How to Train for a Half Marathon for Beginners (Plus, a 12-Week Plan)
If you ask me, the half marathon is the perfect race. Thirteen point one miles is a tough enough distance that takes commitment and training, but is accessible enough that anyone can do it—with the right plan!—without training taking over your entire life. That's probably why half marathons have the highest numbers of participants (2.1 million in 2018 alone, according to data from RunRepeat and the International Association of Athletics Federations).
Thinking about signing up for a race but have no idea how to train or a half marathon?
This 12-week training schedule developed by Nike+ Run Coach Jes Woods is designed for beginner half marathoners who run three or four times per week and average 10 or more miles per week.
That's a pretty standard level of running fitness—think of it as being able to run 30 minutes at a time, three or four times a week. Throughout this plan, you'll progressively increase to running five days a week, while building your endurance, strength, and speed—everything you need to make 13.1 feel easy. (If you're not quite there yet, check out our couch-to-half marathon training plan instead.)
Ready to run? See below for the saveable and printable plan, but make sure to read through Woods' breakdown of all the important parts of how to train for a half marathon.
Understanding your pace isn't just about hitting a certain finish time. Throughout your training, you're going to run at different speeds to work different aspects of your fitness. (Related: Is Is Better to Run Faster or Run Longer?)
Think about pace in terms of effort on a scale of 1 to 10: An easy run should feel like a 3 or 4 effort level, like you can hold a full conversation without getting breathless at all; your half marathon pace should feel like a 7, like you could still blurt out a full sentence but need to catch your breath afterward; your 5K pace is a 9 out of 10 effort level, and you should only be able to manage a word here and there. Use this pace chart to help ID your pace when completing the workouts in the half-marathon training schedule below.
Speed Runs + Hills
To get fast, you need to run fast. So on speed days, you're going to be working your top speeds—your 5K and 10K paces. Why those speeds if you're training for a half marathon? "Think about it like raising the ceiling—if your 5K pace gets faster, everything behind that gets faster, too," explains Woods.
And, FYI, hill work is in here not just because it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with hilly terrain, but because hill work is speed work in disguise, says Woods. "You're not going to be running 5K pace on 90-second hill repeats, but it's going to feel like that," she says. "So you get the same effort with less speed and less pounding on the legs." (And there are plenty more reasons running hills is worth it.)
Speed runs should take all you've got. "This is where we're breaking the body down, and you actually finish speed runs at a fitness level worse than where you started," says Woods. That's how your body starts to adapt to the stress of faster running. Make sure your speed workouts always include a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool-down of easy running, too. (Here's more info about speed runs and different types of running interval workouts.)
Heads up: There's one fartlek workout in this half-marathon training schedule. After doing a warm-up, you'll run 1 minute at your goal pace, then recover for 1 minute at marathon pace. Keep matching your effort to recovery interval 1:1 while working through a pyramid: 1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute. This means, during the 2-minute pyramid round, you'll be running for 2 minutes, then resting for 2 minutes. Do this twice in total.
The way you build your body back up after those stress-inducing speed runs is through easy runs. "These nice, slow miles get the blood flowing, which promotes healing and flushes out the swelling, lactic acid, and all that bad stuff," says Woods.
Even if you don't feel wrecked, keep your easy runs sloooow. "Nobody ever runs their easy runs easy enough," says Woods. "Any time you're doing an effort based-run, you're taking money out of the bank. The currency that puts money back into the bank is the nice, easy, slow runs. If we just keep going hard and running at race pace, we're in debt; the only way to build back up is more easy miles."
Tempo runs work on your efficiency. "Think about the gas mileage in your car—maybe you can get 25 miles per gallon driving around the city at a slower speed," explains Woods. "But on the highway, the same gallon of gas can get 30 or 35 miles per gallon. That's what tempo runs do: You're trying to get more efficient with the same amount of energy, so you can run faster without feeling like you're working harder."
Your tempo effort should be right over half-marathon effort. It'll help you find that magical tipping point between running short distances really fast and running long, slow miles.
Strength Training + Cross Training
In order to get better at running, you have to do more than just run, right? Strength training is crucial for getting stronger all over, which will help you be a more efficient runner (translation: no wasted energy). "I'm a big fan of core exercises, which help you stay upright when you get tired towards the end of a run, and exercises applicable to runners, like single-leg bridges, backward lunges, and single-leg deadlifts," says Woods. (This Ultimate Strength Workout for Runners has everything you need.)
Cross-training workouts like swimming or cycling, on the other hand, continue to build your aerobic capacity, but also build muscles besides those worked on a run and are typically lower-impact—something that's especially helpful in an already intense high-mileage week.
Active Recovery/Rest Days
You do need to give your body a break—that's when your muscles actually have time to repair themselves and become stronger. Make sure you have one day of total rest (on this plan, that's Monday or Day 1).
On Fridays, you do you. "Maybe your legs are feeling good and you can go out for a 30-minute recovery run that's going to better prepare you for your long run on Saturday versus flat-out resting all day," says Woods. But if your legs are feeling heavy and it's been an intense week, don't be a hero. "Take the day off, just do some foam rolling, maybe go to yoga or go for a swim," she says. "Listen to your body and what might feel good. Just avoid high-impact or heavy-weight strength work." (Related: Is It OK to Lift Heavy While Marathon Training?)