Your first half marathon can be a physical and mental roller coaster.
Training for your first half marathon, let alone running it, is a huge mental and physical battle.
When you’re running a half marathon for the first time, it can be daunting to know what to do and how to do it.
The training plan alone can send shivers down your spine!
The good news is that there are many first half marathon tips to support and inspire any new runner to run their first half marathon.
In this guide we’ll explore:
- How long is a half marathon?
- How to train for your first half marathon
- How to prepare for your first half marathon
- First half marathon Q&A
- First half marathon tips: 11 things I wish I’d known before running my first half marathon
How long is a half marathon?
A half marathon in miles is 13.1 miles.
In kilometres, this equates to 21.09 kilometres.
Prior to 2020, there were over 3,000 half marathon events in the USA alone, with over 850,000 people participating in events across the country.
Related: What is a good half marathon time?
How to train for your first half marathon
When running a half marathon for the first time, preparation before race day is key.
This boils down to a good half marathon training plan.
Half marathon training plans vary depending on your running experience and the time in which you wish to finish the half marathon.
If you’re completing your first ever half marathon, then the recommendation is to opt for a beginner half marathon training plan.
A beginner half marathon training plan can last anywhere between 12 to 16 weeks.
It will typically include the following runs and workouts:
- 1 long run
- 1-3 easy runs
- 1 speed training session
- 1 strength training session (e.g. tempo running or interval training)
- 1 cross training session (e.g. walking, swimming, cycling)
- 2 rest days
Your training plan should include one long run per week – done either on a Saturday or Sunday.
The aim of the long run is to increase your endurance and stamina to enable you to run 13.1 miles on race day.
Your pace on a long run should be comfortable – so you shouldn’t feel out of breath when running.
Along with the long run, easy runs are designed to be run at a comfortable pace where you can easily hold a conversation without getting out of breath.
Beginner half marathon training plans normally include 1 to 3 easy runs and they are normally completed mid-week between Monday and Friday.
In some beginner half marathon training plans, speed training is optional, but speed training is seen as a great way to improve your endurance and speed as a runner.
Aim to include at least one speed training session in your training plan each week.
This will go a long way to help you become a faster and stronger runner.
A well-rounded training plan should include at least one strength training session per week.
Strength training is essential for any runner looking to improve their athletic performance, especially over long distances.
It can take the form of bodyweight exercises (like squats or lunges) or weighted exercises (like dumbbell squats or weighted lunges).
Check out my 14 day strength training plan for runners for more info and tips.
My 30 day strength training plan for runners also has more guidance and information on including strength training in your weekly training routine.
Cross training when training for a half marathon should be low impact and low intensity.
The idea is that they are forms of active recovery to be done on days instead of a rest day.
Rest days are integral to any training plan, no matter if you’re training for a 5k or marathon.
Don’t be tempted to skip the rest days in your training plan!
They are essential to allow your body to recover and repair itself.
How to prepare for your first half marathon
Preparation is key so you set yourself up for success.
Along with following a well-rounded training plan, good preparation comes down to:
- Wearing the right running shoes
- Wearing the right gear
- Fuelling your body properly
- Taking rest and recovery seriously
#1 Wearing the right running shoes
This is a very important step as a pair of good running shoes can make or break your run.
If you wear a pair that are not suitable for your feet, this could lead to blistered feet, or even worse, injury.
Seek professional help from a specialist running shop when choosing a pair of trainers for your half marathon.
They’ll be able to help you pick a trainer based on your gait, foot type and the type of race you’re about to run.
The trainers you wear when you go to the gym, for example, will probably not be suitable on race day.
When investing in a pair of running shoes, it’s good to have answers to the following questions so you get the best help possible when selecting a pair of new shoes:
- How long have you been running?
- What shoes have you run in in the past? Do you like running in them?
- Where do you do most of your running?
- How many miles a week do you run on average?
- Are you training for a race?
- Are you aware of any foot problems?
You may also want to take your old running shoes with when you go to your local store.
The store assistant can sometimes tell from your shoes how you run (e.g. one side of the shoe may be more worn than the other).
Make sure you buy your running shoes at the right time.
You do not want to be running in a brand new pair of running shoes on race day.
So ensure you have enough time to run in them and get used to them before the big day.
#2 Wearing the right running gear
Your running gear will change depending on the environment you’re running in:
- If it’s going to be a hot race, think shorts and a short-sleeved/no sleeve running top.
- If it’s going to be a cold race, during the winter months, think a good base layer and thick running tights.
- If the running event will be on mostly flat terrain and mostly on roads, think road running shoes.
