Half marathons have become enormously popular in recent years, with more than 2 million runners lacing up their shoes to run 13.1 miles every year in the U.S. Compared to a marathon, which requires a high level of fitness, months of preparation and a smart and effective fueling strategy, a half marathon is much more accessible to most recreational runners. While a half marathon still takes proper preparation and fitness, just about anyone can finish one if they commit to training.

Almost anyone can run a half marathon, just so long as you have realistic goals, commit to the training and prepare properly. Photo: Brian Metzler

Before You Begin

— Believe in yourself. Yes, you can run a half marathon! The very first step to reaching the finish line is to believe you can do it, even if you’ve never been a runner. If you’re new to running, allow yourself at least four to six months to prepare for your first half. It would be helpful to get comfortable running shorter distances and races such as 5K, 10K and 10-mile races. Working your way up will make your foray into the half marathon a little less overwhelming. But plenty of new runners (and beginner training groups) focus on the half marathon as a primary goal, and that’s OK as long as you take the time to properly ramp up to it.

Train to be ready for the training. If you’re not running regularly, i.e., at least three times a week with a long run of 4–6 miles, spend a month or more building up to this frequency and mileage. It’s important to have a solid aerobic base before committing to a four- to six-month training program that will be necessary to finish a half marathon. If you’ve already been running that much, you can probably join a training group or start following a plan to train for a race two to four months away.

Start thinking of food as fuel. Would you embark on a long car trip on an empty gas tank? Of course not! The same principle applies to the half marathon training. Keep your tank full, refill it soon after you empty it and use high-quality food that will sustain you over time.

Get a good pair of shoes. Or better yet, pick up a couple pairs once you find ones that work well for you. There is no “perfect” pair of running shoes, but there are plenty of bad ones. Check out these tips, then visit your local running specialty shop and let them help you select a pair of quality, comfortable kicks that will handle the demands of your training. Shoes are the most important tool a marathoner can own: Use your running shoes just for training and racing, and replace them every 400–500 miles. They’ll last longer that way and will put you in the right mindset when you slip your feet into them.

 Commit to the process. Decide what training for a half marathon means to you and write down your goals for the race, but also identify what you want to get out of the process of training for the event. The half marathon itself will amount to a few hours of your time on a specific day—the training, however, will occupy a few months of your life, and it can often change your life in meaningful ways. Figure out how training will fit into your day-to-day schedule, establish a routine that is consistent, sustainable and enjoyable, and set daily and weekly process goals—eating well, doing core work a few times a week, getting seven or more hours of sleep at night, etc.—that will help you adopt the lifestyle of a committed runner. You might be compelled to run another half marathon or decide you want to ramp up your training and run a marathon.

READ MORE: What You Need to Know to Run a Marathon

Basic Training

If you have been running shorter distances regularly or for many years, you will be able to prepare for a half marathon in much less time. Once you have committed to a race, make sure you follow a sound training plan. If you use an online plan, try to find one that allows some customization so you can make it work with your life schedule.

Basic training will entail a weekly mix of short, easy runs, a long run, and some more challenging workouts such as hills or tempo runs. There should be a progression as you get closer to your goal race, and your long runs will approach 11 to 13 miles or equal the distance of the race itself. Long runs will also give you the opportunity to practice your pacing, as well as your nutrition and hydration strategies for the race.

READ MORE: How to Shake Up Your Weekly Long Run

Aside from “just” running, you should include some core and strength training every week. This doesn’t mean you need to spend hours in the gym—a quality core routine can be completed in about 15 minutes, and your body weight can provide plenty of resistance for strength workouts.  

READ MORE: How Runners Can Get Stronger

Next Level Training

Intermediate and more advanced runners preparing for a half marathon should include a weekly faster workout like a fartlek, tempo run, or a speed session on the track. These workouts should mostly be aerobic (“with oxygen”) but can include a small amount of more intense running. Faster workouts will help increase your fitness level and allow you to run more efficiently and, ultimately, faster.

You may also want to run a tune-up race of 5K to 10 miles before your half marathon so you can learn to manage race preparation, race-day stress and pacing. Aim to run your tune-up race two to four weeks before your half marathon to ensure it’s timed appropriately and gives you enough time to recover before the half.

Taper for Maximum Performance

A taper period of about two weeks will help your body recover and recharge for the half marathon. A good taper should include a decrease in overall mileage, but small bouts of high intensity should be maintained either through lighter-impact speed workouts or end-of-workout strides or sprints. That approach will leave you rested—but feeling fast—on race day.

For some, the added recovery time comes as a relief, but many runners suffer from the taper crazies. You may be convinced you’re not doing enough, but your taper period is not the time to cram in added mileage or workouts. Channel that pre-race nervousness and anxiety and use that extra time for mobility work, foam rolling or even a massage. 

READ MORE: How to Make Your Next Half Marathon Better

Race Weekend

Race weekend is often hectic, especially when it involves a big-city race with thousands of runners. It also gets more complex when travel is involved. Before packing, make a list of everything you might need for a variety of weather scenarios. Be sure to include items that will keep you comfortable pre- and post-race.

If you are flying to a race, be sure to pack your race-day shoes and clothes in a carry-on bag. While a lot of things are replaceable, shoes are not something you want to have to purchase last-minute before your race if your suitcase gets lost.

Most larger races have an expo to pick up your packet and even do a little last-minute shopping, but try not to waste too much time and energy there. Stay off your feet and try to relax! Finalize your plan to get to the starting line in the morning, and allow plenty of extra time whether you are walking, driving or taking public transportation.

Pay attention to your nutrition in the 48 hours prior to your race.  Focus on staying hydrated and eating quality carbohydrates. While eating a carb-heavy meal is traditional before longer races, don’t feel like you need to stuff yourself! Try to eat a little earlier than usual to allow plenty of digestion time, and push away before you feel overly full. Stick with foods you’re used to, and avoid very spicy foods or anything that may be hard to digest.

Race Day

You have trained hard, tapered, and fueled up. Now it’s time to get to the starting line, follow your pacing strategy and push through to a strong finish. You have undoubtedly heard it before, but the easiest way to sabotage your race is by going out too fast. Restraint is essential. In fact, it can be beneficial to start your race slightly slower than goal pace to allow yourself to ease into race pace.

Pace yourself evenly, run any hills with an even effort, and try to leave a little in the tank to push yourself over the final miles.

Even the most meticulous race planning may need some adjustment in unexpected weather conditions. Heat and wind can be especially punishing, so be prepared to adjust your pace and slow down if needed. You’ll feel far more successful with a strong finish than a slow, painful slog to the finish line.

Above all else, enjoy the experience. This is the culmination of all your hard work over the previous months. Running 13.1 miles is a challenging endeavor that most people will never attempt, so appreciate all the ups and downs and celebrate an outstanding accomplishment.

By the time you run your race, you will likely have attained a high level of fitness and be excited to plan new running goals—for additional half marathons or even a marathon. One of the best things about running a half marathon is that it doesn’t take too long to recover—and not nearly as long as a marathon. For most runners, taking a few weeks off—a period that might include very little running or just easy, short runs mixed in with cross-training—is all that is necessary before ramping back into another half marathon training program.

READ MORE: What You Need to Know to Run a 5K

A bright and shiny finisher’s medal might be your prize for finishing a half marathon, but the real reward is the next-level fitness and sense of personal accomplishment you’ll get. Photo: Brian Metzler