14 weeks of preparation culminated in 1 hour and 47 minutes of lung busting, heart wrenching, mentally challenging, non-stop running. It’s a weird feeling completing a half marathon. Satisfaction, relief, ecstasy and a tinge of sadness all encompassed me as I crossed the finish line. I was a living enigma, thinking I could run another 13 miles while never wanting to stand up again. It pushed me to my limits, both physically and mentally, while providing an adrenaline rush to rival that of jumping out of a plane from 13,000 feet.
I have no doubt that I wouldn’t have ran that time if it hadn’t have been for the help of a number of people. My own trial and error of certain fitness tactics I have picked up also played a big role. Here are 9 lessons I learned while preparing for my first half marathon.
Have a Target in Mind
I wanted to beat 2 hours. I was confident that I would before I laced up my shoes for the first run of my training program. In hindsight, I probably sold myself short. Next time out I’m aiming for 1 hour and 40 minutes. But having that target in mind allowed me to tailor my runs accordingly. By monitoring the pace of my preparation runs, I knew the exact pace I was aiming for after every 5 minute split. I was able to push myself during every workout and every run, with that goal in mind.
Just because I set a time to beat, that doesn’t mean everyone should. For some, the target might be simply completing the run. Choose what is best for you, but as with anything you want to achieve, keep yourself honest by having a goal.
Get used to the longevity
One of the best pieces of advice I received was from a friend of mine who was formerly a professional soccer player. Obviously a fit guy (soccer players generally run anything from 7 – 12 km a game), he noted the struggles he faced due to a half marathon requiring a completely different style of fitness to soccer.
He mentioned to me that rather than worrying about pace & distance, I should get used to running for a certain length of time, building up to 2 hours of consistent running. At the beginning of my training cycle, I started with a 10 minute run, adding 5 minutes to every run thereafter.
Someone else told me how her training consists of adding a mile every week, starting at 1 and building up to 13. I have taken a similar approach in strength training, adding 5lbs of weight each week to core compound lifts, which allowed me to go from 90 to 170lbs when performing squats.
Baby steps are vital when learning any new skill. Pushing your body that little bit further each time stresses the body enough to improve its capacity to perform, while making it comfortable enough so that you don’t feel like giving up.
Without tracking my preparation runs, it would have been extremely challenging to reach my target. Being able to monitor my pace every 5 minutes meant I could increase my speed at the right times. Reviewing my splits after every run allowed me to note my weak points and consciously be aware of those moments the next time out. I was also able to keep track of the distance being ran. This is vital on long runs where the mind plays tricks and 2 miles can seem like 2,000.
There are a lot of great apps on the market for tracking runs. My personal favorite is Runkeeper. It contains a built in GPS, syncs with your iTunes playlists, gives detailed info on splits, elevation, pace and time and allows you to share on social media. This cannot be overstated as a way of keeping you accountable.
Runkeeper has a premium service for those interested in even more stats, but I found the free version worked just fine.
Don’t skimp on the weights
As a skinny fella with a blog on testing programs to see how successful they are in building muscle, I had no choice but to hit the iron. Though much of my training involved high volume training to stress my muscles to failure, I was careful to include an element of strength training on each day in the gym. Strength training has been shown to improve performance during long distance runs (study, study).
Strength training involves heavy weights with lower reps. Compound movements such as squats, dead lifts, bench presses and pull ups should form the basis of strength training. The second half of the Skinny Turkey Half Marathon was mostly uphill. Hills are to be attacked and require a lot of strength to be powered up. With my last mile being run at 7:07 minutes despite having to attack one final hill, having that added strength played it’s role.
Embrace Cardio Acceleration
Cardio Acceleration is a form of cardio training that compliments your training at the gym. It is a variation of high Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), that requires intense bursts of 60 second cardio activity in between each set of resistance training. I’ll be honest…it sucks! I’ve been dripping in sweat, feeling dizzy, struggling for oxygen and close to throwing up when performing this. With no time to pause (weights, cardio, weights, cardio, weights, cardio) for as long as you spend at the gym, the lungs get blasted.
