How to Train for a Half Marathon

Hardloopsessie

, by Nick Bester

Photography by: Uladzimir Ogonek

The half marathon is a defining challenge in long-distance running. At 13.1 miles or 21 kilometers, this is a race that remains achievable for most people with enough training, but it is never easy. Whether you’re just breaking into longer races or you’re already set on improving your next marathon time, the half makes an excellent focus for your efforts through one running season. Ideally you can start training early — in December or January for a spring race and in June or July for a fall race — in order to build up gradually and make sure you’re feeling your best on race day.

With that time horizon in mind, let’s look at a half marathon training guide that covers four months. You could shorten the plan according to your needs, but a 16-week schedule is ideal if you are working up to your first half marathon or your first one in a while. Because everyone’s goals are different, you’ll find tips throughout this guide about how to tailor to your own needs.

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Ready to take on the half marathon? Let’s begin with a quick overview of the plan and the types of training sessions you can expect.

About the Half Marathon Training Plan

The plan described here is a general guideline for half marathon runners of any level. It’s not particular to any goal finishing time, but is simply for preparing your body to run 13.1 miles and feel good doing it. Feel free to modify this plan according to your own needs and your schedule

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In the plan you’ll see several types of workouts throughout the week, with terms like strength and conditioning, track sessions, and longer runs. It’s okay if you don’t automatically know what all of these mean. After reading through these brief descriptions of each session type, you’ll be prepared to follow the week-by-week schedule that follows.

Strength and Conditioning

Strength training is especially important when working up mileage for a half marathon because it reduces your chances of injury. At least one day in each week of this plan is for strength and conditioning, which is not running but running-focused workouts at home or in the gym. These should be a mix of weighted strength sessions and body-weight or resistance workouts.

Here is a YouTube video with my example morning exercise routine that you can follow. Doing some version of this each and every day, even on your rest days, will help your body with mobility and recovery throughout your training. On strength and conditioning days, you should do workouts that are additional to this baseline routine and noticeably tougher.

Track Sessions

Track sessions are focused sets of workouts that are all about pushing really hard and snapping out of your comfort zone, but not fully emptying the tank. These sessions are best done on a track, but they don’t have to be. You can measure the distance out on a nice flat, fast piece of road or grass. Grass is actually highly beneficial because it’s softer underfoot, making it lower impact and good for the muscles in your feet, ankles, and legs.

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The details of each session are shown below, and these will be referenced later in the training plan. This table shows the run distances, repetitions, and rest time between reps that make up the workout. Always try to start with the intention of progressing throughout the session and finishing stronger, with the last rep being your fastest!

Track sessions should always be done with a dynamic warm up and cool down of at least 10-15 minutes each. These minutes spent before and after a session are just as important as the sessions themselves. As the American Heart Association points out, a gradual step-up and step-down in heart rate is healthier for your heart and better for performance than going straight into strenuous exertion.

Mid-Distance Runs

In this half marathon training schedule, some weeks have a mid-distance run on a Saturday. These mid runs should be a tough effort for you, but they can start out short and get longer as you progress. The goal is to run hard with the intention of finishing stronger each week.

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By the time you reach the peak phase of your training (weeks 9-12 in this 16-week training plan), a 5K run with 1-mile warm ups and cool downs make the perfect distance for your Saturday run. I recommend finding a 5K race or group parkrun to enter on one of these weekends. You can try to run it fast or choose to just have fun. The point is to get a preview of how you’ll feel in a race, and to get a taste of that addicting race day energy!

Longer Runs

In this training plan, Sundays are for your longest run of the week. These longer runs can start at just 2 or 3 miles during the first phase of training, but should progress to at least 9 miles during the peak phase. A longer run should be done at a controlled and steady effort, with an eye on your pace but with no reason to hit max heart rate. Longer runs are for getting your mind and body prepared for what race pace will feel like. I even suggest practicing in the same clothes and shoes that you’ll wear on race day!

