Saturday, May 21, 2011

How to Train for Your First Half Marathon

By Coach Jenny Hadfield

If you’re reading this article, you probably want to become a half marathoner (or you’re leaning into the idea).  And if that is the case, you are in the right place. Successfully finishing a half marathon begins a plan to reach the start line safely and ready to rumble.

Start your engines.  You’ve pulled the trigger and decided to try your hand in the half marathon world. Congrats! The next step is to register for an event to build in a little accountability.  Give yourself plenty of time to train for the half (12 to 14 weeks).  Having a long runway will give you time for illness, vacations and life detours that can happen along the way.  It will also allow your body and mind time to adapt to the continual progression in mileage.  If you don’t currently have a consistent base of mileage (3 to 4 miles, three to four times per week), that is OK. It simply means your runway is a little longer (six months).   You can do it in less, but you won’t have as much fun along the way and the risks of injuries dramatically increase.

Pick an event, any event.  I ran my first half marathon in my county because I could train on the course and I wanted the home court advantage.  When you pick the race, it serves as your carrot for the season, so it is in your best interest to find one that inspires.   Do you want to run through wine country or in your hometown?  Do you want to toe the line with thousands or a few hundred?   Since this is your first, it is also wise to find events that support your pace (run, run-walk or walk) and those that offer courses similar to your terrain.  There are enough nerves in tackling your first event, let alone having to worry about short cut-off times or super challenging terrain.  Keep it simple.

Find a training plan that suits your needs.  The body adapts and improves at an efficient rate if you make small changes along the way.  The key to going longer, stronger and tapping into your inner endurance athlete is to have the wisdom to start from where you are rather than where you want to be.
The first week of the training plan should closely match that of your current training plan (or slightly more, maybe 10 percent).  If you jump into a program that requires a large jump in mileage, frequency or intensity, you will be on a fast track to burn out, aches and pains and possibly drop out.  Think of this like education. Take it one grade at a time.  Your body will pay you back in dividends by recovering from the workouts so you can progress along the way.  Less is more when you’re first getting started.  Hold back the reigns of excitement and take it one step at a time.

Make it social.  Research suggests training in groups not only inspires better performance, but the ability to run longer more easily.  This is especially important for the weekly long training runs.  The miles fly by as you talk about the movie you saw, work, the kids or solving world peace.  There are a lot of fantastic training groups at local running stores, charity groups and gyms.  Or it can be as simple as you and your best friend.

Practice patience, grasshopper.  Rome wasn’t built in a day and you won’t turn into a half marathoner over night.  Expect to roll through good and not-so-good training days.  At the end of the season, it all comes down to the consistency overall, not the handful of workouts that felt so hard you wanted to cry.

Listen to your body and go with the flow of your life.  Our body has an excellent communication system that would kick Twitter’s butt.  Listen as you train for aches and pains that don’t subside in a day or two.  In most cases, the pain will subside with a little tender, loving care.  If the aches stick around longer, its time to dial down the program for a few days and cross-train with activities that don’t aggravate the aches and rest.  A few days of active or complete rest can be the answer to most training aches.  It all starts with listening…

Use your gears.  The greatest difference between running for fitness and for a long distance event is that the former is horizontal and the latter continually builds throughout the season.  The progression requires training at the scheduled effort level (intensity) to allow efficient recovery.  If you run the long run too hard, it delays the recovery process and can have an effect on the performance of your next workout.  The number one mistake I see most newbie half marathoners make is in running all the workouts at the same pace (their normal running pace).  Find your gears (effort levels – easy, moderate, hard) and practice discipline as you train.  You’ll know you’re on target if you are able to run longer or faster and you’ll know if you’re pushing too hard if those times and paces decline.

Learn, grow and evolve.  There is a wonderful running community from which you can learn many helpful tips along the way.   Join in the conversation on the forums and read the informative articles.  Stop by my AskCoachJenny Facebook page and ask a question or learn from others.  Getting connected is a great way to maintain momentum and motivation along the way.

Think outside the box.  It’s easy to get caught up on the miles when training for a half marathon but there are a lot of other ingredients that play a vital role in your preparation.  Strength training as little as 15 to 20 minutes twice per week builds a solid foundation that will improve muscle balance, running efficiency, and help you maintain optimal form for the duration.  Weaving in 5 to 10 minutes of flexibility work (stretching, foam rolling) can relieve muscle tension that is common in repetitive sports.  Including cross-training activities (cycling, elliptical, yoga, swimming, skating) in your program reduces mental fatigue, balances the musculature and adds spice to the regimen.  Think of it like making a tasty bowl of chili.  It’s the balance of the ingredients that makes the meal.
Practice makes perfect.  Every long training run or walk is an opportunity to practice for race day.  Consider it a dress rehearsal and dial in hydration on the run, the timing of your pre-run nutrition and fueling on the fly. Think of apparel, shoes and anything and everything related to race day.  Keep a log and track what works and what doesn’t.  From chafing apparel to your favorite gel flavor, you’ll create your personal training recipe for success along the way and it will serve as a means of validation when the race nerves set in the week before the event.

Beat taper madness.  Speaking of nerves, a funny thing happens on the way to the start line.  A tiny gremlin I call taper madness sits promptly on your shoulder about seven days out from the event with a goal to break you down mentally and emotionally.  His presence can make you second-guess everything from what to eat race week to which foot to start on.  This is happening as the training volume is tapering down to allow recovery from the demands of the season so you can toe the line strong, fresh and ready to rumble.  The gremlin is fueled by your nerves but can be easily knocked off by keeping faith in your program.  Review your log and remind yourself how far you’ve come.  This is the time to breathe, keep the mind stimulated and the body rested.  Adding mileage to soothe the mind can hurt the body on race day.

Go with what you know.  If you’re going to be a half marathoner, you need to know the number one rule.  That is, don’t try anything new on race day.  Refer back to your log and stick to what is tried and true. Avoid the temptation to buy that cute, new top from the expo to wear on race day.  Eat familiar foods, gels and avoid making drastic changes in your life.

Pace yourself.  The number one thing you can control on race day is your pace.  It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of the race and go out too fast, only to find yourself crawling across the finish line. Think tortoise, not hare, and hold back the reins for the first half of the race by keeping the effort at a pace where you can talk.  If you can hear your breathing, you’re running too hard.  At the halfway point, begin to slowly dial up the effort and count down the miles.  In the final 3 miles, go fishing.  That is, focus on a runner ahead and reel them in.  There is nothing in the world like having the strength to pass people (nicely) in the final miles of a race.  Besides, it makes for a much cuter finish line photo.
Celebrate your accomplishment.  There are very few people that will ever cross a half marathon finish line.  Take the time to fully celebrate your accomplishment.  Whether you choose to run another half marathon or not, you only run your first half marathon once.  Take it all in and give yourself a high five.  You’ve earned it.  

Coach Jenny Hadfield is an Active Expert and the co-author of the best-selling Marathoning for Mortals, and the Running for Mortals and Training for Mortals series. She is also a columnist for Women's Running and Runners World.

Coach Jenny has trained thousands of runners and walkers with her training plans. Improve your running performance or train for your next event with Coach Jenny's Active Trainer Plans. You can ask her a training question on her Ask Coach Jenny page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter.

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