How to prepare for your first half marathon

Couch potato to world champion

At 59, Brisbane runner John Shaw was overweight and unfit, but four years later he is the world marathon record holder for his age.

If 10kms are starting to lose their appeal and you're thinking of joining the half marathon boom, here's some inspiration from seasoned runner and celebrity chef Dan Churchill.

The 21.1km half marathon has become the fastest-growing distance race in the world. This year, Aussie runners have more than 170 of them to choose from including Australia's largest and most prestigious half marathon, the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon.

Everyone has their own reasons for running a half marathon. Some say it's a gateway distance to a marathon, marathoners often say a 'half' keeps them in shape for a 'full', and other runners say the 21.1km distance is enough to keep them focused and energised.

Churchill is gearing up for the big race later this month. He says it's not the distance of a half marathon that lures him, rather the opportunity to run through his home town alongside pumped up and super happy runners. "I'm also very determined, so if I set a task of any distance I do what I can to achieve it."

You have to train

Don't be fooled by the triumphant Facebook and Instagram posts of fellow runners. Choosing one of the many training plans available will improve your chances of finishing and being able to walk the next day.

Churchill starts training two months out from race day. "I'm not just a runner. I involve myself in all things fitness, so I have a solid base of cardio fitness," he says.

"Ahead of a half marathon, I aim to get to the point where I'm running 30 to 40km a week, up to two weeks before the race. But every runner is different, so it's important to alter your training to your specific needs," Churchill adds.  

If done correctly, it's possible to crash train for a half marathon. The key is building fitness quickly without taking big risks, which is achieved by frequency and intensity. Doing cardio almost every day such as running, walking or cross-training will help you make the most of the time you have.

Don't just run

Sure, you need to clock up the kilometres to build strength in your legs, feet, upper body, lungs and heart. But you also need to get serious about cross training to round out your training program.

A typical training week for Churchill involves rowing, kettlebells, running, resistance work, sprints and weights. "When training for a long distance running event, I still do these activities but change the parameters such as time or intensity," he says.

"To build my cardio capacity I do a lot of High Intensity Interval Training. I like doing hill sprints mixed with a row or bike ride to ease the pressure on my joints two to three times a week. These training sessions combined with weights help me to run a long-repeated distance but improve my speed over time."

Don't forget about recovery

One of the most important aspects of improving as a runner and staying injury-free is recovery, especially recovery after a long-distance training.

Build rest days into your training program, don't skip over post-race stretching, get plenty of sleep, foam roll a lot, have sports massages and eat well and drink enough water.

"A lot of people I know neglect the recovery and food components of their training plan," says Churchill. "As a Chef, the food part is easy for me. I never treat food as fuel and I ensure I eat foods with plenty of colour in the months leading up to race day."

Gear up

Given the average time to complete a half marathon is just over two hours, it pays to make sure the gear you're running in is comfortable. Visit a running shoe store to test out the latest styles, and to save your toenails – let the experts size you. Women runners should also get fitted for a new training/running bra as they only last a year.

Churchill says having the right clothing is important. "Pending the conditions, I wear clothing that is breathable because I want my skin to be able to aerate and sweat. If I'm running a lot of hills, I wear tights to help manage lactic acid build up, but on flat tracks I wear shorts with a liner."

"I never leave for a run without my snapback hat (not conventional for running, but this is a personal thing) and my Apple Watch so that I can track my heart rate, pace and distance," Churchill adds.

Planning on running your first half marathon? Share your training tips in the comments section below.

The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.

Follow Laura Hill on Twitter

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