Training for a Half Marathon

by Sage Rountree 36
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The half marathon suffers from its label as half. Completing this distance is an accomplishment belittled by the name of the race—it feels like a whole adventure, not half of anything. We could think of it instead as a ten-mile–plus–5K race, which makes it seem like the test it is.

At the same time, this is a distance that most runners can accomplish without undue trouble. You—yes, you—can probably finish a half feeling good, and that’s what this plan is designed to help you do. As you’ll see, you can be prepared to run this 13.1-mile race by running four or five days a week, with weekday runs and short yoga routines taking no more than an hour, and weekend runs building to a peak of two hours. You won’t have to spend all your time training or recovering; it will be a lot of fun, especially if you can train with a friend or a group of friends, and you’ll get into great shape along the way.

It’s useful to have experience at the shorter distances before you make this leap. A few 5Ks and 10Ks will give you the experience and confidence to move to the half marathon.

How will you know when you are ready? If you’ve followed my 10K plan on this site, you should be good to go, and many of the workouts will be familiar. Otherwise, have a look at the first four-week block of this plan. If the first week looks totally doable, or even easier or shorter than what you’ve been doing, you’re probably ready. If it makes you flinch, start with the 5K or 10K plans.

In choosing your race, consider your personality. Will you do better in a big race with lots of energy and hoopla, or would you prefer a smaller affair? Do you want a race geared to women, like the Nike Women’s Half Marathon? What is the course like, and does it play to your strengths? Options abound. A 20K, at 12.4 miles, can be a fun choice if you can’t find a local half marathon. If you like to run trails (me too!), you might find a trail race. Be aware that trail running takes about a minute more per mile than road running; you might care to add ten minutes or so to each long run on the schedule to be sure you’ve got the endurance to cover the distance off-road.

As always, check that you are running in relatively new shoes that are the appropriate size and support level for your feet. Replace your shoes regularly. You should cycle in a new pair around week 10 of this plan so you’ll be wearing fresh but broken-in shoes for the race.

BUILDING TO THE HALF MARATHON

A big base of endurance is critical at this distance, so your heart, lungs, and legs can cover 13.1 miles of continuous running. We’ll slowly increase the length of your long run to two hours. For the speedier runners, this may go over the distance of the race. If you don’t cover 13 miles in two hours of easy running, have no fear; you will find the reserves to complete the distance in the race. Run these long runs at a really comfortable pace, considerably slower than you plan to do the race.

On the day after each long run in weeks 5–11, you’ll head out for a forty-minute pace run. Your warm-up should get you loose from the previous day’s long run, but you’ll still feel some fatigue. This is useful because you’ll have to work to hold your pace toward the end of the run.

NUTRITION FOR LONG RUNS AND THE RACE

Unless you are very fast, the half marathon will probably last longer than your glycogen stores. This means you’ll need to take in some calories during the race and in each long run. Experiment in training to find the combination that works best for you. Each of us will have different needs, but in general, you should aim to take in 100–200 calories and 8–16 oz. of fluid every hour. Aim for the lower end of the 100–200 calorie per hour range and see how it goes. You can sip on sports drink or rely exclusively on gels. (Remember, there are calories in sports drinks—read the label and do the math.) The caveat: don’t wash down a gel with sports drink! This creates a sugar concentration that your stomach can’t quickly process, and it can lead to nausea and other gastric issues.

I like to carry fluids and gels using a hydration belt. You might prefer to plant water along your route or design a run that leads you past water fountains or friends’ homes. After years of trial and error, I’ve found sipping a sports drink for the first hour or so of a race or long run works for me. After that, I’ll take a chocolate PowerGel (lightly caffeinated for that extra boost of energy) and wash it down with some water. I can tell it’s time for the gel when I start to feel cranky. You might learn your own body’s signs, or simply eat according to the clock, say, one gel every forty-five or sixty minutes.

Depending on the temperature, humidity, your sweat rate, and how salty your perspiration is, you may benefit from using a product with added sodium (sports drink, PowerBar gels, or sodium supplements). Again, training is the place to experiment.

Nothing new on race day: Make this your mantra. Your clothes, shoes, sunscreen, and especially your nutrition should all be dialed in during training. Then go with what worked as your plan for the race. If this means you have to call the race director to determine what sports drink is served on the course, or you must run with a hydration belt, fine; whatever your plan is, practice it in training.

USING THE PLAN

As with the 5K and 10K plans, workouts are prescribed in time, not mileage, and the intensity is described in purposefully vague terms. Always err on the side of too easy—if you simply followed the time per day on this plan, with none of the intensity, you’d be in good enough shape to complete a half marathon. If you can distinguish between your different gears (easy, medium/half marathon race pace, medium hard, and hard), all the better. If you have a day or a week when you feel a little off, dial the intensity back by removing any intervals and simply running, run/walking, walking, or even—gasp!—skipping a workout entirely. It’s fine.

The total suggested time for each run appears first, followed by instructions for the main set of the workout. Be sure to include at least ten minutes of warm-up before this main set, and enjoy an easy cool-down afterward. You don’t have to run back and forth in your driveway to get to the suggested time; aim to come within five minutes of each workout’s time and you’ll be golden.

