Beginners who decide to challenge themselves with a half-marathon have to get a lot right.
Firstly, they have to develop the endurance to run 13.1 miles (without overdoing it and getting injured). Then there's the speed part of the equation: developing the strength, physically and mentally, to hit your time goals. On top of this, there's the race-day logistics, mastering your nutrition and, most importantly, trying to remember that the whole experience should be fun.
Given these demands, most debutants come to the distance with a healthy respect that borders on anxiety – which can work to their advantage. ‘They’re nervous because many of them have never done 13.1, not even in training,’ says Jenny Hadfield, co-author of Running for Mortals. Luckily, the payoff outweighs the challenges. ‘Many beginners find running a half to be life-changing,’ she says. ‘They never imagined they could go that far.’
The half-marathon distance requires weeks and months of training; it's not something a beginner can jump into at a moment's notice. ‘This is one test you can’t cram for,’ says Janet Hamilton, a running coach and exercise physiologist (runningstrong.com). ‘For this distance, you have got to put in the work.’
While it's tempting to think that all your runs need to be hard, improvement comes from a different approach. 'From our research, it’s clear that elite athletes train around 80 per cent of the time at what we’d call low intensity, and they spend just 20 per cent of their time training hard,' says Dr Stephen Seiler of the University of Agder, Norway, one of the world’s foremost exercise physiologists.
Taking their example, yYou want to do the majority of your runs at a comfortable, conversational pace, and finish each run feeling like you have the energy – and desire – to run another mile. The biggest mistake first-timers make is running too many miles, too fast, too soon – and that’s a recipe for injury, loss of motivation and burnout. ‘If at the end of your run, you’re gasping for air, or in pain, then you’re going too fast,’ says Hamilton .
Hit the hills
Hill work builds leg and lung power. Start by incorporating hills that take 60 seconds to climb, says Hamilton. As you train and those 60-second hills become easier, challenge yourself with steeper and/or longer hills.
On the plan below, when it comes to hill sessions, try and plan a hilly route where you can incorporate climbs, rather than run up and down one hill for miles!
Listen to your body
A little muscle soreness comes with pushing your body further or faster, particularly in the calves, quads and hamstrings, says Adam St Pierre, an exercise physiologist. Expect to take two days to recover from hard workouts. If you’re sore on the third day, rest again. Soreness beyond four or five days should get checked out by a doctor.
Plan early for race day
It’s not unusual to be worried. You can quiet the butterflies in your stomach by focusing on race-day logistics: carefully following both your nutrition and hydration plans, making it on time and properly equipped to the starting area, and meeting up with friends. When the gun goes off, Hadfield recommends that new racers control the urge to run fast from the off and start comparatively slowly, aiming for a negative split – running the first half slower than the second. This conservative pacing will allow you to finish feeling in control.
Our beginner half marathon training schedule:
This plan, developed by Runner's World experts, is for those who can do a long run of at least six miles, and want to tackle their first half marathon.
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