Think running a half marathon isn’t possible at your age? Well, if I did it, so can you! Find out how in my Over 40s guide to your first half-marathon!
In October 2017 I ran my first half-marathon. I met my goal of running it without stopping once to walk, and finished in just over two and a half hours.
For me, completing this was a massive achievement. This was mainly because I was 43 and I didn’t start running until I was almost 41.
In addition, I have never been into sports of any kind, apart from a brief flirtation with netball when I was 9 and in the bottom of the six teams for my year level. I pulled a sick-day for every school cross-country I ever had, and virtually had a non-stop period for every one of my physical education lessons in high school.
So what changed? you ask.
The truth is, it was FOMO.
When I was 40, my husband, step mother, sister and brother, all ran the Round the Bays 10 kilometer event in Wellington, New Zealand, while my father and I waited to cheer them at the finish line. As I watched them cross over, filled with the triumph of their achievement, I vowed that I would never be on the sideline like that again.
I was also steadily putting on that pre-menopausal weight (that’s what I like to blame it on anyway), and over the course of the year, the number on the scale kept creeping up. By December of that year, I knew that something was going to have to give. I decided to start running.
Within about five months I could run 10 kilometers. To my surprise, I found that overall I generally enjoyed it. It didn’t just reduce stress – it created a wellspring of calm within me, which was not something I was used to – the hyper-alert, existing on ten cups of coffee, typical Type A had always been much more me.
But fast forward to the beginning of 2017. I had stopped running for about six or seven months while we were building our house, under the excuse that I was too busy. The weight gain I had managed to keep under control was now back with a vengeance. In fact I was weighing the heaviest I ever had in my life, with the exception of when I was pregnant with my first child. I wanted to start running again. And to up the ante, I decided that not only would I start running again, but that I would run my first half-marathon that year.
And as you can tell from my first paragraph – I did. It was hard. It was long. But I made it, and the feeling of achieving my goal when I crossed that finish line, my husband holding my hand, was beyond awesome.
So now that I’ve done one, I’d like to share with you my tips for running your first half marathon when you’re in your forties. Please note, these tips are my opinions ONLY. I more than recommend that you get yourself checked out by a doctor before you commence any new exercise regime.
Have a plan
Okay, so I’m assuming that at this point, you don’t run at all, but you’ve been to the doctor and got clearance to start. So I would begin with the Couch to 5k. This is hands-down the best program for new runners.
The first time I started running, my husband was my timekeeper. That was quite hard work, as he needed to remember when to stop and start, run and walk. The second time, I spent the small sum of under $5 and downloaded the app. The app integrates with your music, and tells you what to do when, as well as a few other handy features. I can’t recommend it enough.
The Couch to 5k taught me several things. The first one was to stick to my plan. Too many people decide to start exercising, and go out and try to run a couple of km, do it too fast, find it painful and miserable, and never get any further with it. If you feel great at the end of a run and like you can keep going – trust me – don’t .
I credit this fact, consistently limiting myself to three days a week exercise, and the five minutes walk at the beginning and end of every run as the reason why I have never had a serious injury, despite my lack of running experience.
Once you have completed the 9 week program, it’s time to move on to the next challenge- 10km.
Now there ARE apps you can do for this as well, but this is where I parted ways with the Couch to 5k and went to Map My Run instead.
The reason for this is that the Couch to 10k had too much focus on time rather than distance, and involved speed work, which I’ve never done. I’ll talk more about the time versus distance later.
I used Map My Run to track my runs. You can upgrade for special features but you really don’t need to.
I spent a lot of time scouring the internet for free half-marathon plans. My criteria was that it had to be a three day a week training plan and take about six months. Yes, this journey to be a half-marathon runner will take you about as long as it does to conceive and birth a child.
I eventually decided to do the Long training time for beginners and casual runners plan that is on this half marathon, 10km and 5km plans page. However I never did any cross training or any of the speed work or hill work mentioned.
