The Ultimate Guide to Training for a Half Marathon

How to train the easy way without following a rigid running schedule

Back in October 2013 I ran my first proper running race, the Great Eastern Run half marathon. While I’m a fairly fit person who exercises regularly, I found most of the training plans available quite boring, very restrictive and unsuitable to people who work long hours each week.

So here’s my guide to help you reach a half marathon training length the easier way, fits around your regular schedule and won’t take over your life.

Please note: This is NOT a training plan for someone who has never run before or doesn’t regularly exercise, nor for trained athletes trying to compete seriously. It’s merely a guide for averagely fit people who want to up their running ability without having to stick to a rigidly structured schedule.

Introduction

Running takes quite a lot more of your time than you realise, especially at long distances. An average person (running at 10 mins/mile) would take two hours to do a 12 mile run; by the time you add in a decent 30 minutes beforehand to get ready and stretch, and another half hour to warm down and shower afterwards, that’s a total of three hours, which is more than most people have available on a regular evening.

This essentially means your training is limited to Saturdays and Sundays, especially in Winter. Unfortunately the net result is that your weekend social life has to take something of a break, especially towards the last couple of months before your race.

As for a schedule, you can virtually ignore all the complex structures out there. While the apps that remind you to go for a three runs a week sound great, they just aren’t practical.

My training plan was far more basic and incredibly simple to structure, based purely on slowly incrementing the distance you run every week and occasionally adding in shorter runs in the week when you have time.

Planning

Basic Training Structure

I managed to train for a half marathon quite easily in four months, despite having little running experience – however I do walk our dog regularly every day and do plenty of exercise and sport. If you are new to running or lack a little fitness I would suggest planning six months ahead if you possibly can.

Here’s the crucial thing: Don’t try to plan your regime meticulously week by week. Simply work backwards from your target distance to create a rough schedule.

Let’s say your target race is a half marathon (13.1 miles) and you can already run 1 mile without too much fuss, but you know 3 miles would be a struggle. Your rough training planning would look as follows (I’ll use next year’s Brighton Half Marathon as an example):

28 February – RACE DAY
14 February – Shorter Run
1 February – 15 miles
1 January – 12 miles
1 December – 9 miles
1 November – 6 miles
1 October – 3 miles
1 September – Start training

So you are working backwards from two weeks before the race, setting rough monthly targets. Over the course of six months these only need to be slight distance increases, and will become easier as time progresses. 15 miles might seem daunting now, but won’t when you’ve been running for a while.

You’ll see the proper last training day is a shorter run and two weeks before the actual day. This is really crucial and is called tapering. You must leave time in your schedule for this, or your race will be a painful and unpleasant experience. I’ll talk about this more later.

Weekly Runs

The general premise is to do one long run at the weekend and, if you have time, a shorter run in between during the week.

 If possible, try not to increase the distance you are running until you are at least comfortable with your current length.

At the smaller distances early on the second run isn’t crucial, but as the milage increases, the second run will become more important. I found that if I didn’t have time in the week, a short Friday night run helped my body prepare a lot better for a longer run on a Sunday.

You’ll find that running is a hard learning curve at first, but once your body gets into the flow of it running an extra mile or two seems like nothing.

For the first few weeks every run will seem like a struggle. If possible, try not to increase the distance you are running until you are at least comfortable with your current length. It’s far better, for example, to do 4 weeks running 3 miles and get your body in tune with that distance, than trying to up it to 5 miles before you are ready.

Pushing Yourself

As the weeks go on, the runs will become much easier, and the distance increases less noticeable. You will hopefully start to enjoy pushing yourself; even getting near the end of a run and deciding to add an extra mile or two as you still have energy and enthusiasm.

You’ll see the final run is actually 15 miles and not the race distance of 13.1 miles – why is this? Well, it’s purely psychological. If you can run 15 miles, then on race day 13.1 miles will seem much easier; you’ll be totally confident you can easily achieve the race distance and perform a lot better.

Tapering

You will remember me saying earlier how important tapering is – you must finish your training well in advance of your race day. Your muscles need time to properly rest and recover before your event.

You’ve done months of training, there’s no point throwing it away at the final hurdle.

In the intervening two weeks, feel free to go for a couple of shorter runs, possibly an 7 mile followed by a final 3 mile, just to keep your legs in tune and fitness up, but don’t overdo it. If you are tired and stressed your body will be also far more susceptible to colds and illness, which will be sure to ruin your race, or worse, not let you run at all.

