You Can Run 13.1 Miles (Really)

Your first half-marathon awaits. Here's how to make it to the finish line.

Photograph by Getty Images/Vetta

I once interviewed a coach who's trained dozens of elite athletes, including some of the world's best cyclists and triathletes, and asked him, "What's the number-one mistake the average person makes in their training?" Having covered fitness and health for a bunch of years, I thought he'd say something like, "Overtrain, which gets them injured," or maybe, "They don't hydrate enough." What he said surprised me, though: "They don't pick a fitness goal that's challenging enough; they don't set the bar high enough."

In other words, too often, we phone it in. And once you're north of 40, you might think the risk of injury is too high, or that your body just can't take on a really ambitious goal, like running a marathon or, God forbid, completing an Ironman triathlon (that's a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on the bike, followed by a marathon to finish), or hiking some section of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, à la Cheryl Strayed, the author of the best-selling book, "Wild."

Pshaw, says Matt Fitzgerald, a long-time running coach, sports nutritionist and author of numerous books on running training, including this year's "The New Rules of Marathon and Half-Marathon Nutrition." "The great thing is that even if you don't have a fitness background, you don't lose the ability to gain fitness after 40 or 50," he says. "So if you start running at 50, you can expect to get fitter for several years before you plateau. You need to take the long view: Aerobic development is a process that takes years."

So, for most of us who are in decent health, we can accomplish a major fitness goal — even one we wouldn't have attempted in our younger years. I know this because I am doing it right now, at the age of 48. In August, I started training with a Los Angeles running club, the L.A. Leggers, to run a half-marathon (13.1 miles). Every Saturday morning, starting at an ungodly hour, we run the prescribed mileage (our weekly "long run"), with views of the Pacific Ocean that somehow make the pre-dawn alarm absolutely worth it. My target is a February 2014 race; having already run 10 miles­ — something I had never done before (my previous highest-ever mileage was 6 miles, and that was in my early 30s) — I know I can do it. Words that, a couple of months ago, I wasn't sure I would be able to write.

I'm far from alone in my enthusiasm for the 13.1-mile distance, which I chose as a possible precursor to a full marathon down the road. According to Running USA, the half-marathon is now the most popular distance for a running race in the U.S. by a number of measures. In 2012, 1.85 million runners — a new high — finished half-marathons, an increase of almost 15 percent over 2011. Over the last 10 years, the half has been the fastest-growing distance and, since 2000, the number of finishers has almost quadrupled. Sixty percent of finishers were women (a record) and in 2012, 41 percent were 40 or older (what's referred to as "Masters" in running parlance).

Hopefully, I've convinced you to at least consider the idea that you, too, can run your first half-marathon and now you're asking, "Where would I start?" I asked that question of Fitzgerald, since he's the expert. Here are his basic guidelines:

DO pay attention to carbs. When you're training for a 5K (3.1 miles) and a 10K (6.2 miles) you don't really need to change what you're eating, assuming your diet is already pretty healthy. But things change when you set your sights on a half-marathon. "Presumably you're now running more, and the more you run, the more your carb needs increase — that's your primary fuel source," says Fitzgerald. The baseline for a minimally active runner is to take in 4 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram (kg) of body weight, he adds. "Then you'll want to increase that by adding an extra gram of carbs per kilogram of weight for every 20 miles per week that you run," he explains. "That's a good rule of thumb." (If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, that's about 68 kg, or 272 grams of carbs per day for the minimally active runner. If you up your running to 20 miles each week, that would increase your carb intake to 5 grams per kg, or 340 g of carbs daily.) Aim for whole (not refined) grains and fruits. For a half-marathon, Fitzgerald says, you don't really need to make any other dietary changes.

DO protect yourself against injury. "Getting injured is a big issue for all runners and it only becomes more of an issue as you get older," cautions Fitzgerald. "That's largely because you lose strength and joint stability as you get older and joint instability is the main factor that predisposes you to injury." Spend gym time focusing on building stronger knees, hips and pelvis, in particular. "You can do that through strength training, yoga, strengthening your core, doing Pilates," Fitzgerald suggests. "I recommend this to people of all ages, but for people over 40, it's essential."

DON'T just do running training. Spending time at the gym, or doing other types of non-running exercise, won't just help protect you against getting injured, it's also essential to make you a better runner. "Runners need to understand that the more you train, the better you'll do," says Fitzgerald, 42, who started running at 11. That means doing something active every single day. I had already been doing a boot camp three or four days a week, with little running, when I started with the L.A. Leggers and I assumed I'd have a tough transition to make back into running. Not so. Because I picked a more conservative pace group (I'm a 13-minute-mile runner) and already had a strong base of fitness (mostly strength, not a lot of cardio) in place, I've found the long runs mostly enjoyable. Unlike people years and sometimes decades younger than me, the runs are challenging but absolutely doable. Fitzgerald agrees: "The more you invest in your training, the more you'll get out of it, and the more pleasant an experience [your half-marathon] will be."

DON'T go out too hard. "The single most common mistake that runners make in their training is running a little too intensively, too often," warns Fitzgerald. "If you just go to a local park and listen to the breathing of runners as they pass you you'll notice that almost all of them are breathing really hard. That's not the most effective place to be." Aim instead to run at a lower intensity for 80 percent of your runs, he says. "At that pace, you'll be able to carry on a conversation; you can speak comfortably in complete sentences ... There's research to prove you'll improve more with the same amount of running if you truly take it easy 80 percent of the time," adds Fitzgerald, who says he has runners recite the Pledge of Allegiance periodically on runs. "If they can get through it fairly comfortably they really are at a low intensity. You may have to walk instead of run to pass that talk test and that's fine. Eventually, you'll get fitter." For the remaining 20 percent of your runs, you should be at a moderate to high intensity

Tags: fitness