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How I planned and trained to run my first half marathon (and why I won’t do another one)

How I planned and trained to run my first half marathon

I was never an athletic person growing up. Exercise was almost a dirty word in my family, as it meant you weren’t spending nearly enough time reading.

In my 20s, I fell in love with strength training, but still thought cardio was way too hardio (and boring).

So, no one was more surprised than me when I signed myself up for a half marathon.

I had discovered the joy of long, slow runs in nature during the pandemic and suddenly, 21.1km felt like an intimidating but achievable goal.

I knew that if I set myself a vague goal of building running endurance, my motivation would last a few weeks at most.

I needed a tangible, fixed goal with a set deadline and a plan to get me over the finish line. I needed a system to keep me accountable and remind myself that I was capable of doing hard things.

From the beginning, I told myself that the real achievement wouldn’t be on race day. The months of training, staying consistent, and showing up when my mind wanted to quit would be where the magic happened.

I gave little thought to the finish time I wanted. Instead, I focused on smaller, incremental goals that were within my control. I started following reputable running coaches on social media and found a beginner 12-week training plan online.

Motivation is always temporary. To keep consistent over time, you need to build momentum. Whenever I woke up exhausted, sore, or dreading going out in the wind or rain, I told myself all I had to do was finish this next run.

Afterwards, if I still wanted to quit the training plan, I could. Without fail, I would come home filled with endorphins and pride, all thoughts of throwing in the towel eliminated.

Tackling a big physical challenge can get overwhelming. Focusing on one small step at a time kept me grounded and calm.

What running a half marathon taught me

Training for my half marathon was an amazing lesson in how powerful self-talk is.

For years, I had told myself I would or could never run further than a few kilometres. Without realising it, I had internalised this as an indisputable fact, despite never really giving it a try.

I had done a few fun runs in the past but had never dedicated any time or training to prepare myself to perform well. I had unwittingly set myself up for failure, reinforcing my idea that I was simply not a runner.

If you run, you are a runner. If you take two hours to run five kilometres or have only ever run 200m in your life, you are a runner. With social media glorifying elite athletes, it is easy to think that you need to be at a certain level to participate in a sport.

The best thing I did for myself was let go of any expectations about my pace. If I showed up and did the milage, I won. If I was going slower than last week but feeling and recovering better, I was making progress.

The night before race day, I was excited, nervous, and anxious for it to be over. I had been fortunate with injuries, and the weather looked good. There was no going back now. After a sleepless night, I got up at 5am, dressed and headed off to Olympic Park.

Once I got there, the energy was great. There were plenty of other beginners, and everyone was friendly and helpful. I started to relax, realising that this wasn’t so serious after all.

Before I knew it, it was time to go. I crossed the start line and grinned. As cheesy as it sounds, I had already won.

My top tips for beginners considering a half marathon

If you’re new to running and considering signing up for a distance race, here are some ways to make it as enjoyable, rewarding and painless as possible.

Take care of your feet

Get professionally fitted for some decent running shoes, and invest in good running socks. You don’t have to spend a lot, but you do need to make sure they provide good support and fit well.

I was shocked to discover I had to go up a few sizes in my running shoes, and shudder to think of the blisters and pain I would have suffered trying to complete the race in too-small shoes.

Keep your toenails trimmed and use Vaseline if you experience chafing.

Slow down

Most beginner runners greatly underestimate the importance of slow runs. Most of my weekly volume was at a pace easy enough to maintain a conversation while running.

Building your stamina with slow runs is so important for your recovery and allows you to hit your faster runs with enough energy. Never compare your pace with other runners, and focus on keeping a steady heart rate.

Celebrate every single run

Sticking to my training schedule was easier on some days than others. Having a visual representation of my plan reminded me of how far I’d already come and drove me forward.

After each run, I took a moment to be grateful for my strong, resilient body and mind. Don’t wait to achieve the big goal to be proud of yourself. Be proud of every tiny step you take towards it.

Recovery is everything

Trust in your training plan and put the rest of your energy towards recovering.

If you’re training hard, you need to rest and recover even harder. Make time to warm up and cool down for every single run, and include a mobility or stretching plan in your routine.

Tight hips, sore knees and creaky ankles are not fun and can impede your progress. Don’t wait until you’re in serious pain before you start taking care of your body.

I ignored some swollen and stiff knuckles from hours spent in the rain for a few weeks, and am still suffering the consequences. Prepare for everything, and don’t delay medical treatment for anything that comes up.

Focus on your body’s accomplishments, not its appearance

My body went through a series of changes after swapping my weightlifting sessions for runs. I lost some strength but actually gained weight and body fat.

I had to learn to ignore the scale and focus on feeling energised, fueled and strong. It was really important for my mental health not to dwell on my weight or start trying to compensate in any way.

Fitness is so often misunderstood as purely aesthetic. If we see someone with a flat stomach or visible abdominals, we assume they must be fit. In reality, a low body fat percentage doesn’t say anything about what someone is capable of.

If I had tried to stay too lean throughout my training, I honestly don’t think I could have made it over the finish line feeling good. Don’t use running as a way to lose weight, or to punish your body for what you eat. Eat to fuel yourself, and run to feel amazing and celebrate your strength.

Will I run another half marathon?

Since my race, a lot of people have asked if I will do another. I never say never, but to be honest, I have no interest right now.

Endurance running took a toll on my life, my schedule, my hands and feet, and my nervous system. I feel so proud of what I accomplished, but I also know that how far you can run is not the only worthy physical achievement.

I’m enjoying my strength training and the sweetness of low-impact workouts like walking and yoga. There is no one way to ‘do’ fitness. My journey is deeply personal to me, and the best thing you can do is focus on finding movement that feels joyous and right for your own body.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.