You’ve done months of training, there’s no point throwing it away at the final hurdle. Get plenty of sleep the week before to make sure you are prepared in the best possible way for the big event.

Training Kit

Running Shoes

First and foremost – get a decent pair of trainers. You’ll find that on average a pair last for around 400 miles, so you might need a couple of pairs over the six months. If you do, be sure to break in the new pair well before the race.

There are stores that will measure your running gait and find shoes to match, but there’s some scientific debate about whether this has much effect or not.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to get the right pair of trainers, they are going to be the one thing between you and ground every single time your legs and body weight pounds into it. Think of them as the tyres for your car, intrinsically linked to your performance and health. Find a pair that fit well and allow you to run comfortably; you don’t want six month’s worth of blisters and sore joints, or even injury.

Clothing & Accessories

One thing most people don’t know about – running socks. It’s definitely worth investing in a pair of proper running socks, as they will save your feet from blisters and help you keep a touch cooler.

As for regular clothing, it’s entirely up to you. People often make the mistake of wearing too much; once you start running you get very hot very quickly. A simple pair of shorts and a breathable running top will be more than enough. It can also be useful to make sure one of these items has a small zipped pocket to carry your phone, keys or other bits.

Many people like to run with a drink, which is fine if you need it, especially on longer runs; special flasks with handles are readily available. Similarly, gel packs to help boost energy have become very popular in recent years and can be strapped to yourself, along with other things such as your phone using a running belt, or placed in a pocket as above. An alternative is to use a phone armband, although these can be quite cumbersome.

iOS / Android / Watch Apps

Next up, you will almost certainly want some form of tracking device. The simplest way is to buy a running watch, which will track your movements by GPS and provide you with some simple information such a running pace and distance traveled.

If you have the capacity to take a smartphone out with you though, I thoroughly recommend it – it will allow you to map your run as well as listen to music or podcasts and also obviously provides a safety net incase if you get lost or injured on your route.

I use the excellent Nike+ Running app on my iPhone, which tracks my runs via GPS as I go. It gives you information updates via voice through your headphones, dipping your music to tell you pace and distance at set intervals.

There’s also the usual integration with social media to compile a list of friends within the app and it allows your to play your music playlists or songs as you run, also integrating with other music players such as Spotify and Rdio. Similar apps such as Strava and Runkeeper are also available.

Headphones

The last piece of the technological jigsaw is headphones. If you are an iPhone user the headphones that Apple supply, while good for everyday use, more than likely won’t stay in your ears when running. It’s no fun having to constantly fiddle with your ears when you are trying to run.

There’s plenty of options out there, including headphones with ear clips, and of course full over-the-ear headphones (which get incredibly hot and uncomfortable), but I have found the best results with wireless Bluetooth headphones as they stay in your ear well and don’t get pulled down by a cable.

If you do you prefer wired headphones try to get a running top that has a special headphone loop to stop them being pulled down and out of your ears, or buy a clip to stop them moving around.

My current choice are these Soundpeats headphones. They are similar to Beats but a fraction of the price. Although the sound quality isn’t amazing, it’s still more than reasonable which is enough when running. And they come with literally dozens of rubber clips and buds in all shapes and sizes to help you find the perfect fit.

It’s worth saying that if you are going to run with headphones, especially in-ear ones, obviously make absolutely sure you can still hear your surroundings, particularly traffic and the like.

Running

Before Running

First up, plan your route. Preferably on your early runs don’t stray too far from your house incase you need to stop and return home. Over time you will learn exactly how far certain places are apart (this is where your a tracking app comes in useful) and be able to add these together to create longer routes. I have a loop near my house that is exactly a mile that I add into runs if I want to go a bit further.

Secondly, make sure you warm up properly. Seriously, this cannot be overstated. You don’t need to do anything complicated, just some basic stretches or yoga moves, but it will take about ten minutes. This is the one thing people tend to cut out when they are in rush to fit in a run, but it is so important to avoid injury and build up your muscles correctly.

Annoyingly time-consuming, but a necessary part to ensure success

The easiest way to warm up – rather than just launching into random stretches you remember from school – is to work your way up the body. Start with the ankles, then move onto shins and calves and go from there, obviously paying most attention to your legs. There are plenty of online guides if you aren’t sure how to stretch certain muscles.

Finally make sure you are properly hydrated. Well before you plan to run (up to an hour before) take on plenty of simple fluid (water, squash, sports drink etc) and make sure you don’t eat anything heavy. A banana or something like that will be perfect; don’t try to run straight after dinner.

