Racing Your First Half Marathon

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Finishing is nice, but you love racing. You’ve got some 5k and 10k races under your belt and you think you might be ready to take the next step and try a half marathon.

13.1 miles can seem daunting if you’ve never raced that far before, and with good reason–pushing yourself for that many miles is tough to get used to! Lucky for you, the half is a very accessible distance, especially if you’ve run a few 10ks.  Many veteran runners love the half because it’s short enough to not require the monster training of a full marathon but it’s long enough to be a challenge, especially if you want to push your pace to its limit.

And if you’re a half-marathon vet, please share tips and stories from your first half marathons to help our newbies get a better sense of what they’re in for.

Here is the Salty guide to racing your first half marathon:


Unless you’re already consistently logging 8+ miles at a time, training is probably going to take up more time than you’re used to. Expect one long run and at least one “workout” a week, filled in by multiple mileage base runs.  When choosing the timing for your first half marathon, remember that you should begin the training plan with a good base of 10-20 miles a week, so if you haven’t been running, start now and give yourself plenty of time to build that base!

#1. Weekly mileage. Just like with the full marathon, your other runs during the week are just as important as your long run or speed workouts.  Think of them as the tentpoles that support you on those difficult runs. Your weekly mileage will, again, vary greatly with different training plans.  Over the years I’ve figured out that a serious, aggressive half marathon plan tops me out around 42 miles a week.  If you’re new to the half distance though, your weekly mileage will likely be lower, anywhere between 25 and 35, depending on your average base mileage before training starts.  I’d be wary of any plan that has you topping out at less than 25 miles in a week.

Remember to be realistic when choosing your plan.  If you’re a 10k-a-day gal and already doing 35 miles a week training up to 40 will be a snap, but if you’re more like a 5k-three-times-a-week gal, 25 might be a better ceiling for you.

#2. Go the Distance:  Since this is the first time racing a half, you should anchor your training week with a long run.  Expect to train yourself up to a minimum of 10 miles; depending on your goal, you don’t necessarily need to run more than that for your first half.  Nonetheless, plans will vary widely, with the longest run reaching anywhere between 10 and 18 miles before taper.  For my first half I’d never run over 11 miles, and when I hit that finish line I was so proud that I’d made it through my longest run of all time!  What’s more, I raced it from start to finish. Sure, I could have run faster if my long runs had been longer, but because it was my first time I stuck with and trusted my plan. It’s better to go into your fist half marathon race a little undertrained than overtrained.

#2. Add Speed Training: Speed training is an invaluable tool to keep you strong and fast throughout the race.  Track intervals, hill repeats, fartleks and tempo runs may sound intimidating, but not only will they build your strength and speed, they can also help you realistically predict the kind of pace you’ll be able to sustain for 13.1 miles on race day.  You don’t have to go overboard; one of these types of workouts each week is plenty for newbies, and you can switch from one type to another to keep it interesting.  If you want to race your best effort, speedwork is for you!

Leading up to the Race

Just like a marathon, your plan should taper over a couple weeks so the week before your race is nice and restful.  The day before, do a little shakeout run and eat a high-carbohydrate meal.  Skip the salad and the berry cobbler for dessert.  Anything too high in fiber can contribute to GI distress the next morning, and sugar can keep you up the night before, especially if you’re nervous!

Have a light breakfast on race morning; a little dry toast is great, or nibbling on a granola bar.  Drink some coffee if you usually do – you don’t want to risk a caffeine headache late in the race!  Sometimes I have trouble eating or drinking anything so early in the morning, but it’s important to have something.

Once you arrive, get the lay of the land, figure out where your corral is, check your bag if necessary, and visit the port-o-potties.  Give yourself a nice warmup, at least 10 minutes, and do a couple strides or leg swings to get things moving.  Visit the port-o-potties again if you need to, then get your butt to the corral!

The Race

During every half I have run, there has come a point where the voice in my brain screams, loud and clear: “YOU CANNOT SUSTAIN THIS PACE FOR [X] MORE MILES!”  This happens to me during a 10k too, but usually it’s somewhere around 4.5 or 5 miles, and I can just tell it to shut up, because one more mile won’t kill me.  This conversation tends to go a little different when you try the same argument with seven or eight more miles to go. Even with all these miles to go, the thought that this pace is “TOO FAST!” is actually pretty normal at this point in the race, so soldier on and have faith in yourself and your training.

If you’re unfamiliar with planning a race strategy, now is a great time to start.  You can totally just wing it, but it’s a good idea to check the course elevation so you can plan for hilly miles and pace accordingly.  If you can, run all or part of the course during your training runs so you can get a sense of where things will get tough.  Is there a sunny stretch with no shade whatsoever?  A windy section?  Is there a part of the course that’s unfriendly for spectators and cheering sections?  Is there a monster hill at mile 7?  A crazy downhill at mile 11 that might tempt you to start a kick too early?

