Half Marathon Training: Tips for running your first race

half marathon medal

When most people plan to run a big race like a half marathon, they sign up several months in advance and follow a specific training program. 

Well, I'm not like most people. If you've followed me for a bit or saw my last blog post, you'll know that I decided to sign up for a half marathon 6 weeks before race day. While I knew this was a bit ambitious for someone who'd never run an organized race beyond 4 miles, there was something inside me that just knew it would work out. 

As it turns out, my instincts were right. Maybe I just got lucky, but I ended up feeling well prepared for the race and I finished in a time that was much faster than I initially planned. I had a great race free of pain and discomfort. I even had fun during the race, which is something I would never have expected!

Looking back on it, I know my method of training made all the difference. I didn't use an app or a pre-tested program. Instead, I just listened to my body and did what felt right for me. This allowed me to have a really convenient training schedule and prevented me from feeling burnt out by the end. 

If you're thinking of running a half marathon and feel a bit intimidated to train for it, don't be! Read on to learn some tips on how you can develop the best training plan for you. 

Finding a Training Program

After deciding to run my first half marathon, I immediately started researching online training programs. My first instinct was to download the Nike Training app since I knew several people who had used their training programs successfully. I started to create my program, but when I put in my race date, I got an error. It turns out Nike doesn't make plans that are less than 8 weeks long Oops...

After realizing the Nike App wasn't going to work, I started looking online for other options. Again, many programs required more weeks of training and didn't match my current abilities. Most of them assumed I was starting at zero with no running training behind me. At this point, I was already able to run 4 miles without a problem and I was looking to progress from there. 

Creating your own training plan

Rather than find another training program, I decided to just follow my instincts and listen to my body. 

I decided that I would run 2-4 days per week and reserve Sundays for my longer runs. After participating in a 7k race over Labor Day, I knew that I could run 4.5 miles without a problem, but I wasn't sure how quickly I'd be able to progress from there. 

I started running a few times during the week for 3-4 miles each time. For my first Sunday run, I ran 6 miles, which at the time was rough. 6 miles felt like forever and I wasn't sure how I'd get to 13 by race day. 

But, I stuck with it and ran a few shorter runs during the week. By the time Sunday rolled around, I was starting to get nervous. I was running out of time (pun intended) and I wasn't sure if I'd actually be able to run the race. I knew it was do-or-die, so I made it a goal to run 8 miles. 

Sure enough, I completed the 8 and for the first time I felt like I could actually run the half in several weeks. 

When training for your first long race, don't be afraid to listen to your body and follow a routine that works best for you and your busy schedule. Just because Nike puts out a plan, it doesn't mean you have to follow it exactly. You can always make modifications as you go. 

rock n roll half marathon

Make modifications to your training schedule as needed

After getting to 8 miles, the soreness kicked in for the following days after. I also developed awful blisters that made wearing any shoes painful. Because of this, I decided to cut back on my weekday runs and only do 1 shorter run during the week and stick to my long run on Sundays.

I know that seems a bit crazy, but reducing the amount of runs prevented me from burning out and allowed my muscles to fully recover in time for the longer runs. Because of this, I was always well-rested and ready when it came time to run long distance. 

Cutting down to 1 short run and 1 long run won't work for everyone, but if you're training for a race I'd definitely recommend experimenting a bit with the number of runs you do per week. Find a routine that gives you the amount of training you need without becoming too sore or burnt out. 

Add Cross-training

When I cut down on my training schedule, I took several rest days per week and went to 1-2 cross-training classes at a local studio called Fitwall. 

I honestly think the cross-training was one of the most important parts of my half marathon training. It allowed me to strengthen my whole body which made me better conditioned for running long distance. Once I started incorporating cross training, running felt easier and less painful. 

When training for a half, I (as well as many trainers and other fitness professionals) recommend adding in some cross-training. You can take a class like I did or do your own circuit-style workouts at home. Just be sure to not over do it! I definitely took it easy during class and didn't work my hardest. I also stayed clear of heavy weights and only used small dumbbells. You don't want to be too sore before you run! 

My friend Lauren and I picking up our bibs before our first half marathon! 

My friend Lauren and I picking up our bibs before our first half marathon! 

Train like it's race day  

One of the biggest pieces of advice a veteran marathoner told me was to not introduce anything new on race day. That meant not wearing any new clothing items, eating anything new or training in new conditions on race day.

Because of this, I started training like it was race day every time I ran. I tried out different outfits, socks, shoes, and supplements so that there would be no surprises on the day of the race. Knowing that the race would be on relatively flat roads downtown, I primarily trained downtown and on a paved path that is a similar environment. I even ran during the rain and cold weather knowing that the morning of the race would be chilly. 

I also had to think about the items I'd want to have on me while running. I drink a lot of water and know that I run better when I have access to it when I need it. Because of that, I started my training while wearing a Camelback. This definitely weighed me down a bit, but having plenty of water allowed me to run my best. I learned that I don't like running with belts or fanny-pack style bags around my waist, so the Camelback was a no-brainer. It held my essentials like my phone, keys, and salt tablets. 

A few week before the big day, I ended up buying a new Camelback, one that was much smaller and lighter than the one I had trained with. I ran one long run with it to test it out, and it was perfect! 

Moral of the story: try out all your gear and practice in race-like conditions and you'll be all set. I highly recommend trying out different types of clothing and gear. You'll never know what will work best until you run long distance with it. 

Determine how many miles you want to run and start to tapor

When training for a half marathon, veteran runners will tell you that you don't need to get to 13 miles during training, you just need to get close. I've heard runners suggest getting to anywhere from 9-12 miles. 

I decided to do 12 because again, I didn't want to experience any surprises on race day. In my mind, being able to run 10 miles in training didn't guarantee that I'd be able to do 3.1 more during the race. 

I ran my longest distance (12 miles) 2 weeks out from the race. By the time I finished it, I knew I could squeeze in one more mile if I had to, which gave me the final confidence that I could finish the half successfully. 

To avoid over-training, I took it lighter the last weeks before the race. On the last Sunday before race day, I ran a leisurely 7 miles with my brother. That was the last run I did before the race, which was 7 days out. 

When deciding on how much to train, it will largely depend on how much time you have and what you feel comfortable with. Pick a distance that is reasonable for you to achieve, but is long enough that 13.1 won't be too much of a struggle on race day. 

Well, there you have it! Those are all my tips for training for your first half marathon. If you're planning to run one soon, let me know in the comments below. I'd love to hear about your journey and what tips you have to share!