How to Train for a Half Marathon

woman running on track

How to Train for a Half Marathon | Running Tips for Your First Half Marathon | Best Half Marathons | Long-Distance Running Shoes | Running Socks | Running Water Bottles | Running Backpacks | Running Belts | Wireless Earbuds for Running | Garmin Fitness Watches 

For many runners, the half marathon is considered the sweet spot of races. It is a monumental achievement to successfully finish a race of 13.1 miles, and it makes you feel like you earned that race medal and post-race brunch. Most runners say that the feeling of accomplishment is amplified by the demands of months-long training. The half marathon does, after all, require incredible physical strength and mental toughness to get to the finish line. But luckily, it will not take the time commitment and physical sacrifice needed to run a full marathon.

The benefits of half marathon preparation are tremendous. You'll see cardiovascular improvement, weight and stress management, and go through important physiological adaptations that could prepare you for a full marathon—if 26.2 miles is calling your name. You'll also spend time outside, feel accomplished each week, and learn how mentally tough and disciplined you really are.

Whether you are a newbie who is just starting to think about a half marathon, or an advanced runner looking for a new approach or a new PR, we have the experts and knowledge you need in this comprehensive guide.

How Long is a Half Marathon?

A half marathon is 13.1 miles or about 21.1 kilometers. It is a surprisingly accessible distance that, with a little bit of training, most runners can handle.

If you are new to the half marathon game, you might be wondering if you are ready or fit enough to even try. The answer? You can do it. Pick a fun race, and get ready to surprise yourself.

"I've coached athletes who shoot for the moon and go straight to half (or full) marathons without having ever run a single shorter race and others who've had dozens of races under their belts before committing to a 13.1," says RRCA-certified running coach Erica Coviello. "Each kind of runner can be successful in this goal with the right mindset and preparation."

Why Should I Follow a Training Plan?

The training plan is like your map to the start line. It will take all the guesswork out of your race preparation.

"A training plan that is built by an experienced professional will help you arrive at the starting line with the confidence to know you can make it to the finish," says Coviello. "Without following a program specifically designed for the half marathon, you run the risk of being under or overtrained, and both could potentially lead to injuries and an unpleasant race day."

While many runners can make it through a 5K or 10K without a formal plan, the strain 13.1 miles puts on an untrained body is not healthy—or fun. Even if you do make it through the whole race without a serious injury, you might feel immobile for a few days after racing.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are runners who think running more will give them a competitive edge. These runners put themselves at risk for overuse injuries and mental burnout by going too far or too fast. A training plan will help you ramp up your mileage and effort gradually so that your joints, ligaments, tendons, and bones have time to strengthen and endure the impact of running.

"If you've got big-time goals, sticking to a good plan will be your key to achieving them," says Coviello. That's because a training plan that is intended to make you faster will incorporate workouts—like speed sessions, intervals, strides, and hills—that will boost your V02 Max safely.

How Do You Find a Training Plan That's Right for You?

The first step in finding the right training plan is to determine your running level. Let's loosely define these to give you an idea:

If you are starting with zero miles per week, whether you are a brand new runner or returning from injury, a beginner training plan is a great way to build a foundation. Starting with less mileage and even run-walking is optimal, and you can even try Couch to 5K to prepare for a half marathon training cycle. If you feel like the C25K is too gentle, try Couch to Half Marathon or level up to a 16-week training plan.

You might be running more than zero and yet still benefit from a novice 16-week training plan. "If you're not yet up to a minimum of 15 miles per week and are new to racing or are coming back after a long break, consider going with a beginner plan," says Coviello. "A good four weeks of base training will give you the tools you need to hit the ground running when true half-marathon training begins."

She says that if you are running 5-10 miles per week and easily run 3 miles fairly often, you can jump into a beginner 12-week training plan.

If you're regularly running 15-20 miles per week without training and have raced in recent history, you can go with an intermediate or advanced plan depending on your experience and goals.

An intermediate runner is a person with a solid base, meaning they have run 15-20 miles per week for at least two months. You have raced the distance once or twice before and might like to run a modest PR.

Advanced runners run year-round, taking breaks after races and ramping up with the intention of running their best time before goal races. If you've run more than two half marathons, stayed injury-free during multiple training cycles, and have an aggressive time goal, an advanced plan with half marathon specific workouts might be for you.

Most intermediate and advanced plans are about 12 weeks, but you might be able to get away with an 8-week training cycle if you have a good base.

The main differences between these training plans are duration, volume, and intensity. Beginner plans will focus on easy miles. In some, your long runs might not go beyond 10 miles. Intermediate plans will incorporate strides and low-mileage speed work. Advanced plans will have higher mileage weeks with a robust speed-training program.

