By Brittany Doohan
Whether you’re already signed up for a race or just beginning to think about running your first half marathon, you’re taking the first step toward a big goal. Running your first half marathon can be intimidating, but with the right information and frame of mind, you can move from couch to 13.1 miles with ease. Ready to get started? Here are some tips to help you train and complete your first marathon.
If you want to run well, avoid injury and feel good during your race, it’s important to give yourself enough time to prepare. (After all, running 13.1 miles straight is no small feat!) “Many runners think they can go from ‘couch to half marathon’ in 8 to 12 weeks — and while it's possible, it's not ideal. Give yourself at least 16 to 20 weeks to build your fitness,” said Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner, USATF-certified running coach, and the owner of Strength Running.
Running is an extreme sport, so if you’re not training properly (taking on too much too soon, or going too fast) you could open the door to injuries and aggravations, said Matthew “Marathon Matt” Forsman, a USATF-certified running coach. “It’s useful to have someone, or a few people, who have a lot of experience running providing some direction and guidance.”
Not only do running programs ensure you’re on the right track, but training with others can spark motivation, keep you accountable and make training a lot more fun. “You can meet lifelong friends, people who are at similar speeds and [gain] a community of support,” said Shanna Burnette, a long-time competitive runner and part of two Division I National Championship cross-country teams.
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First and foremost, it’s essential to get a high quality pair of running shoes. Every stride you take generates about three to five times your body weight in impact force, so you really don’t want to cut corners with your shoes, said Forsman. Your local running specialty store can help you find the right pair of shoes based on your foot type and size and the particulars of your gait (if your ankles roll in or roll out while you run or if you have a high arch, for example).
It’s also important to find clothing made with synthetic fabrics to wick away sweat and moisture — and if possible, try to stay away from cotton. Cotton traps moisture and sweat inside fabrics making longer runs very uncomfortable, said Forsman.
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When it comes to training, slow and steady wins the race. Increasing mileage should be a gradual, methodical process. First-timers should run shorter distances (ranging from two to five miles) three to four days per week (or two days per week if you’re cross-training) and do one long run each week that gradually increases in distance until you reach at least 10 miles before the big race, said Fitzgerald. “Week to week you don’t really want to increase your weekly mileage more than about 10 to 20 percent. So if you run 10 miles one week, you probably don’t want to run more than about 11 to 12 miles the following week,” said Forsman.
As for the pace, it really depends on your body. Go at a pace that is comfortable, controlled and conversational (meaning you’re still able to talk while running), said Fitzgerald. “If your body is telling you that you’re tired or sore, that may be a sign that you’ve taken on too much. You either need to slow down your pacing, not increase your mileage or [take] an extra day or two of rest,” said Forsman.
Read to get started? Here’s “Marathon Matt’s” complete 12-week running schedule!
Now that you’re a runner you can eat whatever you want, right? Not so fast. Taking up running doesn’t give you a dietary hall pass — and it doesn’t mean you need to take in a bunch of extra calories either (carbo-loading, anyone?).
While training, maintain a diet that will give you enough energy for your runs and ensure that you and your muscles stay healthy and fit. Forsman recommends eating lots of fruits (especially bananas to replace potassium lost in sweat) and vegetables, lean forms of protein like fish and chicken, and a good amount of healthy fats, like those found in avocado, olive oil and nuts. And remember, balance is key. Eat enough to fuel your runs, but be cognizant of how much you’re burning (running burns about 100 to 150 calories per mile) versus how much you’re consuming so you don’t gain weight, said Forsman.
Before your longer training runs and the big 13.1 miles on race day, it’s important not to feel too starved or too stuffed (you may get stomach cramps!). To fuel your run and feel your best, enjoy a light meal about one and a half to two hours before you hit the pavement.
And even though you may not need it — because your body has a secondary long-term energy source stored in your muscles called glycogen — if you feel your energy dwindling during your longer training runs, you can also bring a banana or energy bar with you to fuel the rest of your workout. It’s also very important to hydrate every 20 minutes while running and drink water with electrolytes to replace what is lost in sweat.
The biggest focus of your training are your runs, but there are many things you can do on your days off and before and after your runs to condition your body for the big race and avoid injury.
On days when you don’t run, it can help to do about 30 to 40 minutes of active recovery on a stationary bike or elliptical machine. Doing this will increase blood flow and circulation, and help flush out lactic acid and toxins in the body that have accumulated from the last time you ran, said Forsman.
To strengthen your core and improve stability, it’s also helpful to do muscle-toning exercises like squats, lunges and planks. “These exercises can help offset any sort of biomechanical issues that you might have and make you a more balanced runner,” said Forsman.
Just be sure not to pack on too much muscle: “You want to be strong and you want to be toned, but muscle mass and bulk is not going to help you be an efficient and effective runner,” he said.
Running is an extreme sport, so having injuries and aggravations is almost inevitable, said Forsman. However, there are plenty of things you can do to minimize your risk. Alongside having a well thought-out running schedule with gradual increases in mileage, it’s important to perform general maintenance practices, like getting a regular sports massage, using a foam roller (a log-like tool to massage muscles and improve circulation), and doing a proper warm-up (walking for five minutes or doing range-of-motion exercises like arm circles, leg kicks, etc.) and stretching routine for each run. “Stretching after your run can help lengthen those muscles that have been contracting and shortening during the course of your run,” said Forsman.
It’s also crucial to pay attention to your body. If you feel a dull, aching sensation that comes and goes, it’s probably a soft tissue problem that can be addressed with a foam roller or massage, said Forsman. “If it’s a sharp, intense, shooting, radiating kind of pain, that’s definitely a red flag — that’s something you probably don’t want to run through and you should see a doctor.”
The excitement to run a half marathon may spark motivation in the beginning, but staying motivated throughout the process is a different story. “Beginning runners often focus on their end goal, like ‘finish my first half marathon.’ That's great, but the race itself is usually months away and there's a lot of work to do until then,” said Fitzgerald. Instead of focusing on the end goal, Fitzgerald suggests incorporating small incremental goals along the way. These goals can be as simple as not skipping any workouts for the week or reaching a certain mileage on a particular run. “These little goals give runners momentum and allow them to stay motivated as they move toward their big goal,” said Fitzgerald.
To keep accountable, Burnette says it’s also helpful to write yourself daily reminders. “Hang them on your bathroom mirror, refrigerator, etc. so you can be reminded everyday of what you want to accomplish,” she said. See your fitness progress right before your eyes with our free exercise tracker!