Chances are, if you aren’t a regular reader of this blog, then you found this post because you Googled something along the lines of how to run a race without training. I know, I’ve been there and have googled it myself.
Obviously, I can’t recommend that anyone run any kind of race without properly training for it. But realistically, I know it happens. You sign up for a race, thinking you have plenty of time to train and then life gets in the way. You get injured, get sick, get busy, or you just procrastinate. But damn it, you paid for that race entry fee so you’re determined to run, right?
I have completed eight half marathons in my life so far, and two of them were done without training for them. I had completely opposite experiences with those two races based on the amount of running knowledge that I had and my overall fitness level at the time.
I am writing this post to shorten your learning curve and to give you the knowledge you need to get through whatever race you are going to attempt, whether it’s a half marathon or a shorter race. Even if you are not running a race but simply want to start running, this information will put you on the right track.
First of all, are you sure you should be doing this?
Perhaps you have little to no experience running or are in poor shape… I’ve done that.
I ran my first half marathon in 2003 at age 25. In fact, it was the first road race I ever ran in. (I highly recommend starting with a 5K.) At that point in my life, I did not run, I did not exercise, and I did not eat healthy. I appeared fit because I’m a small person but in actuality, I was in terrible physical and cardiovascular shape. I did not train for this race and I didn’t know anything about running. I wore the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes, and I knew nothing about hydration, fuel, pacing, or breathing. Needless to say, the race was complete misery, I lost four toenails afterwards, and vowed never to run again. Had I known then what I know now, I would have had a better experience.
Or perhaps you are an experienced runner or are in decent shape… I’ve done that too.
The second half marathon that I ran without training was actually my 8th one done at age 38. I had taken two whole years off of all running and exercise due to continuous illness and health issues. I signed up for a half marathon with 3 months to train but I quickly got injured and had to stop training. The farthest I ran before that half marathon was only 2.5 miles. However, this time I had a lot of knowledge about running, my overall health and fitness level was better than that first time, and I knew exactly what to expect. This race went much better than I thought it would and was an amazing experience.
So, is it possible to run a half marathon without training? Yes! Will it be enjoyable? I can’t guarantee that but you will feel an exhilarating sense of accomplishment when you cross the finish line even if it’s not.
How to finish a half marathon without training for it:
1. Most importantly, set your mind on “finishing” not on “running”. If you have not trained properly, you should not expect to run the entire race. News flash: You are not going to win! You will earn the same medal and bragging rights when you cross that finish line regardless of how long it takes you. So don’t bother pushing yourself beyond your limitations this time. Take it slow and easy, enjoy the scenery, and just focus on getting to that finish line without injuring yourself.
2. Do a run/walk pattern. Breaking up the miles into a pattern helps them pass more quickly and helps with your endurance. You can do any sort of pattern that works for you. For example, I did a pattern of running .4 miles and then walking .2 miles because it felt good and was easy to keep track of on my GPS watch. You could also choose to do a pattern based on time rather than distance, which you could do with a regular watch or phone timer. You could even walk the entire race, and believe it or not, you would not be the only one doing that. Just remember, you have to at least run a little bit to be able to tell people that you ran a half marathon. Most races will give you a 4 hour time limit which gives you 18 minutes to finish each mile… that’s plenty of time!
3. Pay attention to your breathing. This is vital to your running success as it helps with your pacing and endurance. Focus on breathing with your steps. The most ideal breathing ratio for running is: inhale for 3 steps and exhale for 2 steps OR inhale for 2 steps and exhale for 3 steps, whichever feels better for you. A ratio of inhale for 2 steps and exhale for 2 steps is also fine but if you start breathing at a 2:1 ratio or 1:1 ratio, then you are going too fast… unless that finish line is in sight. Slow down or walk until your breathing feels comfortable.
4. Watch your Pace. Your pace is the speed which you run, spoken of as minutes per mile. You will need to run and/or walk at a pace that you can sustain for 2 to 4 hours. The biggest mistake rookie racers make is starting the race running way too fast, which is very easy to do because you are excited and will be tempted to keep up with the people around you. You will only succeed in wasting energy and burning out quickly, which will make the rest of the race all the more difficult. Ignore everyone else, let them pass you, and focus on doing your own thing. Rely on your breathing to let you know if you are running at a good pace.
5. Wear the right shoes. Buy a pair of shoes that are specifically made for running. It is very important that you buy your shoes 1/2 to 2 sizes larger than what you normally wear, depending on the make of the shoe. You need a thumb’s width space between your longest toe and the tip of your shoe. Your toenails will thank you. Your shoes should have a roomy toe box and a snug heel. They should also offer sufficient support and cushioning, and not rub or put pressure in any one spot. Different brands of shoes fit differently and can feel sized differently so try many on and go with what feels best. Once I found a brand of shoes that worked for me, I stopped losing toenails after races.
