There really is no ‘one’ best way to train for a half marathon, because a lot of your training will depend on multiple variables: Time to train, your running background (novice vs. experienced runner), current fitness level and mileage, willingness to commit to a training plan, and ability to learn to listen to your body.
That said, if you’re patient and willing to put in the time to develop the endurance to run 13.1 miles and learn how to fuel correctly, crossing the finish line will not only be a memorable and fun experience. It will likely lead you to come back for more races.
To help you get started, here are some general guidelines for half marathon training.
- Before you start running, visit your local running shoe store to pick the right shoe for you, which is the first step to avoid injury. Their trained sales staff will do this by looking at your feet, your running style and assessing the amount of running you do. For instance, people with low arches tend to have stability issues like overpronation; a high-arched foot has tendencies to roll outside. Built-in shoe features, such as stability or cushion will not only help you run more comfortably, but can provide support or absorb shock, as needed.
- Look for a training plan online from a reliable and credible source, such as an ACE-certified personal trainer or websites like WomensRunning.com or contact your local running club to inquire about half marathon training groups. Often, race directors of running events also direct registered participants to local coaches or groups to help you train for their events.
- Find a friend or partner to run with. This will keep you motivated and accountable. It’s a lot easier to skip runs when you’re alone than knowing someone is waiting for you.
- Avoid doing too much, too soon. This can lead to injury or burn-out. Gradually build endurance to run 13.1 miles over 10 weeks or longer. Don’t increase your long run by more than 10 percent over the previous week. Build endurance before working on speed.
- Most training plans recommend running at least three days a week with each run having a specific purpose: Speed, tempo and long. The long runs will increase your endurance; the speed work helps you get faster; tempo runs help you hold a faster pace during the event.
- Long run: These runs are designed to help you go the distance. You gradually build up your long runs to 12 miles. You should be able to talk during these runs. Keep the pace at a lower-to-moderate intensity level, depending on how you feel. The longer training runs are also critical to test your fluid and fuel intake. Everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for you.
- Speed work (For experienced runners): Repeats of 400s, 800s and 1600 meters on a track. These workouts should be 30 minutes or less with an active recovery period (light jogging or running) in between each set, or if needed, walking. These workouts are challenging and are a lot easier to endure with company. Never do any speed work, if you’re injured, feel sore, aren’t recovered from a previous run, or feel like you may be getting injured.
- Tempo runs: These range from two miles up to eight miles at a faster than normal training pace, or 15 seconds faster than your targeted half-marathon pace. They should be at least 25 percent shorter than your long run. Some people prefer running by time, such as doing two repeats of running for five minutes at tempo (at lactate threshold, or where talking is difficult) with two minutes active recovery (or jogging) in between each five-minute run. Run for no more than 30 minutes.
- The National Athletic Trainers’ Association recommends drinking 500-600 ml (17-20 oz) of fluids two hours prior to exercise and 200-300 ml (7-10 oz) of fluids every 10-20 minutes during exercise. For workouts lasting longer than 60 minutes—which will be the case during your long runs—switch to a sports drink to replace sodium and carbohydrates. Some runners prefer taking ‘gels’ with water.
- Train to Race: At the half marathon distance races, you will find aid stations supplying you with water, sports drinks and nutrition. Try to learn in advance what will be handed out on the race course and train with it to see if you can stomach it-- literally.
- Cross-train: Biking, strength-training, and yoga or other flexibility training will help you become a better runner and mix up your training. However, it will not substitute for putting in the miles for running, so keep on track with your training plan for running.
- A healthy diet will not only help you maintain a healthy body weight, but can go a long way in improving your running performance. Visit www.myplate.gov for nutrition guidance.
- Wake up early on race day and eat a light breakfast two hours prior to your race, such as oatmeal, a bagel with a banana (test this before your long runs) to give you the energy you need to run 13.1 miles. Avoid eating solid foods just prior to your race. This can cause stomach issues or diarrhea. Fiber is not your friend on race morning.
- Never try anything new on race day: Your shoes should be in good shape, but not brand new. The same goes for your apparel. It may rub, fit too tightly, chafe or be uncomfortable.
- Finally, don’t get caught up in running out too fast on race day. Run at your own pace and pick up speed the last six miles to finish strong.
If you’re looking for a good training plan, here’s a great 12-week half marathon training plan from Competitor.
Marion Webb is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and ACE-certified Group Fitness Instructor. For over a decade Webb has been working as a print and real-time business reporter covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. An avid triathlete since 2004, Webb is a competitive age-grouper in 70.3 (Half Ironman) distance events and last summer successfully finished the Ironman European Championship in her home town, Frankfurt, Germany.