16 Tips for Acing Your First Half Marathon

When I ran my first half marathon, I spent about three hours online reading tips on how to train for a half marathon.

Everything from what to eat (or not eat) the night before to how to tie your shoes so they don’t fly off your feet mid-race.

Half marathon tips are important, especially for your first race, not only because you haven’t run the distance before, but because running a race is an anxiety-producing endeavor.

If you’ve never run a half marathon before, or if it’s been months or years since your last event, it quickly becomes overwhelming. It’s not only the 8 to 20 weeks of training, but also the race day pacing, fueling, and nutrition strategy to make sure you don’t drop flat at mile 11.

Like a guru sitting atop a hill, we at Half Marathon Guide are experienced runners.

We’re going to break down for you the best half marathon tips for every part of your race from arriving on time, to finding your starting position, to your half marathon pace, to what’s the right gear to wear in any time of the year.

We’ve broken this blog post down into three main sections:

  1. Race Day Tips 
  2. The Day Before Race Day
  3. Training For Race Day

Each section will include tips for your first race day, such as arriving early to the importance of following a structured training plan.

The success you will experience on race day is more than how you perform on the day — it’s hours of preparation, training, and making sure everything goes to plan. 

Runners competing in race following half marathon tips.

Half Marathon Tips: Race Day

Let’s start with what you should do on your first race day: whether that’s your first marathon or your first 5K. It doesn’t matter, you should do the same things. 

Although you’ve done most of the hard work leading up to this day, you’ve still got a ways to go and a lot of nerves to keep you company.

That’s totally normal!

Here are a few tips to help make your race day that much less stressful and a little easier.

1. Arrive with plenty of time before the race start

We recommend a minimum of 30-45 minutes before your event.

For every race, you’ll need to collect a race pack (your bib). The closer you get to the start of the race, the longer the line usually is. You may also need to find the starting line and other logistics that it’s always better to arrive with plenty of time than in a last-minute frenzy. Trust me, I’ve been there.

2. Use the bathroom before the race

Use the bathroom as close as you can to race time to safely be back to the starting line before the start of the race.

Even if you don’t think you’ll need the toilet before the race starts, it’s a good idea to locate where the restrooms are and to have the option. Nerves do less than desirable things to our bodies — you might need a quick toilet break you get going.

A word of advice from an experienced half marathon runner, if you don’t usually drink coffee before running, don’t start on race day. If you’re concerned about being alert for the early morning start time and want to experiment with caffeine, do so at least two weeks leading up to your race. You don’t want any last minute surprises — especially not the digestive kind. 

3. Prevent chafing before it begins

If the weather is particularly hot (or cold) and you’re prone to chafing, invest into a chafing cream. Over 13.1 miles, no matter how sweat-wicking your clothing is, a chafing cream will help reduce the friction you experience over the long distance.

When selecting your half marathon gear, avoid cotton.

Technical fabrics are designed to cause less friction even when wet. Cotton retains moisture. If you haven’t discovered this on your long training runs already, then this is your helpful disclaimer.

Nut Butter

4. Incorporate your regular warm up

I get it. You feel rested from your taper. You may feel from all those rest days, you no longer need to warm up before your half marathon race.

Wrong.

The same warm up you do before your training runs, like those done before interval or track sessions and harder efforts, should be incorporated here. Spend time doing dynamic stretches like leg swings, hip circles, and walking lunches.

Work with what you’ve got. If the starting line is packed with other runners, skip the strides and jump in place to keep your muscles warm and heart rate elevated.

A good warm up will improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury.

Don’t overthink it. But, get some blood flowing to the muscles, especially during cold weather half marathons.

5. Prepare mentally 

One of the more difficult aspects of running a half marathon is the psychological battle you’ll encounter.

When you feel like giving up and have 6 miles left, you need to dig deep and win the internal chatter.

Take a few minutes before the race to prepare yourself mentally. One coaching recommendation – visualize your race. How you anticipate the race start to go? How will you revise your pacing strategy? What you’ll do when pain comes?

It can help to remember a mantra to keep you going when the going gets tough… if you don’t know where to begin, why not borrow Steve Prefontaine’s mantra, “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

6. Don’t be afraid to walk if needed

If your pacing strategy includes walking, whether run/walk or more walking than running, that’s perfectly okay! Walk away!

Even if you set out on the plan plan is to run the entire event, if you need to walk, walk. 

It’s better to reach the finish line than to call it quits halfway through the race. Trust your instinct and do what’s required. You’re better off deciding to finish your race in a nice comfortable walk than removed by an ambulance.

7. Don’t try anything new — stick to what you know

Race day is not the time to try something new; stick to what you know.

If you don’t usually drink coffee before running, then avoid the queue for an espresso. 

If you only drink water with electrolytes, don’t suddenly switch to sports drinks. If you’re going to experiment with electrolytes, you should be incorporating them into your training cycle.

If your chosen carbohydrates are gels, don’t switch to bars or whole foods.

And if you’ve been running in a pair of shoes for the last 8 weeks, don’t change them up at the last minute. Simple stuff that a lot of people mess up on their first time racing!

8. Run your own race

While this sounds a little bit like a riddle, it’s some of the most sound advice you can follow.

Runners have a tendency to get caught up in the excitement of race day. With pent up energy from a taper, it’s easy to feel like it’s important to keep up with a cluster of other runners who may be pacing a few seconds or minutes ahead of your goal.

Focus on your own body awareness. Mind your rate of perceived exertion. And don’t over-extend yourself for any part of the race you aren’t ready for.

