Image Credit: Senita Athletics
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I came, I saw, I barely crossed the finish line. Kidding. (Kind of.) But seriously, if you’re a novice looking to make running a more consistent part of your outdoor routine, training for a half marathon might be the exact motivation you need to get outside, get moving, and pay attention to your body.
Setting a destination race date is a perfect place to start. Here is everything I learned, and everything I loved when training for my first ever half marathon away from home.
First Thing’s First: Choose Your Race Destination
The first thing you’ll want to prioritize when selecting your half marathon destination is deciding your ideal race terrain. There are two main types: trail and road. Trail running is typically done on hiking trails with uneven ground and elevation changes. Road running is exactly how it sounds—on a paved street. Both have their pros and cons. Trail runs are generally more scenic and interesting, but also tend to be more difficult because of elevation and rugged terrain. Paved roads are more consistent and accessible, but can be monotonous, depending on location. There is also a higher risk of repetitive strain and impact-related injuries due to the hard pack of asphalt, if you don’t train and recover properly.
In the end, I opted for road running for my first race because it was much easier to train for, (I don’t have easily accessible trails where I live) and because running all those miles in the mountains seemed a bit aggressive.
Once that’s locked in, onto deciding your chosen destination. When selecting a course, there are multiple factors to consider. What’s your ideal race day climate? Are you willing to travel, and if so, how far? And, what do you prefer to be staring at for the next 13.1 miles? My biggest must haves was a scenic view and a cool, dry climate. Because I’m California-based, an ocean side race in February was a no brainer for me. I drove about 4 hours for my run in Ventura and got a hotel for the weekend. You might also consider choosing a location you’re interested in exploring beyond the run. Setting a destination race date can be a great excuse to travel. Races are always happening in cities like Portland, San Diego and San Francisco. I mean, if you have to take off work anyway…who says you can’t book a beachfront AirBnB in the name of health?If you’re still unsure where to start, Let’s Do This is a great resource for finding your perfect race match. They have options from 10Ks to ultras, and you can search by sport, event or location. They list races all over the US, so it’s useful for anyone stateside. This is how I found my race: it was the terrain I was looking for, the climate I wanted, and the location was a perfect halfway point between my bff and I who signed up together.
The best advice I can give on this front is to find a training schedule you like and stick with it. I found mine from Training Peaks. It’s a website where you put in your race info and ability level and they give you a ton of different training options, all for relatively cheap. My friend and I used this 12 week schedule. There are also a lot of free schedules available online, but I appreciated knowing exactly what I was doing every day and that it was tailored to my running ability. I used my Whoop Strap to track my runs, workouts & recovery, but Map My Run is another great (and free) way to keep track of your progress & distance if you don’t have a smart watch.
My training schedule in a nutshell was three runs a week, (two longer, one shorter) two workouts a week, and two rest days. Every two weeks, the distance increased slightly until I worked up to a 10 mile run a week before race day.
*Tip: when you’re first starting out: run much more slowly than you want to. I found that it helped significantly with my motivation, as I could ease into longer distances without getting gassed out. Running too fast, too soon is a sure fire way to burn you out and turn you off training completely.*
What shoes to wear: The gear you’re hitting the pavement (or trail) with has to be up to par. For a twelve week training period, I advise buying two pairs of shoes and alternating them throughout your runs and workouts.
For one, there are a million different running shoes out there, and grabbing two different pairs could help you sus out what works best for your gait, style and overall support preference. I found I leaned more towards cushion and support as opposed to a snappy, responsive shoe. More importantly though, over the course of training, you will run anywhere from 180 to 200 miles pre- race. (Crazy, IK.) And this isn’t considering any other activities you may be doing, like gym training, walking, or straight up running errands.
As an average running sneaker has a life of about 300–400 miles, by the time race day comes along, your shoes could be well past their prime. Having two sets that you go between will extend their life significantly, ensuring each is perfectly broken in for the big day.
This gave me the excuse to test out two different brands I’d been eyeing. My first purchase was the Cloudmonsters from the ever-popular Swiss performance brand, On. These sneakers are on the firmer side, but still very supportive and springy. They have prominent forward rolling that propels you through your stride. These shoes run small and a little narrow, so definitely size up. I am typically a 7.5, and ended up with an 8.5. My aforementioned bff (pictured above) chose these for her race day debut.
*Tip: size up at least a half, and sometimes a full size in shoes to account for swelling while you run. Especially if you’re going for long distances.*
My next order was the Bondi 8 from Hoka. These shoes provide maximum cushion for a soft impact on asphalt, and still give great support. I got an 8, as Hokas run more true to size. I packed these for race day as I couldn’t get over how comfy they were (peep them in action), but both shoes were great to train in. If I ever raced for time, I would probably reach for the Cloudmonsters.
If you’re sticking to trails, both brands also have great all terrain options like the On Cloudultras or the Hoka Speedgoat 5 GTX. If you’re still unsure what you need, both websites offer filters to help narrow down the best shoe for your terrain and preferences. I especially like Hoka’s Shoe Finder quiz, which is super detailed if you’re feeling overwhelmed with options.