As with the previous plans, I’ve suggested yoga routines pegged to episodes of my free podcast, Sage Yoga Training. These will keep you strong and flexible, and they will increase your core strength so you can keep your form together as you tire. You can add an additional yoga or Pilates session on Mondays, but make sure that it’s not so intense that it leaves you sore or tired on Tuesday morning. In the week of the race, skip a group class in favor of some gentle yoga at home.

To that end, a word on form: learn mountain-pose alignment from a qualified yoga teacher, and as you run, keep returning to that upright stance with low shoulders, a long neck, and an engaged core. Economize by focusing on taking quick steps rather than overreaching with long steps, and keep your elbows close to your body, with your hands never reaching across the midline as you swing your arms.

FIRST FOUR WEEKS

We start with medium-intensity intervals and with hills, as in the 10K plan. You’ll get a taste of half marathon pace in the Tuesday intervals. Uphill running, despite its intensity, places less impact on the body than does running on flat or downhill grades, and running hills builds strength. (The Warrior Flow routine does, too.) Even if you choose a flatland course, you’ll probably have a few inclines during your half marathon—coastal races, for example, often cross bridges in their 13.1-mile routes.

While Wednesdays can be either a run or cross-training, make your Sunday workout a run. This primes your body for the pace runs in the next block. If you need to swap Saturdays and Sundays in this block, that’s fine.

MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN
WEEK
1

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 3 x (8 min. medium, 2 min. easy). Follow with Balance and Bowing.
Run 40 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Core Flow.
Hills:
Run 45 min. with :30, :45, 1:00, 1:15 and 1:30 steady up a hill. Follow with Lunge Series.

Rest; include Relax.
Run 50 min.
Follow with Standing Stretches.
Run 40 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Warrior Flow.
WEEK
2

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 4 x (8 min. medium, 2 min. easy). Follow with Balance and Bowing.
Run 40 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Core Flow.
Hills:
Run 45 min. with 1:00, 1:15, 1:30 and 1:45 steady up a hill. Follow with Lunge Series.

Rest; include Relax.
Run 60 min.
Follow with Standing Stretches.
Run 40 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Warrior Flow.
WEEK
3

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 3 x (10 min. medium, 2 min. easy). Follow with Balance and Bowing.
Run 40 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Core Flow.
Hills:
Run 45 min. with 1:15, 1:30, 1:45 and 2:00 steady up a hill. Follow with Lunge Series.

Rest; include Relax.
Run 70 min. Follow with Standing Stretches. Run 40 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Warrior Flow.
WEEK
4

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Intervals:
Run 45 min. with 3 x (6 min. medium, 2 min. easy). Follow with Balance and Bowing.
Run 40 min. easy or cross-train. Follow with Core Flow. Hills:
Run 45 min. with :45, 1:00, 1:15 and 1:30 steady up a hill. Follow with Lunge Series.

Rest or run 10-15 min.– just enough to calm you down. Include Relax.
Run 60 min. Follow with Standing Stretches. Run 40 min. easy or cross-train. Follow with Warrior Flow.

SECOND FOUR WEEKS

In this block, we’ll introduce pace runs on Sundays. If you have run the half marathon distance before and have a time goal, you’ll want to hold your projected pace for the middle segment of each run. If you are aiming to complete the distance for the first time, simply run the middle segment at a medium-intensity pace. While it’s OK to switch your Saturday and Sunday runs a few times, remember that you’re trying to simulate race conditions, so it’s useful to work to hold your pace the day after a long run.

Tuesday intervals are more intense than in the last block, and your Thursday workout becomes a long version of the first four weeks’ Tuesday intervals. Such changes progressively challenge your body, encouraging gradual adaptation to the new stressors.

MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN
WEEK
5

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 4 x (4 min. hard, 2 min. easy). Follow with Lunge Series.
Run 40-50 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Warrior Flow.
Light Tempo:
Run 50 min. with 20 min. medium. Follow with Pigeon Sequence.

Rest; include Relax.
Run 80 min.
Follow with Standing Stretches.
Pace: Run 40 min. with 10 min. half marathon pace (HMP).
Follow with Quick Fix.
WEEK
6

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 5 x (4 min. hard, 90 sec. easy). Follow with Lunge Series.
Run 40-50 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Warrior Flow.
Light Tempo:
Run 50 min. with 25 min. medium. Follow with Pigeon Sequence.

Rest; include Relax.
Run 90 min.
Follow with Standing Stretches.
Pace: Run 40 min. with 15 min. HMP.
Follow with Quick Fix.
WEEK
7

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 6 x (4 min. hard, 1 min. easy). Follow with Lunge Series.
Run 40-50 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Warrior Flow.
Light Tempo:
Run 50 min. with 30 min. medium. Follow with Pigeon Sequence.

Rest; include Relax.
Run 100 min. Wear the clothes you plan to race in. Follow with Standing Stretches. Pace: Run 40 min. with 20 min. HMP.
Follow with Quick Fix.
WEEK
8

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Intervals:
Run 45 min. with 3 x (4 min. hard, 1 min. easy). Follow with Lunge Series.
Run 40 min. easy or cross-train. Follow with Warrior Flow. Light Tempo:
Run 50 min. with 15 min. medium. Follow with Pigeon Sequence.

