If the mere thought of jumping from something like a 5K all the way up to 13.1 miles for the first time just seems a little, well, intimidating — trust me, I’ve been there too.
When I was a new-ish runner, I was fascinated by the idea that otherwise “normal” people could train themselves to run 13.1 or 26.2 miles without stopping. I had only just recently gotten comfortable running three miles at a time, and when I’d hear about people finishing these longer races, I’d ask myself questions like:
What must it feel like to be able to just drop everything and run 10 or 15 miles? What kind of fitness level must you have once you can run that far? And how great do you feel when you accomplish something like that?
Since you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’ve found yourself asking similar questions. And I want to help you discover those answers for yourself.
How a Lack of Knowledge Can Really Screw You Up for Years
Back when I was a wild college kid, a few friends and I decided we were going to run a marathon. We weren’t runners.
We wanted to do it for the reasons above, like incredible fitness and achievement of something so great. (And we figured it’d give us abs, and girls liked abs, so why not?)
We had no idea what we were getting into. But we downloaded a free training plan from the internet and just jumped right in.
It was not pretty. We made some hideous training and nutrition mistakes, so bad that all three of us got hurt in the process. We all did run the race, although I wouldn’t call what we did for the last 8 miles “running.”
When we finally limped across the finish line, we were a sorry, sorry sight. I’m not sure we even lifted our arms for the finish photo, as it took everything we had to pretend like we were running at the end.
For years after that, I badly wanted to redeem myself. Having crashed in the race, I somehow felt worse about it than I did before I had run it!
So I started over, and decided this time I’d do it right, focusing on running a strong half marathon before I even dreamed of running another full one.
I Tried Everything Possible to Make it Work
For three years after that first race, I experimented with every thinkable solution. I tried heart-monitor training, running in different shoes, taking walk breaks, doing all sorts of stretching, icing, and massage. I even shaved my shins so I could tape them up without causing pain… (cool, right?)
And yet most of it didn’t do a damn thing to help me complete a half marathon, much less a full.
But gradually, I started to notice what did work. I’d try a new program, figure out what was working, then hang onto that and move onto something else. I wasn’t injury-free, but it was progress.
What it Finally Took
In 2005, I ran my first half marathon since that disastrous first race. It took me just under two hours, but it wasn’t the time that I cared about. It was the fact that I didn’t get hurt.
Far more than when I ran that disappointing first marathon, I felt like I had achieved something real. And let me tell you, it was as thrilling as I had imagined.
But, it wasn’t until I cut meat out of my diet several years later that things really started to happen for me. At the 2009 Wineglass Marathon, six months after going vegetarian, I finished with a time of 3:09:59.
This was a full 100 minutes faster than my first marathon time, and it qualified me for the Boston Marathon by one minute. Since the moment I had registered for that first race back in college, qualifying for Boston had been in the forefront of my mind, and it was the biggest, hardest goal I’d ever set for myself. And finally, with very little natural ability but a lot of discipline, I had done it.
13.1 Tips to Help You Reach Your Goal
This whole experience of going from that dark place of disappointment to qualifying for Boston and all the way to running a 100-mile ultramarathon, has brought way too much joy to my life for me to keep it to myself. I see so many people who I admire for their ambition and dedication to training for their first half marathon, and yet they’re training in ways that can only lead to injury. And I know how frustrating it is, since not so long ago that was me.
Finally, if you’re a vegetarian or vegan or you’re thinking about becoming one, you might be asking the same questions I was about whether it’s possible to put your body through such intense training on a plant-based diet. It is (of course), and I want to give you the tools to be successful at it.
To get you started, I’ve put together 13.1 nuggets of wisdom based on mistakes I’ve made and lessons I’ve learned over the year and miles. My hope is that by learning from my mistakes, you reach your first half marathon with a lot more success than I did!
Motivation: How to Get (and Stay) Off that Sofa
1. Define Your Goal
Is it to run 13.1 miles, plain and simple? Is it to break 2:30 or 2:00 for the distance? Is it to wear an Elvis costume and juggle the whole time? (I hope not, but I’ve seen it.)
Whatever your aim, clarify in your mind exactly what it is. Write it down and put it somewhere you can see it every day.
If it’s a certain time you want to beat, this will dictate your training pace for long runs. If it’s just to finish — which is a goal I would definitely recommend for your first half — then avoiding injury will be your primary concern above speedwork, hill workouts, and all else.
And come race day, it’s imperative to know exactly what that goal is. Keep that goal in mind when you’re in the starting corral, at mile 6, mile 10, and of course mile 13.1.
2. Choose the Perfect Race
The perfect race is one that’s not soon so you don’t have time to train, not too far into the future so you easily lose motivation, and inspires you so you can take your mind of the pain when the miles start to get long.
When you get the half marathon bug, having to wait 12 or 16 weeks to race seems like an eternity. And if the “perfect race” just so happens to be only eight weeks away, your mind is great at convincing you that you’re superman and that you’ll be alright on less training.