Stretch it out: Stretching is an essential part of training, and one you shouldn’t skimp. I am a serial side cramper, so integrating this into my training was so helpful. Dynamic stretches before, and static stretches after! I scoured TikTok for the best pre- and post- run stretches, and picked and chose until I had a routine that worked great for me.
I used these flexibility bands to strengthen my feet, and this foam roller from Bala to get into all the sore muscles. In a pinch, a tennis ball also works great for rolling out. If you want to go the extra mile when it comes to stretching, pick up these toe separators from Yoga Toes. There is nothing I look forward to more after a long day than ripping off my shoes and wiggling into these things. And, there are a ton of benefits to stretching out your toes, like increased balance and improved arch support. Don’t knock it till you try it.
To streamline your packing process, here are all the necessities for your destination race day.
Half Marathon Race Day Packing Guide for Beginners — The Essentials:
- Climate friendly top
- Your best compression leggings
- High impact sports bra
- Running socks
- Your fav sneaks
- Sun protection (hat and/or sunnies)
- Hair ties
- Running belt for all your goodies
- Water system (bottle belt, hydration pack, reusable cup)
- Lip balm with SPF
- Phone charger
What to wear: How you dress is mostly dependent on your race day climate. Be sure to stalk the weather in the days leading up, so you are prepared for anything nature might throw your way. As I was in the mid fifties to low sixties range, I opted for this Halfdays base layer top and my trusty Girlfriend Collective leggings I’ve had since college. If you’re racing in warmer climate, you can never go run with a pair of biker shorts. These are great because they have a little pocket where you can stash electrolyte packets and snacks for fueling and refueling. Oh, and I love this top notch sports bra from Lululemon. This thing will strap down whatever you’re working with in the boob department, I guarantee it. Along with my bondis, I planned on wearing my favorite running socks from Bombas but I FORGOT them, so I had to use my casual pair *plays tiny violin*. And don’t forget sun protection! I’m not a fan of running with sunglasses, so I opted for this hat from Patagonia to keep the rays out of my face. And of course, I layered up my favorite sunscreen of all time from Isntree, which is super lightweight and non-irritating. Lastly, Aquaphor chapstick with SPF 30 or don’t talk to me.
What accessories are a must: When it’s time for the big day, there are a few extra accessories that can make or break your race experience. First, you want to be hands free. Holding a phone or a water bottle is going to get old, fast. I recommend a running belt, like this one from Lululemon. It’s small and lightweight, with multiple pockets that can accommodate all your necessities. I managed to fit my Iphone 11, chapstick, and four gel blocks comfortably. As for water, it is standard practice for races to have hydration stations throughout the course, but look into what yours offers specifically. My race was disposable-cup free and had collapsible silicone cups for purchase to use with their stations. My belt also came with clips to easily attach the cup, so there was no need to carry it. If you like the idea of no stops though, a hydration pack may be more your speed. Here’s a highly reviewed pack from The North Face that has trail runners singing its praises online.
Here’s Exactly What to Eat and Drink During Your Half Marathon:
- Your favorite morning carbs
- Mineralized water
- Electrolyte drink of choice
- Energy gel packs or blocks
What to eat: Go for easily digestible carbs 2–3 hours before start. We had english muffins with almond butter, banana and a few dates, and washed it down with some Liquid IV ( passionfruit is my favorite flavor.) Along with eating a solid breakfast before, you’ll need something to quickly fuel you throughout the race and replace the electrolytes you’re losing through sweat. We switched between the Clif Bloks Sour Watermelon and Black Cherry gels every 30–45 minutes. One has added sodium to hang onto as much water as possible, and one has caffeine for a silly little boost. About 15 minutes before start, we said a quick prayer and grabbed our first block.
How to Recover After Your First Half Marathon:
- Reusable water bottle
- More Liquid IV
- Stretching necessities (band, ball, foam roller)
- Pain reliever of choice
- Compression socks
- Sweat set/comfy clothes
Immediately after you cross that finish line, reward yourself with some water and a good snack. Thankfully, our race day paparazzi (AKA the boyfriends) had our favorite Hydro Flasks at the ready. Most races provide a post-race bite; ours offered bananas and tacos. Even if you don’t feel like eating right after, (I didn’t), do it anyway. You just burned about 1,500 calories and your body is in serious need of some fuel. We scoped out the town prior and found a breakfast spot that looked promising. So after a quick shower and a change into comfies, we headed there for some celebratory chili verde and eggs. IFKYK.
Depending on what day your race falls on, and what your travel looks like, I highly suggest giving yourself at least the remainder of the day to do nothin but rest and stretch. My race was on a Sunday, and I made the mistake of driving home shortly after mine. Safe to say I do not recommend a four hour commute as your recovery activity. What actually helped my recovery though, were these Relief patches from The Good Patch. They are plant based transdermal patches that you can stick anywhere you have pain. I slapped two of these puppies on my lower back and one on my calf, and the cooling menthol was like a hug for my aching muscles. It definitely beats popping a bunch of Advil to get by. Another great recovery product are these compression socks from Comrad. They help to calm swelling, pain, and soreness in your feet & calves. They cut down on overall recovery time, too. Don’t forget to stick to your stretching routine for the next few days, cause you are going to feel it. Most importantly though, give yourself a big ol’ pat on the back. You just did the damn thing.