The half marathon journey is inspiring, fun, challenging, sometimes grueling, but so rewarding. It’s a distance that every runner should experience at least once. Many runners already have – the 13.1 distance has grown in popularity over the past decade and has the second-highest participation rate behind the 5K. Statistics from 2019 showed that globally, nearly 2.1 million people became half marathon finishers. In this article we’ll cover how to prepare for a half marathon that’s applicable to all 2.1 million runners.
Runners love the half marathon distance because it’s manageable, yet still a very significant accomplishment. The training doesn’t take over your life in the way a full marathon can (i.e. no four-hour long runs every weekend). Plus, the half marathon is gentler on your body than the full, especially if you do it right. When you train for and finish a half, you’ll be able to celebrate the endurance and mental strength it takes to complete multiple double-digit long runs. It’s an incredible feeling.
So if you haven’t already, sign up for a race. You can use the Half Marathon Guide calendars to find a race in near you. If you don’t need the peer pressure, and you’re already in the throes of training with your sights set in the start line, then let’s get into the half marathon training tips. These simple steps from RRCA-certified running coach Erica Coviello can help you have an awesome training cycle and an unforgettable race.
How to prepare for a half marathon? Determine whether you’re ready
Whether you’re a long distance runner already or haven’t moved from your couch in a few years, if the half marathon is calling your name, you can do it. Too often new runners get caught up on the idea that they need to hit certain benchmarks before moving to the next big race or distance. You might wonder if you need to run a 10K as a prerequisite to the half. You don’t.
Coviello has coached athletes who go from zero running miles ever to first time half marathoners. She says anyone can do it, as long as they have the right mindset and preparation.
But how to prepare for a half marathon? Preparation is crucial. When asked what the most common mistake she sees in runners training for a half marathon race, Coviello is emphatic: “Doing too much, too fast, too soon,” she says. “Jumping into a 12 to 16 week training plan that doesn’t take into account your current level of fitness can often leave you with overuse injuries. So make sure to increase mileage safely, and slowly, and don’t try to run workouts or mileage that demand a higher level of fitness than the one you’ve got.”
1. Give yourself enough time to train
Building your fitness and endurance takes time. Sure, you can wake up and attempt to run 13.1 miles with absolutely no training, but you’ll feel like death and you might hurt yourself.
So how long is long enough when it comes to training for a half marathon?
“When starting from scratch, 20 weeks (or more) is best to prepare yourself for feeling strong and confident in a half marathon,” Coviello says. “That’ll give you four weeks of base building and 16 weeks of solid training for the half.”
She explains that your muscles, heart, and lungs need time to adjust to the stress you put on them while training. “You want enough time in the stress-recover-adapt cycle to be able to meet the demands of the 13.1 distance.”
It’s different if you’re running 15 to 20 miles per week already. “If you’re an experienced runner, 8 to 12 weeks is probably enough to feel confident in your ability to cross the finish line comfortably,” she says. “If you’re an experienced runner with big goals, stick with the 12 to 16 week window of a solid training block, assuming you’ve got a good base built up beforehand. This will give you a chance to build the strength and speed you need to level up.”
2. Choose the right training plan
The right half marathon training schedule will depend on your fitness level, athletic experience, and life outside of running. But no matter what, a good training plan is going to have a mixture of easy-pace runs, cross or strength training, rest days, and one long run per week.
The best way to learn how to train for a half marathon is to follow a training plan with a safe build up in terms of mileage volume and effort. Intermediate and advanced runners should look for plans with variations in effort. That means, once your base is built, you should have one day per week devoted to speed work, hill work, trail running, or interval training. These harder effort runs will get your heart rate higher than your usual training, which will help improve speed and aerobic endurance.
You also need a plan that will work with your schedule. That means you should determine how often you can devote time to run. There are plans that only have three running days per week and others that have five or six. Some runners might wonder how many runs they should get in before the half marathon, but it’s less about the number of days and more about the quality of the miles.
Our more popular training plans are the 12-Week Training Program for Beginners and the 16-Week Training Program for Intermediate Runners.
3. Focus on your long runs
The number one piece of advice Coviello has for any runner training for a half marathon is simple: Don’t skip your long runs.
“Skipping a few runs here and there most likely won’t make or break your race experience, but don’t make a habit of skipping the long runs,” she says. “Total weekly mileage is very important but those long runs are the ones that have the greatest impact on your ability to finish strong in the half marathon distance.”
Long runs are a vital component to half marathon training. If this is your first rodeo, your half marathon training plan will likely start with a five-mile long run. Each week, that long run will increase and you’ll work your way up to 10 or 11 miles. (Most half marathon training programs’ longest run do not exceed 11 miles because there’s no need to run the full distance before race day. Trust the plan!)
Long runs will become the runs you love to hate. Some will be exciting, incredible experiences. Others will be a total drag and you’ll need to take walking breaks (which is totally fine) and become your own cheerleader to help you make it through. No matter how your long runs go – how bad or beautiful – know that they are useful. These runs are not only crucial to muscle adaptation, aerobic improvement, and greater endurance, they also help your brain prepare for the race by letting you practice fatigue management, tenacity, and race day strategy.
Plus, each long run is like a dress rehearsal for the big day – so treat it as such. Dress in the gear you plan to wear to ensure there will be no chafing, plan when and what to eat before, during, and after, make sure your playlist is race-day ready, and test out a few race pace miles within the long run. Take notes after about what went right and what might set you back. The more data you gather from these weekly long miles, the better prepared you’ll be for the race.
