Back to Basics - Preparing for a Half Marathon

Me with my kids before my first half marathon - June 2007
When I ran my first half marathon I was unprepared on every level.  I found out I was running the race twelve hours before the gun went off.  I was undertrained (hadn't run more than six consecutive miles in my life), didn't know a thing about racing or fueling my body, and had no idea how I would make it to the finish line.  What I did have was an old pair of tennis shoes, a big brother who filled my brain with How To's, and a boatload of determination.  By the grace of God, I finished that race.

This Sunday I'll toe the line of my twelfth half marathon.  But I won't be alone.  A whole team of women from my neighborhood will line up with me, united by our love for our friend Krista who we lost to cancer almost a year ago.  Most of these women will be covering 13.1 miles for the first time in a race and I am so excited to cheer them to the finish.

As race day approaches, I've fielded several questions from my friends about how to prepare for the race.  It made me realize that a back-to-the-basics post on preparing for a half marathon might be beneficial.  I don't like research and I am no expert.  What I share has been gleaned from trial and error over the last five years of running and from picking the brains of more experienced runners.  Please take it with a grain of salt.  With that said, here's a list of things I recommend doing before you run your first half marathon.

  1. SHOES - Make sure you have good running shoes that fit your feet, your running gait, and that are new enough to give you the support you need to cover 13.1 miles.  It's not a good idea to get new shoes before a race but it's also a bad idea to try to race in old or ill-fitting shoes.  Ideally, you would get fitted at a running store twelve weeks before the race and use those shoes.  But if your shoes are falling apart or not geared for running, then get yourself a good pair before race day.  Plan to invest at least $100 to get a good pair of shoes.  Budget more if you need inserts or socks.  
  2. SOCKS - It sounds basic, but your socks can be the difference between feet that survive your race feeling great or feet that emerge blistered and bleeding.  If you don't have socks that are specific to running, pick up a pair before the race.  The $10 you spend will be well worth it!
  3. GEAR UP -  Make sure you have a supportive and comfortable bra and running clothes that wick away sweat to wear on race day.  Even if it's cold, you will still sweat.  And sweat a lot.  It makes for a miserable race to be wearing heavy cotton that holds your sweat against your body.  
  4. DRY CLOTHES - Bring an extra outfit (bra, undies, socks, pants, shirt, hat, coat, mittens if your fingers freeze, etc.) to change into after the race.  You'll be surprised how quickly you cool down after you stop running.  If it's raining or even remotely cold, your sweat will chill your body and you'll start to get really, really cold.  I learned this hard way after the Portland marathon and didn't warm up for hours after the race.  You can change in the port-a-potties (gross but effective) or change in your car before you leave.
  5. WHAT YOU EAT MATTERS - What you eat the night before and the morning of the race matters.  You need to be thoughtful about the meals you eat and make sure you are pumping your body full of good fuel sources.  I've heard from several experienced runners to avoid fresh vegetables the night before a race because it can give you diarrhea on race day.  My favorite meal to eat before a long run is a wok bowl, especially if the chefs at New Seasons or Whole Foods make it for me!  It has sauteed' veggies, brown rice, noodles, and meat - all great fuel sources.  Race morning breakfast is usually steel cut oats (made the night before since it takes thirty minutes to cook them) loaded with nuts, fruit and peanut butter.  I've found that this combination sets me up to be able to run long distances and feel fueled for miles.  
  6. TAPER - Make sure you enter race morning with rested and non-sore muscles.  Take at least two (if not three) days off pre-race to let your muscles rest and recover.  You'll feel better and run faster on race day if you do this.  Enjoy the taper of race week - you've earned it.
  7. WEAR LAYERS AND CHECK YOUR BAG - Mornings are chilly and races usually start pretty early in the morning.  I wear layers to the race.  I put my race outfit on, then add pants, long-sleeve shirt, sweatshirt/jacket, hat, mittens, etc.  Most races - even the small ones - have bag checks primarily for this reason.  You write your bib number on the bag and before the race starts, check the extra layers that you don't want to race in.  When you finish the race your bag of clothes is waiting for you.  I was always nervous to use the bag check at races, but once I broke the ice and tried it, I wondered why I waited so long.  It's a seamless process and is so nice to not shiver in the cold for before the race.
  8. BRING A POST-RACE SNACK - Every race I've participated in has food for the athletes after they finish.  But there's no guarantee you (or your stomach) will appreciate what is being served.  Your body will need to be refueled after running so far.  It's important to have at least one go-to option that you know you can tolerate.  I've started packing myself a post-race snack (usually crackers and peanut butter) just in case.
  9. SET A GOAL (or two or three) - Even if you think you don't care about your time and you only want to finish the race, set a goal.  Believe me, it will help when you're at mile nine and need something to focus your mind on.  I like to have tiered goals.  My first goal is one I KNOW I can hit.  In some of my early races, this goal was "Have fun."  Now that I race for time, I set my first goal as a time goal that - based on my training - I should be able to hit if I run at the pace I train at.  Then I set a Jodi-Sized Goal.  This goal is a time that will be challenging for me to hit, but is within the realm of realistic.  My third goal is a Carissa-Sized Goal and is a time that is basically unrealistic without the help of a God-sized miracle.  I usually land somewhere between the Jodi and Carissa-sized goals.
