1. Respect The Distance
This may sound obvious but 13.1 miles is a long way! To take on the challenge of running a half marathon is a serious business and not to be taken lightly, however, as much as I say ‘respect’ the distance, I’m also saying don’t fear the distance. For a person of average physical and mental capabilities, the half marathon is a very achievable event as long as the appropriate level of commitment to the training and preparation is applied. You may have heard tails of people who boasted about how they did their first half marathon with hardly any training and a night on the town the evening before but it’s fair to say that although everyone is different, a lot of these urban tails are cloaked in bravado and a little fantasy. The truth is, for the majority of us mortal runners, we need to apply some common sense and get some training done. If you apply the correct mindset and the correct training plan then the half marathon should be a very enjoyable and rewarding experience with a massive sense of achievement that will stay with you for ever.
2. Get The Right Footwear
It’s been said that one of the main attractions to the sport of running is that it is very inexpensive. This is largely true, after all, you don’t need any expensive fancy equipment, just a pair of trainers and an old track suit is all you need to get out of your front door and start running. However! Taking on a half marathon challenge is not the stuff of your casual fair weather jogger. This challenge is going to involve lots and lots of training mileage and all the physical challenges that come along with it. Now I’m not going to say you have to go out and spend hundreds of pounds on fancy smart watches and all the latest hi-tech clothing but what I am saying is get some decent shoes. And by ‘decent shoes’, I’m not referring to that pair of shoes that look a nice colour and are on special offer. What I recommend is going to a decent running shop, staffed by runners ideally, who will check your running gait and foot arch and suggest the appropriate type of shoe. Running shoes are not all made equal and come under a few categories. A knowledgeable staff member will suggest the right category for you…..and then you can pick the right colour and look for any special offers.
3. Build Your Base Slowly
Ok, so you’re ready to start the training. You’ve got your entry in the bag, bought a new pair of shoes and you’re raring to go. Your enthusiasm at this point will probably be sky high – if a little nervous also at what lies ahead. But this is where I urge restraint. Hopefully there is still a long period of time till your event which will allow for steady gains in your running fitness and for your body to adapt to the challenge of running.
f you are new to running or still at that early stage, this is the time for the single biggest mistake new runners make. Too Much – Too Soon!
Start with an easily achievable distance, this may be as little as mile or even half a mile, it doesn’t matter. Keep the intensity low and conversational. If you find that you’re gasping for air, take a walk break until you’ve recovered enough to break into a run again. Only once this initial distance can be done entirely running and conversational should you look to increase the distance. It’s important to keep the increases small and manageable, a general rule of thumb is not to increase your total weekly mileage by more than 10% at a time. This will allow your body plenty of opportunity to make the adaptations it needs without causing fatigue and risking injury. I would recommend setting aside three days per week, one of which is Sunday (this is your race day after all) with at least one day of recovery after to begin forming a habit of consistent training. In the early stages, one of the training days can be cross training and can include walking, swimming, cycling or a cardio machine at the gym but still keep the intensity low. The importance here is to train regularly and start the improvements to your heart and lungs as well as conditioning the muscle groups ready for the training that lies ahead.
4. Listen To Your Body
We’ve all heard this but what does it mean in practice? Well, quite simply, your body has a brilliant ability to let you know when everything is going well but also when something is beginning to go wrong. As I write this, I’m not going to pretend that if you follow my recommendations and guidance that niggles and injuries will never happen – they will.
It’s important to recognise the signs and accept that it’s ok to take a day off training if you’re not feeling up to it. Always remember that it’s better to rest for a day or two through choice than be forced to rest for a week or two because you didn’t listen to your body.
5. Practice Food
Ok, It's a given that training for a half marathon will require some running, lot's of running. This is, of course, totally correct but an important thing to remember is fuel. Your body is capable of some wonderful things and these will only become more wonderful as your training progresses but here is a fact; your body will do nothing without fuel.
Not all food is created equal as I'm sure you are aware and these days there are many people with all kinds of special dietary needs due to things such as medical, physical, religious or moral reasons. What you will need to find out and quite early on is what food works for you. I would suggest simply start with your normal diet but keep a log in your training diary so you can record what works and just as important, what doesn't work. Before a training session you should be ensuring you have enough stored energy and for afterwards we need to consider replenishment and recovery with good quality protein.
6. Regular Running
We all have busy lives to deal with. The combination of work, family and other commitments can all to easily get in the way of training. To train effectively for a half marathon you should be running at least three times per week – every week. In the early stages of your training, each of these sessions will be relatively short and shouldn’t take up too much of your time but as you progress, the time commitment required will increase. Start making plans now for the longer sessions to come at the start of your training, recruit the help of friends and family to assist with childcare etc and get in place the support mechanisms that will help you with your training later on.
