I just ran a half marathon: here are my tips for marathon training, running and recovery
I just completed my fourth half-marathon, this time in Lisbon – here are my key takeaways on prepping, running, and recovering from a half-marathon.
Taking on the challenge of your first half marathon and in need of some tips and tricks to see you through the course? 21.09km (13.1 miles) is no walk in the park, and certainly a step up from your 5K and 10Ks – but we’ve got you covered for those, too, check out our helpful guides with top tips on how to prepare for a 5K, how long it takes to run a 5K and how to recover after long runs.
From setting up a marathon training plan and preparing for race day to pacing yourself during the run, enjoying yourself, and finally resting up post-run for the ultimate recovery, we’ve got the complete running low-down you need.
Half marathon preparation: training, gear and route research
‘If you fail to plan, you plan to fail’. Preparation is key when it comes to a half marathon. Here is some advice to get you in the zone pre-race.
It all starts with training
Create a training plan and stick to it. This is important in order to be fully prepared for race day and feel ready to run the distance in the time you are aiming for. Factor in rest days to give your body time to recover in between training and set realistic goals for each week. Check out Nike, Asics, and Runners Need to get you started with a training plan, all free to download.
Training will include runs (obviously), plus cross-training such as cycling, swimming and strength training in order to build up strength, endurance and stamina and increase your fitness levels. Getting enough sleep is also key during training and especially in the run-up to the big day.
Get all the gear
Comfortable, well-fitting trainers are essential. As high-performance sports brand Brooks puts it: ‘good running trainers not only help you to run smoothly, they also reduce the risk of injury.’
I had some fitted at Runners Need – they video your feet as you run for 30 seconds on the treadmill, then analyse your gait and running style, finding the perfect pair for you and your needs. My Asics GT-2000 11 are super supportive while feeling bouncy and lightweight – I highly recommend them.
Having the proper clothing is also paramount to your performance. Opt for sweat-wicking and fast-drying fabrics to keep you cool, comfortable and sweat-free while on the move. I wore Sweaty Betty Power 6” Cycling Shorts, great for staying in place and not rising, providing support, and featuring a super handy zipped back pocket and side pocket to hold my phone.
As I was running in aid of Mind charity, they provided me with a running vest. I was running in rather sunny conditions, so a sleeveless top was the best option to keep me from overheating. Check the weather and climate you are running your race in to ensure the most suitable kit.
- Top tip: Make sure you have taken your whole running kit on a test run pre-race.
Check out the route
Make sure to have a look at the route pre-race day. It’s good to have a rough idea of where you will be every 5K and be familiar with certain points, including rehydration stations. It’s also helpful to be aware if there are any increased inclines coming up and know how flat/steep certain areas will be, so you can avoid any hilly surprises.
The night before your race, it’s time to carb-load. This will ensure you have the maximised glycogen stores in your body to provide optimum energy throughout your run. Pasta was my pick of choice, accompanied by lots of water to keep me hydrated.
On the day of the race, make sure to eat pre-run. As mine was a morning run, I chose porridge with honey and a banana. Porridge oats are a complex carbohydrate that provides slow-release energy to keep you going throughout the run (it worked for me). Allow enough time for digestion, typically around two-three hours – the last thing you want is a stitch.
Our friends at BBC Good Food have some great recommendations, such as granola, multigrain bread topped with eggs, or pancakes with mixed toppings such as fruits and nuts.
- Top tip: Make sure you have trialled out what to eat pre-run in your training plan, race day is not the time to experiment.
Half marathon race day tips: pace, fuel and motivation
Race day has arrived. You’ve trained, you’re ready, and you’re excited (and probably slightly nervous – very normal!) Here is some advice on how to get the most out of your run.
Listen up! A classic mistake is over-exertion at the beginning of the race and therefore running out of steam after a couple of kilometres – there’s a lot of nerves, excitement and adrenaline going on. Try to keep to a steady pace to reserve your energy for the whole way around and hit the time you are after.
I used the tracking app MapMyRun which notifies you of your average pace per kilometre – this was great to keep me on track and maintain my pace. The Nike Run Club is another popular tracking app motivating you to keep going and keeping check of your average pace, heart rate and time, plus it’s free to sign up to.
Smartwatches, such as an Apple Watch, Garmin or Fitbit, are also great devices to measure your performance – check out our round-up of the best fitness trackers to source the right one for you.
We’re big fans of the Garmin Forerunner 55, ideal for first-time half-marathon runners, complete with training guidance and recovery advice. Its built-in GPS will track your running route, as well as time, distance, pace, speed and heart rate, and has a super impressive battery life for ultimate reliability.
- Top tip: it might take a bit of time to find your rhythm, especially if you find yourself weaving through the crowds at the start – don’t fret, it will come!
Get a great running playlist
Decide whether or not you want to listen to music during the run, or perhaps you prefer a podcast or even no sounds at all. Choose what works best for you and what you have trained with. I liked having a beat to run to and created a running playlist ready for the big day.
Amazon Music is a great option, giving you access to more than 100 million songs – sign up for a free 30-day trial to give it a go yourself.