6. Wear the right clothing. Fitness clothing, including socks and underwear, is specifically made for exercise and running. It is lightweight, moisture wicking, and dries quickly; whereas everyday cotton clothing gets heavier when wet, takes longer to dry, and doesn’t move with you the same way. Make sure your clothing and undergarments won’t chafe you from rubbing and make sure everything stays in place while you run to avoid having to constantly adjust. If your thighs rub together when you run, consider wearing compression or fitted pants or shorts to keep material between them or use an anti-chaffing product like Body Glide. It’s also important to consider the temperature and the fact that you will warm up once you start running. It’s better to be a bit chilly at the start of the race than too hot partway through, having to carry the layers you take off for the remainder of the race. If needed, a better option is to wear a layer that can be discarded once you warm up. Many races will have people collect discarded clothing along the course and donate it or give it to thrift stores.
7. Keep gear to a minimum. You don’t need much to run a race with much which is good because even light things get heavy after carrying them for a couple of hours. I recommend a hat to keep sweat, hair, sun, and rain off of your face, a GPS watch is very helpful but optional, energy gels are a must, and an audio source with ear buds is great to have because listening to something while you run, such as music, podcasts, or audio books, will help the time go by more quickly. Whatever audio source you choose, make sure it will clip to your clothes, fit in a pocket, or stow in an arm band. Other things, such as your gels and car key, can go in a pocket, sports bra, or a running belt. The goal is to keep yourself feeling light and free.
8. Hydration and fuel. Do you need to carry a water bottle or wear a hydration belt or a hydration backpack? NO, unless you get excessively thirsty while running or you are running in very hot weather. Those things are simply extra weight to carry and are unnecessary because there will be regular water stations throughout the race and since you won’t be setting a personal time record this time, you can afford to slow down or stop at the stations to hydrate. Along with hydration, your body will need fuel. You should carry 2 to 4 energy gels with you and take one every 45 to 60 minutes, ideally right before you hit a water station so you can wash it down. There is a great variety of energy gels available – test them beforehand to find one you like. If you can’t take the texture of gel, there are plenty of gummy energy chews out there as well.
TIP: To drink while moving without spilling, squeeze the top of the cup together and suck the water through the narrow opening.
9. The day before the race – Visit the expo, pick up your race packet, attach your race number to your shirt and timing chip (if available) to your shoe, lay out everything you’ll wear and take to the race, cut your toenails as short as you can, charge any devices you will be using during the race, and figure out how to get to the starting line and where you’ll go when the race is over. Hydrate well all day, aiming for clear urine, and eat normal food. Do not eat heavy, high fat foods or foods that you’re not used to eating. You do not want your intestines dealing with all of that while you’re running if you know what I mean.
10. The morning of the race – Wake up extra early, drink water (and coffee if you normally drink it), eat something light and easy to digest (an energy bar, a bagel or toast with peanut butter, or oatmeal for example), and go to the bathroom (hopefully getting a #2 out of the way). Get to the race starting line early so you can find your corral and can use the bathroom again if needed. Warm up, stretch, and get a pre-race photo!
11. During the race – Stay mindful of your pace and breathing… remember, slow and steady! If you get a side cramp, breathe in a 2:2 pattern, exhaling on the foot opposite the side of the cramp. If you get a leg or hip cramp, stop and stretch it out as often as needed. Stay hydrated by getting drinks at the water stations and keep your body fueled up by taking an energy gel every 45 to 60 minutes. There will most likely be portable toilets at a few spots along the race course in case you need one, and there will also likely be a few medical tents along the course as well in case you need help with something. Keep an eye out for race photographers along the course, and smile as you cross that finish line even if you hurt all over!
12. After the race – Get your finisher’s medal and grab whatever snacks and drinks are available, get a post race photo, and then go find a quiet spot to rest, stretch, eat, and drink. You burned over 1,000 calories so go eat a great lunch somewhere… with dessert. If you can, treat yourself to a massage later that day because it will greatly help with muscle recovery. Finally, take it easy for a week or two and bask in the glory of your accomplishment. And if you happen to lose any toenails, don’t worry… they grow back.
You may be a little crazy for running a race without training for it, but if you’re determined and prepared, you can get through it and you’ll feel like a badass! You just may not be able to walk normally for a week or two afterwards. Do yourself a favor and make sure you train properly next time!
Never underestimate someone who runs 13.1 miles for fun.
Disclaimer: I am not a trained fitness or medical professional. The information contained here is for information purposes only. The information is not a substitute for professional medical care or advice.