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If you have your sights set on completing your first half marathon—or your fifty-first—you’re not alone. Aside from the 5k, the half marathon is the most popular race distance worldwide, with 2.1 million participants in 2018, according to the International Institute of Sports Medicine. The half marathon is the sweet spot for many runners—long enough to have the allure of a challenge daring to be conquered and short enough that training doesn’t feel like a second full-time job. Running a half marathon also serves as a useful training step en route to a full marathon, exposing runners to some of the fueling, training, and pacing requirements they’ll face as they work up to the full 26.2-mile distance.
While half marathon training doesn’t involve the same aggressive time commitment and mileage required for a full marathon, it’s still important to follow a good half marathon training plan. After all, running 13.1 miles is still quite a feat of physical and mental endurance, and you want to make sure that come race day, you pin on your race bib with the confidence of knowing you are ready to go. So, whether you’re venturing into the distance for the first time, have already achieved full marathoner status and want to step the distance down and the pace up with a competitive half marathon, or simply love the glory of the half marathon, keep reading for a complete guide to half marathon and how to choose the best half marathon training plan.
What is a Half Marathon?
The aptly-named half marathon is 13.1 miles (rounded down from 13.1094), or 21.0975 kilometers, which is exactly half the distance of a full marathon.
Half Marathon Nutrition
As you start venturing into longer distance racing, like the half marathon, you’ll also want to consider your fueling plan while you are training. With shorter races you really don’t need to worry, but after about 60 minutes of running the glycogen stores in your muscles will begin to deplete. The general recommendation is to take in 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour after the first hour of running. And whether that’s in the form of gels, chews, or easy to carry whole foods like dried fruit, you’ll want to prep and train your stomach in advance of race day.
The following chart shows how many carbohydrates are in common race fuel options for your reference:
|Clif Blok||8g per Blok|
|GU Gel||22g per packet|
|Sports Drink||22g per 12 oz.|
|Dried apricots||29g per 6 pieces|
|Applesauce squeeze packet||16g per pouch|
|Banana||23g per banana|
Keeping your food choice consistent goes for your race day breakfast as well. You should be eating what you’re accustomed to eating before your long training runs. The many weeks you have set aside for training is when you should be figuring out what works for best for your body.
Half Marathon Training Gear
Remember, nothing new on race day. Your whole kit should be broken in, from your shoes to your sports bra. You don’t want to deal with any unexpected chafing or niggles while out on the course. Depending on how many miles you already have on your running shoes, you might want to visit your local running store to get recommendations on the running shoes that will best suit your half marathon needs so you can begin to break them in while training. They might recommend purchasing two pairs if you’re following a high mileage plan.
If the race you are registered for allows you to wear a hydration pack (not all do), you’ll want to spend time finding what works best ahead of time, whether it’s a waist belt, vest, or handheld water bottle. Or you can just stick to the aid stations along the course for your hydration needs.
Another gear consideration to think about is whether or not you want to run with a watch. Doing so can help you keep track of your pace if you have a specific goal in mind. But if you’re just racing for fun or to get to the finish line, you might want to leave the watch at home and stay present in the moment.
Don’t forget to check the weather the morning of so you are dressed appropriately for the race and for when you’re milling around before the start. Check the race website for information on where to store gear if you want to drop off a backpack or jacket before your heat.
Choosing a Half Marathon Training Plan
There are quite a few half marathon training plans available, but it’s important to put some thought into what you need in a plan in order to choose the best half marathon training plan for you. Although the majority of half marathon training plans will contain the same basic elements, the actual details, format, intensity, and training philosophy employed by the plans will vary. Because you’ll be spending quite a few weeks and several hundred miles dedicated to your half marathon training plan, you want to ensure it’s a good fit and will get you race-ready without causing injury or burnout.
As you peruse your options for half marathon training plans, here are some of the main factors to consider:
- Appropriateness of the level of the plan: This is likely the most important factor to consider when choosing the best half marathon plan. The rigor or intensity of the plan has to match your current fitness level and race goals. For example, if this will be your first foray into the half marathon world and you’re new to running in general, it’s probably wise to avoid advanced half marathon training plans that incorporate high-mileage weeks and long runs that exceed the race distance. In contrast, if you’re a seasoned runner and looking to set a PR in your next half marathon, make sure you select an intermediate or advanced plan that is geared towards experienced runners looking to do more than just finish the race.