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Recovery Runs

Recovery runs are an important part of race training. Think of these easy runs as a form of active rest, where your body is allowed to rebuild while holding its foundation for aerobic endurance. The correct pace for a recovery run is one where you can easily hold a conversation for most of the time. You might breathe harder on an uphill section, but it’s best to stick to easier routes on your recovery days.

Rest Days

On rest days, no running is allowed! These no-impact days are important for your body to recuperate and rebuild. Of course, healthy movement is always beneficial. During rest days you can still go about your normal work routine, go for walks, and even do some light cross-training if you feel up for it.

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Cross Training

Cross training can be any exercise besides running, but it’s best to keep it low impact and moderate intensity. Let your joints and your running muscles take it easy while you continue to build in other ways. This helps boost endurance and strength even while your body is resting from running. Examples of good cross training are swimming, cycling, rowing, or a cross trainer machine.

You can choose to build cross training regularly into your plan, or you can always substitute cross training for a running day if you need to. If your knees just won’t let you run one day, for instance, then feel free to replicate your session in the pool or on a bike instead.

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16-Week Half Marathon Training Plan

As a 16-week plan, this one is divided into four phases (prep, build, peak, and taper) of four weeks each. Four months of training might seem like a lot for one race, but the timeframe is really important if you are working up to your first time running 13.1 miles. A couple extra weeks of training will make the difference between finishing confidently or hobbling off the course and not being able to walk the next day.

Even worse, a too-fast progression can lead to injuries that keep you from racing at all. If you have to skip some training days or move things around when you get busy, that is okay. Just be careful of overtraining to make up for lost time. Listen to what your body is telling you, and take it easy on your legs if they really need it. Taking an extra rest day or doing easy cross training instead of running is a small price to pay for avoiding injury.

Weeks 1-4: Prep

The first month of your half marathon training is the prep phase. This is when you’ll build the foundation in your muscles and joints by slowly increasing distance each week. This phase is important for minimizing common problems like shin splints and knee pains during your training, so you should avoid the temptation to ramp up too quickly. If you already know that you can handle the weekly mileage specified here, then you could choose to start with slightly higher miles, but I recommend focusing on just getting faster each week instead.

Table showing the exercise schedule for weeks 1 through 4 of a 16-week half marathon race training plan.

Weeks 5-8: Build

In the build phase, you will add on top of the early weeks’ foundation and start to feel your body becoming noticeably stronger each week. This is not easy, of course, so you can expect the long runs to feel tough. Many people start to feel discomfort and minor injuries during this phase, so don’t feel bad about slowing down during one of these weeks if your body tells you that you need it. You might also reexamine your shoes, and try something different if your feet or knees are starting to complain.

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Table showing the exercise schedule for weeks 5 through 8 of a 16-week half marathon race training plan.

Weeks 9-12: Peak

This phase will be the very toughest of your training, with high-mileage weeks and strenuous workouts. The point is to push your limits — but without overdoing it — to get your body ready for the rigors of the half marathon.

This phase is also where the track sessions come in. These high-intensity sessions are essential for building speed in your muscles, boosting your aerobic recovery rate, and making your heart work more efficiently. See the chart near the beginning of the article for more details about what these track sessions should look like.

Table showing the exercise schedule for weeks 9 through 12 of a 16-week half marathon race training plan.

Weeks 13-16: Taper

The tapering phase concludes your most grueling training, but your work isn’t over. These weeks are for practicing the pace you want to run in the half marathon, but not for pushing your limits. Lowering the weekly mileage is important for maintaining the fitness you have gained without wearing your body down further. Adequate rest and good nutrition are extra important in these weeks as well. All of this will prepare you to push hard and perform your best on race day.

Table showing the exercise schedule for weeks 13 through 16 of a 16-week half marathon race training plan.

Half Marathon Training Tips and Tricks

In an ideal world, you could start your half marathon training a full four months ahead of your race, and you would be able to show up at your best every single day of your training. Of course we know we don’t live in an ideal world, and that life happens. However, there are a few extra tips that can help you stay consistent and feel better even if life gets hectic around you. These have to do with nutrition, honoring your easy days, and getting creative with recovery sessions when you need to.

