Know the Half of it: Tips for a Successful Half Marathon

medals half marathon

I love half marathons. There are solid reasons this distance has grown in popularity: it takes work and dedication, but doesn’t have the same second-job feel as marathon training. The next time an awestruck friend asks you about your marathon training, drop the “just”-ification. You aren’t running “just” a half marathon (HM)- you’re running 21.1 kilometers! Most people would be hopping in the car, fuel prices notwithstanding. It’s an achievement.

Still, regardless of whether you are finishing closer to the one-hour mark or more than three hours after the starting gun, there is plenty of time for things to go sideways. Some aspects are beyond our influence; weather on race day is a standard example of the uncontrollable variable. There’s room for growth, but as I complete more HMs, training smarter, not harder, is a key to success. Training smarter has developed from gaining experience over time, diving into educational resources, and, most importantly, immersing myself in the running community.

These are some things I wish I’d known when I first began training for half marathons, donning a cotton tank and my single trusty pair of shoes, thinking every run needed to be as fast as possible. They are geared toward someone doing their first, possibly second or third HM, not necessarily the seasoned HM specialist. That said, if you’re an experienced runner who’s now reflecting on things you wish you’d known, I hope you’ll pass those reflections to newer runners and save them potential heartache (or toenail loss).

Forge real-world connections for real-world advice

Having a time goal can be stressful and could diminish the finish line sense of accomplishment, should you not hit that goal. On the other hand, a time goal can suggest paces for different runs and an outline for building mileage. Online, you’ll find a plethora of plans, but take these with a grain of electrolyte: generic schedules labeled “beginner” or “intermediate” may be anything but.

A safer, more individualized bet would be to reach out to a coach for a personalized plan. Alternatively, stop in at your local specialty store and talk training with the staff. While the internet is a fantastic resource for training advice, real-world connections and pointers are invaluable. It’s the difference between reading a dozen shoe reviews and trying on the shoe for yourself. If solo long runs aren’t your jam or friendly competition motivates you during a speed workout, ask about training groups. Most stores have run clubs attached and are familiar with neighbourhood crews.

Avoid injuries before being sidelined

An unfortunate reality of running is that increasing overall volume and speed also increases the chance of injury. As you build mileage, get proactive about injury prevention. One of the best things you can do is to have a rotation of shoes. The general theory behind a rotation of shoes is that each different shoe will engage different parts of your foot and body, minimizing the stress on a single area that occurs when only one shoe is used. 

Your shoe rotation doesn’t need to include the latest carbon-plated super shoe (though it can!) Here’s a typical roster: a maximally-cushioned choice for long runs, a daily trainer, and a lightweight option for speedy days. My half marathon race day shoe choices have varied- when I’ve been in PB shape, I’ve gone with lightweight shoes. When I’ve been coming back from injuries with less aggressive goals, I’ve prioritized comfort. The psychological aspect has also played a role: what shoe was I confident would take me to the finish line? When debating between shoes, associations with dreadful long runs have been the final determinant in selecting one shoe over another. I didn’t want to question my footwear choice in the starting corral- that’s even worse than wondering if I needed to make a last-minute dash to a porta-potty.

No, hitting the wall is not inevitable

Before undertaking half marathon training, many runners haven’t incorporated gels, chews or liquid calories- with good reason. Your muscles store roughly 90 minutes worth of glycogen before you run the risk of “hitting the wall”.  I’ve met many runners who’ve run multiple HMs before learning that nutrition is a thing and that drinking water is good (I, too, was one of these runners). Yes, you can physically survive your HM without ingesting anything, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have top-notch performance.

Photo Credit: Glynis F

Some nutrition products are fruit-flavoured, while others are dessert-like (or, more accurately, a sad imitation of dessert). Many require water to speed gastric emptying and minimize the chance of GI distress. Me? I’m using Maurten hydrogels at the moment. Certainly, there are those who feel the formulation of Maurten results in optimal energy delivery, but the nitty-gritty physiological reasons aren’t why I use it. I like it because the Jello-that-hasn’t-fully-set consistency is easy to ingest, versus choking down something akin to ganache. The unusual lack of flavour means I can ingest it without being reminded of that banana-flavoured medication everyone got for strep throat as a kid. For me, it works.

The key with nutrition is to experiment. Beyond what is natural, organic or being used by any pro athlete, ask yourself: can I ingest this mid-race without gagging and hating my decision? Some runners can’t stand the texture of gels and prefer chews. Some find specific blends of carbohydrates cause fewer gut issues. Some people just really love maple syrup. A standard recommendation is to consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour- roughly one to two gels. Setting a timer on your watch or phone can remind you to take a gel at appropriate time intervals. This is useful in the later stages of a run, when fatigue is increasing and you’re calculating when to carb up (side note: never math and run).

Now entering ~Serious Runner~ territory

While we’re discussing nutrition, how are you going to carry it? Now is the time- if you haven’t yet- to think about belts, packs and vests. All have their pros and cons; belts are generally at a lower price point and easier to find in stores, but carry less water and sometimes bounce. Vests and packs are typically more expensive, but carry more fuel and water and can be tightened securely. Any bottles and bladders require attention to cleanliness to avoid mold growth. Empty, clean and dry them after use, especially if you’ve used a sugar-containing sports drink.

A personal insight would be to avoid purchasing these items online, if possible. Think of them as investment pieces and try ‘em before you buy ‘em. Does it fit comfortably across the chest? Are you able to get it snug enough to avoid bouncing?  Does it fit your gels, phone and keys? If it has bottles, are they easily accessible? (I’ve encountered belts with bottles so awkward to remove that it was easier to remove the belt to access them- not practical mid-run). I’ve purchased both an inexpensive belt and a pricier, women-specific vest that carried everything I needed through a 50K without chafing. One collected dust after a single wear, and the other was a staple for several years.

Multiple side quests: great in video games, not in running

There’s nothing wrong with a tune-up race in your training: a 5k acting as a speed workout, a 10k as a test of your goal race pace. Races can be incorporated into a long run. They act as a trial run for nutrition and gear- better to find out in advance if a sock slips or a seam chafes. However, to increase your chance of success at the half marathon, try not to get distracted by too many side quests. Extra races- particularly when they start ousting HM-specific training runs or when you’re trying to PB at multiple distances- can leave you burnt out or injured.

I completely understand wanting to race- it’s fun! You get a medal! You might get a shirt that fits! But, if you have an ambitious goal, playing the long game and keeping focused on the HM is often beneficial. This is a situation where seeking a coach’s advice can be useful.

Ready, set, go run a half marathon!

In a few months, I’ll be undertaking my own half marathon training as I’ve agreed to be a cross-Canada training partner (Mom, if you’re reading this, hi!). With the return of in-person racing, I know I’m not the only one awaiting this opportunity. To all Rot6 readers who will be running a half marathon, good luck! But, just maybe, here’s to not depending on luck. Let’s depend on a solid foundation of personal trial-and-error, some tried-and-true recommendations…and, okay, we’ll all be crossing our fingers for 10℃ and sunny. 

Lead Photo Credit: Glynis F