Half Marathon Training: The Essential Guide

Half marathon training is a huge topic – getting yourself ready to run those 13.1 miles (or 21.1 kilometers) requires discipline, enthusiasm, and a lot of work – but it’s also an extremely rewarding experience!

In this post, we’re going to dive deep on every topic that you need to know about for your half marathon training and preparation – whether it’s getting started, training runs, cross training, nutrition, gear, race prep – we’ve got you covered!

We’ve also opened up our library of free, downloadable half marathon training plans for you guys to access – there are training plans for each ability level and goal out there!

Let’s jump in!

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Half Marathon Training – Getting Started

If you’ve just committed to a half marathon, then congratulations!

It’s an awesome experience, and a great personal challenge to follow through on all the training and preparation that is required.

And if you need some guidance – whether it’s for what gear you need, or how to train, you’ve come to the right place!

Specific Advice for Beginner Runners

Running a half marathon is a big undertaking, and if you’re new to running you have a lot to do.

Here’s some tips that are specifically for you newbies!

Regarding run training:

  • Work on your form. If you’re not used to running, the first thing to get right is your running form. Having good form provides the building blocks for everything that comes later – we can then begin to add on distance and speed. But if you ignore form early on, it’s more likely to lead to issues as you pile on the miles.

    Check out our guide to Proper Running Form!
  • Set realistic goals. Slow and steady wins the race, at least that’s how the old adage goes. And for beginners, it’s true. When you’re researching your half marathon, it can be easy to get ambitious and set yourself a challenging goal – such as finishing in two hours. However, pushing your body too hard will only increase your risk of injury, burnout, and fatigue. Instead, choose a sensible goal – and don’t push yourself to the point of burnout.

    A great goal for first-time half marathon runners is simply to finish! You can use your first half marathon as a way to discover how you feel running 13.1 miles, and then pursue more ambitious goals in later events!
  • Choose a suitable training plan. Your half marathon training plan will be your roadmap from where you are today to your half marathon start line, so it’s important to choose well. You should pick up a training plan which reflects your goals, ability level, and the time window you have to prepare.

    I get into training plans a little later in this post, but here are our most popular beginner training plans (all free to access and download):
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  • Doubting your ability? If you’re wondering whether you’re biting off more than you can chew, my advice is to simply get started. Grab a free copy of our Couch To Half Marathon Training Plan, and see how you do for the first week. This is our most suitable plan for people with no running background; it incorporates run/walking to get you gradually used to things, and allows you to take breaks after reaching various milestones.
  • Still thinking that running a half marathon might be too much? There’s no hurry, or pressure, to hit the 13.1 mile mark. Start off with shorter events, such as 5k’s and 10k’s, and find your feet there first (here are our 10k training plans).
  • Join a running club. This is my number one piece of advice for newbie runners with a goal in their mind. Becoming part of a running community gives you support, people to train with, and direct access to runners with experience who can answer all your questions!

    Our Marathon Handbook Facebook community is also an awesome place to ask questions of our group of thousands of experienced runners!
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Assessing Your Running Fitness Level

Perhaps the biggest doubt that runners have when they sign up for a half marathon is when they ask themselves “am I actually fit enough to do this?

I can tell you that if you’re reading this, the answer is almost certainly a ‘yes‘ – yes, you can complete a half marathon!

Where many runners fall astray in their half marathon efforts is in their training and their race pacing strategy. I discuss both of these out later in this post, but needless to say that a half marathon is perfectly achievable.

Even if you can’t run the whole distance, it’s perfectly acceptable to adopt a run/walk methodology. (If you do, it’s important that you plan to do this – rather than run as much as you can, then walk only once you’re drained).

So, how can you assess whether or not you’re actually ready to begin half marathon training?

My advice to all of you is to just start. Find a half marathon training plan which reflects your goals, time schedule, and ability level, and jump in.

If you’re finding the first week of training too tough, then that plan is probably too tough for you – and you might want to try an easier one.

Likewise, if the first week was almost effortless, maybe you should consider a more challenging goal.

Defining Your Half Marathon Goals

One of the biggest mistakes that half marathon runners make is not defining their race goals early on.

So many runners turn up to the start line of their half marathon without knowing exactly what they’re hoping to achieve on that day.

