Proper Training for a Half Marathon
So, you’ve decided to sign up for a half marathon? Welcome to the club! The half is considered one of the most popular races in the country, and it comes as no surprise.
Running or walking 13.1 miles seems a lot more doable than pounding out a full marathon, which is 26.2 miles. A half marathon feels more challenging than a 10k, but still manageable, especially if you throw in some walking intervals.
Getting across the finish line requires some discipline, a lot of patience, and proper training.
Following a solid, well-designed training plan is essential when you’re planning to do a half marathon because it helps improve your physical fitness and mental endurance and reduces the risk of injuries.
A proper training plan empowers you to structure your workouts and designate time for running.
Most half marathon programs are 12 weeks long and typically involve a progressive increase in mileage and intensity.
Training this way allows you to gradually increase your cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance over three months, while allowing your body to adapt to the demands of running longer distances.
When looking at different training plans, you’ll notice they range from novice or beginner to advanced levels, with the starting distance and number of running days being the key difference between each plan.
Each half marathon training plan should include a mix of easy runs, long runs, tempo runs, speed workouts, and rest days, which allow for adequate recovery and reduces the risk of overuse injuries.
Creating Your Training Plan
Whether you’re new to the half marathon distance or trying to make your next race the best one yet, having a training plan that aligns with your goals, schedule, running experience, and fitness level is critical to your success. Here are some factors to consider when creating a plan.
Weekly Running Volume
Your weekly training volume includes the number of running days and total miles you plan on covering in a week. This will be individual and determined by your base mileage or the distance you can run when starting the training plan.
The key is to start with a comfortable distance and gradually add mileage over several weeks to improve your endurance.
Type of Training
Building up to the 13.1 distance requires more than just lacing up your shoes and hitting the pavement. To minimize injuries, build endurance, and stave off boredom, you need to incorporate different types of training runs into your overall program.
For example, speed work, hill training, and long runs. This also includes cross-training with activities like yoga, lifting weights, swimming, cycling, and stretching. Check out our article on Best Cross Training Workouts for Runners for ideas on incorporating different types of training into your routine.
Structured Half-Marathon Training Plans
Running experts like Hal Higdon provide athletes of all levels different half-marathon plans based on the number of weeks you have to train.
For example, Higdon’s half marathon training programs include Novice 1, Novice 2, Intermediate 1, Intermediate 2, Advanced, and Walkers (for people who want to walk the entire 13.1 miles). Most plans last 12 weeks, which is the average time experts recommend to prepare for a half marathon.
The Run-Walk-Run method, the brainchild of Olympian Jeff Galloway, follows a very precise ratio of running, followed by a planned walking break and repeating until your run is finished.
Initially developed for beginner runners, this method also works well for intermediate and advanced levels, especially if the goal is to raise overall mileage, lower the risk of injury, and decrease burnout.
Here is a sample ratio from the Jeff Galloway Run-Walk-Run website. It’s based on your average mile time, so make sure you know yours before choosing a ratio to follow.
- 7-minute mile: Run 6 minutes/walk 30 seconds or run a mile/walk 40 seconds
- 8-minute mile: Run 4 minutes/walk 30 seconds or run 2 minutes/walk 15 seconds
- 9-minute/mile: Run 2 minutes/walk 30 seconds or run 90 seconds/walk 30 seconds
- 10-minute/mile: Run 90 seconds/walk 30 seconds or run 60 seconds/walk 30 seconds
- 11 and 12-minute mile: Run 60 seconds/walk 30 seconds or run 40 seconds/walk 20 seconds or run 30 seconds/walk 30 seconds
- 13 and 14-minute mile: Run 30 seconds/walk 30 seconds or run 20 seconds/walk 20 seconds or run 15 seconds/walk 15 seconds
Cross Training and Strength Training
Hitting the weight room and incorporating other fitness modalities such as yoga, Pilates, and swimming is critical to reducing the risk of injuries, preventing burnout, and keeping your legs in running condition.
Engage in activities other than running to improve overall fitness and avoid overuse injuries. Cross-training options include swimming, cycling, strength training, or yoga.
Tapering before race day is a critical component of half-marathon training. Tapering means you reduce the intensity and distance of your regular runs in the final days or weeks before your half marathon.
Tapering helps you arrive at the starting line feeling fresh and ready to perform your best. While finding what works best for you may take some trial and error, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) says a generic taper of 10 to 14 days is a reasonable starting point.
For example, if you’re doing a 14-day taper, reduce total mileage by approximately 30% the first week. Then, reduce it further during the race week and include an extra rest day before the race.
Building Endurance Through Long Runs
If the thought of a long weekend run has you hitting snooze on your alarm clock, you’re not alone. However, incorporating a long, endurance-based day into your training program is essential.
