The Ultimate Guide to Training for a Half Marathon

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The half marathon is by far the most popular race distance for runners. It makes sense why – the race is long enough to be a major life accomplishment but not so difficult and time-consuming to train for that only the most dedicated runners can do it.

If you’ve been running shorter distances for a while and are thinking about upping your game to a half marathon or if you want to try something bigger than a 10k, this guide is for you.

We’ll cover all that you need to know about training for a half marathon, specifically targeting runners who are running their first half just like many of you out there!

Why Run a Half Marathon?

There are so many reasons why people decide to run 13.1 miles.

A half marathon is just that—a great introduction to longer races with an easier (and likely shorter) training schedule than a marathon. Plus, you’re less likely to be injured training for a half marathon in comparison to a full. You’ll also have a quicker recovery post-race from a half.

Also, the half is really the perfect combination of speed and endurance. You’ll be able to sustain a more aggressive pace in a half than you would be able to in a full marathon. It’s a challenge because it’s not a short distance, but it’s short enough that you can run it at a decent pace.

In order to survive a full marathon, you need to complete at least 25-30 miles per week just to finish, 40-50 miles to finish strong, and 55-80+ miles to excel. For a half, it’s much more reasonable: 15-20 peak miles to survive, 25-30 to finish strong, and 40-70+ to excel. That’s much more reasonable for most people.

Many consider the half marathon to be fast but fun. And the distance has become increasingly more popular. In 2000, 482,000 runners finished a half marathon, but that number was up to over 2 million runners in 2014! There’s no reason for you not to join the crowd and run a half.

You may have seen the magnet on runner’s cars that says: “13.1. Only half crazy.”

To us, that phrase encapsulates the half marathon. You have to be a little crazy to want to run 13.1 miles because you’re going to be pounding the pavement for over an hour and likely closer to 2-2.5 hours.

At the same time, you’ll finish in the early morning before it gets hot with plenty of time to spare to get back to the hotel and shower before you have to check out. So, it’s just partly crazy.

Plus, it’s a respectable distance that you can keep running even if you never run a full marathon. While some people might say, “Oh, just a half?” the vast majority of the running community respects the distance and the fact that a half is a good race in its own right, not just because it’s the marathon’s little sister.

Picking a Race

Perhaps you’ve already decided on a race, so this section isn’t pertinent to you. But if you haven’t yet, here are some considerations to keep in mind in selecting a race.

Distance From Home

For your first half, you probably want to pick a race close to where you live. Then you don’t have to worry about getting a hotel, driving there, and so forth. Plus, you’ll be more familiar with the terrain.

At the same time, if you want to start training in December and run a half 4-5 months later, you might have to be open to other areas. This gives you time to find a hotel, plan logistics, and study the course.

You can always research races to figure out what’s going to be best for you, whether it’s convenient to where you live now or a fun location that is going to be a destination race.

Size of Half Marathon

The number of runners for a half marathon varies from less than 100 to over 25,000 for popular races like the Brooklyn Half Marathon!

The larger the race, the more complicated it will be to deal with race day logistics. Things like finding a place to park, picking up your bib and race packet, and getting to the start line become more challenging as a race size gets bigger.

At the same time, a small half marathon may not have the amenities you’re looking for. There might be less swag, no finish medal, fewer water stops, and fewer spectators to cheer you on.

For your first half, we’d recommend a medium-sized race that’s big enough to make it feel like an event – but small enough you don’t have to deal with race day hassles. This, of course, is subjective. If you want a big race to get you buzzed up on the energy – or prefer a low-key race to finish your first half – those are fine as well.

Course

Depending on race location, there could be some challenging hills in the race. For your first half marathon, we’d recommend a relatively flat course that won’t be too challenging. Your goal is to finish and have fun. The chances of doing so are much greater on an easier course.

At the same time, it’s more fun to run on a scenic course, so check that out ahead of time. Some half marathons run along the beach with great views. While others loop through closed-off highways.