This often means they ‘wing it‘ – they go out too fast, spurred on by the adrenaline of the start line – and suffer later on.

How Long Does It Take To Train For a Half Marathon?

As an absolute minimum, experienced runners need at least 6 weeks to get half marathon ready (check out my 6 week half marathon training plan).

However, 8-12 weeks is a much more reasonable time to get half marathon ready.

And if you’re a less experienced runner, you’ll want to set aside 16 – 20 weeks to train for your first half marathon.

How Your Half Marathon Goal Influences Your Training

Here’s why I think it’s so important to determine your half marathon goals as soon as possible:

Your half marathon goal dictates your whole training methodology.

Once you’ve determined your goal, we know exactly where you need to be on Half Marathon day, so we can train towards that.

Planning your training around a goal saves time, means you’re not training more or less than necessary and guides you in determining your training run pace and intensity.

I recommend that you first determine your half marathon goal, then choose a training plan which reflects that goal.

Let’s break down the different options when choosing a half marathon goal:

The ‘Just Finish’ Goal

The ‘Just Finish’ goal is when your only aim is to reach the finish line of the half marathon – no matter how long it takes.

If you’re a rookie runner, or are worried about your race performance, then this is the goal for you.

In fact, I would recommend this goal to any first-time half marathon runner.

Don’t get hung up on finishing times and results.

There’s no need to get ambitious and risk burnout and injury.

Save your time-based goals for future half marathons!

The ‘Run All The Way’ Goal

This goal is one in which you don’t stop to walk at all during your 13.1 miles.

It’s a great goal as it’s a personal challenge as opposed to comparing your speed against other runners.

It also requires discipline and pacing, two things I’ll get into later in this post.

The Time-based Goal

Time-based goals are when you decide you’re going to aim to cross the finish line within a certain time – for example, a common goal is to run a sub 2-hour half marathon.

Having a time-based goal gives you something to chase, and can help provide structure to your training plan.

(check out our Half Marathon Pace Charts to figure out the speed required for various target finish times).

We have the following training plans based on time-based goals – they’re not for beginners!

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Half Marathon Training – Explained

Now let’s jump into the heart of your half marathon preparation – your physical training.

I’m going to walk you through each different type of training run or workout you’ve got coming up, to explain the HOWs and WHYs behind each one.

Training Runs

Training runs are your regular, middle-distance runs which make up the majority of your half marathon training schedule.

You’ll typically do 2 to 3 training runs per week, and their distance gradually increases as your training schedule progresses.

The purpose of these runs is to contribute to your overall weekly mileage, and get your body accustomed and adapted to running.

I recommend that you spend time focussing on running form during these runs – it can be easy to slip into bad habits!

If you’re a beginner runner, you should be doing these runs at a slow, comfortable pace.

If you’re aiming for a specific half marathon finishing time however, you want to be performing these runs at close to your target HM pace.

Walk / Run

Walking/Running – also referred to as Jeffing – is an awesome technique for rookie runners that allows them to go longer by alternating running with walking breaks.

Our Couch to Half Marathon Training Plan includes walk/run workouts in the first few weeks; we gradually change the ratio of walking to running until the walking is all but phased out, but if you wish you can continue to follow the training plan while adopting a walk/run strategy.

For example, the first week of this plan feature a walk/run ratio of 2 minutes walking, 1 minute running. As the weeks progress, the amount of running gradually increases and walking decreases.

Everyone adapts at their own pace, so don’t get too hung up on phasing out the walking part of your workout at a particular rate – do it as it suits you.

Long Runs

Long runs are a staple of a half marathon training; essentially, with each long run you increase the maximum distance you can run.

Long runs improve your musculoskeletal strength, your cardiovascular system, and your body’s ability to keep fuelling itself for prolonged periods of exercise.

You should do your long runs at a slow, comfortable, conversational pace – don’t focus on speed at all, even if you’re aiming for a time-based goal.

Do one long run per week – most runners do them at the weekends, as it’s the most convenient time.

Consider doing a tune-up race as race day approaches in order to iron out your racing strategies!

Speed Work

Speed work is specifically the realm of advanced half marathon runners with time-based goals.

Doing speed work improves your running economy and your base running speed.

But it also stresses the muscles and can tire you out faster – when you add speed work to an already-busy training schedule, you increase the probability of injury, burnout, and exhaustion.

