Unless you’re part of the genetically gifted, naturally fit elite, deciding to run a half marathon is not something that you decide to do a week before the time. Aside from the fact signups are usually closed that late–our bodies need to be trained for endurance, and this takes time to build up and get to a point where you don’t feel like you’re dying halfway through the run. I managed to survive a half-marathon, you can too!
If you’re a beginner at half marathons, you will need to build up endurance and train anywhere between three to six months beforehand. Not only running and cross-training exercises are necessary, but what and when you eat and drink during this period can also impact your performance.
To learn all about this and figure out a training program that works for you, including what you should be eating both before and during your race, what you should be avoiding, and some helpful tips on training, keep reading.
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What Should Your Half Marathon Training Plan Look Like?
Not only do fitness and endurance need to be built up, but so does your confidence if you’re running a half marathon for the first time. So much of your success in running comes from mental strength and your ability to motivate yourself to keep going when your body might not want to.
In my first half-marathon, I didn’t follow a strict regiment perfectly, but I did make sure and run every week and increase my running amount as time went on. You don’t have to be perfect, but as long as you can comfortably run 75% of the race distance you will be ready.
Let’s make a plan based on 12 weeks (3 months) before the race.
Step 0: Find a Friend
Training is hard–it’s much easier if you can find a friend to either train with you, or perhaps you can do the longer runs with them. A friend isn’t necessary, but it will help you feel accountable for your goal.
Step 1: Plan Your Race
The first and most important step is to sign up for a race several months in advance. Once you’re registered you now have a solid goal on the timeline and you can start planning.
Once you have a date and you’ve paid the race fees, you’re committed! Just this step by itself helps get your mind in the right place to actually do it.
Depending on how fit you already are, you should allow different lengths of training periods – more about that in the next section.
Step 2: The First Eight Weeks
In the three months before your race, though, you should generally build up your endurance gradually, adding more miles to your total each week.
Starting off at running three times a week for the first eight weeks is a great start. If you can make it a habit to run a few times a week, then you’re setting yourself up for success.
If you have weekends off, one effective running schedule is running Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, or Wednesday, Friday, Sunday.
For example, if you run a Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday schedule–you can run shorter distances on Tuesday and Thursday and then have a long run on Saturday (when you don’t have work or school to worry about). This schedule will keep your body in shape and push yourself a little more each week so you can reach your goal of the half marathon.
How far you run on during your first few weeks is up to how fit you are. If you aren’t used to running a mile, then make the first running sessions simply running around the block, with the long run being a half-mile or a full mile if you’re up to it.
If you are more fit, then start by running a mile during your shorter runs and try 2 miles on the weekend.
If you start training 3 months before the half marathon day, you should try adding a mile to your long run every week. Don’t worry if you reach your limit before that–it’s all about pushing your body.
Step 3: Weeks 9-11, the Final Weeks
At the beginning of week nine, or your last month before the race, you can up your training runs to four times per week for three weeks. By now, you should feel a huge difference in your body and this won’t be nearly as daunting.
At this point, your shorter runs are there to help your body maintain its new strength, and you should be able to do 50-75% of your long run–the key is to strike the balance of where you’re not exhausting yourself during the week and you can save your energy for your long run.
Step 4: The Last Week
The last week you can take it a bit easier than your last few weeks. You should go on a couple of runs just to keep your body ready for the final race day, but you should at least give your body a full rest day before the big race.
Tips For Success During Training
By gradually building up your training like this, including rest days and other types of training on the days in between, such as hills and mobility training, confidence and endurance are developed during the first four weeks of training and then built on in the following eight weeks to get you race-ready.
Note that you do not actually have to have run the full distance of a half marathon during one single training run. Most people have not done this and are pushing themselves further than they have before on the day of the race. You should be able to run 75% of the distance, however.
The reason why it’s okay to not have tried the whole race distance is that during race day there is one extra addition: adrenaline. On race day, if you’ve worked hard during your training, your body will feel more energized and capable than any of your training days.
Not only is this physical training important, but so is mental training – more on mental strategies ahead. It is important to remember to practice these simultaneously in your physical training program and also play around with your diet during this time to figure out the effects that certain foods have on your energy levels and how they affect your training.
Combining physical with mental training is a winning combination that, if you stick to the plan, should enable you to not just complete your half marathon but actually enjoy it too!
Creating a Habit For Training
Running 3 times a week is hard for a lot of people, and for some people, it’s harder to run only 3 times a week because it’s harder to set the habit. Taking a note from Atomic Habits, one incredible strategy is to pick the same time and event that triggers your run (such as right after breakfast).
