When I registered to run the San Francisco Half Marathon, I had no experience whatsoever. I didn’t even have running shoes! After two months of training, though, I made to the finish line in 2 hours and 30 minutes.
During my training I often felt like I was missing information. I had no idea what to eat or which clothes to wear, but I figured it all out by myself. Obviously a lot of choices are personal, and I am by no means a personal trainer or fitness expert, but some tips might be handy for everyone.
While training for the half marathon
1. Wear comfy clothes
Make sure you’re running in an outfit that fits well and feels comfortable. Practice running in your race outfit, too! 13.1 miles is a long way to go if you realize a mile in that the fabric of your brand-new running capris is causing some miserable chafing. During training, I ran multiple times with underwear that got between my butt cheeks, which was no fun. There is nothing as annoying as having to be fed up by certain pieces of clothing while you still have miles to go.
2. Focus on the long runs to build distance
During my training I varied short and long distances. I discovered that the long runs make the biggest difference for building up endurance.
Before running the San Francisco Half Marathon, my longest run was 1 hour and 25 minutes — which was not nearly long enough. Shortly after I hit that time during the race, I started experiencing pain. I knew if I had pushed a bit more during my training, I could have avoided being in pain so quickly.
3. Focus on time, not distance
This is a personal choice, but I never focused on distance while training: I always focused on time. I started with runs of 20 minutes and upped those to runs of 30 minutes, 50 minutes and so on.
While mileage-focused training works for others, running for time during training prevented me from being disappointed if I couldn’t make a certain goal when I was running slower than expected.
4. Figure out your routine
Take the time to discover whether you like to run with music or in silence, whether you like running in the morning or the evening, and whether you want to hold your water bottle in your hand or not. Figure out the basic routine when you’re still training. Don’t wait until the day before the race to figure that out.
Also mix things up during your training: Try to run with headphones, earbuds, without music. Try different foods and different times of running, too.
5. Figure out the food your body can have before running
One of the most important aspects when running a long distance is how you fuel your body. I tried different foods before running and some would help me and some would really work against me. Crackers and cream cheese two hours before running? Bad idea. Bananas? Good idea. Not eating heavy foods in advance? Good idea!
6. Track your training and make notes
I always tracked my runs and made notes. So while I kept track of my progress, I could also see what helped me and what didn’t help me. Running in the sun? Not my thing. Running with too much clothes on? Naah, bad idea.
7. Make a good music playlist
I need music to run. I created a dedicated running Spotify playlist, which is filled with my favorite upbeat music. During training I always picked out the songs, but while running the half marathon I just put it on shuffle.
Right before the half marathon
1. Be early
It’s chaos at the starting line: Your driver can’t drop you off where you need to be. You don’t know where to start or where to drop off your stuff. There are tons of things than can make you lose a lot of time. Make sure you’re early to have a look around and figure out the situation. Also keep in mind that there will be hundreds or even thousands of people everywhere and you’ll need to make your way through to your starting corral, which is grouped by people with similar race pace.
2. Get rid of unnecessary clothes
You might be cold before you start to run, but get rid of all the clothes that you won’t need during your run. If you get too warm during the run, you’ll have no place to store it and you’ll end up throwing it on the streets. The amount of clothes I saw along the route was astonishing. You could either leave your hoodie at home or give it to whoever will meet you at the finish line. Many large races have volunteers who will take any belongings that you want to pick up at the finish line, so see if that is a possibility.
3. Know where to be
The first thing you need to do when arriving at the running scene is to figure out where your wave starts and thus where you need to be.
4. Go to the bathroom
I was really afraid I would have to go to the bathroom during the race, which could cause some serious unnecessary discomfort and delay. Luckily that didn’t happen, and I could run the 2.5 hours without a bathroom stop. During the San Francisco Half Marathon, they provided several bathroom stops, but they were jam-packed with people. You lose a lot of time waiting in line, so be prepared. Get everything out—if possible—before starting the run.
During the half marathon
1. Get distracted
You’ll have to run 13.1 miles. It’s a long distance and takes quite some time. It helps if you are distracted from the running and focus on other things. I tried to read every sign on the side of the road and taking in the scenery; I tried spotting every race photographer; I tried to photobomb every selfie taken by others in the race. Runkeeper ambassador Kelly Roberts even took selfies with hot marathon guys. There are plenty of ways to keep yourself busy throughout the race and to take your mind off the running.
2. Bring water
At the water stops along the way, you get Dixie cups of water. You can’t run a half marathon on that small amount of water. Bring a water bottle or backpack with a built-in water pouch, like a CamelBak, and make sure to fill it up at a water stop whenever it’s almost empty.
3. Drink a lot
I drank 0.5 liters before the race, 1. 5 liters during the half marathon and 1.5 liters after the race. You’ll be sweating like crazy and need the hydration. Trust me. I made the mistake during training to run for an hour without water. I started feeling out of it, ran way slower and had no idea what was going on around me. It was utterly dangerous.
4. Don’t run and drink out of cups
It’s surprisingly hard to run and drink out of a cup from the water stations in the same time. I tried it once during my half marathon and almost choked (no joke). Whereas it is pretty easy to drink out of a sports cap bottle while running.
5. Bring energy bars
It’s unbelievable how much a small energy bar can fuel your running. I had two energy bars with me: One chocolate peanut butter bar from PowerBar and one white chocolate and macademia nut bar from Clif. I ate my chocolate peanut butter bar when I was 1/3 in the race. It was like heaven in my mouth and stimulated me to keep going. Such a small thing, but it made a big difference.
6. Read the encouraging signs on the sidewalks
They are fun, and someone took the effort of making those to encourage you. Honor it and at least acknowledge the makers for it.
7. Look for photographers
There are a lot of photographers along the way. If you want to be in the pictures, spot them on the side walk and make sure you run near the edges of the road. They are looking for photogenic people, so smile, put your hands in the air and wear bright clothes. Stand out!
Also wear your bib-number on a visible place. It allows you to find yourself on the pictures after the race. Believe me, you don’t want to be scrolling to the tons of pictures that we’re taken, trying to spot yourself in the mass.
8. Help others
You’ll notice that everyone is going through the same thing. You’ll all struggle. You’ll all be thirsty. You’ll all hoping to finish it. You’re all in it together, so help others out, whether that means sharing a bite of your energy bar or giving them some encouraging words.
10. Have fun
It’s probably the most cliche tip, but it’s true. Even when you’re in pain, remember that it will be over soon and if it’s your first race, you will never have that experience of “running your first one” ever again.
Before the half marathon, I got the tip to smile and I tried to do it as much as possible. Smiling can improve your mood, so when I was in pain I tried this out.