The Bling

This may not be important to you – but chances are you want something to remember the race after you finish (aaaannnd maybe brag about to your friends).

So make sure the race you pick has a good finishers award. Nowadays, most half marathons will give you something once you finish. But make sure they do. And while medals are most common, not every race has them. Check on your specific race if this is important to you.

General Fitness Considerations

If you’re new to running, you might be wondering how long you need to have been running in order to “graduate” to the half marathon distance. Ideally, you’ve been running for a year and have completed several 5k and 10k races.

However, it can be done with less experience, but a run/walk plan will probably be necessary. This all depends, though. Your current (non-running) fitness, age, and genetics are all factors that will impact when to try a half and whether to try to run it or run/walk.

Once you decide that you’re going to run a half marathon, you’re going to have to figure out your goal that you’re training for and have at least some idea of a pace. We’d recommend having three pace goals in mind—one that you’re sure you can meet, one that is more challenging but definitely manageable, and one that is a reach goal.

If you’ve run a 5k or 10k recently, you can use that shorter race for pace guidance and even enter the number into a pace calculator to know what kind of pace to expect for your half marathon. Your GPS watch may even tell you estimated finish times for 5k, 10k, half, and full.

If you’re still building fitness, you definitely want to look into a run/walk program, as this will allow you to increase your fitness level and still meet the goal of finishing the half marathon! Just make sure you pick a pace goal and training plan that matches where you are physically, not where you want to be.

And it’s okay to pick an aggressive goal. You may not meet that goal for your first half marathon, but the aggressive goal can push you to work harder.

Importance of a Training Plan

While training plans are helpful for any distance, you probably can get away with not using a training plan for a 5k. But you don’t want to do that for a half.

If you want to finish strong, you need a clear training plan that you follow consistently. It will give you ideal guidance for scheduling training runs and make sure that you’re in a good position physically to run the half.

Most plans use three build-up weeks and one recovery week, which gradually increases your endurance and fitness and reduces the chances of injury.

For example, you might run 3 miles for several weeks and get confident in that distance, then move up to 4 miles, and so forth. This means that by the time you are at the half marathon—even if you haven’t reached 13.1 miles —you will have been running 8-10 miles on long runs (except speed days) for several months.

Like most training plans, you can expect several components in a half marathon training plan: long runs, recovery runs, tempo and/or interval runs (including pick-ups/striders), cross-training, walking, and rest days.

Of course, every single day is important, but I want to stress that you should not skimp on your rest days and recovery runs! After hard workouts and especially if you’re training for a longer distance, you need to give your body time to recover. Don’t go hard all the time if you want to see gains.

You’ll also have to decide the length of your training plan. You’ll find plans ranging anywhere from 10 weeks to 16 weeks. Especially if this is your first half, I’d encourage you to err on the side of longer rather than shorter. This helps you in the event of unexpected circumstances.

Also, make sure that the training plan you select is at your fitness level. If you’re supposed to be able to run 3 miles at an 8:00 minute mile pace for your first run and you can’t even run a mile at a 10:00 minute mile pace, you might want to find a new plan.

Types of training plan workouts

You can expect several components in a half marathon training plan: long runs, recovery runs, tempo and/or interval runs (including pick-ups/striders), cross-training, walking, and rest days.

Long runs

This is the bread and butter of almost every training plan you come across. The long run is exactly what it sounds like: a long, slow-ish, evenly paced run. The purpose is to increase endurance and prepare you to run the full 13.1 miles of your race.

They are usually done once a week, often on the weekend so you have the time to do it. They are almost always you’re longest run of the week.

Depending on your training plan, the longest run might max out around 10-12 miles. If this is your first half marathon, most training plans for beginners don’t have you run longer than 10-11 miles. The reason is that even though it’s shorter than the race, because you’ll be running it slower, the time you’ll be running is similar to the time it will take you to run the half marathon.

Speed Runs (Tempo and intervals)

The second key workout in your training plan will be speed runs. Most often, these are done as a tempo run or an interval workout.

