Set your sights on running a half marathon this summer. Although long-distance may seem overwhelming at first, with a few tips and tricks, you’ll be able to increase your fitness level and push across that finish line faster than you ever thought possible. These seven half-marathon tips from run coach Dom Cadden will set you on the 21.1km road to glory.
1. WORK IN REVERSE
Choose a race and work backward from that date. Identify your week to taper – when you will significantly reduce the volume and intensity of your training to allow the body to rest and recover so it’s ready to race – and mark this on your calendar. You’ll also want to lock in a date for the longest run of your training program no sooner than two weeks before the big day.
Plan in Advance
Although not completely necessary, it can be psychologically beneficial to find or design a cross-training plan that sets all your running distances out early on. This way, you’re never caught off guard by a distance, and you will be fully aware of when your rest days and more difficult days lie within your calendar.
Advanced planning can also make you less likely to skip or miss a workout due to scheduling conflicts in your life. If you’re planning your distances as you go, it can be easy to skip a run because you realize you already have plans for that day.
Scheduling in advance can’t prevent unpredictable or sudden conflicts from cropping up, and you may need to make some slight adjustments, but the goal is to set a plan and stick to it so you don’t fall behind on hitting the mark for your race day.
Running in Low Light
If you ever feel like you’re becoming too busy to keep up the training plan you’ve laid, don’t forget the advantages of running in the early morning or late at night. Especially if it is summertime and the temperature is warm, running in low-light conditions can help you beat the heat and train outside work and other plans.
Running in the morning is also a great way to start your day; you will return from your run feeling energized and ready to take on whatever the day has in store for you. Along the same lines, running at night is great for your sleep, as exercise will help tire your mind and body and begin a natural post-workout cooling process that will allow you to find sleep quicker than before.
The bottom line is: don’t make excuses. First, select a race day that is far enough out for you to have time to prepare, sign up for the race so you can’t back out, and then as soon as possible, find or develop a detailed half marathon training plan so you’re less likely to skip workouts.
2. GET BACK TO BASICS
Your first goal should be to run 5km without walk breaks. Find a rhythm with your breathing and concentrate on good technique and a consistent half-marathon pace.
Half marathons are attainable for everyone, from experienced runners to beginners. There’s no need to be a professional with years of running experience before starting your half-marathon journey. As mentioned above, start with small race distances and work your way up from there. There’s no shame in beginning with a long walk or light jog. Just do whatever you need to safely start your body on the path to crossing that finish line.
Healthy Lifestyle Habits
Getting back to basics also applies to stretching and lifestyle habits. Undergoing half marathon training is no small task, and your body will appreciate it if you stretch key muscles and warm up with some mild cardio or strength training before jumping into your run. You can incorporate bodyweight exercises like squats and lunges to warm up your muscles.
Revisit the basics of healthy eating and sleeping as well. Talk to a trainer or running buddy or even look up online a good runner’s diet — with a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, and fat — so you’re sure to fuel your body with the foods it needs to be successful during this training process and up until your half marathon race.
Don’t underestimate the need for hydration. You will want to keep your body hydrated and ensure you consume enough electrolytes to fuel your body. This can be in the form of healthy sports drinks or energy gels.
Also take time to develop and stick to good sleeping habits to give your body and mind the proper rest they need to be rejuvenated and ready to tackle your next training run.
3. BUILD SLOWLY
Clocking up too many kilometres too soon is a fast route to injury. Consistency is key, and that means staying free from soreness and injury. Your long run for the week should build up gradually to about 17km–18km two weeks out from the race.
Keep in mind that a half marathon requires long-haul training. You don’t just wake up one night and run the full 21.1 km the next day. Be patient with yourself and your body as it learns to adjust to longer-distance running.
Remember also that half marathon training isn’t purely a consistent build. Yes, over time, you want to increase your distances each week, but you also need to allocate days for shorter distances as well. Your body will enjoy the variety and give you more time to adapt to long-distance running. Once you reach those bigger distances, the ones that seemed undoable and overwhelming at first will now seem like a welcome rest.
