You’ve been running for a while, three or four days a week, and you love it. Maybe you tried a couple of 5K fun-runs last summer, or a Jingle Bell 5K over the holidays, and discovered that the energy surrounding an organized race felt exciting. You wonder if it’s time to set your sights on another race, one that carries real bragging rights: a half marathon!
Many runners include a half marathon (13.1 miles) on their bucket lists. It’s an ideal goal—challenging enough that it requires real commitment to successfully complete, yet attainable if you train well and train smart. Proper training takes time, discipline, and dedication. But like most important goals, if you set your mind to it, you can do it. You’ll have fun and learn about yourself while you’re training—and crossing that finish line will feel indescribably fulfilling.
Here are three steps to help you master the half marathon:
1. Choose Your Race
Choose a race that’s scheduled far enough in the future to give you plenty of time to train wisely. You might have jumped into the Santa 5k for the hot chocolate at the end, but that won’t cut it for a half marathon. To run 13 miles you need to build a “base,” which means consistently running about 12–15 miles spread out over each week for a month or two; once you can do that, you’ll want to plan for about 12 weeks of race-specific training.
You may prefer a race that’s close to home, which makes it easier for friends and family to cheer you on. Some runners like to combine a race with a vacation, as Michelle Burress-Watson, a runner from Sherwood, Oregon, did when she decided to run the Cabo San Lucas half marathon. Michelle and her husband honeymooned in Cabo and have a tradition of traveling there every year for their anniversary, so one year she decided to train for and run the half marathon the next time they visited. “We really like Cabo and have run the 5K twice,” said Burress-Watson. “It can be quite a shock to come from winter temperatures, but who doesn’t want to run a race and then celebrate by vacationing in paradise?”
If you plan to travel to a race, you’ll want to do your research. Check the race-week forecast and try to run in a location that has similar weather, so you are prepared for humidity, temperature, and other variables. Look at the elevation change over the entirety of the race course—how many hills you’ll run up and down, and how steep they’ll be—to prepare yourself for changes in altitude. If you’re training on flat roads in Iowa, it will be much more challenging to do a hilly race in California. Once you’ve decided on a race, tailor your training plan to those specific conditions.
Another thing to consider is the size of the race. You can go big, like the Brooklyn Half Marathon in New York, which boasts over 25,000 runners; or you might prefer a small race, like the King Salmon Half Marathon in Cordova, Alaska, which in 2018 had a whopping 32 entrants. HalfMarathons.net provides listings for both U.S. and global races, with course routes and results, as well as basic training plans. Keep in mind that many popular races have lotteries for entry, so if you have your heart set on a particular race, be sure to register early.
2. Build a Training Base
To build a base for the training to come, increase your running to three or four days a week, about four miles each time, for four to six weeks. Your muscles, tendons, and ligaments need time and practice to get used to the repetitive nature of the training, and maybe most important, your brain should get into the habit of running regularly. If you just jump into a training program without much prior running, you’ll likely get injured—and that will only set you back in your plan to master the half marathon. Your runs should be at an easy, conversational pace—meaning you could carry on a conversation with a running buddy.
3. Find Support
Enlist the support of your family and friends as part of your goal. Because you’ll be training four or five days a week, you’ll need to set expectations for your family and budget your time wisely. For a couple months, don’t sweat the small stuff; prioritize your training, your family, and your work, and know that the “extras”—like keeping the house spotless or Friday night parties—may need to go on the back burner.
Laura Devine, a running coach and personal trainer at Vive Fitness in Portland, Oregon, suggests coordinating race schedules and training runs with running friends or colleagues. “Having someone to meet for those early-morning miles makes it so much easier to stay committed. The distance ticks by far faster and more enjoyably for me while catching up with friends,” she notes. If you are looking for a running group, explore the club listings of the Road Runners Club of America.
Now that you’re psyched to train for your first half marathon, enlist a couple of friends, start running, and keep an eye out for my follow-up article, which dives into the nuts and bolts of training and how to prepare yourself physically and mentally for race day.
T. J. Ford is a health and fiscal fitness coach, educator, and writer who usually eats dessert first. She lives with her husband and their cat, Kiwi, in Portland, OR.