Tempo runs are short runs that are done at a pace faster than your usual pace but not quite race pace. Think of it as just hard enough to be uncomfortable but easy enough that you can sustain it for a long time.

Intervals are short bursts of fast runs followed by a walking break. They are often done at a track. The distances and number of intervals can vary. Commonly, you’ll see 800 meters followed by 400 meter rest. Or 400 meters followed by a 200 meter rest. But they can be longer or shorter with varying amounts of rest in between.

The purpose of both of these runs is to get your body used to running fast. They’ll build up your aerobic fitness so you can run longer, faster. And they’ll build up your leg speed, so you can sustain a faster pace during your race.

Recovery Runs

After a hard workout (like a tempo run), rather than take a rest day, it’s often a good idea to go for a short, very easy run. These types of runs decrease the time your body needs to recover.

The idea is that increasing blood flow will make your body recover faster than if you just lay around all day. So, while it’s tempting to take a day off after a hard run, you’ll actually be better off with a recovery run.

The key to these runs is ensuring that you are going slow enough to get the recovery benefits. A common mistake runners make is to go too hard on their recovery runs – which has the opposite effect of what you’re trying to do.

Cross-training

Like recovery runs, cross-training days are usually built-in to training plans as a way to recover or maintain fitness from your runs without the wear and tear you get from running. Think of it as an active rest day from running.

It’s a good way to maintain your aerobic fitness while resting from your runs. You’re much less likely to get injured if you include cross-training in your training plan.

Ideally, cross-training days are done with non-weight bearing activities. Good options include biking, rowing, and yoga.

Walking

Similar to recovery runs, walking is a good way to increase blood flow to your legs without the physical pounding that occurs when running. Depending on your fitness level, walking may not be included in your training plan. Or it may be used as a substitute for recovery runs.

Rest Days

And finally, rest days are days you take off completely. No running, no walking, and no cross-training. The entire purpose of this day is to let your body recover and come back stronger than before.

These are the days your body actually gets faster. It’s when your muscles grow and get stronger, making you a better runner.

Of course, every single day is important, but I want to stress that you should not skimp on your rest days and recovery runs! After hard workouts and especially if you’re training for a longer distance, you need to give your body time to recover. Don’t go hard all the time if you want to see gains.

Training Plan Length

You’ll also have to decide the length of your training plan. You’ll find plans ranging anywhere from 6 to 16 weeks. Especially if this is your first half, we’d encourage you to err on the side of longer rather than shorter. This helps you in the event of unexpected circumstances.

Also, make sure that the training plan you select is at your fitness level. If you’re supposed to be able to run 3 miles at an 8:00 minute mile pace for your first run and you can’t even run a mile at a 10:00 minute mile pace, you might want to find a new plan.

Realities to Keep in Mind

If you’ve never run longer distances before, starting to train for a half might be a little bit of a shock. You must keep yourself mentally sharp for close to 2 hours, and that’s hard.

It’s important to keep some realities in mind so that you don’t get discouraged during your training.

Long Runs Can Get Boring

The weekly long run is the key workout when training for a half marathon.

But know this: when you’re running for longer than 45 minutes, it can start to get long and boring. You have to keep yourself motivated and less focused on the fact that you’re pushing yourself and it might be uncomfortable.

A lot of people like to listen to podcasts, books, or music, but sometimes it’s good to train without these. Most likely, you won’t be running with headphones during the race. So it’s smart to practice without them.

Many runners prefer running without the distraction of music or books. It provides an opportunity to think and clear the mind.

Train in Your Race-Day Gear

Many runners just pull out whatever running clothing is on top of their drawer and use that. But a better recommendation is to train in your race-day gear.

You want to know how different outfits feel and what is most comfortable so there aren’t any surprises on race day. You can also experiment with different combinations and come up with one you like.

When race day comes around, you’ll know exactly what it will feel like and won’t have any problems with clothing. The only thing that might be weird is pinning the bib on your shirt, but you’ll get used to it pretty quickly.

