Half Marathon Training for Beginners

Have you been running up to 5 miles four times a week, completing 5Ks, and yearning for a bigger challenge? If so, then the half marathon is a manageable goal for 2014.

Participation in the half marathon has grown 10 percent a year in the U.S., making it the hot distance. More than 60 percent of half runners are women, creating some uniquely inspired races—think pink and bling. With running booming in the U.S., the half marathon is a reasonable, rewarding distance when compared to 26.2 miles.

Choose a Half Marathon

There is a local 13.1 nearly every weekend from March through November. Consider the size of the event; some races are huge and others more intimate. Run an all-women’s race like The Magnificent Mile Chicago Women’s Half Marathon, perfect for the first-time half-marathoner. “An all women’s event is a great way to enter the world of half marathons,” says race sponsor Lisa Zimmer, owner of the Fleet Feet stores in Chicago. There is a wonderful sense of community and motivation from women from all walks of life.”

You can make your 13.1 adventurous by traveling to a destination race. I loved the Napa-to-Sonoma Half Marathon, which runs through beautiful vineyards. Focus on spring and fall races, rather than the hot summer events. Check out the Chicago Area Runner’s Association for a complete listing.

Run with Friends

Working toward your race with a training group gets you out the door, makes each run quality social time, gets you through the tough miles, and will give you memories of adventurous runs in the rain. Work together to develop a training plan using books, online resources, or consulting with a running coach. Anticipate the upcoming half marathon with a group dinner, breakfasts after long runs, and a post-race celebration.

Get Training

  • Allow for a 12- to 16-week training program.
  • Plan four or five days of running, with one or two days of cross training, and an easy yoga class each week.
  • Cross train with swimming, cycling, or rowing to build your aerobic base without stressing your legs.
  • Plan your schedule around a weekly long run.
  • Increase your mileage for two weeks, step back for a week, then build back up again the next week.
  • Set a goal time, which will allow you to finish comfortably at that pace.


Running 5K and 10K races before your half marathon is great practice. You can experiment with pacing, dealing with starting-line crowds, eating before and during the event, testing your outfit and building confidence. Work on maintaining your half-marathon pace during your training runs and practice races. Lisa Zimmer cautions, “Don’t go out too fast and get excited. The energy will be very high and your tendency may be to go fast during the first portion of the race.”

Eat and Run

  • For runs lasting longer than an hour, fuel your body with carbohydrates in the form of bars, gels, beans or an energy drink.
  • Practice fueling during each long run so you can eat efficiently.
  • Eat before the 45-minute mark of your long runs and during the half marathon.
  • Plan your training runs around water fountains, drop water ahead of time, or bring your own water.

Wear the Right Stuff

Running shoes are your most important equipment, so consult with an expert to find the right pair. Shoes can help prevent injuries, and keep you comfortable. Buy two pairs and alternate. Running watches that display distance and pace allow you to track your progress and compare notes with your training partners. Fuel belts let you carry your own water and food. Wear breathable socks, shorts, tank tops, bra and a hat.

Plan the Day

Sign up early as many races fill up quickly. Read all race information ahead of time as many races require you attend a race expo prior to the event. Plan when you will leave in the morning, what you will eat, where you will park, locate the bathrooms, and arrange a meeting spot after the race. Anticipate a celebratory meal with your group.

Feel the anticipation of the half marathon right before the gun goes off. Settle into your pace and enjoy every mile, knowing your body is trained. Stay strong during the last few miles, and pick up the pace if you feel good. Smile as you cross the finish line, collect your finishers medal, and refuel with bananas and water. Wear your confident smile all day (with maybe a tiny grimace from sore muscles) and your cool race shirt. You have conquered your first half marathon.

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