements of preparation and what you should and shouldn’t do to be prepared on race day.

The half marathon distance seems to be the sweet spot for an overwhelming majority of runners. It has more swag than a 5K, is a lot less daunting than a full marathon, and comes with plenty of its own bragging rights. After all, 13.1 miles takes plenty of training and is usually not a distance one can cover without some trial and error.

I have run countless half marathons in my 15-year running career. I have come a long way from my first finish — where I was just happy to cross the line — to breaking the 1:30:00 mark a few times in the years since. When tackling your first half marathon, it is important to know not only know what to do, but also what not to do. Here are my top dos and don’ts for your first half marathon.

Get a Training Plan

Do…

find a plan that works for you. There are plenty of plans out there with varying levels of mileage and training days per week. This is definitely not a one-size-fits-all race, and you need to choose a plan wisely. Most plans start 12 to 14 weeks prior to the race, but there are also some that start as early as 16 weeks and as late as 6. Depending on your level of experience, fitness, and personal obligations, you need to plan your preparation accordingly.

Don’t…

think you can get away with little or no training. A half marathon is not a distance to take lightly and poor training will most likely lead to injury. The most important thing is to make it to the start line injury-free and feeling race-ready.

Key Takeaway

A credible training plan should offer at least three key workouts that you will do weekly. These would be a tempo, distance, and progression run, as well as some taper time in the week, or two, before race day.

Learn to Fuel Properly

Do…

figure out what your pre-race meal, on-the-run fuel, and post-race food will be prior to race day, and test all of them out at least once. What you eat before and during your half marathon can make or break your race. Everyone’s stomach, level of energy, and tolerance is different. What works for your friends may not work for you. It is very important to test any gels or energy drinks you will have on the run and when you will have them. Also, in the days leading up to the race, you may want to up your carb intake slightly (e.g., 60-100 extra grams) and back off on the fiber.

Don’t…

try anything new the night before the race, the morning of, or during the race itself! The night before the race is not the time to accept an invite to a new Thai food restaurant. It’s best to eat a more bland meal that you’re used to so as not to upset your stomach. Also, a lot of races hand out energy gels and drinks on the course. Unless you have used them in your training, do not use them for the first time during the race — that is not the time to find out if they agree with your stomach.

Key Takeaway

Set up a fueling plan for the day of your race and stick to it.

Wear the Right Clothing

Do…

wear something comfortable that you have worn before and is appropriate for the weather. A cardinal rule, for very good reason, is nothing new on race day. This is such a simple rule but one that gets broken so many times, usually with disastrous results, in the form of chafing and bleeding in delicate areas. Choose an outfit and wear it several times during the course of your training so you know if there are any points where you need to apply glide or if you need to chose something completely different.

Check the weather a few days prior to the race, and pay special attention to what the temperature will be at the start time. Plan your outfit accordingly and remember that you will heat up as you start to run. A good rule of thumb is to dress as if it is 10 degrees warmer. If you feel cold at the start, you know you have dressed correctly. Another option is to dress in layers if you’re comfortable with shedding them as you go.

If it will be particularly cold, windy, or rainy at the start, you may want to wear something over your running outfit to throw away at the start line. The longer you are warm and dry prior to the gun going off, the better your body will feel once you start the race. Also, most larger races will take any discarded clothing and donate them to a local charity.

Don’t…

wear anything new on race day, especially not the shirt they give you in your swag bag.

Key Takeaway

Nothing new on race day!

Pace Yourself

Do…

train to pace yourself for the 13.1 miles you have to tackle. This is not a sprint, and pacing will matter. It is very easy to get wrapped up in the excitement of the start line — especially if you are coming off of a taper week — and run the first few miles too fast. To avoid this, line up in the appropriate finish time corral (and get there early), and do this by the pace you actually run and not based on a lofty personal record you are hoping to achieve. All runners are better off when everyone is where they are supposed to be according to pace.

If the race does not offer pace corrals at the start, line up in the middle to back of the pack. You can always move your way up during the first half of the race which can give you a mental boost as you pass multiple runners.

You can also use The Pacing Project to create the optimal pacing strategy for your event. The Pacing Project uses the terrain of the course rather than simply relying on a pace/mile to give you the right pace for each segment.

Don’t…

try to sustain a pace that feels too hard, unless you are within the final mile(s) of the race. Running a negative split or running the second half of the race faster than the first half is the advice most often given. I tend to run more by feel and not to push the pace based on what my watch is telling me. If you can, try not to look at your watch except for maybe mile check-ins, and mostly run by feel. Remember, this is supposed to be fun!

Key Takeaway

Don’t think too much about your pace, except holding back a bit in the first several miles. Most importantly, have fun!

As with anything, you will learn more as you experience the half marathon distance. Don’t be afraid to tackle it, as long as you have trained appropriately.

Allie Burdick

Allie is a freelance writer, competitor and twin mom. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, Women’s Running and ESPNW. On her blog - VitaTrain4Life.com - she chronicles her life as a triathlete and hopes her successes and failures help motivate and inspire others, even the over-40 crowd she somehow found herself in!