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Half Marathon Training for New Runners

Running can be a slippery slope. What starts as a hobby – or maybe just a way to lose weight – can quickly blossom into a lifelong passion.

half marathon training

Runners bit by the running bug are soon signing up for longer races, looking for clubs near home, and even buying their first pair of short-shorts.

It’s a wonderful feeling. And it doesn’t matter why you started running in the first place:

  • Maybe you started running because a friend cajoled you into your first fun run…
  • Or maybe you started running for weight loss and got hooked on local races in your city…
  • Or maybe you’re like me, and thought you could high jump in cross country (spoiler: I was so wrong)

After the novelty of racing 5k and 10k’s wear off, you may be left thinking “”Ok, what’s next?

Before you jump into a marathon, you may want to consider training for a half marathon.

The half marathon is the fastest growing race distance in the United States. According to Running USA, there was a record nearly two million half marathon finishers in 2013.

More runners are flocking to the 13.1 mile race distance for good reason – it’s the perfect blend of endurance and speed. The distance requires new runners to build their fitness substantially, but the training required to run a great half marathon isn’t nearly as grueling as for the marathon.

The half can be completed with just a few “upgrades” to standard 10k training. If you’re ready for a new challenge and want to take the next step with running a longer race, the half marathon is the race for you.

What Makes the Half Marathon Different

Most beginner runners can finish a 5k with just a few weeks of consistent running.

After a 5k gets easier, just another month or two will get you ready to finish a 10k.

But the half marathon is different: at more than double the distance of a 10k, it requires more focus on endurance and long runs than shorter races.

You might have been able to “fake it” through a 10k race, but that will be virtually impossible in a half. Beginner half marathon training should be taken seriously and approached with care because:

  • The body can only store so many calories as available fuel. The half marathon begins to approach the amount of time it takes to deplete those fuel stores (roughly two hours)
  • Muscle fibers become much more fatigued after about 90 minutes of running. Running form degradation is then a big problem at the end of a half marathon
  • Mentally, a half is challenging because it’s a “real” distance event. You’re running for a long time – and mental fatigue can wreak havoc on your mindset

But don’t worry, most new runners can successfully run their first half marathon within 6-9 months of starting to run.

With a focus on two key training components, your first half marathon will be a smash success.

Half Marathon Goal #1: Stay Healthy Long-Term

You can’t train well if you’re injured.

I often tell the runners that I coach that consistent training is the “secret sauce” to successful running. I even have a t-shirt about it!

After weeks and months of diligent training, you’ll be able to run more and faster than you thought possible.

But nothing prevents consistency more than running injuries. They force you to take time off, delaying big gains in fitness and wreaking havoc on motivation.

Fortunately, there are three simple ways you can dramatically cut your risk of getting hurt:

1. “Sandwich” your runs between a dynamic flexibility warm-up and a runner-specific strength routine.

Both the warm-up and the post-run strength workout help build athleticism, strength in the areas that runners need it most, and gradually improve your running efficiency.

2. Run slow on your recovery days. Too many runners push the effort on their easy days, compromising recovery and performance on subsequent priority workouts.

Instead, remember the “3 C’s” of easy running: comfortable, controlled, and conversational. The goal is not to “gain fitness” but instead to maximize recovery and add some extra mileage to your week.

3. Variety reduces repetition – and injuries are technically called repetitive stress injuries.

By rotating 2-3 pairs of running shoes, running a variety of paces throughout your training, getting off the concrete and onto more trails, and introducing dynamic stretching and strength exercises, you’re teaching your body to be more athletic and more injury resilient.

These strategies form the foundation of intelligent running so you can then worry about the actual training you need to run your first half marathon.

Half Marathon Goal #2: Build Endurance

There’s a reason my college cross country coach Jim Butler half-jokingly answers “mileage!” for every problem runners face. It works!

Mileage – or more specifically, more mileage – is the most effective way of building your endurance.

Combined with a regular long run, these two training elements will get you ready to complete 13.1 miles with enough gas left in the tank to finish strong.

Most beginner half marathoners should aim to complete at least 20 miles per week, but preferably 25-30 miles, during their highest volume training weeks. This total workload ensures the body is capable of handling the stress of covering 13.1 miles and the impact forces of running for about two hours.

The long run is also critical – there’s a reason that distance runners say they regularly attend service at the “Church of the Sunday Long Run!”

Before the race, it’s best to run at least 10 miles once or twice to ensure you can reasonably complete a half marathon. Of course, it’s ideal to run more than the race distance to increase your confidence and ensure you can definitely finish the race.

Just remember to only increase your long run by 1 mile every 1-2 weeks. More substantial increases in distance predispose you to injury (and we know how valuable injury prevention efforts are for runners).

The half marathon is a challenging but rewarding event, requiring careful training that focuses on building general endurance.

For beginners, it’s the perfect race to get hooked on distance running. Soon, you might even be targeting a marathon!

Note: a version of this article originally appeared on Competitor here.

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