Confession: for a fitness editor, I’ve never been a group-sports type of person. You don’t want me on your dodgeball team (trust) and competition gives me hives. So the solo activity of running has always been a good fit for me; it’s a natural way to move my body while enjoying the freedom of being alone with my thoughts. I don’t feel the need to measure mileage, pace, or speed—just to put one foot in front of the other to a killer Beyoncé playlist. Because of this, I never thought I’d find myself at the starting line of my first half marathon a few weeks ago, huddled next to thousands of other people preparing to run 13.1 miles. But there I was, warming my hands in the cold of a Minnesota morning, nervously stretching as the countdown began. Let me explain how I got there, and share some tips on how to train for your first half marathon—whether you’re currently a runner or not.
How To Go From Casual Runner To Half-Marathoner
Aside from one 5k, I had never done a major race before. I just ran when I felt like it, letting my mood dictate how far I went. So when my dad, who’s a serious Iron Man/marathoner asked if I’d like to sign up for a half marathon with him, I was beyond skeptical. Me? 13.1 flipping miles? I thought about it for a while, and it dawned on me that I had run close to that number once before, on a total whim. It was a beautiful day and I ran the chain of lakes in Minneapolis, somehow ending up close to ten miles. But that was a few years ago and I hadn’t done it since.
Amidst all my fear of competition, however, was curiosity. Would the runner’s endorphins be five million times more powerful after running that long? Could I actually do it? I hesitantly agreed to sign up, and began a training plan with my dad where we gradually increased our total mileage each week. We aimed for one long-distance run per week, with shorter runs (and cross-training) scattered throughout the week, too. Each week the longer-distance run increased by one mile, culminating in a 12-mile run a few weeks before the race. Then, I tapered down for a few weeks before the race in order to let my muscles heal.
When it came time for race day, I had spent the past four months training, eating well, and complementing my runs with other forms of cross-training like yoga and strength training. Although I still didn’t feel “ready,” I was as ready as I’d ever been. Sure, things came up during the run that I didn’t expect—some hip pain at mile 10 for example—but nothing stopped me from crossing that finish line with a huge smile on my face. If you’re like me and either doesn’t consider yourself competitive or don’t consider yourself a runner, let me assure you: you don’t have to be either in order to run a half marathon. All you have to do is have a plan, execute that plan, and take care of your body along the way. And you don’t have to be in competition with anyone but yourself. Up for the challenge?
5 Steps To Training For Your First Half Marathon
If you’ve decided to train for your first half marathon, congratulations! Signing up is the hardest part (JK, running 13.1 miles is the hardest part.) Regardless, there’s no backing out now—you’ve paid that 30 dollar fee and you’ve been promised a race-day t-shirt and celebratory post-race brunch. You can’t let that go! After the sign-up, though, comes the real work: training. Here are five steps to successful training for your first half marathon so you show up to the starting line injury-free and ready-as-ever.
1. Start Training 15 Weeks Out
It sounds intense, but beginning to train 3-4 months before your race is ideal. It will allow you to gradually increase your running mileage each week, as opposed to increasing your mileage too quickly, which can result in injury or burnout. Download the training plan below to see how many miles you need to run each week! This training plan utilizes a 15-week training period: this is a great timeframe for first-timers. This can work if you’re a casual runner like me, or if you’re a more seasoned athlete. The point is this: if I can do it, so can you! Oh, and go shopping for a solid pair of running shoes. They won’t always be the most fashionable but ask your local running store to help you find a pair with plenty of support that you can start training in for the big day.
2. Focus on Speed and Distance
You’ll typically have about 2.5-3 hours or so to complete your half-marathon (yes, there is a time cut-off), so while you don’t need to be Olympic-level fast, you can’t walk it. Your short distance runs during the week are great times to do speed work. Practice some sprint intervals where you run as fast as you can for a block or two (30 seconds to a minute) and then return to your more “average” pace. If you have a Fitbit or other activity tracker, use it to track your pace; work your way up to an average pace of 11 minutes per mile or less. For your long-distance runs, don’t be overly concerned with pace, to begin with. Focus on building up the stamina and endurance to actually complete those runs first.
3. Cross-Train Twice A Week
Training for a half marathon isn’t just about running; it’s about increasing your overall athletic performance, too, so your body is prepared to attempt a feat it wouldn’t normally do. You have to condition your muscles in new ways to keep them guessing (and to give them a break from the same repetitive movements of running.) Cross-training also helps to increase your speed, agility, and power for your runs. Plan to cross-train twice a week with activities like these:
4. Rest & Pamper Your Muscles
People who hate running really love to remind you that running is hard on your body. Well, it kind of is. But it’s also great for your body and your mind. It builds bone mass, is a mega-effective way to burn calories, and that whole “runner’s high” thing? Super real and super worth it. All of this is not to say that your body won’t feel a little pain when training for such an event. Take care of your body and show your muscles some love. Don’t go picking up heavy objects or volunteering to help your friend move the week before your race. Throughout your training program you should do the following after every run:
- Use a foam roller
- Refuel with a post-workout snack if your run is longer than 4-5 miles
In addition to sleeping the usual recommended 7-9 hours per night, carve out time for a post-run nap if you need to, or treat yourself to a massage or Epsom salt bath to soothe sore muscles. Remember that your training plan also has built-in rest days for a reason: you need to give your body a break! On those rest days, you can still go for a walk or do light stretching or yoga, but nothing intense. Acknowledge the fact that your body is working hard and be kind to it. Your muscles will thank you!
5. Don’t Just Eat Whatever You Want
As I increased my mileage, my natural inclination was to double the number of carbs I was eating. But here’s the thing: my training suffered when I ate too much junk. So yes, you can eat more, but no, you can’t eat poorly. Big mac and a pint of ice cream will only spell digestive trouble and lethargy in a long run, no matter if you feel like you’ve earned it or not. Be sure to stay ultra-hydrated, too, to replenish those additionally lost fluids. And any run that’s about 4-5 miles needs a little post-workout snack afterward.
Long-distance-runner-friendly Grocery List
For your reference, CROSS = cross-training (elliptical, yoga, strength training, etc), and REST means taking an active rest day, so don’t do anything more strenuous than walking or yoga.
I’m not looking to sign up for a marathon quite yet, as my hip is still recovering. For the time being, I’m enjoying getting back to running for however long I feel like, whenever I feel like it. (Ahh, freedom). But it’s good to have goals and push yourself now and then, no matter if you like to run solo with Bey singing in your ear or with a group of thousands cheering you on. So what are you waiting for? Get registered, print off that training plan, and get running.