  10. PREP EARLY - Since races start early, you'll want to get a good night of sleep. But a good night of sleep is nearly impossible to come by before a race because your adrenaline is pumping and your mind is racing.  I've found that if I walk through the pre-race jitters and lay out all my things I need for the race early the day before the race, I get a better night of sleep.  I recommend laying out your race day Must Have's - sports bra, shirt, running skirt, socks, shoes, gloves, Garmin (that will be charging), headband/visor, Gu packs, and bib number - some time in the morning the day before the race.  Processing through your list of "Must Have's" and pre-race adrenaline in the morning the day before the race will (in theory) help you fall asleep more quickly that night.
  11. ARRIVE EARLY - There is nothing worse than being rushed on race morning.  I am chronically late to almost everything and races are no exception.  I've run three half marathons that I had to literally run from my car to the start of the race and got there as the gun was going off.  It left me frazzled with no time to stretch or use the bathroom or prepare myself mentally.  I learned from those mistakes and now try to arrive no later than thirty minutes prior to the start of the race, but prefer to give myself an hour.  Planning to arrive an hour early will give you a time cushion to accommodate for leaving late, traffic, construction, or getting lost.  It also gives you time to stand in line to use the port-a-potties.  Race day nerves will make your stomach funky and it's better to clear your digestive track out pre-race than have to stop during the race to use the bathroom.
  12. STRETCH - Make sure to stretch before the race.  It doesn't have to be a lot and you don't have to jog to warm up if you don't want to.  But it is important to wake your muscles up before the gun goes off so make sure to stretch when you're standing around waiting for the race to start.
  13. BREAK - I recommend walking through all the water stations.  Walk when you see the first person holding out a cup.  Drink a cup of water.  At the next aid station, grab a cup of electrolyte replacement.  Walk through the entire station to the last garbage can.  Dump your cup and then start running again.  That small break will give your muscles recovery time they need to keep going.  I've heard from multiple runners that walking through the water stations actually improved their overall finish time.
  14. EAT - Endurance athletes (and that's what you are if you're attempting a half marathon) need to be eating every forty-five minutes when they are exercising.  It's recommended that you eat BEFORE you started feeling wasted (hence the forty-five minute schedule), and that you also eat fifteen minutes before beginning prolonged activity.  Most half marathon courses have at least one station (usually between miles eight to ten) that passes out gel packs and you typically will get one in your race packet as well.  What you "eat" is up to you.  If you visit any running store, sporting good store, or even REI, you'll find an entire section dedicated to these kinds of foods.  Most runners use gel packs and refer to them generically as "Gu" even though there is a specific brand also called Gu.  Gel packs replace the fuel sources that your body is burning up and give you fresh energy.  They retail for about $1 per packet and are a must-have on the race course.  Most of them have caffeine, but some don't.  They come in a variety of flavors and are easily washed down with some water or electrolyte replacement drink.  Alternative food options include a handful of raisins, gummy bears, shot blocks, and honey packs. Word of Warning - the consistency was a little off-putting to me when I first tried the gel packs and some brands/flavors can wreak havoc on your digestive system.  I recommend trying them out on a training run first instead of on race day, but desperate times call for desperate measures.  If I had to choose between not eating during a race or eating a gu I hadn't tried before, I'd eat.
  15. DRINK - Stay hydrated.  I can't stress this enough.  13.1 miles is a LONG way and you will sweat a lot.  It's imperative that you replace what you're sweating out with more fluids.  Drink at every water station.  And then drink lots of water post-race.  When in doubt, take a sip of water or electrolyte replacement drink.
  16. BE MERRY - So much of running, especially long distances, is mental.  Stay in a happy place mentally.  When you get tired and your mind starts to tell you lies, resist the urge to succumb to them.  Your mind will tell you, "This is too hard.  You'll never make it.  Why did you think you can do this?  You might as well stop.  Give up. Slow down.  Quit trying."  When that happens, tell those lies where to go and then replace them with truth.  The truth is you CAN do this.  You've trained hard.  You're prepared mentally and physically.  You are healthy and strong.  You are determined.  You WILL cross that finish line.  We all draw inspiration and strength from somewhere.  For me and my friends, we'll be running for Krista.  She lived her life fully with zest, passion and strength.  Her memory will encourage us to dig deep and keep going - all the way to the finish.
  17. CELEBRATE - Crossing the finish line of any race is a big accomplishment.  Completing a half marathon for most people is a life time achievement.  Please take time to celebrate this accomplishment.  Even if the clock doesn't read the time you wanted.  Even if the race didn't go the way you wanted.  Even if you felt you just might die before you crossed the finish line.  CELEBRATE each race as if it were your last.  You just never know when - if ever - you'll do it again.
Last long training run in preparation for this race.  Wore my Krista's Fantastic Flyers shirt to break it in.

Sole Sisters - what "must do" race prep tips have I missed?  We want to hear from you so fill up the comment box.  


  1. So my goals are "basically unrealistic without the help of a God-sized miracle" huh? I guess it's a good thing I've seen God do the miraculous again and again. ;)
    One thing that I look to do leading up to a race is get mentally prepared. If I'm feeling overly anxious I make sure to PRAY because I know that is not what God wants for me. I also remind myself of the training I've done and look back over my workouts to build my confidence regarding the race in front of me. Looking back over prior races can have the same effect as well.
    I can't wait to race with you on Sunday! xoxo

  2. Ha! I think you DO really like to research :))

    These are some very good recommendations. Wishing you ladies the best of runs and races in your friend's honor tomorrow! May all your goals be met :)

    1. Thanks Raina. It should be fun, even though it's supposed to rain all day.