First Half Marathon Tips - How To Prepare & Race Day Advice

by Cassia Roth June 18, 2018

You've completed your half-marathon training plan. You've been tapering for the last three weeks, and you feel great. You've got your loyal fan section ready to get out there and cheer you on. Now all you need to do is run. Follow these fool-proof first half marathon tips to make it through your first race!

Complete your first marathon

Three Days Before

If your half marathon is in another town, state, or even country, you want to make sure you get there early. Traveling can take a toll on your body. Muscle soreness, dehydration, and fatigue are common side effects of long-distance travel. Make sure you're drinking lots of water. When you get to your destination, do a yoga sequence that focuses on travel soreness. Go on a walk or easy jog to loosen up.

Traveling can also take a toll on your mind. Airport delays and traffic can cause unnecessary stress. Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get where you're going.

What To Wear For Your First Half Marathon

Before you leave, you want to make sure you pack smartly. Make a list of everything you need to bring and check it off as you go. Figuring out what you want to race in is partly dependent on the weather. Check the weather forecast for your race and plan accordingly. And then plan for the unexpected. The key is layers (and wearing gear you won't be afraid to part with if necessary).

If you're feeling overwhelmed about what you should wear when running a half marathon for the first time, don't seat it. Think about packing three different outfits: yourtoo-hot-to-handle outfit (for a crazy hot afternoon), your middle-of-the-road gear (for that perfect fall day), and your polar-bear suit(for that cold front that came out of nowhere). Remember to bring rainproof gear to protect against the dreaded thunderstorm. Don't forget sunscreen and headgear. This fun calculator will help you decide your best race-day outfit.

Start Carbo-Loading For The Race

Now's the time to also begin "carbo-loading" to store up the energy your body will use to get you through your first half marathon. Your body uses both glycogen (which comes from carbs) and fat to fuel you through your day. But glycogen is much easier to burn than fat, and so you want to make sure your levels are high before the race.

Make sure that about 85 to 95 percent of your calories in the few days leading up to the race are coming from carbs. Some ideas include:

  • Pasta, bananas, oatmeal, rice, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, tortillas, yogurt, juice, pancakes, waffles, and bagels.

Avoid fat, fiber, caffeine, and alcohol. This cool endurance calculator will tabulate how many calories and carbohydrates you need to finish your marathon without "hitting the wall," or the moment when you've used up your glycogen and your body has to begin converting fat to energy.

The Day Before

You've gotten to your race location and have had some time to relax. You've switched to carbo-loading. Now what? While it may seem counter-intuitive to run the day before the race (won't that make me tired?!), it's actually the best thing you can do. It will loosen your muscles and put your neuromuscular system into alert mode.

Your neuromuscular system is the connection between your muscles and your brain. You want to make sure they're effectively and efficiently communicating with each other. Every time you run, you activate the system, and you want to keep it primed right up until race day. This doesn't mean doing a lot of running. Go on a 3-mile jog the day before. Afterwards do some strides — or short sprints of around 20 seconds —to really fire up your muscles and blood.

Finalize Travel Plans To & From The Race

You also want to make sure you know how you are getting to your race (and how long it will take you). Nothing can be more stressful than not being able to get a cab to the starting line. Check the race's website for tips on how to get to the race location. If it's in a big city, public transportation might be the best option. Often transportation is free or at a discounted rate for race participants. Many systems expand their hours and train lines to accommodate the runners.

Now's the time to make a post-race plan with your friends or family. Figure out the best place to meet them after you finish (avoid official "meeting areas" as they can be crowded). There's nothing worse than wandering around for an hour after you just ran for four, unable to find your mom or partner.

In other words, iron out the seemingly inconsequential details now, so they don't cause any stress on race day.

The Night Before

You don't want to eat a huge dinner the night before. Just make sure that you get enough to eat and that most — if not all of — of your calories come from carbohydrates. A bowl of pasta (without cream or fatty sauces) is perfect when preparing for your first half marathon. Avoid alcohol (it dehydrates you), and make sure you are drinking plenty of water.

Lay out your outfit, water bottle, gel shots, shoes, and bib number. Remember, don't use a brand-new pair of running shoes or insoles. Make sure you've broken in your race footwear, so you won't have any problems during the race. Blisters from new shoes or insoles can turn your run into a nightmare.

And then get some rest. Don't worry if you're nervous and can't sleep, it's natural. Your body will be jacked up on adrenaline on race day, and you won't be adversely affected from one night of poor sleep.

