May The Course Be With You: Half-Marathon Training For Beginners

Thinking about training for a half-marathon in 2018? Here’s what to know before you run.

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Even though I look like Phoebe Buffay when I run, I enjoy lacing up my sneaks and going for a run to clear my head. Still, I wouldn’t call myself a runner. I’ve only done a couple of 5ks, and I don’t stick to any kind of running schedule. I got out of the habit when I found out I was pregnant. It’s totally okay to run or jog while pregnant, but I chose to go for brisk walks instead, because you can eat and walk at the same time. It’s a lot harder to eat frozen yogurt when you’re running. But now that my little nugget is a few months old, I’m ready to start running again. To motivate myself, I signed up for a (gasp) half-marathon. That’s right, I voluntarily signed up to run 13.1 miles, the distance of a half-marathon. According to Scott Bush of Running USA, 60 percent of all half-marathon finishers in 2016 were women. There’s a reason 1.14 million women chose to run in a half-marathon in that year alone. If you’ve run a couple of 5k or 10k races and are ready to try a longer distance, then trying to go for 7 to 10 more miles isn’t a huge stretch. Still, to say I’m nervous about running a half-marathon is an understatement. I can hazard a guess that half-marathon training does not involve eating frozen yogurt during training sessions. To help reach my goal of running a half-marathon in Spring 2018, I knew I’d need professional help, so I went straight to the pros for answers. Ready to run your first half-marathon with me? Here’s what you need to know about training for your first half-marathon.

Get the right gear first.

You can probably run a half-marathon in your 10-year-old sneakers that you’ve had since college…but why would you want to? Having the right gear before you train can really set the tone for how your half-marathon training will go. Get fitted for running shoes,” says Robin Nemanick, a runner and coach with more than 80 marathons under her belt. “Have your gait analyzed at your local running store—a store geared specifically for runners and triathletes. These folks live and breathe the sport and will help you get fitted properly. Spend the $150 for the shoes; it’s well worth it.” Vanessa Law, an amateur marathoner and co-founder of the Healthy Life Project from Jacksonville, Florida, agrees that the right gear can make or break a race: “Run-specific clothing is key for comfort and to keep from chafing.” Law says her favorite brands of running clothes are lululemon and Athleta, but you can find the brand that’s best for you by trying a few different styles during your training.

Don’t dive in head-first.

Excited about your first day of half-marathon training? That’s great! Keep your enthusiasm, but don’t expect to go for a full 13-mile run on your first day of training. It’s important to acclimate your body to long-distance running gradually, building your speed and distance over time to prevent injury. “Preparation for any athletic event requires proper planning,” says Elin Kanchev, creator of the 4 Seasons Training Method and a personal trainer based in Washington, DC. “If the outcome is running a half-marathon, then let’s see where we are and how much time would it take us to get there. That might be 16 weeks, more or less, depending on [your fitness level. It] all really comes down to being honest with yourself about what you need to do in order to achieve your goal.” That’s why sticking to a training schedule is so important. Trainer Joe Pepe says, “For first-time racers, I recommend a two-days-on, one-day-off approach. Your legs are going to be new to running this much and you need to recover to make any type of progress in your training. On those off days you should focus on flexibility and mobility work.” One great way to work on your mobility is through strength training on off days from running. Kanchev says, “Strength training is highly important as it helps the body to create stronger musculature and bone systems that improve overall well being and … enhances performance, utilization of muscles, improves metabolism, and helps prevent injury, which is the most important aspect. When done properly [strength training] also helps with range of motion, mobility, and form.” Two days on, one day off seems totally doable. But how many weeks will it take to work up to 13.1 miles? Adam Burleson, a marathoner who also started the Run for Holland 5k to benefit Down syndrome research, tells HealthyWay, “I personally recommend finding a 10- or 12-week plan. You want to work on getting the mileage up per week without injury. You cannot train if you’re hurt, but you also have to understand that there will be some ‘growing pains’ in the process.” If you’re looking for a half-marathon training plan to get you started, Hal Higdon has several free 12-week training guides online, based on your current running levels. You can also download a free printable training log to keep yourself on track.

Don’t feel like you have to run the entire time.

But wait, isn’t the point of a half-marathon to run the whole thing? No! The whole point of running a half-marathon, says Nemanick, is to “just enjoy yourself. Unless you are qualifying for the Olympics, running is a great sport to take stress away, so enjoy your race!” If running 13.1 miles seems daunting, know that you don’t have to run the entire thing. It’s totally okay to walk portions, and it’s okay to incorporate this run/walk method into your half-marathon training as well. Jeff Galloway, Olympian and creator of the Run/Walk/Run method of training, tells HealthyWay, “You cannot go too slowly or walk too much. You’ll get the same endurance even if you walk the entire distance.” That sounds good to me! If you’re going to train using the run/walk method, Galloway suggests these training strategies based on pace per mile:

  • 9 minutes per mile: Run 2 minutes/walk 30 seconds or run 90 seconds/walk 30 seconds.
  • 10 minutes per mile: Run 90 seconds/walk 30 seconds or run 60 seconds/walk 20 seconds or 30 seconds.
  • 11–12 minutes per mile: Run 60 seconds/walk 30 seconds or run 40 seconds/walk 20 seconds or run 30 seconds/walk 30 seconds.
  • 13–14 minutes per mile: Run 30 seconds/walk 30 seconds or run 20 seconds/walk 20 seconds or run 15 seconds/walk 15 seconds.
  • 15 minutes per mile: Run 15 seconds/walk 30 seconds.
  • 16–17 minutes per mile: Run 10 seconds/walk 30 seconds.

