The biggest question most first time half marathon runners face when they look in the mirror is, "Can I do it?" Let's answer that right now. Yes, you can. Absolutely. There are a bevy of training programs out there to ensure you are well prepared-mentally and physically—for race day.
Which program you pick depends on your goals and fitness level. Training programs for the half-marathon range from beginner to competitive. Most programs last twelve weeks. This is assuming you have a base level of fitness that allows you to run three miles 3-4 times per week. If you're not quite there yet, you may want to pick a race a little further out to allow time to build up your base. (There are also many training programs available for walk/run or all walk half-marathons.) The important thing is to select a program that works for you. Some plans have you running only three days a week while others are 5-6 days per week and include speed and hill work. Picking a plan that meshes with your lifestyle and goals (speed, strength, endurance) is key.
Speaking of goals, write yours down. Why are you running this half marathon? Some people do it for health reasons, others for self-esteem, others for charity, and one woman I know did it for revenge, to show her ex that she was faster and stronger than he was. (Whatever works.) Write your goal on a piece of paper early in your training and tape it to your computer or somewhere you'll see it every day. This is part of the ongoing mental training to get you psyched for race day.
As for staying motivated physically, running buddies truly are your best friends. Running groups keep you on track for the simple reason that the people there will hold you accountable. It's easier to skip a workout if it's just you, harder if you know you have 6-12 people waiting on you so they can start their run. Plus, running with others is simply more fun.
A few more tips for staying motivated:
Chart your progress. Sign-up for a free online tracker where you record your workout, speed, time, distance, energy level, heart rate, and even the mileage on your shoes.
Sign-up for your race. Why wait? Go online today and sign up for your race, confirming your commitment to make it happen.
Tell everyone you know you're running a half-marathon. There's a two-fold advantage to this strategy. One, people will be impressed. That's always fun. And two, now you're on the line to report how you did in the race. Extra laps, anyone?
Running for Charity
Another motivator is to make your race about more than just you by participating in a charity drive. Team In Training is the largest and best known sports training charity program. They provide organized training for endurance sporting events around the world. You'll make friends with fellow team members and follow an organized training schedule. Plus, you'll stay inspired knowing you're doing something for yourself and for others.
Building Up to the Long Run
Runners new to distance running sometimes look at the half-marathon schedule and tremble at those 8 and 10 mile runs staring up at them. It's okay. By the time you get to those distances, you'll have conditioned your body to take them. Besides, long runs are where you'll experiment with hydrating and fuelling. You need to know ahead of race day what works for you and what doesn't. Likewise, you'll eat "practice meals" before your long runs to determine what sits best in your belly. By race day, you'll have a clear picture of what you should be eating the night before and the morning of the race, as well as your fuelling strategy for the course.
How long is your longest training run? Some trainers advise running the full half-marathon distance before the race, simply to let yourself know you can. Consider, however, holding off on completing that full 13.1 mile distance until the race. That way the first time you run it, you'll have friends and family cheering you on at the end.
Should you cross train? It's not always necessary to cross train for a half marathon, but if you find alternate activities such as swimming, cycling, or walking help break up the monotony of running and keep you feeling fit, go for it. Simply substitute an easy run day on your training schedule with a cross training activity that lasts for a similar duration.
If you can find the time, yoga is a wonderful addition to any runner's schedule. Find a beginner's class or pop in a twenty-minute DVD at home and loosen up those tight muscles with some focused stretching and deep breathing. A couple sessions each week is enough to do the trick.
Just for fun, consider adding some 5K or 10K races to your training schedule. This gives you a feel for race day and how you'll perform in a crowd.
Finally, don't ignore rest days. Your body needs a chance to repair and rejuvenate. Running hard seven days a week won't make you a better runner. All you'll gain are injuries and frustrations. Sleep and rest are part of your training commitment. Honour them.
What to Eat
Nutrition and race performance go hand in hand. You'll be expending energy and burning calories with your runs. You'll want to make sure you're replenishing your body's supply of nutrients. The first rule for any runner is to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. After that, carbs are crucial, especially for your pre-race meal. Carbohydrates create glycogen which gives you energy for your run. A pasta meal with tomato sauce is usually a safe "last meal" before a race. You'll also do well to pay special attention to your diet the entire week before your race. Educate yourself on the proper balance of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and carb intake you'll need to optimally prepare your body for your run.
Whether you eat anything on race morning depends on you. Some runners rise early to eat a light meal—perhaps cereal, toast, or an energy bar—while others skip breakfast all together. You'll know from your training what works best for you.
Race Day Prep
Once race day arrives, relax and enjoy the event. Especially for your first half-marathon, don't worry so much about running a certain time or pace. Make your goal twofold: to finish and to have fun!
Get plenty of rest the day before the race but don't worry if nerves prevent you from getting a solid night's sleep. Your body is at rest simply by virtue of you lying in bed. Many runners have run great races on little sleep.
Lay out your gear the night before. Things to take with you include ID, $20 bill, energy gel (if not provided on the course), Advil, bib, bib pins, chip timer, registration form, sunglasses, lip balm, sunscreen, watch, clothes to change into after the race, post-race snack, water or energy drink.
A cup of coffee 3 hours before the race can help "get you going." Practice with this however, in your training runs.
Drink water when you first awaken, but stop drinking two hours before the race. (Or else you'll be running to the bushes for a pit stop before you hit mile marker 1.)
If you're warm at the starting line, you're overdressed. Dress as if it were 15-20 degrees warmer than the actual outside temperature and bring throw away layers if it's cold.
Start slow. It's tempting to get swept up by the crowd but focus on holding a steady pace.
Use the water stops. Slow to a walk while you drink, but move to the side as a courtesy to other runners.
Find a friend to run with you. You can motivate each other along the course.
Let go of what you can't control. You might spend all summer training for your half-marathon only to pull up with the stomach flu the week before or a massive rainstorm on race day. It's fine. Life happens. Just do your best and remember to have fun.
Smile big for the camera at the finish!
Running 13.1 miles is not easy. If it were, more people would do it. But therein lies the glory. You are accomplishing something few people will ever attempt. Remind yourself of this during your training. And on race day, know that you've put in the work necessary to see you through to a strong finish. There's no feeling in the world like crossing that finish line. Congratulations on a race well run!