Marathons and half marathons are becoming an increasingly popular pastime, with the number of participants and events increasing year on year. There are many reasons for undertaking half marathons, from the competitive aspect with many competitive running clubs fielding teams or individuals, running for charity, or even just the sense of enjoyment and accomplishment for completing one. With a little bit of dedication almost anybody can run a half marathon, from the couch potato to the professional athlete.
Half marathons are 13.1 miles long and offer many advantages over their full length relatives. Half marathons make great stepping stones to building up to full length marathons. Half marathons have also been shown to have a much lower risk of injury, with some studies showing that the risk of injury is directly proportional to the length of the race. Most people also find the shorter length of the half marathons more preferable as it allows them to enjoy it more than they would the much harder full length marathons.
Training for a half marathon greatly depends on your current level of fitness and the current types, if any, exercise you undertake. Generally, between 10-15 weeks is the timeframe that will be needed to effectively train for a half marathon. Again, this depends on your current level physical fitness. Beginners, first time runners, and people with a low level of fitness will need to aim for around 15 weeks of progressive training in order to be sufficiently capable to complete a half marathon.
Ideally, you will want o be consistently running around 15-20 miles per week, split in different length runs. Make sure you include long length runs of at least 6 miles so that you begin to adapt to and be comfortable with the longer distances. Almost all training runs need to be undertaken with a slow and comfortable pace. You want to be finishing these runs feeling that you still have energy enough to complete a couple more miles. One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is too fast too soon, which will only make things harder. For real beginners, splitting up these early runs into run/walk sections is a great way to build up initial fitness and work your way up to the longer distances. As you progress reduce the length of the walking sections until you can eliminate them completely from your runs.
Incorporating hill running into your training can also be a powerful tool in your training arsenal. Adding in hill work will greatly improve leg and lung power and will make flatter runs feel considerably easier. Start off by adding in smaller hills that take approximately 60 seconds to complete, and once these feel comfortable push yourself on to steeper and more challenging hills.
During the training phase it is extremely important to listen to your body. A little bit of muscle soreness is to be expected, especially at the start when your body adapts to this alien type of exercise. Soreness will normally last 1-2 days, particularly on the tougher workouts, but if you are consistently sore for much longer periods then it is always worth while getting it checked out. Dont be afraid to take more rest if you genuinely need it, you should not have to be running whilst you are still sore. Ensuring adequate nutrition will help boost recovery rates and provide you with the energy to train the most effectively.
Investing in a pair of good quality running shoes is very important here. Not only will they make the process of running more enjoyable, they will also help to greatly reduce the risk of injury. Considering you will be out running multiple miles many times a week for between 10-15 weeks, a decent pair of running trainers is a worthwhile investment. They need to provide adequate ankle support and cushioning to reduce the risk of common running injuries such as shin splints.
Clothing doesn’t need to be as specialised for the average beginner, as long as they are lightweight and warm enough to keep going though those cold winter months. Light weight waterproof jackets can also be a valuable asset, no one likes running soaked through. If you are planning to run during darkness high visibility clothing or accessories are also highly advised.
The next point is purely personal preference, but for me some kind of music player is essential. This might not be the case for everyone, but I find that music helps me to keep focussed and motivated, and distracts me from dwelling on how tired I currently am. Experiment going with or without, and on different genres of music to see how it affects you during your training.
As with all sporting activities, nutrition plays a big role in your performance and recovery both during training and on the day of the event. For this type of exercise carbohydrates are going to be your body’s primary source of energy, and so not consuming enough is going to make your training very hard indeed. Consuming adequate levels of carbohydrates is essential to your performance, both prior to exercise to provide with extra fuel, and after to replace depleted muscle glycogen stores. Protein also plays and important role as it is responsible for the growth and growth of muscle fibres. Insufficient protein intake will lead to a poor recovery, which will leave you feeling sorer for longer. Try consuming between 0.8-1g per kilo of bodyweight per day of protein to make sure your muscles receive enough amino acids to repair effectively. Fats are also an important source of energy, and are often neglected due to the misconception that fats make you fat. Once your body is depleted of carbohydrate stores, it will begin to turn to dietary and fat stores to provide the energy for physical exercise. Fats are essential for many important bodily functions such as energy and hormone production. Taking on extra electrolytes during the race or training is also vital. Your body's natural levels of electrolytes are depleted when you sweat, and adding eletorlytes tablets or pre mixed drinks has been shown rehydrate 33% faster than water alone, helping to prevent the effects of dehydration and greatly boost performance.
On the day
One piece of sound advice for beginners is to aim for a negative split during the actual half marathon. This means that you should aim to run the first half of the race slower than the second half, so that you can settle in to it comfortably and find your own pace. As stated earlier, the most common mistake that beginners make is to set off too fast too early and burn themselves out, making the rest of the race much more of a struggle and far less enjoyable.
Making sure you are properly fuelled and hydrated before and during the race can make or break you race day experience. Eat too little or too much before the race and you could be making things harder for yourself, but at this point with all those week training under your belt, you should have a good understanding about what quantity of food works best for you. Water should be taken on regularly during the race, do not wait until you feel thirsty as at this point it is already too late and you will suffering the effects of dehydration.
But what is more important than all of that is to just go out and enjoy yourself. You have worked hard in the 10+ weeks for this very day, so enjoy all that hard work you’ve put in and the sense of accomplishment you’ll get once you cross that finish line will make it all worth it!
BSc Sports Biomedicine and Nutrition