The Morning Of

Most runners think the pre-race dinner is the only meal that impacts your performance. But your breakfast is just as important. Some of your stored energy from carbs (glycogen) will deplete overnight (remember, you are still burning calories even while sleeping). Jackie Berning, Ph.D., reminds us of the importance of replenishing your body's fuel source: "glycogen keeps your blood-sugar level steady during exercise." What this means is that a good breakfast will sustain you for the entirety of your marathon.

That being said, many of us are nervous we will eat too much before a big race. The key is timing and type of food.

  • What to eat: your breakfast should be mainly carbohydrates. You digest them the fastest; thus, they become easy fuel for your body to go on. It is always good to have a small amount of protein to ensure you won't be hungry later in the race. Avoid fat, fiber, and caffeine. Fat can be hard to digest while caffeine and fiber can cause GI issues during the race. Some good options include: bagel and peanut butter; oatmeal with milk and banana; yogurt and toast; banana and high-carb energy bar; or smoothies, juices, or sports drinks for those with sensitive stomachs.
    • How much to eat: A marathon is long, and one piece of toast won't cut it. For a 150-pound runner, you need to consume around 1,000 calories (of mainly carbs) for your breakfast. That may seem like a lot, but it's necessary. 
    • When to eat it: The key to making sure you digest your breakfast (and turn it into fuel for your race) is timing. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, you should eat your breakfast 3 to 4 hours before the race starts. Most races start early, so this means setting your alarm for a bright-and-early wake-up. If this seems unrealistic, try breaking your breakfast into separate parts. Eat about 2/3 of your total breakfast two hours before, and then the rest around an hour before.
    • And don't forget that pre-race snack.Around 90-minutes before the race ingest some easy calories from sports drinks and energy gels.

    If you're worried about mid-race GI trouble, avoid fiber, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners.

    Half Marathon Race Day Tips

    Make sure you get to the race with plenty of time. It will probably be chilly in the morning, so make sure that you are wearing the correct layers (that you will peel off later).

    If you've followed your first half marathon training plan, you have no need to worry about finishing the race. That being said, there are a few things you need to keep in mind:

    • Don't go out too fast. You will have a lot of adrenaline pumping through your body when the starting gun goes off. Don't sprint for the first mile though. You'll body will hate you at mile 23. Your body knows how to run this distance. It did it during your training. And if you've been training at a specific pace, your body will also know what that feels like. Stick to your goal pace per mile. Especially if this is your first marathon, the goal is finishing!
    • Hydrate and refuel.You should run with a water bottle (there's plenty of cool gear out there) and some fuel. The classic running fuels are the energy gel packs that deliver pure carbs to your body, but they can be a little gross. Instead, try Sports Beans, carb-filled jelly beans that taste like candy. You need to make sure you are refueling your body during this grueling race. Eat a couple of beans or a part of a gel shot every 30 minutes to keep your energy levels up. All marathons have plenty of water and fuel stations. Make sure you are rehydrating throughout as you will definitely be sweating.
    • Stop for a restroom break.Marathon races will have porta potty units throughout the course. If you're stomach is having some GI issues, don't be afraid to stop and use the restroom. You'll feel better and have a better time if you do. Sometimes the lines can be long in the first few miles. We recommend trying to wait until a few miles in to stop.
    • Enjoy yourself.You've been training religiously, eating right, and mentally preparing. Now is the time to enjoy yourself. You're doing something most people never will. Feel the wind on your face. Laugh at the funny signs spectators have made. Wave to your family. High five the little kids. You earned it.

    You Finished Your First Half Marathon — Now What?

    You crossed the finish line with you arms up. You got a medal, a cool t-shirt, and even one of those foil blankets. Make sure you take yourself out to celebrate your accomplishment. There's nothing like being with friends and family after running a great half-marathon.

    Now you need to make sure you are giving your body what it needs to help it recover after your amazing feat. Immediately after the race you should focus on both carbs and protein. For a 150-pound person, a bagel with peanut butter and a banana is a great option. Make sure you are also rehydrating with water or sports drink. Continue eating lots of carbs with small amounts of protein for the 48 hours after the race.

    Your muscles will probably be sore after the race (and may be for a week). Avoid hot tubs or warm baths as that will increase muscle inflammation. Icing specific areas, using foam rollers, or even getting a massage are recommended.

    It's also important that you let your body have a break. Take a couple weeks off from running, particularly if this was your first half marathon. This doesn't mean no exercise at all. Just switch to lower-impact activities like swimming, biking, or even walking. Continuing to run high mileage puts you at higher risk of injuries like plantar fasciitis and stress fractures.

    You did it. You can cross running your first half marathon off of your bucket list. Now get training for the full race!

    Have you run a marathon? What was your experience of your first marathon? Let us know in the comments section below.


    Cassia Roth
    Cassia Roth

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