Running Your First Half Marathon

Have you been thinking about trying your hand (or two feet) at the half-marathon distance? Stop thinking and go for it! Here are some tips to get you to the finish line of your first half marathon.

Training for Your First Half Marathon

Step one is to give yourself plenty of time to train properly. One of the great things about the half marathon as compared to the marathon is that it does not take nearly as long to get ready. If you currently have a decent fitness level, you can prepare your body for a half marathon in as little time as eight weeks, even if you are not currently running. But 12 to 16 weeks of training is the ideal range.

Take a well-rounded cross-training approach to preparing for this event.  By mixing running with some non-impact cardio and some functional strength training you’ll avoid boredom and injuries and you might even add some lean muscle at the same time you roast away your gut and build endurance.  Here’s how.

The Running Component

You can build the endurance you need to run a successful half-marathon on a foundation of just three runs a week.  Do one designated longer run each week that gets a little longer each time you do it, except every third or fourth week when you should cut back a bit for recovery.  Work your way up to a 12-mile run about a week before race day.

The 12-week training schedule below shows a sensible long-run progression that supposes you can currently run 4 miles comfortably.  If you haven’t been running at all lately, take a few weeks to work up to 4 miles, then jump into the schedule.

A second weekly run should be a high-intensity workout such as a set of short intervals.  These workouts will increase your efficiency, allowing you to run faster with less energy.  Start these workouts with an easy 5-10-minute warm-up.  Then do a series of 4-6 hard runs lasting 30-90 seconds each and separated by easy jogs of the same duration.  Cool down with another 5-10 minutes of easy jogging.  The schedule below shows a sensible progression for these workouts as well.

Your third run each week should be moderate in length (4-6 miles) and intensity (maintain a steady effort level of 6-7 on a 1-10 scale).

Riding your bike will give you the cardio you need without the pounding on the legs. Photo: John Segesta
Riding a bike will give you the cardio you need without the pounding on your legs. Photo: John Segesta

A Kinder, Gentler Cardio Workout

Once a week, do a workout in a non-impact cardio activity such as bicycling.  Even most elite long-distance runners do this as a way to supplement their cardiovascular fitness while limiting the amount of pounding they inflict on their legs.  These workouts should last 20-40 minutes at an effort level of 6-7.

There are many options to choose from.  Elliptical training, deep-water running, bicycling (stationary or outdoors), inline skating, and stair climbing all provide good crossover benefits to running.

Put Some Muscle Into It

Running is not thought of as a strength sport, but it really is.  You need strength for two reasons.  First, strong core muscles and good overall muscle balance increase your joint stability and reduce the likelihood of injuries. Second, powerful muscles allow you to take longer and more frequent strides, and therefore run faster.

While training for your half-marathon, do two strength sessions per week, focusing on exercises such as lunges that build leg power and prone planks that develop core muscle strength.

Staying Motivated

Training for a half-marathon requires a consistent daily effort. You can’t just do one great run on Tuesday and take the rest of the week off to celebrate! Staying motivated through this process can be challenging. Even elite runners have those days when they just don’t feel like getting out of bed to train. Here are some tricks that top runners use to stay motivated:

Staying motivated throughout the training program will get you through race day. Photo:
Staying motivated throughout the training program will get you through race day. Photo:

Surround yourself with encouraging words. Like many runners, three-time MORE Marathon winner Susan Loken finds that encouraging words keep her motivated to train. So what does she do? “I write positive quotations on little pieces of paper and put them up on mirrors and other places all over the house,” she says. One of her favorites is from the poet Maya Angelou: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”

Keep your eyes on the prize. “When I go through a bad patch in my training I just focus on my goals and remind myself that it’s worth it,” says Kara Goucher, who won the 2009 Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon.  “If you can just push through those bad patches, they usually don’t last every long. And if you do it once, you know you can do it again.”

Share the journey. “I train with a group,” says Susan Loken. “That keeps us all motivated because we hold each other accountable.” And, she adds, including a social dimension in works makes the training process more fun.

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