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How to train for a half marathon: Your complete guide

How to create the perfect training plan

Man running outside
Jenny Hill / Unsplash

Training for a half marathon can seem like a daunting task, but with the right plan, anyone can conquer those 13.1 miles. Whether you are a beginner lacing up your running shoes for the first time or a seasoned runner aiming for a new PR, a well-structured training program is the key to success. To help guide you on how to train for a half marathon, we spoke with Sean Garbutt, director of training programs for three Fleet Feet running shops in and around Sacramento, California. With extensive experience training hundreds of athletes for half marathons, Sean offers invaluable tips and insights to help you achieve your goals and cross the finish line with confidence.

The benefits of training for a half marathon

Man running by mountains on a road
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Training for a half marathon, rather than jumping in unprepared, provides numerous benefits that will enhance both your running experience and your overall health. Structured training will improve your heart health, build your strength, and increase your endurance. This will reduce your risk of injury by gradually conditioning your body to handle the physical demands of long-distance running. Training can also help you to improve your pace and refine your running technique, which is of the utmost importance when trying to improve your time on race day.

Creating a training plan

Man running in his running attire.
Fleet Feet

Coming up with a training plan may feel intimidating at first, but it isn’t as complicated as it seems. These are a few of the factors to consider when creating your plan. This will provide you with a good starting point for your training program. Beginner runners may need to start with a simple one-mile run, while more experienced athletes may be able to start with a five to six-mile easy run.

Assess your current fitness level

Before you begin training at all, you’ll want to evaluate your current fitness level. This includes understanding your history with running, any existing injuries, and your overall health. 

Set realistic goals

Setting achievable goals is crucial for both motivation and progress. When it comes to setting goals, try not to bite off more than you can chew. Set small and attainable goals based on your current fitness level. For example, a beginner may aim to complete the half marathon without walking, while an experienced runner might target a specific finish time.  

Develop a training schedule

Your training schedule should include a mix of different runs: long runs, tempo runs, interval training, and easy runs. Long runs build endurance, tempo runs improve your mental strength, intervals increase your speed, and easy runs help you recover.

Sean Garbutt explains that a good training program can get you ready for a half marathon in about 10 weeks. As for running frequency, Garbutt suggests that newer runners should aim to run four to five days a week, mixing in easy runs and one progressively longer run, which will peak at 12 miles two weeks before your race. More experienced runners can expand up to six days a week, but make sure you are still giving your body the rest it needs.

Incorporate strength training

Caucasian muscular man using pull down machine in the gym, weight lifting workout.
Pitchayaarch / Adobe Stock

Strength training is often overlooked by runners but is essential for overall performance and injury prevention. Focus on exercises that strengthen your core, glutes, and legs. You can incorporate these strength training sessions two to three times per week, using a combination of both bodyweight exercises and weightlifting for added resistance. 

Add in speed work

While many programs focus on longer runs, preparing your body for the demand of 13.1 miles, Garbutt and his team believe in speed workouts every week. “The goal is always to increase efficiency,” he said. Running faster expands the range of motion and improves overall running form, which transfers back to your slower miles, which become faster.

Some of Garbutt’s favorites include hill repeats at an eight or nine effort out of 10 or the classic four repeats of two minutes “hard” with a minute of recovery between each. Sandwich either of these between a 15-minute warm-up and a 15-minute cool-down.

Finally, train like you race, so while you can do the above workouts on a high school track or a soft forest trail, Garbutt’s groups always do them on the roads. Unless you plan to run 13.1 miles in circular quarter-mile increments, you’re better off on asphalt.

Pay attention to nutrition.

Without a healthy diet, it’s nearly impossible to meet your half-marathon goals. Fueling your body with a good mix of healthy carbs, proteins, and fats is essential for providing you with sustained energy for your workouts. “[Nutrition] is about fueling for the workout you’re doing,” Garbutt says. Before you run, Garbutt recommends something light on the stomach that is easily digestible. This can include snacks like peanut butter and bananas, oatmeal, and rice cakes. 

During your runs, taking in carbs and liquids will provide you with the sustained energy you need to finish your race. Convenient and easily digestible items you can carry with you on your run include gels, gummies, and sports drinks. After your runs, you’ll want to take in both protein and carbs to help your body replenish and recover. It is advised to eat a good meal within 90 minutes of your runs.

Race day preparation

Man running on paved road.
kinkate / Pixabay

In the weeks leading up to race day, you’ll want to fine-tune your strategy and ensure that you are both mentally and physically ready for the event.

  • Final week: In the week leading up to the race, make sure you are prioritizing rest, hydration, and nutrition. Don’t attempt any strenuous workouts, and stick to short, easy runs.
  • Race gear: You’ll want to plan your race day attire and gear in advance. Pick out comfortable running shoes that are well broken in, moisture-wicking clothing, and accessories like a hat, sunglasses, or a running belt. 
  • Mental prep: Mental toughness is the key to completing a half marathon. Try breaking the race into manageable segments, and have a mental strategy in place for dealing with fatigue and discomfort (your training program should have greatly helped with this).
  • Race day routine: Establish a race day routine that includes eating a good breakfast, staying hydrated, and properly warming up. Arrive at the race venue early to avoid any last-minute stressors.
  • During the race: It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement and start the race too quickly. Remember that you have 13.1 miles ahead of you. Stick to your pacing plan and avoid the temptation to start too fast. Additionally, monitor your pace and effort, especially in the early miles. Stay hydrated by taking advantage of water stations, and use energy gels or chews if you have practiced with them during training. 

Are you ready to start the journey from your first training to crossing the finish line? A half marathon isn’t easy, but that’s why completing it is so rewarding in the end. With a well-structured training plan and good preparation, you’ll have a medal around your neck in no time.

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