So, you want to run a fast half marathon? You’re in luck: the half is one of the longest race distances that’s also approachable and relatively easy to run fast. Yes, it will take work. Yes, it will be difficult. But it’s manageable—and you can do it, with smart, specific half marathon training.
Unlike a marathon, which requires more fuel than your body can store in its muscles, a half marathon is short enough that you don’t have to worry about “hitting the wall” in the final miles. But at 13.1 miles, you can’t fake your way through a half like you can with a shorter race like the 5K distance.
With the right half marathon training approach that prioritizes general endurance and race-specific fitness, you’ll see incredible progress and plummeting race times.
Let’s cover three of the bread-and-butter ingredients to every successful half marathon training program. We’ll start with more general guidelines and move to specific workouts.
Ingredient #1: The Almighty Long Run
Every runner should be doing a weekly long run—no matter what distance you’re training to complete. Long runs build your general endurance so you can run farther, complete longer and more intense workouts, and help you maintain faster paces for a longer period of time.
If you’re a beginner, long runs are even more critical, as endurance is the top limiting factor for new runners. Long runs increase running economy (efficiency) and help you cover the half-marathon distance comfortably—so you can then worry about running it fast rather than just completing the race.
During a 12–20 week half-marathon training period, add a mile to your long run every 1–2 weeks, but take a recovery week every 4–6 weeks in which the long run distance dips slightly. Run at least 11 miles during training to ensure you can complete the half marathon comfortably.
Advanced runners will want to run significantly more than 13.1 miles during their peak long run—even up to 20 miles. The benefits of long runs are undeniable and the longer you can safely run, the more you can focus on running fast on race day.
Ingredient #2: All Hail the Tempo
Tempo runs are classic workouts for any distance runner. You’ll see runners doing tempos who are training for 5K races and even ultramarathons—they’re that useful!
This is because they help push your endurance to new levels. More specifically, they increase your body’s ability to clear lactate from your blood stream, which is a byproduct of hard exercise. Tempo runs help you run at a faster pace without accumulating too much lactate, ultimately helping you maintain a faster pace for a longer period of time.
Coaches describe tempo run pace in several ways:
- The pace that you can hold for about an hour (10K to 10-mile race pace for most runners)
- A “comfortably hard” pace (for those who like to run by perceived effort)
- The pace that causes your heart rate to reach 85–90 percent of maximum (if you prefer heart-rate monitor training)
Beginners can start with tempo intervals which are simply 2–5 minutes at tempo pace with 1-2 minutes of easy running as recovery in between. Aim to complete roughly a total of 15–20 minutes at tempo pace. Advanced runners can skip the recovery running and instead run 3–5 miles, or 20–30 minutes, at tempo pace with no rest.
And of course, you’ll want to run a few easy miles before and after any tempo workout to ensure you have a proper warmup and cooldown.
Ingredient #3: Specific Workouts
Specificity is the golden rule in running: your training must be specific to your goal race. These workouts are more advanced, so if you’re a beginner, you can just run easy mileage, long runs and tempo workouts. But if you’re advanced and want to go after a big half-marathon personal best, race-specific workouts can take your fitness to new levels and help you accomplish more on race day.
A half marathon-specific workout closely resembles the race. In its most basic form, you’ll run at half marathon pace for 6-8 miles. Here are two more examples:
- Two repetitions of 5K at goal half marathon pace, with 2 minutes of easy running as recovery.
- Finish a long run of 13–18 miles with 3–5 miles at goal half marathon pace (this workout makes you run fast on tired legs, making it even more specific to the race itself).
Workouts like these should be done in the final 4–6 weeks before the goal race.
To be clear, these are advanced workouts! Most beginners will see rapid improvement without these more challenging sessions. If you’re not ready yet, learn how to train for your first half marathon here. Implement these half-marathon training sessions into your next program and you’ll reap the rewards: more endurance, higher fitness levels, and most importantly, a faster half marathon!
Jason Fitzgerald is the host of the Strength Running Podcast and the founder of Strength Running, an award-winning blog with hundreds of thousands of monthly readers. A 2:39 marathoner, he’s coached thousands of runners to faster finishing times and fewer injuries with his results-oriented coaching philosophy. Follow him on Instagram or YouTube.