Running regularly is extremely important if your body is going to adapt to the rigours of running a 13.1 mile half marathon. You need to establish running as a habit, something your body is used to and comfortable with doing.
7. Cross Train
It’s not all about the running. The simple fact is this, pounding the pavements for mile after mile can hurt the body. It’s a really good idea to build other forms of physical strength to support the running and mitigate the effects of all that running. If you have access to a gym then this can include things such as the elliptical trainer, static bikes, stair-climbers etc. Classes such as circuit training, spinning and even yoga or pilates are excellent.
But you don’t need a gym. Something as simple as going for long brisk walks, cycling or swimming can be invaluable in assisting with your training. You can even find good homebased workouts such as yoga, flexibility and bodyweight strength on YouTube.
You can put these in between your run days or if you’re needing a short break from running they can replace a run day if needed. Remember; listen to your body!
8. Strength Train
Running is a straight forward activity, you’ve been doing it since childhood. Training for a half marathon however is going to add some considerable challenges to your body. Whether your aiming just to complete the distance or have a particular finish time in mind, it is very advisable to strengthen up to not only reach those aims but also do so without any injury concerns. Now we are not necessarily talking about hitting the heavy metal in the weights area of your local gym, in fact you don’t even need a gym. Doing simply things like body weight squats, lunges, planks etc are a great way to begin strengthening up your body to meet the challenge of the training.
As you clock the miles up and do the strength work, your muscles will begin to tighten and therefore shorten. Yes they are becoming stronger but as they tighten, you will find your range of motion at your joints get less. A reduced range of motion will mean you are less able to move freely and less able to run with an energy efficient style. If you can’t preserve your energy on a long run then quite simply you will run out of juice earlier. Not what you want on those long Sunday runs. As much as it is important to finish a workout with a good stretch routine, I would also recommend setting aside a day or two in your weekly plan for a more thorough stretching session. This is a great way to still do something productive on your rest day.
10. Speed & Hill Work
If this is your first half marathon then quite simply, you are asking your body to do something it has never done before. An unfortunate truth is that if you stay in your comfort zone, your body can never adapt and become fitter and stronger. Whereas steadily increasing the mileage is of obvious importance, mixing in a little bit of speed work or hill work here and there will be added benefits in your cardio vascular fitness at the high end. When your body is becoming fatigued there are a lot of by-products being produced in your body such as lactic acid which will build up and rapidly exhaust you. By doing some speed work and hill work, you are effectively teaching your body how to deal with this build up and allow you to stay strong for longer. The net result of this will be increased endurance and/or increased average pace.
Question. Do you get fitter during exercise? If you think the answer is yes then you’re wrong. During exercise you are actually getting less fit because you are causing intentional damage to your body such as micro tears in your muscle fibres. It is during your recovery that the body comes back stronger. Whilst you sleep, the repair work is being done to not only repair the damage but to build it back stronger; this is called the training adaptation. This process can take as much as 48 hours so I would definitely not recommend running on consecutive days. Neglecting the recovery will seriously inhibit the repair work being done and lead to overtraining symptoms such as illness and injury. You can still do gentle activities during recovery such as walking, light cycling or swimming but definitely no pounding the pavements.
12. Good Nutrition
Food is an often overlooked element of training or at the very least, relegated to a secondary thought. It is however, just as important as any other area and needs consideration. Just like a car, your body requires fuel. The right type and amount of fuel can make all the difference to your training, recovery and performances. Before running, think good quality carbohydrates such as pasta or rice. For recovery, think quality protein. Resist the temptation and marketing of many over commercialised protein products such as shakes and bars and go for real food such as chicken or fish. Vegetarians and vegans should think about beans, buckwheat or quinoa for complete proteins. Don’t skimp on the fruit and veggies, especially the veggies as these contain all the minerals, vitamins and other nutrients your body needs. Healthy fats are also essential as these will help maintain your nervous system, brain function as well as storing the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.
This section is called ‘Good Nutrition’. So you’ll be doing yourself a huge favour by limiting the junk food, heavily processed food and alcohol. None of these will help your performances and will only hinder your progress. I’m not saying to completely cut them out but certainly curtail the excesses.
13. Enjoy It
Enjoy it. When race day comes along it is normal to feel a little apprehensive and nervous but these feelings will melt away as you cross the start line. Always remember how far you have come and how much work you have done to even get on the start line. It’s now time to enjoy the event, each 13.1 miles of it. You will be surrounded by hundreds, thousands of other people in exactly the same situation as you so you will definitely have good company. When you cross that finish line, pick up your medal, t-shirt or whatever your event is providing, stand tall and be proud of the fact that you have joined the special club of Half Marathon Runners. This achievement can never be taken from you.