Now that you know your level, you still have choices to make when finding the perfect plan. There are various philosophies, ranging from Jeff Galloway's very accessible run-walk method to the emphasis on long, slow distance by legendary coach Jack Daniels. Hal Higdon's plans are classics that have gotten countless runners through distance races. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

"Do a lot of research," says Coviello. "Be sure that your plan of choice has been built by a certified running coach and will be compatible with your schedule and level of commitment. For example, if you think you'll only be able to run three or four days a week, don't choose a plan that requires six days of work. Finding the Goldilocks of training plans can be a matter of trial and error—what works for some won't work for others and what works for you in one stage of life may not work for you later on. Keeping a log of your runs, reading about different training philosophies, and talking with a coach will help you choose the right plan for you right now."

Sample Half Marathon Training Plans

This 8-week training plan is ideal for intermediate or advanced runners who are looking to get race-ready in a hurry. Use this if you want your body trained, but you are not looking to run an audacious time goal. You will see that the plan follows a four-running day schedule and incorporates cross-training on two days. It combines speed workouts with an emphasis on race pace and slow, long runs that gradually increase in length each weekend. When it comes to cross-training, aerobic activities are fine but don't forget to include your strength training on those days.

Check out the 8-Week Half Marathon Training Plan

If a slower pace is more your speed, here is a 12-week training plan that combines strength training, cross-training, and gradual increases to your running mileage as you work towards your half marathon goal.

Check out the 12-Week Half Marathon Training Plan

How do I know what pace to run?

Your training plans will say to run at a "hard pace" or "5K pace" or "easy pace," but what does that really mean? If you are new to running, every pace might feel hard, so what number should you be aiming for?

"Training paces should be less about the speed you're running and more about the effort," says Coviello. "The majority of your miles, regardless of fitness level, should be easy running at conversation pace (an effort at which you could hold a conversation without huffing and puffing). On a scale of 1-10 where 1 is sitting on the couch and 10 is an all-out sprint, you want your perceived exertion to be around a 4 for these runs. This easy running—and ONLY during this easy running—is where you will improve your endurance."

Endurance, not speed, is essential to finishing a half marathon. If you are running and you find yourself slipping out of conversation pace and unable to catch your breath, stop. Walk for a moment. Regain control of your breathing and start running again, but slower.

Now, if you are an intermediate or advanced runner who has speed work in the plan, you will need to know what pace to hit to improve. You can use a pace chart or calculator, which will take a recent race time or your own time-trial results to determine how fast you should run for each rep. It will also give you your easy-pace goal if that's something you would like spelled out.

Coviello says that the most effective—and fastest—way to get results is to consult a running coach. If that's not financially feasible, then she has one crucial tip: "Just remember to stay out of the gray zone," she says. "This is a place so many runners find themselves in all too often. It's that should-be-easy-but-went-kinda-fast pace where you're running too hard to gain aerobic endurance benefits but not hard enough to gain power and speed. It's the 'I want to race faster so every run has to be faster' trap. Don't fall for it. Keep the easy easy and the hard hard."

group of marathon runners

What Kind of Strength Training Should I Do to Prepare for a Half Marathon?

One of the most common mistakes in half-marathon training is focusing on running and nothing else. There are many areas of training besides running that require attention: nutrition, recovery, mentality, and strength training.

"Strength training is so important for runners," says Amanda Capritto, ACE-certified personal trainer, Integrative Nutrition-certified Health Coach, and expert at Garage Gym Reviews. "It's something a lot of cardio enthusiasts don't realize (or don't want to believe). It helps runners prevent overuse injuries that can come from the repetitiveness involved in the sport of running. Strength training also enables runners to develop more power and explosiveness behind each stride, as well as increase muscular stamina, which is super important for those long runs."

Capritto is a three-time half marathoner and understands the strength required to prevent injury and improve performance. She says cross-training is essential and will also prevent mental burnout. But instead of jumping into a group fitness class (that could add unnecessary cardio), she says it's important to have a dedicated strength program with a focus on running-related moves.

"Runners should be prioritizing total-body strength," she says. "Your hamstrings and glutes are largely responsible for the power behind each stride, while your quads and calves must be very conditioned to propel you through a half marathon. Your upper back and core muscles are extremely important for maintaining strong and safe posture during your training and race."

The good news? This doesn't mean you have to spend hours in the gym or work out five days a week.

"I encourage the average half-marathoner to strength train 2-3 times per week for 30-45 minutes," says Capritto. "I generally coach my clients to do full-body sessions if they can only do two days, and to do one upper, one lower, and one full-body if they can do it for three days."

You can do bodyweight moves, use weights, or both. Capritto recommends prioritizing squats, hip thrusts, and deadlifts, as well as single-side (unilateral) movements such as split squats, lunges, single-leg hip thrusts, and single-leg deadlifts.

You can work your core with hollow-body holds and rocks, V-ups, glute bridges, Superman holds, and hanging tucks if you have a pull-up bar available.

"Also, even though running primarily engages the lower body, runners should not neglect their upper body," she says. "Do compound upper-body exercises like bench presses, shoulder presses, and bent-over rows."