For that reason, I don’t recommend speed work for rookie runners – only experienced runners looking to improve their performance.

Check out our article detailing the various forms of speed work you can use!

Cross-Training

Cross-training is an important part of your half marathon preparation – and one that many runners completely overlook.

Cross-training refers to some type of physical exercise that complements your run training – but doesn’t involve running.

The best forms of cross-training are activities that strengthen the legs, hips, glutes, and core – all of which helps your running, and help you avoid injury.

Therefore I recommend strength training, resistance work, pilates, yoga, and swimming as great cross-training activities!

Rest

Downtime is an essential part of your half marathon training journey; it allows your body to recuperate and consolidate the gains you’ve made in training.

If you don’t take any downtime, your body will always be in ‘fight or flight‘ mode. Putting aside a couple of days per week where you actively relax sends the signal to your body that it should go into recovery mode – helping you improve.

Look to take around 2 rest days per week – but don’t be afraid to take an extra day off any time you’re feeling frazzled.

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Half Marathon Training Nutrition

Once you begin training for your half marathon, it pays to spend some time focussing on your nutrition.

Your body needs fuel to power your runs, and nutrients to help you recover quickly.

Here are my top tips for half marathon training nutrition:

  1. Stick to simple, whole-foods based meals wherever possible. Avoid heavily-processed foods which take longer for the body to break down.

  2. Your body will primarily use carbohydrates as its source of fuel when running, so ensure you’re eating a diet rich in carbs. Pastas, breads, veg, and legumes are all great places to start.

  3. Prior to going for a run, opt for a high-carb snack 45 minutes before – a banana is the perfect pre-run fuel boost.

  4. During your run, you shouldn’t need to worry about consuming snacks unless you’re running for more than an hour – which will be a few of your long runs. On these long runs, munch on something at the 45-minute mark, and every 30 minutes or so thereafter. Sports gels are a great form of fast energy, as is trail mix and other snack bars.

  5. After you finish running, your body is primed for recovery foods. Eat a snack or meal within an hour or finishing, and aim for something that is high in both carbohydrates and protein, as both are essential parts of the recovery process.

  6. Don’t feel too bad about having the occasional binge or cheat day – but be aware that they can screw with your energy levels, and make running harder or less pleasant! The healthier and more balanced the diet is, the better.

  7. Plan out your race-day nutrition and test is all beforehand. This means knowing what you’ll have for a pre-race breakfast, what you’ll eat at the start line, what snack you’ll take during your half marathon – test, test, test!
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Half Marathon Training Plans

Choosing the right Half Marathon Training Plan is essential for getting off on the right foot!

Here are some questions to ask yourself before you look for a training plan:

  • What’s my current running ability level?
  • How much time do I have to train for my half marathon?
  • What are my half marathon goals?
  • Realistically, how much time can I commit every week to my run training?

Once you’ve got answers to those questions, mosey on over to our Half Marathon Training Plan Library and pick one out that best suits you, using periodization training to optimize your race preparation.

Half Marathon Training Plans

All of our training plans have been designed by a UESCA-certified running coach and road-tested by hundreds of runners.

You can grab our training plans in both PDF and Google Sheets format – so you can edit it, download it to MS Excel, print them off – do whatever you want!

The Half Marathon Taper

The half marathon taper is the final 2-3 weeks before your half marathon, where you gradually begin to wind down your training – so you’re well-rested and in optimal condition come race day.

Did you know that your hardest training week will be 2 or 3 weeks before your actual half marathon?

After that, you want to decrease your training volume by around 30% each week.

The taper gives your body time to heal, recuperate, and consolidate the gains it’s made in training.

All that run training has left micro-tears in your muscles, your body has been under a lot of stress.

Your body uses the taper to repair itself.

Tempted to skip the taper and squeeze in some last-minute training?

Don’t be.

There’s little you can do in those last few days and weeks to actually become a better runner – it’s already too late.

Instead, focus on recovery, repair, and gradually reducing your training volume.

Don’t stress if this sounds like a lot of work to follow – all our training plans have the taper mapped out in detail already!

Half Marathon Training and Preparation- 10 Final Bonus Tips

Alright, so we’ve covered the main big areas – but I didn’t want to finish without sharing a few extra tips.

