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How to run your first half marathon
If you can run a mile, you can run 13.1 within several months
Recently, I posted about why I love half marathons, and encouraged others to consider running one even if they’d never thought of themselves as candidates to do so. In this post, I advise on how to go about gearing up to run one — even if you’re starting from scratch.
The goal: become a recreational distance runner
Taking up running was one of the best things I ever did. Running is a great way to stay healthy. Done properly, it is good for the body and the mind. It’s not an exaggeration to say it somewhat changed my life. And how I view myself.
I was someone who always assumed I couldn’t run. It was something that only really fit people did. I was not super unfit, but I hardly thought of myself as “athletic.”
It turned out I was wrong, at least in part. Pretty well anyone who is reasonably active and in good health can, if they put their mind to it, run 13.1 miles — i.e., a half marathon (at least, unless they have some specific condition, such as a pre-existing knee issue, that makes running problematic). And if you aren’t especially fit going into it, you can be at the end.
Now that I do run, I still don’t think of myself as an “athlete” and find myself wincing when others refer to runners like me that way. I prefer to keep that term for people who train to run much faster than I do. I think of myself as a “recreational runner.” I take it seriously, but, ultimately, I do it because I enjoy it and it helps me stay physically and mentally healthy.
So this is a post mostly for people who want to be recreational distance runners, and are starting out.
If you have ambitions to run a sub-two-hour half marathon on your first try, this might not be the best guide for you. Some of my advice might apply, but you’ll probably want a more hard-core approach — unless, maybe, you’re young and already in peak physical form so that it will all come easily to you.
If you can run a mile now, you can run a half marathon soon
First off: Try running a mile. It doesn’t have to be fast, but see if you can do it in not much more than 12 minutes. If you can do that, chances are you can successfully run a half marathon within several months without making the whole thing a brutal experience.
Next: Going from one mile to 13.1 may seem a steep increase. It’s not often you try to increase something you do by a factor of 13. But you shouldn’t look at it that way. Rather, look at it as taking a series of smaller steps:
One to three and the 5K mark: If you can run one mile, you can — with a gradual build-up and some perseverance — almost certainly run three. And three miles is within about a tenth of a mile of the 5K distance (the “K” denoting a thousand meters), which is the shortest race in distance running.
Three to five: If you can run three miles, you can run five.
The 10K mark: With five under your belt, six miles should be a modest step up. And that pretty well gets you to 10K, another major landmark in distance running. And that’s close to a quarter marathon!
Eight to 10: From there, build up to eight and then 10 miles. This may be the toughest portion, the one where could find yourself hitting the proverbial “wall” — that barrier that is both mental and physical when your body and brain aren’t happy about what’s going on and neither can quite agree on how to resolve it. Your mileage may vary, but coping with that — including keeping up morale and not giving up — is an intrinsic part of training to run long distances. And if you can get past that to run 10 miles, you can almost certainly run a half marathon.
So all along, while the prospect of a chintzy 13.1 medal might be motivating you in the back of your mind, the immediate goal is to feel stable at your current longest distance and start working toward the next incremental step up.
Of course, if you know you can already run a few miles, then you are off to an even faster start.
But what if you can’t run a mile today? Try it before assuming you can’t. But if you really can’t, that doesn’t mean you can never run a half marathon. Rather, you probably need to be doing some other things first in order to achieve some base level of fitness before embarking on training specifically for a half marathon.
Picking the race
So having established you can run a mile and are thus presumptively able to do a half marathon before too long, the next topic is the training, right? No. Although my view of the training regime is not to be too focused on the ultimate 13.1-mile goal, but to regard the task as a series of smaller incremental challenges, I nonetheless think it is good to pick your first actual race at the outset as opposed to just aiming for a generic, yet-be-specified half marathon. Having a specific race on your calendar helps define the goal and structures the training timetable. Plus, once you have actually paid your registration fee, you may feel committed in a way you didn’t before!