4. Plan out your half marathon fueling strategy
In addition to consuming enough daily calories to keep your training strong, you have to figure out how to make sure you are adequately fueled on your long run and during the race.
To ensure your body has a source of energy readily available, the general rule of thumb is to consume carbohydrates during any run longer than 60 minutes. When to start taking in calories is a personal preference but should begin within 45 minutes. Some runners want to eat within the first 30 minutes and others choose to wait until that 45-minute mark. Regardless of when you start eating, just maintain regular intervals.
You might wonder why carbs are the go-to source of calories. They’re easily broken down into glucose, which your muscles use as fuel. By regularly replenishing your glycogen stores, you can sustain your energy levels and maintain your pace and mental focus.
But ask any distance runner and they’ll tell you, on-the-run nutrition is tricky. Figuring out how and what to eat requires a lot of trial and error. There are packets of sugary goo, gels, drink tablets, honey straws, jelly beans, dried fruits – and any number of these fueling options will work so long as they agree with your stomach. Test them out during your long runs. Try eating them at different intervals to see what keeps your energy levels up. And every time you eat, drink water or a sports drink. Hydration is just as important as calories and will keep your electrolytes balanced during long sweat sessions.
5. Incorporate a cross-training routine
To prepare your body for a half marathon, you have to make sure your training is well-balanced. Too many runners fall into the trap of running at the detriment of everything else. This leads to overuse injuries and burnout. You can easily combat this by mixing up your workouts. Walking, hiking, cycling, and swimming are all great options on your cross-training days. Oh, and don’t forget resting and foam rolling (the TriggerPoint Grid is our favorite).
A running-specific strength and mobility program should be part of your training routine. But be careful not to overdo it or plug in a workout that makes no sense, meaning don’t jump into a random HIIT class. With the load you’re already putting on your body, these intense workouts could be detrimental and cause more harm than good.
Strength and conditioning coaches recommend lifting heavy for muscle gain and performing plyometric movements during pre- and post-season training, so wait until you cross the finish line to go nuts in the gym. Instead, look for circuits focused on hip mobility, posterior chain stability, and core strength. Bodyweight exercises like squats, lunges, single-leg deadlifts, and bird dogs are great basic moves. If you have a physical therapist or personal trainer in your corner, ask them to help you come up with a strength training for runners session that will complement your running schedule.
6. Try a practice race
A tune-up race is a race of shorter distance that falls within the training cycle of your goal race. Meaning, you run a 5K or 10K warm up race before the big day! When it comes to half marathons, tune-up races aren’t really necessary, but they are a great way to see where you are in terms of fitness or what progress you’ve made in training. They can also add some spice to the weeks of long, slow-ish miles.
Coviello tells her runners that if they want to race, to go for it. “Sometimes, you might want to hit a 5K or 10K just before or near the beginning of a training cycle to give you a frame of reference to help you set reasonable goals and guide your training and half marathon pace,” she says.
A true tune-up race will come in the latter half of your training runs. “For these races, it depends on what your goals are,” says Coviello. “Maybe you get a bunch of miles in beforehand and use the tune-up race as race-pace miles to simulate running hard on tired legs. If it falls in the perfect place in your calendar or if you want a true tune-up, it can be helpful as both a workout and a way to adjust your race goals and strategy, allowing you to tweak your final weeks of training accordingly.”
7. Invest in the “right” shoes
Experienced runners will tell you it doesn’t take much gear to run a half marathon. For most, the right gear includes a pair of shorts, a shirt, a sports bra if needed, a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen. But if there is one thing every runner needs, it’s a good pair of running shoes. Coviello (and probably almost every running coach on the planet) says to buy two pairs.
“Two of the same make and model,” she says. “One for training, one for taper and race day. Once upon a time, sneakers needed to be broken in. That doesn’t really exist anymore, but you do want to make sure the sneakers work for you and don’t give you any hot spots, so don’t break the ‘nothing new on race day’ rule. Give them a spin for at least a few days worth of miles.”
If you can afford it and want to, you might want to add a few more pairs of shoes into your rotation during these months of training. “You want at least one pair of your solid trainers for long and easy runs, maybe a lightweight shoe for harder efforts like tempo runs and any speedwork you might do,” says Coviello. “Not only do they serve different purposes, but letting your shoes rest between workouts will make them last longer.”
8. When in doubt, hire a running coach
Sure, running is simple enough. Put one foot in front of the other, right? But if you want to run your best half marathon, consider hiring a running coach.
“A good, qualified coach knows how to take what he or she knows about training principles, exercise physiology, and all other nerdy things and apply it to you as an individual,” Coviello says. “We can analyze your current fitness and know how to set up a training plan to improve it.”
Of course, you can use free training plans and do your own research. But your coach will take the guesswork out of the equation and keep you running safely and effectively.
“A coach keeps you accountable, becomes your sounding board, encyclopedia, cheerleader, and confidant,” she says. “We help you dream bigger, giving you confidence to hit times you maybe didn’t even dream of before working with us. The right running coach is the tool you may be missing to become the best runner you can be.”
Summary: How to prepare for a half marathon
When considering how to prepare for a half marathon, you’ll want to make sure you have:
- The appropriate amount of time to train for the 13.1 mile distance.
- The proper attire and footwear for both training and racing.
- The right training plan to follow along with in the event whether you’re a beginner or experienced runner.
- Incorporate cross-training, practice runs, and recovery.
- Consider and adjust nutrition requirements per your training schedule.
If you do all of these correctly, you’ll know exactly how to prepare for a half marathon.