- If the running event will be on hilly terrain with some off-road sections, think trail running shoes.
Of course, this all depends on how comfortable certain clothes and shoes make you feel.
If you hate running in shorts, for example, don’t wear them!
The last thing you want on race day is uncomfortable clothing ruining your race or chafing your skin.
Choose tried and tested pieces of clothing that you know will be comfortable.
#3 Fuelling your body properly
Your body will burn through a lot of energy on race day, and indeed throughout the training period, so it’s important you fuel your body in the right way.
Think of your body as a car.
Before a long journey, what do you do? You fill it up with the right kind of petrol, you check the engine, and you check its oil levels.
Your body works in much the same way – it’s an engine that powers your race, so treat it with the same attention and kindness.
When training for a half marathon, you need to eat even more than you normally would to keep your energy levels high.
This, however, doesn’t give you a golden ticket to pizzas, burgers, crisps, fizzy drinks and sweets – far from it.
Nutrition and high quality foods are equally important, if not more important, for runners.
Before race day it’s wise to ‘carb load’ so you have enough energy reserves to keep you going during a long distance event like a half marathon.
Carb loading is essentially about maximising your muscle glycogen stores to delay fatigue and optimise your peformance on race day.
Load up on carbs in the 48 hours before the race.
Here is a sample carb loading meal plan:
- Breakfast: 3 cups of low-fibre breakfast cereal with milk of your choice and 1 medium banana
- Mid-morning snack: 1 piece of toast with nut butter and 500ml sports drink
- Lunch: 2 sandwiches (4 pieces of bread) with a filling of your choice, 1 low-fat fruit yoghurt
- Mid-afternoon snack: 1 banana smoothie made with a milk of your choice, 1 cereal bar
- Dinner: 1 cup of pasta sauce with 2 cups of cooked pasta, 3 slices of garlic bread, 2 glasses of water or cordial
- Evening snack: 1 piece of toast with jam, 500ml sports drink
Related: What to eat before a run
Taking rest and recovery seriously
Training for a half marathon can be gruelling, so take rest and recovery seriously to avoid training overload, overtraining and burnout.
First half marathon Q&A
Q: What is a good time for a first half marathon?
A: You may be wondering: “What is a good half marathon time?”
When training for your first half marathon, crossing the finish line anywhere between 2 hours 20 minutes and 3 hours is an achievable goal for many beginner runners.
Finishing your first half marathon in under 2 hours is a huge achievement!
Q: What should my first half marathon pace be?
A: Your pace (i.e. how quickly you a run a certain distance) will depend on a number of factors, including your age, gender and fitness levels.
If you want to run your first half marathon in 2 hours or less, for example, you will need to run at a pace of roughly 9:10 minutes per mile.
Read more about half marathon times in our guide on average half marathon times and pace.
First half marathon tips: 11 things I wish I’d known before completing my first half marathon
Now you know more about training for your first half marathon, here are 11 things I wish I’d known before running my first half marathon.
#1 Slow down
This is probably one of the most important first half marathon tips, especially for beginner runners.
Before I completed my first half marathon, I had only ever finished 5k and 10k races.
So when it came to race day, I was excited to get started and push myself from the get go.
I saw fellow runners sprint from the start line, so a part of me wanted to keep up with them. How wrong I was!
By the time I had hit my third mile, my breath and pace were being impacted.
I was pushing myself way too hard, when all I needed to do was slow down and run my own race.
Don’t think you’re a failure because you’re running slower than everyone else.
Only you can determine the right pace for you.
Determine the right pace for you will not only help you stay the distance, but will ensure you can run for longer without getting so tired.
If you struggle to slow down your running pace, make sure you practice pacing during your training – more on that below.
#2 Pace your run
Pacing is essential for any run, no matter if you’re running a 5k or ultra marathon.
Pacing is essentially the rate at which you run. In other words, it’s how quickly you a run a certain distance.
Not all paces are created equal though.
Your pace when running a 5k, for example, will be different to your pace when running a half marathon.
The best way to determine your pace for a certain distance is to use a running pace calculator.
A pace calculator will help you determine your pace for a given distance using any two variables – pace, time or distance.
Pacing your run will help you determine how quickly you should be running for the entire race.
The benefit of pacing is that it ensures you have enough energy for your entire run, which is especially important for long distance running.
Without pacing, you risk potentially burning out too soon or running too slowly.
Related: How to pace your run
#3 Don’t compare yourself to others
I found it really hard not to compare myself to other runners during my first half marathon.
Every time someone overtook me, I felt I had to push myself that much harder to catch up with them.
