The half marathon is where speed meets endurance. It’s achievable for most 5K runners, yet a puzzle for veteran racers to master. It is a challenge, not a life-altering commitment. It is one of the greatest tests of a runner’s mettle, but also serves as a 13.1-mile celebration.
We love the half. We know you do, too. Thousands of half marathons are set to be run this year, and their participation will eclipse the iconic 26.2 with roughly four times the entrants. Of course, a huge advantage of the distance is that you can run multiple half marathons per year, says Kara Goucher, whose 1:06:57 at the 2009 Great North Run (not a record-eligible course) is still the fastest half marathon ever by an American woman. “Unlike a marathon, where you have to recover for a month and it takes six months to train, you can recover in a few weeks and then get back to workouts,” she says.
Half-marathon training also tends to whip runners into the best shape of their lives. At the intersection of power and persistence, it develops a fitness foundation to tackle running objectives both long and short. And the training plans cement healthy habits like regular exercise, staying hydrated, and a health-focused mindset, says Brian Maiorano, the owner of Triathlon Lifestyle Coaching.
Whether you’re ready to tackle your first or 50th half, read on to learn how to make it your best yet.
How to Run Your Best Half Marathon
BUILD A TRAINING PLAN TO PR
To reach the finish line faster, train speed first, then endurance. For runners hitting at least 30 weekly miles, each week should include two speed workouts complemented by a long run, plus two or three days of easy runs.
One speed session can be shorter, 400- to 800-meter intervals at 5K race pace. The other should be a tempo run, “lower-body strength training warmup at a slow pace, then a longer duration (10 to 40 minutes) at or 15 to 30 seconds faster than half-marathon race pace, then 2 miles cooldown at the same slow pace,” says Maiorano. Aim to have the long run cover roughly 30 percent of your weekly mileage.
Why 13.1 miles is the best distanceand everything you need to smash a PR start training four months out from their race, increasing the mileage every three weeks by 4 miles, says Maiorano. Run at least four or five times a week, with a long run that gradually builds from 6 miles to no more than 11 miles.
SNEAK IN THE WORK
Include strength and mobility work in your daily routine to avoid taxing your non-running schedule. Brown recommends holding single-leg calf raises while brushing your teeth (60 seconds each side, daily). And Goucher, also a run coach, says she would perform 20 minutes of static stretching every night while watching TV. “It opened up my body before I slept and aided in my recovery and injury prevention.”
The biggest mistake Goucher sees half racers make is not tapering adequately. Two weeks out, dial back the intensity and cut your mileage by 20 to 30 percent. In the week leading up to the race, drop your mileage by half, run one light speed workout, and otherwise take short runs with a set of four to six easy strides at the end. “The final week should be about feeling good and getting pop in your legs so that you can let your training shine through on race day,” she says.
CROSS-TRAIN TO HOLD OFF INJURIES
If you find that you’re injury-prone or feel like you’ve maxed out your mileage, sub in a day of low-impact cross-training to get your aerobic work in without courting injury, says Goucher. “An elliptical, ZeroRunner, or Alter-G can train aerobically without pounding your legs.”
BUILD STRENGTH TO FINISH STRONG
If you’re new to lower-body strength training, begin with weighted squats and deadlifts using 10- or 20-pound weights. Do three sets of eight reps each, and add more weight over time as it feels easier. After a month of these exercises, add stepping lunges with the same weights and the same sets and reps. Stand with weights in each hand, step back into a lunge, then step up onto a step, says Marcus Brown, a running coach based in London.
Brown also recommends using stairs to do calf raises after a run—a favorite of his strength moves for runners. Stand on the edge of a step, drop your ankles below your toes for 30 seconds, then lift your feet into tippy-toes for 30 seconds. Repeat five times, and do it twice a week.
For upper-body moves, try bent-over rows and reverse flys with dumbbells, and push-ups to hit your back, arms, and chest. To work your core, do planks (place a weight on your back to up the difficulty), single-side weighted sit-ups (hold a light dumbbell in one hand), and leg raises.
The History of the Half Marathon
While it lacks a provenance from ancient Greece, the half marathon is perhaps the greatest product of the modern running boom. While 13ish-mile races were certainly run before, the actual name and concept of the “half marathon” first appeared in the early 1960s. The marathon’s popularity was growing, and new runners were looking for more race options. Thus a race precisely half that of the full 26.2 was born.