In fact, research finds that preparation for a half marathon with long endurance runs associates with a faster finish time while not increasing the risk of injury.
That’s because performing one long run each week enables you to build endurance and simulate the distance of a half marathon gradually, aiming to cover the full half marathon distance at least once before the race.
Expert Tips for Long Runs
Jen Steele, RRCA and Revo2lution Running certified run coach and founder of Misadventure Squad, says you want to increase long-run distances by a mile or two every week, but no more than two miles. “You should be able to run the long distance of the first week before starting your plan,” Steele says.
Steele also recommends planning the long run into your week. “Schedule it like any other appointment, and make sure you’re properly fueled before the run and plan to fuel well and recover after,” Steele adds.
With a three-month training schedule, Mindy Solkin, a certified running coach, founder of The Running Center ®, and creator of Runditioning™, says if your longest run so far is four miles, plan to add one mile onto your long run each week, with some recovery weeks built-in, too. Here, Solkin shares an example of how to incorporate long runs into your training plan.
Directions: Add one mile onto the long run each week. This schedule is based on a three-month training plan and assumes your longest run to date is four miles.
Week 1: 5 miles Week 2: 6 miles Week 3: 7 miles Week 4: 8 miles Week 5: 6 miles (recovery week) Week 6: 8 miles Week 7: 9 miles Week 8: 10 miles Week 9: 6 miles (recovery week) Week 10: 11 miles Week 11: 12 miles Week 12: 6 miles (recovery week) Week 13: Race!
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Incorporating Speed Work Into Your Training
Speed work is a type of training that involves running at faster paces for specific periods of time or distances. When training for a half marathon, incorporating speed work sessions into your training plan can help improve your overall speed, stamina, and race performance.
Plus, anyone can benefit from speed work when training for a half marathon, according to Kristen Hislop, a USAT Level 1 certified triathlon coach, Ironman University certified, a USA Cycling Level 3 coach, and an AFAA certified personal trainer. “The long slow run is important and the short hard is equally important,” she says.
While not an exhaustive list, speed work can include the following:
- Interval training: alternating between high-intensity running and rest periods
- Tempo runs: sustained effort at a comfortably hard pace
- Fartlek runs: varied pace and intensity
- Hill repeats: running uphill at a hard effort for a specific distance or time, followed by a recovery period
- Strides: short accelerations that build to close to max speed and then gradually slow to a stop
Expert Tips for Speed Work I
If you’re a beginner or it’s been a while since you’ve done speed work, running coach Mindy Solkin says to stride lightly. “It’s easy to get injured if you’ve never done it before and you blast out of the blocks,” she says.
Additionally, Coach Jen Steele recommends that beginning runners or anyone new to speed work only perform it once a week. She suggests starting with a type of speed work called strides. Here is an example of how Steele does strides:
- Add a short 20-30 second almost sprint to the end of an easy run
- Followed by a minute of recovery
- Repeat that cycle 4 times
- After getting comfortable with that, you can increase to a full speed workout
Here, Coach Mindy Solkin shares another example of how to incorporate speed work into your training.
- Location: Solkin says it’s best to do speed work at a track since the footing is good and it’s flat. You can also do it on a well-paved, flat road, but you’ll need to do it by time or other marker, like counting light poles.
- Warm-up: One mile (4 laps) at a pace you can do while talking, about 70% of MHR (Maximum Heart Rate).
- Stretch: Stop and stretch.
- Speed Work: Solkin says this drill requires you to run fast on the straight-aways, about 85 to 90% of MHR, while recovering on the turns, about 70 to 75% of MHR. Do two miles of continuous striders, which equals about eight laps of a fast-slow-fast-slow pace.
- Cool-down: One mile (4 laps) at a slow pace.
- Stretch: Stop and stretch.
Proper Nutrition and Hydration for Half Marathon Training
Crossing the finish line requires more than just a solid running routine. It also takes eating right and staying hydrated throughout your half-marathon training program.
Fueling your body with the right nutrients and maintaining adequate hydration levels will optimize your performance, support your training, and aid in recovery. Here are some tips to consider as you adjust your hydration and nutrition intake to match your half-marathon training.
Nutrition is Individual
Nutrition and hydration needs vary from person to person. Experiment with different foods, fluids, and timing to find what works best for you.
Consider working with a registered dietitian specializing in sports nutrition to develop a personalized nutrition plan based on your specific goals and dietary requirements.
Fuel with the Right Foods
Maintain a balanced diet that provides sufficient energy for training and supports muscle recovery. In general, aim for a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats.
Carbohydrates provide the primary fuel source for endurance activities, so include foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables in your meals. Lean proteins, such as chicken, fish, and legumes aid in muscle recovery and repair, while healthy fats, like avocado, nuts, and olive oil provide sustained energy.
