How to Run Your First Half Marathon
June 30, 2016
Earlier this year, in April to be exact, I undertook my first long distance running challenge. The Madrid City Half Marathon.
To say that training for this was enjoyable, compared to hitting the weights or doing something like calisthenics (in which my interest is steadily growing), would be an overstatement. The truth is that it was something of a slog. Interrupted half-way through, I might add, by a silent meditation experience that took me out of training for the best part of a fortnight.
That said, I was still pretty happy to cross the finish line of a race a little over 21 kilometres, with no prior distance running experience, in just under two hours.
How I did it? Not like I used to approach cross-country running back in my school days, that’s for sure. I ate a lot better, trained with more discipline and slowly worked my way up to it. I also avoided sprinting hell-for-leather at the start to get ahead of the pack, like a thirteen-year old kid thought best, before falling all the way behind.
The exact process I’ll lay out here. No doubt there’s a million-odd ways to train for this (in fact, my friend Anton (superb artist), did pretty much zero running at all and still came in at the same time as me, albeit with a couple of marathons under his belt – and a whole load of crossfit – previously).
This is what worked.
Usually people, at least those with zero long-distance running experience, start preparing for something like a half marathon, at least a fair few months in advance. If you’re in general good shape, like I was thanks to a pretty steady gym protocol, you might need less. I started training around three months in advance, beginning in mid-January.
The thing with long-distance running though, as anyone who’s made the transition to it from no-running or no-cardio (like I did), is that you’ll really find it tough at the start. Those first few training runs I went on? I remember those perhaps being the most brutal of them all.
Of course, a lot of this is mental. And the on-going battle in your mind, forcing you to run when you’ve done so little running before, is something you’re going to have to contend with and fight against throughout both the training period and race itself.
The best way to get through it? Silence the mind and block it out. I found a steady stream of podcasts, like those listed in my media consumption record, helped me a fair bit. Sometimes I even relished the prospect of heading out on a run if I knew there was a particularly great episode of something I wanted to check out or listen to.
The next thing to take into consideration when training for a half marathon is where you’re going to go about training for it.
Living in the centre of Madrid, I had the privilege of being able to go to Retiro Park for each of my training sessions and doing the circuit of the perimeter (which is a gravel running track in itself and, come peak times, is busy with runners).
Using mobile apps like WikiLoc, I was able to measure the circuit to be around 4km. Such exact tracking helped me keep track of the distances I was doing and gave me an approximate estimate of where I was each time around the track.
Note: I decided to stick to the European-based metric system of measuring runs out. Even though my British-cultivated mind is used to miles.
WikiLoc, thanks to being OpenSource, is a great free way to measure runs as well as finding routes tracked by other users. I’d highly recommend it if you’re planning on training in a similar way.
Retiro Park is the perfect place to practice as it doesn’t involve crossing any roads or being confronted by any traffic. You’re also motivated by the fact that you’re running in the open air of a beautiful city park, which beats treadmill running any day of the week.
Sexy Spanish people to look at too. Even though you’ll most likely look repulsive coated in buckets of your own sweat.
Following on from the issue space, I’d also mention that the time of year you choose to do a half marathon (and obviously the training leading up to it) is pretty important too. If I tried to undertake this endeavour now, right in the heart of a humid Madrid summer and 34 Celsius days, I’d most likely be completely ruined. Also pretty sunburned.
Luckily the big day was on April 1st so that meant training through late winter and early spring. Much more comfortable temperatures to get accustomed to running in.
I’d also recommend running in the late evening. Some of my best and most peaceful training runs occurred at that time for some reason. And usually I didn’t have to contend with too much rain or nor huge amounts of running ‘congestion’ in the park.
Obviously you’ll have to fit in your runs at whatever time is likely to work for you. But have a think about it, as, for some people at least, knocking a training run out first thing in the morning can be a super motivator that helps add momentum to the rest of your day.
Being the minimalist and frugal spender that I am, splashing money on expensive running gear was never part of the plan.
Sure, I considered getting some nice Vibram five-fingers style shoes like Anton had (reading the book Born to Run probably influenced that too) but what I eventually did was swap out my hole-ridden Adidas football trainers for a 20 Euro pair of trainers from Decathlon (cheapest athletic gear in Spain).
Making that transition was pretty nice. Suddenly my feet and ankles hurt a lot less as I now had a softer tread instead of hard compound shoes designed for artificial pitches. Spending such little money was even sweeter. I ended up doing the whole race in these. What’s more? The pair is still going strong, in great condition, and being used for all my current workouts a good chunk of months later.
Sometimes you can get both quality and price on your side. So screw Nike and all the marketing buzz. Just pick something that looks relatively decent and accept the fact that running can cause all kinds of aches and strains that have little to do with shoes and everything to do with, yes, you guessed it, actually moving your body. The difference between 20 Euro and 100 Euro running shoes? For me, at least, doesn’t seem like a whole lot.
