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How To Go From The Couch To A Half Marathon

If you’re new to running, you might be thinking about a goal to keep you motivated as you start running.

Many people decide to run a full 5k race. But if you are more ambitious, you might be considering a half marathon.

There’s nothing wrong with that goal – in fact, it’s a great way to aim for something substantial as a beginner without overdoing it.

If you want to aim for a half marathon but think it’s a huge undertaking, we’re here to encourage and support you with this guide!

Keep reading to find out all you need to know about going from the couch to a half marathon. We’ll cover training, gear, pacing, and mindset so you can smash your goals on race day.

Let’s leap right in!

How Long Will It Take to Train for a Half Marathon?

There’s no right answer to this question. It depends on the person, current fitness level, and how much work you put into it. But regardless of your fitness or your dedication, this isn’t something you can start a few weeks before your half marathon.

The average training program for a couch to half marathon runs for 20 weeks. That’s about 5 months! Some runners may feel better training for 6 months, so they feel more prepared. Others may be okay with 4 months of training.

But 20 weeks is an adequate amount of time for a new runner with no experience and no base fitness level to learn and work up to a half marathon.

It’s worth keeping in mind that if you do cardio cross-training (like cycling, rowing, or jumping rope), it could shorten your total training time by increasing your fitness level faster.

How Long Will It Take to RUN a Half Marathon?

A runner doing their first half marathon should be able to cross the finish line in 2 to 2½ hours.

How well you trained will play a large part in your time. Your fitness level and whether or not you run the entire way or do a run/walk will also have an effect.

Unforeseen factors on race day may also affect your final time. If you’ve eaten a large meal the night before, you may feel sluggish. Perhaps you wake up with a sore throat, feeling a little weaker than normal.

If you’ve spent plenty of time training in cooler weather and the race happens to take place in the heat of a scorching day, that may also affect your performance.

But if you stick to your training, put in the hard work, and wake up feeling good on race day, you can expect a 2 to 2½-hour half marathon as a beginner.

What to Do to Succeed?

If you’re serious about this goal, you need to understand one thing from the start: it will take time and hard work. But it’s completely doable if you invest these two things!

In order to succeed, you need to put in the hard work from the very start. You need to commit to the time it takes to train for a half marathon, and dedicate yourself to completing your training program.

You’ll also need to assess your diet, your sleeping habits, and your stress levels. You may need to make changes to these so that you’re fueling yourself properly, getting enough rest, and outside influences can’t throw you off course.

Schedule Training Time

You can’t just train when and if you feel like it. We know that 20 weeks is a long time to train, but think about that feeling when you cross the finish line!

You need to schedule training time. But not only that – you need to stick to the schedule! There’s no point laying out a training plan and then not following it.

Understand that you’ll need to stick as closely as possible to your training plan. When you’re tired and unmotivated, you’ll need to find the strength and will to get up, get dressed, and train.

If you’ve had a bad day at work, haven’t slept enough, or argued with your spouse, it can’t become an excuse to skip your training session.

The only time you may need to think twice about training is if you’re ill. But it’s advisable to check with your doctor and mention that you’re in training. They’ll be able to give you the best advice on how to get better so you can train properly again.

Check Your Diet

While you can run a decent half marathon while eating an unhealthy diet, it’s not going to be as easy, as fun, or as successful as if you nourish yourself properly. You need to start eating right from the beginning of your training in order for this to be most effective.

Eating right means balancing your macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) and sticking to your calorie count. Here’s a handy way to calculate the appropriate caloric intake for you.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a cheat meal every now and then. Note – a cheat meal, not a cheat day! If you’re consistently eating too many calories, you’re going to get heavier and slower. If you’re not eating enough calories, you won’t have the energy you need to run strongly.

At the same time, if you’re eating the right amount of calories but they’re from processed or sugary foods, you’re not going to be getting enough healthy nutrients. Also, your body will burn through them much faster, leaving you craving more food.

