Beginner’s Guide to Training for a Half Marathon

With the number of half-marathon finishers increasing exponentially every year, and more women crushing their PBs, the half-marathon is having a moment. Here’s how to gear up for your first half or perfect your next 21.1K.

half marathon training planPhoto Credit: Shutterstock

Have a game plan

If you’re new to running with a goal to conquer your first half, don’t rush into it. Give yourself enough lead time to adequately train. Find a trusted half marathon training plan to follow. If you’re starting from zero and have never done a road race, then “you should ideally schedule six months to train. If you have a few 5K and 10K races under your belt, then 12 weeks to train will suffice,” says Spencer White, vice president of the Human Performance and Innovation Lab, Saucony.

Follow the 10-percent rule

A time-proven long-distance running principle is the 10-percent rule (10PR), which suggests you increase your mileage week over week by no more than 10 percent. For example, if you ran a total of 20 kilometers this week, don’t exceed 22 kilometers the next week, and so on. “Sticking to small increases in your weekly mileage will help keep you healthy over the course of a season as you build up towards the race,” says London, Ontario-based, Leslie Sexton, elite runner and coach. This may feel like you’re going at a snail’s pace, but it’s an especially beneficial formula for novice runners to follow to avoid getting sidelined. “Be patient early on in your training, trust the process, and aim for long-term gains. Distance running is a sport that rewards work and consistency, so don’t rush it,” says Sexton. Plus, science says to become a more proficient runner, you need to log kilometers. Bottom line: Keep running.

The right shoe is key

With so many options, choosing the best-fitting shoe can feel like a marathon in and of itself. Running shoes are not a one-size-fits-all proposition with several factors to consider, from gait (neutral, over pronate, under pronate), which is how the foot strikes the ground) to personal preference, ranging from stable to cushiony, a roomy toe box or a snug fit. Additionally, the type of run can determine which pair you wear – longer and recovery runs require more cushion and bounce while tempo and speed work requires a less plush ride. After decades of research, the British Journal of Sports Medicine pegged the key to finding the right shoe: comfort. The theory is that if you choose a shoe that feels most comfortable to you, then you’re be more efficient and less prone to injury. Invest some time in getting properly fitted at a running specialty store. Bottom line: Look for a shoe that fits your specific foot and gait. “To avoid injury, rotate your shoes,” says White. Switching up your footwear changes the way your body is stressed and will work different parts of your feet. Also, try to train in the shoes you’d like to wear on race day. (Here’s a list of all the gear you’ll need to carry you through to race day.)

Cross-training program

Incorporate some cross-training into your training regimen. Women tend to be stronger in their quads and weaker in the hamstrings and glutes, and these additional exercises can help strengthen runner-specific functional muscles, improve mobility and flexibility while keeping your heart rate up. “Incorporating these exercises can help ensure your body can handle the stress of running,” says White.

Vary your runs

Your training schedule should incorporate a mix of tempo runs (a run at your targeted race pace), intervals, speed and hill work. Keep in mind that most of your runs will be at a relaxed pace, building up to a weekly long run. Canadian Olympian, Krista DuChene, 42, mother of three, who is known as Canada’s marathon mom, says, “consistency is key. Be sure to complete your long runs, workouts, and easy runs as mapped out in your training plan. Review your plan on an ongoing basis, and be flexible if you need to adjust it when necessary.”

Mind over matter

At some point during your long run or on race day, you may start to mentally baste yourself, doubting your ability to reach the next marker. When this cloud sets in, both White and DuChene recommend you flex your mental muscle: Focus in and believe you can accomplish this goal. Find something that works for you, from repeating a mantra like, “I can,” turning up your favourite 180 BPM song, or dedicating your run (for example, think of Kathrine Switzer, the first female to run the Boston Marathon in 1967) or envision yourself crossing the finish line greeted by loved ones.

Rest and recovery

It’s important to schedule your recovery run, a short, easy-paced run, following your weekly long run. Also, take at least one complete day off from training to allow your body to fully recover from the logged miles. Remember to listen to your body and take additional days off as needed. Along with rest, getting adequate sleep is as important as the time you clock on the road. “The hard work you put in only pays off if you also allow your body to recover. This is when your body gets stronger,” says White.

Fuel up

Aim to eat a balanced diet that includes complex carbohydrates (fruit, vegetables and whole grains) for fuel and lean protein (dairy, legumes, poultry and fish) for recovery. Following a run, consume something with protein within an hour to build and repair muscles. For longer runs and on race day, aim to eat a carb-rich meal (if you can stomach it) with some protein and a bit of fat. Try some almond butter on toast, oatmeal or a smoothie. “Practice your fueling plan. Be familiar with ingesting what you will consume during the race. Remember, you are training your gut along with your legs, heart and lungs,” says DuChene. The day before the big race, a carb-rich meal can beneficially influence performance. So, go ahead and have that extra order of toast for breakfast and a bowl of Bolognese for dinner.

Along with fuel, hydration is key—and not only necessary when you’re running. Drink a little bit all the time and when you’re thirsty. “For short runs, you should be fine without carrying water, providing you’re hydrated. If you’re running for more than an hour, be sure to replace glycogen stores and rehydrate,” says White. As a woman, you may also want to add a few key vitamins into your diet. Find more tips specifically for women here. 


Sign up for an upcoming half-marathon. Having an event on the calendar can help keep your training on track and you motivated as you work towards this end goal. From local runs, such as the SeaWheeze in Vancouver, Half Corked in Osoyoos and the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront in Toronto, to racecation (race + vacation) destination races, such as eDreams Half in Barcelona, OC Half, in California.