Your First Half-Marathon

If you’re fairly new to the running game, or just not one for clocking big distances, then the idea of a half marathon may seem like a mountain to climb.

It certainly represents a huge achievement, but the half is a distance that’s truly accessible to all runners. You included.

Our rookie-to-race-ready training plan (slide seven) will gradually build your endurance and confidence to get you physically prepared in just 10 weeks, and our expert advice will give you all the necessary knowledge to handle training and race day like a seasoned pro. About the only thing we won’t do is carry you over the line – that satisfaction will be all yours.

Are you ready?

With the help of coaches who have years of experience guiding new runners to the finish line, we field your training questions.

Q. Am I ready for a half?
A
. If you've been running three miles, three or four times a week for six months, you're ready to start training for a half. This ‘base’ means your legs are strong enough to begin ramping up the mileage.

Q. How do I follow this plan?
A.
As closely as possible. However, you can rearrange weekly runs to suit your schedule. Just allow for proper recovery the day after long runs and tempo runs – rest or do light cross-training, says coach James Staten.

Q. I like walk breaks. Is that OK, and how should I do them?
A.
It’s absolutely OK. But start by taking walk breaks from the beginning of every run, rather than waiting until you're knackered. Experiment with different run/walk ratios – such as running for two minutes, walking for one minute. Then increase your run time as you get stronger.

Q. How fast should I run?
A.
With our training plan, you'll do easy runs, long runs and tempo runs. If you've run a race in the past six months, you can find the precise pace your should hit in each by plugging your time into the training pace calculator at runnersworld.co.uk. If you haven't raced, run a mile as fast as you can, then plug your time into the calculator. Click on ‘Display my training paces’ to determine exactly how fast to run all the sessions.

Q. What if I need more than one day of rest after a long run?
A.
Listen to your body and if you need it, take it. You can do some strength training and stretching on that second day off, says running coach Lori McGee-Koch. But a few simple adjustments to your long run may banish that fatigue. "Slow down by 30 seconds per mile, take in more protein after your run, and drink more before and during long runs," says McGee-Koch.

Q. How can I distinguish between pain I can ignore and pain I should worry about?
A.
"If it's an ache that subsides within 10 minutes of a run and disappears after a day or two, you're probably OK," says Staten. But if it's a sharp pain that forces you to change your form, call it a day. And if it persists for a couple days, see a doctor or physio.

More essential half-marathon questions on the next page.

Q. Is a 10min/mile pace on the treadmill the same as 10 min/mile outdoors?
A. No. "There's no wind resistance indoors," says McGee-Koch. "Also treadmills are smoother and demand less effort than outdoor surfaces, so it makes running easier." Set the 'mill to a 1-1.5 per cent incline to match the effort required outside.

Q. What happens if I can’t fit a workout in?
A
. Don't panic. Enjoy your extra rest day and just continue with your schedule as planned, says McGee-Koch. If you try to cram a missed run into your week, you might interfere with precious recovery time, which could lead to injury. If you missed a long run, simply do the distance that you missed the following week.

Q. I missed a whole week of training. Should I just give up?
A
. Absolutely not. However sweetly the sofa is calling to you, there’s no need to park your bum – or your dream. "Runners need occasional breaks to recover, so a skipped week can be turned into an essential part of your training plan," says McGee-Koch. The week you resume running, scale back your speedwork and long run mileage by 10 per cent. The following week, do your normal training. If your break was due to injury, however, you need to reduce your weekly mileage for up to three weeks before getting back on track, and may need to target a later race.

Q. I don't feel like I'm improving. What should I do?
A
. Don't despair – it takes time to improve as a runner. You may not feel like it, but rest assured that you are getting better every day as each run slowly builds your strength and fitness. Still, it can be easier to take heart if you set small, manageable steps toward your bigger goals, says sports psychologist and running coach Dr John Gorvin (runhard.org). If you're gunning to run 13.1 without stopping, set yourself the weekly goal of running one mile further or 15 minutes longer on your long run. If your target is a time goal, aim to shave a second or two off your regular loop’s finish digits.

Q. My friend keeps a running diary – should I do that too?
A
. Yes. It's a great idea to track distance, pace, weather, how you felt, and what you ate and drank before and during a run. It will allow you to refer back and see how you coped with different workouts, weather and fuelling strategies, so you can make necessary adjustments, says Gorvin.