Here are my 10 bonus tips for your half marathon training and preparation:

1. Don’t Be Afraid of Rest Days

Rest days are your opportunity for some down time – so take advantage of them.

Don’t be tempted to squeeze in an extra run or cross-training session.

They’re a necessary part of your training.

And if you’re beginning to feel lingering fatigue and burn-out, don’t feel guilty about pulling the duvet over your face and having an extra day off.

In the long run, your body will thank you for it.

2. Hydrate well

Good hydration is a core part of run training.

As we run, we sweat.

Hydrating helps replenish those fluids – but it also has a myriad of other benefits. It helps us thermoregulate our core temperatures, for example. It also helps keep our joints lubricated.

Stay hydrated during run training – but also in your day-to-day activities too.

3. Foam Roll for Recovery

Foam rolling is a form of myofascial release – it helps work out any tension and knots you’ve accumulated in your hours pounding the pavements.

It’s common for quads and calves to get tight through continuous running too. Foam rolling can help loosen them up.

You can even foam roll for 5 minutes before a run to help warm up your leg muscles!

And spending 5-10 minutes post-run with a foam roller is a sure-fire way of resetting your legs, so they can recover right and be better the next day.

4. Find Company!

Running is better with company, period.

Miles can melt away as you catch up with your friend, or running club buddy.

Running with others is a great way to stay motivated, get support, and share information.

If possible, find a friend who is training for the same half marathon as you, so you can match either other in training.

5. When It Gets Too Much, Walk

Never be afraid of a walking break!

Half marathon training can be intense – and whether it’s the physical effort required, or you simply feel drained, feel free to take a walking break.

No one is timing you – focus on simply completing the miles, not on how long it takes you.

And walking can be very pleasant too!

6. Get the Right Gear

Don’t be tempted to do your half marathon training runs in those old pair of gym shoes you’ve had at the back of the closet.

Same goes for your running shirts, shorts, and bras – make sure you’re training with decent gear.

Making the small investment at the start of your training will pay off hugely as you enjoy running in your new gear. You’ll be more comfortable, and less likely to have any snagging issues like blisters or chafing!

7. Tell Everyone About Your Race

This one is a fun little secret I use with clients – I get them to share their half marathon goals with everyone they can – family, work colleagues, on social media…

…why?

Studies have shown that social accountability has a huge effect on your commitment levels.

Therefore if everyone is expecting you to run a half marathon, you’re much more likely to follow through and actually complete the half marathon training.

Go and draft up that Facebook post!

8. Print Off Your Training Plan and Stick It To Your Mirror

Another awesome hack I use with clients – once they’ve settled on their training plan, I get them to print off the plan and stick it to either their fridge or their bathroom mirror.

They then cross out each day’s workout once it’s done.

This visible cue helps form a habit, and makes it less likely that we’ll want to skip a workout.

Why the fridge or bathroom mirror?

It’s simple!

Placing the plan somewhere visible means you’ll see it a few times each day, and it will prompt you to follow through!

9. Do a Dress Rehearsal

In one of your training long runs, I want you to simulate your half marathon race day as closely as possible.

This means you should:

  • wear all the gear you plan to wear on race day,
  • eat the same pre-race food,
  • try and run on a similar route with similar conditions.

All of this is your opportunity to test your systems and gear for any snagging points.

Maybe your socks begin to run after an hour of running.

Maybe you realize you can’t stomach energy gels in the heat.

Whatever it is, you want to figure it out before race day!

10. Don’t Allow For Race Day Surprises!

In addition to your dress rehearsal, here are some more steps to take as race day approaches to avoid any unpleasant surprises:

  • Research where the aid stations will be on the route, and what they’ll provide
  • Study the race check-in information, as well as arrival times and start line instructions
  • Find out in advance if the race organizers allow for drop bags, if you’re planning for one
  • Remember to charge your phone or GPS watch the night before your race!
  • Lay out all your race gear the night before your race, so you just wake up and put it on!

11. Bonus Tip – Recover Properly!

This one’s important!

After you cross the finish line of your half marathon, you want to be taking steps to optimize your recovery – in short, keep moving, eat well, and address any sore spots.

The day after, attempt a run (no worries if it’s the slowest and most terrible run you’ve performed in months – it’ll help loosen you up!).

Here’s our complete guide to half marathon recovery!

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    Thomas Watson

    Thomas Watson

    Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

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