- Compatibility of the plan with your schedule: It’s also necessary to consider the logistics of the half marathon training plan, and evaluate whether the training is practical for your lifestyle. For example, while most half marathon training plans will call for running at least 30 miles per week, some plans will be higher mileage or more training days while others may have more rest days or cross-training. It is definitely possible to train for a half marathon on four days of running per week, and if that’s your preference—or all you have time for in the week—make sure to choose a plan that aligns with these needs. Likewise, if you don’t have time to carve out for a weekend long run or track work on Tuesdays, make sure you can adjust the days for each workout so that you can make the training program work with your routine.
- Duration of the plan: Half marathon training plans may last anywhere from 4-16 weeks or more. The appropriate length depends on when your race is scheduled as well as your current fitness level. Of course, if your race is slated for eight weeks from now, you need a training plan that’s eight weeks or less. Most very short plans are only suitable for those who are already in nearly race-ready shape, whereas longer plans are ideal for those needing a gradual, progressive build of endurance and speed.
- Training philosophy: Half marathon training plans may rely on different training philosophies or strategies. For example, some may emphasize lower mileage and more speed, others may be walk/run programs, while others may incorporate a lot of cross-training. Choose a training plan that matches your needs as an athlete and your preferences. If you’re an injury-prone runner, look for lower mileage plans that rely on low-impact cross-training exercise to supplement mileage to reduce injury risk. If you hate speed work, look for a plan that places less emphasis on intensity but may have longer runs a few times per week.
- Excitement: This last one may sound odd, but the excitement value, or how motivated you feel by a half marathon training plan, should not be overlooked. Remember, you’re going to be dedicating quite a few weeks on your training, and you want race day to go as well as possible. It’s important to select a training plan that you feel excited about.
The key thing to keep in mind when selecting the “best” half marathon plan is that it just needs to be the best for you. There’s no shortage of training plans that have successfully gotten untrained runners ready to finish 13.1 miles come race day or that have helped seasoned runners smash their PR, but choosing the half marathon training plan is ultimately an individual decision. However, much like the fun of shopping for new running gear, browsing your options for the right half marathon training plan is an exciting process and an investment in yourself and your success as an athlete.
Half Marathon Tips for Beginners
Before you jump head first into this popular distance, there are a few things to know to stay strong, healthy, motivated and have a successful race overall. These are the five common sense tips to keep in mind throughout your journey.
- Don’t skip the speed work. Even if you don’t have a time goal that you’re aiming for–which is totally OK–speed training is still important to include to help build your cardiovascular fitness.
- Strength and cross-training will help to keep you injury free. It can be tempting just to run, run, run to get yourself ready for the half marathon starting line, but the key to reducing the chance of injury is to focus on balanced strength. This will also help you run more efficiently. So, when the training plan calls for cross-training or strength training, give it a go!
- When things get tough, keep your ‘why’ in mind. No matter how seasoned of a runner you are, training for a race is no picnic. When training starts to feel like a drag, remember why you signed up for the race in the first place. Was it motivation to be healthier? To show your kids what it takes to work hard and accomplish something? Or a way to bond with a friend? Keep that ‘why’ as your north star to keep going.
- Split up the race. If you’ve run shorter distances before, it can be helpful to break up the race in your head into those more manageable distances. While your pacing will certainly be different, it can make it easier to knock off several 5Ks. Try to reset your mind after each as if you’re starting a new race. Give yourself a new mantra for each split or half way through to take you to the finish line.
- Set three goals for race day. As much as you try to control everything that is going to happen at the race, it is truly an unpredictable situation. It can be helpful to set three goals in your head so that you are aiming for something no matter how perfect or terrible the conditions are. The goals can be broken up as such: A dream goal (that really lofty over-the-moon PR you’ve been dreaming of), a realistic goal (the time you’re most likely to finish at based on how training has been going), and a feeling goal (finish the race happy with a smile on your face, for example). Having these can help to take the pressure off.
Looking for a place to start training? Check out our lineup of half marathon training plans and start chasing your goals today.
Downloadable Half Marathon Training Plans
- Signed up for a half marathon and then forgot about it? Or signed up for one a month out on a whim? This plan is for those looking for a crash-course on the distance.
- The beauty of this 12-week training plan is that it’s adjustable. Whether you have just three days a week to train or up to six, there are options to make it work for you.
- This 14-week plan was created by Sara Hall, the second-fastest U.S. marathoner of all-time, for her mother when she was first giving the distance a go. Recommended for people who have at least six months of running as a base.
- This the mother of beginner training plans. As it states in the name, ‘Couch to Half Marathon,’ no prior training is needed. This plan will take you from walking to running 13.1 miles in 20 weeks of gradual build-up.