Everything You Need To Know About How To Train For A Half Marathon

Runners who have trained for a half marathon at the starting line.
Unsplash, Joshua J. Cotten

You’ve decided to take on the challenge of a half marathon — congrats! We like to think of this as the sweet spot of races; the half marathon distance is not so long that it wrecks your body and takes over your life like a full marathon, yet it’s lengthy enough to earn you some serious bragging rights. 

But a half marathon definitely still requires a smart training strategy. Completing 13.1 miles is no small feat.

Whether you’re totally new to running, you have a few shorter races under your belt, or you’re looking to shave minutes off your time, we’re here to help. We spoke with three running coaches and physical therapists to compile a comprehensive list of everything you need to know about how to train for a half marathon.

The Running Experts

To determine what real runners need to know about how to train for a half marathon, we spoke with:

  • Kat Campbell, DPT, a certified personal trainer, physical therapist and running coach 
  • Jay Dicharry, MPT, SCS, a sports physical therapist and certified coach who’s worked with over 50 Olympians, and author of Running Rewired: Reinvent Your Run for Stability, Strength, and Speed
  • Megan Reynolds (aka Coach Meg), certified personal trainer, nutrition coach, and run coach in St. Petersburg, Florida

How Long Should You Train for a Half Marathon?

The first step in half marathon prep is finding a training schedule that best suits you. Your training approach and training plan will, of course, be determined by how far away your race is — if you only have 12 weeks to get ready for the race, you’ll be using a 12-week training plan.

But really, the most important factor in determining how long you should train for a half marathon is your current running level. “The most common mistake is choosing a plan that’s too advanced or doesn’t fit your goals,” says Reynolds. “It’s crucial to pick one that matches your current fitness level and goals.”

Beginner plans focus on easy miles, while intermediate plans sprinkle in strides and low-mileage speed work. Advanced plans go big with higher mileage and more intense speed workouts.

We like to divide runners into four groups:

  • Beginner: You’re a first-timer runner starting from scratch or bouncing back from a hiatus.
  • Novice: You’re running less than 15 miles a week right now. Your goal is to make it to the finish line without being exhausted at the finish line. 
  • Intermediate: You’re currently running between 15 and 20 miles per week. You might have run a half or two before. You most likely have a goal half-marathon time you’d like to hit. 
  • Advanced: You’re a running aficionado, breezing through 20 mile + weeks like it’s nothing. You are likely going for a goal time.

Your fitness and experience level will then equate to how many weeks you need to train for a half marathon.

“If you are a new runner, a longer training block, such as a 14-week or 16-week training plan, can be much more beneficial since most newer runners are coming off about 10 miles per week,” Campbell says.

The right training plan allows you to build your mileage up to 13.1 at a safe pace that’ll minimize overuse injuries and burnout, Campbell explains.

If someone has a higher base mileage, they can do a shorter half marathon training program such as 8 weeks or 10 weeks. They will start the training block focusing on the specific half-marathon training workouts instead of building mileage. 

The Smartest Ways to Train for a Half Marathon

Runners who have trained for a half marathon
Unsplash, Miguel A Amutio

Your focus when training for a half marathon is to increase your mileage, increase your speed, and, above all, minimize injury risk. Here’s how our experts say that’s done.

1. Start slow

One of the most common mistakes for first-time half marathoners include doing too much too soon, says Reynolds. This circles back to picking a training plan that fits your current fitness level — a 16- to 20-week training plan or a run-walk training plan will all allow you to scale up your mileage slowly and safely so you reach the finish line at 13.1 miles without getting injured.

Reynolds adds that a good rule of thumb is to not to increase your mileage more than 10% week to week.

2. Pick a plan with a schedule that fits your life

You want to be fairly consistent in your training. So, if you know you have too much going on and only can manage three runs per week, don’t choose a plan that wants you to do five runs per week.

There are plans out there for every level and schedule — and the beauty of the half marathon is that you can fit most training runs in under an hour, in just a few days a week.

Generally, someone new to running a half marathon should aim to do training runs 3 to 4 days a week, while more experienced can aim for 4 to 6 days, Reynolds says. “There’s no need for extra ‘junk’ miles that do more harm than good,” she adds.

