Site icon Well+Good

Your Step-by-Step Guide to Training for Your First Half Marathon

Person wearing pink sweatshirt and black leggings running outside for beginner half marathon training

Photo: Getty Images/ Daniel Llao Calvet

Once you sign up for your very first half marathon and share the good news, you might be inundated with race tips and tricks from well-meaning friends, family members, and random “fitness pros” on social media. Suddenly, you’re questioning every training decision you’ve made.

But this doesn’t have to be the case. To get straightforward, expert-backed advice and clear up any confusion, follow this in-depth beginner’s guide to half marathon training. 


Experts In This Article

Below, you’ll find run coach-approved beginner half marathon tips on how to structure your training program—including runs and other fitness modalities—how to properly fuel and hydrate, and how to get yourself across the finish line on race day. Trust, you’ll head into your half marathon feeling confident and capable of tackling those 13.1 miles.

Half marathon training structure

Your half-marathon training plan should be customized to fit your lifestyle and goals. Generally, though, you’ll want to run three to five days a week—for three to four months—to prepare for your race. Here’s the full breakdown.

Short, easy runs

About 80 percent of your runs should be easy runs; you’re just getting out the door and running at a doable effort level, which builds your aerobic base, says Mireille Siné, MPH, a USATF Level 1 running coach and the founder of Coached by Mireille.

That means two to three times a week, you should be running at a pace gentle enough that you can hold a conversation with a friend or sing aloud to your Taylor Swift playlist. What’s “easy” for one person may be exhausting for another, so use this talk test to set your speed.

You could also look at your heart rate to monitor your intensity, says KC Centenari, a Tonal strength coach and Nike Running coach. During these slow runs, your heart rate should remain between 60 to 70 percent of your maximum heart rate—known as zone 2 cardio training.

For first-timers, Siné and Centenari suggest running for time (e.g., 40 minutes) rather than distance (e.g., three miles). This takes off some of the pressure and can feel more achievable than reaching a certain distance, especially if your pace is on the slow side. If you tend to get caught up on your pace and mileage, leave your smart watch at home, set a timer on your phone for your goal duration, and hit the pavement, Centenari suggests.

Long runs

Each week, you’ll also power through one long run, which is typically double the time or distance as your short, easy runs, Siné says.

For example, you’d aim to complete one 90-minute run if you did a few 45-minute jogs throughout the week. If you’re just starting half marathon training, though, it’s okay to start with a 60-minute long run and build up to that doubled duration as the weeks progress, she notes.

Some of your long runs will be easy, with the goal of simply spending time on your feet and building your endurance. But you’ll also want to incorporate speed work into some of these stamina-building workouts, challenging your body at different paces, Siné says.

Speed work

Even if you don’t have a time goal in mind for the half marathon, you’ll want to include speed work in your training, whether that be quick track workouts or longer, tempo runs in which you alternate between jogging, running, or sprinting, Siné says. Sprinkle this training into your plan about once a week, Centenari suggests.

Speed work helps you practice maintaining proper form—and, in turn, moving efficiently—as your body begins to fatigue, which is inevitable during long-distance runs.

“When you’re doing those speed workouts, you’re practicing good running form, you’re practicing reaction time, you’re practicing pacing, and you’re also getting to learn what your body feels like…at 5K pace or [a] half marathon pace,” Siné says.

Picking up the pace is also helpful training for your heart. Exposing your body to higher effort levels—you’re breathing a bit harder, it’s more challenging to talk, your heart rate is higher—can build up your tolerance so you’re able to pick up the pace when the finish line is in sight, according to Centenari.

“People counter-intuitively think they have to run fast all the time to be fast,” she says. “But it’s really those small increments of exposure. And over time, your body will adapt.”

How to progress

Most weeks, you’ll want to increase the time you spend on your feet or your distance by about 10 percent, Siné says. The first week, you might run for a total of four hours. Week two, you might be up to four and a half hours. Week three, you could be running about five hours. Week four may be a recovery week, keeping the duration the same or letting it drop slightly to allow your body to adapt to the work you’ve been putting in, Siné explains. Rinse and repeat.

At the peak of your half-marathon training, you’ll hit 10 to 12 miles a week, then you’ll drop it down slightly during the tapering phase (more on this below), Centenari says.

How to pick the right training plan

There are hundreds of half marathon training plans available online, but there’s no single “best” program. Instead, consider your goal for the race, your schedule, your exercise history, and your previous injuries, Centenari says.

Don’t choose a training plan that calls for five days of running if you can realistically squeeze in only three. If you simply want to finish the race, you probably don’t want to choose a plan that is designed to help you hit a certain time goal. You’ll also want to choose a training plan that is easy for you to understand and avoids unnecessary jargon; there shouldn’t be a lot of guesswork, Siné says.

“You’re just looking for a program that, in your gut, feels manageable and doable—that’s my biggest piece of advice, especially when you’re first starting,” Centenari says.