“The best preparation [for the run/walk/run method],” says Galloway, “is to gradually increase a slow long run/walk, every 14 days, to 14 miles—two weeks before the half-marathon. If you start to huff and puff [during the race], walk for 2 to 3 minutes and start back with a more gentle strategy of run/walk/run.” Between long runs, Galloway recommends taking a short 30-minute run every other day to maintain your training. These short runs could be combined with stretching or strength-training exercises.  

Race Day Essentials

Races start early, so you’ll want to make sure you have everything you need ready to go the night before. “Make sure to wake up eat, go to the bathroom (trust me on that one), and still have enough time to get there with time to spare,” says Pepe. “You should be enjoying this event, not rushing around and feeling anxious.” He adds, “Eat some carbs but don’t go crazy; you don’t want a heavy meal in your stomach before you run a long race.” In addition to a healthy breakfast, Galloway says, “During long runs and the race, consume the following every 2 miles: 2 to 4 oz of water and 30 to 40 calories of sugar (Life Savers, gummies, etc.)” to keep your energy up for the miles ahead. Thinking about testing your new running skirt on the day of your half-marathon? Think again. The day of a race isn’t the time to try out new running gear, no matter how cute it is. Make sure you break in running gear at least a month before the half-marathon you plan to run, says Nemanick. “Being uncomfortable [on race day] isn’t fun.” The biggest race day essential? Your motivation. Nemanick says the hardest mile is always the first mile, but adds, “The best advice I give myself is to run the mile I’m in.” It is tempting to think about bringing your phone or fitness tracker along, but when you feel like you’ve been running for hours only to realize you’ve still got 10 miles to go, it can be disheartening. “Don’t focus on how much further you have to go,” Nemanick advises. “Remember to rely on your training. That hard work will pay off during the race.” Instead, says Pepe, think about why you’re running the race in the first place and let that be your motivation. “I remind myself at every mile marker [why I’m running] to reignite my engine. It also helps to have that music that makes you feel like a superhero!”

You got your race bling. Now what?

“Just enjoy yourself,” says Nemanick. “Unless you are qualifying for the Olympics, running is a great sport to take stress away, so enjoy your race bling!” But after the party, how can you keep up your half-marathon training between races? “First things first, take a week off,” says Pepe. After that week off, though, Burleson says to get back into half-marathon training: “So many runners make the mistake of taking a ‘break from running’ that always becomes too long and always is hard to come back from. Just take that one week then get back out on the road and put in some miles.” You already have all the motivation you need to get out and lace up those sneakers after your first half-marathon, says Pepe. “Keep that finishing time nearby, keep your split per mile nearby, and look at it often. Remember those numbers, and that will drive you to go out and perfect your craft and run an even better race!”

How to Choose the Half-Marathon That’s Right for You

Burleson has three criteria when choosing a half-marathon to run:


“Some of these $100+ half-marathons are just too expensive,” says Burleson. Unless the post-race perks are really cool or the race is in a location that can’t be beat, you don’t need to spend a ton of money on entry fees. Look for local half-marathons that are still loads of fun but a lot less pricey.


“Trying to find a race that doesn’t beat you down with loads of elevation will help boost your confidence late in the race,” says Burleson. This is especially true if you’re training in low-elevation areas. For example, I’m training in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, which is mostly below sea level. I will choose a half-marathon with a similar elevation … You won’t find me racing in the Rockies anytime soon!


“If possible, find a race that has a cool after party or at least some good eats and drinks around the post-race,” Burleson advises. This isn’t too hard these days. Check race websites for post-race parties and events before you pay the entry fee. As for me, I’m signing up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh half-marathon in 2018. Check out this cool list of fun half-marathons, pick out a chic pair of running shoes, and hit the pavement with me as I train for my first half-marathon in 2018.

Katie Martin
Katie Raye Martin is a freelance writer, navy wife, new mom, and chocoholic. In addition to HealthyWay, she has contributed to NextGenMilSpouse, a blog for the millennial military spouse, and Pregnant Chicken, a pregnancy blog. Since welcoming her first son a few months ago, Katie has become a pregnancy expert and cloth diapering connoisseur. When she’s not writing (or changing diapers) Katie is training for her first half-marathon.