Get the right shoes (and socks, and tights, and singlet, and sports bra…)
Okay, so now you have the plan, it’s time to get the gear.
The first thing is footwear. This is a real must do. Go to a proper athletic shoe store where they have a machine for you to run on to assess your pronation (I am sure the machine has a name but I have no idea what it is). Pronation is the word that describes what your foot does when it hits the ground and is generally related to whether you have flat feet or high arches. You need to know this because good shoes are designed for different types of pronation.
Getting running gear can be expensive, so I went for buying the last season’s model, which was almost half the price of this year’s and had little difference with the exception of color. Take your time, and get what feels comfortable. You don’t want a too small shoe, as this will lead to damaged toenails and so on.
Once you have the shoes, get some socks. Now, I bought some specific running socks, but I have to say that leading into my second half, I’m going to purchase some running socks particularly for long distances. The ones I had would get sweaty around 15km in but on my actual half, perhaps because there were some hills involved, got wet 10km in and added to my foot pain.
Next you need running leggings and a singlet for summer, and a long sleeved top for winter.
Finally, get a sports bra. I have to admit that I didn’t buy one until about two months before my half. Even though I have a small bust, it was so much better running without bouncing all over the place.
Have a running buddy
To get through the next nine months, you’re going to need someone by your side. Luckily, I had my husband, who was already a runner and loved physical exercise. The main reason you need a running buddy is otherwise it is just TOO easy to not do a run. If someone else is expecting you to show up, you’re going to feel more committed.
I am actually quite cunning at convincing my husband not to run, so recently I’ve upped the ante by having Run Tuesday at work, where I encourage my colleagues to come for 6km run. This has proved even better at making me accountable to my goals.
Be the tortoise not the hare
One of my mantras has always been to focus on the distance, not the speed.
I am not running to compete with anyone else. I am running for my own mental wellbeing, my health, and my satisfaction at reaching my goals.
This is the reason why I don’t do the speed-work in my training plans. I don’t care how fast I do any runs. I just need to finish them. It’s also pretty much why my pace is the same whether I’m running a 5km or a 21km.
Over time, I have definitely got faster – but that isn’t the goal.
I’m not saying this is necessarily the best way to approach it but it works for me.
Train in the rain
I did training runs in some pretty appalling conditions. But you know what? The showers I had after those runs felt ridiculously good.
And in addition, I prepared myself for whatever happened come race day. Think about it. If you use bad weather as an excuse not to run, how are you going to cope on the day if it starts pouring down? Will you be able to handle it as your sodden shoes squelch with every step or as the rain lashes into your eyes? The same works for heat. While most half-marathons will be in the early morning, real life means that many of your training runs won’t be.
Acclimatization is the best form of defense. You want to expose yourself to as many conditions as possible so you become more and more used to not accepting the excuses you make for yourself as to why you can’t run today.
Enter mid-distance races
Once you’ve finished the giddy euphoria of mastering 5km, the six months to the half can take an awfully long time.
To help yourself get through this with motivation and focus, I suggest you enter yourself into a few races, such as a 5km at the end of the Couch to 5k. Other good ones are 10km and a 15 or 16km. Look for races around these distances that occur around the time you’re hitting these distances in your training plans.
The other benefit of entering these races is that you will learn what it’s like to participate in an event. It’s a different beast being in a group of people. The rush to start can make many people burn off at a greater pace than they’re used to. As a result, they can peak too early and not finish.
Just do it
I used to think that everyone else found it easy to exercise, but most people actually don’t. The truth is, it is really easy to persuade yourself not to do something. You will tell yourself you can’t do it because you have to take the kids somewhere, you have a meeting at work, you are simply too busy.
The best way to avoid this is to not to let yourself think about this at all. You do this by getting the run done first thing in the morning. If that doesn’t work, you get it done first thing after work. For example, I have learnt that if I take my running gear to work and do my run from there, I am about five times more likely to exercise than if I go home first and get changed.
