The half marathon can be the perfect distance: 13.1 miles is long enough to make you feel super accomplished but short enough to wrap your brain (and schedule) around. And yes, you can finish one. “Just about anyone can do a half marathon with the proper training,” says Mark Coogan, team New Balance coach and former Olympic marathoner. “The key is preparing your body for the distance without overdoing it and causing injury.”
A lot of beginners end up falling on two ends of the training spectrum: They either commit to their half-marathon training plan too much (ignoring their bodies and escalating an injury that could have been avoided) or they don’t commit enough (Coogan says you should be working out six days a week). But if you find that sweet spot, the finish line will be in sight before you know it. Follow these half-marathon training tips to get there in one victorious, badass piece.
Training For a Half Marathon – Determine if you’re ready
Look at races at least two months from now. “If you can run a 5K now, then you can run a half marathon in eight weeks,” Coogan says. “But the ideal plan is three to four months long, which gives you a buffer if you get sick, injured, or slammed at work.” Basically, plan for life to get in the way—as it so often does—so you don’t stress yourself out.
Can’t run a 5K just yet? Most beginner half-marathon training plans start with a three-mile run in the first week, so you’ll want to work your way up to that first. “Lots of people run into problems like shin splints when they first start, so get past that point first,” Coogan says.
To build up, former Olympian and running coach Jeff Galloway suggests running at least three times a week. “Weekday runs should average about 30 minutes,” he says. Then, you can work your way up to a three-mile run on the weekend.
Training For a Half Marathon – Choose the best half-marathon training plan for you
Now that you’ve chosen your half marathon, it’s time to settle on your training plan. (Get the Runner’s World half-marathon training plans here. ) A solid half-marathon training plan should have these four things: cross-training days, a long run that’s at least ten miles, a rest day immediately following your long run, and a taper.
“Cross-training allows you to work on your cardio without the constant pounding of running, long runs give you the confidence you need on race day, and rest days are crucial to recovery,” Coogan says. (More on the taper later.) A lot of training plans leave the cross-training decision up to you, but Coogan suggests swimming, cycling, or using the elliptical or Stairmaster. (See also: A Beginner’s Guide to Cross-Training)
And there’s no need to worry about not hitting that 13.1 before the half marathon: “If you can run 10 miles, you can run 13 on race day,” Coogan says. “Besides, the race wouldn’t be as exciting if you hit 13 miles a couple of weeks before.”
Training For a Half Marathon – Find the right gear
Running may not always feel easy in the moment, but it’s one of the easiest sports to access. It’s cheap (once you swallow that race registration fee), you can do it anywhere, and it requires almost no equipment.
But as anyone who has run in poorly fitted shoes will tell you, gear still makes a huge difference. “Go to a specialty running shop that analyzes your form and helps you choose the best shoe for you,” Coogan says. Keep in mind that your friend’s favorite might not be your favorite. Some people prefer to run as close to barefoot as possible and others like shoes that resemble Spice Girl platforms. Allow yourself to find the one that works best for you.
You’ll also want to test every pair of leggings, headphones, and socks before race day—the last thing you want is an unexpected tag scratching your lower-back for two-plus hours, or socks that fall down every four seconds. Never race in something you’ve never worn before.
Training For a Half Marathon – Fuel properly
While we’re at it, the same goes for fueling. Don’t experiment with new energy gels, caffeine, or breakfast foods on race day. Your training runs are just as much about preparing your body as they are about finding the fuel and gear that work well for you. Load up on caffeinated gels without testing them first, and you could end up spending more time in the porta-potty than you planned for.
Your plan: Experiment with these perfectly carb-y breakfasts for runners, then aim to consume about 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour while you’re running, as we reported in How to Fuel for a Half Marathon. Your running-course carbs should come from sources that are easy to eat, digest, and carry, like Huma Chia Energy Gel or Clif Shot Energy Gel.
Training For a Half Marathon – Commit to your plan, with one exception
Committing to your training plan is important, but it’s not more important than avoiding injury. “Most injuries can be addressed quickly early on, but in order to do that you need to be honest with yourself if something hurts,” Coogan says. Ultimately, missing one workout won’t ruin your race. What will? Being sidelined for a month because you ignored an injury that got worse. (Trust us, this really sucks.)
Training For a Half Marathon – Master the long-run
The long-run, usually on Saturday or Sunday, is arguably the most important part of any half-marathon training plan. (Coogan suggests Saturday, so you can rest on Sunday, but that depends on the type of work you do and your schedule.) Everything you’re doing earlier in the week—speed work, cross-training, hill work—is designed to build up to this long run (no pressure!).
If you can, choose a route similar to the race you’ll be running. This won’t always be possible if you’re doing a destination race, but don’t hit the treadmill for every single run. Yes, even if it’s raining. “You need to make sure you have the right gear (and mindset) for any conditions you might encounter on race day,” Coogan says.
And don’t underestimate the importance of pacing: “The most common mistake runners make is going out too fast—then crashing and burning,” Galloway says. “If you’ve raced a couple of 5Ks, aim to run three to four minutes per mile slower on your long runs and on race day.”
Training For a Half Marathon – Build a base
One mistake new runners often make when paring for a half marathon is thinking that the 12- or 14-week plan takes you from the couch to the finish line. All half marathon training plans that range in length from 10, 14 or 16 weeks assume that you’ve already built a weekly mileage base of at least 15 to 20 miles. Your longest run should also be at least 5 miles.
Anything less than this weekly mileage or longest run mileage will overwhelm your body’s ability to acclimate. If you have a solid base under your feet, then when you start your training, you’ll only be acclimating to the demands of the half marathon training workouts.
If you have a weak base coming into the training, then you’ll actually be asking your body to build that base while at the same time as acclimating to the new training demands. That’s overtraining or an injury just waiting to happen.
Training For a Half Marathon – Pick a plan
Twelve weeks is a common length of many half marathon training plans, but a quick Google search will bring up plans that range from 10 to 16 weeks. I prefer to use a longer plan (14 weeks) with my runners. The extra weeks allow for a little wiggle room if a runner gets sick or has slight setback or injury.
If this is your first half marathon, I strongly recommend a plan longer than 10 weeks. This will give you more time to acclimate to the training demands.
Not only do the plans vary in length, they also vary in content (the types of workouts, weekly mileage and the number of times you run each week). Study the various plans carefully before picking one. First, find one that meshes well with your work and family schedule.
If the plan has you running every day and you know that’s not going to happen, then that plan is not for you. Second, find a plan that matches your running fitness level. If the first long run in the plan is 8 miles and your current longest run is 4, select a different plan.
Often plans are labeled for Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced or Experienced, but even then, read through the plan carefully and make sure it fits your current running fitness level.
Training For a Half Marathon – Research the race
Find out what sports drink will be provided at the race. If possible, train using the same sports drink, or plan ahead how you’ll use your own (wear a hydration belt, have friends or family members staked out along the route to hand you your sports drink of choice). Never use a sports drink or gel during a race, that you’ve never tried/tested during training.
Scope out at which mile markers water and/or aid stations will be provided. Also find out if and where Porta Potties will be placed along the route. Knowing where these are located can be very important if you begin to experience stomach distress along the run.
Check out the elevation map (usually provided on the race website). Pinpoint where the hills (if any) are located. Just because a race is in a flat are of the country doesn’t mean it will have a flat course. Many races will incorporate the rolling hills of local parks and/or cross over high-rise bridges or ramps to and from overpasses or underpasses.