If you are starting from scratch, I’d probably choose a race about four or five months away from the start of your training. Three months — while not necessarily impossible — is cutting it fine, especially if you want to allow time for possible injuries along the way.
And I’d focus on an easy race. What do I mean by “easy?” The answer is several things, some more obvious than others.
First, pick a race with a reasonably easy course, meaning pretty flat or maybe net downhill. Your first race isn’t isn’t the time to be challenging yourself to an especially hilly one.
Second, “easy” means a likelihood of running-friendly weather. Cool and dry are good. The prime season for races in the northern hemisphere is October through April.
Third, “easy” means one that will be straightforward to deal with on race day. Most half marathons in the U.S. start pretty early, often around 7 AM, sometimes earlier, and you want to aim to be at the start area at least a half hour before. It reduces race-day stress if you can walk there. And — if circumstances allow — that can be a reason to pick an out-of-town race and then stay at a hotel rather than picking one closer to home and driving. Besides, going for an out-of-town race means you can combine travel with running — which is what this blog is all about. That said, sometimes the simplest and easiest option is simply to pick your most local race.
Then there is the question of race size. This can be anywhere from the low hundreds to over 20,000. My advice would be not to choose a very small race for your first one — unless, perhaps, you have some personal connection to it, such as friends who will also be running. I’d go for one with a couple of thousand runners or more. With a very small race, you can find yourself running on your own for much of the time. And so you miss out on the collective energy that comes with a larger event. You can get an idea of the likely size by looking at the results for the previous year. These are usually posted on the race website.
With a handful of races, you have to enter a lottery to get a place. With most, however, there is open registration until it sells out. Most races don’t sell out, but there are exceptions.
Registration for half marathons in the USA tends to cost around $75 to $125 (usually including a race shirt). But some races can be a fair bit more. (Thinking of you, San Francisco.) Races in other parts of the world often cost less. Usually — wherever the race — there’s a sliding scale, so that the further ahead you register, the less you pay. But the flip side is that virtually no races offer refunds if you can’t make it — or even if the race cancels — although some allow you to defer or transfer your entry.
How much training?
Some people who train for their first half marathon put in well over 25 miles a week. But it can be tough to make that happen. Not everyone has the time. And you don’t want running to become a chore.
The good news is you don’t need to aim for those levels. And, even if you did have the time and inclination, you’d anyway want to build up to higher mileage levels slowly. Running too much without a gradual build-up can result in injury.
It should be possible to train for a half marathon averaging somewhere a little under 20 miles a week over the course of your training. Starting out, 10-12 miles a week sounds like a good plan. Once you are at the stage where you’re doing six-mile runs, you should aim for a weekly average of around 15 or so, and increase from there to around 20 closer to the race.
I tend to run three or four times a week. If you’re training for your first half marathon, I wouldn’t do less than that. But there’s really no need to do more. Again, you want to avoid running becoming a tiresome obligation. And it’s good to mix your running with other forms of exercise and conditioning. For example, Pilates is great for stretching and building strength. I don’t do yoga, but a lot of more accomplished runners do. And time on an exercise bike is a good way to build up your cardio endurance while giving your calves a break.
Although I’ve never really done much of it, running gurus often advocate some short speed work in addition to longer endurance running. So you may want to try that out. You could consider guided outdoor runs that some apps, such as the Peloton one or Apple Fitness, offer. Another option is to make a habit of running the last half mile or so at a somewhat faster pace than your overall cruising speed.
Longest training run?
Some people recommend making your longest training run longer than the half marathon distance. That way, you’ll know on race day you’ve done it before — and more — so can do it again. Personally, I don’t suggest that. And I wouldn’t even run the full 13.1 miles when training. Save that accomplishment for your first race. I’d say 12 miles is a good target for your longest pre-race run, and you probably need only do that once if you’ve got a fair number of eight- and 10-mile ones under your belt. In fact, you could max out at 10 miles for your longest run before your first half.