Before your long runs and on race day, eat a balanced meal containing carbohydrates, protein, and some healthy fats one to four hours before you head out the door.
This allows time for digestion and prevents discomfort during exercise. If you're running in the morning or on an empty stomach, consume a small carbohydrate-rich snack like a banana or a granola bar to provide immediate energy.
Snacking While Running
During long runs, consuming carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks, gels, energy chews, or easily digestible foods can help maintain your energy levels.
Aim to consume 30–60 grams of carbohydrates per hour, depending on your individual needs and tolerance. Practice your fueling strategy during training runs to find what works best for you.
The amount of food you eat and what you eat during a half marathon depends on how long it will take you and personal preference. Some people get an upset stomach if they eat while running, while others need to fuel themselves with small, carbohydrate-rich snacks every 30 to 60 minutes.
It’s a good idea for many to consume a sports gel or fast-acting carbohydrate snack at the halfway point of a race.
Aim to consume a snack or meal containing both carbohydrates and protein within 30–60 minutes of finishing your longer runs. This helps replenish glycogen stores, repair damaged muscles, and facilitate recovery.
Hydration Game Plan
Stay hydrated before, during, and after runs to optimize performance and prevent dehydration. You should be hydrated before your race and only need to drink as needed while running.
That said, make sure to pay attention to your body's thirst cues and aim to consume fluids at regular intervals.
Depending on the amount of time it takes you to complete a half marathon and the outdoor temperature, you may benefit from a sports drink that contains electrolytes. Electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and magnesium, play a vital role in maintaining fluid balance, muscle function, and nerve signaling.
Rest and Recovery for Runners
Getting enough sleep, scheduling days off, and adding in recovery practices like massages are key when putting in the miles to train for a half marathon.
That’s because rest and recovery allows the body to adapt to the training stimulus and become stronger.
During recovery periods, the body replenishes energy stores, repairs microdamage in muscles, and recovers from the stress caused by high-intensity exercise.
Plus, adequate rest gives you a chance to recharge mentally, reducing fatigue and preventing burnout. It can help maintain motivation, focus, and enjoyment in your training.
How you schedule rest days depends on the amount of running you do each week and other physical activities you participate in. Ideally, you should aim for at least two to three days a week of complete rest from running.
During these rest days, you can add in other forms of gentle activity like walking, yoga, swimming, stretching, or mobility work. This is also a good time to incorporate strength training sessions.
Incorporate relaxation techniques like deep breathing exercises, meditation, or mindfulness practices into your routine. These techniques can help reduce stress, promote mental relaxation, and enhance recovery.
You can also try foam rolling, massage balls, or other self-massage tools to perform self-myofascial release. This technique helps release muscle knots, increase blood flow, and reduce muscle soreness.
Common Running Injuries
While any type of injury is possible when you participate in high-impact activities like running, there are some that tend to rear their ugly heads more than others. While not an exhaustive list, here are some of the more common running injuries.
Iliotibial (IT) Band Syndrome
IT band syndrome feels like pain around the kneecap, but it’s actually related to inflammation of the iliotibial band, which is a thick band of tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh and connects the glutes to the tibia or shin bone. IT issues often arise from overuse or weak glute muscles.
Rest, ice, stretching, and foam rolling are the initial treatment strategies for dealing with IT band syndrome. It’s also a good idea to work with a physical therapist to address any muscle imbalances or gait issues. They can also help design a strength training routine to target the glute muscles and hamstrings.
If you’re experiencing chronic heel pain in the bottom of the foot from the heel to the arch, especially in the morning or after periods of rest, you may be dealing with plantar fasciitis.
This common running injury results from inflammation of the plantar fascia, a thick band of tissue that supports the arch of the foot.
Treating plantar fasciitis involves a decrease in mileage, cross-training, rest, icing, anti-inflammatory medications, stretching, and massaging the arch of the foot. Some people may find it helpful to see a podiatrist to discuss the right type of shoe or other devices like arch supports, custom orthotics, or heel cups.
Also known as medial tibial stress syndrome, shin splints cause pain along the tibia or shin bone. Shin splints are related to overuse, improper footwear, or running on hard surfaces.
Treating shin splints often involves rest, decreasing mileage, cross training, ice massage, anti-inflammatory medications, getting fit for the right shoes, stretching the calf muscles, and strength training exercises for the hips and glutes.
Inflammation in the tendon that connects the calf muscles to the heel bone can progress to achilles tendinitis. Pain is often felt with heel striking.
This chronic injury can occur due to overuse, tight calf muscles, or improper footwear. Treating achilles tendinitis starts with modifying your training schedule, stretching the calf muscles, icing, massage, anti-inflammatory medications, avoiding hills, and getting fitted for the right shoes.
Runner’s knee is another name for pain and tenderness around the patella or just under the kneecap. It can feel worse when squatting or walking up and down stairs.
