How to train for a half marathon

How to train for a marathon
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Knowing how to train for a half marathon is a major goal for many runners, whether they’re new to the distance or want to set a personal best for 13.1 miles. Trying to train for a half marathon may seem daunting, but with a training program, a personal plan, and a positive mindset, you’ll be ready for race day.   

This guide covers the basics for how to train for a half marathon, from finding the right training schedule to preparing to run five days per week to knowing what to do in the days leading up to your race, especially if that race is a Turkey Trot for example. While this guide isn’t a substitute for a program developed by a certified coach, it will help you know what you expect as you take on your half marathon goal.

Half Marathon Training: Getting Started

As excited as you may be to jump right into half marathon training, there are a few key things that you should do first.

Get good running shoes (and socks). I ran my first 5K in high school cross country in high-top basketball shoes. It did not go well. If you’re planning to do a half marathon, you’ll need an upgrade. Because everyone’s feet and running form are different, It’s worth taking the time to safely visit a specialty running store to try on several different pairs and receive expert recommendations. The general rule of thumb is that running shoes last about 500 miles, so unless you’re planning to exceed 40 miles per week in training, a single pair of shoes should do. (But having a backup pair certainly doesn’t hurt.) 

If you're looking to do your research before you shop, take a look at our round-up of the best running shoes, as well as the best women's running shoes, the best trail running shoes, and the best carbon fiber running shoes to wear on race day. 

Other things you’ll want to consider purchasing include Glide, which helps prevent chafing between your thighs, as well as a running shirt, shorts, and bra (we've hand-picked the best sports bras here). Not only are they lighter than your standard t-shirt and shorts, but they’re designed to wick away sweat.  

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Build up a running base. The typical half marathon training program for beginners starts out with a weekly long run of five miles. If you’ve never covered that much distance in a single workout, you may want to take a couple weeks to build up to five miles. To avoid injury, do this slowly - add a half-mile onto your longest run of the week until you hit the five-mile mark, and then start the first week of the training program.

Set a realistic goal. For your first half marathon, simply finishing is a worthwhile goal. If you’re better motivated by a time goal, it’s important to set a realistic one. Using a time predictor that takes into account your time in a previous 5K or 10K, as well as your estimated weekly mileage, is a good starting point. 

Find a training program. There is no shortage of programs aimed at helping you complete a half marathon. Garmin Coach’s half marathon training plans are available to anyone with the latest version of fenix, Forerunner, or vivoactive watch. The program will help you set a race goal and develop a training program around that goal, based on the training metrics that Garmin has been collecting as you’ve completed workouts with the watch. 

If you don’t have one of the best Garmin watches (or some other sports watch with training programs), a number of apps offer half marathon training programs, including Nike Run Club, Asics Runkeeper, and Under Armour MayMyRun. All three apps are also available for the Apple Watch, while Runkeeper and MayMyRun are available for certain Samsung Galaxy watches. Many races also post basic training programs on their websites; one example is the Boston Athletic Association’s 12-week program for the BAA Half. Local running clubs also typically offer training programs as part of their membership, and some will organize virtual workouts. 

Finally, there’s always the option of working with a running coach who will develop a personalized plan based on your goals, schedule, and other factors. I started working with a coach in 2015 so I could safely recover from an injury and have found that this approach works best for me.

Whatever type of program you choose, make sure it’s been approved by a certified running coach who is knowledgeable about the structure of running workouts and how they impact your body.

Half Marathon Training: The Basics

Half marathon training programs vary quite a bit depending on your race goals, level of fitness, and experience. A plan for beginners may not exceed 30 miles per week, while a plan for experienced runners looking to set a personal best could exceed 50 miles per week. My plans typically top out around 35 miles per week. 

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You’ll want to plan ahead: Typical training programs last 10 to 12 weeks, though depending on your experience level it may be longer (if you need to build up to a base of five miles) or shorter (if you’re already consistently doing weekly long runs in the range of eight to 10 miles).

That said, there are few common characteristics of all training programs. 

  • Four or five days of running per week.
  • One or two days of cross-training, which could include a combination of walking, yoga, status stretching, and/or core or leg exercises. 
  • One or two days of rest with no specified exercises. Most plans schedule an off day after a long run.
  • A speed workout, which consists of intervals of sprints followed by recovery time, or a hill workout, which consists of uphill sprints. 
  • Two to three days of easy runs, which should be completed at a pace comfortable enough to hold a conversation.
  • A weekly long run, which will increase over the course of the training program to  10 to 11 miles and should also be done at an easy pace. Given the necessary time commitment, most runners do these workouts on a weekend day.
  • Two to three weeks of “taper” before the day of the race, which allows your body to recover from the most strenuous workouts.

One of the biggest keys to training for a half marathon race is to not overdo it. Running too fast, too far, or too frequently are all common causes of injuries, especially as we get older. (That’s why Training Load is a key feature of Garmon Coach; it’s designed to help athletes know how long they will need to recover from key workouts and when they may be “overloaded” from too much running.) Unless a speed workout calls for specific pace goals, such as completing 400-meter intervals in two minutes, don’t worry about pace. Focus on hitting the distance or time goals for easy runs and long runs.