How structured should your training be?
There’s a whole industry of running gurus selling detailed training plans whose aim is to guide you to running the perfect half marathon. Do what they say, when they say, and you’ll be good to go on race day. Sort of like one of those painting-by-numbers things where there’s an outline of a picture and you just have to apply the right color in the right places according to the numbers shown in each spot.
But I don’t really think it is necessary to map out exactly what runs you will be doing each week for the next three or four months. One of the things I love about running is the freedom it gives. There’s something liberating about getting out and simply taking off on your feet. I’m not sure I’d want to be tethered to someone else’s structured plan.
And there might be all sorts of reasons why you might want to step up or down depending on how you feel in a given week and what’s going on in your life. Not to mention the weather. The problem with highly structured plans is they risk making you feel you’re going off course if you listen to your own body and mood in terms of what you do.
But — except when I’m running in unfamiliar places and don’t know what to expect — I always decide how long a given run will be before embarking out on it. I personally need the discipline of knowing how many miles I need to run before stopping. And I generally have something of an idea of what runs I plan in a given week. So although you might not go in for a highly structured training plan, you probably ought to have some sort of a plan to stay on track.
Where to run
I don’t much like running on city streets — unless I am run-seeing — because of the constant stop/start with crossing roads, etc. I recommend figuring out courses to run that are in parks or along bike tracks and other places where you can rack up enough miles without constantly going around in circles.
I’m fortunate in that I can do my regular running in a beautiful part of California, along bike/walking/running tracks with the ocean on one side and a backdrop of mountains on the other. I drive about a couple of miles to get there. Not everyone has that luxury, of course. But, as a general rule, I’d say it’s worth driving a bit to run in an area away from cars, rather than not driving and then dodging cars while you run.
There’s a handy site called mapmyrun.com, which allows you to plot courses and measure their distances. And there’s another called greatruns.com with suggestions of running routes in places all over the world, which may or may not include your backyard.
It’s important to get a decent pair of running shoes. You don’t want to start out with some old pair of trainers in your closet that aren’t designed for the type of running you’ll be doing. I’m not going to make any specific shoe recommendations, as there are too many variables and what’s best for me may not be right for you. There are tons of running shoe reviews you can look up as you assess options.
My advice is to buy from a retailer that offers a good amount of choice and has liberal return policies even for shoes that have been used. You can’t be certain the first pair you choose will be right until you put some miles on them. And you don’t want to be stuck with shoes you can’t return if they are not in mint, unused condition. Running Warehouse is a great pick with 90-day exchanges (not refunds). Road Runner Sports has similar policies if you join their loyalty program. REI also has runner-friendly return policies, as does Brooks, one of my favorite running shoe brands (if you buy from them direct).
You should be able to get decent running shoes for around $100-$150. But the fanciest — especially those with carbon plates in the soles that help bounce you forward as you run — can cost as much as $275. Many of the most popular shoes are updated every year or two, and it’s not a bad idea to look for discounts on the previous generation. It’s not uncommon for running shoe reviewers to prefer the old over the new.
As for other running kit, there are, again, too many variables in terms of climate, etc., for me to offer much specific advice. But one less obvious piece of kit to consider are compression socks. These can help lower injury risk. I use Zensah compression socks on my longer runs.
Once you start running half marathons, you’ll never need to buy a running shirt again, since — as mentioned earlier — most races offer shirts as part of the registration package. In the meantime, a tech shirt is infinitely preferable to a cotton one.
Keeping track of your metrics
I need metrics. I want to know my exact distance and pace. You can monitor speed and distance with your phone. But I generally prefer to run without my phone. And even when I do have it with me, I like to be able to glance at my metrics without pulling it out. And I like to monitor my heart rate, which a phone on its own can’t do.