Sure, it’s possible you could finish a half marathon in eight weeks of training. But it’s way more likely that you’ll get hurt before you even get there, since doing so requires ramping up your mileage quicker than is safe.
But there’s a less obvious mistake people make with scheduling, and it’s one that seems, on the surface, like you’re just being cautious. And that’s choosing a race that’s too far in the future.
The problem with this is that it’s easy to lose your drive. When you say “Oh, my race isn’t for nine months; I’ll just run two or three times a week to build my base until it’s time to really start training,” what happens is that you get really bored. You might run for a few weeks, but when you’ve got to wait six months before you even officially start, there’s not much to keep you going. When the day to start training finally arrives, you haven’t run in months, you feel guilty about it, and you might not even feel like running a half marathon anymore.
So what’s the right time frame?
If you can comfortably run a 5K (any speed, doesn’t have to be fast) and not feel trashed at the end, or if you’re currently able to run three miles a few times a week, then plan for 12 weeks of half marathon training.
If you’re not there yet, you’ll need to first build up to that level of comfort, since most plans start with three miles as your baseline distance.
3. Sign Up for that Race
By nature, we humans are incredible procrastinators.
We all have the bucket list, written down or not, of things we want to do while we still can. But most of us will never do a lot of them, and it’s for one simple reason:
We never take the first step.
Instead, we put it off until things settle down, until this perfect day in the future when, for some inexplicable reason, we’ll have all the time in the world and no problems in our lives.
Give yourself a reason to move, instead of waiting until the timing is perfect. It will never be perfect, but once you start, you’ll wonder why you didn’t do this sooner.
Training: The Ins and Outs
4. Don’t Run Too Fast
When people ask me how they can learn to run longer, or even just enjoy running, I always tell them to start with one simple step: Run slower.
Most people have never run as easy as their “Easy” runs are meant to be. When you’re truly running easy, you should be able to carry on a conversation (with ease!) while you’re running.
For your first half marathon, if your goal is simply to finish, you’ll want to do all of your long runs at this easy pace, which is usually about two minutes slower per mile than you’re capable of running the same distance. If you do have a time goal, you still should be slower than your goal pace on your long runs, and your recovery runs between workouts should be at easy, conversational pace.
Running slowly significantly reduces your chances of getting hurt, as it’s way easier on your body. Even once your muscles and cardiovascular system have adapted to the work you’re putting them through, your tendons and ligaments will take several more weeks to adapt. So even though you might feel like you could run faster, you shouldn’t just yet, except for during speed workouts.
5. The 10% Rule
I won’t blame you for getting excited once you start running farther and you start to notice more energy than you’ve had in years. When all you’ve done before is two or three miles at a time, and all of a sudden you realize you’re able to stay out on the roads or trails for an hour without even being that winded, it’s really tempting to add more.
Don’t. Whatever training plan you’re following, stick with it, and make sure that in no week are you adding more than 10% (in terms of mileage) to the most you’ve done in a previous week. Adding any more than 10% a week is just begging for an overuse injury.
6. Respect the Long Run
Your long runs will likely be the most stressful part of your training, both on your body and your mind. But they will be infinitely less stressful if you plan for them and respect them.
Plan your route ahead of time with a tool like Gmaps Pedometer, and check it out in a car if you really want to be sure it’s a good route. Plan to take it easy the night before, eating what you need to and relaxing, so that you wake up energized for your run. Have your phone loaded and charged if you’re going to use it to pass the time (consider safety issues if you’re going to wear headphones while you run). And have your food ready for the morning as well as for when you get back from your run so that you can eat immediately after you cool down.
7. Train on the Right Terrain
If your race is hilly, you’ve got to train on hills, or you’ll be in for a nasty surprise when your quads are screaming way too early in the race.
Likewise, if you’re the adventurous type who chooses a trail half marathon for your first one, you’d better spend some time in the woods on comparable trails to what you’ll be running. Trust me, the difference between trails and roads is much more than just picking up your feet to avoid rocks and roots.
The point is to find out what your course is like, and then simulate that in training so that you know just what to expect on race day.
But don’t be afraid to mix in other types of terrain to round out your training. Even for a road race, hitting the trails every once in a while or doing a couple track or treadmill runs will go a long way toward giving your feet a break from pounding the asphalt, if most of your training is on roads.
8. Pay Attention to Your Form
For my first four years as a runner, I battled injuries constantly. I tried everything from new shoes to stretching to walking around on my heels after every run — I’m sure I looked pretty awesome doing that — but when I finally did figure it out, a lot of form problems could be fixed with one simple trick:
It’s amazing that one little adjustment can have such a huge impact on your running form. As vegan ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek says in Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Body, “If you focus on higher stride rate, most of the rest corrects itself.”
The standard for stride rate among elite athletes seems to be right around 180 steps per minute (that’s 90 each foot). I find it easiest to think of this as three steps per second, and it’s not hard to line your steps up with a watch or a treadmill clock and groove this stride rate.