An extra fine point Sharpie will keep your splits legible through every sweaty mile.
An extra fine point Sharpie will keep your splits legible through every sweaty mile.

The best thing you can do is get as much information as you can about the course, formulate a realistic pacing plan and then do your best to stick to it.  A pace band might help, or like me you can just write the splits down your arm.  Use an extra fine point Sharpie so the ink doesn’t bleed!


Most of us don’t need a lot of time to bounce back from a 10k; maybe you take a day off, maybe not.  But a half is different.  You might get lucky and feel fantastic the next day, but I’m willing to bet that unless you put in very little effort during the race you’ll experience a lot of stiff joints and aching muscles afterward.  It wasn’t until this last half marathon (my 8th) that I finally bounced back pretty quick and was able to run a fairly normal week afterward.  But trust me, it wasn’t comfortable!

Expect to be sore for the next several days, and it’s common to feel a little worse one or two days after your race than the day of.  It may hurt to go down or up stairs, or even just walking or changing positions from sitting to standing.  Standard recovery methods apply to these aches and pains: ice baths, elevation, RICE/MEAT techniques, stretching and yoga are all great ways to cope.

To help minimize your discomfort, it’s important that you keep moving after the race.  Take a little rest and stretch out when you’re done, but then proceed directly to a cool-down/shakeout after the race.  If you’re really exhausted walk it, but don’t skip it!  Stay still as little as possible for the next few hours, eat something you’re craving and celebrate your achievement!

Any readers out there planning to race their first half marathon this fall? If you’re a vet, please share a little about your first half race. We’d love to hear about it! 

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. This is great! When I set out to race my first half-marathon I was soooooooo scared of it! I hadn’t raced much at all before that, well since high school 13 years before. I ran 5 days a week (~40 miles) and did one workout a week (e.g. 2 x 2 tempo miles or 5 x 1000 meter repeats, etc.) and a long run. I did 2 or 3 16 milers, but ran them easy. Based on my workouts, my coach (now husband) thought a good goal was a 1:40. < 7:40 pace sounded INSANE. I lined up with the 3:20 group and before I knew it I was way ahead of them feeling amazing. I chatted up everyone in sight, mostly full marathoners. But all that overexcitement and wasted energy came back to bite me and around mile 11 I got a nasty stitch. I walked for a few seconds, but then dug my hand into it and made myself go! Despite the hot mess of a race, I came in a little under my goal with a 1:38:48 and completely, utterly shocked myself. I never thought I'd be able to do that! What a great feeling of accomplishment. I hope everyone has that after their first half!

  2. Great tips! My first half was 3 years ago, and until then the farthest I’d run was in training for and running my first marathon 10 years prior. My training went well, and my longest training run was a 12 miler. I ran the race alone, and my goal was to finish right at or slightly under 2 hours. I felt great the entire time and knew I probably had a little too much left in the tank at the end. My finish time was 2:01 – one stinking minute off my goal.

    My advice to someone running their first half is to not have a time goal. Aim for finishing strong with a smile on your face. Your first 13.1 is quite an accomplishment, and not meeting an expected finish time can cloud your judgment about what an awesome thing you have just done.

  3. I had run a whole bunch of longer races, but a month ago was my first time really RACING a road half. My goal was <2:00, and I knew it was gonna be hot (Fort Worth in late June… ya know) but I did NOT count on the crazy lack of shade on the course!! Long story short, I started out super solid (and maybe too fast) but the wheels fell off around mile 9… but I finished in 2:00:43 which honestly, I felt pretty good about considering the heat and the fact that my last few weeks of training had been pretty crappy. There's always next time and now I feel super confident that that "next time" will be sub 2 hours!

  4. I am running my third half marathon this fall! My first half was in October 2012, and it was a blast! I ran with my friend, also running her first, and stuck with her most of the way. She is a slower runner than me, so the pace we kept felt like a breeze. I’m glad she paced me, otherwise I might have gone out too fast and had a less than pleasant experience.

  5. Wow …I ran my first half last Saturday in Trenton NJ…I don’t know what to say…it was an extraordinary event… I am so used to running 5k races. What a big difference. It was a grind throughout. I have never been tested so many times throughout a race…ever!The hills in miles 8-9 almost made me throw in the towel but I hung in there. By mile 11
    I got it back together and when I entered Arm & Hammer Stadium at the end of the race my runner’s finishing kick took over. Also during miles 1-6, I drank water. I started feeling weak…so during miles 7-13 I drank Gatorade and it made such a big difference. Next time I will start out a little slower. That was a great experience and a test of endurance that I passed!