Running is both mentally and physically exhausting, but for some reason, I love it. After I signed up for my first half marathon, I instantly looked to the internet for help. I already worked out about five to six times a week and included running during at least two to three, but I'd never followed a strict training plan.

How many times should I run in a week, and for how long? What should I eat and when? I found it difficult to get answers for a lot of my questions because a majority of everything I found online was geared towards running a marathon, not a half marathon.

But isn't that basically the same thing?

In a sense, yes. You're still running a very long distance (okay, maybe not compared to all of you super marathoners out there—I don't know how you guys/girls do it) and your body is going to need a lot of the same kind of fuel and preparation that a marathon runner would need. However, it's important to remember that every run is different.

A lot of information given about marathon training can be helpful for half marathon training too, to a certain degree. Even though I didn't strictly follow marathon tips, I did end up using some of them as general guidelines. Especially if a half marathon is your first big race, like it was for me, it's going to be a learning process filled with a lot of trial and error.

I learned a lot during my training, and I changed a lot because of the training and what I learned by going through with it. Here are some things that half marathon training taught me.

1. Portion control is important.

chicken, rice, fried rice, vegetable
Ashleigh Monaco

When my runs started getting longer, I saw it as the perfect excuse to cover anything and everything with a mountain of peanut butter (the more peanut butter the better, right?). But even though I was burning hundreds (sometimes over a thousand) calories just in my morning run, I was surprised to feel like I was actually gaining weight from it.

You absolutely should increase your calorie intake on the days that you run, especially as your runs start to get longer and longer, so you don't deprive your body of the energy it needs. Treating yourself after a hard workout is fine, but be careful not to go too crazy. Keep your portion sizes balanced with how long your run or workout is each day. You don't want to starve yourself, but you also don't want to eat way more than necessary.

Listen to your body: when you're hungry, eat; when you're not hungry, don't. It's also key to make sure you're getting enough of the protein, fat, and carbs you need. If you're in need of some ideas, here's some ideas about what to eat before and after a workout.   

2. Your body needs time to SERIOUSLY adjust to long distance runs.

The first time I ran over twelve miles, I ended up limping up five flights of stairs back to my dorm room—and limping for the next five days—because I strained a muscle in my leg. My thought was that, since I was already running 8 mile runs every once in awhile, I should be fine running just a few extra miles, right? But as you start running longer and longer distances, you really have to take the time to get your body used to it—even if that means only increasing your distance by .5 miles every run.

Know your body's limits and give it time to adjust. You could risk seriously straining yourself. Unless you're used to running at or close to a half marathon distance, make sure there is enough time between the day you start training and the day of the race so you can steadily increase your distance without injuring yourself. I now know that I really need to listen to my body, especially when I'm running really long distances. If anything hurts, I either stop running immediately or cut my run short, and I never jump to a distance I'm not used to running.

3. Know what weather you're going to be dealing with.

grass, water, bird
Ashleigh Monaco

Okay, so this basically goes for any race, but especially for long distance runs, it will help to know what you'll be dealing with on race day weather-wise. You're probably going to be out running for 2+ hours during a half marathon (or maybe less... shoutout to you five-minute mile runners), so if you hate running in the cold and can't stand wearing joggers or leggings, don't sign up for a race that's at the end of November.

I registered for the race and began training in August, but the actual race was in mid-October. It was hard to get myself out there early in the morning before class as the weather got cooler, since it was cold AND dark, but I realized how important it was for me to get used to running in the cold weather. And then of course, come race day—it was 70 degrees. Go figure, thanks Iowa. But in general, you should realize what weather you're going to be running in.

4. Your body is going to change—AND IT'S OKAY.

water, beer
Ashleigh Monaco

If you're already working out on a regular basis, you probably already have some muscle. But I'll be honest: before training, I worked out and ran plenty, but ever since I hit that ten-mile mark and went up from there, my legs have never been more muscular than they are now after only two months of training. If training for a half marathon is your first experience with super long distance running, then you body is in for a serious surprise.

Like I said before about getting your body used to those really long distances, as soon as your 10+ mile runs start getting more frequent, your body is going to show it. You're going to be working your body extra hard, so enjoy the #gainz and flaunt how strong you are. It took me some time to get used to it, but now I'm proud of how strong my legs have gotten.

5. Cross train cross train cross train!

coffee, wine, beer, espresso
Ashleigh Monaco

I'm sure you've heard about the benefits of including strength training in a training plan for marathon runners, but I'm telling you it's just as important for half marathon runners to do the same! Even if you are running only half the distance, strength training can seriously benefit your body.

It'll make you stronger and build endurance —especially HIIT (high intensity interval training) workouts. I never got bored with running because I was mixing up my workouts. I worked different parts of my body, so I put less strain on my legs.

Whether you run three miles or thirty, cross-training will make a difference. I didn't run for an entire week (because of the injury I mentioned earlier) but still went to the gym for strength training, and when I started running again, I didn't feel sluggish or tired. I still had great endurance and my body was still strong.

6. A training plan isn't always necessary.

My first instinct when I signed up for my race was to find a training plan and commit myself to it for the next seven weeks. But I quickly realized that a strict training regimen wasn't really necessary, at least for me.

Some days I ran four miles, some days I ran three; then there were days when I would run seven or eight, and some days I ran twelve. I knew to keep my running distances varied, and I knew to take days off from running during the week either to rest or do strength training.  

The only things I would hands down recommend are to not run over nine miles within four days of your race (you don't want to tire yourself out) and do not run the day before your race.

7. You need to really LOVE your playlist.

I never realized how many songs I had on my running playlist that didn't even hype me up, because when I ran shorter runs, there was never enough time for them to come on. When my time went up from forty minutes to an hour and a half, a bunch of songs started coming on that only made me groan and want to change it.

After plenty of deleting and adding, I finally found a mix that worked for me and didn't make me annoyed for eight miles straight. Making a playlist that pumps you up instead of bringing you down makes those long distance runs a whole lot easier (and more enjoyable!)

Ashleigh Monaco

Training for my first half marathon was definitely a learning experience. Some foods worked for me, others did not at all. I discovered that as much as I like hiking on trails, I don't like running on them so much. I thought countless times that I finally found the perfect playlist to listen to, up until a streak of terrible songs came on and lasted for four miles.

I was also advised to buy new running shoes, and I did, only to trip over the laces twice during the actual race (within the first mile and a half, oops) and get super bruised and cut up.

That being said, you never know exactly what could happen when the race actually starts (like I mentioned, 70 degrees in Iowa, mid-October. Okay.). But I learned a lot from training, about myself and about running that I can use for future races, and going in with some preparation helped mentally and physically get me as ready as I could be.