Five Tips to Running a Half-Marathon

So… you want to run a race. And you want to challenge yourself. Maybe you’ve already completed the K races – 5, 10, and 15 – and are looking to step it up a notch. Maybe you’re already planning to run a marathon, but need a good starter/warm-up race. Maybe you have NO idea what you’re doing but you heard that the Disney races had some pretty awesome swag so you figured eh – why not??

Well, don’t worry – you can do this. I believe in you and I know that you can do this because I was once in your shoes. That’s right – this time exactly a year ago, I was at least 15 lbs heavier, not exercising at all, and had no plans to start running anytime soon. My goal was simple: get pregnant and be fat and happy for 9 months.

Well, that goal didn’t quite go the way I had planned. By February, I was getting antsy and I decided that I needed to do something. I had gone to the doctor for my annual check-up and was appalled at my weight. I had no idea how I had gained the weight and what was more upsetting was that I had gained more than 15 lbs in exactly 12 months. To say I was angry at myself is putting it lightly. So I turned to something I had done right up until my wedding to stay fit – I started running.

Week 1 was harsh – I could barely finish a mile. I was determined to get up to 3 miles – I had done it last year and the year before; why should the cold weather or the weight stop me now? Well – I needed motivation. Losing the weight wasn’t enough for me – I needed a goal. I signed up a charity 5K about a month out and made it my mission to complete the whole thing without stopping. It took me the entire training period to do it, but just days before the race, I managed to run an entire 3 miles without stopping.

Looking back, that milestone seems so minimal, but at the time it was like winning a gold medal. As my friends always tell me, “Oh you act like a mile is no big thing – meanwhile I’m dying over here”.  Well, I didn’t start this way and neither will you. We all start somewhere – whether it’s from the very beginning (You want me to run how far??) to slightly experienced (I’ve run a few races) to a pro (I eat races for breakfast).

I’m here today to share with you how to train and complete a half-marathon. As I was saying, 9 months ago I was still laboring to complete 3 miles without stopping. I wasn’t fast and it wasn’t pretty – but I did it. Now here I am in a very different position: three 5K’s under my belt, a 10K, and fresh off a half-marathon. And while my original plan was to take a break over the holidays and then run the 15K that inspired me to start this journey (see more here), I couldn’t stop the urge to just RUN.

So, enough about how I FEEL, cuz that’s not why you’re here, am I right? You’re here to learn about how I got from that no-running place in February to the half-marathon runner in December. Well, I’m going to share with you my top 5 tips that helped me to get from that Point A to this Point B.

  1. Motivate
  2. Plan
  3. Cross-Train
  4. Fuel
  5. Rest

Sounds simple, right? Well, you and I both know that some of the simplest sounding things are actually very involved. So let’s talk about each one of these in depth so you can really see what training for a half marathon is all about.

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Motivation

The first step towards achieving a goal is to obviously set one. But once you’ve set the goal, how do you get there? The answer (and the key) is motivation. According to Merriam Webster, the definition of motivation is (1) “the reason(s) one has for acting or behaving in a particular way”; (2) “the general desire or willingness of someone to do something”. Basically, it’s great that you’ve set a goal but what is driving you to achieve that goal?

  • Is it to prove to yourself that you can do this?
  • Is it to prove to someone else you can do this?
  • Is it to overcome a fear?
  • Is it to lose weight?

Whatever the reason, you have to acknowledge it. The next step is accepting that it’s going to be tough. And during those tough times, you can’t forget about what’s driving you to achieve the goal. Having the goal of running in a half-marathon probably won’t be the reason you wake up EVERY single morning. There will be days where you just don’t feel like running and it will be up to you to dig deep and push past those feelings (unless of course it’s a legitimate feeling of pain, which we’ll talk about later). There will be days where it rains or snows and you think, “oh I’ll just skip today”, but then that turns into 2-3 days… This is when motivation is key.

