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The Best Advice for Training for Your First Half Marathon

half marathonI’m training for my first half marathon, and quite frankly, it’s challenging. I ran cross country in middle school and high school, and I’ve competed in 5K races as an adult, but this distance is a completely different challenge for me. Because of my lifelong on-again off-again relationship with running (I didn’t necessarily enjoy all those years of cross country), I’m comfortable with a 5K. I have a good understanding of how far that is and how my body works during those 3.1 miles. I know when to push myself and when to relax. But when it comes to 13.1 miles, everything I thought I knew about running seems irrelevant.

So when I started training for this half, I tossed all my running experience to the side and started fresh.

An experienced friend gave me a guide from a magazine that I have followed loosely. The basics of it are to go for one long run per week with shorter runs and cross training in between, adding distance each week as race day approaches. This plan seemed reasonable and made running a half marathon seem achievable in theory. It also seemed achievable in practice — at first. I built my way all the way up to 6 miles, and then I hit a plateau. I couldn’t talk myself into wanting to run for more than an hour.

That’s when I called in the expert. Our very own Kristen Seymour, USAT level 1 coach, offered the perfect advice to me as a half-marathon beginner.

“Mix it up!” she said. “Hit different routes, vary your speed, run alone, run with friends. If you’re doing the same route the same way over and over, just adding more on each week, you’re setting yourself up for boredom, intimidation and failure.”

She was exactly right. I was bored, and each time I considered running farther than before, I was intimidated. So for a couple weeks, I didn’t run. I felt like I was failing my training plan. But one thing from my experience that remained the same was that running is a mental game.

Kristen agreed.

“It’s definitely not only about getting miles on your legs,” she said. “It’s also about keeping your head in a good place from Mile 1 until the finish on every run.”

On my next run, I tried my own interpretation of keeping my head in a good place. I tried to be conscious of my body and be positive in general. I asked myself questions. Am I in any pain? Am I breathing in a good pattern? (I like to breathe in for four steps and out for four steps because that’s manageable for me and keeps me focused, but I’ve heard several other tricks that work, too.) Is my pace okay? Is my heart rate okay? (I use a heart rate monitor and a GPS watch because I love data.)

These questions helped a lot. I was able to honestly answer myself and re-evaluate as often or as rarely as I felt necessary. Yes, my right shin hurts a little. No, I’m not breathing well. No, I could go a little faster. Yes, my heart rate is good. In those cases where the answers weren’t exactly what I wanted, I adjusted. The shin pain went away when I slowed down for a minute, I corrected my breathing to my preferred pattern, and I picked up my pace when I was ready. The mental self-check was key. It kept me motivated and stopped me from obsessively checking my time and distance, which can quickly kill a positive attitude.

Like Kristen said, running this distance requires mental stamina as well as physical endurance.

More Half Marathon Tips

However, you can’t get to the mental exercise if you aren’t also physically prepared. She offered these tips for physical preparation:

  • Rule No. 1: Do everything you can to avoid injury!
  • Train for time rather than distance.
  • Never increase your total running volume (a full week’s mileage) by more than 10 percent per week.
  • Newer runners should stick to only building for two weeks before taking an easier, lower volume week.
  • When in doubt, err on the side of going easier.
  • Don’t forget about nutrition. You will need mid-race nutrition and hydration, so train for that. Also be sure to nourish yourself appropriately while not running.
  • It’s okay to run at a really, really easy pace. Strength and endurance are the most important things for beginners.
  • Don’t sweat it if you haven’t run a full 13.1 miles before the race.

Do you have any tips or tricks that worked for your half-marathon training? —Megan

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