15 Mistakes Half and Full Marathoners Should Avoid

Whether it be running a half or full marathon, there's a lot that could go wrong during both training and on race day. Luckily, there are many training mistakes that you can avoid with a little preparation and foresight.

What Could Go Wrong

Every runner's worst fear is that after months of running, eating healthy, and cross-training, the following scenarios will pop up out of the blue and cause you to forfeit the race:

  • On the morning of the race, you get a terrible stomach virus that leaves you with severe stomach cramps or uncontrollable bowels.
  • During the run, extreme humidity and heat leave you with heat stroke, where you faint and can't finish the race.
  • You trip or collide with another runner, injuring yourself to the point of needing medical intervention.
  • Lightning strikes and you have to find immediate shelter, putting an end to that PR you were hoping and training for.

The good news is that the above scenarios are pretty much out of your control, so don't dwell on them. The following common mistakes, however, are easy to prepare for and avoid:


Doing a Half or Full Marathon as Your First Race

marathon runners getting water and bananas from table

Frank and Helena / Cultura Exclusive / Getty Images

You should complete a shorter race, like a 5K or a 10K, before moving up to running a half marathon, then a full marathon. Running with proper technique is enough of a challenge; you don't want to also be nervous about the things that come with marathon experience such as putting on your race bib, starting a race, using porta-potties, taking cups from the water stops, and dealing with crowded conditions for the first time.


Not Being Sure You Can Beat the Cut-Off Time

Some races have a cut-off time, a time limit by which all participants must have crossed the finish line. It's not fun participating in a race when you're constantly looking over your shoulder, worrying about getting picked up by the sweep bus.

If you think you're in danger of not finishing before the time limit (often 3 hours for half marathons and 6 hours for full marathons), look for a race that's friendly to slower runners and walkers, there are plenty of marathons in that category. Some half marathons are run at the same time as a full marathon, so half marathoners are given six hours (or more) to cross the finish line.

If you are worried that the race cut-off time, most registration or event websites disclose the course finish cut-off time somewhere on their websites. If you come up empty-handed after a thorough search of the event website, locate the course director's contact information and don't be afraid of sending a quick email to get clarification.


Losing Motivation During Training

It takes time to get ready for a marathon, and there will definitely be points in your training when your motivation may start to fade. There may be some days when you don't feel like running and you'll have an excuse for not running.

Fight the temptation to skip it, and focus on your goal of running your race. The "don't give up" advice also applies to the race itself. There may be moments during the race when you feel like calling it a day, but you'll need to dig deep, stay mentally tough, and push to the finish.


Skipping the Long Runs

Your long runs are an important part of your marathon training, so you should do what you can to make sure they go well and have a plan of action to make long runs a little easier on yourself. That means eating and drinking properly in the days leading up to your long run, getting a good night's sleep beforehand, and hydrating and fueling properly during your run.

Being mentally prepared to tackle the long runs will also go a long way when it comes to running on race day. Consider using visualization and imagery, a personal mantra, or even talking to yourself as tactics to get you through those seemingly endless long runs.


Not Cross-Training

Logging miles is obviously an important part of training for a half marathon, but doing too much, or only running as your only form of exercise can lead to injury and overall burnout. Cross-training can help balance your muscle groups, boost strength, increase flexibility, and improve your cardiovascular endurance.

Any training activity that supplements your running is considered to be cross-training. Strength-training, especially your core and lower body, will help you become more injury-resistant and improve your strength for the long runs. Other excellent cross-training activities for runners include swimming, cycling, elliptical trainer, water running, yoga, and Pilates.


Ignoring Pain

Don't assume or convince yourself that pain is just a normal part of marathon training. Yes, you may feel some post-run muscle soreness, but the pain that gets worse during your run or affects your running or walking gait is a signal from your body that something is wrong.

Rest is usually the best treatment for any kind of pain and taking some time off from running when an injury is in its early stages will prevent more time off later. If you keep pushing through it, the injury will most likely get worse or you could cause a completely new injury.

There are ways to prevent injury during your running training, such as practicing correct posture and running techniques. But if you do find yourself injured, practice RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) to self-treat running injuries, and be sure to make an appointment with a physiotherapist or sports physician if the pain does not subside after a few days.


Not Including Walking in Your Running Plan

Some marathoners turn their noses up at the idea of walking during a half or full marathon race, but including regular walking breaks in your half or full marathon can bring you to the finish line at the same pace as if you ran the entire way, according to a study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

The real interesting thing is that walking also does a lot less damage to your body, as cardiac stress and damage to the muscles are also reduced. An easy way of incorporating walking into your running training is to run 9 minutes then walk 1 minute, and repeat until you finish the distance you are running.