You don’t have to run more than 3 times a week, but if you just put your running shoes on at the same time every day and get outside, you might go for a walk around the block on your rest days, and run on the other days.
Successful training is less about the perfect training technique as it is consistently pushing your body every week.
How Long Should A Beginner Train For A Half Marathon?
Unlike a test, this is not a challenge you can cram for. Your body needs to build up endurance slowly as you work towards your training goals. How long this process takes you depends very much on where you are starting from and how much of a beginner you are.
You may already be able to run three or four miles and do so a couple of times a week but have never attempted anything longer or more serious.
Or you may be totally not used to running and you’ve just decided to get into shape and set yourself an ambitious goal.
Whether you are the former or the latter, you can train for a half marathon in under six months. If you have no running experience or fitness level whatsoever, there are various training programs called C25K (Couch to 5k), which take you from zero to running five kilometers or three miles in about eight weeks. This is your best bet if you’re looking for a training program to get you started from the very beginning.
Once you’ve done this, or if you’re starting with some base level running fitness and able to run three miles relatively easily already and are looking to build on this, then your training for a half marathon is likely to take around eight to twelve weeks or two to three months. The easiest thing to do would be to find yourself a training program and simply stick to it. Easier said than done, perhaps, but the results will come!
How To Mentally Train For a Half-Marathon
Running a half marathon is not all physical fitness – surprise! There’s a very strong element of mental ‘fitness’ involved that ranges from:
- Not getting mentally bored during your run
- Encouraging yourself to keep going when your body might be telling you the opposite
- Dealing with race anxiety.
Unless you prepare for this, your brain could easily be the first to give in – before your legs or your lungs!
There is some training that you can do during your training runs to build up the mental strength you’ll need to complete the half marathon successfully.
Psychological skills are important to develop in the build-up to a race in terms of what you might say to yourself and how you might think on the day. How you do this varies from person to person and might take some trial and error to figure out before you find a strategy that works for you.
Here are a few ideas:
- Visualization: Visualizing your body and success can be a powerful motivator (but you have to be careful not getting caught up in it!)
- Imagining yourself growing and succeeding and seeing yourself in a positive way
- Self-talk: encouraging yourself mentally as you might encourage a friend or someone you care about
When things get tough, your body is in pain, you are behind your time goals, or you’re struggling to find motivation–focusing on the things that you can control is a helpful technique. Whether it’s your pace or your breathing, or your cadence, thinking about your technique and maintaining one aspect of it can be helpful when the going gets tough.
I know for myself that it can be hugely taxing during a big run. It’s easy for my mind to get spun up in fixated on one thing and it can be miserable. Learning to be mindful and grateful during a hard run takes a lot of work.
Managing Your Mind and Heart During Race Day
As with anything in life, things rarely go exactly as planned, and this is true for race day too, which can lead to a lot of anxiety. There are some mental strategies that you can use to help with this, to beat boredom, and to strengthen your mind during your training.
- Focus on the moment: Just take it one step at a time instead of thinking of the half marathon as this massive metaphorical mountain you have to climb. Just one more step, and then another, and another, until before you know it, the race is over.
- Use positive thinking by getting out of your own head: This is easier said than done but try to encourage yourself by talking to yourself as if you’re standing on the sidelines trying to motivate your best friend who you want to see succeed.
- Think of the end result: Imagine yourself completing the race, crossing the finish line, biting into that juicy burger, cracking open your favorite cold drink, hanging the medal up in your bedroom, posting that sweaty smiley picture on Instagram, or whatever else will help you to imagine yourself getting through the half marathon.
- Remember your motivation: Think about the why, and remember what reaching this goal means to you.
- Focus on someone else: Pick a target, or a marker, slightly ahead of you who is running at a similar pace and try to keep up with them. You might grow to love or hate that person, but it at least helps focus your brain.
- Pick up the pace: When you can feel yourself sliding mentally, make a conscious effort to up your pace and get your mind back in gear. This often helps you to snap out of your daze and regain focus.
- Focus on mindfulness: Connect your breathing and body if this is something that you practice and that will help you during your run.
- Break up the run into manageable chunks: Focus on just getting through the next couple miles, or less, by breaking down the total goal into smaller goals that you can meet. One strategy is to tell yourself to keep going and that you can quit if you want after 2 more miles. You won’t, of course, because you’ll tell yourself the same thing at that point, just to do another couple miles, and then you can stop, and slowly but surely, you make it through the remainder of the race.