About four weeks from race day, begin to taper strength training. This strength taper will allow your muscles to fully recover before race day, much like the taper from running in your training plan.

What Should I Wear for a Half Marathon?

Gone are the days of sweatbands and scratchy shirts. Nowadays, you have so many apparel options, you can almost certainly find a look that will keep you dry and comfortable during your half marathon training and the actual race. When and where you race will determine if you need shorts or leggings, long sleeves or a tank, and cold weather gear or cooling fabrics. No matter the conditions invest in sweat-wicking materials and a few good pairs of socks.

Test out your race outfit on long runs to make sure it will be comfortable on the big day. You will want to see if your pockets can carry all that you need (e.g., on-the-run fuel, car key, phone). During the testing phase, you might realize you need a different cut of sock. You may find that your favorite sports bra chafes or the tank you love to wear on short runs collects sweat and gets soggy after seven miles. And unfortunately, an outfit that looks good might not be the most functional. So, aside from ensuring you have clothes and shoes ready to go, don't get too hung up on your outfit.

"Sometimes I think we, as a super-consumer culture, overcomplicate things that should be simple," says Coviello. She admits to at one time being a total gear head who would have advised other runners to buy anything from dozens of compression socks to sparkle skirts.

"However, after decades of distance running and coaching a wide variety of runners from all walks of life, my answer is to go as low maintenance as possible, especially at the beginning," she says. "Aside from clothing, a good pair of comfortable shoes, sunglasses or a hat, and sunblock are really the only things that are non-negotiable for any kind of running—race or training. As long as you are protected from the elements and have a way to stay hydrated, stash fuel, and carry some form of ID, just lace up and get out."

If you feel like going beyond basics is a motivator, then go for it. Test out a fuel belt, hydration vest, headphones, and multiple pairs of shoes. Depending on who you are and your goals, you might want to spend money on a GPS watch. If you are using a phone to calculate your mileage and pace but find it's getting too heavy, a GPS watch will change your life.

Beyond that, just make sure what you are wearing is comfortable. "Running is simple," Coviello says. "Put one foot in front of the other. In a process that can often feel overwhelming, keep it simple."

How to Recover After a Half Marathon

After all the hard work and the thrill of crossing the finish line, you might be thinking "what's next?" You might think you're ready to sign up for another race or conquer a full marathon. But not so fast! The very first thing you need to do is prioritize your recovery in the hours, days, and weeks following your half marathon.

As soon as you're done, recognize that you are depleted. You will need to drink and eat sensibly and soon. Ideally, you will have taken in fluids before you started and during the course of the race, but depending on the weather, your effort, and if you managed to get and keep water down, you might be dehydrated. At the end of the race, the afterparty will have water and a few snacks like bagels, bananas, and granola bars. Take the water, and, even if you do not feel like eating, try to get some calories in your belly. Opt for a complex carb and/or something low in sugar.

Within 30 minutes of racing, eat something with protein. Oatmeal with a nut butter, Greek yogurt, and berries, cottage cheese—options like these will immediately aid in healing your muscles and restoring your energy. You will likely feel really hungry later on, so plan to eat a big meal. You are encouraged to indulge on race day, but to keep inflammation to a minimum, don't go all-in on processed foods and desserts.

In the hours after the race, take an ice bath or a cold-water bath to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation. Follow it with a hot shower to relax any tightness you have. You will want to keep your feet up and legs elevated to promote circulation and muscle recovery. You can stretch a bit, but don't get crazy and do a yoga flow. (You probably won't want to anyway.)

Expect to feel a bit of soreness for one to two days after the event. Use baths, heating pads, and naps to get back to 100 percent. If you notice pain in a localized area not going away after a few days, see your doctor or physical therapist to assess if it's an injury.

The next day, introduce light movement. Take a walk and do some gentle stretching. Foam roll or, if you want to treat yourself, get a massage. Moving and releasing tension in your body will help get everything back on track.

After a goal race, it's really important to give your brain and body a break from the routine of training. You won't want to jump into a 5-miler the day after the race. But after spending 2-4 months reaching peak fitness, you probably want to maintain your current level so you can improve for the next training cycle.

A good rule of thumb to get into the maintenance phase after a half marathon is to do the workouts in your taper weeks in reverse. So, if your plan had a two-week taper period that ended with a day off before the race and 2 miles the day before that, you would take the day immediately following the race off then run a very easy 2 miles the next day. You would continue to work backward through the taper. Once that is complete, you can begin a block where you stick to easy to moderate intensity runs at a medium weekly volume. This method helps you ease back into higher mileage while allowing your body to heal after the strain of the race. Once you're back in the swing of things, you will be ready to set your sights on a new goal race.

How to Train for a Half Marathon | Running Tips for Your First Half Marathon | Best Half Marathons | Long-Distance Running Shoes | Running Socks | Running Water Bottles | Running Backpacks | Running Belts | Wireless Earbuds for Running | Garmin Fitness Watches

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