If you’d told me six months ago that I had signed up for a half marathon I would have laughed in your face and told you I am not a runner.
Being born with talipes (or clubfoot as it’s known more commonly) has left me with a slightly shorter left leg, a two-sizes smaller left foot, and a readymade excuse for why I avoid running like the plague.
When I was growing up my Clubfoot was a massive insecurity, so naturally I shied away from any activities that could potentially draw attention to it, which included running. I had always assumed that I wouldn’t be able to run as fast or with as much ease as my classmates, so I never really tried.
When I was making my New Year’s resolutions this year, I decided that I wanted to do something that would take me well out of my comfort zone and really push myself beyond what I’d always thought I was capable of: A half marathon.
The Wizz Air Hackney Half takes place on Sunday the 21st of March, and when I signed up in mid-January I calculated that I had pretty much exactly three months to train if I started then and there.
I’m still a few weeks out from the race, but what I’ve learned in my six weeks of training has been life changing for me, so if you want to stop making excuses and start running I’ve got some tips to help you get started.
Structure is important
If you’re attempting to go from little to no running to a half marathon, you’re going to need a plan.
Although I haven’t tried any others to compare it to, I’ve found the Nike Run Club to be a godsend in helping me map out my training plan.
The app gives me a weekly training plan that is usually made up of a recovery run, and intermittent speed run, and a long run. Each week you build a bit more stamina and add a bit of distance to your long run, helping you build up to the 21km over time.
If I’d been attempting to try and get half marathon ready without a guide, I’m sure I would have totally wore myself out (or injured myself) early on in the process.
Invest in quality kit
I’m sure you’ve heard a million times before that you need to invest in good running shoes (which you do) but there are a few more pieces of running kit I’ve found extraordinarily helpful on my running journey.
My Apple Watch works with Strava and the Nike Run Club app to make tracking my runs a breeze, and the rest of the apparel and accessories are things I’m using multiple times a week that have helped to keep me comfortable on my runs.
Slow and steady wins the race
Well, maybe not win but it will certainly give you a better chance of finishing without an injury.
During lockdown I was one of the many that downloaded couch to 5k in the hopes of staying fit without a gym, but struggled immensely to make it through the program.
Looking back, this is because I had no idea how to pace myself and would run at full throttle during the running portion and spend the walking portion barely able to catch my breath.
Not to sound like a broken record, but this was another thing that the Nike Run Club program taught me early on by reminding me throughout that I should be running at a pace that’s comfortable and sustainable for me.
By slowing down and being careful to maintain my form, I’ve gone from not being able to run 3km to being able to tun 10km in a few short weeks. One of the most important things I’ve learned during this journey is that if I want to keep improving my speed and my distance I have to get comfortable running slowly first.
I asked Dr. Jinger Gottschall, Director of Sports Science Research at Wahoo Fitness, what time I should be aiming for on the day and she said ‘a time where you feel like you maintained a challenging pace, completed a smart race, and enjoyed the adventure. A half marathon is a significant distance- so finishing is a huge accomplishment’.
I also asked Dr Gottschall how I can maintain a steady pace on the day, and she said ‘your long run training prior to the race will be critical for learning how to maintain a steady pace as well as learning which pace is comfortable’.
She added that ‘during the actual race there will be kilometer markers, evaluate your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and try to keep a pace that can be consistent for the duration. If you are more serious about pacing, consider purchasing a watch with a pace feature like the Wahoo ELEMNT RIVAL or a heart rate monitor like the Wahoo TICKR, an objective tool will help you stay in the zone’.
Get yourself an accountability buddy
The best thing I’ve done for staying motivated during my training has been signing up to the Wizz Air Hackney Half with a few other people. I know myself, and if I’d signed up on my lonesome and not told anyone I was doing it, I probably would have talked myself out of it by now.
Instead, I convinced my housemate and a few of my other friends to sign up with me so we can keep each other on track. We all follow each other on Strava and I find if I’ve seen one of them smash out a run after work I’m far more likely to head out for one myself.
Mind over matter
I’m finding time and time again that my mind wants me to stop running far before my body is tired. Even on my best days, the first three or four kilometers feel like torture, and it takes a while for my body to wake up and actually start enjoying the run.