How to add cross-training to your routine

Running shouldn’t be the only fitness element of your half-marathon training program. One to two times a week, you’ll want to engage in strength training. This resistance work can help reduce the risk of injury, as it minimizes muscle imbalances that can develop from running, improves bone strength, and can enhance the strength of ligaments and tendons, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Running is a unilateral movement—you never have both feet on the ground at the same time. So in the gym, you should be testing your muscles with a mix of single-leg exercises that build stability, Centenari says. Her favorites: lunges and single-leg Romanian deadlifts. You can also try jumping lunges, single-leg box jumps, and skaters to build power that will help propel you to the finish.

Lateral movements (i.e., exercises taking place in the frontal plane of motion) are also key. Though running is largely a forward movement pattern, you may need to quickly jump out to the side to avoid a pothole or pedestrian on the sidewalk. Plus, side-to-side exercises strengthen the muscles in your hips and knees that provide stability while you run, Centenari says. Try lateral lunges, side shuffles, and lateral step-ups.

Leg workouts are only one piece of the puzzle. You should also prioritize upper-body exercises—your arm swing helps minimize torso rotation, per a July 2014 research article in the Journal of Experimental Biologyand core work; the group of muscles throughout your trunk ensures proper running posture, allowing you to move and breathe efficiently, Siné says.

In Siné’s experience, runners who have engaged in strength training tend to have more power, endurance, and mental strength on race day compared to those who avoided it.

Strength training aside, make the time for mobility work—exercises in which you actively control and access a joint’s full range of motion—to further minimize your risk of injury, Centenari suggests.

For example, research suggests that limited range of motion during hip abduction (read: moving your leg away from the midline of your body) is linked with a greater likelihood of future lower-body injuries, according to an October 2013 research article in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. Try moves like the 90-90 hip stretch, cat-cow pose, and controlled articular rotations (CARs).

Prioritizing your mental health is equally as important. Siné recommends setting aside time to journal throughout your training journey and routinely asking yourself: Am I physically hurting anywhere? What can I do to improve next week? How do I feel mentally and emotionally?

“I think it’s like the feather in your hat for a training cycle,” she adds.

“You’re just looking for a program that, in your gut, feels manageable and doable—that’s my biggest piece of advice, especially when you’re first starting.” KC Centenari, Tonal strength coach and Nike Running coach

How to fuel and hydrate

Fueling properly contributes just as much to your half marathon success as running itself. One of the biggest mistakes Centenari sees runners make is simply not eating enough, especially carbs and protein.

“Whether you’re strength training or running, you’re breaking down muscle fiber. And that’s okay— that’s the essence of working out,” she explains. “But in order to build it back up and get stronger, you have to be getting enough protein.”

The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) recommends exercising individuals eat 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight each day to build and maintain muscle mass.

You also need to load up on carbohydrates, which are broken down rapidly to provide your body energy during high-intensity exercise and fill up muscle glycogen stores after strenuous exercise. Without replenishing those stores, your performance may take a hit, according to a January 2018 expert panel report the journal Nutrition Today.

Aim to get 5 to 7 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight per day on moderate-intensity days and consider upping it to 8 to 12 grams per kilogram of body weight per day as you lean into those high-intensity days, per the journal.

Before your run

One to four hours ahead of your run, eat a carbohydrate-rich meal for energy to carry you through your workout. If you need to head out for your run within the next hour, try to consume 30 grams of carbs before you hit the road, per Utah State University. Avoid eating too much protein, which can lead to gut distress during your workout, according to Utah State University.

During tour run

Throughout your runs, you’ll want to eat a carb-rich snack that’s about 100 to 200 calories every 25 to 30 minutes, according to the experts. Sooner is always better than later.

“As soon as you start feeling like maybe you’re under-fueled during a race, you’re behind,” Centenari says. In addition to declines in physical performance, “the worst thing that can happen is we get to a point in the race where we’re starving and we’re depleting our energy stores even faster,” Siné says. “We can get real foggy in the brain and tire easily.”

Energy gels, chews, and bars are a favorite mid-workout snack among runners, but they can upset your stomach, so experiment with different options to find the best one for you, Centenari says. You can also turn to carb-heavy snacks like graham crackers, gummy bears, or homemade energy balls if you prefer a pantry approach.

As you pound the pavement, remember to stay on top of your hydration, taking a few sips of your beverage—particularly one rich in electrolytes—every mile marker and every time you eat, Siné says.

After your run

Within the first 30 to 45 minutes after your workout, eat a meal with a combination of protein and carbs to kickstart the recovery process. Protein will rebuild broken-down muscle, while carbs will replenish your glycogen stores, Siné says. If you’re tight on time, a protein bar or protein shake will do the trick, she adds.

How to taper

Although it’s tempting to train your hardest until the very last minute, tapering—dialing back your running volume—is essential to performing your best come race day.

About two weeks before the half marathon, you’ll hit the peak of your training volume; you’re spending the most time on your feet or hitting your highest mileage. Then, you’ll spend the final few weeks leading up to the marathon slowly cutting back on time or distance while maintaining intensity, Siné says. One week out, you’ll do about 60 percent of your peak workload. Race week, you’re down to 40 to 50 percent of that peak.