- Find a distraction: Whether it’s something physical or mental doesn’t matter, but often a mental distraction will help. If you try to gamify the race, it can be a real game-changer for you. For example, picking out a color T-shirt or shoes and trying to catch up and slowly overtake everyone you find with that color, or focusing on creating a row of runners in a line in front of you and then ‘reeling them in, trying to slowly catch up with and pass each one. There are various mental games you can play like this to distract yourself. When your mind is distracted, your body goes into autopilot, and you tend to forget about the pain or physical exhaustion you’re feeling.
- Look at the crowds: This can be a great physical distraction. Often there are funny signs or people dressed in costumes cheering runners on, and this can provide a nice distraction from what is going on in your mind. Alternatively, have friends or family members come and support you but ask them to space out over different parts of the route. This way, you will have little goals to reach various support teams that you have along the way.
Everybody needs something different, especially when it comes to mental support while you’re running–you have to find out what strategies work for you, but hopefully these ideas give you an idea of where to start.
What Food Should Runners Avoid?
While it goes without saying that too much of anything, especially “cheater” foods, are never a good thing, it is vital to eat well during your training to maximize the effort you’re putting in. What goes into your body is just as important as the work you’re putting into training, and one can cancel out the other if not done properly. It would be a shame for all the work you’re putting in with a training program to go out the window because you aren’t eating well!
It helps to think of food as fuel. Sure, it can be delicious fuel, but its primary purpose is to energize your body and provide it with what it needs to do the tasks you want it to do. The majority of what you eat should be healthy, lean foods that can be utilized by your body to turn it into fuel without resulting in excess energy or the production of fat.
Obviously, life happens – sometimes you’re eating other peoples’ food or out for dinner and not totally in control of what’s on offer. This is okay, but some foods that should be avoided in large quantities during your training period include the following:
- Soft drinks
- Trans fats
- Fried food
- Processed meat
- White grains
- Sugary cereal
What’s nice is that when you’re working your body hard, it starts to naturally want to avoid foods that won’t serve you well. Try to listen to your body.
I wanted to mention that studies vary on whether caffeine is a good or bad thing for running.
Depending on how much of your diet includes these foods, this may affect you to a greater or lesser extent. Overeating as a result of a higher calorie intake is always a concern, additionally, many of these foods can give you a short spike of energy but will leave you feeling drained after a short while as your energy levels dip, making the run harder and energy levels difficult to maintain.
This can slow you down during a race and actually prevent you from performing to the level you’re physically capable of doing, which is such a waste of the effort you’re putting into training!
What Foods Are Good To Eat For Training?
If you’re not specifically looking to lose weight, then consuming an extra two to three hundred calories for every hour that you work out is a good idea. What these calories are is just as important as how many they are. Foods such as whole grains, lean proteins, and fruit and vegetables are best for training.
Complex carbohydrates are the best type of carbohydrates to consume while training, as they give you a sustained source of energy that releases slowly while you run, as opposed to a quick spike at the beginning of your run that subsequently leaves you feeling drained once you crash.
These include some pasta, lentils, whole grains, and oats. In the two weeks before the race, you should increase your intake of complex carbohydrates, choosing these in favor of vegetables, to form the bulk of your diet. Your body will store this as glycogen in your liver to be used for energy on race day.
In addition to carbohydrates, your diet should also include plenty of leafy vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins. These will help your body to utilize the fuel you’re giving it in a way that is conducive to productive training.
Make sure that your healthier diet, including mostly the above food types, is started when your training program starts. This is not something to switch to at the last minute if you want to maximize your training and get the most from your body during this period.
What Should You Do In the Days/Night Before A Half Marathon?
Rest is best! The day before the half marathon itself, take it easy and don’t go for a run, allowing your body time to rest before the big day. If you have pre-race jitters or some nervous energy, try just going for a walk or doing some dynamic stretching if you need to.
Make sure that your body is well-hydrated in the days leading up to the race. This is important not just the night before the race but in the days leading up to it. Drinking a load of water the night before will simply flush your system, but just like with fitness, building up your hydration gradually through a consistent intake of water is what is best to make sure your body is well-hydrated.
On the morning of the run, eating light carbohydrates is a good idea, such as bananas or granola bars. Avoiding heavy carbohydrates that could slow you down, as well as foods high in fiber that could stimulate needing to poop on your run, is what you should be aiming for. Make sure to drink enough a few hours ahead of the race and just have a small amount of water right before the race.
