It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that a half marathon is half the challenge of a marathon. That line of thinking is a shortcut to a truly gruelling experience when you come to tackle the 21.1km race.
The truth is that preparing properly for a half requires that you consider almost all the things you would do for a full marathon. You’ll need a training plan to follow – one that not only builds up your endurance for the race but also keeps you clear of injury – as well as an idea of what to eat to fuel your runs and the appropriate kit.
Fortunately, we’ve assembled everything you need to know when running a half marathon.
Half Marathon Training Plans
The most important part of preparing for a half marathon is picking a training plan that fits your aims and fitness level. There’s no point trying to follow an advanced plan that asks for six runs a week when you’re currently running once a month – you’ll just get injured. Similarly, if you’ve run several half marathons and want to set a personal best, you’ll need a more challenging plan than a beginner.
Whatever level of fitness you currently have, it’s worth devoting 10-16 weeks to training for a half marathon if possible. You training should involve a mix of run types, including some shorter, speedier sessions as well as easy long runs that build towards the half marathon distance.
Coach has a range of 10-week and 16-week plans to suit all abilities. So whether you’re a first-timer just trying to get around the 21.1km course or an advanced runner aiming to go sub-1hr 30min, we have a plan for you.
Target time 2hr+: Starting with running mixed with walking, this plan will take you from couch to 21.1km. See the plan.
Target time sub 1hr 45min: If you’re already running regularly and have completed half marathons before, this five session a week plan will set you up for a PB. See the plan.
Target time sub-2hr 40min. Mixing running and walking this is ideal for complete beginners. See the plan.
Target time sub-2hr 15min. You should be able to run comfortably for at least 30 minutes. See the plan.
Target time sub-2hr. You’ve done a couple of 10Ks – maybe a half marathon – and are looking to break the two-hour barrier. See the plan.
Target time sub-1hr 45min. You run regularly, have completed half marathons before and want to improve your time. See the plan.
Target time sub-1hr 30min. You run most days and have a number of races and half marathons under your belt. You’re willing to really push yourself to go sub-90min. See the plan.
How To Train For A Half Marathon
Mark Stanton, strength and conditioning coach at Transition Zone, says that if you’re going to make the step up from 10K, then running efficiency is key.
What sessions do you need to do?
First up: the long run, to build up the miles in your legs. The best way to get fit to run – especially as you hit longer distances – is to run more. Aim for a one-hour steady pace run, setting your speed so you feel able to hold a conversation while running. Every second session, run for ten more minutes. Your initial target should be to run for longer than your target race time.
You should also do intervals to develop speed and tolerance of working at a high intensity. A one-minute fast run followed by a one-minute rest, for ten to 15 rounds, is a solid session.
You also need a tempo session to bridge the gap between speed work and long slow runs. Tempo runs are used to train at a fast pace for an extended period of time. This prompts your body to adapt to maintain a higher intensity for longer without a rest. Physiologically this will improve your lactate threshold meaning you will be able to maintain a faster pace for a longer distance. An example session: ten minutes of warm-up, then 20 minutes of running at “tempo” pace – this should be fast enough to be uncomfortable. Increase the tempo pace duration to 30 and then 40 minutes. You should find you are running further in each session without increasing duration. Then, of course, there’s strength and conditioning to make your body more robust so it can tolerate the stresses of running as well as improve running economy.
What’s the most important session?
It depends on your current training status, competition history and goals. If it’s your first race, the longer steady runs will be the most important; to get better at running, you need to run more. For advanced runners who have a good training base and can easily cover the distance, intervals and tempo runs will become the focus to develop speed.
How many sessions should you do?
This is entirely down to the individual athlete. I’d recommend aiming for a minimum of three running sessions a week and one strength session. For a first-time runner two of these runs should be working on building up distances at a steady pace while the other one would be more tempo-based. As you progress one of these distance sessions could switch to another tempo session. More advanced runners would add interval sessions and tempo runs depending on what they need to improve. A good distance guide is working up to around 30 miles per week over those three runs – if you are doing good-quality work then you should not need much more than this.
How do you get faster?
