Training for a half marathon – whether it’s your first or your tenth – is as much about the mind as it is about the body.
#1. You’re (Probably) Not Running Slow Enough
Lots of people end up hating distance running because they go out too hard and too fast. When training for your first half marathon, you need to learn to run slowly, and that’s slower than you might think.
Learn to negative split – run the first half of any long run slower than the second half. Going out hard and “blowing up” in the first half of your run will leave you struggling to go the distance, or not finishing at all.
“Go out slowly and come home strong” is one of my mantras. Your time will improve, funnily enough, and you’ll actually enjoy running.
#2. Build Your Own Mental Toolkit
This is where the magic happens. Early in half marathon training you’ll realise that the thing you thought would be impossible – running long distance – is not as hard as you think.
Over the 14 weeks of training for a half marathon, play around with some different mental strategies. What works for me won’t necessarily work for you, so it’s important you build your own mental toolkit.
When I’m out there running with our people on the weekends, some of the techniques I share with them are:
Break your run down into chunks, and achieve them. When you’re running up a hill, set yourself a goal to get as far as the next car. And when you’ve done that chunk, aim to get as far as the car after that. Celebrate the little victories, build your sense of achievement, and keep your mind active.
Focus on the Moment (or the Goal)
For some people, a more zen approach helps. Think to yourself, I am right here and I am right now. You don’t need to think about any other step than the step you’re taking. Focus on that thought, all the way to the finish line. Others need to visualise themselves running across the finish line – smiling, strong, and injury free – and stay focussed on that one thought throughout the race. Find what works for you.
Recognise Your Discomfort & Move Away From It
If you’re hurting on a long run, acknowledge the discomfort. Say, yes my legs ARE hurting. Recognise it, and move away from it. I ask our people on long runs, “Are your hands hurting?” – and 99% of the time they say no – so I tell them, “I want them to focus on their hands”, to move their mind away while they train their bodies to go the distance.
Find Your Mantra
I have lots of little songs I sing to our people when they’re tired! Hills are great, losing weight. Hills are fun, good for the bum. Hills train the brain. It focuses on the positive, keeps your mind active, and most importantly keeps you moving.
Remember Why You’re There
When you’re tired, remember why you’re out there pounding the pavement. If you’re doing it for something bigger than yourself, for family or friends affected by cancer, for those who can’t run; remember those people. Remember what you set out to achieve, and why, to keep yourself focussed.
To me the mental aspect is what’s really important when training for a half marathon – that in just 14 weeks you can build such a fitter mind and body. Some people think some of these are a load of rubbish. Others swear it’s what has got them through the race. So it’s important to build a mental toolkit that works for you.
#3. Running Form – Your New Happy Place
Unless you’re an Olympic runner (we trained ex-Olympian sprinter Melinda Gainsford-Taylor to run her first marathon) we’re all there to just do the best we can do.
We don’t care how fast you end up running, but whatever your speed we want you to be as efficient as possible. And to do this you need proper running form.
Use Your Arms For Momentum
Arm swing. Some people call them “railway tracks”. Propel yourself forward by swinging your arms in the direction you’re moving, guiding you on your run. Avoid your arms crossing the midline of your body, rotating your body as you run.
Keep Light On Your Feet
Also think about being light on your feet and having light cadence. Sometimes when people get tired they start hearing them run very heavily, and that’s actually using more energy, because it’s inefficient.
Wiggle Your Arms
Wiggle your arms as you’re going down a hill. When you’re running long distances like a half marathon, that 45-degree angle is tiring for your arms, so use the reprieve of the downhill momentum to give your arms a shake out.
Breathe Into Your Stomach
When you get tired, you tend to breathe shallow. This means you’re not getting as much oxygen flowing through your blood. When you get tired, visualise opening up your diaphragm, breathing deep into your stomach.
Return To Your Safe Place
Mentally, running form is your safe place. You can go back to that safe place, checking your body, thinking about how to be more efficient, lightening the load, and covering distance.