Motivation can be a variety of things and it will be different for everyone. During my training, I focused on two things to keep me motivated: improving my race times and meeting my long run goals so I could get a t-shirt. That’s right – I motivated myself with shirts! WalMart had these motivational workout tank tops earlier this year and I went a little nuts by buying almost every style that they had. I couldn’t obviously wear them all at once, so I decided to “gift” them to myself each time that I met a mini-goal. So on the days that I might not want to get out of bed, I would visualize the shirt that I would be running in that morning or the shirt that I would be getting after meeting my next goal. Or I would just be honest with myself: “If you don’t run the 6 miles today Erin, you’re going to be behind a whole week and then you won’t have run the 13 miles before the actual race.”

The other way I motivated myself was by tracking my running times. I had a reminder each morning on my phone that would go off, showing me the mileage for the day. After each run, I would log my time in this reminder. After a week or so, I would transfer my times to my tracking spreadsheet. This helped me to see if there was a specific mileage that I was struggling with or if I was improving on my splits. I also had the joy of marking off the days until my next race, which in itself is motivating to me…but that’s because I’m a checklist person and I like crossing things off!

So in sum, find something – anything – that will motivate you and make a plan of attack for how to keep going strong. Tell someone your goal so they can help keep you on track. And always have a back-up plan for when the going gets rough.

 

Plan

Once you have a goal and you’ve grasped WHY you’re doing this, it’s time to plan HOW you’re going to get there. If you already have a race in mind, count how many full weeks you have until the actual race. I say full weeks because most training programs will either start on a Sunday or Monday and it’s easier to follow along by being on the same day. If you don’t have a race in mind, go find one. In order to achieve your goal of running a half marathon, it kinda requires you to actually do it. Just saying.

Most training plans are at least 12 weeks long. I made a hybrid of a training schedule for myself because by the time I realized I wanted to run a half, I was in the middle of training for a 10K. So, I looked at the two schedules and meshed them together. The 10K schedule only had me running up to 6 miles, so when I hit that mileage, I moved into the half-marathon schedule.

More importantly, though, I found a routine that worked for me. I moved my long runs to Sundays because Saturdays were usually spent with family, cleaning, and running errands. I made sure I had two rest days because I didn’t want to overwork my knee. I ran short mileage during the week (3-4 miles a day) and would mix it up between days so I didn’t get bored.

Click here for this schedule:

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Cross-Train

I can’t stress this one enough – you must find another activity outside of running that you can do on your days off. When I first started preparing for my races, everyone told me that I needed to cross-train. I didn’t listen (because you know I was such the seasoned expert) and I wound up hurting myself and having to stop training in order to heal. Not a smart plan, so let’s not repeat what I did!

As I mentioned, make sure that you have rest days built into your training schedule. Depending on your level, you may just need one day. I personally need two – one for mid week and one the day after my long run. In addition, you should have at lease one cross-train day each week. On this day, you should do an activity that will work the same or complimentary muscles, but in a different way than running. Many people like swimming or cycling. Others like to do yoga (a personal favorite of mine).

You’ll see on my training schedule that I don’t have a cross-train day. This is because I did various daily workouts, in addition to running. I did a cardio and light-weight workout routine the first month of my training, a dance cardio/yoga program the second month, and then back to the cardio/weight program the final month. This was a daily program, but I felt that I benefitted from the weight workouts because my knees felt stronger. On one of the 4-mile days, I would recommend using this as your sole cross-train day.

I do want to note here something very important: If at any point during your training, you feel that you aren’t benefitting from the cross-training, make sure you stop and re-evaluate. If you’re cycling as a cross-train but notice that you feel more sore when running, it may be that you’re overworking your body. I always say it’s the best idea to listen to your body – it’s usually right!

 

Fuel

There are a lot of articles that I’ve read that list out the foods that every runner should eat. I found that I was already including them in my meals, so it wasn’t too much a of a shocks. There were some items that I did find to be new and it inspired me to find ways to incorporate them! Here are just a few of the top foods you should be eating every week:

Almonds: great source of vitamin E

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Black Beans: provides 30% of your daily value in protein and 60% of your fiber

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Chicken: protein is viable in rebuilding muscle and just 1, 4oz. serving can provide half of what you need to do this!

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Dark Chocolate: contain flavanols, which can boost heart health and help to ease inflammation

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Eggs: one of these is equally to 10% of your daily protein needs

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Oranges: provides more than your daily value in vitamin C

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Mixed Salad Greens: mix up your greens so that you’re getting the full benefit of the unique phytonutrients they each have to offer!

