Going the Distance: How to Train for a Half Marathon

With fall running comes the busiest race season for most runners. Despite Covid’s cancellations for so many major races, there are still virtual runs, including virtual half marathons.

how to train for a half marathon

In my time as a running coach at Runstreet, I’ve found that half marathons are one of the most popular race distances. The 13.1-mile race offers plenty of challenges and fitness improvements without the extended recovery period that marathons require. You still need lots of preparation though, so a half marathon training plan is key.

If you’ve set your sights on conquering the 13.1-mile distance, these tips on how to train for a half marathon will help you successfully stride through the finish line come race day. 

Track your progress

As you begin training, use an app or watch to track your running times, advises NASM-certified trainer Jenna Scott, who uses Strava to track her runs.

“Celebrate your struggle days and your personal best times or distances…it is all part of the process,” Scott says.

You can also find a trail or path that you can use throughout your training to feel and track your progress, she recommends. 

Pick a training plan

Once you pick your half marathon, find a training plan or hire a running coach to help create a customized running program for you. Half marathons take a lot more planning and preparation than a 5K. Most people can’t skip training and then wake up on race day and whip out a half marathon. A training plan will give you the blueprint you need to run happy and injury-free on race day. 

Some elements your half marathon training plan should have include: a weekly long run to build your endurance gradually; base runs; and, if you are running for time, speed workouts. 

The long run

The long run is the most important part of your training program for getting through those 13.1 miles. If you’re wondering how to train for a half marathon, the long run is the first step. Pick a day each week that you will have the time for a long run—many people do Saturday or Sundays—and that will be your long run day. The general rule of thumb is to increase your long runs gradually — by a mile or two each week — with a shorter long run every third week for your body to recover.

For instance, you may run 5 miles for your first long run, then 7 and then back down to 5 before increasing your long run distance again for your fourth week of half marathon training. 

As far as pace for your long runs, keep it a relaxed pace, one at which you could keep up a conversation. Long runs are not the time for speed, just consistency. 

Base runs

Base runs are the foundation for your half marathon training program. Your base runs will help improve your cardiovascular fitness and endurance, and keep you in top shape for race day.

Your base runs should be done at a relaxed pace and will constitute the majority of your training runs. Your base run distance may range from 2 miles to 8 miles, with most runs falling somewhere in the middle. Depending on your schedule, you will want to do 3 or 4 base runs a week. 

Speed workouts

If you want to run your fastest half marathon or improve your race pace, speed workouts are essential. In my coaching experience, I’ve found tempo runs to be the most useful speed workout for half marathon training. Incorporate speed workouts into your half marathon training program at least once a week. 

Hills

Include hills in your half marathon training runs so you’ll be ready for them on race day. “Add hills to your training to build your strength and power,” says Scott. Do some hill repeats in your neighborhood or find ways to add hills to your regular training runs. 

Rest

Rest is vital to give your body time to repair and rebuild when you’re training for a half marathon. I recommend taking at least one rest day a week, on the day after your long run.

One of the most common mistakes runners take when training for races is to begin training with so much enthusiasm and not taking enough rest or easy days. Fast forward a few weeks and you’ll often find these runners burned out or, worse, injured. Take rest days from the start and you’ll be in better shape come race day. 

Also, make sure your muscles don’t get too tight during training. 

“Take a yoga class or foam roll to help in your running recovery process and to prevent injuries,” Scott says. “Running is not easy on the body.”

Running motivation

Keeping your big picture in mind will help you get through the tough half marathon training days. Think of someone or something that is your motivation, Scott advises. Remind yourself of this when you want to give up. Running is as much mental as it is physical.

Tapering

In the final days of training before your half marathon, it’s important to take it easy, or taper, as we runners say. Tapering is reducing your running intensity and distance to allow your body to fully recover from training and build up for race day. Generally, it’s best to begin tapering 2 weeks before race day. This means reducing your total weekly miles, cutting out speed workouts, cutting your long runs to medium runs, and taking more rest days. 

With these tips for how to train for a half marathon, you should be running strong and happy come race day. Enjoy!

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Endurance Move

About Marnie Kunz

Marnie Kunz is a RRCA-certified running coach and creator of the Runstreet running community. Marnie has a background in journalism and digital marketing. She enjoys traveling, tacos, pizza, reading, and finding street art on her runs. When not wandering the world, Marnie is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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