You’ll eventually get into a routine of getting changed, stretching, sorting your apps/headphones etc, then finally stepping outside the door to run. Out of everything this is the most frustrating part of training as it’s annoyingly time-consuming, but a necessary part to ensure success.

During Your Runs

With all your preparation done properly, running itself should be quite a therapeutic experience. It’s often a good time to clear your head and get out and about with no distractions.

Your running app will keep you consistent with your pace; I usually run at around 8 mins/mile on longer runs, but everyone has their own speed. Try to find your balance, err on the side of going slower than faster if you aren’t sure. You can always up the pace at a later stage in your training.

The important thing is to be running at a distance and level you are happy with

The main aim is to be consistent. This is why I like to have updates every 0.25 miles (around every 2 minutes for me), as it gives me a regular boost that I’m on track. If you are listening to music you’ll also find that it only takes around three songs to run a mile, which is something that can see you through if you are struggling.

Once you hit a certain level of fitness the majority of running is all psychological – it’s purely down to your willpower. Just find what works for you. Some people prefer to run halfway in one direction then literally turn around and come back, whereas others would rather do complete circuit. Either way I would avoid running past your starting/end point so that you feel the need to keep going to your goal.

The important thing is to be running at a distance and level you are happy with, always slightly pushing yourself but never to the point of exhaustion. This is where following a coaching guide or training app’s schedule can force you into running outside of your comfort zone and not enjoying the training.

Try to mix up the terrain slightly if you can, stay away from mud and water obviously – that will only ruin your trainers and cause blisters – but if there’s a nice flat grassy part on your route try to run on that rather than just pavement; it will be a bit tougher underfoot, but the cushioned terrain will benefit your joints greatly.

One final note – try to time your runs so they finish just before your house, giving you enough time to either jog back slowly or even walk and begin your warm down.

After Running

Almost as important as stretching before a run is warming down afterwards. Don’t just get home and sit on the sofa – you will stiffen up immediately and your muscles won’t thank you the next day. Don’t stop moving for at least ten minutes, and try to throw in a few stretches too.

Make sure you keep drinking plenty of fluids too, your body will need to rehydrate. Unfortunately this is another necessary downside to training – your warm downs will take a good half an hour including showering, but it’s of part of process.

Race Day

The Week Before the Race

So here we are. You’ve done all your training, and finished with a couple of shorter runs. As mentioned before – get plenty of sleep in the week leading up to the race day, you haven’t been training all this time to mess it up now with late nights.

Aside from that, just make sure you have everything prepared, you know when and where you need to be on the day and have all your kit and accessories ready to go. You don’t want to be stressing on the day itself about the little things, you’ll probably be nervous for the race itself, it’s fairly common.

A typical race-day checklist would be: Running top, shorts, socks, trainers, drink, gel packs, phone, headphones – and most importantly – race number and timing chip.

The Day of the Race

Most races start around 10am – you’ll want to be up long in advance of that to get fully ready. It’s sensible to have had a fairly carbohydrate-heavy meal the night before (pasta or suchlike, but nothing hard to digest or spicy), meaning you’ll probably be okay with a light breakfast of porridge or cereal. A banana is the perfect snack if you are still hungry up to a hour before.

Turn up at the event in plenty of time too, at least an hour before – most races are incredible busy and there can be long queues to register or use the toilets.

You’ll obviously need to do your usual warm-up routine too, so leave plenty of time for that. The familiarity of this will also help settle any nerves.

All large races have water stations along the route so don’t worry too much about taking your own unless you really need it. Some kind spectators may also give out Jelly Babies or similar sweets to help give you a boost along the way!

The final few minutes before the start will go very quickly, so make sure you head to your starting point as soon as you are ready – these are usually marked into groups depending on how fast you are likely to run the race. If you aren’t exactly sure, go for a slower time as it’s far more fun to overtake people than be overtaken yourself.

During the Race

Quite simply, enjoy it. If you’ve trained correctly you should be very confident in your own ability to run the distance. Try to push yourself, but don’t go off too quick or you will regret it. There will always be a man in a chicken suit or grandma ahead of you; just run your own race.

You’ll find the experience is incredible with the spectators all cheering and great camaraderie between the runners. You done all that training – just soak up the adulation.

After the Race

One final thing – don’t forget to warm down after the race! It’s so tempting with all the adrenaline to just head straight to the pub or back home, but your muscles will ache for days if you don’t at least do a small amount of stretching.

And then it’s time to celebrate!