Rest Days Are Essential

You just have to give your body time to recuperate. You might feel super excited, especially if you’re training for your first half marathon, that you feel good every day and want to either cross-train or run.

Don’t do it. Your body needs time to heal and become stronger. If you don’t give yourself at least one rest day a week, you’re actually making it harder on your body, and you’re fighting against yourself.

Strength Training for a Half

Any type of cross-training for your half will give you much needed variation and work different muscle groups, but you definitely want to make sure that you include strength training. This will improve your core strength, which is needed to maintain good form during the length of the half.

In particular, you might consider including these three exercises to increase your core strength into your training plan: abdominal crunches, bridge exercises, and planks (standard and side).

1. Abdominal crunches

For abdominal crunches, lie on the floor on your back and bend your knees. Put your hands behind your head or across your chest. Next, slowly contract your abs and bring your shoulder blades an inch or two off the floor.

Make sure that your neck is straight with your chin up. Hold briefly and slowly lower back down, but don’t relax all the way. And repeat for at least 15-20 reps.

2. Bridge Exercises

For the bridge exercise, lie on your back with your hands at your sides and bend your knees. Tighten your abs and glutes and then raise your hips to create a straight line from your knees to your shoulders.

Squeeze your core and pull your belly button back and hold for 20 to 30 seconds before returning to your starting position. Complete at least 9 more reps.

3. Side Planks

Finally, for planks, you probably have a better idea of how to do them. Put yourself in a push-up position and hold for at least 30 seconds. It’s hard, right?

You might also want to consider a side plank. Start on your side with your feet together. Then contract your core and raise your hips until your body is in a straight line. Hold this position without letting your hips drop, and then repeat on the other side.

Go for these target times—15 seconds (novice), 30 seconds (average), 60 seconds (good), 2 minutes (very good), 3 minutes (excellent), and 4 minutes (master).

Nutrition and Hydration for a Half

If you’re used to running 5ks, you likely haven’t thought too much about nutrition and hydration.

But that’s something you’ll have to start thinking about for a half. During your runs, you’ll want to bring water or energy drinks and gels for runs that last longer than an hour.

For most runners, once you are running for 6-mile runs or longer, start using gels. Every 3 miles or so is a good way to spread them out.

Your nutrition post-run is also very important for longer runs. You’ll want foods with lots of protein and carbs. This can include whole grain breads and cereals, fruit, veggies, eggs, lean meat, or vegetable protein.

Runner’s World recommends trying to eat within 20 minutes of finishing a run, but at the minimum not waiting longer than 2 hours. If you have no desire to eat at all, a protein shake is probably going to be your best choice.

Running Gear Needed

If you’re running a half marathon, you’ll likely need to up your clothing game. Gone are the days of running in an old t-shirt and shorts.

Clothing

You’ll want to purchase comfortable clothing, preferably that is anti-wick so that when you sweat, you’ll barely feel it on your shirt and shorts.

For women, don’t forget a good sports bra. That’s essential.

Hydration

Similarly, you should get a good hydration bottle or pack so that you’re always prepared for longer runs, and you probably want to look into body glide because you might deal with some unexpected rubbing and itching when you’re running farther.

Running Shoes

Finally, good running shoes are an absolute must. If you want to make sure that your feet stay in good shape and want to prevent injuries, get a good pair of shoes. But make sure that they aren’t too small. You’ll probably want to order a half size or size up.

Nice to Haves

Some other things that are nice to have are a good pair of sunglasses. You can find sunglasses with better grips designed specifically for running. You might also want a running cap to block the sun’s UV rays and a running belt to store your stuff.

A GPS watch is great if you love looking at data. A watch will give you a lot to look at. Plus, they aren’t cheap, so it can remind you of the importance of training to make sure the watch is a worthwhile purchase.

Running Mindset and Motivation

If you’re going to run a half, you need to make sure that you have a good running mindset and the right motivation. This will keep you on track during your training. First, figure out why exactly you want to run a half and really get to the root of the issue.