Setting Unrealistic Goals

Don't put pressure on yourself to achieve a really fast time for your first half or full marathon. You could be setting yourself up for disappointment. Completing a marathon in and of itself is an incredible goal and you don’t want to overshadow that by falling short of a time goal. For your first half or full marathon, it is enough to just focus on completing the race and crossing the finish line.

If you feel ready to set a specific goal, consider using the SMART acronym to set a realistic running goal for yourself. Setting a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely goal will be the best way to stay motivated to run.

The best goals will require you to push yourself to achieve them, but they aren't too extreme. If a goal is too far out of reach, you probably won't truly commit to doing it because deep down you know it's not achievable.


Cramming for the Final

The two weeks before your half marathon is the tapering period, when you cut back your mileage by 25 to 50 percent, to give your body and mind a chance to rest, recover, and prepare for your half marathon. Some people are worried they'll lose fitness and try to work out their nerves before the race by running too many miles, too fast. Stick to your training schedule and trust in your training and the taper.

Although you can not cram a half a year's worth of good nutrition into the few days before the race, you also don't want to sabotage your race day energy levels by eating too many deep-fried, high-salt, and sugar-laden junk foods the night before a race. A few days before the race, be sure to carb-load, unwind, and stay hydrated.


Not Scheduling Rest Days

Rest days are when you do an easy cross-training activity or take a complete day off from running. Giving your body a break from the stress of running can reduce your risk of overuse injuries, such as shin splints and stress fractures. It's also good to take a mental break from running, so you don't lose motivation.

Taking the time to schedule rest days in your running schedule is an easy way of making yourself stick to taking time off. As a beginner, you should schedule one complete rest day and one active recovery day in your running schedule.


Forgetting to Hydrate

Many 5K runners never hydrate during their races or training runs. For a short distance race, you might be able to get away with not drinking anything, but for a half or full marathon, you really need to make sure you're hydrating properly.

During long runs and your half marathon, you're going to get thirsty. The current advice about running and hydration is very simple: drink to thirst. Be sure you are also rehydrating after your runs. You'll know you're hydrated if your urine is a light yellow color.


Not Giving Yourself Plenty of Time at the Start

You may think you can just show up at the starting line, line up, and go. That approach may work for a local 5K, but a marathon is a totally different beast, especially if it’s a very large race or in a different city. It’s going to be crowded and everything will take a lot longer than you think. The lines for the porta-potties will be long, so give yourself enough time to use the bathroom (maybe more than once), check your bag, and find your corral (if the race has them).

Check the race's website to find out how they recommend getting to the start. If you are traveling from out of town, consider where you need to stay in relation to the race location. You may also want to talk to other runners who have done the race in previous years (or read reviews on websites) to find out how early they recommend getting to the start.


Trying Something New on Race Day

Maybe you bought a cute new shirt at the race expo or you think using a new flavor of sports gel will give you an extra boost during your half marathon. to wear, eat, or drink anything new and keep telling yourself, "Nothing new on race day!"

Race day is not the time to experiment with new foods at breakfast, a new pair of running shoes, running shorts, a new sports bra, or new nutrition or hydration. Stick to your tried-and-true favorites so there are no surprises on race day.

When training, try not to skip runs on rainy or overcast days. If lightning is not in the forecast it is usually safe to run in rainy weather. In fact, running in the rain will allow you to dress accordingly and see how your running shoes fare when running in slippery and wet conditions. The same is true for hot weather and for cold weather, so be sure to log in some long runs in those weather conditions to figure out what you feel most comfortable wearing.


Starting out Too Fast

When you begin your half marathon, you may be tempted to start out fast because you'll feel strong and rested. The problem with going out too fast is that you'll burn through a lot of your stored energy early in the race and your legs will feel fatigued much sooner.

Try to start your half marathon at a comfortable pace and make sure you check your watch at the first mile marker. If you're ahead of your anticipated pace, slow down. It's not too late to make pace corrections after just one mile.

To estimate your race pace and finish time, give the following pace calculator a try. An added benefit of knowing your race pace is that you will also be able to estimate whether you can meet race cut-off times.


Discounting Your Achievement

With so much attention given to full marathons, some runners will brush off their half marathon finishes, saying, "I only did a half." Completing a 13.1-mile race is an incredible accomplishment, so don't sell yourself short. You're a half-marathoner—be proud!

As for full marathoners, it's easy to brush off your accomplishments with negative thoughts of a missed PR or to dwell on technique corrections you may have forgotten to make mid-race. The truth of the matter is that you need to consider those negative thoughts for a moment so that you can correct them in your training and next race. After all, a real athlete learns from everything they do, but don't let those things start to discount the fact that you are part of an extremely small percentage of the population who can call themselves marathoners.

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