In terms of your meals, your last big meal should be 48 hours before the race so that your body can process it and store the glycogen for use on race day. Eating a large meal the night before you run and lead to stomach cramps and you feeling unnecessarily tired, slowing you down during the race. Lunch the day before the race should be your last normal-sized meal before you switch to smaller portions.
There’s nothing worse than the fear of needing to poop before a big race–it’s extremely distracting. If you’re lucky there are often toilets arranged on the sidelines of big race events so those are always an option.
Lastly, getting enough sleep is always hard the day before something you’ve planned on for so long–but if you can adjust your schedule where the normal time you go to bed makes it easy to go to bed on time–you’ll be grateful for the energy on your run.
What Should You Eat Or Drink During the Race?
So you’ve been eating right for weeks, and your body has been storing glycogen in your liver to use as fuel during the race…does that mean you’re all set and don’t need to eat or drink anything during your run? No! While this glycogen helps, you will also need to supplement this with other sources of nutrition and hydration.
Sports gels or energy drinks are great for on-the-move options that are easy to consume. Water is always good. Managing your hydration is harder while running because your body is not used to running so much. Just make sure you drink regularly.
Ultra-marathon runners (marathons longer than the standard 27.2 miles) have their diets perfected to a science (source)–these ultra-marathoners eat dehydrated carbohydrates (dried cereal) in the morning, an amount of carbohydrates they can handle while running, with nuts and dried fruit in the afternoon. If it works for ultra-marathon runners it can work for a half-marathon.
Some specific ideas are easy-to-eat bars or jelly sweets, bananas or dried fruit (if you can handle the fiber content), or dried pretzels are easy-to-digest sources of energy. It is a good idea to experiment with these foods during training runs so that you know what your body responds well to and aren’t trying out anything new on the day of the race.
Ten Top training tips
- Always finish your training runs feeling like you could run some more. The biggest mistake made by new runners is trying to do too much too soon. The key is to go slowly and build yourself up. Going too fast and too far too soon will only end in burnout and a loss of motivation.
- Variation in training is key! Just putting in miles is not the best way to train, as you need to build up other muscles in your body that will help you to stabilize, prevent injury and strengthen different muscle groups for use in different parts of the half marathon. Do speed workouts, strength training, mobility work, hills, and any other form of cross-training that will help you to work different muscle groups. Have you thought about trail running (see our post here)? This is an excellent way to flex your body abilities and get your brain used to something else.
- Hill training is great to build up both leg strength and lung capacity!
- Listen to your body. This includes stopping during the run if you need a break, ending the run if you have a nagging pain, even if you haven’t reached your training goal, taking an extra rest day, hydrating when you need to, and getting enough sleep. Pushing your body too hard will ultimately hinder you, resulting in injury or underperformance if you tire yourself out.
- Plan the race day in advance. Often before your first race, you can be quite anxious, which in the right amount is exactly what you need to do well. Get organized in advance for everything from your food and hydration plan for during the race as well as logistics on the day of the race, whether it be getting to the start point, meeting up with friends, or knowing the route beforehand.
- Find a training plan that works for you and stick to it. This is much easier than trying to figure it out yourself and go your own way. Save the customization for once you’ve already got a few races under your belt.
- Get the right gear. Especially shoes – these can make or break your run! Not only can they affect your running style, but also your comfort levels, which can impact both your performance and your enjoyment of the half marathon.
- Start where you’re comfortable. Don’t find the need to push yourself too much or too soon. Give yourself plenty of time before the race during which to start training so that you aren’t under too much pressure.
- Combine physical with mental training for peak performance. So much of pushing yourself is telling yourself that you can, mentally encouraging and motivating yourself to keep going even when your body is physically tired and wants to give up. Positive self-talk and a can-do mentality is a great place to start!
- Aim for a slower first half than the second half of the race, the opposite of what more experienced runners might do. Go slowly at the beginning as you gain confidence and feel your feet in the race, and pick up the pace as you feel more comfortable. Plus, when your body naturally wants to speed up at the end, you’ll have something to give.
Just because it’s the most popular of all road-running events doesn’t mean that half marathons are by any means easy or require no planning. There are multiple elements to think about when training for a half marathon, from your physical training to mental training, diet, and resting pattern. Making sure that you find a good balance of these that works for your own body and giving yourself enough time to prepare adequately before race day to prevent injuries and anxiety is essential. Time to set some goals and get planning!