Q. Can I race in the shoes I buy at the pre-race expo?
A
. Not unless you’re a blister-loving masochist. You need to test your shoes on long runs, says Gorvin. Wear your chosen pair for a month and on at least two long runs (one of 10-plus miles).

Find the time

You may feel there aren't enough hours in your all-too-busy day, but you will be ready...

Life has a way of tripping you up. Hopefully not literally, over street-furniture or errant canines halfway through your Thursday tempo run, but certainly metaphorically when it comes to juggling all the demands on your time. Overcome any time crunch with the following advice from Robyn Roszel, founder of the endurance training group, iRunMommies.

Time crunch: No time to warm up

Solve it: Simply aim to complete your first mile one minute slower than the second mile. "A slow first mile is adequate for a warm-up, which is important to awaken your muscles so you don't strain them," says Roszel.

Time crunch: Can't squeeze in more than three runs a week

Solve it: Add an additional two to three weeks to your plan and scale back your pace. This will give you time to slowly build fitness and speed so you avoid injury. Ideally, your three runs should include a short, easy run, a faster run close to goal pace, and a weekend long run.

Time crunch: Limited to one-hour runs

Solve it: Run an hour in the morning and an hour at night. To condition your body to the time on your feet required in a half marathon, you need to run for at least two hours at least twice in the final weeks of your training. Doubling up will simulate that demand.

Time crunch: No free time for gym time

Solve it: Develop an at-home routine. Do the following session three times a week: 10 press-ups, hold a plank for one minute, do 30 seconds of bicycle oblique crunches (opposite knee to opposite elbow). Rest, then repeat.

What to expect

What you'll feel in your 10-week race buildup - physically and psychologically.

Weeks 1-3

  • Excitement. Some nerves. This is a big challenge.
  • Fatigue as your mileage slowly increases.
  • Sore muscles. It will take time to adapt to running longer and faster.
  • Hunger. Exercising more is firing up your metabolism.

Smooth running: Even if you feel great, “stick to your plan and resist the urge to do too much too soon”, says coach Joe English (running-advice.com). "Overdoing it can lead to fatigue or even injury."

Week 5

  • Better endurance. You're regularly on your feet for over an hour at a time.
  • More speed. Workouts such as tempo runs reap the physiological changes that make you faster over the ground.
  • Greater confidence as you successfully complete a variety of runs.
  • More hunger. But be careful not to overcompensate by overeating. As a rough guide, you burn 730kcal an hour running at a steady pace, so do your maths and try not to add more to your daily intake than you’re burning. You don’t want to be lugging a spare tyre for 13.1 miles…or to the beach for that matter. 

Smooth running: "As you adapt to the training it will begin to feel easier – but it's also possible to lose focus when there's a long way to go before the race," says English. Stay on track by focusing on mini-goals within each workout, such as hydrating regularly or finishing faster.

 Weeks 9-10

  • Excitement mixed with dread and relief. Race day is nigh.
  • Enlightenment. After doing two long runs of 10 miles and 12 miles, you’ll finally really believe that you can do this.
  • Restlessness with your taper.
  • Paranoia over your health. Every sniffle becomes a harbinger of doom.

Smooth running: "Take the edge off your taper by spending 30 minutes a day doing something that relaxes both your mind and body, like a walk or a yoga class," says English. Try to get an extra 30 minutes, sleep each night, too.

More advice on what to expect during the race build-up on the next page.

The day before the race

  • Heartened (or devastated) by a 20-minute ‘loosener’ jog that feels amazing (or terrible). Believe the former, not the latter.
  • Mentally scattered by nerves. Compensate by making a list of everything you'll need on race morning. Lay out your gear, pin your number on your shirt and lace the timing chip on to your shoe.
  • Not hungry. Food will lose flavour and appeal. Don’t worry/rejoice (delete as appropriate), this is temporary. Eat as you would normally.
  • Sleepless. Remember how you felt on Christmas Eve, aged six? ‘Santa’ has your goodie bag ready for the finish line.

Smooth running: “It's normal to experience a big-time case of nerves the day before a race,” says English. “Distract yourself by playing with the kids or watching a film, and try focusing on how well you've prepared rather than what could go wrong.”

