Preparing for a half marathon

by Ross Fisher

Following are some notes designed to get your fitness topped up – Your body well nourished and hydrated – Your mental perspective in positive mode (very important is that!!) – And finally help insulate you from cursed injuries.

Although in the past I have coached runners with abilities ranging from new beginners through to experienced and competitive runners, my intended focus here is to concentrate on beginner and intermediate runners. It might not be obvious to some of us – but these people are probably the most deserving of training guidance because they make up the bulk of the running community and it makes some sense to ensure they are not prematurely turned off from running by making too many early training mistakes.

A Few Words on Training Volume:

It is presumed that at this stage your training will hopefully be in full swing. I also assume that for the beginners among you, pack leaders and other experienced Clinic members will have given you a lot of valuable training advice.

For what it is worth, here are my thoughts on training volumes, training days per week and the long run: I am covering : (a) Beginners with less than a year’s regular running experience and (b) Intermediate runners who have at least a year of regular running experience behind them and probably have already run a half marathon

Beginners: 30Km per week minimum with 40/45 Km per week desirable – There should be an absolute minimum of three training days a week. It is more desirable to have a routine averaging 4 to 5 days per week. There is no need to do any more than the desirable volumes mentioned above – Every kilometre done above the recommended distances increases the risk of injury – Leave the bigger distances to more experienced runners who have a year or two of regular running behind them. In regard to the Sunday long run there is no great need to run more than 15 or 16km. This distance done reasonably regularly would be quite enough for the “first timer” to safely negotiate their first half marathon. This distance might take the average beginner around 90mins to 1hr 40min to complete in training – Believe me with a reasonable number of those runs under the belt, the half marathon won’t pose any major problem.
Intermediate Runners: Suggested training volume around 45 to 60km a week with 5 training days per week. Long run up to 20km (approx 2hrs). Note: This need not be done every week and could be alternated with a 16km run every other week. Again, remember that striving for more may not necessarily provide you with the best result in the long run

Purpose of the Long Run:

This is the absolute essence of endurance training. This is the one that provides you (in conjunction with the correct nutritional “fuel”) the necessary body adaptations to run a long distance in reasonable comfort. But always make sure you do it at a comfortable pace – otherwise things will start to go wrong (see comments under a later heading)

Alternative Training on Non Running days:

Instead of always doing nothing on the days off from running it can be beneficial to have some “active recovery” by doing a little alternative easy training such as biking, swimming or aqua jogging for 45 minutes or so – You may be surprised with the therapeutic benefits this can bring.
Note: Don’t be put off aqua jogging by listening to the feelings of some grumpy ex injured runners who lament the boredom of having had to spend many hours in the pool recovering from injury. They probably forget that they might have stuffed up their running a bit – got injured as a result and have had to forcibly resort to doing many hours of penance in the pool. This would be in stark contrast to you choosing to use running in water as a short duration relaxation from road running.

Training Pace:

I believe that for beginners and intermediate runners it is not necessary to do speed training. This can come later when the body has been “hardened” with at least a year of solid base training. Trying to do speed work before a sound base has been prepared can lead to disaster in the form of recurring injuries and overtraining staleness. In regard to the weekly long run it is essential to run this at a comfortable pace. If done at too fast a pace, the important endurance training effects will not happen. Let the hares of the pack go – They will not last too long – probably an astute pack leader will bundle them out before they have caused too many problems for other sensible runners in the pack. It has usually been my experience that the runners who do best in real events are those who have exercised patience and consideration in the pack runs – «Training “hares” generally have a dismal record at race time.»

Hill Training:

Absolutely essential for any runner – so long as there has been a reasonable prior grounding in earlier running on the flat – Build into your hill training over a few weeks with patience and then good strength training effects will develop.


Never neglect muscle and joint niggles if they arise and persist during your training. If neglected while continuing to train then these niggles could eventually turn into something more serious leading to a forced lay-off from running. Instead try initially easing back your training for a while. If the niggles still persist or gradually get worse then you will need to stop training for a couple of days. A few days off running and substituting alternative training will have little or no adverse impact on your fitness level. When resuming training following time out from an injury don’t start back at the previous level of training – Instead drop back a few notches. A good rule is to take twice the time you were off training to get back to your previous level.