Get Enough Sleep

Not getting enough sleep leads to us feeling hungrier during the day as our body needs more fuel to get through the day. But it also depletes motivation for exercise, so it’s easy to see how not sleeping enough can ruin your training for a half marathon.

It may be a good idea to have a sleep schedule as well as a training schedule. That way, you know you’ll be in bed the same time every day (except perhaps weekends) and it sets you up for getting better rest.

Other things to consider would be avoiding screens for at least an hour before going to sleep, not eating too close to bedtime, and removing anything that may disrupt sleep (for example, soundproofing the room if external noise is a problem).

Tips for Training for a Half Marathon

Have you decided to take the leap and go from the couch to a half marathon? Congratulations! This is where the fun starts.

Here’s what you need to do to get started on the exciting journey to your first half marathon!

Get the Right Gear

Your half marathon experience will be much better if you’re using quality shoes, clothes, and gear.

Running Shoes

Your first consideration should be the best running shoes. Everyone is different. The running shoes you choose will depend on a few things:

Once you’ve found the technology that caters to your specific foot, you can begin to look at different brands and aesthetics.

Running Socks

Not all socks are created equal, and we highly recommend investing in some socks that are created specifically for running. These are usually more cushioned than regular socks, especially in areas that are usually high-friction, like the toes and Achilles.

Some socks use compression technology, and winter socks are made specifically to keep your feet as warm as possible while on the road in cold weather. You can even find toe socks made specifically for runners!

Whichever ones you prefer, it’s wise not to skimp on socks or think you can make do with that comfy pair you’ve been wearing for years.

Running-specific socks could be the difference between you running an excellent time and you not finishing because your feet are riddled with blisters!

Shorts

You’ll need to decide if you’re more comfortable in tight shorts or looser ones. Shorts may also sound like a silly thing to worry about, but once you start looking into them you’ll find that they can become quite fancy.

When looking for the perfect pair of running shorts, you’ll need to consider:

  • If you want a gender-specific fit (men’s and women’s shorts are very different)
  • Whether or not you want built-in briefs
  • How many pockets you need
  • If you want a compression effect
  • What material you’d prefer
  • If you want moisture-wicking and quick-drying properties

Shirts

Shirts also come down to personal preference, but some technology is useful to keep you as comfortable as possible on the road.

  • Moisture-wicking properties
  • Quick-drying properties
  • Breathability (great airflow through the shirt)
  • Antimicrobial/anti-odor properties
  • Style (sleeveless, t-shirt, compression shirt, singlet)

A Running Watch

Not every new runner is going to have a running watch. But if you’re serious about your goal of running a half marathon, we highly recommend investing in one.

There’s no need to go all out, though. There are plenty of affordable running watches on the market that will track all the data you need to know to maximize your training and perform your best on race day.

If you’re into gadgets, though, you can choose a fancy watch with more capabilities. You can find watches that:

Whichever one you choose, you’ll be tracking data that will help you train efficiently and learn your own fitness and running levels.

Most running watches will track steps, distance moved, calories burned, heart rate, and sleep. Some include more advanced features like women’s health tracking, altimeter and barometer, and hydration alerts.

The upmarket watches may include advanced running features like VO2 max, recovery advisory, cadence, ground contact time, and vertical oscillation. If you’re unfamiliar with those, then an entry-level watch is all you need to begin!

Miscellaneous

While the above gear is all the essentials, there are some other pieces of gear that may make your run easier.

A Running Belt

If you want to carry an energy bar or energy gel, your phone, keys, or other valuables with you while you run, a running belt could be a good idea (especially if your shorts don’t have great pockets). Some of them will hold water bottles or a hydration bladder too.

A Hydration System

Some runners need more hydration than others, and if you’re worried about dehydrating on your run you should get yourself a hydration system.

This could be as simple as a belt that can carry a bottle or two, or you can go all the way and get a hydration pack. These are like lightweight backpacks that contain hydration bladders, so you can carry a significant amount of water with you.

A Running Journal

This isn’t something you’ll be carrying on your person during your run. But it can be a super tool to help you learn about your body, your training, and maximize your performance.

