11 Tips for Before and After a Half Marathon
Two veteran marathoners offer a pre- and post-race formula for success
Maybe you’re using a half marathon to work your way up to running a full marathon, or perhaps a half marathon is the perfect course length for you. Either way, if you’re running a half marathon, you’re part of a large pack: These are the fastest growing distance race in the United States. Nearly 2 million participants crossed the finish lines of the 13.1-mile courses in 2013, according to Running USA, an organization promoting distance running. The distance isn't as daunting as a full marathon, so the training time, while intense, is manageable.
If you've just wrapped up your training, with your last long run behind you, here's what to know and do before and after the race, whether it's your first foray or you're a veteran.
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Before the race
1. Heed “taper week”
"Don't kill yourself working out that week [before the race]," says Cathy Fieseler, MD, an ultramarathoner and a primary-care sports medicine doctor at Trinity Mother Francis Hospitals and Clinics in Tyler, Texas. She is also president of the American Medical Athletic Association.
Easy does it. That's why the coaches call it ''taper week." While some experts advise no running the day or two before the big race, Fieseler says an easy run, even the day before, is OK.
If you do run, keep it short, ''one to three miles at most," says Mark Courtney, a retired physicians' assistant and veteran of 150 marathons and at least that many half marathons. He serves on the board of the American Medical Athletic Association.
2. Stock up on good sleep
The night before a big race can bring fitful sleep. You're nervous, you fear oversleeping, you're excited. So focus on getting good sleep the whole week, Fieseler says, and you won't be so hyped up when the sandman is elusive on race eve.
3. Eat wisely the night before
While runners love the idea of carbo-loading, downing heaping platters of pasta smothered in whatever, it's really not necessary for a half-marathon, say both Fieseler and Courtney. The 13.1 miles, while lengthy, won't typically be enough to deplete your stores of glycogen, a form of stored energy that your body converts to glucose when it needs it. (One exception, Courtney says, is if you are going to be on the course longer than three hours.)
It's OK to bring on the pasta the night before a morning run, just not multiple servings, experts say. A carbohydrate-based dinner such as pasta, Courtney says, is much better than a big steak dinner, which you may not get rid of before race morning.
4. Dine easy on race morning
On race morning, eat familiar foods, Fieseler says. Repeat what you ate before your long training runs. "Stick to something you know. Stick with predominately carbs, very little protein and very little fat if you are three to four hours out [from the race start].'' You might have a bagel and banana, for instance, if that's what you ate before a long run and it agreed with you.
If the race start is less than three hours or so, you can just rely on liquids, such as water or a few ounces of a sports drink, Fieseler says.
5. Hydrate ahead of time
Drink plenty of fluids beginning at least the day before, Courtney says. In the half hour or so before the starting time, ''drink 8 or 10 ounces of fluids," Fieseler says. Take advantage of water stations along the course or tote your own.
6. Warm up before running
If you're not an elite runner, walking from the car to the start line is probably a good enough warm up, Fieseler says. If you're fast and expect a personal best time, you can do a dynamic warm up, such as leg swings, and then run a bit, but not at top speed, she says.
After the race
1. Replenish right
Within 30 minutes of your finish, eat some carbohdyrate-containing foods with a small amount of protein, Fieseler says. "Yogurt works well, or smoothies," she says. Choose something with both carbohydrates and protein. Drink water or other beverages now, too, Courtney says.
2. Cool down instead of collapsing
Resist the urge to drop onto the nearest grassy spot after the finish line. "Walk and jog a little afterwards just to keep the muscles moving," Courtney says. And take the Mylar blanket if they offer you at the finish line. You may suddenly feel chilly.
3. Embrace carbs post-race
"You've just burned 1,300 calories," Courtney says. While you might dream of a celebratory steak lunch or dinner, Courtney votes for carbohydrates again. You need them to replenish energy.
4. Give your body time to recover
Depending on how fast you ran and how sore you are, ease back into activity while respecting how your body feels. "If your legs are wasted, you need to take time off," Fieseler says. That kind of pain indicates temporary muscle damage. Right after the race, you might want to fill up the bathtub and soak, she says. Don't feel guilty about not running for a day or two, or longer. Recovery time is as important as training.
5. Expect a little let-down
It's not unusual to be ''down'' after the excitement of reaching the finish line, getting your medal and basking in your accomplishment. The let-down feeling is very normal, Fieseler says. "Everything was so focused [on the race], and now it's 'Now what?'''
Her idea: Start reading all the pamphlets handed out at races promoting future races. Set a new goal, or pick a new race. "It's also time to take a look at your race and your training," she says. What should you change for a better race next time? It might be as simple as vowing never to wear clothes you didn't train in (if they became uncomfortable during the race) or as complex as overhauling your training schedule.