The other important factor is being able to make time to run. Some runners like to work out at the same time every day, especially if work and family schedules are hectic. Other runners prefer the flexibility to work out at different times of day. It may take some time to figure out what works best for your schedule, or whether you perform better in the morning, afternoon, or evening.

Half Marathon Training: More Than Running

Running is obviously an important part of half marathon training, but there are a few other considerations as you move through your training program.

When in doubt, rest — and don’t feel guilty. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in more than 25 years of running is to take rest seriously. If my legs are tired, I feel a cold coming on, or I’ve simply had a bad day, I skip a run. If I’m up for it, I’ll substitute stretching or leg exercises; if not, I rest. This helps to prevent burnout, and it ensures that you’ll be in a better physical and mental mindset to get the most out of your key workouts.

Eat sensibly. If this is your first half marathon, you’ll probably notice yourself getting hungry as training progresses, for the simple fact that exercising more means burning more calories. It’s important to replace the additional calories that you’re burning in a healthy way - lean protein, healthy fats, complex carbs, and electrolytes from either food or beverages.

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Test your need for water and fuel during your runs. There are dozens of mid-race fuels on the market — gels, candies, gummies, and so on — that can help restore your energy reserves as you deplete them during a long workout. Try these out on your weekly long runs to see how your body (and your gastrointestinal system) reacts; this will help you avoid unwelcome surprises on race day. Do the same with water: It will take time to strike a balance between the right amount of water and too much water, which will simply slosh around in your stomach and make you uncomfortable. 

Half Marathon Training: Preparing for Race Day

In the days leading up to your half marathon, there are a few steps that can help you have a successful race.

Rest up. It’s perfectly OK if you don’t sleep much the night before the race, whether it’s due to nerves or an early start time. Try to get a good night’s sleep the night before the night before the race — Friday night for a Sunday race, for example.

Carbo load in stages. A huge dinner the night before the race is overdoing it. Space out carb-focused meals beginning on Saturday morning, and mix in some lean protein as well. Avoid anything that may upset your stomach. Years ago, I switched from pasta with red sauce to Asian noodles to cut down on the amount of acid I ate.

Plan your outfit. Don’t wear any clothing that’s brand new during the race, since you never know where it might literally rub you the wrong way. This includes shoes - they should be broken in. Consider layers, since you’ll get warmer as the race progresses (especially if the sun begins to shine) and you won’t want to overheat (on a hot day) or sweat too much and have it freeze (on a cold day). 

Plan your fuel strategy. Figure out when (if at all) you’d like to use your fuel, based on how things went during your weekly long runs. Most products recommend that you take them with water. For in-person races, this typically means taking fuel close to a water stop, though in a virtual race when you carry your own water you have a lot more flexibility. 

Eat a light breakfast. As with clothing, eat something that you are used to. I opt for a slice of toast with peanut butter, which is my typical breakfast. Avoid anything that will lead to a last-second bathroom trip. Also avoid anything greasy or heavy — save that for after the race.

Have fun! You’ve worked hard to get to this point. Enjoy the race. Focus on your goal, but don’t let it consume you, especially if the weather is bad or you’re not feeling well. 

Half Marathon Training: Recovery and Next Steps

You did it! Celebrate with your favorite meal and beverage, put your feet up, maybe take a nap, and take off a couple days from running. Enjoy the break, do some stretching or yoga, and think about your next steps.

Are you done? There’s no shame at all in running one half marathon and then deciding that you don’t need to do a second one. Finishing 13.1 miles is a rare feat — about two million Americans finish a half marathon every year, according to Running USA — and you should certainly be proud. It’s important to take some time to make a decision, though. You may find yourself saying “Never again” seconds after you finish, only to change your mind a few days later.

Do you want to run another half marathon? If so, give yourself at least a few weeks in between races. This will give your body time to recover and then ramp back up into training. And while you could certainly run the next race faster, set realistic expectations for yourself. My shortest break has been four weeks in between half marathons, and I specifically planned to run the second race a few minutes slower.

Do you want to take it to the next level? A full marathon is twice as long as a half, but training is more than twice as hard. Workouts are more difficult to schedule, and recovery and cross-training take on added importance in order to avoid injuries. You also need to commit at least 16 weeks for marathon training — and longer than that if it’s your first full marathon. Oh, and your appetite will get even bigger. 

All that said, the feeling of personal accomplishment when you cross the finish line after 26.2 miles is hard to beat. Check out our marathon training guide if you’re ready to get started.

Brian Eastwood

Brian Eastwood is a freelance writer for Tom’s Guide, focusing primarily on running watches and other wearable tech. Brian has been a professional writer and editor since 2003. He has covered healthcare tech, enterprise tech, higher education, and corporate leadership for a range of trade publications. Brian is a lifelong Massachusetts native and currently lives outside of Boston. Outside of work, he enjoys running, hiking, cross-country skiing, and curling up with a good history book.