“Tapering doesn’t mean you’re just not working out, you’re not putting in any effort in your speed workouts,” she explains. “You’re just running less in volume, but you still want to keep the body sharp until racing.”

With this downtime, your body and mind can adapt to all the work you’ve put in.

“That taper week is going to allow your body and your brain to take a little bit of a step back, a little bit of a breather, so that by the time race day comes, you feel ready,” Centenari says. “It’s another ego drop. You have to go into that week and tell yourself, ‘Okay, what are all of the other things that I can work on here besides running?’ That entails sleep, your meals, keeping stress levels in your life low.”

How to prepare for race day

When race day finally arrives, keep your routine as simple as possible. Eat a protein- and carb-rich breakfast a few hours in advance, avoid any foods you’ve never tried before a run, and stay on top of your water intake. Also make sure your watch, headphones, and other gadgets are charged, the experts suggest.

While you should avoid intense physical activity, don’t start the race out cold. Try to go for a light 10- to 15-minute jog and do some familiar drills (e.g., A skips, B skips, strides) before getting into your corral and starting the race, which gives your body a chance to loosen up and your mind to relax, Siné suggests.

How to recover after your race

After you cross the half marathon finish line, prioritize a cool-down routine; walk or jog for 10 to 20 minutes and flow through your favorite stretches or mobility practices, Siné suggests.

“If you can help it, don’t try and immediately sit down—it’s really jarring on the body to go from the sustained activity, so much speed and effort going into it, to just a total stop,” she says.

You’ll also want to drink an electrolyte-rich beverage to restore your levels after sweating throughout the race and consume a protein-heavy meal with some carbohydrates to start the recovery process. Just know that your hunger cues may be delayed, and you may not feel like eating much. If that’s the case, opt for something simple like a protein shake and crackers, Siné says.

Over the next few weeks, Centenari recommends taking a step back from the world of running, which has likely consumed your life for the last three to four months. Explore other forms of movement—whether that’s powerlifting, yoga, or Pilates.

“After the race, there’s something called marathon blues, which just like, ‘Well, I put all this work in, what do I do next?’” she says. “I always tell people it’s really important to just remind yourself there’s more to life so that by the time you want to start training for something else, you feel refreshed and ready to go.”

Best training plans

To kick off your search for a half marathon training program, check out the following plans and see what meshes best with your lifestyle and goals. If you can’t find a good fit, reach out to a certified run coach who can work with you to develop a custom program.

FAQ

1. Can a beginner run a half marathon without prior experience?

It’s totally doable to run a half marathon without much running experience. Ideally, you’ll want to have spent a month or so running 30 minutes a day a couple of times a week to build a base level of endurance, Siné says. This will make it less physically and mentally overwhelming to transition into a half-marathon training program.

You’ll also want to try out a 5K before signing up, Centenari adds.

“I truly think, as a coach, that once you get a 5K under your feet with a proper training plan, that you move slowly and really take into consideration building volume, you could plan to run a half marathon,” she says.

Participating in the event will also give you a taste of the race experience and help you figure out if you actually enjoy long-distance running before committing to 13.1 miles.

2. How long does it take to train for a half marathon as a beginner?

Exactly how long it takes to train for a half marathon as a first-timer all depends on how long you’ve been running. If you began pounding the pavement within the last year, you’ll want to dedicate at least three months to training for your half marathon, according to the experts.

But if you’re relatively new to running or haven’t been too consistent with your routine, consider a four-month plan, Siné suggests. This additional month upfront can be used for building your base level of fitness, she says.

3. What should beginners focus on during half-marathon training?

Just like all runners competing in the race, half marathon beginners should focus their training on a mix of easy runs, long runs, and speed work, with resistance training sprinkled in. But they’ll also need to practice getting enough fuel to support those runs.

Most importantly, first-timers should take it easy on themselves; nothing is perfect the first time around.

Citations
Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Arellano CJ, Kram R. The metabolic cost of human running: is swinging the arms worth it? J Exp Biol. 2014 Jul 15;217(Pt 14):2456-61. doi: 10.1242/jeb.100420. PMID: 25031455.
  2. Reiman MP, Matheson JW. Restricted hip mobility: clinical suggestions for self-mobilization and muscle re-education. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Oct;8(5):729-40. PMID: 24175151; PMCID: PMC3811738.
  3. Jäger R, Kerksick CM, Campbell BI, Cribb PJ, Wells SD, Skwiat TM, Purpura M, Ziegenfuss TN, Ferrando AA, Arent SM, Smith-Ryan AE, Stout JR, Arciero PJ, Ormsbee MJ, Taylor LW, Wilborn CD, Kalman DS, Kreider RB, Willoughby DS, Hoffman JR, Krzykowski JL, Antonio J. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2017 Jun 20;14:20. doi: 10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8. PMID: 28642676; PMCID: PMC5477153.
  4. Kanter M. High-Quality Carbohydrates and Physical Performance: Expert Panel Report. Nutr Today. 2018 Jan;53(1):35-39. doi: 10.1097/NT.0000000000000238. Epub 2017 Oct 21. PMID: 29449746; PMCID: PMC5794245.
Do Not Sell My Personal Information