Training For Your First Half Marathon (13.1 miles – 21.1K)

Great, you’ve run a few 5Ks, 8Ks and perhaps some 10Ks and now you’re ready to move up to the half marathon distance!  I applaud your willingness to take on this distance.  There are a few things that you’ll need to know to be successful at this distance, so let’s get started.

What did you learn from your 5K, 8K (5 miles) and 10K training and racing? (you don’t need to have run an 8K or 10K, but the more distance that you’ve trained for, and raced, the easier it will be for you).  You’ve already learned about a training plan, the time commitment required to do your best, how to wear your bib, how to line up for for the start and the joy and sense of accomplishment in crossing the finish line.  Those are all very valuable things to have become familiar with.

What’s different about training for a half marathon?  One of the first difference you’ll face is the length of the training period for a half marathon.  I think that a 10-12 week training program is about right for first timers planning for a “just finish” first half marathon.  For many people that’s a valid goal, while for other’s they have a desire to finish as fast as possible.  As long as you are trying to do YOUR BEST, that’s the important thing.  Next, the longest training runs will be at least 10 miles long, some plans call for more miles than that, although it’s not likely necessary from a purely physical conditioning point of view.  These runs should all be done at a comfortable pace, which means at a pace during which you can hold a normal conversation.  That’s right, at a slow pace.  Longer is not always better in endurance training, and that likely seems odd to many of you.  The challenge during your training is to get the proper amount of conditioning without either burnout or injury, and to be as ready as possible on race day.

What’s your finish goal? Whichever goal you are thinking about, even for a “just finish” first race, (our half marathon has a three hour and 15 minute maximum time limit in 2014), you need to choose the goal wisely.  As a coach I see many people who have chosen their goal because their friend did it in that time or they think that they should be able to finish in that time, etc., and I can tell you that’s likely a mistake.  You should choose a goal based upon your current physical condition and the likely amount of improvement which you can reasonable expect to make during your training interval. BTW – even if you have a training partner, there is no guarantee that you both with end up running at the exact same pace on race day.

How fast should your run your long run? The answer is, much slower than you likely think, and certainly not at your goal race pace.  The purpose of the long runs is to improve your physical endurance, and that means time on your feet in a training run.  If, for example, your goal finish time is three hours, then your longest long run should be about three hours long (even though it will not likely be 13.1 miles long).  Does that seem odd to you?  If so, here’s a couple of reasons for that: 1) you do not want to tire yourself out during training and then have to miss some future training days in order to recover, 2) you do not want to run your race in training and be tired on race day, 3) with speed comes increased likelihood of injury (your body needs time to make all of the required adaptations which a good training plan will accomplish), 4) you want your longest long runs to be about the length of time as you expected finish time (if you’re planning on a 1:30 finish time then of course your longest long run should be about that long (of course you’ll run it at a faster pace than the person who is shooting for a 3 hour finish time).

How far should your longest long run be? That will very on which training plan you choose.  It will likely be between 10 and 12 miles depending on the plan, however some plans call for longer long runs.  Since we are discussing training for your first half marathon the longer training runs are not likely your best option. I understand if that seems backwards to some of you, but without getting into all of the physiological changes which are occurring which you are not even aware of, most coaches are trying very hard to keep you healthy and more is not always better in endurance running, as I’ve said before.  Finding the point where you are fully trained, or as fully trained as possible, without crossing the threshold of high likelihood of injury or burnout is an art with plenty of science and experience behind it.

The one part of training which we haven’t discussed is the mental aspect of training.  All of us, at some point, have doubts that we done the right training or the right amount of training or that we’re capable of the goal we set.  Yes, that includes the very best of the best athletes among us.  It is those doubts which cause people to want to run further, faster, longer when we should be making sure that we are relaxing, resting, eating, drinking and using positive visualization.  Accept that doubts may creep in at times, and especially during the taper period, and see it for what it is.

One way to help with these types of thoughts is to keep a training journal as soon as your training starts.  Looking back through that journal will help you to remember where you started and how far you’ve come.  That view of your journey may help you to quiet your noisy thoughts and trust your training!

And finally, this is what you are doing in your spare time, not for your living and your life does not depend on it 100%.  If you have set a reasonable goal and accomplished the vast majority of your training plan, you are ready!

How much speed work should you do in preparation? First of all, you should build up your endurance, via your long runs, to the length of time on your feet which your shooting for.  Until you can run that long there is no sense in getting faster.  If you can’t complete the distance then speed is useless.  Make sense?  I hope so.  Once you have a good mileage base and you’ve been doing that for at least a month (about 8 weeks total training time may be reasonable to expect, on average) then you should slowly introduce tempo runs into your weekly training plan.

What is a tempo run? A tempo run is a run at a “comfortably hard” pace which last between 15 and 30 minutes and is the first type of run which requires a 10-15 minute warm-up and a cool-down around it.

What is a “comfortably hard” pace? I know, that sounds like an oxymoron, and perhaps it is!  What that means is (choose one which resonates with you): 1) a pace during which you can speak in sentences, but not in paragraphs without stopping to take a breath between each sentence, 2) at a heart rate which is about 85%-90% of your maximum heart rate, or 3) one which you can maintain for about an hour – an 8 out of 10 on your current effort scale.  The actual pace which you’ll run during your tempo runs will automatically increase as your conditioning improves so there’s no need to ever change the way you measure it.  The pace will change automatically (you’ll have to run faster to get to that effort level as your conditioning improves).  The only change will be the length of time of the tempo run (from 15 minutes to 30 or even 45 minutes).  There is a lot going on in your body as you adapt to holding this pace for longer and longer (but I don’t plan to discuss that here).