On race morning

  • Compelled to triple-check that you have everything. Twice. With more than a hint of OCD.
  • Zero appetite. Force it down anyway – this is no time to go running on empty.
  • Unusually drawn to the portable toilets. Nerves are hitting you in the gut.
  • Filled with dawning awareness during your warm-up that you will actually be fine after all.

Smooth running: “Arrive early to the race, as everything from parking at the start to waiting in the loo queue can take longer than you expect," says English. You don’t want to add unnecessary stress to the occasion.

 During the race

  • Excited by the crowd. But don’t make the classic mistake of getting fired up and going out too fast. Use your head (and your wrist gadgetry) and stick to your own pace.
  • Tempted to skip early water stations. You feel great, but you will still sip diligently at each one.
  • Challenged. Energy levels may dip. But you will overcome adversity by fueling and hydrating regularly, and adjusting your pace if necessary.
  • Chuffed, proud, elated. You made it. You’ve done the hard work, now wear your medal with pride and soak up the vibe.

Smooth running: In the first half of the race, go slower than feels necessary. Pick up your pace at halfway. The energy you saved in the beginning will help you finish strong.

The Rookie-to-Ready Half Marathon Plan

This training schedule, tailored for first-timers, gradually builds mileage, blending long runs with faster-paced workouts to boost endurance and develop speed while minimising your injury risk.

Scroll down for a key to the sessions.

Week 1
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 3 miles EZ
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 5 miles LSD
Total: 14

Week 2
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 4 miles EZ
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 5 miles LSD
Total: 15

Week 3
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 5 miles with 2 miles tempo
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 6 miles LSD
Total: 17

Week 4
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 5 miles with 3 miles tempo
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 7 miles LSD
Total: 18

Week 5
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 4 miles EZ
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 8 miles LSD or 10K race (+1 mile warm-up and 1 mile cool-down)
Total: 19

Week 6
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 4 miles with 3 miles tempo
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 6 miles LSD
Total: 16

Week 7
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 6 miles with 4 miles tempo
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 10 miles LSD
Total: 22

Week 8
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 6 miles with 4 miles tempo
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 12 miles LSD
Total: 24

Week 9
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 6 miles with 4 miles tempo
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: 9 miles LSD
Total: 21

Week 10
Monday: Rest / XT
Tuesday: 3 miles EZ
Wednesday: Rest / XT
Thursday: 5 miles with 2 miles tempo
Friday: Rest / XT
Saturday: 3 miles EZ
Sunday: Race Day! 13.1 miles
Total: 24.1

KEY

Rest / XT Do no exercise, or non-impact cross-training such as stretching, yoga or swimming.

EZ Run at a pace at which you could maintain a conversation, or cross-train. When on a bike, or rowing or elliptical machine, maintain a sustained aerobic effort.

LSD Long, slow distance run that builds endurance. Again, run at a conversational pace. LSDs are rehearsals for race day so use them to work out your gear choices and fuelling strategies.

Tempo These runs teach your body how to hold a faster pace over longer periods, which is extremely beneficial both physiologically and psychologically. Do them at a comfortably hard pace, where you can talk in snatched phrases. To find your tempo pace, see How fast should I run? (page two of this slide show).

Starter's Orders

RW race editor Kerry McCarthy picks five beginner-friendly halves this autumn.

Pharmalink Maidenhead Half-Marathon, Berkshire, September 16
Flat as a pancake; a large, mixed-ability field of 5,000; a stretch along the River Thames and some gorgeous country villages to take in, including Bray: home to Heston Blumenthal's famous Fat Duck. Enter online.

Macclesfield Half-Marathon, Cheshire, September 30
A real hidden gem. Only 1,000 runners last year and a fast, scenic course with perfect organisation, plus support and atmosphere that could propel even the most exhausted to the finish line. Enter online.

Barns Green Half-Marathon, West Sussex, September 30
Named RW’s Most Improved Event 2011, this 30-year-old institution scored highly on everything: great scenery, interesting route, perfect organisation and massive local support.

Windsor Half-Marathon, Berkshire, October 7
There's a climb at the start and a few undulations along the way but the amazing surrounds of Windsor Great Park, where the whole race is run, make this memorable.

Cardiff Half-Marathon, Wales, October 14
In nine years this has become one of the UK's biggest halves. The 15,000-strong field love the route, with its historic buildings and green spaces, the vibrant atmosphere…and the bulging goody bag.