For some, it’s to prove to yourself that you can do something hard and to give a sense of accomplishment. For others, it’s motivation to remain fit or lose weight.

Running Journal

One of the best things you can do for yourself is to keep a running journal. In it, you should detail your food that day, what clothing you decided to wear, how the run went, the weather, etc.

By cataloging all this information, you’re creating a treasure trove of material to draw upon in the future to know what works and doesn’t work. Maybe you always run better if you ate whole wheat pasta the day before. Make sure you do that before your race.

By contrast, maybe you’ll discover that your ideal running temperature is 70 degrees unlike most people who prefer cooler temperatures. Whatever it is, a running journal will keep you going and give you valuable information for the future.

Staying Motivated

Routines are always helpful to keep things moving. Focus on having a daily system. Set out your clothes the night before, be prepared ahead of time, and schedule your runs. If you set everything out, you’re less likely to skip a run because you’re in the running mindset.

Now, life happens, so you’re going to miss at least one training run. The important thing is to keep going with your plan. Do not try to make it up because you’ll likely end up hurting yourself. And at the end of the day, missing one training run is not going to have a major impact on your training.

If you start missing a lot of runs due to another reason besides injury or illness, you need to reevaluate. Do you need to reconsider your reason for running a half marathon? Do you need more accountability? Why aren’t you able to motivate yourself to get out of the house and run?

Finally, running can be a very solo activity, and sometimes that’s great because it gives you time to process and think. But once and a while, it’s good to get out with a group of people so find running groups/clubs in your area to train with and socialize.

They’ll help keep you motivated, may provide good advice, and will run with you! Plus, they will likely introduce you to more running opportunities—whether it’s a new trail that you haven’t been on or another race that’s coming up. Be sure to take advantage of the running community.

You might also consider finding a running podcast to start listening to. In addition, consider looking into purchasing a running magazine like Runner’s World or Women’s Running or reading running articles on a regular basis.

And don’t forget the importance of your family and friends even if they don’t run. Chances are that they are so proud of you for training for a half marathon and may even be able to be there to watch you run the race. Tell them about all of your big moments in training, as their encouragement may motivate you even more!

Running in the Elements

Depending on when you start training for your half marathon (and when the half is), you might have to deal with some nasty weather, whether it’s cold winters or blazing hot summers.

The most important thing to keep in mind is safety. If you’re going to be running in the winter, make sure that you have the proper gear—warm clothing, reflective gear, and potentially mini-spikes for your shoes.

You might also want to consider running with a buddy or at the very least make sure that somebody knows where you are. The last thing that you want is to fall and be dealing with hypothermia without anyone knowing your whereabouts.

If you’re running in the summer, take the heat seriously. Make sure that you’re properly hydrated leading up to your run and bring water with you during your run. Try to avoid running during the peak hours of sun between 10-4 and run in the morning if you can when it’s coolest.

If you’re dealing with rain, make sure that you have the gear that you need. It should be light so that it doesn’t stick to your body and make it harder to run but at the same time give you some protection from the elements. You also should be very aware of where you’re stepping.

Dealing With Injuries

Injury is a five-letter word that no runner, especially someone training for a half marathon, wants to hear. But sometimes it happens, and it’s important to be prepared to know how to deal with it. Sometimes you’ll be able to keep running if you tone it down, but other times, you’ll need to stop completely.

If you’re dealing with dull aches and pains, you can continue to run if you cut back your mileage. Make sure you use the RICE method—rest, ice, compress, and elevate—post runs, monitor your injury, and stop completely if it worsens. And you might consider going to see a doctor.

If you’re dealing with acute pain, you should stop running completely and rest until the pain subsides. Again, use the RICE method and see a doctor if necessary.

When you’re pain-free, start up your training again, but ease in a little bit so that you’re not going all out on your first day back.

How to Taper

For novice runners to the half and full marathon, the taper seems counterintuitive. You’ll want to start tapering two weeks before your half, but you want to make sure that you don’t do too much (or too little!).

