There is nothing more exciting than setting new challenges for your fitness journey. If you are a runner, after running long distances for a while, the 13.1 miles of a half marathon present a great opportunity to work towards a new mental and physical goal. Preparing ahead is crucial, and there are many things to consider before running a half marathon, but the joy of saying “I did it” is worth the effort.
With that being said, you may have many questions about this journey, the answers of which you can find below.
How Long Does It Take to Train For a Half Marathon?
If you have decided to train for a half marathon, ideally, you are already familiarized with long-distance runs. If you are entirely new to running, we suggest that you start with smaller challenges starting from a 5k run, to a 10k and working your way up from there. On average, it is recommended that your weekly mileage is already around 12-20 miles per week if you decide to commit to training for a half marathon.
If you are used to running more frequently for around 5 miles and more per session, training for the half marathon should be an achievable goal. There is no exact answer to how long one should train for a half marathon. Most preparatory programs last for 12-14 weeks, but you can adjust this time according to your needs and fitness level. If you have less time during the day, opt for a longer training plan up to 20 weeks in order to have more time to add mileage to your runs each week. The important thing is to train in advance, in order to prepare yourself both physically and mentally.
How Do I Find the Best Half Marathon Training Plan for Me?
There are some things to consider when planning to train for a half marathon. In general, most plans consist of 3-5 days of running/speed walking per week and incorporating strength and cross-training in between, as well as active recovery days. Everyone has different needs and routines, which is why you should work with a plan that does not heavily interfere with your daily activities and something that you can maintain.
Half Marathon Training Tips for Beginners
Master a proper running form
Having a proper running form and technique is crucial in order to increase your mileage and speed over time. This means improving your cadence, foot strike, and posture. For a better technique consider some of the following:
Cadence, or stride rate, is the number of steps that you take per minute of running. You want to opt for a shorter but quicker stride, so you don’t lock your knees and slam your feet with pressure on the ground.
The optimal cadence is generally considered to be around 180 strides per minute, meaning 90 steps per leg in a minute, but that varies from runner to runner. You can measure your stride by running for a minute and counting your steps, or count one foot per minute and double the number. Research suggests that increasing your regular stride rate by 5-10% can decrease the load of impact on your knee and hip joints.
It is generally considered that avoiding the heel is best when your foot strikes the ground. Heel striking shifts the pressure from the ankles and shins to the knees, making you prone to more injuries. The ideal strike for long-distance running is landing on the ground by striking the ball of your feet (the padded area between your toes and arch) or your midfoot.
Maintaining a good posture is essential for a less strenuous run. Pay attention to your upper body; you should be looking straight ahead with your chin up. Your shoulders should be relaxed as your arms swing, with your elbows at an ideal 90-degree angle, and your back should be straight and tall. This posture helps to drive your body forward with efficiency, you waste less energy by controlling your core and maintain a smooth running motion. As it is a longer race, check in with yourself every now and then to see if you are maintaining a good form; this affects your run more than you think.
Do Speed Runs
On your race day, it will be impossible to maintain enthusiasm and energy through the entire 13,1 miles. Adding speed runs to your training plan will help you improve your endurance and condition the body to resist exhaustion. Just because you will be running slower on the half-marathon does not mean you should not be adding speed to your preparatory training.
Hill training is a very effective way to further strengthen your calf muscles, quads, hamstrings, and glutes, as well as improve your speed and endurance. On a beginner level, start by gradually adding hills of 5-10% incline to your run, after you have run at a flat surface for some time. Hill sprints are also a good practice if you are looking to burn more fat and calories.
Try Easy Runs
Each runner needs a day in their routine that helps them maintain strength with less effort than their usual training days. Easy runs are the perfect addition to your training plan, for when you want to take it easy, especially the day after a long-distance or high-intensity run. These runs are generally of a short to moderate duration, and should not require you to go at your maximum capacity. They are called easy runs after all!
Do Tempo Runs
In terms of difficulty, tempo runs, also known as anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold runs, stand between easy runs and speed runs. They are supposed to require a little more effort than easy runs, but should not require the full effort needed for speed runs. These runs are also described as comfortably hard ones, since they consist of running at a maximum pace that you can maintain for typically 20-30 minutes.
As a beginner, you can combine 4 x 4-5 minutes of tempo runs, with 1-2 minutes of recovering in between, and build up from there, by increasing the time of tempo runs and making recoveries shorter. The most used method of determining your tempo run pace is going slower at about 25-30 seconds per mile than your current 5K pace.
Don’t Forget Strength Training
Most runners tend to avoid strength training workouts as they focus solely on building endurance by running only. However, our bodies are a complex mechanism, and our muscle strength is an integral part of maintaining a proper running form, preventing injuries, and building gradually as a runner.
Ideally, you want to include at least two days of strength training in your training plan. These should target leg muscles, core, and upper body. You can start by doing strength workouts with your bodyweight only and then add weights as you get stronger. Some good strength exercises to include in your routine are:
- Single-leg deadlifts
- Forward and backward lunges
- Push-up variations
- Russian twist
Cross-training is a way of adding variety to your training plan, so you give yourself a ‘rest’ from running. Usually, cross-training involves complementary sports or exercises to your main sport. In this case, most runners take up sports such as swimming, cycling, skiing, elliptical training, skating, the list goes on. You can get creative with this type of exercise; the important thing is to incorporate movements that mimic running and work the cardiovascular system similarly. However, it is also important to incorporate exercises that target muscle groups that running doesn’t usually target as much, such as the upper body.
