The half marathon is one of the most popular race distance in America. It’s long enough to require committed training and to present a challenge, but without the intense time and energy commitment of the marathon. Every year, more runners sign up for their first half marathon. If that’s you, here are some tips for new half marathoners to help you train for the race and enjoy your experience.
Pick a Plan Appropriate for Your Fitness Level
A novice runner (running for less than 12 months) has different needs than a more experienced runner who is just now venturing into the half marathon.
Factors to consider include:
- Number of runs per week
- Weekly mileage, both starting and peak
- Number of hard workouts per week
- Intensity of hard workouts
- Long run distance, especially starting and peak
- Length of the plan
If you are a novice runner, you will benefit from a plan that focuses primarily on building endurance. Pick a plan that starts with your current weekly mileage, including the long run. If your long run is not long enough yet, spend a few extra weeks base building or scale the plan. Increasing mileage too quickly can often cause overuse injury, especially for new runners. A novice half marathon plan might max out at 10 or 11 miles for the longest run before the race.
If you are a more experienced runner, you can handle higher mileage and more intensity. Your plan will likely include long runs up to 13 miles and hard workouts such as intervals or tempo runs.
If you want guidance beyond the plans found online, consider hiring a running coach! I’ve coached dozens of first-time half marathoners, and their plans always vary based on their fitness level and goals. A coach can help you train appropriately and make necessary adjustments along the way. Plus, no generalized plan will provide the accountability, guidance, and support that a coach does.
Don’t Obsess Over Your Finish Time
You don’t need to have a goal finish time or train at your goal race pace for your first half marathon. The first half marathon is about the experience of the race. You can aim for a big goal in subsequent races. Too much emphasis on a goal time can add unnecessary stress for new half marathoners or cause them to push too hard in training or on race day.
Recovery is Part of Training
Mileage is only part of the equation. Adaptation occurs when your body is able to recover from the stress of training. If you do not recover, your hard work is less effective.
Good recovery practices include:
- Getting enough sleep
- Foam rolling
- Eating after long runs and workouts
- Minimizing stress
Fuel Your Workouts Appropriately
There is no need to take in gels or chews on runs lasting less than 90 minutes. However, once your run exceeds approximately 90-100 minutes, your body won’t be able to rely on stored glycogen anymore. After that point, you need supplemental calories during the run in order to avoid an energy crash.
The exact amount you need varies based on your weight, fitness level, and metabolism. Typically, most runners find that 30-40 g of carbs per hour is a good starting point – roughly one gel every 35-45 min. You want to spread these carbs out at frequent intervals, such as every 35-45 minutes, to provide a steady release of energy. (Want to learn more about fueling for your first half? Sign up for this comprehensive half marathon and marathon fueling video course!)
Gels are not the only option! If they work for you, that’s great. But if they don’t appeal to you or upset your stomach, know that you can choose from other options such as chews, whole foods, or other options (such as these for sensitive stomachs).
Make Strength Training a Part of Your Plan
Strength training should be part of every runner’s training plan, whether they are training for their first half marathon or twentieth. Strength training reduces the risk of injury and improves your running performance. (However, it does not replace running – you still need to log miles to prepare your first half.) For new half marathoners, overuse injury can be a concern due to increasing mileage – so any step to minimize injury is valuable.
If you have not consistently done strength training in the past, gradually introduce it into your routine. You do not want to do too much too soon, as that can cause injury. Start with one or two short bodyweight workouts per week. A simple routine of squats, lunges, glute bridges, push-ups, and planks will be effective!
If you regularly strength train already, you can continue that type of strength training as your mileage increases. Aim to incorporate one to three strength workouts per week during half marathon training.
Try one of these strength training workouts:
Functional Kettlebell Workout for Runners
Hip, Core, and Glute Resistance Band Workout
6 Core Workouts for Runners
Quick and Effective Strength Workout for Runners
Don’t Get Greedy on Race Day
If all goes well with your training, chances are you will feel good on race day. The first few miles of the race may feel almost too easy – but resist the urge to run faster early on. A half marathon is a long race. If you push too hard at the start of the race, you will likely fade or bonk somewhere around mile 8-11.
On race day, focus on a smart race strategy. The first half of the race should feel relatively comfortable and sustainable, especially the first few miles. You want to conserve energy over the first half so you don’t fade in the second half. If you reach mile 10 and still feel good, then you can pick up the pace. Even if you have a goal time, aiming for a conservative start and strong finish is an optimal pacing strategy for your first half marathon.
What helped you feel prepared for your first half marathon?