The half marathon has become America’s fastest-growing race distance over the years, with the number of 13.1-mile races booming along with the number of participants. In 2012, for example, 1.85 million people finished a 13.1-mile race, up nearly 15 percent from 2011, according to Running USA.
Why the half? For many runners, setting a 13.1-mile goal—whether it’s covering the distance for the first time or setting a new personal best—is a reaching, yet still manageable challenge, offering nearly all the elation involved with finishing a marathon without the impact of going (and training for) twice the distance. Plus, you can bounce back quickly enough, so doing more than one or two a year isn’t an unreasonable undertaking.
This year, whether you’re running your first half marathon or your 15th, make the most of your 13.1-mile experience—from sign-up to finish line—with these top tips.
1. Run for a reason
Training for (and competing in) a long race can be an arduous endeavor, even if you already have a few of them under your belt. Regardless of whether you’re a total newbie or a seasoned road warrior, ask yourself one simple question: “Why am I doing this?” The answer to that question gives purpose to your chosen pursuit and will serve as your primary motivation throughout the training cycle as well as on race day.
We all have our own reasons for lacing up our running shoes, from trying something new and dropping a few pounds to running in memory of a loved one, raising money for a cause or setting a personal best. The list is endless. Whatever your reason or reasons for running, remind yourself of them regularly and never lose sight of what crossing that finish line means to you.
2. Train for at least 13 weeks
While it may seem a bit novel to allow yourself one week of training for every mile of the race, 13 weeks is long enough period of time to safely build up your long run, weekly mileage and key workouts, but not so long that you lose motivation and get stale with your training. For beginners whose longest run might only be 4 or 5 miles at the start, adding as little as a mile to your weekly long run will put you in a position to confidently cover the distance on race day. If you’re an experienced runner and covering the distance isn’t of concern, a 13-week training block chock full of gradually increasing mileage and challenging race-specific workouts can put you in a good position to go after a new personal best. Once you’re in shape to run a half, you can shorten your training program to about 10 weeks for your next one.
3. Buy two pairs of shoes
The miles will add up over the course of three months of half-marathon training, and one pair of shoes likely won’t be enough to handle the entire load. Having two fresh pairs of shoes on hand when you start your training helps extend the life of each pair by giving them ample recovery time between workouts. Just as your body needs to recover after a long run or key workout, so do your kicks. Recent studies suggest that alternating between a couple different pairs of shoes in training can decrease running-related injury risk by varying the load to your musculoskeletal system. Buying two pair of shoes can be an expensive outlay in cash, but the return on your investment can be extraordinary. Consider it an investment in your health and your ultimate race goals for the year.
4. Recruit a half-marathon training partner
Don’t go at it alone — training is better with a buddy. A training partner can keep you excited and accountable when the miles rise, workouts get more challenging or if motivation starts to dip. They’ll also be there to share every experience, celebrate with you on race day and swap epic stories afterward. It can be very tempting to stay in bed and skip a cold morning run if you’re running by yourself, but knowing that you’re meeting someone else to put in the work with you can be the catalyst that gets you up and out the door. If you’re looking to improve your time, find a training partner who is quicker than you and let them push you to become a faster runner.
5. Plan a 5K and 10K too
Three months out from your big race can seem like an eternity, so give yourself intermediate goals along the way to stay hungry and check your progress. Scheduling a 5K three to four weeks into training and a 10K three to four weeks before your half marathon will keep you motivated and provide a nice boost to your fitness while also serving as an indicator as to how well your training is coming along. These tune-up races also provide the opportunity to practice your race-day routine prior to your half marathon, which is perfect for newer runners, who can oftentimes be caught off guard by the chaotic, nerve-racking nature of a bigger event.
6. Run on different surfaces
Don’t get caught in a running rut. It can be easy to head out the door and run the same route from your house every day or cave to the convenience of the treadmill at the gym—yet again. As much as possible, try to switch up the surfaces you run on. Softer surfaces, such as grass or trails, can be great for recovery runs since the impact is less on your body, and the uneven nature of the surface can help strengthen your feet or lower legs. Running on roads can help harden your legs and work on your race rhythm, while the treadmill can help you dial in pace with laser-like precision. Much like switching up your running shoes, varying where you run can decrease running-related overuse injuries.
