For a long time, running a half marathon was something I never thought I could achieve. I was a sprinter in high school. I used to just go for walks for exercise. I started running during college with my eventually-to-be husband and worked my way up from walks to 2-mile runs. Then 3 miles. For a long time I stuck with the 3-mile length.
One night my husband and I were talking about running and I mentioned I’d always wanted to run a half marathon. He said, why not?
Why not, indeed. Well, to start, it’s 13 miles - around 4 times what I had run to date. In addition, I felt that I didn’t have the time to train. Didn’t you have to train for hours each day? Plus, there was this fear of trying something and failing. Did I have the mental fortitude to keep the legs turning over for two hours or more? Or would I put all this time into training only to get injured, run out of energy, or simply fail on race day?
All valid questions, so we started to do some research. We hunted around a bit and found a few free half marathon training plans. Many of them involved just running; one we found substituted elliptical workouts, HIIT workouts, bicycling, stretching and weight training for a couple days of running. For the most part, the plans involve 5 days of working out (3-5 miles of running, 45 minutes of elliptical or HIIT, etc), 1 long run that increased week by week to culminate around 11 miles the week before your half marathon, and 1 rest day.
I would never claim to be an expert half marathon runner or even tell you how to train and run a half marathon, but am more than happy to share what’s worked for me. We have finished all 7 of our half marathons in under two hours and continued to shave off time. We’ve tried a lot of different training plans and decided that some plans work better for some people and some work best for us.
For our first half marathon we used the one that used elliptical, HIIT and weights. Like most half marathon training plans, this one suggested that you did not need to run the full 13 miles before your half marathon and recommended stopping at 11 miles the week before the event. Subsequently, we’ve used training plans that involve more running than alternative exercise. It kind of depends on whether running bothers your knees, ankles, hips, or some other body part. The training plans using less running and more alternative exercise certainly have worked.
Nutrition and hydration are important as well. I get what’s called “runner’s stomach”, a cramping after a long or difficult run that sometimes results in worse gastro issues. To counteract that, I learned to focus on simple sugars both before and after the run such as bananas, crackers, plain bread, and Gatorade or water. I do cheat with a little coffee in the mornings but sometimes regret it. If, after my long or challenging run, I can go 3-4 hours without cramping, I graduate to protein or more complex foods. If not, I stick with simple sugars until I’ve gone awhile without the tummy trouble.
The long runs are the most challenging for me. The night before we try to stick with water or Gatorade and carb-based foods like spaghetti. We get a good night of sleep and try to run before it gets hot or windy. We treat the long run much like we do the half marathon.
During our long runs, my husband carries a water bottle in a hip pack that he shares with me every 3-4 miles. It helps to keep from getting completely dried out and seems to keep my energy up - or tricks my mind into thinking that I still have energy!
Stretching is super-important before and after running, especially as I get older. I also stretch out in the middle of the day, do yoga, and go for walks. We have a massager that we use for tricky muscle issues like knots and cramps. We also make use of hot tubs and hot baths to relax our muscles.
After trying several training plans, I find that the ones that involve more running result in a better half marathon for me. I will run 6 days a week with one rest day. The rest day is usually the day after my long run and involves a HIIT or strength training that works my leg muscles. If running is getting to be too hard on our old, tired legs we switch to something else in place of our mid-length runs like elliptical or HIIT. My husband tends to use more elliptical, bicycle and HIIT workouts in place of running but still runs 3-4 times a week.
One other lesson learned from several half marathons - for us - was that we DO want to run 12-13 miles a week before the event. That helps us understand what the actual race distance feels like and gives us the confidence that we can finish.
And the mental preparation is important. The morning of our very first half marathon, I still remember how the butterflies felt in my stomach. The doubts started to creep in. What if I couldn’t finish? What if I have to go so slow that I ruin the run for my running partner? What if I get injured and the run is miserable?
Well, I’ve been most of those things - the slow one that holds her husband back and the injured one that has to hobble towards the finish. I hove always been able to finish the half marathon, however, and have sometimes been the one encouraging my partner to keep going or the one slowing down to wait for him to recover.
Eventually, though, I reminded myself that I’ve put in the training and the effort and that - in short - I’m awesome. You walk up to the start, retie your shoes for the dozenth time, and get ready to run. You’re sharing this moment with so many other people having the same doubts - and most of them want you to have a great run just like they want to succeed themselves.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what actually running a half marathon is like. We’ve run events with a mass start and one with individual starts, but they seem to be similar in approach. People still tend to start in packs. We try to start far enough up in the pack that we aren’t going to be passing a whole bunch of people with slower per-mile times than us, but try not to start so far up that we will impede those who run sub-7-minute miles. If you plan to walk part of your half marathon - certainly an option - it’s kind of you to start further back in the pack so the runners don’t need to weave in and out.
My point: we try to be considerate of our fellow runners.
If you stop at one of the drink stops, it’s kind to run off to the side BEFORE stopping to grab a drink. I’ve seen many collisions at the rest stops when people simply stop in their tracks.
If someone’s trying to pass you, it’s kind to try to run closer to the right side if you can. If you can’t, just be encouraging and do your best to let them by. If you are trying to pass someone, remember they are running 13 miles too and they may be having a struggle in this particular moment. Try not to be annoyed or to cut them off - try to be encouraging and merge back into the right side gradually so they don’t have to change their cadence to accommodate you.
We tend to try for a small kick inside the last mile and a bigger kick inside the last 100 yards. Some half marathons have someone stationed to tell you when you’re inside 100 yards. Most of them have mile markers so you know when you’re inside a mile. We always try to be aware of our fellow runners and that this is their big moment too. It’s wonderful to celebrate with others who have achieved a milestone - and to suffer with them as they try to hobble towards the nearest drink stand or park bench.
I have learned that part of running half marathons is in the preparation. Being trained up and prepared helps give me the confidence to run and run well. It helps me be less nervous about the race and helps me enjoy the moment more. It also helps me to encourage others to join me. As I mentioned, my husband and I just finished our 7th half marathon and this time we were joined by my 15-year-old son and his cross country running partner. My husband and I took 4 minutes off our personal best times and all of us finished in the top 10 of our age groups.
For someone who never thought they could run 13.1 miles, I can safely tell you three things: 1) If you can run 3 miles, you can run 13.1. 2) The feeling after you complete your race is one you will remember your whole life. 3) Going up and down stairs the day after running a half marathon doesn’t get any easier if you’ve run 1 half marathon, 3 half marathons, or 7.
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