7 keys to completing your first half-marathon

Dom Cadden

Think you might be ready to step up to a half-marathon? If you’re smart with your training and willing to run four days a week minimum, the 21.1km path to personal glory could be yours.

runner quad stretch

1. Work your way backwards

If you’ve already targeted your race, then start planning from the race day backwards. Specifically, you need to lock in your last week for your taper – the time when you significantly reduce the intensity and volume of your training to allow your body to rest and recover so it is ready to race. Often it never seems that we have enough time to prepare for a race, or life gets in the way and puts your training behind schedule – but your taper week should be sacrosanct, no matter what. In fact, the second thing you need to lock in is your longest run – this should be done two weeks before the race – no closer.

2. Back to the start – the 5km base

First things first – your initial goal should be to complete a 5km run without stopping or walking. If you can’t do this, work up to this in small increments (e.g. if you do 2km running, continue another 3km fast walk, then aim for 2.5km running, with 2.5km fast walk), training every second day. If you’ve had a long break from running or you can only just get to the 5km, do 5 sessions at 5km in the first 2 weeks, aiming to get a little more comfortable (not necessarily quicker) each time. Find a rhythm with your breathing and concentrate on holding good technique and a consistent pace.

3. Build slowly

No long endurance running (and especially the half marathon) is all about the number of kilometres pounding the road in training. Clocking up too many kays too soon is just the fast route to injury. Besides, you’ll benefit from training at more than one pace, which will also cut down on total training time. Consistency is everything – and that means not getting injured or overly sore. Don’t buy into the mythology of the running heroes whose measure of their own training is all about how many kays they ran in a week. Your “long” run for the week should build gradually to 17-18km two weeks out from the race

4. Mix your pace

A good runner knows how to run in “different gears”. If you learn how to run easier and longer at 15 km/h, then it will feel a doddle to run for longer at 10 km/h. Running at different paces and with different interval and rest patterns works your body’s energy systems in different ways, ultimately conditioning you “move your aerobic line”. That is, you’ll be able to use fat as energy (instead of just sugar) and keep up your oxygen intake while running for longer and a little faster. Good things to mix in are repeat intervals of 200m to 400m, and “tempo” runs (see below).

5. Every training day has a role

If you run four days a week, then two days should be ‘focus’ days and two days should be at a more comfortable pace. Space these apart – for example, Wednesdays and Sundays could be the focus days, based on a more strenuous speed session on Wednesday (e.g. intervals) and your longest run for the week on Sunday, while Tuesdays might Fridays could be the days where the pace and distance are more comfortable.

As a guide, your training should include:

  • Interval sessions– start with 8 x 200m, with 90-120 seconds rest in between. You will not be able to sprint every interval, so learn to pace yourself so that you can do each interval in a time that is within 10 seconds of all the other intervals. Build the distance by 50m (250m, then 300m – up to 400m).
  • Tempo running / speed boosts– this is where you try to sustain a faster pace. A tempo run is where you try to hold a pace 10-15% above your comfortable 10km pace (or shorter distances if you have not worked up to 10km) for 10-25 minutes. Be sure to do a light jog before and after this. Speed bursts can be worked into your pace run (see below) by putting on bursts of speed, then backing off to a slow pace (but not stopping). These “bursts” can vary from a few bursts of 400m or one of 1600m, or a combination of distances in between.
  • Pace run– this is 40-60% of your next long run distance. Work on run technique and do most or all of this run at a comfortable pace. This session should not exhaust you.
  • Long run– Do not jump up the distance by more than 2.5km at a time. It’s OK to repeat the same distance two weeks in a row.

6. Work your rest days

Rest days are not a total bludge. Use these days to have a 15–20 minute stretching session, do a little yoga or Pilates, or do some strength exercises. Other forms of ‘active recovery’ include fast walking, swimming or walking and running in a pool.

7. Run your own race

After your long run two weeks before the race, you should have a good idea of your race pace. Stick to the plan – don’t be thrown off by the rush off the start line or the adrenalin coursing through your body or the guy in the gorilla suit who runs faster than you. Keep to your goal pace, then assess whether you have the energy to put on a surge in the last 3-4km.