Training For Your First Half Marathon? Here’s How to Stay Injury Free
Staying injury-free while preparing for your first half marathon is all about having a smart training routine. While running injuries are common (some studies suggest that up to 20% of runners drop out of races due to injury), we know that most injuries are avoidable.
The tips I’ll share in this article are based on my many years of experience working as a running Physiotherapist, as well as the latest scientific evidence we have on injury prevention and running performance. I hope that by following this advice, you’ll set yourself up to succeed in your first half marathon, then continue to run many more in the future!
1. Start With A Strong Foundation
Running a half marathon is incredibly demanding and stressful on your body. Avoiding injury is largely dependent on how well your body is prepared to handle that stress.
Before starting a half marathon training routine, you should already have a good base level of fitness. At the very least, you should be able to run 5km (3 miles) and be in a routine of regular strength training.
If you’re starting from scratch with little or no recent exercise experience, the best thing to do is spend the first 3 months “pre-training” – building up a solid foundation of strength and conditioning before starting an intense half marathon plan. This will prepare your body to better handle the stress as well as boosting your athleticism and allowing you to naturally run better.
2. Run No More Than 3x Per Week
You’ll need to do more than just run in preparation for your first half marathon. Strength training, cross-training and stretching workouts are all just as important as running in building up the necessary athleticism you’ll need to run a half marathon. You’ll need to schedule your training routine to fit everything into each week.
I’ve found that running three times a week is optimal for most people. It gives you enough time to develop running endurance but leaves room for other training and rest days.
3. Add Variety To Your Runs
While it might make sense to just run as many miles as possible in preparation for your first half marathon, repetitively running long distances is not only ineffective but also significantly increases your risk of injury.
Repetitive exercise of any sort leads to overuse injuries because it fatigues and wears down muscles, tendons and joints. Runners who consistently run at the same pace several times a week are far more likely to develop overuse injuries.
Instead of doing the same run over and over again, you should mix up your training week to include three different paced runs – an interval run, a tempo run and a slow run.
An interval run is a maximal effort sprint with short walking rests – something like 200 meter sprints, with 200 meter rests, repeated 8 times. These runs are great for improving speed and building up leg muscles.
A tempo run is a middle-distance run that’s done at a slightly faster pace than your typical long-distance run. These runs are a great way to improve fitness and they’ll also boost your speed.
Lastly, a long, slow run is done once a week. This is your endurance run where you push the distance but drop your pace down to a comfortable, easy speed.
Three different paced runs each week means that you’ll avoid the same repetitive stress on joints and muscles plus develop well-rounded fitness.
4. Cross-Train to Build Endurance
Critical to your training and preparation for your first half marathon is developing enough endurance (cardiovascular fitness) to last a 21km race.
Cardiovascular fitness is a measure of how well your heart and lungs transport oxygen around your body to fuel your muscles. In order to improve cardiovascular fitness, you need to do exercise that increases your heart rate for a prolonged period of time.
Long-distance running is a great way to do that, but as we know, running too much causes injury. That’s why runners do cross-training. By replacing one run a week with another activity that also trains cardiovascular fitness you can work on your endurance but avoid the repetitive strain of running.
Swimming, cycling, and rowing are great options for cross-training because they require a similar sustained heart rate as running without the strain on your legs. Other cross-training options are the elliptical and stepper in the gym, however, these are more intense on the legs. What you definitely should avoid doing are activities that mimic the stresses of running, particularly anything that involves repetitive jumping or hopping.
5. Get Strong to Run Faster
Strength training with the goal of building muscle is often underappreciated by runners. However, it should be fundamental in your half marathon training.
Strong muscles generate more power. For runners, that means being able to take off faster and propel yourself further with each step. Evidence has shown us that runners who include strength training in their half marathon preparation significantly improve running speed.
Strength training has also been shown to significantly reduce injury risk.
The key muscles you should focus on are the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves. Here is one of my favorite home exercises specifically for glutes and hamstrings.
Runners can also build up into heavier weight training and include exercises like squats and deadlifts. Here’s a video of Mo Farah, British elite marathon runner, going through his weight training routine (as you will see, he includes barbell squats, upper body weights and core exercises as part of his training)
6. Work on Stability to Optimize Gait
Stability training is all about gaining more control of the way your body moves. This includes any exercises that focus on balance training, core strengthening, and mobility. Yoga and Pilates fit into this category but are not the only ways to work on stability. There are plenty of things you can do at home or at the gym!
Runners with good stability run smoother, land lighter, and put less strain on their knees and ankles meaning that they are less likely to end up with injuries.
Here’s an example of one of my favorite stability exercises – the arabesque.
7. Combine Cardio & Strength Workouts
By now you’re probably wondering how you’re supposed to fit in all this training into a single week? The truth is, it’s all about doing a little bit of everything and finding a good balance.
In order to fit in running, cross-training, strength & stability training all into a busy schedule, what I advise my runner patients to do is combine their cardio and strength workouts.
Other than the long runs you do once a week, your other runs and cross-training sessions should take no longer than 30 minutes. So 3 times a week, after these 30-minute cardio workouts, you can do 30 minutes of strength and stability exercises.
8. Respect Rest Days
All runners need 2-3 days off each week.
When you do intensive exercise, your body breaks down muscle tissue and depletes energy. Then when you rest, your body rebuilds and regenerates that tissue making it stronger. However, without rest your muscles will continue to breakdown until they can’t anymore – that’s when injuries happen.
9. Include Step-Back Weeks
Step-back weeks are scheduled periods where you reduce training volume and run less. These are an extra opportunity for your body to rest and re-cooperate from the demanding training schedule. I recommend including a step-back week every 3-4 weeks of training.
These are important because 12 weeks of non-stop training is incredibly demanding and, unless you’re a seasoned athlete who is used to intensive training regiments, it is very fatiguing for the average person’s body.
Despite a common fear, you won’t lose any fitness during this week. In fact, most people come back feeling stronger and more energized after a step-back week.
10. Play The Long Game
This is my final tip, but it is the most important because it encompasses everything else I’ve mentioned. The goal of your first half marathon shouldn’t be to just survive 21km. Your goal should be to get fit enough that you feel strong at the finish line and excited to take on the next challenge.
By having a mindset of playing the long game, you’ll change the way you look at your training. You will see that it is far better to have a balanced, holistic training plan and develop a well-rounded athletic body than it is to force yourself to run a certain number of miles each week.
If you push yourself too hard for this first half marathon, not only will you end up injured and sore, you’ll set yourself back and have more issues in the long term. So, listen to your body and train smart. Give yourself time to adapt, adjust and get strong enough to handle any physical challenge that comes your way!
Hollander et al. 2018, Prospective Monitoring of Health Problems Among Recreational Runners Preparing for a Half Marathon, BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine, 4, 308
Poppel et al. 2015, Risk Factors for Lower Extremity Injuries Among Half Marathon and Marathon Runners of the Lage Landen Marathon Eindhoven: A Prospective Cohort Study in the Netherlands, Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sport, 26 (2), pp 226-234
ABOUT ALINA KENNEDY
Alina is an Australian Physiotherapist, Strength & Conditioning Specialist and avid runner. She works exclusively with runners in injury rehabilitation, prevention and performance improvement. Learn More Here