7 practical tips for finding success in your first half-marathon.
by Megan Evoe
If you’re looking for a shiny new goal to set your sights on as a new year rolls in, why not join the thousands of people who will toe the start line of a half marathon this year? With races just around the corner and in far-flung places alike, it’s easy to pick a race destination and sign up. The tough part is making sure you know where to start, how to train, and how to survive running 13.1-miles for the first time.
We asked a handful of esteemed running coaches for their “half-marathon musts” to help you prepare better, train right, and make it to the finish line a better version of yourself.
For many first-time half-marathoners, the adrenaline rush comes as soon as they hit the “submit” button for their race. Salt Lake Triathlon Club coach Rory Duckworth will be the first one to tell you that just because you’re signed up, however, doesn’t mean you need to hit the road and run one as practice. “It’s easy to think more is better, but focus on quality miles over quantity of miles,” Duckworth says. And make sure to build your long runs and watch your paces. Going too hard on every long run could lead to injury.
Goals are everywhere: at work, school, and in our personal lives. However, when it comes to running your first half marathon, a set-in-stone goal is a sure-fire way to go down in flames. This is exactly why Tri-Hard Coaching’s Kirk Taylor uses a different approach for his novice racers. “First and foremost, have several goals, not just one like, ‘I need to qualify for Boston.'” He tells his runners to prioritize their goals, too. “For me, my first goal was not to die. Second, my goal was to finish, and finally, I set a realistic time to cross the finish line.”
Duckworth agrees, and reminds athletes to “set goals early on and remind yourself on the hard days why you are doing this!” Setting yourself up with an array of race day goals allows you to train and race with ambition. But remember that for first-timers, finishing itself is worth celebrating!
Patience pays off
Your first half-marathon brings with it a lot of excitement. You want to get out of the gates and get moving! However, figuring out how to first prepare and then pace for race day entails some serious patience.
Purplepatch coach Michael Olzinski recommends taking your time throughout the training process. “Patience in training is absolutely critical! Many athletes sign up for their first half-marathon and try to change their training habits, their weekly running regimen, and their general approach, which can be dangerous,” he says. He adds that allowing your body to adapt over time—and not forcing intense workouts too soon—can help as you ease into the training.
Easy does it
As the saying goes, “it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon!” Going out too fast can end your first half-marathon experience before it really begins. Who wants to be in the medical tent from exhaustion in the first 10k? “Those with the best energy at the end of the race will generally be those with the best experiences,” advises Olzinski. “I generally tell beginners to look at those early miles as a long and extended warm-up—where you are hydrating and taking in calories.
Coach Todd Pringle of Project IRONMAN, also keeps it simple for first-time racers with his “rule of thirds.” He suggests keeping the first third very easy pace, pushing a little harder in the second third of the race, and then emptying your tank in the final third. “Obviously, don’t empty the tank all at once at the end so you can enjoy your special achievement,” he adds.
Practice, practice, practice
No matter what your pre-race breakfast may be, make sure you are giving yourself the chance to be successful by practicing your race day strategies. If oatmeal has been your go-to meal for long runs, don’t try something new on race morning.
This not only applies to breakfast, but to your racing fuel and supplies. Make sure you find a gel or treat that keeps your stomach happy on a long run and stick with it on race day. Also, don’t wait for race day to sport that new running outfit or shoes, as cute as they may be. Olzinski says his race-day musts include body gliding his feet and bringing a supply of pain reliever on the course in case you need it. (Of course, he’s practiced enough to know they work for him.)
Laugh out loud
If you’ve ever watched a running race, you might see many grimacing faces, runners tripping, or other unplanned follies. If things don’t go your way with every mile, laughing it off just might make your first marathon more enjoyable and less stressful. “Try to enjoy the day and approach the rough spots with a sense of humor. Humor can do miraculous things when you’re in pain,” says Taylor.
Celebrate good times
As you begin training for your first half marathon, it may feel like you are hitting bump after bump in the road as you test body and mind in this new journey. Make sure you take the time to enjoy the smaller victories along the way—whether that means your first double-digit mile run or surviving your first set of fartleks.
“Remember why you do this,” says Swim Bike Mom founder and coach, Meredith Atwood. “Make sure you celebrate everything that you are and the amazing things your body can do. That’s what this journey is all about—your heart and soul.” Coach Pringle adds: “You will only have one first half marathon, so enjoy it!”