Rest; include Yin Hips.
Run 75 min. Follow with Standing Stretches. Pace: Run 40 min. with 10 min. HMP.
Follow with Quick Fix.

THIRD FOUR WEEKS

In the third block, Tuesday runs build their intensity. This mimics the way your race will feel—OK toward the beginning, harder toward the end. If you know your pacing across various race distances, start these progressive intervals at half marathon pace (10 minutes), building to 10K pace (7.5 minutes), 5K pace (5 minutes), and faster (2.5 minutes). The rest between intervals decreases each week.

Thursday tempo segments are faster than half marathon pace. Ideally, this will make your race-pace runs on Sundays feel relatively easy!

In this block, you’ll build your long run to new lengths. Take these runs nice and easy, and run on a soft surface, such as a smooth bridle trail or cross-country course, if you can. Enjoy a snack immediately after your run and before your shower, a good meal after you’re clean, and a short restorative yoga session later in the day. (At the very least, spend some time with your legs up the wall.)

In race week, you’ll start to feel fresh as the effects of your training settle in. This can make you feel squirrelly, crabby, tired, or overly confident. Resist any urge to run more than planned, and trust your training.

MON TUE WED THU FRI SAT SUN
WEEK
9

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Progressive Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 10, 7.5, 5 and 2.5 min. intervals, each faster than the previous, with 3 min. easy between each. Follow with IT Band Express.
Run 40-50 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Standing Hip Opener.
Tempo:
Run 50 min. with 20 min. medium hard. Follow with Pigeon Sequence.

Rest; include Relax.
Run 110 min.
Follow with Standing Stretches. Later in the afternoon, Relax.
Pace: Run 40 min. with 20 min. HMP.
Follow with Core and More.
WEEK
10

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Progressive Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 10, 7.5, 5 and 2.5 min. intervals, each faster than the previous, with 2 min. easy between each. Follow with IT Band Express.
Run 40-50 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Standing Hip Opener.
Tempo:
Run 50 min. with 25 min. medium hard. Follow with Pigeon Sequence.

Rest; include Relax.
Run 120 min.
Follow with Standing Stretches. Later in the afternoon, Relax.
Pace: Run 40 min. with 20 min. HMP.
Follow with Core and More.
WEEK
11

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Progressive Intervals:
Run 50 min. with 10, 7.5, 5 and 2.5 min. intervals, each faster than the previous, with 1 min. easy between each. Follow with IT Band Express.
Run 40 min. easy or cross-train.
Follow with Standing Hip Opener.
Tempo:
Run 50 min. with 30 min. medium hard. Follow with Pigeon Sequence.

Rest; include Yin Hips.
Run 60 min. Wear the clothes you plan to race in.
Follow with Standing Stretches. Later in the afternoon, Relax.
Pace: Run 40 min. with 10 min. HMP.
Follow with Core and More.
WEEK
12

Rest; Yoga or Pilates
Race-Week Intervals:
Run 45 min. with 3 min. medium, 2 min. easy, 3 min. medium hard, 2 min. easy, 3 min. medium. Follow with IT Band Express.
Run 30 min. easy or cross-train. Follow with Standing Hip Opener. Taper: Run 35 min. with 3 x 2 min. comfortably fast. Follow with Pigeon Sequence.
Rest or run 10-15 min. — just enough to calm you down. include Relax.
Race! Include a warm-up of 5-10 min. with 4 x 30 sec. pickups timed to finish close to the start. Take an easy walk to work out any stiffness.
Follow with Relax.

CLICK HERE FOR A PRINTABLE PDF OF THE TRAINING PLAN
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RACE DAY

Say it again: Nothing new on race day. You’ll want to have practiced your prerace routine before your longest runs so it’s familiar on race morning. Take a few minutes before the race to consider all the work you’ve put in.

Depending on the size of your race, you might be stuck in traffic for the first mile. That’s probably a good thing, as it prevents you from starting too fast. If you are working toward a time goal, don’t try to recover any time you gave away in the first mile by running the second too fast. Be conservative, working to push your effort toward the end of the race.

When you hit the 10-mile mark, you have 5K left to run. That’s manageable! Use your very best form, breathe as deeply as you can, and go for it, slowly picking up the pace if you can. You’ll feel great to have finished strong. After the race, be sure to walk around for a few minutes, take in a snack, and enjoy your accomplishment!

Feel free to ask me questions in the comments or by contacting me through my website. I’m happy to help. And please let me know how the plan works for you.

Sage Rountree is a USA Triathlon Certified Expert Coach, Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher, author of The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga and The Athlete’s Pocket Guide to Yoga, a contributor to Runner’s World, a member of PowerBar Team Elite, and one of Athleta's Featured Athletes in 2009. She loves competing in triathlon and running races of all distances. Through her business, Sage Endurance, she teaches yoga to athletes and coaches clients in running, ultrarunning, triathlon, and duathlon... {more»}