3. Include a mix of runs every week

Your week should include a mix of runs — usually a long run, speed work to get faster, tempo runs for endurance, and easy runs for recovery. “To prep for running, you need to train ‘all the gears’,” says Dicharry. Like different gears on a bike, your body has different energy systems that you need to train to develop better fitness.

Reynolds lays out the benefits of each type of run:

  • Long Runs build endurance and mental toughness, preparing you for the distance of a half marathon. They also train your energy systems to change fuel sources. That means using slower-burning fat stores instead of carbs. The more long runs you do the more efficiently your body switches energy systems.
  • Speed Work: Intervals or fartleks improve your ability to run faster by increasing your cardiovascular capacity and improving your running economy.
  • Tempo Runs: These are sustained efforts at a comfortably hard pace, improving your lactate threshold and ability to sustain a challenging pace for longer periods.
  • Recovery Runs: These are easy-paced runs. They help promote recovery by increasing blood flow to tired muscles without adding significant stress.

4. Strength train

Strength training is an important component to how to train for a half marathon.

Strength training during half marathon training plays a crucial role in preventing overuse injuries, enhancing power and explosiveness in strides, and improving muscular stamina.

“As a PT who specializes in working with runners, it is imperative you add in strength training at minimum two times per week,” says Campbell. “Not only will this help with performance if you’re trying to PR, but more importantly, help in improving your ability to tolerate the loads running demands, and as a result, hopefully, minimize your chance of injury.” 

When it comes to strength training during a half marathon training cycle, focus on maintaining total-body strength. Hamstrings, glutes, calves, core, and upper back should all be targeted.

The essential movements of strength training for runners: squats, lunges, and clamshells. And don’t forget about core training.

Don’t focus on lifting heavy when you’re in the heart of training. Instead, look to build more muscle mass and strength in between seasons. 

Dicharry adds that it’s crucial to do targeted stability (precision movement) before your runs, too. Stability and strength training act like the alignment and control that keeps a bike upright as you pedal it forward. “The more skilled control you build within your body, and the better your legs can drive force into the ground, the more durable and faster you’ll become,” he explains.

5. Cross train

Runners should cross-train with activities like cycling or walking to reduce the impact on their joints.
Unsplash, Coen van de Broek

Cross-training is your sidekick, preventing mental burnout and overuse issues. It’s different from strength training because it’s still a cardio workout, just without the running.

So think: swimming, power yoga, using the elliptical machine, cycling, cross-country skiing, skating, and walking.

When you cross-train, instead of pounding the pavement day after day, you are reaping the benefits of cardiovascular training while strengthening muscles that running might not use. Plus, it’s fun! Keep in mind , you’ll want to find a low-impact activity to protect your body. That’s why swimming, yoga, or cycling are great options.

Your cross-training days are meant to give your joints and muscles a break or change. So, be careful if you’re trying to incorporate HIIT into your training cycle. That type of cross-training is best saved for times when you’re in between training cycles.

These are also powerful practices for returning to running as an injured runner.

6. Take your rest days

You don’t want to train every day. Rest days are crucial for allowing your body to recover and adapt to the stress of running, Reynolds explains. “Running puts a lot of strain on your muscles, tendons, and joints. Without proper rest, you increase your risk of overuse injuries like stress fractures or tendonitis.” 

Rest days also give your central nervous system a chance to recover, which is important for maintaining energy levels and performance, she adds. 

7. Focus on fueling properly

When it comes to nutrition, most runners tend to underfuel,” says Reynolds. Your food is your fuel for your runs and, moreover, your body’s ability to recover and rebuild. 

Carbs and protein are your friends. Along with three balanced meals a day, adding in a pre and post run snack can help you stay on top of things, she says. 

Campbell adds: “Generally you want to eat healthy, whole grains, and a lot of carbs and protein to supplement those muscles,” says Campbell.

To learn more about exactly what you should be eating, check out our detailed guides on:

Oh, and all our coaches add: Don’t forget to hydrate properly, including replenishing electrolytes.