This common injury has several origins including muscle imbalances or weaknesses of the quadriceps, abnormal alignment of the leg bones, and problems with your feet.
Resting, stretching, cross training, and anti-inflammatory are the top ways to treat runner's knee. Working with a physical therapist may also help with developing a strengthening program to address muscle weaknesses and imbalances.
Tips for Preventing Injuries
- Warm-up and cool down before and after every run for at least five to 10 minutes. A combination of dynamic stretching before a run and static stretching after a run is a great place to start.
- Increase mileage slowly, and don’t skip rest days.
- Follow a properly designed training program.
- Get fitted for the right shoes and wear any recommended orthotic devices.
- Cross-train with other low-impact activities like swimming, cycling, or an elliptical trainer.
- Strength train at least two to three days a week, focusing on exercises that target all the major muscle groups.
- Consider alternative treatments like massage or acupuncture.
- See a running specialist to assess your gait.
- Train on softer surfaces such as grass, trails, or dirt roads.
- Watch for wear patterns on your shoes and replace as needed. Some experts recommend every six months, depending on training volume.
- Listen to your body and pay attention to any signs of pain, discomfort, or fatigue during training. If you experience persistent pain or notice any unusual changes in your body, consult with a healthcare professional or sports medicine specialist.
Mental Prep for a Half Marathon
A successful half-marathon plan incorporates both physical and mental practices. In fact, building mental resilience and adopting a positive mindset can help you overcome challenges, stay motivated, and perform at your best during training and on race day. Here are some techniques for staying motivated and mentally tough during training.
Set SMART Goals
One of the first steps in your mental game is setting specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and time-bound or SMART goals. Having clear goals provides direction and motivation throughout your training journey.
Break your goals down into smaller milestones, such as achieving a certain weekly mileage or completing a challenging workout.
Find Your Why
Coach Kristen Hislop asks people to write down their “why” for training and completing a half marathon. “I have them come up with a mantra and that helps when the going gets tough, and it always does,” she says.
Have a Support System
Another key element in the mental preparation for half marathon training is surrounding yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or fellow runners who understand and encourage your training goals.
Having a support system allows you to share your progress, challenges, and victories. It also provides support and encouragement to help you stay motivated, accountable, and mentally resilient throughout your training journey.
Practice Race-Day Scenarios
Incorporate race-specific simulations into your training plan. Plan long runs that mirror race conditions, such as terrain, distance, and pacing. By practicing race-day scenarios during training, you'll become familiar with the demands of the race, build confidence, and develop mental resilience.
Personal Success Stories of Half Marathon Runners
Real-life success stories from half-marathon runners can be inspiration for anyone embarking on their own half marathon journey. Here are a few stories runners shared with Coach Kristen Hislop about the Freihofer’s Training Challenge:
“Olivia joined the Training Challenge after having twins. She was told by her doctor that she needed to go on medication for high blood pressure. Instead of medication Olivia chose to join the Training Challenge.
Her numbers improved and she completed the 5k - hooked on running. She went on to a 10K and then 13.1. As she progressed in distance she gained confidence and started new ventures.
She met up with Black Girls Run in NYC on trips to run races and see family. Olivia has since brought Black Girls Run to Albany. Running has literally changed her life.”
“Jenn entered the Training Challenge as a media lead for a group. When we started the Challenge a media 'star' headed up a team. Jenn, as a journalist, had the 6am crew! While she looked like a runner she had never been into sports.
Training for the 5K was a big deal, but after the 5k it was on to 13.1. She saw such a transformation in her own life that she wanted to share that with others. She created a non profit called Strong Through Every Mile (STEM). STEM is a couch to 5K program for battered women. Women go through the program over 3 months gaining a real sense of empowerment and freedom.”
“Amanda came to me for run coaching. She wanted to do a half marathon. We trained for a great half marathon and then decided there was still room to grow. Instead of focusing on another 13.1 we decided to put a 1 mile race on the track in the mix.
Amanda had never gone under 7 minutes 30 seconds for a mile. I knew she could go under 7. At the Night of Miles she ran 6:45.62. Combining distance training with speed work resulted in PRs for both a mile and afterwards another half marathon.”
Training for a half-marathon is a major undertaking, but one that is within reach as long as you follow the right plan, fuel your body with proper nutrition, take adequate rest days, and have fun while doing it. Completing 13.1 miles also requires listening to your body and adjusting your training plan as needed.
Before starting a half-marathon plan, make sure to consult with your doctor or another healthcare professional, especially if you have a chronic health condition, injury, or any general health concerns.
And if you’re new to running or have questions about designing and following a program, consider working with a certified running coach. They can help you get started on the right foot.
You can also find a wealth of information, training plans, and tips through online platforms and apps. Here are some running-specific apps to consider: