Half Marathon Race Day Tips for Newbies and Not-So-New-bies

I would like to preface this post by saying that I’m not in any way, shape, or form a running expert.  I’m just your average recreational runner who loves to share her experiences with like-minded people who might appreciate or find value in them.

Since I started running in 2010, I’ve run eight half marathons.  Each half I’ve run has been a different experience, and I’ve taken new and different lessons home from each finish line.

In case you missed my last post, I ran my 8th half marathon this past Sunday in beautiful Johnstown, Pennsylvania.  I went into the race with an overly-confident mindset, convinced I would breeze through 13.1 miles to a PR.  To put it briefly, I was wrong.  I was very wrong.  As I struggled to get to the finish line, I realized that I had completely ignored all the half-mary-running knowledge I’d gained over the years in preparing for the race.  I logged the miles in training, but threw all my practical knowledge out the window.  I forgot how big of a challenge running a half marathon really is.  In running lingo, I neglected to “respect the distance.”

So, I decided to share things that I’ve personally learned from running half marathons in the past.  Whether you’re gearing up for your first half marathon or you run them so often you could use a refresher on the basics, here are some tips & tricks that work for me (and not expert facts).  I’m sharing in hopes that they might work for you, too!

  • Make sure you hydrate properly on the days leading up to the race.  I never realized how important this was until this past Sunday.  Normally, I make sure to have a glass of water by my side at all times for 2-3 days before the race.  On Friday night, I had a few beers.  My beverages on Saturday consisted of coffee and diet Pepsi.  Not-shockingly, I was so thirsty and dehydrated during the entire race on Sunday, even after each water station.  Never underestimate the importance of adequate hydration.
  • Scout out the location of the water stops and bathrooms on the course before race day.  This will help you decide whether or not you will need to carry water along with you.  It will also help you plan out the timing of your energy chews/gels and your bathroom breaks.  It’s never a good thing to pass up a porta-john and find out there aren’t any more for ten miles!
  • If it’s warm (i.e. not chilly and not cold) outside, carry a water bottle with you.  The water stops at my race on Sunday were placed every two miles, which is typically a great frequency for a half marathon.  But the weather conditions were hotter than normal, and (paired with the fact that I hadn’t hydrated properly beforehand) I would have given anything to see a water station at every mile marker.  If it’s hot, you’re losing more fluids so you’re going to need to take in more fluids.  Even if you never feel the need to use it, it’s better-safe-than-sorry to carry a water bottle with you when it’s warm outside.  You may be glad that you did.
  • Make sure to take enough energy gels, chews, etc. with you.  That’s if you are one of those people that likes to use them; they aren’t for everyone.  And, um, if you do take energy gels, make sure they are on a secure location on your body.  In June, all but one of the energy gels I had taken with me on a half fell out of my belt at some point in the race.  I had to spread out my single energy gel over 7.1 miles of the race.  Not fun, not enough energy, and I was a sticky mess by the end.  Fail.
  • Wear a heart rate monitor.  I know, I know.  Gadgets aren’t for everyone.  Many people argue that wearing a HRM just isn’t a natural way to run, and I can’t say I disagree.  I never wear my HRM on my shorter races.  However, in my experience, I haven’t run enough half marathons to know exactly what running one is supposed to feel like, if that makes sense.  And with no HRM, I tend to push it too hard in the beginning, then I fizzle out and struggle later in the race.  It’s just my suggestion to look up your target heart rate for a half marathon distance (three’s a great tool here), and try to stick to it throughout your race.  If you do this, obviously you won’t finish your race feeling like you could have run the full, but you won’t feel the need to go home and sleep for two days either.  I always feel tired but not exhausted after every half marathon following this method.
  • Dress the part.  Don’t dress too warm or too cool for the conditions and your distance.  In the same weather conditions, every race distance will most likely require a different attire because your heart rate is higher (your body temperature is warmer) at shorter distances and vice versa.  I normally don’t guess what I should be wearing to a half marathon (because I usually prove myself wrong).  I use this handy-dandy tool at runnersworld.com, and so far it hasn’t steered me wrong.
  • Up your carbs, but don’t deviate much from your typical diet the night before the race.  If you don’t normally include dairy in your diet, don’t decide it would be a great idea to go for ice cream the night before your half marathon.  It’s easy to go a lil’ crazy and overeat the night before a half, citing “carbo” and “calorie” loading as an excuse.  GI-distress + running + not-always-strategically-placed porta-potties = half marathon fail.  On a related note, don’t eat foods that may cause your body to revolt, including high-fat meals.
  • Also, don’t over-eat the night before.  Carrying a food baby for 13.1 miles not only makes for an extremely uncomfortable run, but it also poses the threat of releasing itself in some way, shape, or form somewhere along the course.  Which may or may not be near a porta-john or shrubbery or anything of the sort.  You get the point.  Keep your meal large enough to be satisfying, but don’t stuff yourself.
  • The golden rule of running:  don’t try anything new on race day.  I’m sure you’ve heard this one before, but it’s definitely worth repeating.  Make sure you get all your trials & errors sorted out during training– including everything from wardrobe to nutrition to hydration.  On Sunday, I decided to wear a non-wicking handkerchief around my head to keep the sweat out of my eyes.  I’ve done this often for 5K’s, but I’ve never done it during a half marathon.  By mile 4, I had a headache from the added pressure on my head, and I truly think the perspiration-soaked material made me warmer.  Once I took it off, I felt much better.  Lesson learned: if you don’t try it or haven’t needed it during training, you don’t need it on race day.

What else would you add to this list??  


2 thoughts on “Half Marathon Race Day Tips for Newbies and Not-So-New-bies

  1. You’ve run 8 half-marathon’s–I’d say that qualifies you as an expert! 🙂

    Great tips. I would had another tip about clothes. You mention that you should dress the part, and I would add that if you are traveling to a race in another state, bring clothes for a warm race, cold race, and something in between. Last December when I ran the Dallas half, we woke up on race morning and it was already in the low 70’s. In December! Luckily I had brought warm weather clothes just in case, and it saved me. There were folks out there in tights and long sleeve shirts…I’m sure they were miserable.


    • Thanks Chris; that’s a great tip as well!! I’ve not traveled too far for any of my 1/2s (yet), so I didn’t even think of that. You’re lucky you had a change of clothes with you in Dallas– I couldn’t imagine starting a half in 70 degree weather, long sleeves, and tights! Thanks for sharing!


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