The Rise of the Half-Marathon
Train For Your First 13.1-mile race in just 10 weeks
In recent years, the half-marathon has become the hottest distance in road running. It’s still not
the most popular – the 5K continues to hold that position. But the half-marathon, or 13.1 miles,
has enjoyed the most explosive growth, quadrupling in participants since 2000. In 2013, two million runners,
61 percent of them women, completed half-marathons in the United States. All told, 34 different
half-marathons attracted at least 10,000 runners each.
It’s easy to understand why this distance is so appealing. The half-marathon represents
a true endurance challenge without demanding the near-monastic lifestyle of the marathon.
You don’t have to carbo-load, soak your legs in an ice bath, or do training runs so long
and exhausting that you can’t get off the sofa for the rest of the day.
Yes, the half-marathon is kinder and gentler. At the same time, the distance is a
natural stepping stone to the marathon, if you’ve got that event on your “bucket list.”
To move up to the famous 26.2-mile Olympic-distance race, you need only train another three
to six months. One step at a time. Distance running is a classic tortoise vs. hare
activity, and the tortoise always wins.
Your Training Plan
The centerpiece of every half-marathon training program is the daily/weekly plan that
gradually increases your training until you are ready for 13.1 miles. I’ve designed a
plan for runners who can already cover two miles at a time. It doesn’t matter how slow
you are; it’s the distance that counts. If you’re not ready to run two miles yet, I
recommend that you spend the next several months building up to two miles before
you attempt a half-marathon plan.
Training plans for runners can be stupendously complex, full of terms like “vo2 max”
and “lactate threshold,” but simpler is almost always better. That’s because consistency
is the key. You don’t need a PhD in exercise physiology. You only need to run often
and long enough to get in shape for the distance.
The First Five Weeks
I recommend training the same three (or four) days every week. We all have personal,
work, and family responsibilities that must be met. Finding time to train isn’t easy.
But if you know you’ll always be training on the same days each week, you can simply
slot the necessary time into your calendar. You don’t need to rearrange your schedule
every week. You just need to get out the door and start running at the appointed time.
It makes sense to train on alternate days – Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday/Sunday;
or Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday/Sunday – but even this isn’t inviolable.
What’s important is simply that you pick the days that work best for you, and then
stick to the plan as closely as possible. Sure, you’ll miss days for one reason or another.
Everyone does. Not a problem. Just get back on your plan at the next opportunity.
Easy Days and Best Paces
Many novice runners are surprised to learn that all runners, even Olympic champions,
run most of their miles at a slow, relaxed pace. This is sometimes called the “80/20” approach.
That is, you should run about 80 percent of your miles at a comfortable pace, and about 20 percent somewhat faster.
With my ten-week half-marathon plan, you’ll spend the first five weeks running slowly
100 percent of the time. The only goal is to build endurance and distance. During
weeks six through ten, you’ll do a modest amount of harder running.
The weekly long run is the staple of every marathon and half-marathon training
plan. In my plan, you simply add one mile a week until you reach ten miles.
I know: that’s still three miles short of the half-marathon distance. Don’t
panic. Marathoners do 20-mile-long runs to get ready for their 26.2-mile race.
They’re still six miles short of their goal, and that’s after they’ve already
exhausted themselves with 20 miles. Covering the last three miles of a
half-marathon is much easier than this.
If you find that you need to take walking breaks to complete your long
runs, that’s fine. It’s best to do these from the beginning of the run.
For example, you might run two minutes, and walk one. Or run four minutes,
and walk one. Find the rhythm that feels best to you. Remember: you’re
a tortoise, not a hare, and you are going to win this race by finishing it.
Those Faster Runs
On weeks six through ten, the training plan calls for a midweek tempo run.
The first tempo run is annotated as follows: 4 (1-2-1). This means you should
run a total of four miles. Do this by running one mile easy, two miles at
tempo pace, and one mile easy.
Tempo pace is not a scientific pace, but an effort pace. It is
faster than your normal run, but slower than a race pace. It is
often described as “hard but controlled.” Don’t jog, and don’t
go all-out. Find a sustainable middle ground.
Three Days or Four?
At this point, you probably want to know: What’s better, the three-day plan or
the four-day? In most cases, the more days, and more miles, you run per week, the
better. But in running, there are many times when more is not better. If you lead
a busy life, and your main goal is to run healthy and to finish the half-marathon,
no matter what your time, then three days is a smarter choice than four.
You’ll note that my ten-week plan gives you a relative “recovery week” during
week five. That’s a very deliberate choice. Training plans that build and build
and build without the occasional reset often lead to a crash before the end of
the plan – an injury or overtraining. Treat your recovery week as seriously
as you do all your other weeks.
Since you’ll be running just three or four days a week, you’ve got time
for other workouts if you choose. Many experienced runners cross-train on
their non-running days with swimming, bicycling, strength-training, or other
activities. This is a great idea, unless it pushes you over the line into injury
or overtraining. My suggestion is to go easy on the cross-training for now.
Get this half-marathon behind you, and then think about ways to add more
cross-training to your program.
The last part of a training plan before a big race is called the taper.
This is a time for recovery, extra sleep, mental preparation, and focused
nutrition. Marathoners generally taper for two to three weeks before
their event, but this isn’t necessary for a half-marathon. A single
week will suffice. During this week you will run less than you have been –
but still with one short tempo workout – and make sure all your equipment
needs and travel arrangements are in place. If you attend a major race
with a big expo, don’t exhaust yourself by wandering around the expo for
hours. It’s best to pick up your number and retire to your room for a
relaxed afternoon and evening before your race.
It’s easy to be confused by running footwear. In the last half-dozen
years, the trend in shoes has see-sawed from barefoot/minimalist shoes
to lightweight, maximalist shoes with thick, super-cushioned midsoles.
For most runners, the sweet spot lies somewhere in between the two
extremes. Pick shoes that feel ultra-comfortable and function almost
as an extension of your feet. The best pair of running shoes for you
is the pair that works with you as you run, not against you. Runners
call this quality the “ride” of the shoe. You want a smooth-riding
pair of shoes, not clunkers.
Nutrition and Weight Loss
Some runners expect nutritional miracles when they start to run.
They think they can consume special foods that will supply never-ending
energy, or that the pounds will simply melt away. Neither is realistic.
Training is fatiguing; that’s why it’s important to progress gradually.
A complex-carbohydrates diet will help fuel your workouts, but you need
to be careful, like everyone else, not to overeat or overdrink empty,
sugary carbs. If you increase your exercise but don’t lose weight,
it’s probably because you’re rewarding yourself too much in snacks
and meals after your runs. Also, many runners fail to lose weight
but do decrease fat, add muscle, and improve their shapeliness and
health indicators (blood pressure, glucose control, cholesterol, etc.)
So don’t expect miracle weight loss. Instead, concentrate on feeding your
body the healthy unprocessed foods it craves. Drink plenty of water rather than
calorie-packed beverages, but don’t become obsessed about hydration. Your body
has an exquisite thirst guide that will tell you when you need to drink.