How to Improve Your Time

Speed training will help a runner improve their time.
Unsplash, Braden Collum

If you’re a beginner or novice runner, all our coaches highly recommend focusing on the foundations of training, as outlined above. But if you’re a intermediate or advanced runner and you want to improve your time, we’ve got some tips for you:

1. Focus on the right types of runs

When you’re on the hunt for a PR, Campbell says it’s most important to make sure you’re doing the right types of running workouts in your running stack.

“Tempo-based workouts, as well as half-marathon race pace workouts, are going to be crucial for your training,” she says. “You also want to choose your next race wisely, and if it has hills, make sure you are prepared for that by working them religiously in your training.”

2. Add VO2 pace training – and center it in your training

“The most important run of the week is your VO2 interval day,” Dicharry says. You get a lot of bang for your buck in this type of training — but you need to be going a 10 out of 10 on every rep.

Dicharry says while the intensity is absolutely pegged, the volume is REALLY low. You only need 10-12 min of total “on” time, one day a week. They take a long time to recover from, he adds. 

An example of this workout is: 

  • 2 minute intervals of absolute max effort
  • Followed by 4 minutes of rest
  • Repeat 5-6 times

The intervals are on the short side. But the rest is quite long so you can absolutely drill the pace for each of the next intervals, he adds. And you can even walk the 4 min recovery. The mental focus is on that 2min “on” window, not the rest part. 

If it sounds hard, you’d be right. Dicharry advises, “You need to listen to Rage Against the Machine before these workouts, and snap into a slim jim. Being mentally 100% at the start of these sessions is so important.”

3. Slow down your easy runs

To speed up, Dicharry recommends focusing less on your weekly volume and focusing more on going all-in on VO2 pace intervals.

“The main reason people fail is because they go too hard on the easy runs and tempo runs,” Dicharry says. Most people hit their easy runs at a 7 out of 10 and their tempo runs too intense as well, both of increase their recovery time and compromises being rested for VO2 pace intervals.

Dicharry adds that one of his elite runners once said to him, “I don’t think the average age grouper knows just how much of our training is at a really easy pace. Running easy on easy days ensures we are ready to put in the intensity when the time comes.” 

Our Favorite Half Marathon Training Plans

Runners at a half marathon have likely used one of the best half marathon training plans to get there.
Unsplash, Mārtiņš Zemlickis

Having a training plan that fits your current fitness levels, your goal, and your lifestyle is very important for running a half marathon, says Reynolds. 

We have a wide variety of training plans, created by running coaches, that range from two months to five months of prep — all of which are free:

If you want a few more options, check out our guide for the best half marathon training plans for every level of runner.If you want an app-based training plan, we love Runna. This app has plans designed by Olympic athletes that will fit your timeline, address your goals, figure out your paces for every training run, and adapt to your schedule. You can DM coaches and experts in app to get advice. It costs just $18 per month, but all Half Marathon Guide readers can score 2 weeks free with code HALFMARATHON.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Do You Train for a Half Marathon?

The length of time you train for a half marathon will depend on the individual runner. “Ultimately, everything should be individualized based on a runner’s experience level, time and schedule, and mental load to be able to handle training, but usually half marathon plans on average range around 10 weeks,” says Campbell. 

How Do Beginners Train for Half Marathons?

If you’re starting from zero miles, the best way to get into half marathon shape is to begin with the run-walk method. Check out a couch-to-half-marathon training plan to get you there in just a few months.

How Fast Should a Beginner Run a Half Marathon?

Beginners should focus on crossing the finish line period, rather than hitting a goal time. “Any time is going to be a PR, and you don’t want to minimize that accomplishment,” Campbell says.  

Can I Do a Half Marathon Without Training?

Absolutely not. Campbell points out running 13.1 miles without building up your mileage over time isn’t safe for your body and, ultimately, defeats the main purpose of running a half marathon, which is to be proud of yourself for all the hours you put in to get there. “It’s not a flex to run a half marathon without training, and nor is it smart,” she adds.

How Much Should I Run a Week?

Every half-marathon training plan will gradually increase your volume over time. Your mileage per week will go from about 10 miles to about 20 to 25 miles per week.

What Is the Best Training Plan for a Half Marathon?

The best training plan for a half marathon is one that works with your schedule. Also, one that you can adhere to and get to the finish line. Campbell recommends using a personal running coach or running coach app to help you commit to the process.

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