Quick note on chafing. I’d recommend wearing athletic shorts where possible and not jogging trousers (pants, for the Americans). Got some pretty bad groin burn during training. Reminded me of the early days of the camino and begging a well-prepared Australian lady for an anally-related unguent.
I was up to around 82kg before I began training for the halfie. That’s the most I’ve ever weighed in my life and a lot of that was down to chugging a lot of whole fat milk in the hope of putting on muscle mass while hitting the gym with my strength training program.
During training, as burning a shed load of calories inevitably will, a lot of that weight dropped off and I got much leaner again. My round, globulous face got a little more angular. And well, I’d argue, if I do say so myself, I looked generally ‘fitter’.
Of course you’re going to have to be mindful of what you eat during training periods for a half marathon. I upped the carbs more than I usually would. Feeling less guilty about chowing down on bread and getting lots and lots of fruit in (my favourite being any type of berry).
Half-way in my good friend Chris, a triathlete himself, showed me the wonders of full fat Greek yoghurt (something I hadn’t been taking advantage much of before) and oats (which were added more frequently to my diet).
I also stopped tracking calories during my training period, simply aiming to eat whenever I felt hungry.
Fine-tuning my diet even further, and perhaps even increasing the amount of calories I was ingesting, could have given me an edge. I didn’t fare too badly in this department however and finishing the race, which was my target, can still be considered objective complete.
One last thing, drink only water and large amount of water. Tea and coffee I’ll accept too. But please, none of this soda shit.
I can literally count the amount of times I’ve had a soda-style soft-drink, in the past five years at least, on one hand.
If you’re serious about doing any kind of long distance running event, that’s the first nutritional tweak I’d recommend. Cut out the sugary drinks.
I’d say the issue of designing or constructing a training protocol for a half marathon is perhaps the easiest step of all and that the information I’ve already outlined, above, is far more important when thinking about how to actually go about undertaking a challenge like this.
A simple Google search, just as I did, will bring up everything you’d need. The next step is to just choose one and stick to it. Just like I’d recommend people getting into the gym do too.
My schedule I think I grabbed from Women’s Runner or something like that. It was one designed for first-timers if I recall and looked pretty similar to all the others.
- Week 1: 8 miles during the week. Long run = 5 miles on Sat or Sun. Always take a rest day after a long run. Total = 13 miles.
- Week 2: 9 mi during the week. Long run = 6 miles. Total = 15 miles.
- Week 3: 9 mi during the week. Long run = 5 miles. Total = 14 miles.
- Week 4: 9 mi during the week. Long run = 7 miles. Total = 16 miles.
- Week 5: 10 mi during the week. Long run = 8 miles. Total = 18 miles.
- Week 6: 10 mi during the week. Long run = 6 miles. Total = 16 miles.
- Week 7: 10 mi during the week. Long run = 9 miles. Total = 19 miles.
- Week 8: 11 mi during the week. Long run = 10 miles. Total = 21 miles.
- Week 9: 11 mi during the week. Long run = 8 miles. Total = 19 miles.
- Week 10: 11 mi during the week. Long run = 11 miles. Total = 22 miles.
- Week 11: 10 mi during the week. Long run = 8 miles. Total = 18 miles.
- Week 12: 9 mi during the week (4/3/2, to taper). Long run = half-marathon! Total = 22 miles.
I approached it by training four days a week, breaking up the overall mileage into three short runs every other-day. Then the long run on the weekend.
I had to alternate between running and walking in the initial weeks too. No shame in that. As long as you keep challenging yourself to up the ante by pushing the pace and trying to run for as long as possible.
Just to confirm, I’d also run your schedule past someone with experience with distance running too, before you start out. And do so making sure you have plenty of time to complete said program before race day.
I kept my schedule on my phone and got great pleasure ticking off each session as I went along. No apps, just a simple note file.
I’d recommend doing the same.
And, like I did, actually going out and sticking to it.
Other Things I Think Helped
(Prepare for being half pleased with yourself and your training)
Training aside, other things I think helped when it came down to actually training and completing my first half-marathon ever (at the ripe age of 30, by the way), included the following.
Running with friends. Luckily I had a few. Some of which were training for the same race, others just wanting to do short runs for their general health.
Vipasanna meditation. Interrupted my training schedule but inadvertently helped it too, teaching me to be more cognisant of pain, manage it better and generally just be more disciplined about training, eating and everything else.
Being in Madrid. Running through this city, which I’ve lived in for two years and love, was always something to look forward to and somewhat of a motivating factor. Race day had a great atmosphere and finishing back in the park, where all the training started, was a great way to bookend the journey.
It’s nice to say I did a half-marathon in under two hours with no prior running experience. Sure, I could have pushed harder and gone faster, but, for someone who’s only really started taking fitness more seriously in the last three years or so, I’m happy enough with that.
Do I aim to do another long distance run or even a full marathon? Truth be told, I’m not that enamoured with running. I much prefer the rigours of the gym and the satisfaction gained testing your body with heavy weights.
That’s not to say you can’t be good at both though.
Just look at the beasts in the Royal Marines.