Most running coaches recommend one final long run (between 10-14 miles) two weeks before your race and then a couple of 30-minute runs and workouts during the week. One week out, run for 45 minutes and then run 30 minutes for two days early in the week.

Two days before the race, run a very easy 1-2 miles if you decide to run. For the day before, walk around the expo, but don’t run that day. You need to save your energy for your race tomorrow. Even if you feel good, don’t do it.

Tapering is the time to prepare for your race. It’s not the time to cram in tons of training that you should have done before but didn’t or to completely slack off. It’s the time to strategically run as well as rest and recover so that you’ll have an amazing race.

Race Day Tips

When your big day arrives, you’ll likely be nervous. This is totally fine! Embrace your nerves and use them as fuel and motivation to have a great race.

Here are some other tips for running a half marathon:

Nothing New on Race Day

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the old adage—“nothing new on race day.” And it is true. It’s not the day for experimenting on new clothing or a tasty gel you got at the expo. Go with what has worked for you as indicated in your running journal (more on that later).

And a corollary to “nothing new on race day” is don’t skip your runs if the weather is bad. There’s a chance even if you’re running in sunny Florida that your half will be rainy and gross. If you haven’t prepared for that in your training, you’ll struggle.

In fact, we’d recommend simulating the race as best as you can during your training. If it’s a hilly course in humid Virginia in May, run hills when it’s hot outside because that’s what you’re going to be doing.

If you find yourself not liking what you have to do in training to prepare, you might consider registering for another race that is better suited to you like an early morning beach half marathon that is going to be nice and flat.

Don’t Start Too Fast

This is hands down the best advice we can offer when training for a half. Once you begin longer runs of 6+ miles, if you dash off right away and push really hard for the first mile., you’ll quickly get exhausted.

Don’t start off too fast in your first mile, whether it’s during your training or during the race itself. Your legs need some time to warm up, and there’s a good chance that you’ll run a much better race if you start out slower.

When you actually get to the race itself, it will be hard to slow down. You’ll find yourself full of adrenaline and dying to run, but don’t. Slow and steady wins the race. Keep your cool even when everyone else in front of you is surging ahead.

Usually, by the third mile, some people who start too fast will be walking already. And you’ll be running past them. But even then, don’t go crazy. Keep it controlled until the last couple miles.

Know the Race Course

It’s a good idea to study the course so you know where every water spot is going to be as well as all the curves and turns. You can take an extra step and drive the race course the day before.

When race day comes, you’ll know exactly when to prepare to turn left, when there is a hill coming up, and when to expect a water break. Also, don’t make the course harder than it needs to be. Run the tangent.

For example, if you know a left-hand turn is coming up, make sure you’re on the left-hand side. The race course is measured by the shorter side so there’s no need to run all the outer sides because you’ll end up running more than 13.1 miles!

It’s Okay to Walk

For many people, walking during race day means giving up or admitting defeat. But it’s okay if you have to do it. If that’s the way that you’re going to finish, then do that. Also, there’s a good chance that if you’re already worn out, a walking break will give you the respite that you need to finish well.

If you are really worried that you didn’t train enough, you might consider doing a run/walk interval for the full race. This is where you run for a set time (60 seconds) and walk for a set time (30 seconds). You can adjust the duration of each, but the idea is you never get too out of breath and use each walk interval to take a short break.

Another strategy is to walk when you get water. Then it’s not based on your arbitrary decision to start walking (your mind can play some interesting tricks on you), but you also know that you’ll get some breaks. Plus, it’s just way easier to walk and drink water.

Keep at It!

No matter whether your race is a day away or two months away, you’re going to run it, and it will be amazing.

The training will all pay off. And when you have a particularly discouraging training run, just remind yourself that every time you run, you’re helping yourself out for your race. Even if it’s not pretty, a run is a run, and those are the building blocks to having a successful race day.

So, good luck on your training for a half marathon! Chances are that you’ll catch the bug and want to run more (and maybe even a full marathon)!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.