It feels funky at first, but after several runs your body builds up the new muscles required to run this way and it begins to feel natural. And, for me and many others, the injuries just stop happening after that.
Nutrition: Eat to Fuel Your Goals
9. Give Your Body What it Needs for Workouts
One of the biggest differences between half marathon training and more casual, shorter-distance running is the need to fuel your body correctly.
When you’re just running a few easy miles a couple times a week, you can get by without paying much attention to what you eat. But when your mileage starts creeping up to 15 or 20 miles a week, with nearly half of that in a single long run, failure to give your body what it needs can be detrimental to your performance and recovery.
Before you run, focus on easy-digesting carbohydrates and a little bit of protein.
If you’ve trained only for 5K’s before this, you probably weren’t concerned with replacing calories during your run, but with the longer runs required for half marathon training, that changes. While you’re running, carbohydrates (mostly sugars) should be your focus, and most sports drinks will provide them (“low calorie” sports drinks won’t cut it now) along with the electrolytes you need. For your longest runs, you’ll want to include some solids as well.
And after you finish, the biggest key is getting food to your muscles within the first half hour to 45 minutes after you finish. Aim for carbohydrates and protein in a 4:1 ratio, but the numbers are less important than making sure you don’t miss this opportunity to jump start the recovery process!
Note: You don’t need animal proteins.
No doubt about it, meat and dairy have a lot of protein. But there’s nothing magical about animal protein — you can get protein from vegetables, nuts, grains, and seeds, too. It’s just a matter of having a good bank of meals you can rely on to meet your needs.
10. Make Sure You are Eating Enough
Let’s just say running a mile burns 100 calories. (That number may be more or less, depending on your weight and other factors.) So if you suddenly add 15 miles a week to your training, that’s 1500 calories, over 200 per day, that you’ll be losing.
If your goal is to lose weight, maybe that’s okay, but I’m a strong believer that you’ll maximize your chances of successfully running a half marathon if your goal isn’t weight loss this first time around.
So replace those calories with mostly whole, unprocessed foods (except around your workouts, when some easy-to-digest processed foods get a pass), so your body can repair itself and build new muscle and you come back strong when it’s time to run again.
11. Rehearse Your Nutrition and Race Strategy
It happens all the time. You train diligently, doing nearly every single workout and following your plan to the letter. You head into the race brimming with confidence, and when it’s time to perform … your stomach revolts.
This happens far more often than it needs to. There are two main culprits:
1. Fueling with different foods on race day than you trained with.
To avoid this mistake, do some research after you’ve chosen a race to find out what sports drink and what other food (usually gel) they provide on the course. Then use that exact sports drink and gel throughout your training, unless you plan to carry everything you need along with you during the race.
2. Never having run a race before, and letting the nerves catch you off guard.
This is easy to avoid: Simply by running a race or two, ideally a 5K and 10K, during your training, to get used to everything that race day brings. Treat these like real races — get up at the same time you’ll get up before your half, practice your pre-race nutrition strategy, and run it hard. You’ll actually be able to use these finish times to predict your half marathon finish time with some common estimation formulas, so that you can have a reasonable pace in mind to shoot for that won’t leave you wrecked with five miles left in your race.
Listen: Check in with Yourself
12. Treat Your Feet Right
Seriously, you’re going to be running 13.1 miles. Respect your feet and get yourself a decent pair of shoes.
You don’t have to spend a lot on them. But at least pay a visit to a real running store, where most of them will get you on a treadmill and have a look at your stride before putting you in a pair of shoes, so that you can make an informed decision about the investment.
When the rubber meets the road, it comes down to what feels good on your foot. Above all else, pay attention to this when you decide what shoe to train in.
13. Don’t be Afraid to Take a Break
So many people don’t give their bodies a chance to rest and rebuild. While it’s important to space your workouts far enough apart to allow for recovery, it’s also crucial to build in a reduced-mileage week every month or so during your training.
This “easy” week can be a chance to cross-train, do yoga, stretch and do foam rolling, or even just to run slowly a few times without a watch, a route, or a plan. And when you come back, not only will your body have had a chance to heal any minor aches and pains, but your mind will be refreshed.
Often, you’ll be so amped up about your training that you won’t even want to scale it back, but be disciplined and give yourself this break. When race day comes, your body will thank you.
(On another note, your training plan should be flexible for the same reasons. If something starts to hurt, a few days or a week off is often what you need, not to push on with the schedule and risk a more serious injury.)
13.1. Have Fun
Don’t forget you’re pursuing a dream, and make every moment, good or bad, a memory you can be proud of.
What’s the Start for You?
Maybe for you training for a half marathon is about conquering the distance, and the idea that you can set your focus on this huge, impossible-seeming thing and then go make it happen because you’re not afraid to put in the sweat. Or maybe, like me, you’re vegan, and you want to show people that you can do some pretty amazing stuff without eating meat for protein.
Whatever your reason, I’m here to tell you that you can get there. Ready to get started?