So I’ve always run with GPS watches as part of my running kit. These days, most have a built-in heart-rate monitor. I currently have the Apple Watch Ultra. That’s something of a premium choice. It offers, among other things, enhanced GPS accuracy in areas where line-of-sight satellite reception can be tricky. But other models of Apple Watch start at around $250 and provide perfectly adequate functionality. I use Apple’s built-in Workout app, which has got a lot better over the years. But you can also use third-party ones such as Strava and the Nike app (although keep in mind that some of those may require having your phone with you).
Alternatively, you can get a decent, entry-level Garmin running watch for around $150. An Apple Watch — or an Android-compatible equivalent — can be the more versatile choice, especially when it comes to using the watch for everyday purposes and not just running. Garmin used to be the better choice for GPS accuracy. But I’m not sure it still is. Check out a great site with running tech reviews called DCRainmaker.
If you do run with your phone and no GPS watch, consider using an app that gives read-outs of your key metrics at set intervals over Bluetooth earphones. That way, you have access to real-time data without having to pull out your phone all the time.
What’s a good pace?
As much as I like metrics, when you are training for your first half marathon, speed should not be your primary consideration. It’s more about building endurance and not running out of energy too soon. But it’s hard not to wonder about pace. Most half marathons give runners at least three hours to complete the course. And that should be plenty for people who have trained properly. It works out at a pace of a little under 14 minutes per mile. If you’re pretty fit and have trained hard, you may have your heart set on something closer to a two-hour half marathon, which equates to a pace of about 9 minutes, 16 seconds per mile. Most people running their first half marathon end up falling somewhere in the 9-12 minute/mile bracket. Those who are young and pretty fit might go faster the first time.
The good news is that with your first half marathon, you are guaranteed that your finishing time will be a “PR” — i.e., personal record for that distance!
The walk-run option
One option to consider is to train to run-walk a half marathon. I’m not talking here about having to walk if you run out of steam toward the end and simply can’t run any more. That is something that happens to many new — and not-so-new — runners both during their training and in races. It certainly happened to me.
But there’s a different strategy, which plans for timed run/walk intervals throughout the race as a means of harnessing energy. The ratio can be whatever you want. Proponents swear you can finish faster using this method, even if you are capable of running the whole way. And it can beat simply running out of energy and walking in an unplanned, demoralized way if you hit the wall.
But that’s never been my game plan with half marathons. I’m generally all about obsessing on trying not to slow from a run if I can manage it. I find when I do, it is hard to regain my momentum.
The one time I did a full marathon, I ran-walked it in a planned way. I still felt wasted at the end. And I got my medal. It was an achievement. But I’ve never felt entitled to say I’ve run a full marathon. Only that I’ve “done” one.
Those are just my thoughts based on my particular combination of anxieties and aspirations. If run/walk works for you, do it. There is no one way to complete a half marathon.
Hydration on the go
It’s important to drink plenty of water while running. You need to replace fluids you lose while sweating. Hydration reduces the risk of heat stress and injury. Plus it just helps you feel better and run faster.
When you run races, you can keep hydrated at water stations along the course. Most half marathons have at least four water stations, some around twice that. In the U.S., they usually hand out water in cups. In some countries, it comes in plastic bottles. Some runners — myself included — like to carry their own water in races regardless. But when it comes to training runs, you are on your own for water. So you need to figure out a way to carry some.
I carry water on runs of six miles or more (maybe less in hot weather). I have experimented with a bunch of methods, but generally favor using a running belt with a water bottle holder. Finding the ideal running belt can be quite difficult, however. Many have a tendency to come a bit loose as you run. And that can cause them to bounce around. Or their pocket for holding things is just too small.
Some running belts come with their own bottles. The drawback with these is that you’re locked in if you need to replace the actual bottle at some point. I prefer belts that take industry-standard water bottles. That said, if you want to carry two types of liquid — typically water and an electrolyte drink — then one of the proprietary ones that take two smaller bottles could be the better choice.