7. Get fast first
If you’re an experienced half marathoner targeting a PR this year, work on improving your speed at shorter distances by training like a 5K/10K runner in the first four to six weeks of your half-marathon training cycle. By emphasizing shorter interval workouts and quicker tempo runs before you start lengthening your long run and piling on more weekly mileage, you will greatly improve your speed and efficiency, which will make the five to six weeks of half-marathon-specific training far more effective. The faster you are over 5K and 10K, the better you’ll be able to handle your goal half-marathon race pace.
8. Practice at race pace
The above statement seems like a given, but many runners, even experienced ones, will train either far slower or much faster than the pace they hope to maintain for 13.1 miles and then wonder why they couldn’t do so on race day. Like anything else in life, practice makes perfect! In the six to eight weeks prior to race day, mix some race-pace running into your weekly schedule in the form of tempo runs (a continuous 4- to 8-mile run at your goal half-marathon pace), interval workouts at race pace, or long runs that finish at goal pace the last 2 to 4 miles when your legs are tired.
9. Experiment with fuel
Nutrition is far from an exact science and it’s important to experiment with fueling and hydration strategies prior to race day. The last thing you want is to have an upset stomach after you take off from the starting line. Do your research and plan ahead — know which sports drink and gels will be on the race course and practice using those products if you don’t plan on carrying supplies with you. Over the course of 13.1 miles, your tank will run low and it’s important that you fill it well beforehand and know what (and how much) to take in to stay topped off during the race.
10. Don’t overdo long runs
The long run is one of the first workouts runners think of when they think of training for a half marathon. And why wouldn’t it be? Thirteen miles is a long way! Long runs are indeed an important cornerstone of any half-marathon training program, but it’s an element that can be easily overdone, whether you’re a beginner or a veteran. How do you avoid this? Plan your training in three-week cycles: Build the length of your weekly long run by 1 to 3 miles for two weeks in a row before scaling it back 3 to 6 miles in the third week. For beginners, aim to build your long run up to 10 to 12 miles two weeks prior to race day, while 13 to 16 will be plenty for most experience runners.
11. Study the course
A general wouldn’t go into battle blind and a runner shouldn’t go into a race without knowing the course he or she is about to take on for the first time. Learn as much as you can about your chosen race course in the weeks leading up to your goal event, and try to simulate those elements in some of your key workouts. Is the course hilly or flat? Are there lots of turns? Does it get narrow in spots? Will there be a strong wind? These are all important details worth knowing before race day. Prepare accordingly and don’t get caught by surprise after taking off from the start line!
12. Train your mental muscle
The most important thing you can take to the starting line with you on race day is the confidence that you’re ready to achieve you goal. Just as you practice running race pace in training, or tackling a tough uphill, it’s important to work on your mental fitness as well. Visualize race day in training: See yourself on the course hitting goal pace, taking in nutrition and strategizing how you’ll respond when your legs start screaming at you to stop. Gain confidence from all the work that you’re putting into achieving your goal. Being mentally fit allows your physical fitness to manifest itself on the race course.
13. Run negative splits
A sound, basic goal for any half marathoner is to finish the race faster than you started. Not only does it feel good to fly across the finish line, but starting conservatively for the first few miles will also keep you from depleting your energy stores too early in the race and allow you to finish strong. A good plan of attack for negative splitting a race is to run the first 2 miles 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than your goal race pace, build up to goal pace by mile 3 and finish faster than goal pace for the final 5K. It doesn’t just work for beginners: Nearly every world record ever run for the half marathon has been achieved by running negative splits.
Congratulations! Crossing the finish line of a half marathon, whether it’s your first time or your 15th, is a huge accomplishment and something to celebrate. But don’t stop there. After you’ve had some time to soak in the entire race experience and evaluate your training leading up to it, start strategizing for your next 13.1-mile adventure. We all have room for improvement, and chasing a new personal best or working on your weaknesses in training can present a new, fulfilling challenge. Running a half marathon shouldn’t be a one-and-done deal—embrace the process of preparing for the event and making training and racing a part of your lifestyle. The best part about half marathons is that, unlike the marathon, you can do several in the same calendar year without massive wear and tear. Consider making your next half marathon a destination race as part of a vacation.