Especially at the half marathon distance, a key consideration is efficiency: do you waste energy decelerating on each step, or are you too stiff to extend fully through a stride? If you can get your body working efficiently then you expend less energy and can cover more ground faster for less effort. This can be improved through technique coaching, mobility and strength programmes.
Where do most people go wrong?
The biggest issue I find runners have is with rest and progression. Less experienced runners try to do too much too soon when their bodies are not used to the stress, and so they break down injured. My best advice is listen to your body – rest when it needs it and put quality of training ahead of quantity. Keep your training programme fluid – if you’re not feeling tip-top, then swap in an easier session or a recovery day.
What do elite runners do that everyone can learn from?
Rest and recovery is huge. We may not all have access to recovery pools or ice baths or massage – all of which may or may not work – but we do have the ability to look after ourselves. Amateur athletes still have to work and function between training but anyone can do simple things like stretching or foam rolling before bed – or just eliminating unnecessary stresses from your life.
There are few greater frustrations a runner can face than missing out on a race because of injury, so it’s worth bearing in mind a few golden rules to reduce the risk of common running problems like shin splints, plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee and achilles tendonitis.
Firstly, and most importantly, you have to build up the amount you run gradually. For example, if you averaged 10km a week for the past four weeks, you shouldn’t suddenly run 20km in a week. The max should be around 12-14km, followed by a similar increase the next week.
Following a training plan closely will ensure you don’t dramatically increase your mileage. Just remember that if you miss a week, you shouldn’t just jump to the next week on the plan – instead, aim to catch up gradually by adjusting the distances of the runs on the plan.
Strengthening your leg and core muscles will also help you avoid injuries. Workouts involving calf raises, squats, lunges and other bodyweight exercises will bolster the key leg muscles, while Pilates, yoga or other stretching exercises will help with your core strength and flexibility.
Finally, it’s worth undergoing gait analysis just to check if you’re wearing the right shoes for your running style, especially if you are experiencing frequent niggles.
The Running Gear You Need For A Half Marathon
Everyone has personal preferences about what they want in a running shoe, and it’s always worth sticking with whatever you feel comfortable in. But if you haven’t got a clue about what you like, gait analysis is a good place to start.
Gait analysis will tell you if you roll your foot excessively inwards when landing (overpronation), roll it excessively outwards (underpronation) or roll neither way to excess (neutral). If you over or underpronate it’s worth getting a shoe that corrects the issue while running. Some gait analysis, such as that at Saucony’s Stride Lab, will go further than pronation and check your entire running style, which will help reveal if you need to strengthen certain muscles around the body.
Shoes are the key bit of kit, but you’ll also want to have a favourite T-shirt and shorts for race day that have been tested over several long runs in advance. Treat yourself to some nice running socks too – you deserve it.
Another piece of gear worth considering is a running belt. Although you won’t need to fuel on the go as much as when training for a marathon, you might want to carry a gel or some food during the race and your longer training runs.
Whether or not you want to track your runs is up to you, but it can be a great boost to your training to get the specific stats on how you are improving over the months of your plan – and if you are chasing a certain time in the race, then a tracker becomes far more important as a way to pace your run. There are many excellent free running apps that will use your smartphone’s GPS if you’re happy to run with it, or you can opt for a dedicated running watch if you want to have better access to your stats during runs.
How To Fuel Your Running
Throughout your training you need to ensure your diet is designed to support your training. That means enough carbohydrates to fuel your workouts and enough protein to help your muscles recover and rebuild.
This becomes even more important when your runs go past the 90-minute mark, at which point you not only need to carb-load in the days before the run, but also to consider eating something while running to stop your body running out of energy. Running gels are now the first choice for many people tackling long-distance events because they provide a quick and easy carb hit.
Staying hydrated is also important on longer runs. That means topping up your electrolytes like sodium rather than just drinking water. Sports drinks will contain electrolytes, and you can also buy electrolyte tablets that dissolve in water to drink on the go.
Race Day Tips
The classic race day tip is don’t start too fast, and it’s a classic for a reason. Whether you’re chasing a PB or trying to avoid hitting the wall, pacing your race in line with what you’ve run in training is the best way to achieve your goals.
For more info on pacing for the big day check out these race day tips from running coach Shaun Dixon.