After having tried out numerous options, including ones from bigger brands such as CamelBak and Nathan, I’ve found the running belt that works best for me is this rather obscure one. It’s adjustable with a Velcro belt, it doesn’t loosen up much — if at all — during a run, and there’s little annoying bounce. The zip-up pocket comfortably fits most sizes of phone (although if you have one of the largest, there’s a variation with a slightly larger pocket— select the “upgrade” version listed when reviewing the color/style options). And it works with standard water bottles, like 21- or 24-ounce CamelBak Podium bottles (not included with the belt itself). I find that amount of water keeps me going through a 10-mile run and — with additional hydration as needed from water stations — during a half marathon.
Not many runners use hydration backpacks with reservoirs and drinking tubes, like the CamelBak variety, except in the trail-running community. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because running while carrying something on one’s back isn’t ideal. Some people use water bottle holders that attach to the wrist, but those usually only make sense for fairly small amounts of liquid.
Nutrition on the go
As your mileage increases, you might benefit from some form of nutrition on the run. With runs of eight or more miles, I generally use energy gels containing amino acids and sodium. I won’t try to describe the physics of how these work, but they do seem to make a difference in terms of replenishing strength.
The ones I use are Gu energy gels. These come in two varieties — the regular one and a boosted version called “Roctane” containing a little over three times the amount of amino acids. They come in a bunch of flavors, both with and without caffeine. I usually take one a few miles into an eight-mile run, and, on a 10-mile run, one before I start and another about mid-way. When I do half marathons, I take one about 15 minutes before the start, and then a couple during the run — usually two of the boosted variety and one regular. You should always chase them with water. I find Gu gels perfectly tolerable. But not everyone likes the taste and overall sensation.
There are other energy gel brands to consider, too. So see what works for you. There’s usually a selection at outdoor-activity stores like REI.
On longer runs — including all races — I also take SportLegs, a lactic acid supplement that many find boosts endurance and reduces muscle pain.
Running can be a shock to your system, especially if you’re starting from scratch. But there are things you can do to mitigate the risk of injury:
Hydrate before, during, and after your runs.
Increase your mileage and speeds gradually.
Stretch after every run — calves, hamstrings, Achilles, etc.
Don’t be in denial when you are hurting the wrong sort of way.
Try to focus on running form.
I’ll be the first to admit I’ve not always been perfect at doing all of that. And still am not. But I think I now know enough to know what I don’t do well enough.
Form is especially hard to master. But try engaging with your core and not making the legs carry all the burden. And don’t waste energy by tensing up parts of your body. Maybe watch videos of accomplished runners to see how they do it. One option for learning form is to work with a running coach. However, different people run in different ways. And being told “you’re doing it wrong” may not be helpful. Don’t be put off running just because you’re not a perfect runner.
If you do have an injury, be prepared to pause running. It can be demoralizing. But try to do other forms of exercise compatible with the injury. For example, spin classes can be doable with most common types of running injury. There may be times when you somehow imagine the injury is there for good. But the vast majority do go away in weeks. Be patient. And when you resume running, start with short distances and then build up somewhat gradually again. Don’t immediately go back to the speed and mileage levels where you were when the injury occurred.
A shorter race to begin?
Lastly, consider taking part in a 5K or 10K race while you are training for a half marathon. It can be a fun way of experiencing the race vibe early on and getting a handle on race logistics. Some large half and full marathon events have 5K and 10K races as well for those not up for the longer distances. And there are countless local stand-alone races of those distances.
I hope you find my suggestions — or at least some of them — helpful. Remember, I do not hold myself out as a running guru with proprietary methods or unique insights. I am merely sharing my thoughts as a recreational runner who went through this himself. I’ll also be posting with my tips for race day itself and the week leading up to it. In the meantime, please share this post with anyone you think might be interested! 🏃
Related post: Why I love half marathons.
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