When in reality they were probably seasoned runners with buckets of experience under their belt.
Looking back, it was very unrealistic of me to compare myself to them.
I had no idea of their training plan, their running experience, how many races they had completed prior to race day, or even their general fitness levels.
Comparing yourself to others will only serve to damage your confidence and pressure you to go faster, when you’re probably not ready to do so.
Simply relax and focus on running your own race!
#4 Join a running group
Running in a group can do wonders for your motivation and confidence.
It is also a great way to make you accountable for your training runs, especially during the long winter months when training can be tough.
I found a local running group near to me and it was such an enjoyable experience being able to run with fellow runners.
I learnt so much more about how to prepare for a successful half marathon:
- what to eat and not to eat before race day,
- how to warm up properly
- what to do on race day.
I also met some friends for life in the process!
There are many ways to find a running group near you on websites such as Meetup and Facebook.
There are also lots of athletics clubs across the country that offer coaching support should you need it.
#5 Try running solo
If you’re used to running in a group, I’d recommend you do at least one or two long runs by yourself before race day.
This will force you to rely on yourself for motivation and will make you a stronger runner.
I personally loved taking myself off for a run at the weekend, especially when the weather was good.
Of course, with any solo run, keep safe and always tell someone where you’ll be going.
Plan your running route ahead of time and ensure it’s safe and well-lit if you’re running at night.
#6 Be mentally prepared
Your training plan focuses on getting you physically ready for the race.
Then on race day, half way through, you may have the urge to quit.
Your mind is stuck between quitting and pushing on.
I certainly had these feelings during my first half marathon.
For many new runners, they see this as a sign of failure, or that they’re just not good enough.
In reality, all runners experience these feelings, even the experienced ones! These feelings are completely natural.
A dose of realism (not fear) will make this moment all the more bearable. Treat the race as a normal, long Sunday run.
Another way to make this process easier is to set a reward for yourself ahead of time for completing the race and focus on this during the tough parts of the race.
Whether it be a slap-up meal, a long hot shower, or a big bar of chocolate – these can be incredible ways to spur you on.
#7 Stay hydrated
It’s good to stay hydrated during the lead up to the race and during the race itself.
I remember carrying a big water bottle everywhere I went when I was training for my first half marathon.
When I didn’t drink enough water, I felt sluggish and tired on my training runs and I felt I was more susceptible to muscle cramps.
You’re going to keep burning a lot of calories and sweat on race day, so it’s equally important to stay hydrated during and after the race too.
But, be warned, too much water on race day could lead to unscheduled toilet stops along the route – so plan your water consumption carefully.
Plain water is a good choice for fluid replacement.
If you’re going to be running hard for longer than an hour, drinks containing sugar or slow-release carbohydrates and sodium may help to speed your recovery.
You should aim to replace about 80 per cent of what you lost during your run. An easy way to work this out is to drink at least 500ml of fluid after your run.
Your training plan will likely include a tapering period ahead of race day.
Tapering is essentially the practice of reducing exercise in the days before an endurance event like a half marathon.
It is often seen as a way to achieve optimal performance on race day as you don’t want to risk tiring yourself out even before the race has begun.
I tapered in the week before my first half marathon, and was careful not to over exert myself during that week as I wanted to be as rested as possible before race day.
#9 Make time for recovery
You’ll be pushing your body to its limits on race day, so factor in plenty of recovery time to help your body repair itself.
You’ll feel a sense of elation after your race, but don’t jump straight back into long Sunday runs.
Your body simply won’t be ready and you’ll heighten the risk of injury.
I remember the day after running my first half marathon so clearly – I could hardly walk down the stairs, let alone go for a run.
Rest and recovery is also important during your training plan – so don’t be tempted to skip any rest days. They are there for a reason!
#10 Foam roll and stretch
As mentioned above, you will likely feel sore after race day.
Foam rolling and stretching are great to include as part of your recovery routine.
If I’d known about foam rollers after my first half marathon, I would have avoided many awkward, sideways, crab-like walks down stair cases!
But boy is foam rolling painful!
#11 Just enjoy it and have fun
Yes, I said it, half marathons are supposed to be enjoyable and fun!
The tendency for a lot of runners is to build up all this pressure on race day.
After all, they’ve trained for months, they’ve bought all the right gear, and they have a desired race time in mind – so the excitement and nerves are bound to be present.
Whilst this is all important – a half marathon is not supposed to be a miserable experience!
Take a second to look around – at the spectators, race volunteers, fellow runners (some in wacky costumes), and family and enjoy the experience for what it is.