- Top tip: get some comfortable running headphones – check out our shopping guide to the best running headphones, with advice from top running experts to find out more.
It’s important to keep hydrated throughout the run, but be careful not to overdrink, as you may get a stitch (not a nice feeling). Take advantage of the drink stations as you go around, being mindful of the quantity of liquid you consume.
If you have practised with energy gels, top up on these too. They’ll supply your body with quick-releasing carbohydrates to give you that extra boost. Take a look at our round-up of some of the best energy gels to help you along the way. I hadn’t incorporated these into my training, so avoided these on the day of the race – it’s best not to do anything different on the day!
A top choice from our guide was the SIS Go isotonic energy gels, available in a selection of flavours and used by the pros. They are vegan-friendly and easily digested without water to provide a quick energy boost in seconds, keeping you running for longer.
Invite your cheerleaders along
Having supporters dotted across the route cheering you on will keep you motivated and determined to reach the finish line. If you are beginning to struggle or having a moment where things seem tough, having a friendly face appear can be that gentle push you need to keep you spurred on. Your friends and family also make great photographers, so you can see yourself in action post-run and have a memento from the day.
Most of all – enjoy the experience. A half marathon is no mean feat, and you should feel proud running over that finish line. It’s a great way to see a city/area, gather friends together, and even explore a new country (I chose to do mine abroad in Lisbon, somewhere I’d never been, and also a great excuse to make a weekend break of it!)
Do it for charity
Why not tie in this challenge with raising money for charity? I did my half marathon in aid of Mind, a mental health charity, and it really did make it feel like much more of an achievement. It’s easy to set up a JustGiving page, ask friends, family and colleagues for donations, and raise awareness and money for such a worthy cause.
Half marathon post-race recovery: stretch, refuel and rest
You did it! Time to celebrate after all your hard work and wear that medal proudly. Don’t ignore your recovery, though – we’ve got some tips to help you rest up and avoid injury.
Stretching out your body post-run is really important in order to avoid injury and any unnecessary aches and pains. It may feel like the last thing you want to do after running non-stop for 21km, but it won’t take very long. Running experts Asics suggests the following:
- Hamstring stretch: ‘Lie on the floor on your back with your legs extended and your arms at your sides. Keeping your lower back on the floor, bend your left knee and keep your right leg extended on the floor. Slowly raise your right leg and pull it toward you. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, then switch legs.’
- Standing calf stretch: ‘Stand about a foot away from the wall and place your hands flat against the wall. Step one leg forward, bending your knee, and extend the other leg behind you, keeping it straight. Lean into the wall until you feel a stretch in the extended leg, then hold it for 30 seconds before switching legs.’
- Hip stretch: ‘Stand with your legs hip-width apart and drop into a squat. Shift your weight to one leg and extend the other leg behind you — as if you’re ice skating. Return to the squat position and switch legs. Not only is this good for your hip flexors, but it strengthens your glutes, too.’
According to the experts at The Great Run Company, “eating the right foods after a half marathon is crucial to replenish depleted glycogen stores, reduce muscle soreness, and for rehydration”. Restore your energy levels once finished with proteins and carbs, and make sure to rehydrate also with plenty of water.
It is also recommended to eat within 30 minutes of finishing your run, as “the quicker you refuel, the faster your body will recover”. At the end of my race, I was handed a banana and energy bar, as well as a chocolate milk drink and a bottle of water. Trust me, you’ll inhale it!
Our friends at BBC Good Food also have tips on what to eat post-run in their useful guide on how to recover after your run.
Treat yourself to a sports massage for the ultimate recovery. This will focus on relaxing the body post-run, releasing any tension and improving circulation. Using various pieces of sports equipment, for example, a foam roller or massage gun will also be really beneficial to alleviate any muscular pains and bring a state of calm.
Check out our buying guides for the best foam rollers and the best massage guns to inspire your post-run recovery. I particularly like the Core Balance foam roller as it gives a firm but comfortable deep massage to your leg muscles and is suitable for most budgets.
For a more lavish spend, the Theragun Elite Percussive massage gun with five different attachments will totally sort you out.
Sign up for your next race
As much as you’ll be feeling tired, achy, pretty red-faced and sweaty (if you’re anything like me), you’ll also have your endorphins boosted – runner’s high is a thing! Sign up for your next race, whether another half to get a PB or even a full marathon. It will be a great way to keep your fitness levels up and have a new goal to focus on.
Time to rest your body and let it recover for the next few days. Sleep is very important in order for your ‘heart to rest, and your cells and tissue to repair’, according to the Sleep Foundation.
Focus on getting a good night’s sleep – ‘guidelines advise that healthy adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night.’ To achieve this, make sure you have a suitable sleeping environment to encourage a relaxed, disturbance-free sleep.
Take a look at our round-up of the best eye masks for sleeping to help block out unwanted light and our guide on the best white noise machines to enable a state of calm. We’ve also got you covered with the best breathing exercises for better sleep, essential in recovery and increasing your energy levels and mood.