Training With Friends

Training partners are invaluable for helping you reach your best potential in the half marathon. Besides just being more fun than going solo, running with friends will add accountability and help motivate you to push harder. Data from Strava actually proves this, showing that athletes tend to run farther in groups than they do when running solo.

If you don’t have your own group to run with yet, here are some ideas for building a running community while training for your 5K:

  • Ask a friend to join for your easy runs or walks. Arranging a time to meet keeps you honest with your schedule, and good company makes the miles pass quickly.

  • Join a local running club. This is the best way to meet other runners who share your goals, and regular group runs can be a part of your training schedule. Find clubs by searching online, inquiring at running stores, or searching run clubs on Strava by location.

  • Look for local running events like fun runs, parkruns, or even beer runs! These are other great ways to meet runners and make your training extra fun.

Keeping Easy Days Easy

You might have heard you have to run slower to run faster, and this is the mantra that applies for easy days. Enjoy taking it slow on these days so that you can really push it on hard days. An easy pace means that you should be able to hold a conversation the whole time, so going with a friend makes it even better!

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Hard days are when it’s business time and focus is required. If you stick to the schedule then you can really push it with peace of mind, knowing you have rest and recovery days coming up. It’s true that life can get in the way sometimes and you might have to move sessions around, but try to avoid doing back-to-back hard days because that can really increase your chance for injury.

Nutrition and Supplements

Of course you could read volumes about nutrition for running, and everyone’s body is completely different. Part of your training should involve learning what fuels you best. The week of the race is not the time to experiment! On your long runs that go more than 45 minutes, you should try different energy gels, bars, and other kinds of endurance fuel to see how they feel for you.

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As for everyday nutrition, my basic advice is to aim for a generally balanced and nutritious diet, but you might consider extra supplements to help your body during half marathon training:

  • Vitamin B12: Helps fight fatigue and aids in the production of our red blood cells, which transport oxygen to the muscles and vital organs. B12 is also important for nerve and brain function.

  • Vitamin D: Essential for maintaining bone health, muscle function, strength and performance. This is also the vitamin that our body can produce with help from the sun, so supplementing can be super helpful for training in winter.

  • Omega 3: An essential fatty acid that helps lower inflammation and increase oxygen delivery — essential for both performance and recovery.

  • Calcium: Essential for blood clotting, nerve transmission, muscle stimulation, vitamin D metabolism and maintaining bone structure.

  • Magnesium: Important for energy metabolism because it is required for the function of our muscles and nerves.

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For post-workout nutrition, try to get a good source of protein and carbohydrate within half an hour of any hard session. This is really important in the building of muscle and maximizing recovery time. Some great ideas are chocolate milk, yogurt and fruit, pita and hummus, low-sugar energy bars, or healthy cereal.

Rest and Recovery

Non-impact recovery is hugely beneficial when you’re on an intense training schedule. If it’s time for a recovery run but your legs just don’t feel up for it, feel free to do it as a non-impact session instead. You can replicate a session on the elliptical, rowing machine, bicycle, or in the pool. Any of these will keep your cardio where it needs to be while allowing your legs and joints the kindness they need.

Personalizing Your Half Marathon Training Plan

Remember that your half marathon training is your very own journey. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all training plan, so be prepared to adapt these guidelines to your own preferences, your fitness level, and your schedule. If you want help tailoring your unique training plan, there are many resources you can use. Consider ideas like:

  • Running with friends who can help you push harder and get other ideas for training.

  • Joining a running club in your local area.

  • Working with a running coach, either in-person or online.

  • Customize a training plan with a Strava Subscription based on your own running habits and your race goals.

With that, I leave you to lace up your shoes and get to the track — or the park, the beach, the woods — wherever you choose to start your training journey. I wish you all the best vibes on your path to running a half marathon!

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