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First half marathon tips: 11 things I wish I’d known before running my first half marathon

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My first half marathon was 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.

With this in mind, I’d like to share my first half marathon tips with a view of supporting and inspiring any new runner to run their first half marathon.

In this guide we’ll explore:

  • 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

Ready?

Let’s go!

first half marathon tips

How to train for your first half marathon

When running a half marathon for the first time, preparation before race day is key and 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 complete the half marathon.

If you’re completing your first ever half marathon, then I recommend you go with a beginner half marathon training plan.

A beginner half marathon training plan will last anywhere between 12 to 16 weeks and will include the following runs and workouts:

  • Long runs
  • Easy runs
  • Speed training
  • Strength training (e.g. tempo running or interval training)

Long run

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.

Easy runs

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.

Speed training

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.

Interval training, tempo running and Fartlek training are all forms of speed training.

Strength training

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.

Strength training can take the form of bodyweight exercises (like squats or lunges) or weighted exercises (like dumbbell squats or weighted lunges).

Related: 30 day strength training plan for runners

How to prepare for your first half marathon

As discussed earlier, 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
  • Fueling your race in the proper way

Invest in the right pair of 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.

My advice is to 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 at a running shoe shop, it’s good to have answers to the following questions so they can help you find the best shoe for you:

  1. How long have you been running?
  2. What shoes have you run in in the past? Do you like running in them?
  3. Where do you do most of your running?
  4. How many miles a week do you run on average?
  5. Are you training for a race?
  6. Are you aware of any foot problems?

You may also want to take your old running shoes with you to the 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).

When investing in a pair of running shoes, make sure you buy them 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 race day.

Related: How to choose the best running shoes for beginners

first half marathon tips

Wear the right 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, so choose tried and tested pieces of clothing that you know will be comfortable.

Related: Running in the cold: How to dress for winter running

Fuel your body

Your body will burn through a lot of energy on race day, and indeed during training, so it’s important you fuel it 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

First half marathon Q&A

Q: What is a good time for a first half marathon?

A: When training for your first half marathon, being able to cross the finish line anywhere between 2 hours 20 minutes and 3 hours is an achievable goal for many beginner runners.

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 work out a 2 hour half marathon pace.

The best way to do this 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.

first half marathon tips

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 8 first half marathon tips.

#1 Slow down

This is probably one of the most important first half marathon tips I learnt.

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 too far, 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 so you stay the distance.

If you struggle with slowing down your running, make sure you practice pacing during your training – more on that below.

Related: 4 tips on how to slow yourself down when running

#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 or their running experience, or even 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!

Related: How to believe in yourself: Running and self-confidence

#4 Join a running group

Running in a group can do wonders for your motivation and confidence and it is a great way to make you accountable for your training runs, especially during the long winter months.

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.

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.

Related: 5 life changing benefits of running without a watch

#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.

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.

Related: Self-confidence and athletic performance: The one tip that professional athletes swear by

#7 Stay hydrated

It’s good to stay hydrated during the lead up to the race and during the race itself.

You’re going to keep burning a lot of calories and sweat on race day, so it’s equally important to stay hydrated 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, but 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.

Related: 7 essential tips for running in the heat and humidity

#8 Taper

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.

#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.

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

You will likely feel sore after race day so foam rolling and stretching are great to include as part of your recovery time.

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!

Related: 6 essential ways to recover after a half marathon

#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. They’ve trained for months, they’ve bought all the right gear, and they have a desired race time in mind.

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.

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Michael

Monday 29th of November 2021

Very good article. But I was surprised to not see anything about the dreaded and painful "nipple" friction. I just ran a 10K and lesson learned. It was a cool morning run and I literally bled through my shirt.

Caroline Geoghegan

Monday 29th of November 2021

Oh gosh! I'm sorry to hear you suffer with this. I personally have never experienced this, but I know there are products out there can help with this. I hope you can find something that works for you :)

Jack

Saturday 28th of November 2020

Hi, im a beginners runner who has done 5ks and 10ks only. My friend recently gave me her place in the royal halfs half marathon. Ive never done long runs before as all my runs have generally been the same distance. Do you have any tips about how to increase mileage on a long run without getting injured? Also what do you in particular like to eat during a race/and how often do you like to eat?

Caroline Geoghegan

Sunday 29th of November 2020

Hi Jack. Congrats on the half marathon place! In terms of increasing mileage, I recommend you increase this gradually each week on your long run (e.g. an additional mile each week) and try and avoid large jumps in mileage. Many half marathon training plans will increase the mileage gradually over a period of 10, 12, 14 or 16 weeks - depending on which training plan you pick. You will also be doing easy runs during the week. I'd also suggest incorporating some sort of strength training into your training plan if you're not already doing this. I have a few strength training posts on my blog so feel free to check those out. In terms of eating, I don't actually eat during races normally. Everyone is different but I find it hard to digest any type of food on a run. I've heard that gels are good so feel free to look into these. Basically you need something that's going to give you an energy/glucose boost during your run to replace lost energy stores.

Jack

Saturday 28th of November 2020

Hi, Im a beginners runner. I was running 10k every other day before my friend randomly gave me her place in the royal half marathon in April 2021. Do you have any tips about how to increase mileage on long runs without getting injured and finding a training plan which doesn't involve hills( i don't live near any) and is relatively easy to follow? I get a bit daunted by training plans which talk about intervals and thresholds etc.

Amy Haas

Wednesday 18th of March 2020

Absolutely LOVE your blog and your content! I'm trying to run a half marathon in every state (I've got 29/50 under my belt) and these are spot on! Love it! Can't wait to continue following your journey! I'd love to connect more if you ever have some time! My name is Amy Haas and my instagram is Raceacrossthestates

My blog is Raceacrossthestates.com

Run With Caroline

Saturday 21st of March 2020

Hi Amy! Thanks for your lovely comments. Wow that sounds amazing! Do let me know if I can provide any further support at all. I'll definitely check out your blog and Insta. Take care! x