If I listened to my mind only, I never would have made it past this point and would have mistaken this boredom as exhaustion and slowed down or thrown in the towel far earlier than I should.
Instead, I try to tune out my thoughts and focus on how my body is feeling, and more often than not I’m physically capable of completing the run I’ve set out to do – sometimes I just need to slow down or control my breathing better.
I quizzed Dr Gottschall about how I can better know when it’s time to push through or slow down, and she said ‘your training prior to the race will really set you up for understanding how you feel in various circumstances and paces’.
She advised that the ‘main way to know is listening to your body. Also, having a race strategy is helpful’.
According to Dr Gottschall, you can make a race day strategy by ‘evaluating the course at the beginning of your training plan. What is the elevation gain/loss, what is the surface, where are the aid stations? Next, estimate your finish time based upon your long training runs and calculate a pace per mile with fluctuations based on the details of the course’.
Don’t forget to cross train
Although the four runs included in the Nike Run Club don’t leave me a lot of time to get a lot of other workouts in, I still try and get at least a couple more sessions of Pilates or weight training in alongside my runs.
Running puts a lot of pressure on the body, so it’s important to keep yourself strong to avoid injuries and build your stamina.
A lot of the most common running ailments (sore back, tight hips, shin splints) can be avoided by supplementing your runs with a couple of lower impact workouts a week.
Food is fundamental
As I said I’m a total running novice, so there have been plenty of times that I’ve wanted to get in a run first thing and headed straight out without eating, which has left me barely able to run 5km. On the flip side, I’ve also eaten a big meal too close to a run which made me feel bloated and uncomfortable for the duration.
As I’m no nutrition expert, in order to find out how I can best fuel my half marathon training I sought the expertise of Jenaed Brodell, leading Specialist Consultant Dietitian and founder of Nutrition and Co.
- What should I eat in the week leading up to a half marathon?
As a carb-lover, Brodell had good news for me when she said ‘this might be your favourite week of training! Known in the running world as “carb-loading”, in the days leading up to the race you might want to increase your carbohydrate consumption. This includes foods such as pasta, oats, bread and potatoes.
The benefit here is that ‘eating high-carb foods will maximise your glycogen stores in your muscles. This is essentially energy that your body stores for when it’s needed, such as a long run, helping to improve endurance and prevent fatigue’.
It’s not just carbs that you should prioritise though, with Brodell giving me a few extra tips including: ‘load up on beetroot and leafy greens. These contain nitrates which are suggested to improve running performance by increasing blood flow to the muscles. And don’t forget to stay hydrated throughout the week, topping up your fluids.’
- What should I eat the night before a half marathon?
My original plan for the night before my half marathon was a big bowl of pasta, which has been given the green light by Brodell, who says “When it comes to nutrition for endurance activities, such as long-distance running, carbohydrates are the focus. Carbs are the main source of energy for our bodies, so we need to keep refuelling to keep energy stores high”.
- What should I eat the morning of a half marathon?
Brodell says there are two things to consider: “timing and carbs. Three hours before the race begins, you’ll want to fuel up with a complete meal, such as cereal with milk and fruit”.
While I would’ve thought one big meal would’ve been enough to sustain me, Brodell advises two hours before the start you should “top up with a simple carb and some protein such as banana and yoghurt”.
Then, half an hour before the start you should opt for some quick release carbs, such as ‘100% fruit juice, a few lollies, a carbohydrate drink or ½ white bagel with jam. You’re looking to find that sweet spot between feeling starved and stuffed.’
If you’re wary of going overboard with caffeine, you could use an alternative source like caffeine tablets that will ‘control your intake, whilst still getting that desired boost in energy’.
- Should I bring a snack with me for the half marathon?
Whether or not you need to refuel during the race seems to be contentious, so Brodell’s insight on this one was needed. She advised that ‘You don’t have to eat during the race, but it’s often recommended for endurance activities longer than one hour. Aim for small but frequent snacks, perhaps every 20-30 minutes’.
Her nutritionist-approved half-marathon snack ideas include:
- Oat-based bar
- Jelly babies
- Energy gels