There’s something very helpful about physically writing down your data after every training run. In a world where everything is recorded automatically, logging your own data in a running journal can help make you much more aware of your training level, strengths, weaknesses, and where you need to improve.

Forget Pace or Race Time

If you’re running your first half marathon, the biggest goal is finishing the race. Crossing that finish line is the aim, and it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to do it.

Although we’ve already mentioned the average time for a newbie to complete a half-marathon, don’t get stuck on numbers!

It’s totally likely that you’ll spend some time walking instead of running, no matter how well your training went. If you feel you’re slipping further and further away from your goal, you’re only going to psych yourself out.

Make sure you’re going at a comfortable speed and spend a few minutes walking when you feel you need to. Crossing the finish line later than you intended is a much better feeling than not making it to the finish line because you went too hard!

Increase Your Training Intensity Week by Week

Training needs to progress, but not too quickly that you open yourself up to potential injury or exhaustion.

Your training intensity should increase weekly. If you’re starting at “level 1” intensity, you should stick with it for a week until your body’s used to it. One day 1 of week 2, move up to “level 2” intensity, and stay on that level for the rest of the week.

It’s important not to rush this. Moving ahead too soon can lead to injury, and then your half marathon plans could be ruined.

You can either do this by increasing the time you run, the distance you run, or the speed you run.

Stick to Your Training Plan

A training plan is pointless if you aren’t going to follow it closely! Sticking to the plan not only guarantees the best results, but it also helps you to monitor progress easier and meet milestones along the way.

You’ll progress at the right speed, reducing the chances of injury as you move forward. Your body will strengthen as you move through the plan, and going too fast can cause damage. Going too slowly can hamper your progress.

What Different Running Workouts Will I Do?

Good training programs (including ours) will incorporate these types of runs:

  • A shorter run or walk (one until week 12, then 2)
  • Shorter but faster run and walk (from week 5)
  • A longer run and walk
  • Cross-training (strength training, not more cardio)

Mixing these throughout your weekly workouts will cover every area of the body, as well as improve the cardiovascular system.

It’s a good idea to create a weekly schedule that you can quickly and easily update or adapt without having to change much.

Understanding the Program

Here’s a brief rundown of how our 20-week program works.

Week 1 to 4

During these weeks, you’ll do only 2 runs per week. Remember, you’re new to this – we need to start small! We do advise doing some form of cross-training during this time, particularly strength training, to build up muscle.

Week 5 to 12

In these weeks, you’ll increase to 3 runs a week. It’s a gradual enough increase that there shouldn’t be any problems. Keep up your strength training, too.

Week 13 to 18

If you’re feeling up to it, you can add an extra 30-minute run into these weeks. It should be an easy run, nothing too intense. You should keep up with your strength training too, so if you find that you don’t have the capacity for an extra run, it’s okay to keep it at 3.

Training Information

Although we suggest following your training program fairly strictly, it’s important to know that you can shuffle the days around within your week. If you’re running on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and doing strength training on the weekend, you don’t have to stick to that religiously.

If you don’t feel up to your run on Wednesday, you can shift it to Thursday and move everything back a day. Or, if you have a niggly ankle, you can do some upper body strength training instead of running, and replace that run on the weekend.

It’s also recommended to have a day’s break in between your runs. That means a full day of rest, not a day of cross-training. But it can be difficult to schedule this effectively, so just make sure you’re getting adequate rest in between running sessions.

Here are some snippets to remember when training:

  • Every 4th week should be a “deload week” – 60% volume and intensity of the previous week
  • Your shortest training run should have the fastest intervals
  • You can adjust the run/walk time depending on your feeling on the day
  • Taper the 19th and 20th week – there are no intervals and no deload week

What is Cross Training and Why is it Important?

Cross-training is doing another fitness-related activity other than running, in between running sessions. You can do any other type of exercise you like.

Cardio-based cross-training can increase your fitness levels quicker, but strength-based cross-training can give your muscles an advantage when you run.

