COVID-19 vaccinations are on the rise nationally, and as cases begin to decline races will continue to come back after many were cancelled or postponed due to the pandemic. If you’re looking to challenge yourself, consider the half marathon, which can be the perfect distance: 21km is long enough to make you feel accomplished but short enough to wrap your brain (and schedule) around. And yes, you can finish one.
“Just about anyone can do a half marathon with the proper training,” says Mark Coogan, New Balance Elite coach and former Olympic marathoner. “The key is preparing your body for the distance without overdoing it and causing injury.”
A lot of beginners end up falling on two ends of the training spectrum: They either commit to their half marathon training plan too much (ignoring their bodies and escalating an injury that could have been avoided) or they don’t commit enough (Coogan says you should be working out six days a week). But if you find that sweet spot, the finish line will be in sight before you know it. Follow our advice and tips on how to train for a half marathon, and you’ll get there in one victorious, badass piece.
How Should I Train for My First Half Marathon?
The key to successful half marathon training is consistently putting in enough weekly mileage to get your body accustomed to running for long periods of time. Newer runners may start with logging 16 to 24 kms per week total and gradually building to a peak week of 40 to 48 kms. More experienced runners may start at 40 or more km per week and peak at 64 or more kms.
Plan your race—or virtual race—at least two months from now. “If you can run a 5K now, then you can run a half marathon in eight weeks,” Coogan says. “But the ideal plan is three to four months long, which gives you a buffer if you get sick, injured, or slammed at work.” Basically, plan for life to get in the way—as it so often does—so you don’t stress yourself out.
Can’t run a 5K just yet? Most beginner half marathon training plans start with a 5km run in the first week, so you’ll want to work your way up to that first. “Lots of people run into problems like shin splints when they first start, so get past that point first,” Coogan says.
To build up, former Olympian and running coach Jeff Galloway suggests running at least three times a week. “Weekday runs should average about 30 minutes,” he says. Then, you can work your way up to a 5km run on the weekend.
The most important part of your training is a weekly long run at an easy “conversational” pace—meaning you can speak in full sentences throughout the run—that gradually increases in distance, week over week, to build your strength and endurance. If you gradually build to being comfortable on long runs of 16 or 17 kms, you’ll have what it takes to go 21kms on race day.
How Do I Choose the Right Half Marathon Training Plan?
Now that you’ve chosen your half marathon, it’s time to settle on your training plan. A solid half marathon training plan should have these four things: cross-training days, a long run that’s at least 10 miles, a rest day immediately following your long run, and a taper.
“Cross-training allows you to work on your cardio without the constant pounding of running, long runs give you the confidence you need on race day, and rest days are crucial to recovery,” Coogan says. (More on the taper later.) A lot of training plans leave the cross-training decision up to you, but Coogan suggests swimming, cycling, or using the elliptical or Stairmaster.
And there’s no need to worry about not hitting that 21kms before the half marathon: “If you can run 16kms, you can run 21kms on race day,” Coogan says.
What Should I Wear for a Half Marathon?
Running may not always feel easy in the moment, but it’s one of the easiest sports to access. It’s cheap (once you swallow that race registration fee), you can do it anywhere, and it requires almost no equipment.
But as anyone who has run in poorly fitted shoes will tell you, gear still makes a huge difference. “Go to a specialty running shop that analyzes your form and helps you choose the best shoe for you,” Coogan says. Keep in mind that your friend’s favorite might not be your favorite. Some people prefer to run as close to barefoot as possible in minimalist shoes, while others like extra-cushioned shoes that resemble Spice Girl platforms. Allow yourself to find the one that works best for you.
You’ll also want to test every pair of leggings, headphones, and socks before race day—the last thing you want is an unexpected tag scratching your lower-back for two-plus hours, or socks that fall down every four seconds. Never race in something you’ve never worn before.
What Should I Eat During a Half Marathon?
While we’re at it, the same goes for fueling. Don’t experiment with new energy gels, caffeine, or breakfast foods on race day. Your training runs are just as much about preparing your body as they are about finding the fuel and gear that work well for you. Load up on caffeinated gels without testing them first, and you could end up spending more time in the porta-potty than you planned for.
Your plan: Experiment with these perfectly carb-y breakfasts for runners, then aim to consume about 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour while you’re running. Your on-the-run fuel should come from sources that are easy to eat, digest, and carry.
How Much Should I Drink During a Half Marathon?
You need to drink enough before, during, and after your run to perform your best. Indeed, just two percent dehydration can slow you down. It’s especially important to stay on top of hydration during warm summer months, when you sweat more. While some experts recommend you stay hydrated by simply drinking when thirsty, others suggest you develop a customized plan by performing a sweat test—that is, weighing yourself before and after exercise. Any weight loss corresponds with fluid loss, so try to drink enough to replenish that weight.
How Do I Avoid Injury When Training for a Half Marathon?
Committing to your training plan is important, but it’s not more important than avoiding injury. “Most injuries can be addressed quickly early on, but in order to do that you need to be honest with yourself if something hurts,” Coogan says. Ultimately, missing one workout won’t ruin your race. What will? Being sidelined for a month because you ignored an injury that got worse. If you happen to get an ache or pain close to the start of your race, consider your options—and consult your doc—before deciding to run or rest.
How to Prepare for a Long Run
The long run, usually on Saturday or Sunday, is arguably the most important part of any half-marathon training plan. (Coogan suggests Saturday, so you can rest on Sunday, but that depends on the type of work you do and your schedule.) Everything you’re doing earlier in the week—speedwork, cross-training, hill repeats—is designed to prepare you for this long run (no pressure!).
If you can, choose a route similar to the race you’ll be running. This won’t always be possible if you’re doing a destination race, but don’t hit the treadmill for every single run. Yes, even if it’s raining. “You need to make sure you have the right gear (and mindset) for any conditions you might encounter on race day,” Coogan says.
And don’t underestimate the importance of pacing: “The most common mistake runners make is going out too fast—then crashing and burning,” Galloway says. “If you’ve raced a couple of 5Ks, aim to run three to four minutes per mile slower on your long runs and on race day.”
When Should I Stop Running Before a Half Marathon?
A taper will be part of any solid training plan, but it’s worth explaining why it’s important.
“The taper allows your body to recover from the training that you’ve put in, which sets you up for peak energy on race day,” Coogan says. He explained that tapering doesn’t mean that you stop training, it only means you cut back on mileage and intensity two weeks before the race. Don’t worry, after months of increasing your mileage every week, your body will thank you for the rest period— and you’ll feel as fresh as ever on race day.