Listen to your body & take rest days
Your body needs days off too. When we set longer-term goals such as training for a half-marathon, we sometimes get carried away over the idea of training the hardest we can. Being ambitious is fine, but allowing yourself to rest when you need it is just as important. If you are to the point of being completely sore and fatigued after a run the next day, rest or switch the run up for a walk instead.
Plan early for race day
From registration to training, and figuring out the logistics of the race day, half-marathons are something that absolutely requires planning ahead. After you have figured out your training plan, researching the race day will be really helpful not only to prepare better but also to reduce the stress and mental load that comes with the big day.
Test out the equipment, nutrition, drinks, and everything you will have with you on that day ahead of time. Many half-marathon events will have their own drink and food bars, which you can research to see what will be provided.
What Should I Eat During a Half Marathon?
What to eat when training
A runners’ diet should consist of carbohydrates as the primary energy source, healthy fats, protein, fruits, and vegetables.
Some good sources of carbohydrates are:
- Whole grain pasta
- Brown rice or quinoa
- Potatoes (sweet potatoes included)
Healthy fat sources:
- Dark chocolate
- Fatty fish
- Olives & olive oil
- Nuts & nut butter
- Coconuts & coconut oil
- Lean meat
On the day of the race, your glycogen stores should be topped up, as an essential means of energy transfer. It is preferable to eat 2-3 hours before the race so your body can digest properly. Studies have found that consuming a meal with a low Glycaemic Index (GI), also known as slow-release carbohydrates, can provide a sustained release of energy during your race.
Some low GI foods include:
- Dried fruit
- Low fiber cereals
Tip: Stick to food that you have usually eaten before a long-distance run during your training and do not experiment with food that you do not know how your body could react to.
During the race
Some can withstand a long run with less food, while some may need the occasional energy boost. During the half marathon, aid-stations (usually start after the third mile and are located every other mile) will provide water, gels, drinks, and other energy sources to sustain your energy. You can also store them with you, just remember to eat and drink what you know is safe for you. Some options to consider are:
- Commercial gels
- Sports drinks
- Energy bars
- Dried fruit
- Salted pretzels.
Hydration, hydration, hydration
This almost goes without saying, but it is essential to mention as a reminder that staying hydrated is critical before and during training, as well as during and after the half marathon. It is recommended to regularly drink water throughout the day, whereas during your long runs and the day of the race, you can substitute water for sports drinks, especially after an hour of running. The best indicator of dehydration is, well, thirst; no need to overcomplicate it.
What Should I Wear for a Half Marathon?
There are so many options of clothing and accessories made especially for endurance runs. Here is a brief guide of what half marathoners usually wear.
For your basic clothing pieces, most runners opt for compression tops and bottoms. These pieces are made of moisture-wicking materials such as polyester, polypropylene, nylon, spandex, etc., however, make sure that whatever you wear is breathable and comfortable. Here are the basic pieces that you will need:
Opt for synthetic materials that will keep the moisture out, and avoid cotton and other materials that do not dry easily.
- Sports bra
For additional support, a sports bra is a staple piece for women. Your bra should be adjustable or snug-fitting, comfortable, and of breathable material.
- Shorts, leggings/tights, sweats
For your bottoms, anything that is comfortable, wicks moisture, and is breathable will do. You can try out what works best for you on your training days.
Your socks are to your footwear what a shield is to a sword, they will help you protect from blisters and sweat, so opt for seamless and good-fitting ones.
Your shoes should be lightweight, supportive, and most importantly worn. Do not buy new shoes you have not tested out before the half-marathon. Instead, opt for shoes that are a little worn in and you know will be comfortable and won’t cause blisters. Note also that your feet will possibly swell after running for a while, so avoid tight-fitting shoes.
Some extra things that may be useful are:
- Running Belt
Remember the drinks and food you might want to take with you? Well, a running belt is the perfect accessory to store them. This way your hands will be free and your belongings secure.
If the sun is shining, a pair of sunglasses will come in handy so you don’t have to squint the entire time.
The same applies to head protection; a hat can be quite useful if it is sunny or rainy.
Smartwatches are becoming more and more popular. If you want to check your mileage, time, heart rate, then a watch is a good accessory to consider.
- Arm warmers & gloves
If the half-marathon takes place during cold weather, you can layer up with arm warmers and gloves to preserve your body heat.
A jacket may be a good layer to have if you are running in cold weather. Opt for a windproof and, if necessary, waterproof one.
What Happens If I Get Injured When Training for a Half Marathon?
The runner’s high may feel great, so great even that you may mistake serious injuries for light ones. Some muscle soreness may be common when training, but other injuries and their seriousness can be difficult to evaluate. Therefore, if you have been injured, consider seeing a medical professional if it is affecting your training. If the injury is mild, rest or do an easy run until you feel like your body has recovered. The important thing is to be mindful of your body, constantly re-evaluate your schedule and goals, and seek help when needed.
The discipline and excitement of training for a half marathon are invaluable. Whenever you need it, this article can serve as a checklist you go back to so you get the most out of your training. Good luck!