Types of Cross-training

Some common cross-training activities for runners include swimming, rowing, cycling, jumping rope, or aerobics.

These are great to improve the cardiovascular system, get your muscles warm, change things up a bit, and vary your intensity. A relaxed, low-intensity cross-training session can be an excellent active recovery tool.

Strength Training

Strength training is highly recommended as a form of cross-training. It helps to burn a high amount of calories, but more importantly, it develops the muscles in the legs, core, and hips, giving you an advantage on the road.

Strength training can be free weights in the gym, or it can be bodyweight work in the park. Either way, 20 to 30 minutes per session is optimal, and 2 sessions a week would be good.

What’s the Best Way to Recover After a Run?

Recovery is highly underrated. If you can recover well, you’ve already won half the battle! Here’s how to do that.

Sleep

The obvious assumption is that the more sleep you get, the more rested and recovered you’ll be. That’s true to an extent, but the quality of your sleep matters as much as its quantity.

7 or 8 hours is optimal. In order to try and promote the best sleep hygiene, it’s a good idea to set a sleep routine or schedule. Your body will become used to settling into sleep at a particular time.

To get the best quality sleep we suggest:

  • Avoiding screens for at least an hour before bed
  • Avoid alcohol as much as you can before sleep
  • Try to keep the room as dark as possible
  • Keep the room at a comfy temperature
  • If possible, leave electronic devices in another room

Poor quality sleep equals poor recovery! If you do have a bad night, try to catch up as soon as you can.

Compression Gear

Compression gear can be worn after a long run to help increase blood flow to the muscles. This helps them to heal faster.

We advise wearing them for a few hours after your workout or run. Wearing them for a full day or overnight won’t have any more effect.

Ice Baths or Cold Showers

An ice bath may sound like torture, but it can actually do wonders for your fitness. It’s effective immediately after a long, tough run. The cold on your muscles gets them working overtime to warm up, and can actually burn calories!

Stretches and Massage

It’s a good idea to stretch after every bit of activity you do. Spend at least 10 minutes doing dynamic stretching.

If you want a deeper massage, a foam roller or massage ball, or stick would be a handy tool. If your pain doesn’t clear up after a day or two, choose a different density foam.

Nutrition

When eating for a half marathon, it’s a simple matter of increasing the good stuff and decreasing the unhealthy stuff.

  • Eat more vegetables, fruits, and real food proteins
  • Drink more water
  • Consume less processed foods, sugary foods, takeout, alcohol, and dairy
  • Remember to stick as closely as you can to your calorie count each day

Before the Race

It’s a good idea to stick to a very light breakfast on race day – a light mix of carbs and fats. About 45 to 60 minutes before your race begins, a carb-rich snack is a good idea. To replenish, eat a carb-rich meal within an hour of finishing your race.

Peak and Taper for the Race

Peaking means, as it suggests, reaching your top point. Tapering means gradually slowing down or becoming smaller.

Exactly 2 weeks (14 days) before race day, you should be running your longest, most intestines training run.

Once you’ve done that, you slowly begin to taper your training down. This is to allow for proper recovery. Your fitness level should be such that it can maintain itself even with less exercise.

Tapering is important. If you don’t give yourself a break, you can overwork and become injured easily.

Race

This is the day you’ve been waiting for! Above all, you need to give it your absolute best and have a blast! You’ve trained for this. You can do it!

Remember not to get too attached to your time. If you’re crossing the finish line for the first time, we applaud you! Don’t forget to celebrate when you make it!

Training Plan – 20 weeks

Running a successful 1/2 marathon requires dedication and commitment. If you can stick to this training plan for 20 weeks, you’ll be extremely well-prepared!

Remember to always warm-up and cool down. The run/walk intervals can be increased/decreased based on how your fitness improves throughout the program.

Most of all, have fun!

This article was written with help from Chris Bachmann, running coach and personal trainer. Chris has run over 25 marathons and ultras. Based in Europe, he has traveled all over the world running and coaching clients and is available for online coaching. Learn more about Chris and his coaching programs here.

The Wired Runner