I would sometimes find myself dreading the exercise and then I told myself to not even think about the fact I was going to have to do it – but just do it when the time came.
Thinking you have a choice makes it more likely for you to come up with excuses. Working out how you can make these training runs non-negotiable is your best bet for success.
Give yourself grace
At the same time, if you miss a run or two, cut yourself some slack. Over that six months of training, I probably missed close to 10 runs. Some of them were due to illness, some due to a holiday, some because despite trying to do the above, I just could not be bothered.
I didn’t finish the race as well as I might have had I not missed these runs, but at the same time, I still made it. Beating up on yourself will cause more damage than missing these runs will.
Although I didn’t mention this above, one way around this is to actually build in an extra week or two into your training plan so that you can have a breather if life gets in the way without having too much of an impact.
Know your bladder
Long runs are super important and one of the reasons is that you get to learn what your hydration and toilet needs are, which is very important for us women of this age!
Everyone is different and experimentation is the key here.
Before a long run, preparation actually starts the day before. I make sure I drink at least a couple of liters over the course of the day. Then in the morning, I have a couple of coffees and drink just over a liter of water. I go to the toilet just before I start running. If a run is over 14km, then I need to hydrate about 10km in. When we were doing these long runs, we planned the route to go past a friend’s house. She would leave a glass of water in her mailbox for us.
If I do this, I am always hydrated enough and never have to go to the toilet.
But everyone is different and this took me time and practice to work out.
It’s also worth remembering that as we age, our bladders can start to play up, so be prepared. Plan a route that goes past some toilets just in case.
Know your gut
The other thing you need to know is your gut. Running long distances does crazy things to your digestive system. I make sure to always have gone to the toilet for that reason BEFORE a long run. Even then, getting cramps, having the urgent need to go to the toilet, and making a mad dash to the loo afterwards (if not during) has happened to all of us.
This is why consistency is key. Once you know what works, then stick to the same diet before your runs so your body knows what to expect. Eat at the same time on the day of your race. On the actual day of the race itself, don’t have any sports drink, gels or other items if you have not experimented with them before.
This may sound crazy and I don’t know how advisable it is, but I have always done all of my long runs, including the half, in a fasted state, apart from those two coffees.
If you’re really worried about this, then I suggest you check out How to avoid pooping during a race.
Check out the course
If at all possible, I recommend that you check out the course if you can prior to the event. About three weeks before my half, we went over to check out the route and run the beginning part of it. It had been sold as a fast and flat course, so I was taken aback when the beginning was a LOT hillier than expected and even involved steep steps due to a recent landslide.
So after we did that run, we stopped our super flat training runs and went back to running around our private road which has some hilly bits. I even started to push myself to run further and further up one particular hill with every lap.
As a result, I was able to run this part of the race without stopping to walk, because I knew where the elevation was and how long I had to push myself before I did get to that flat part.
You’ve got more in you than you think
Running really is a head game, and whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
For example, my sister ran the half-marathon with us and she made it without stopping even though she had only done about four or five training runs and the longest one was 12 km. But she wanted to complete it with us and she forced herself to do it.
I’m not recommending that, by the way. Her stomach played up for about a week and I don’t think she’s gone running since.
But it is proof that it can be done.
Here, I’m a big fan of the Navy Seals’ 40% rule. The rule states, “that when your mind is telling you you’re done, you’re really only 40 percent done”
To sum up: Running your first half-marathon at 40+
Deciding to run a half-marathon when you’ve never run before is challenging, but not impossible. And when you achieve your goal, you will feel a sense of achievement and pride like nothing else. Start with a good plan. Get the right gear and a buddy to help you keep on track. Make sure you get out and do it, regardless of weather, and use mid-distances races to keep yourself motivated. However, do give yourself grace if you slip up now and again. Remember the only person you are competing with is yourself. Practice enough to learn what your hydration, bladder and gut needs are, and the next thing you know, you’ll be crossing that finish line!
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