Training Tips to Help You Ace Your First Half Marathon

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You’ve researched and chosen the right race for your first half marathon. Now it’s time to think about your goals for the race and physically and mentally prepare yourself for race day.

Many coaches and seasoned runners suggest that the goal for first timers should be to finish the race in one piece, without worrying about time. If you’re running with a buddy or partner, you’ll want to have a good heart-to-heart about running pace and what to do if one of you feels the need to slow down, or stop. Another goal should be to remember to thank the volunteers who hand you water and cheer you on. And, of course, your number one goal should be to have fun.

Physical Training
The physical training for a half marathon is largely about consistency. Just like learning a foreign language, you need to study a little bit each day, for at least a few months, in order to be successful. There’s no cramming for a 13.1-mile run! (If you’re brand new to it, read this advice on how to start a running routine).

Set up a schedule that’s realistic and will work for you. There are lots of free training schedules available online; runnersworld.com has several to choose from. Most plans include 5 days of training and two rest days per week: one “long” run day, three runs of 3–5 miles each, plus one day of cross training (which might involve yoga, cycling, weightlifting, or Zumba, depending on your preference). Don’t be tempted to cheat and sneak in a workout on your “off” days. Your body needs rest to recover from the increased demands of training.

The long run is the real “meat” of your training, and you’ll typically increase the distance by one mile each week. Many people do their long run on Saturday or Sunday, and then take the following day as a rest day. You can adapt your training plan to whatever works best with your schedule. Keep in mind that it’s not necessary to have completed the full 13 miles on a training run before race day; your overall running fitness and the excitement of the race will take you the last mile. (Read more on building a strong running base.)

And while you’ll want to follow your training plan as closely as possible, don’t worry if you miss a workout or two. Consistency over the long haul is what’s most important. It’s also crucial to listen to your body: if one morning you really need to sleep in because you’re exhausted or had a late night, honor that, and get back to your schedule in a day or two.

Hydration and Fuel
Staying hydrated is critical, especially on your long runs, so plan to carry water with you and practice drinking on the go. (From hydration backpacks to belts to handheld bottles, there are a host of hydration options). We all know how to drink, but it’s very different when you’re moving; start by slowing to a walk and take small sips. Experiment also with the foods you eat the night before and the morning of your long runs to see what your stomach tolerates and what gives you the most energy. Figure out what works for you and follow that template on race day.

(The right music can provide a great mental boost for your long runs, as this story explores).

Mental Preparation and Race Day
As race day approaches, it’s natural to feel nervous, excited, and scared at different times (and sometimes all at once). Remind yourself that you’ve put in the training, and that this is your chance to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Try to get plenty of sleep the week before the race—and don’t worry if on race eve you have trouble sleeping. Even the pros can experience pre-race insomnia; but if you’ve been diligent about sleep up to this point, one restless night won’t make a difference.

When race day arrives, drink water when you wake up, and eat something at least 60–90 minutes before the race. If you’ve been drinking coffee the mornings of your long runs, brew on; there is some evidence that caffeine can enhance performance. If possible, move your bowels before leaving for the race. (Caffeine can help with this, too!) Most races will have porta potties at the start and finish line, and sometimes along the course itself—but the lines can be very long, and the experience is far less pleasant than your own house or hotel room.

Once you’re on the starting line, stretch out, breathe deeply, and remind yourself that you’ve trained for this. Take a few moments to enjoy the atmosphere and the camaraderie of your fellow runners. When the starting gun goes off, walk the first few yards, then slowly start trotting as the crowd of runners begins to spread out, and then pick up your pace. Take a few moments to settle in to the scene around you. And then, all you have to do is breathe, keep running—and enjoy yourself!

T. J. Ford is a health and fiscal fitness coach, educator, and writer who usually eats dessert first. She lives with her husband and their cat, Kiwi, in Portland, OR.

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