Building a Half-Marathon Training Plan

There are many ways to get going with half-marathon training. Here are the elements to consider when developing or choosing a plan.

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Like many runners, I think I should run a marathon just to prove my mettle. But rather than jump into marathon training soon after finishing a 5K, I have decided to train for and compete in a half-marathon and then move to bigger, better, and longer things.

One of my reasons to tackle the 5K and then the half-marathon is to work on my speed in the shorter distance and then become fast enough so that marathon training doesn’t totally consume every free moment of my time. That is, if I need to run 30+ miles per week at a conversational pace, I’d like that pace to be about 10 minutes (or less) per mile, not 12 minutes (or more) per mile.

To build my half-marathon training plan, I have drawn on the knowledge of experts in this field and seasoned runners. Here are the main things I want to accomplish before race day:

Do a long run weekly

I have heard that the long run is important for half-marathon or marathon training. Based on my timeline and past experience (I ran a half-marathon a few years ago), I have decided that my longest run will be 10 miles.

There is some debate about how many miles the longest long run should be. Some folks recommend a longest run of 13 miles (the approximate distance of the half-marathon) to boost race-day confidence. Others argue that shorter distances, even as low as 7 miles, can prepare you just as well because quality runs at the right pace (with appropriate base mileage) are more important than a signature long run.

I settled on 10 miles as a distance that can instill confidence while allowing me to get quality runs at conversational pace. Before the race, I plan to taper my mileage and intensity so that being well-rested can help me to finish strong during those last 3 miles.

Develop a plan so the long run is a portion (not the bulk) of my weekly mileage

The long run is the cornerstone of the training plan. However, it is not the main component of the plan. In general, the long run should comprise 25-33% of my weekly mileage. For example, when my long run is 6 miles, my weekly mileage should be around 20 or more miles.

Run four times each week to get my weekly base mileage

Building the base mileage is important so I need to run regularly, not just a couple of times each week. I find this process difficult because I also cycle (and do other things); however, I am learning that I can do short runs to help build my general running fitness.

Even though I want to have quality runs consistently, I don’t have to complete an amazing run five times each week. In addition, when the main cycling season is over, I’ll have more time for running sessions.

Build the long-run and weekly mileage gradually

I want to gradually increase my mileage for both the long run and the weekly mileage.

Using the general rule of thumb of increasing by 10% each week, I could go from a 5 mile run one week to a 5.5 mile run the following week. Eventually, I’ll hit my goal for my longest run, which is 10 miles.

At the same time, I need to add miles in my short and medium distance runs so that my weekly mileage slowly increases. The gradual build-up should help with running conditioning plus help avoid injury from overuse.

Do a recovery and/or mid-length run after a long run

Doing a recovery workout is new to me though I have heard of the concept. My understanding is that the idea behind a recovery session is to release lactic acid build-up and keep blood flowing. But then I read that a recovery run is just a run when you are in fatigued state; running when tired can help build overall endurance.

When I was a teenager, my swim coaches took the more-is-better approach to training; much of the time, I trained in a fatigued state. As we got closer to the competitive season and the taper segment, I emerged stronger and faster.

However, I am no longer a teenager and training well when tired is not easy. Still, for now, I have included a middle-distance recovery run in my training plan.

Push myself but don’t overdo the training

There’s a fine line between challenging myself and getting overwhelmed. And, though my plan looks pretty good on paper, I won’t really know whether I am overdoing things until I get in the middle of training.

The plan has a few features to help me push harder but not too much:

  • There is one rest day each week (note that I plan to rest from running three days each week and plan to rest from working out one day per week)
  • There are no back-to-back hard effort days (that is, I don’t have to do a long run followed by speed work)
  • There are recovery weeks embedded in the plan (every fourth week, I will dial down my mileage and intensity in order to rest and recover)
  • There is a taper built into the schedule (I reduce my overall mileage and intensity during the last two weeks)

I am a big proponent of rest so if I feel overly tired, I am going to back down. Along the way, I plan to learn more about endurance nutrition so that I (hopefully) won’t feel depleted. But I will also keep in mind that challenging myself is what ultimately makes me stronger.

Run at appropriate paces

To get faster and stronger, I need to run at certain paces. For example, most of my runs (the weekly long run and the easy runs) need to happen at a pace of approximately 10-11 minutes per mile. My speed work (such as fartlek and tempo runs) should happen at about 8 minutes per mile.

During the years that I have been running and racing (sporadically but steadily), I have found that running at a specified pace for distance and/or speed has impacted my performance the most. There have been times when I needed to focus more on one aspect of running to improve. But, in general, getting the right pace (within 30 seconds or so) has been the fundamental reason for getting faster, moving from a 39-minute 5K several years ago to 26:42 5K more recently.

Some people naturally run at the right pace, holding a conversation while doing distance work, and pushing themselves appropriately for the speed stuff. However, I find tables and calculators useful in determining training pace. Runner’s World has a great tool that allows you to enter your personal race results and get training paces for various types of runs.

I just finished a target race last week and at the same time, recovered from a mild injury (most likely incurred from too much effort and too little stretching) and launched into my training plan. I also got distracted by family obligations and other goings-on.

Still, I persisted. As a result, I completed some but not all my runs. Though off to a slower-than-anticipated start, I believe I can use my plan and make adjustments as needed. (For more half-marathon plans, check out plans created by Hal Higdon here.)

What I have learned is that my workout choices are not always simply a) perfect and b) terrible. Instead, they often run along a continuum of great…good…okay…inadvisable. So my game plan now is to persist, adapt, and adjust with the overall goal of avoiding injury while building endurance.

Update: This year I completed two half-marathons, the fastest in two hours and nine minutes.

The first one I trained alone and the second one, I trained with a small group from my church. When I trained with others, I tended to run faster than when I ran alone. The peer support (and sometimes pressure) made a big difference, showing me how much more I could accomplish when working with others. In addition, running with others and talking when we could helped to distract me from suffering.

Because of my cycling activities and my age, I ran just two or three times each week. Though this number is less than many coaches suggest, I felt I need rest more than miles.

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