4. CHANGE IT UP
A good runner knows how to shift gears. Running at different paces and with different intervals and rest patterns works your body’s energy systems in different ways, conditioning you to burn fat as energy instead of just sugar, and keep up your oxygen intake while running longer and faster. It’s a good idea to add repeat intervals of 200m–400m and tempo runs to your training program (more on that below).
Course and Terrain Variation
It is also helpful to vary the course and terrain you run on. If you’re not sure what your race course looks like, or even if the course seems fairly flat and straightforward, it can be very beneficial to add variety to your runs by training on hills, trails, uneven ground, steep declines, and any other different terrains you have access to.
Even simply changing up the route you run, if you don’t have access to different ground, can help. This will keep your mind stimulated and prepare your body to adapt and take on all types of conditions, making you stronger.
If you have a course map for the race you’re running ahead of time, and most races should provide this, look it over and note any significant variations in terrain that may impact your run. If you do see obstacles, make sure to incorporate them into your training so your body is prepared for uneven terrain, and it doesn’t slow you down. This will also help you with pacing, so you know in advance how fast you can tackle hills or run on rough ground.
5. BREAK IT DOWN
If you run four days a week, nominate two days as “focus” sessions and space these apart – for example, Wednesdays and Sundays might be focus days with a more strenuous speed session on Wednesday (such as intervals) and your longest run for the week on Sunday, while Tuesdays and Fridays might be days where the pace and distance are more comfortable.
As a guide, your training should include:
- Interval sessions - Start with 8 x 200m, with 90–120 seconds rest in between. You won’t be able to run every interval at 100%, but learn to pace yourself and aim to run all eight intervals with a maximum 10-second variation. Build the distance in 50m increments up to 400m.
- Tempo running - A tempo run is where you try to hold a pace that’s 10–15% above your comfortable 10km pace (or a shorter distance if you haven’t yet worked up to 10km) for 10 to 25 minutes. Don’t forget to warm up and cool down either side of your tempo run.
- Pace run - This is 40–60% of the distance of your next long run. Focus on run technique and do most or all of this run at a comfortable pace. This session should not exhaust you. Speed bursts can be worked into your pace run by putting on a burst of speed then backing off to a slower pace. These bursts can vary from a few bursts of 400m to one burst of 1600m, or a range of distances in between.
- Long run – Aim to step up the distance by about 2.5km a week. It’s okay to repeat the same distance two weeks in a row.
6. ACTIVE REST
Use your rest days for 15-20 minutes of stretching, a yoga or Pilates session, or some strength exercises. Other forms of active recovery include walking, swimming, or running in the pool.
Compression for Recovery
A great way to support recovery from your tough training days is wearing recovery-based compression garments. Compression supports internal blood flow and circulation, soothes post-workout muscle soreness, fatigue, and discomfort, and can help minimize the rest time you need between workouts. This will help prevent you from missing a scheduled run due to lingering soreness or discomfort from the previous day’s work.
Recovery compression garments can be worn after your workout while simply sitting and relaxing. They will help your body throughout its natural recovery process without requiring you to perform any additional work.
7. RUN YOUR OWN RACE
After your longest run two weeks before the race, you should have a good idea of your race pace. Come race day, stick to your plan – don’t be thrown off by adrenalin or the rush off the start line. Stick to your goal pace, then assess whether you have the energy to put on a surge in the last 3-4km.
With a smart training plan and just a few handy tips, runners of all abilities can take on a half marathon. Pull on your compression tights, and get out there.
If you want additional pacing guidance during your event, many races will supply race pacers to help keep you on track to finish at a specific time. Often, many runners at a time will choose to run near a pacer, which can provide you with extra motivation to keep up with the group and add a sense of camaraderie to the race. Of course, you can stick with a pacer for as little or as long as you’d like, providing you with the flexibility to fall in and out of the group as you please.
A Last Reminder
Remember that your half-marathon race is for you. You are competing against yourself, and especially if you are a first-time runner, simply finishing the race is a great accomplishment. Of course, set goals for yourself regarding time and pacing, but don’t get too caught up in the competition.
And don’t forget to trust your training. If you have followed your plan to the best of your ability, have confidence in yourself and remember that you can conquer this race. Keep your head up high, don’t get swept into a toxic, competitive-based mindset, and run your race!