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A Coach Shares 7 Common Half Marathon Mistakes She Sees

Q: I’m running my first half marathon next month. I’m excited but scared that my race will go horribly wrong! How can I avoid screwing it up? —Colleen

The emotions you are feeling are completely natural. If you lined up 100 first-time half-marathoners and asked who was nervous, you’d see 100 hands in the air. Pushing outside of your comfort zone is part of the journey.

While you have no reason to be scared—racing is fun!—there are a few common errors that first-timers (and old pros!) make that may create a less enjoyable day. Here’s how to avoid them…

MISTAKE #1: Trying something new race week

When it comes to racing, stick with what you know. Eat familiar foods, wear your go-to running apparel and shoes and don’t go crazy at dinner the night before. During the race, use only the gels or chews you’ve eaten in training. It may be tempting to try something new to give you an edge—but resist the urge in order to prevent chafing, stomach issues and pinched feet.

MISTAKE #2: Hurrying through the aid stations

Hydration and energy are two very important ingredients in half-marathon success. It can be tempting to zoom through the aid stations to save time, but when you do, you’re likely to get the fluid on your shirt rather than in your stomach. Run toward the center set of tables. (Avoid the first tables. That’s where everyone stops, so the course bottlenecks.) Next, identify a volunteer by looking her in the eye or pointing, take the fluids, thank the volunteer and be on your way.

MISTAKE #3: Getting in that last long run one week before the race

One of my clients had a nervous habit of running a 12-miler the week before the race to make sure she was ready, but all it did was appease her mind. I persuaded her to take it easy, and she shaved 10 minutes off her personal best! Remember, the most important thing you can do the week before a race is rest. You won’t gain fitness—and trying to cram in training will cause you to toe the line fatigued.

Mistake #4: Running like the hare rather than the tortoise

This is the number-one mistake runners of all experience levels make on race day. It’s remarkably easy to get caught up in the excitement and run too hard too soon. Try this tactic to avoid the crash and burn: Run the first half at a comfortable pace, run the third quarter at a moderately difficult effort and the final quarter in the red zone—a hard, but controlled, effort that uses your last bit of energy.

Mistake #5: Concentrating on the distance

My family used to tell me, “That’s a long way to drive, let alone run!” They were right—but those sorts of thoughts don’t help you at the start line. A better strategy is to approach the start line with a simple mental strategy: to eat the elephant one bite at a time. Break the distance up into smaller, more digestible pieces and focus on the mile you’re running—not the ones you have left to go.

Mistake #6: Running too far

When a certified course is measured, it follows the roads along the shortest possible route. This means following the tangents to the curves. Don’t cross the street and back, avoid taking wide turns and run straight diagonal lines (tangents) to get from point to point. If you don’t, you can add a quarter mile or longer to the race!

Mistake #7: Setting your hopes and dreams on a finish time

When you create a specific goal time, anything slower than that will seem like failure. Avoid defining “success” as a finishing time. Racing just doesn’t work this way. There are a bundle of factors (like an unseasonably hot day or an unexpected muscle cramp) that can affect your race-day performance. It’s wise to set your goals on finishing strong and celebrating every mile along the way because you only get to run your first half marathon once. Enjoy it!

Jenny Hadfield is the co-author of Running for Mortals and Marathoning for Mortals. You can find more of her training programs, tips and running classes at coachjenny.com.