You will however, improve your recovery time and ability to take in oxygen. Going from 1 hour and 30 minutes of high intensity training to a steady state run, the roadwork portion of the training is isn’t affected through breathing difficulties.
13.1 miles is a long distance to run. If you are anything like me, you won’t want much to eat pre-race. My pre-run food would consist a solitary banana. Good for shorter distances, but not so for anything over 6 miles. That’s where energy supplements come in handy. Blocks, beans and chews are all available by my preference was Gu Energy Gels.
Containing 30mg of caffeine, it’s like Jason Statham’s character in Crank 2 taking a shot of electricity to keep his fake heart beating. Wide open eyes, the caffeine shakes and a shot of adrenaline that helped me dominate the hills of North Raleigh in the same way that William the Conqueror took over England when he won the Battle of Hastings, the nutrients provide a well-timed boost.
I found the gels easy to digest and consume. The last thing I want to do mid-run was be chewing something, thus affecting my breathing. The gels go down easy, hit the spot and get into the blood stream quickly. There are low caffeine options available, for those who suffer a reaction to using it. The first time i took one, my ulcerative colitis took a hit, making the final 2 miles of my run that day very uncomfortable. Thankfully my body got used to it after that initial discomfort,so use with caution.
Download your Jam
I know people that cannot exercise with music. I am not one of them. A carefully selected playlist is a must for any type of workout that I take part in. Similar to a UFC fighter walking into the cage, I associate particular tunes with getting into the correct mindset for the war my body and mind are about to go through. Studies have shown that music has a positive impact on the duration of exercise, ideal for a half marathon.
I have always struggled with headphones. The ones that slip into the ear always seem to fall out. The big heavy duty Dre Beats-esque wireless headphones make my ears burn. I tend to spend more time playing with the wire when using those that are not wireless.
Thanks to a recommendation, I visited my local Fleet Feet Sports and checked out the Trekz Titanium Bone Conductor Headphones. Not only are they wireless, but they have a band that goes around the head from ear to ear, as well as having the speakers positioned OUTSIDE of the ear lobe. Super comfy, great sound and perfect for running. They’re a little on the pricey side but well worth the additional cost.
Embrace the carbs
As skinny fella’s looking to bulk up, a high carb diet on training days is a must. Not only are we in need of the energy stores to get through high intensity workouts, but we also need foods that we can digest a lot of to give our bodies the impetus to grow (article).
Running for an extended distance forces the glycogen stores to deplete. The easiest way to keep these replenished? Carb load. For the 2 days before my race my diet consisted of Oatmeal, pasta, garlic bread and some lean proteins. This allowed for my glucose stores to remain high (study) during the final 3 miles of the run.
I was skeptical at first. When eating for bulk I usually stick to quinoa, as I feel lighter for eating it. Pasta leaves me feeling bloated. However, embracing my inner Mo Farah with 3 to go, I was able to produce my ‘kick’, leading to 3 consecutive miles that were ran in under 8 minutes.
For those of you with reactions to a particular food (I suffer from ulcerative colitis, so had to be weary with pasta sauces), don’t take any unnecessary risks. The last place you want your stomach dropping is part way through a 13 mile race in a residential area! Try to aim for 3 grams of carbohydrates per pound of body weight in the 2 days leading up to the race.
Dress for success
The day of the race is no time to be experimenting. I fortunately went through the experience of suffering an extreme level of chafing the first time I attempted to run 13 miles due to changing up my usual running gear. Shoes, socks, shorts or pants and t-shirts should all be consistent every time you step out the door. Our body is a magnificent tool that is able to adapt to situations quickly. Yet changing clothes the day of the race can cause a lot of discomfort in some delicate areas.
Thanks to said chafing, I was able recognize an error in my clothing choice and buy some Nike compression shorts. Fitting very snug around the groin area and aided by vaseline, chafing was no longer an issue. They do take some getting used to however, so buy well in advance.
Have you attempted a half marathon before and found differing factors that have worked for you? Let everyone know in the comments section below
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