03 December 2022

Training plan and tips for your first half marathon

October 17, 2008

The half marathon is a great distance for runners wanting to step up from a 10km .It’s long enough to provide a really challenging goal, but not as time consuming and debilitating as the full marathon of 26.2 miles.It can be a fantastic target and one which will give you an enormous sense of achievement.

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Not to be taken lightly though, a half marathon is 13.1 miles and requires you to get some decent miles under your belt to get round comfortably.  But with the right training it’s a challenge that is perfectly achievable and incredibly satisfying.  Are you ready to take on the half marathon?

Before you start

Plan ahead and give yourself plenty of time to train.  If you are currently able to run for about 30 minutes without stopping, then you should be able to get ready for a half marathon following a 12 week programme. If you’re not quite at that level yet, then you’ll need more time. Be realistic.

Choose your race

There are a wide range of half marathons available all over the UK.  Choose one which inspires you!   Maybe you can raise money for a charity close to your heart, or perhaps it’s a local race and you can get your mates out to support you. It might even be in an area of the country you’ve always wanted to visit and you can combine it with a holiday.  Whatever the reasons pick your race with care and it will help motivate you when the training gets tough!


As your training volume increases, so does your need for quality ‘fuel’.  Your body will need more calories in order to provide energy for your training. Your main source of fuel for exercise is carbohydrate – pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, cereals, fruit  etc – so increase the amount you eat of these foods by a small amount (an extra tablespoon of rice and an extra handful of cereal for example). Don’t overindulge though, you only burn about 100kcal per mile, so if  – for example – you run 15 miles a week, you’ll need about 1500kcal extra (or approx 215kcal per day) – spread out over the whole week.

It’s quite common for people training for marathons to actually gain weight! This is mainly because they overestimate how many calories they burn and feel that they ‘deserve’ an extra cake or pudding etc.  So the bottom line is this, fuel your body with enough energy to exercise, but don’t use your training as an excuse to overeat.


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Often overlooked, but stretching is incredibly important.  It is generally accepted that stretching cold muscles before running is no longer appropriate or necessary.  Go through some mobilisation exercises (shoulder rotations, knee lifts etc) to warm up before running, and spend a few minutes walking briskly before and after your run.  Stretching, however, should be undertaken after a run when your muscles are cooling down. Go through a programme to stretch your hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, glutes, inner and outer thigh and upper body, holding each stretch for 30 seconds or so.  Ask a trainer, coach or physiotherapist for advice if you are unsure, or read our article on the right way to stretch here.

‘Ouch’ that hurts..

Niggles, unusual muscle or joint pain, stiffness or discomfort should never be ignored.  Pain is your body’s way of telling you to stop – or at least take it easy.  Generalised light muscle soreness is slightly different, and to be somewhat expected as you progress through your training and your muscles get used to the increased training load.  Remembering to stretch after training is vital to avoid this kind of muscle soreness.

Any unusual pain/discomfort however, especially if it only affects one leg or muscle, should be looked at by a professional physiotherapist or sports masseur.  Don’t be tempted to ‘run through it’. Rest, apply ice if necessary and seek advice.

Track your training

Make a note of each run you do in a diary or training notebook.  It keeps you motivated and allows you to see the fantastic progress you’re making, plus being an important record for the future.  Get a notebook or a specifically designed ‘runner’s training diary’ and note down when you run, how long, how far (if you’re measuring miles as well), how you felt, the route you took and other relevant information. Some runners make a note of their weight, resting heart rate and even weather conditions! This information can all be vital when you’re looking back to compare a run, assess a race performance or look at making changes to a programme going forwards.

Find a friend

Sign up for your half marathon with a friend or partner and you’ll have double the fun!  Training with a buddy can be more enjoyable and keep you motivated when it’s dark or cold, or when a glass of wine seems more appealing!   The camaraderie and experience of training for and finishing a race together is priceless.

12 Week Beginner/Novice Programme

Before starting this programme, you should be able to run continuously for 30 minutes and have been running regularly (at least once or twice a week) for around 2 months.  The programme will take you from that stage, to being able to complete a half marathon in 12 weeks. If you have any doubts about your physical health or your suitability to following this programme, you should consult your GP or doctor prior to starting.

This programme is based on ‘time’ spent running, not miles – so you’ll need a digital stopwatch of some sort. Your main goal for your first half marathon is to ‘get round’ so mileage is less important and time spent ‘on your feet’ becomes your focus.

Ideally by the end of the programme you need to be able to jog (or a mix of running and walking) for close to the length of time you think the half marathon will take you – possibly something in the region of 2 hours.

To start with you’ll be running 2-3 times a week, as the programme progresses, and as you get closer to race day, you need to be running 3-4 times a week.  The most important aspect of any training programme however, is to listen to your own body and not blindly follow the plan.  If you are really exhausted after a tough week at work or a broken night’s sleep with your children, then adjust the programme accordingly (take a day off or swap days around). Don’t push yourself to exhaustion – remember, this is meant to be fun!

Session Terminology:

Easy – as it says, jog, chat and enjoy at an ‘easy’ pace. If you were working on a scale of 1-10 (10 being flat out) you might be around 5/10. Preferably a nice, easy flat route.

Steady – a slightly quicker pace than ‘easy’.  On the scale, around 7/10. This might be a slightly more challenging route with some hills for example.

Jog/Walk – the goal here is to spend time on your feet. It doesn’t matter if you walk bits of this session, just get out there and get the time in. Take fluid, sports drinks or gels with you.

Pace – a quicker pace. Somewhere in the region of 8/10. You will be breathing harder and may not be able to chat as easily.  These sessions only come later in the programme. They need to feel ‘controlled’ but that you are working a bit harder.  You also need to add a 5 min warm up and cool down to these sessions.


Race Day

Race day is here! This is what you’ve been working towards – have the confidence that you are well prepared – you can do this!  Make sure you get there an hour or so before the start of the race – don’t underestimate the parking, toilet and baggage queues.  Have some breakfast about two hours before the start and top up with a small snack (banana, sports bar etc) about 20 minutes before the gun goes.

Warm up with a 15 minute jog about 20 minutes before the start, pin your number to your t-shirt, do some light stretching and make a last trip to the loo. If the race doesn’t supply sports drinks en-route,  you may wish to carry  one with you or take a special energy ‘gel’ to give you enough carbohydrate to last the distance.

Don’t blow it in the first few miles by letting adrenaline get the better of you. Keep the pace really steady and don’t race off too fast. Take the first half slowly and you can always speed up towards the end. Have a great run out there and enjoy every moment – especially crossing the finish line – you’ve earned it.

Sarah Russell, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine

Sarah Russell MSc is an International Duathlete, having represented GB in 2006 and 2007. She is a qualified athletics coach, competitive runner and triathlete, freelance writer and also the Race Director for the Tunbridge Wells Half Marathon which will take place on 15th February 2009.  See www.twharriers.org.uk for more information.

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