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Salmon: a great source of protein and omega-3 fats

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Whole-Grains: whether it’s cereal or pasta, look for items that contain at least 5 grams of fiber and 8 grams of protein

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Yogurt: the live cultures in this provide healthy bacteria to keep a healthy digestive tract and help with inflammation

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During my training, I always ran in the morning. Not only was it cooler and quieter, but it also ensured that I got my run in for the day. I learned very early on that I couldn’t run after eating, but I also couldn’t run without anything on my stomach. I read a lot of articles that said to eat bananas, eggs, or peanut butter. I settled on peanut butter because it was the lightest and the least time-consuming (I’m not a big banana fan). Below is the one that I discovered about halfway through my training and I seriously can’t go back now.

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During training, it’s recommended that you find a way to stay hydrated. Some people like to use gels during races. I’ve personally never tried them.I have a weird reflex when I run that if I try to drink water, I wind up swallowing it down the wrong “pipe”, thus gagging or hacking the water up. It’s really not fun for myself or the people watching, so I typically avoid the water stations. However, I know that I need something to keep me going, both during the race and on my long runs. A fellow runner actually suggested taking dates with me on runs and eating a few whenever I feel drained. I tried it and was surprise at how much they helped (and that I didn’t gag). It was a win-win, so I stuck with this routine. I really don’t have a particular brand, but I would recommend these smaller, chopped ones and not the larger Medjool dates.

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Rest

I feel so so strongly about this one that I mention it again!! It’s very important that you learn to listen to your body so you know when it’s really been pushed to it’s limits. I’m the worst at taking a day off. I’ll be honest – I fear that if I give myself one day off, I won’t start back up. I quickly realized that not taking any time off wasn’t a smart decision. But by the time I realized this, I had pushed myself too hard and I was forced to take a few weeks off. This was also before I started cross-training. When I was able to re-start, I made sure to include at least 1 rest day a week.

You also have to listen to your body. You can’t just push and push without something giving. You will have sore muscles – that’s too be expected. But if while running to start to experience severe pain, make sure you stop and assess. Don’t assume it’s nothing and wind up hurting yourself!


So after all of the training, what do you do in the final days before the race? Well, that’s an excellent question that I had as well. Here are my top 5 tips on preparing for the big day:

Attire: Determine what you’re going to wear and test it out before the race! Do not wait until the day of to wear those new shoes or shorts – you will regret it. If the weather is going to be pretty drastic, make sure you plan accordingly so you’re not sweating unnecessarily or freezing for half the race!

Eat Up: In the final day or so before your race, be sure to up your carbs and proteins. Your body is going to need both of those in order to last through the race. This is especially important if you’ve not run the full distance prior to race day!

Below is what I ate for the day before and morning of the race:

  • Breakfast: steel cut oats with peanut butter and banana
  • Snack: Greek yogurt and fruit
  • Lunch: Hook -N- Ladder from Firehouse with veggies with a lot of coconut water
  • Shake: blueberry & mango shake
  • Dinner: homemade pasta and spaghetti sauce with a garlic breadstick
  • Dessert: apple crisp with peach cookie gelato
  • Before the race: eggs with kale, coffee, and my beloved Peanut Butter & Coconut Spread

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Prep & Plan: In order to avoid forgetting something (as we all are prone to do when rushed and/or excited), lay everything out the night before. If you’re super worried you’re going to forget something, write yourself a list so you can cross things off. This will help you fall asleep easier knowing that all you will need is in one place in the morning.

 

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Rules: Be sure to read over the instructions and confirm when/where you need to pick up your race packed. I made the mistake of not confirming and the night before the race I went into absolute panic because I overanalyzed the statement that said “You must pick up your packet on Saturday at the expo” (even though it said the expo was open Sunday morning before the race. Talk about not getting much sleep! Which brings me to my final point….

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Sleep: Make sure you get enough sleep!!! There is nothing worse that trying to run 13.1 miles and dragging because a) you stayed up way too late and b) you couldn’t have your coffee before you ran!


Good luck!!!

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