Other types of speed work. Once you’ve completed a few weeks of tempo runs during your workouts it could be time to introduce some track repeats and intervals, depending on your time goal and lenght of time running.  Please remember that with speed work comes increased risk of injury so this is not something to rush into.

Repeats are short periods of fast running followed by full recovery periods.  For example, you may run 100 yards at about near all out pace and then walk/jog until your heart rate and breath are back to normal, and then repeat the run and recovery period again. This would be written 2 x 100m with full recovery.

Intervals are another type of speed work.  The main differences between repeats and intervals are that the run portion is generally longer (not as fast a pace) and the recovery period is about the same amount of time as the run portion (which means that you will begin running again before you have completely recovered from the previous run segment).

Repeats and intervals are normally done on a standard 400 meter track (high school, etc.) but can be done on roads.  Doing this type of speed work on a track is best because you don’t normally have to worry about auto traffic, etc. and uneven surfaces, but can be done on roads if desired.

Please note: Many first time half marathoners accomplish their goal(s) with no speed-work (tempo runs, repeats, intervals) at all.  I would suggest that if you don’t incorporate speed work that you learn about pick-ups (short bursts of speed) and fartleks (speed play) which you can throw into your workouts to break up the monotony of months of running at the same speed.  Pick-up are short bursts of speed which you do several times during a run.  Nothing extreme here, just a bit of faster running every once in awhile (e.g., 15-20 seconds of running at race pace or slightly faster.  Fartlek is a Swedish term and is an unstructured form of repeats.  You choose when to do them and for how long.  (e.g., run at at race pace or slightly faster to a tree or the next street lamp post, etc.)

Be careful!!

The injury rate for runners is arguably between 40% and 60% each year (I tend to go with the higher end of that range).  That’s  a very high percentage and therefore selecting a reasonable conservative training approach is highly recommended.

The goal of a good training plan is to introduce the proper amount of stress to your body, not too little nor to much.  Signs of a good training plan are: 1) incorporates days off (no running) and it may also incorporate cross training days (core and upper body – not lower body), 2) fall-back weeks when the total mileage will decrease substantially (usually every 3-4 weeks),  3) will not ask you to run your race during training, you will likely run less than 13.1 miles during training, 4) it will peak your training about 1.5 to 2 weeks prior to your race day and then you will begin a taper period.  Why a taper period?  The goal of the taper period is to make sure that you are fully recovered from all of the repetitive stress which your body has undergone over the past 2-3 months and that will help insure that you are ready to run your best on race day.

Please note: Many people have trouble during this period as they want to get that last long run or speed workout in prior to race day and they often let doubts creep into their mind.

There is no workout which you can do within the last 2 weeks before your race which will provide any physiological benefit by the time that race day arrives, AND there is a real risk of injury during this period if you continue to train at the same intensity.  We see it every year as people contact us to defer their race until the following year due to injury during the last few weeks prior to race day. Don’t let that be you!

The mental issues (worry, self doubt, etc.) are real and almost everyone experiences them.  Trust your training and understand that doubt and nerves are part of the process.  In fact, if you weren’t a bit nervous as race day approaches you wouldn’t have the extra umph that you’ll take good advantage of on race day!

Here’s another important point about your race planning.  You need a race week plan, a race plan and a post race recovery plan.

A race week plan should include extra sleep (especially starting mid-week as you may not sleep as well closer to race day) along with a good nutrition and hydration plan.  Speaking of nutrition, assuming that you’ve been following a good nutrition plan throughout your training, other than for a social occasion the carbo loading pasta dinner is not necessary for a half marathon and it can be troublesome if you haven’t eaten that particular chef’s pasta sauce, etc. prior to one of your long runs.  Many a race has turned ugly because of the pre-race pasta dinner.

A race day plan should contain a couple of important elements: 1) nothing new on race day, which means: no new food, drink, shoes, socks, clothing, sun screen, sun glasses, deodorant, etc., 2) run the first few miles at what feels like a ridiculously slow pace (yes, people will be going by you in droves). The excitement of race day, the music, the crowds, etc. will definitely work against your best laid plans if you’re not very careful.  Many/most first time half marathoners start their race at what seems like an easy pace but because of the excitement at the start of the race and the adrenalin pumping through you, you will actually be running at a pace much faster than you are ready to handle.  It’s much better to let other pass you at the beginning and for you to pass them at the end when they are spent and have slowed down considerably.

A post race plan should include: 1) where you are going to meet your supporters and other racers, 2) how you are going to cool down after your race, 3) how much time you should take off from running after your race, 4) how long your recovery interval should be before you get back into training/racing.  (I have written about that in another post on this blog.)

I hope that the above info will be helpful to you.  If you have other questions about training please comment on this post.  I am not able to give you personalized training advise as I don’t know anything about you, but I can and will answer general questions and point you in directions which can be helpful to you.

I am a certified endurance running coach, but I am not taking on additional students.  This blog is my way to give back to the sport by helping others.

Best wishes,


Joe Gigas
Certified Endurance Running Coach
Executive Race Director, The New Jersey Marathon