Around this time of year, whether its my run club, over coffee or beers, or on social media, I hear a lot of folks saying something along the lines of “So I just signed up for the _____ half marathon”. With races like the Calgary Police Half Marathon, the Centaur Subaru Half Marathon (aka Calgary Half), and SeaWheeze now on people’s radar, I thought it would be prudent to write up a post on getting set for the races.
First and foremost, congratulations are in order. A half marathon is no small feat, and is a great goal to set for the season. It’s a big enough event that you can plan a training season around it, but a manageable enough that you don’t need to sacrifice time with friends or family, or take time away from your other sports and pursuits. This is probably a big reason why participation in the distance has nearly doubled across the USA since just 2009, and races like the Calgary Marathon have continued to see strong year over year growth since the early 2000’s.
On the topic of stats, interestingly, the half marathon is a distance dominated by women, with almost 6/10 participants being female, and over half of those being women under the age of 40. Going to the full marathon, the gender split reverses with 6/10 participants being male, and half of them being between the ages of 30 and 50. This is according to nationwide stats compiled by Running USA, and is consistent with participation at the Calgary Half.
The balance that the half marathon provides between being challenging yet attainable is what makes it so popular. Personally I prefer halfs because I feel I can race a half marathon, where at the marathon distance I’m simply trying to manage my way through it.
So with your first half marathon a couple months (or weeks) away, here are some points relating to some of the most common questions I hear about it.
- When should I start training? It’s never really too early to start getting runs in, and now that the snow has mostly melted and the days are getting longer, spring would be a good time to start working in two or three runs per week. Structured training can typically start about 3-4 months from race day and most “big” half marathons like SeaWheeze and Calgary will have pointers on where to go and what to do for your training plan.
- How often should I be running? It really depends on your goals and how much you want to commit to this. I know a lot of runners who put 40-60km a week into training and I really get put off by that kind of crazy volume. From my personal experience, 3-4 runs per week were sufficient to move me from a 1:55ish half marathon runner, down to a 1:35ish half marathon runner in about two years. That’s a bit anecdotal but there’s a decent enough basis for the less is more approach for amateur runners in the sport science world. This is a link to a marathon training program from the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training that speaks to that approach.
- What kind of shoes should I get? The ones that are right for you. There’s a lot of gimmicky stuff out there when it comes to shoes that’s meant to convince consumers that Brand X is right for them versus Brand Y. Shoes are such a personal thing that I really encourage newcomers to the sport to go to a run specific shop like Gord’s or the Tech Shop in Calgary and talk to the experts about finding the shoe that fits. Minimalist shoes like the Nike Free are really popular right now, and I actually have raced in them myself, but step into them and run a half marathon without working your way into them and your joints and shins will hate you. Don’t believe the hype, talk to an expert. For the record, my favourite shoe right now is actually the Nike FlyKnit One.
- What should I put down for my projected time? Because I put 2:30 down. Well, it depends. Whether you’re coming from an athletic background in a sport like soccer, hockey, or are a leisure runner already, you’ll probably respond really well to structured training. And if you’re coming off of the couch you’ll probably actually see significant performance gains as well. What I suggest is that runners chat with folks they know and feel out what they think they can do when they sign up. As race day gets closer, maybe 4-6 weeks out, I would recommend you run a “test” like a 5km or 10km to see where you’re at, then use something like Jack Daniel’s Run VDOT run calculator to get a ballpark of what you’ll actually run and use that number. Most races will actually let you amend your projected time even after you’ve registered. Put down a time too slow and you’ll get stuck behind other runners, put down a time too fast and you’ll feel like Mufasa when he got trampled by those wildebeests.
- What do I eat when I run/race? Now we’re getting into race nutrition and stuff which varies significantly from person to person. In any event, through a half marathon you need to have a nutrition plan. I’m not a nutritionist, and my stomach will handle just about anything, so my typical race plan is to figure out what the nutrition is on course and get accustomed to that. That allows me to avoid any problems that may occur if I drop a gel or something. But Runner’s World has a couple great pieces to give you a little better perspective on how to approach this one. Here’s How to Fuel for a Half Marathon, Energy Gels 101, and Alternatives to Energy Gels.
- Other tips? When it comes to the half marathon, or any distance for that matter, consistency is key. Like I said earlier, 3-4 runs a week is enough to get you across the line without turning running into a chore. It’s also important that you listen to your body though. If your knees or joints are telling you to stop, then stop. But if you’re just too lazy to get out the door one day, just get out the door and run for 5 minutes, I guarantee you’re attitude will change and you’ll get the full run in. And remember, it’s not about finding time, it’s about making time, you committed to this for a reason, remember that.
Again, congrats on setting this goal for yourself. Tell your friends, schedule your runs in, ask people to join you, and make this a fun experience. If this is your first half, then you’re about to discover a pretty awesome new way of staying active, so enjoy. And if you have any questions at all feel free to post them below or ask me on Twitter.