The Route du Vin half marathon in Luxembourg can lay claim to being the first half. While it was founded in 1961, the frequently changing course wasn’t exactly 13.1 miles until 1995. The first U.S. halfs came in 1964 with the Lincoln Memorial Half Marathon in Springfield,Illinois, and the Caesar Rodney Half Marathon in Wilmington, Delaware.
The distance steadily grew in popularity, attracting 5K and 10K runners seeking a bigger challenge and marathoners fine-tuning their form. Race directors also enjoyed the cachet of the marathon title, with the simplified logistics of half the course. By 1990, there were 304,000 half-marathon finishers in the U.S. And the next two decades saw the establishment of larger marquee halfs, including the B.A.A. Half, Chicago Half, and NYC Half. In 2019, the last full year of pre-pandemic racing, 1.79 million half-marathon registrations were recorded. —Sources: Roger Robinson, author of When Running Made History, and Running USA
How to Eat to Maximize Your 13.1
On days where you’re exercising for 30 to 45 minutes a day, aim for meals that are one-third carbohydrates, like pasta, rice, quinoa, or potatoes; one-third protein, like chicken, beef, fish, or tofu; and one-third fruits and vegetables. When you’re running for more than an hour, up the carbs to half your daily diet, with a quarter protein and a quarter fruits and vegetables.
In the days leading up to your race, lean into the carbs harder. Effective “carb-loading” isn’t a big pasta dinner the night before a race, says Baumann. Your body doesn’t have time to digest and maximize those carbohydrate stores before the next morning. Instead, start three days out, eating 80 to 90 percent carbohydrates.
A tasty example: A half-cup of oatmeal, one banana, and two tablespoons of peanut butter for breakfast; 2 cups of pasta with a half cup of marinara sauce and a piece of bread for lunch; and a chicken or turkey bagel sandwich and applesauce for dinner. Also, drink at least 80 ounces of water and electrolyte drink throughout the day, and eat a few small snacks like pretzels and fruit during the day.
On the day of the race, don’t try anything new. Stick to foods you’ve eaten during your training. Aim to consume high-carb, easily digestible, familiar foods for breakfast—yogurt, toast, and fruit is a good choice. An hour before the race, have a snack that’s high in simple carbs, like graham crackers or a granola bar.
During the race, Baumann recommends taking an energy gel every 30 minutes “Once your glycogen stores are depleted, you can’t catch up,” she says.“It’s amazing how much energy you have during a race when you’re well-fueled.”
How to Hack the Half, According to RW+ Members
“Find a group to train with. The distances are long enough that having people around makes the pain easier, and the camaraderie can’t be beat!”—Kerstin Broockmann, Chicago
“Hydrate at every station, starting at mile 1. In my first half marathon, I didn’t take any hydration until mile 7. By mile 10, I was so cramped up, I almost DNF’ed.”—Matt Sherwood, Albuquerque
“The half marathon can be a rollercoaster. Don’t give up when you start struggling, even if it’s very early on, because you might end up surprising yourself!”—Tyler Beling, Boise, Idaho
“It’s easy to get swept up in the pace of others. Don’t let this happen to you! You created a plan that worked for you; now follow it!”—Dana M. Meske, ShelbyTownship, Michigan
“Have fun. If you’re there to run and not race, high-five every kid along the race route. You never know who you might be inspiring to run their own race one day.”—Melissa Kohn, Philadelphia
“End your long runs somewhere that brings you joy so you’re motivated to finish! My favorite is a local doughnut or bagel shop.”—Alexandra Stephanou, Boston
“Be proud! Running a half marathon is a great accomplishment on its own—it isn’t just a stepping stone to a marathon.”—Robin L. Barton, Brooklyn
“If available at your race, find a pacer group that’s around your goal time and stick by them.”—Chris Randle, Dallas
“If the distance seems mentally daunting, envision the race as two 10Ks.”—Carly Heatherly, Fredericksburg, Virginia
Our Favorite Half Race Gear
Ideal sun protection that weighs just 29 grams, for a weightless feel.
The stylish men’s high-stretch knit shorts are impressively breathable and moisture-wicking.
You’ll appreciate how the half-liter option’s soft strap comfortably wraps around your hand.
This high-coverage sports bra includes a midback pocket for extra nutrition storage that won’t bounce.
Prevent chafing with this body balm stick. It goes on smooth and doesn’t leave your skin greasy.