Want to Run a Half Marathon? Tips and Tricks to Get You to the Finish Line

Planning on running your first half marathon? Read this essential guide from Kelly Tweeddale.

Half Marathon

If you've mastered the 5K and crossed the finish line of its double-distance cousin, the 10K, you can now contemplate running a half marathon. The half marathon is a tricky distance. It's roughly twice the length of a 10K, yet it requires much more serious and thoughtful training. As the initiation into mid- and long-distance running, it separates the recreational runner from the serious contender.

Are You Ready?

Before jumping in, ask yourself the following questions. If you answer yes to all of them, you're good to go:

  • Can I run a minimum distance of three miles at least three days a week?
  • Have I had a physical recently and been given the OK by my doctor?
  • Do I have time to train? (You'll need to dedicate at least four days a week to your training, with a two-hour slot set aside each week for long runs.)

You can find any number of training programs for a half marathon; most will take between 10 and 12 weeks. For a beginner, the best program includes at least four days per week of training, combining running, cross-training, and strength work.

If you do decide to train, here are some tips:

If you miss a workout, don't try to make it up. Too much mileage too soon is a recipe for injury. Forget about the missed workout and focus on your next one.

Stick to the mileage plan. Progressive training has a purpose. Plans are designed to build strength, stamina, and endurance.

Listen to your body. If you're under the weather or struggling with a workout, don't be afraid to improvise. Slow it down with intervals of running and walking, or substitute a less-demanding workout. Your goal is to complete your training injury-free.

Break it down.
 Running a half marathon can be daunting if you focus simply on the total mileage. Instead, think of it as running two 10Ks or four 5Ks. Better yet, start by telling yourself that you're running a 10K. When you reach the 10K mark, reset your focus and work on finishing the next 5K. If you're starting to slow down, take the last mile at a recovery pace. (Find out how to calculate pace here.) For your final 5K, imagine that you are just setting out to run one of your familiar 5K training runs. Pay attention to your breath, make sure you stay hydrated, and look for the finish line. Keep the perspective that after all of your training, one final 5K should be a piece of cake.

Make a Race Day Plan

On race day, make sure you've thoroughly reviewed everything you'll need: the gear and apparel you'll wear; what you'll need to hydrate (including whether you will rely on course-furnished options or carry your own water); and whether you will check your post-race gear or have a pit crew meet you at the finish line. Plan ahead for your fueling needs before, during, and after the race.

Most important, once you get to the starting line, take a moment to remember that your 12 weeks of training have not only prepared you—they've made you unstoppable!

Mix It Up

As you progress with your training, include plenty of variety in your workouts. One of the biggest obstacles to sticking with a training plan is boredom. Here are a few ways to keep things interesting:

For your shorter runs, head to a track. Pretend you're a track star and get your mileage in by running 400-meter (one-lap) sprints interspersed with a 200-meter (half-lap) walks or jogs.

On your long runs, try running the distance using the fartlek technique. Find a visual point of reference and run at your goal pace to that visual reference. Then slow to a walk or jog until you reach your next visual reference. Alternate the distance and frequency of your pace runs and recovery jogs/walks using shrubs, mailboxes, trees and parked cars as your goal posts. (Learn more about fartlek training.)

Schedule some fun runs.  Use 5Ks and/or 10Ks to correspond with a few of your training weekends. Running in a crowd, running with adrenaline, and running with the goal of reaching the finish line are important parts of your training regimen.

The 3 Rs: Rest, Recovery, Repeat

Your goal is to get through your half-marathon training plan and arrive at the starting line fit, healthy, and injury-free. To maintain your momentum, incorporate the following "3 R's" into your workout weeks:

Take your rest days seriously. When your training plan says rest, rest. Rest days allow your muscles to repair and recover and your body to refuel and rehydrate. It may seem counterintuitive, but rest days will make you stronger.

After long runs, implement a recovery plan. A recovery plan includes replacing lost electrolytes; stretching and massaging fatigued muscles to release lactic acid; and including lean protein in your diet to rebuild muscle.

Embrace the repetition in your training plan. Repetition builds both stamina and endurance. Train over multiple weeks. Every week, repeat the short, medium, and long-run sequences.

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