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.
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