I get our first time half marathoners to think about their running form at least every twenty minutes:
Are your shoulders relaxed? Are you running light? Are your arms swinging forward? If you’re tired, or anxious and nervous about going the distance; if you’re starting to scrunch up and hunch over and arms are crossing the midline, you’re using more energy than you need to. Make it easier on yourself!
#4. Core Strength & Injury Prevention
A strong core is literally the centre of your injury prevention strategy for running long distances - always add in regular core work! Weights are really helpful, I try to go to the gym about three times a week. Get in some cross-training, targeting the muscles you don’t always use in running.
But when it comes to pain – you need to know your own body. There’s pain … and then there’s PAIN. A structured first-time half marathon training program starts small to help you understand your body. Increasing distance a little each week helps you understand the difference between a niggle – which needs a week off training – and a discomfort that doesn’t go away and needs the attention of someone like a physio.
With distance running, address issues early and manage them properly from the start. If you let it go you can end up injured, so don’t be stoic about real pain while training. At the end of the day your health is the most important thing. If a pain is sharp, stop straight away.
And trust in your training program. Don’t push yourself too hard and too early when training for your first half marathon. You will get there if you trust in the process of the program. You don’t need to run faster/harder/longer than you planned. Training for a half marathon is about discipline and control.
And always use a foam roller, get a decent nights sleep, eat properly – these things cannot be overstated!
#5. Look After Your Feet
Don’t buy the pair of shoes on the shelf that make you look good! Visit a reputable shoe store that analyses your running style and find shoes that are right for your feet.
Avoid cotton socks. When your feet start to sweat, or it rains (training for a half marathon requires commitment to train in rain and shine) you’ll be glad you invested in a couple of pairs of good running socks. They’re designed to keep your feet from rubbing while you put in the hard yards training for and completing your first half marathon.
#6. Ask Yourself the Hard Questions
Endurance running is empowering because you learn a lot about yourself. It’s hard, no doubt about it, but it’s possible. So you need to ask yourself how you respond to negative situations, and what is your self-talk.
In a group situation are you the one that feels negative and translates that negative feeling? Or are you the one that is able to listen to that negative voice and change it into a more positive voice and then spread that positivity throughout the group?
Are you the one that has a little hissy-fit when you turn the wrong way – when you realise you’re a bit lost and can’t collect yourself and get back on track? Or are you the one that takes a deep breath, looks around, forgives yourself for making a mistake, and keeps going?
To me this is how so many life lessons are taught through endurance running events like a half marathon. And I think that negative voice is really, really important. Can you learn to dismiss it, or even better, harness it?
See how I learnt to harness my negative talk in My Letter to My Younger Self.
#7. Believe In Yourself
If you’re training for a half marathon it’s good to have some base running ability beforehand, but if you join a structured training program, under the guidance of a qualified and experienced Coach, you can become a half marathoner in 14 weeks!
And – it sounds really cheesy, I know – you need to believe in yourself. Believe that you can too run a half marathon. Trust that with the right training, support, and practice, we’re all capable of far more than we often give ourselves credit for.
And remember that it’s called a challenge for a reason! Particularly for a beginner runner, it’s going to be really hard in the beginning. You will get the “runners high” eventually, and the endorphins will kick in! Believe in yourself, and believe in the endorphins. For me it’s about 45 minutes into a run you can feel them.
The high of running your first half marathon is something you can’t replace. I still remember my first one, the high of it was just fantastic – runner’s high! You just glow! But don’t expect to get the runner’s high for the first few weeks, because I think that’s important. If you’re first starting, it takes a few weeks and don’t give up on yourself. Believe in yourself, believe you’ll get there. You can too!
Here at Can Too we believe in our people until they can believe in themselves. We're an opportunity to be a healthier, faster, stronger you.
Take the training day by day, and remember my mantra, “Go out slowly and come home strong.”
Our Blackmores Half Marathon and 10km run programs are open soon. Find out more and register your interest here.