Should I Run a Half Marathon Before Running a Full?

A young woman uses her smartphone as she jogs along a road in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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Any healthy person who is willing to make the commitment to training can complete a marathon. But it is helpful if you have some running experience before you take on the 26.2-mile challenge.

Some new runners may sign up for a 5K or a 10K race during the months before their big event. But some also wonder: "Should I run a half marathon before running a marathon?"

While participating in a half marathon is not necessary for successful completion of a marathon, completing the race will provide you with helpful experience that can make your longer event more enjoyable.

Benefits of Running a Half Marathon

Once you've established a good, solid running base, it's definitely a smart idea to complete a half marathon (13.1 miles) before a full marathon.

Participating in a half marathon during training will provide specific benefits that can enhance your overall marathon training program, make your race day experience more enjoyable, and may even improve performance at your full marathon.

Manage Race-Day Jitters

There is nothing that prepares you for race day nervousness quite like participating in a race. Even if you have logged hundreds of training miles, it's likely that you will experience race-day jitters on the morning of your big event. Race-day anxiety can even cause stomach problems and other issues that can affect your confidence.

Most seasoned runners are familiar with these emotions and have developed strategies to deal with them. For example, they may get to the start line early so that they have plenty of time to make numerous bathroom runs before getting into their corral. Some might listen to a motivating pre-race playlist. Some runners find confidence in talking to other runners, while others prefer quiet time before they run.

A pre-marathon half will give you the opportunity to find out what works best for you. Race day jitters are a near certainty. It's smart to have a personalized plan in place to manage them.

Establish Race Morning Habits

In addition to race day nerves, there are other helpful practices to establish for the morning of your race.

For example, there are different ways to attach your bib number. Some runners attach it to the front of their t-shirt. While this may work well for a shorter race such as a 5K or 10K, you may be more comfortable with an alternative for a longer race.

Some runners attach their bib number to a race belt so that if they remove a t-shirt or jacket during the race, their number is still viewable. Other runners attach their bib number to their leggings or pants for the same reason.

Also, you should practice warming up before the race. Some runners prefer to run an easy 400-600 yards before the race begins. You might need to do some light stretching or drills before heading to your corral.

Establishing these race-day practices will help you to feel more secure and confident on the morning of your marathon. Of course, they won't eliminate nervousness altogether, but having a routine will help you to manage your jitters.

Practice Race-Day Skills

Once your half marathon is underway, you'll have the opportunity to practice running race skills that will be helpful during the marathon. When you participate in shorter races, you may not have the opportunity to practice these key skills as much as you do during a half marathon.

Starting Pace

For example, if you run a 5K, you might start the run much faster than you would during a marathon. In a shorter race, you need to hit your target pace sooner because the mileage is shorter.

But during a marathon or half marathon, runners usually start off with a moderate pace and gradually increase to their target race pace. Not only does it give them a chance to gradually warm up, but marathons and half marathons are also more crowded. So it is likely that during the first mile or so, you'll be held back in a crowded pack.

Aid Stations

Also, during a 5K you might run through a water stop once. In fact, some runners don't stop for water at all during shorter events. So, you don't get to practice learning how to run and drink water.

Fueling Strategies

Lastly, you're also not likely to need gels or other fuel during shorter races. A half marathon offers you the opportunity to test out how it feels to fuel during a race.

Practicing your starting pace strategy, running through aid stations, and getting comfortable with fueling methods will help you to feel more comfortable during the marathon.

Test Your Endurance

The mental and physical endurance required to run a half marathon or marathon is very different than the endurance needed to run a shorter race. In fact, even long training runs don't prepare you for the grit needed to sustain your pace and motivation during the event.

During training runs, it is not uncommon to stop along the way to grab water, open a gel packet, tie your shoes, adjust your clothing or simply to take a break. Depending on your course, you may also have to stop to cross the street or take other breaks. These short breaks give your brain and your body a chance to relax for a minute.

But race day is different. Even though you can stop momentarily, the clock keeps ticking during a marathon or half marathon. Every time you stop you add seconds or minutes to your finish time. You're under added pressure to keep going.

Participating in a half marathon will give you a sense of what this feels like. You may even adjust your long training runs as a result—taking fewer stops along the way to prepare your body and your brain for the long haul.

Establish Endurance Pace

If you race a half marathon before your marathon, you'll have a better opportunity to establish your endurance race pace. While you might have an idea of your marathon pace from running long training distances, you're likely to get a better sense of your speed when you actually participate in a competitive event.

Based on your half marathon finish time, you'll be able to adjust your speed during pre-marathon training. If you're working with a coach (in a group or solo) make sure he or she knows how you did and how you felt so that you can establish goal times for your long training runs.

Your half marathon time is also helpful in determining expectations for your marathon finish time.

Gain Improved Awareness

If you run a half marathon for the first time before your marathon, it will give you a better sense of the challenge that you accepted by signing up for a marathon. Ask yourself a few questions when the race is complete.

Can you see yourself running twice as far? Was the accomplishment satisfying? Was the time put into training worth the end result? If the answers to these questions is "no," then you may want to re-think your marathon commitment.

There is nothing wrong with not running a marathon and you certainly don't want to put the long hours and energy into training for a marathon if crossing the finish line doesn't feel great.

How to Plan Your Pre-Marathon Half

If you're a new runner, you should give yourself at least 3-4 months of training to prepare for a half marathon. Check out some half marathon training schedules for beginner runners. If this is a first half marathon for you, you might also consider running with a group for added motivation.

Finding a local half marathon is not too hard in most areas, and you can fit into your marathon training schedule at any point after you've reached 10 miles for your long run.

Choose your half marathon wisely. If you can choose a course that resembles your marathon course, you'll benefit more from the experience. For example, if your full marathon course is hilly, choosing a hilly half is a smart plan.

After Your Pre-Marathon Half

After you train for and complete a half marathon, you'll be in a better position to know if you have the desire and time to take on the full marathon. Running a half marathon is also a good way to determine whether your body can withstand the rigors of training for a long distance race.

Some runners decide after training for a half marathon that they don't want to risk getting injured while training for a full marathon. That's okay.

If you decide to move forward, use all available tools to maximize your marathon experience. For example, if you struggled on hills, make sure you add more incline training to your program. If your pace wavered from mile to mile, invest in a running watch that provides pace data and learn to run at a steady pace.

Connect with your coach or use online tools to establish a reasonable time goal for your marathon based on your half marathon performance. Make adjustments to your training plan as needed to reach that goal.

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