Half marathon training for beginners: 12 things you need to know before running your first

If you didn't fancy doing Veganuary or Dry January, running a half marathon may have been on your New Year's resolution list for 2019.

Maybe you signed up when you had one too many on New Year's Eve and now all your friends are laughing at you? Regardless, you've committed to it now so there's no going back.

Don't be fooled by those smiley, oil-slicked gym bunnies - running a half marathon is no small feat, and if you've never taken on the challenge before, not knowing what to expect can be daunting.

But with the right mental and physical preparation, running a half marathon is certainly doable and hugely rewarding, too.

(Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash)
(Photo by Matthew LeJune on Unsplash)

That's why it pays to prep yourself. Here Cory Wharton-Malcom co-founder of Track Mafia and ultra-runner Matt Willcocks offer advice for the first-time half marathon runner.

1. It will go quickly

Quite simply the biggest surprise about a half marathon is just how quick people manage to run it. The start is a pretty intense place, and without a plan and the intention to stick to it, you might well find yourself getting bent out of place with the first mile of the race. If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t get caught up in chasing other people’s dreams. Also be prepared for your stride to change during the race, it is an extremely fast-paced style of running, you might start on the forefoot but it takes a lot to run a whole 13.1 miles that way. Be prepared to handle some heel striking when your legs start to give way.

2. You should still train

Because this is a quick race, make sure your muscles are used to moving along a large range of motion. This means making sure you are mobile. There are some great strength yoga classes or alternatively, develop a mobility programme along the lines of how a track athlete would warm up. This means doing hurdle step overs, knee raises and heel-pull throughs. Get used to interval training - it’s the best way to develop a better cardiovascular system. Mix this in with tempo running so that you are used to performing at race pace.

(Shutterstock / Uber Images)
(Shutterstock / Uber Images)

3. You shouldn’t need to re-fuel

Strictly speaking, you should be able to handle a third of the marathon without refuelling, but only as long as you have fuelled correctly prior to the race. Think low GI carbohydrates such as grainy bread and lentils. You can even consider carb cycling in the few days prior to the race - but make sure you consult an expert. Make sure you are hydrated on the start line and if you can maintain pace on the course and grab a drink, then hydrate when possible. Be dynamic with your pre-race stretching. Try leg swings, some light lunges and squats.

4. You will chaff

Lots of people encounter blisters and chaffing. Chaffing is a rite of passage for a runner, but it can be avoided with the correct technical clothing. Always train in your race kit - so you know what you are dealing with. Turning up to a race in new kit might look good but it could well be a kiss of death. Make sure your footwear fits and is suitable - don’t turn up to a road race with a heavy trail shoe and don’t run trails with lightweight racers. If you’re a heel striker buy a shoe with a heel. Spend time speaking to independent running stores, as they are most likely to offer the best advice.

5. It's still tough

Half marathons hurt. When there is an incline, push hard because they usually don’t last too long and you can always relax and let the legs tick over on a downhill. Don’t be tempted to push too hard off the start line unless you have a degree of experience, but in the same breath, it’s worth saying that only the brave prosper in a half marathon.


6. There can be hidden surprises…

I think it's fair to say that every single half marathon I've run has been filled with surprises. You might train in the cold and come race day you find yourself running in 30 degree heat, or arrive at a water station suffering from heat stroke and dehydration to find there's no water left. I have had a dodgy stomach that's caused me to visit the toilet more than I'd like to and I've sweated more than I had in training which resulted in clothes that were heavy and wet, leaving me with terrible chafing. If you asked me if I wish I knew all of this before I ran my first race I would say no, as that's the beautiful thing about running. We are individuals and we manage things differently, therefore what works for me may not work for you.

Follow Matt Willcocks on Twitter: @Maxwillcocks

7. You can’t just wing it

My advice for training for a half marathon is fairly simple. Set yourself realistic goals, give yourself a bronze, silver and gold time to aim for. Don't just try and wing it. Yes, you could do a half marathon without training, but you'll pay for it the following day, the day after and the day after that. Invest money in your running by getting the proper kit, and proper running trainers that your feet will thank you for. If possible go and see a running coach of some kind and ask them to write you a plan. Yes, you could download one from the internet or watch a few You Tube videos, but most plans you can just drag and drop are written as guides and don't necessarily take into consideration personal circumstances such as your job, your current fitness level, nutrition, flexibility, strength, sleeping patterns or injury.

If you're not in a position to invest in a coach and a bespoke plan, make sure you make the plan you download works for you. What do I mean? If you get injured in week eight of your training and you're out for two weeks, do not jump straight back in at week ten, as the likelihood of injury increases.


8. There are lots of elements you can do to help you train

Invest in foam rollers, massages, cross train and add some strength work to your weekly routine. I would also suggest running at different paces when training. For example, mix it up with a speed or track workout, a tempo run, recovery run, hill runs, intervals and a run at race pace. I would also suggest mixing up where you run just to keep things exciting, maybe go off-road, hit a trail or try out some cross country or park runs.I'd also try and find a few ways of measuring your progression whether it be through time, distance or how things feel.

9. Fuel yourself properly in the lead up and on the day

In my experience, it's all about balance and your calorie intake should reflect the amount of training that you're doing, you should drink as much water as you need, eat balanced meals consisting of lots of colourful foods, making sure you get a nice balance of both carbs and proteins. An example meal would be breakfast something with oats and bananas or a scrambled egg with spinach, lunch could be grilled chicken with sweet potatoes, and dinner some salmon, vegetables and quinoa. Also make sure you hydrate.


10. There is potential for injury

You can’t always avoid injury – sometimes it just happens. However, if you do your utmost to make yourself stronger and improve your body’s range of motion and flexibility, you will help to make your body more durable - decreasing the likelihood of injury. Always remember you are an individual so measuring yourself against others can sometimes be detrimental to your own progress. Be yourself and own the road.

11. Cramps, blisters and the mental fight…

When running a marathon or half marathon, anything can happen. The most common issues are cramp, blisters, dehydration, fatigue and unrealistic goals. But most importantly, people give up the mental battle as it's not as easy as they thought it was going to be. You can do your utmost to prevent these things from happening by training properly, investing in good kit and running in it before race day, fuelling properly with both food and fluid, sticking to your goals and being strong. Own that it's going to hurt a little but be happy in the knowledge that when you cross the finish line you are going to be oh-so happy.

12. You will probably have a great time

Smile. Enjoy it. Make new friends. A half marathon can be lots of fun. You’ll probably meet lots of people and, of course, you will feel a huge sense of accomplishment once you cross the finish line. Now that’s unbeatable.

Follow Cory Wharton-Malcom on Twitter: @Bitbeefy

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