How to Prepare for Your First Half Marathon

From training strategies to gear and fuel, an expert coach explains everything you need to know

Setting out to run your first half marathon is a feat like none you’ve ever attempted before.

In fact, it’s probably one of your first efforts at one of the sport’s longer distances and you may even be thinking something along the lines of, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’

No doubt, 13.1 miles will seem overwhelming at first, but with the right training and preparation it will likely turn out to be one of the most thrilling and, most importantly, fun races you’ve ever completed.   

“The half marathon distance is notable because you actually have to invest a significant amount of time and effort training, just to finish it,” says Marty Beene, a Level 2 USA Track & Field (USATF) certified coach and creator of Be the Runner, a personalized running coach and personal training service.

“When a person arrives at the office on a Monday morning reporting that they have completed their first 5k or 10k, their co-workers justifiably congratulate them for their entry into the world of running and fitness. But when that person reports having completed a half marathon, he or she is revered as a ‘real’ runner. People know it takes patience and perseverance.”

Of course, anyone who runs is a “real” runner, but accomplishing your first half marathon will certainly take the credential to a whole new level.

Recently, Beene finished coaching beginner runners for both 5k and half marathon races as part of a corporate wellness program, so his best tips for first time long-distance races are fresh in his mind.

Below he offers a comprehensive guide for first-time half marathon runners.

1. Plan your training.
Beene says: Many half marathons offer training plans for beginners, so that might be a good place to start, or you can just find a local running coach to help you. A good training plan should provide ample time to increase your longest training run of each week so that you will be able to complete 13.1 miles without your body falling apart.

Ideally, your longest training run should be 11 or 12 miles—reaching that distance in training will be close enough to the race distance that the half marathon can serve as your longest run, but you will still cross the finish line smiling. The amount of time it takes you to reach that 11 or 12-mile distance will vary depending on how far you can comfortably run right now. Count on at least a one mile increase per training week for your long training run of each week.

2. Use planned walk breaks during training.
Beene says: These breaks are a technique developed by Jeff Galloway, an Olympic-level marathon runner turned author and coach. While I don't agree with everything he teaches (do any two running coaches agree on everything?), the walk breaks are a genius innovation.

Galloway has methods for each runner to find the right ratio and timing for the breaks, but I found that simply walking for 30 to 60 seconds at 10- to 15-minute intervals for any run more than about 40 to 50 minutes to be right for almost anyone. Experiment with the timing to find what works for you.

During my last marathon training, I found that a one-minute walk every 15 minutes worked perfectly for me. I used the technique throughout my training, walked at every water stop during the marathon, and still averaged 7:22 per mile, setting a six-minute personal best at age 43. Just remember to walk briskly when you walk; don't do the "teenager walk."

3. Learn to fuel during runs.
Beene says: While not a requirement, many runners find that eating something during a long run can help them feel strong throughout it. This is because, for most people, their store of glycogen—the body's primary supply of energy for endurance activities—lasts about two hours. Once you get within, say, 10 or 15 minutes of that limit, your body wants to back off of the effort level, so adding some fuel to your tank during the run can extend your range.

There are dozens of options for in-run nutrition, many in the form of energy gels like Gu, Clif Shots, or Hammer Gel. The key is to find which of these tastes acceptable to you (many runners will say that none of them taste "good") and feels OK in your stomach. Never try anything like this for the first time during your race—that's what your long training runs are for.

4. Test your clothing.
Beene says: In a longer run, some clothing can rub you the wrong way, so test what you plan to wear for the race during your long training runs. Some shorts and shirts can cause chafing between your legs and near your arms. Worse yet, men—who don't wear tightly-fitting sports bras—often experience chafing on their nipples, which can result in painful (and unsightly!) blood streaks down their race shirt. Applying petroleum jelly or even a couple of Band-Aids before the run is usually enough to prevent this from happening.

5. Get plenty of rest.
Beene says: Because you’ll be running more miles than you may have run in the past, you will need more rest. That means both getting more sleep at night and being sure to plan for two relatively easy training weeks immediately prior to your race. Your longest training run should be two or possibly three weeks prior to the race, and you should reduce your weekly mileage in the two weeks before the race. For most of my races, I like to plan a countdown of miles in that week leading to the race so that I do an easy 3-miler the day before (so, for example, 7 miles, 6, 0, 5, 4, 3, then the race).

6. Bring support.
Beene says: There's nothing better than to see a friend or family member (or two, or five!) along the course, cheering you on. The half marathon is a long enough race that those fans can probably see you at two or three places along the course. Get your team on board to help you celebrate this great accomplishment!