It’s a wise runner who doesn’t buy the cheapest pair of running shoes in the shop. Unfortunately, good running shoes are generally fairly expensive – this is usually for fairly genuine reasons. A lot of expensive work and research has gone into developing a supportive and stable shoe to suit runners with all sorts of funny types of biomechanical problems. When purchasing your shoes though – there can be merit in avoiding the rush to buy the latest model just released. I have figured that over the last few years new model improvements comprise largely cosmetic and non functional “add ons”. Going to the trouble of hunting out the last available pair of the previous years satisfactory model may save you money.

Simple Nutrition during Training:

Eating and drinking the right stuff figures pretty highly in any runners (or walker’s) overall training programme. If you are like most long distance runners then you will already have drifted into the habit of more or less consuming foods with reasonable nutritional balance. When I used to grind out big training kilometres during marathon training my body started to tell me that I needed to switch a bit more to carbohydrate foods (I think most people are aware of the recognised types of “carbo” foods). Carbohydrate foods are stored within your liver and muscles as an energy provider called glycogen. During your training and racing the stored glycogen will be released to fuel your working muscles. Without the correct fuel your legs would not work – In a simplistic way this bodily biomechanical function could be compared with your motor vehicle. Special “Carbohydrate loading” which used to used by marathon runners (long ago) in the last week prior to a marathon race is definitely not needed for a half marathon

Fluid Consumption during Training:

Obviously this aspect needs lots of attention. Firstly, adequate amounts of fluid must be present in the muscle tissue before the energy providing carbohydrate can be properly stored away (in readiness for your big efforts on the road). The really obvious one is that you need enough fluids to prevent dehydration. Plain water is my first choice for fluid intake – definitely not alcohol in the last few days prior to the event. Alcohol is actually a “diuretic” which means simply that this particular fluid actually removes fluid from the body tissue which is the exact opposite of what you need. Good quality energy sports drinks are ok provided they are certified as having quick absorption rates into the bloodstream. During the last week of training it is a good idea to concentrate more than usual on drinking fluids (a sort of fluid loading spread over a full week). This should train the “waterworks” to divert increasingly more fluid into the body tissues instead of directing most of it into the “porcelain” It will not be very sensible to overload with fluids the night before the event.

Training Taper before the Race:

Do only light training in the week prior to the race.

Mental Preparation prior to the Race

The use of positive imagery should not be underestimated. Spend some of your free time visualising yourself cruising steadily through the race while passing less trained tiring runners near the end – Picture a scene of yelling supporters as you near the finish line (resplendent in your WMC colours) – Reflect on the good training you have done in all sorts of punishing weather.

Choosing The Right Gear To Wear On The Morning Of The Race:

On the night before the event you can pray for good weather but it would be sensible to prepare for the worst. If the weather is really nasty on the day and you expect to be out there for long time (doing a relatively modest pace) then the risk of exposure is very real. You will need to rug up with polypropylene vests plus tee shirts plus waterproof jackets plus woolly hats. On a good day just wear what you would normally wear in training. Note fast runners generate much more heat and can usually do with less clothing.

Tactics on the Day of the Race:

Have a light breakfast 2 hours before the event. Having taken in plenty of fluids over the last few days you should be well hydrated already. You only need to drink one glass of water with breakfast (definitely no sweetened drinks) and another 1 hour before the event. Don’t take any more within the last hour of the race except for 10minutes before the gun when you can top up with just a very small cup.
Try and control your pace at the start of the race and maintain an even pace throughout. It’s just so easy to blow your chances of a good race when you go out too fast – Typically runners get caught up in a euphoric stampede just after the start – Happy chatter and wise cracking can usually be heard above the pounding of hundreds of speeding shoes. So, at the start let the early speedsters go – You’ll get ‘em later.
A useful mind strategy during the race is to break the race into separate 5 km sections and concentrate on targeting one section at a time. It is never a good idea to focus on how far you still have to go until you are near the end.
Drinking on the run is a must (even in cool weather). Try and take in one cup of water at every drink station.

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