A runner running against a scenic backdrop training with half marathon tips.

Half marathon tips before race day

Now that we’ve covered what to do on race day, let’s discuss what you should do the day and evening before your event to ensure smooth sailing, or shall we say running.

9. Lay out your gear the evening before

Do yourself a favor and lay out your gear before the event.

It’s become a popular trend on Instagram to post the next day’s race kit laid out. The last thing you want is to oversleep and forget your number before rushing to the start line.

It can help to lay it out like you would wear it — vest or shirt at the top, sleeves or gloves at the sides, your race number and pins in the middle, and socks and shoes at the bottom.

Do a double-check before you’ve planned for everything…and then check again. No fun showing up to the starting line in just your socks.

If you plan to use a running watch — which, I always use one so I would recommend if you have goal race time — then set your pace partner the night before to help keep your track.

10. Don’t wear new running shoes 

As tempting as it can be to wear new running shoes on the day of your half marathon, don’t! 

A pair of new shoes needs to be broken in before a series effort.

Without a broken in shoe, you’re prone to get blisters, hot spots, and other various pains and discomforts. And, even worse, if you choose the wrong shoe, you may spend the entire race cursing the decision you’ve just made. It’s really not worth the risk!

Please, please, wear the shoes you’ve been training in.

11. Eat a nutritious meal

One of the last things you should do in the evening before your race is eat a nutritious meal rich in carbohydrates. Stick to foods you know. Nutrition is an often neglected piece of everyone’s half marathon tips!

12. Get to bed early

It’s easier said than done. But, try to get an early night, especially if you have an early or late morning start. A 2023 study proved that runners with sleep restriction the night before a competition had negatively impacted endurance performance, muscle strength, and power.

Embrace the nerves that come the night before. It’s entirely normal, but, do your best to get plenty of rest the night before.

Do your best to get plenty of rest before your big day. 

Half marathon tips for training

Finally, we have the weeks leading up to your first half marathon.

This is where you’ll spend the bulk of your time training and tapering. You’ll be practicing your race day nutrition and hydration strategy. And, you’ll be implementing strategies to optimize your performance on race day.

The following training tips will set you up for your first and best half marathon.

13. Follow a structured training plan

If you plan to show up on race day without any prior training, that is not a plan…it’s a recipe for disaster.

Instead, follow a structured training plan that’s at least 8 weeks long, but ideally, longer.

Whatever plan you choose to follow, whether one from our half marathon training plan library or from a running coach (or a training app like Runna where HALFMARATHONS will get you two weeks free), or maybe you made one yourself, it must be progressive (i.e., you run further/increase the intensity each week).

A good plan should include a mix of easy runs, longer runs, tempo runs, cross-training, strength training, and other speedwork sessions.

If you don’t come prepared, then prepare to fail. Your training is the most important part of your half marathon.

14. Don’t cram training into the last month

If you registered for an event but have been putting off your training, don’t cram your miles into the last few weeks of training. Endurance training takes time. Your body won’t be able to build the necessary fitness level, physical, or cardiovascular adaptations it needs to perform well. You may want to consider walk

For more seasoned runners, you can likely run a half marathon with only a few tweaks to your training. On the other hand, new runners are recommended to build up their distance and time spent running to allow their fitness to improve.

But either way, running a half marathon with little to no training is a bad idea.

15. Don’t ignore your long runs

Out of all the runs in your weekly schedule, you might be tempted to ignore or skip those long runs, especially on days when you just don’t feel like running. However, the long runs are the most important type of run when training for a half marathon.

Not only do they build your aerobic fitness (allowing you to run further with less fatigue), but completing longer runs will build mental strength and confidence that you can and will complete the 13.1 mile distance.

Think of it like this…if the furthest you ran before your half marathon was 5 miles, you wouldn’t feel very confident completing 13.1 miles on race day.

If you do skip a long run, don’t proceed to the next long run workout the following week. For example, if your long run is 5 miles on week 1 of your training, but you skip it, don’t then try and run 6 miles the following week. Instead, you’d run the 5 miles. Skipping sessions increases your risk of injury.

It also increases in difficulty, so you’re less likely to complete the prescribed training session — this can be demotivating.

16. Strength train to avoid injuries 

Speaking of injuries, strength train 1-2 times a week

You don’t even need to go to the gym — if you don’t want to — to get in a good workout.

Strength training will reduce your risk of injury, so you show up in good health on race day, i.e., with no niggles or pains. The last thing you want is to train for 11 weeks straight, only to get injured on week 12, a few days out from your race.

Basic exercises you may choose to perform include:

  • Walking lunges
  • Hip thrusts
  • Planks
  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Banded walks 
  • Pushups 
  • Single arm rows

16. Don’t forget to have fun! 

To finish, here’s a bonus tip: don’t forget to have fun! 

While there’s a lot to think about, be sure to take in the moment. You’ve trained hard, committed to your training program, and you’ve come far. Enjoy your first half marathon and don’t forget to celebrate afterwards.

Half Marathon Tips FAQs

What is the best strategy for a half marathon?

Don’t sprint off at the start; run 10-15 seconds slower per mile than your target race pace and gradually increase the pace each mile. Aim to run a negative split (your last miles should be faster than the early ones). 

What should I do the day of a half marathon?

Arrive at the event in plenty of time, get settled in, use the toilet, warm up, and run through your race strategy one last time. 

How should a beginner train for a half marathon?

Follow a structured training plan or work with a running coach for the best results (and to reduce the likelihood of injury). 

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