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Half Marathon Training for Beginners

Training for a marathon is no joke, and a half-marathon shouldn’t be taken lightly either. Most individuals balk at the idea of running 1 mile, but you’re training for a 13.1 mile race. If this is your first half-marathon there are many things that you probably have questions about.

What type of running workouts are best for half marathon training? Should you be lifting weights? Did you even consider adding in strength training? What types of food should you be eating? Do you have the right shoes?

The questions can go on and on. We are here to discuss every aspect of half marathon training and answer all those questions for you.

Below we pick apart every aspect of training and how you should approach the upcoming months to prepare yourself for your first half marathon. Welcome to our beginner’s guide to half marathon training.

Cardiovascular Training

The prevailing training protocol for marathon runners is to run for miles upon miles day in and day out, but this is the quickest way to take yourself out of the race, not train for the race. As a beginning runner training for your first or second half marathon you must take a wiser approach.

The ability to run for any number of miles during one training session is an acquired skill. A beginner will not, and should not, have the ability to run 10+ miles on day one; that is why you need to train for a half marathon.

You have to condition not only your cardiovascular system, but also all the joints and muscles of your lower leg, the core and even the upper body; you have to train the mental side of running; and you have to take the time to adapt to this form of activity. When creating a training program for a beginner such as yourself consider what your starting abilities are. Be honest with yourself, because humbling truth here could be the difference between injury and success.

As a beginner training for a half marathon you should be taking advantage of various training implements- such as treadmills, bikes, or even swimming- as well as using different workout patterns; training for a half marathon is not just about running for miles until you can complete 13.1 miles without issue. Switching between sprints, intervals, steady-state cardio and other workout paradigms will better equip your body to handle the ups and downs of a half marathon.

Implements

Let’s first look at various implements you should be incorporating into the cardio aspect of your training and why you shouldn’t be running on the road every day you choose to train.

Any time you take a step, when walking, jogging, or running, your body produces a force that travels through your legs to the ground. This force is directly related to the speed you are moving, the fast you move the greater the force is. Thanks to Newton’s Third Law- every action has an opposite and equal reaction- when your body makes contact with the ground, the ground pushes back with a force equal to the one you are supplying. This is referred to as ground reaction forces (GRF) and they are a huge factor in determining how many miles you can spend training on the road. 

Ground reaction forces can cause great wear and tear on the joints of the lower body of a beginner athlete. As the legs become conditioned to running, and you gain sufficient muscle through strength training (which we discuss later), the legs will be better equipped to handle these forces. Starting out though, a lot of the GFR will be absorbed by the joints, as you become stronger the muscles will absorb the GFR, but until that point you should give the joints a break by switching between the road and the following implements.

Treadmills

Treadmills are great for beginner half marathon runners. This implement allows you to use the same pattern of movement (running) but greatly reduces the amount of forces being exchanged between the ground (treadmill) and your legs.

Since the platform of the treadmill is raised up off the ground, to allow the belt to continuously pass beneath it, there is a lot more give when your foot strikes the treadmill. This give can reduce GRF by as much as 16%.1 Though 16% may seem inconsequential, this is 16% of every single step. Consider the number of steps needed to run 13.1 miles and you will understand the significance of this metric.

This is the one implement that can be used to give the legs a reprieve while still training the same mechanics needed for the actually race. There are slight differences in technique when running on a treadmill versus running outside, such as stride frequency and degree of knee/hip extension, but as a beginner these aspects should not be a concern. The main component here is that you are still able to work on running form and conditioning the legs, while reducing damage or chance of injury.

These benefits may tempt you to training purely on a treadmill, but keep in mind these implements are used to supplement your training. The race still takes place on a road, running up and down hills, through various terrains, so keep treadmill training to one or two days a week.

Cycling and Swimming

Both cycling and swimming are great cardiovascular workouts. The amount of energy needed for both these activities rises above running, and athletes who engage in cycling and swimming are often able to strengthen their cardiovascular systems beyond running on its own. Brian Mackenzie, creator of CrossFit Endurance and author of “Power Speed Endurance”, even suggests marathon runners supplement their training with both of these alternatives to challenge their cardiovascular abilities2

The downfall to these two activities is that they do not replicate the running movement. Cycling gets close, and does target the legs, but the lack of GRF in cycling hinders a runners’ ability to use this as a direct training tool. With this in mind, swimming and cycling workouts should be reserved for active recovery days (more on this later).

Workout Patterns

Once you have determined which training implements you would like to use, and when you are going to use them, you must turn your attention to how workouts should be structured.

For the longest time half marathon, and marathon, athletes use Lydiard’s Model to structure their training programs. Lydiard Model breaks training down into three phases2:

  1. The Base Phase: focus on building an endurance base by completing at least 100 miles

   a week

  1. The Strength Phase: use anaerobic intervals in the form of hill runs to further your

   cardiovascular abilities

  1. The Speed/Race Phase: taper volume in preparation for a race

This has worked well for thousands of marathon runners in the past, but alas there is a new training paradigm in town and this one uses a variation of running workouts to increase cardiovascular ability while maximizing recovery to decrease the risk of injury, making it very beginner friendly.

To understand the new paradigm, we turn back to Brian MacKenzie, the founder of Power Speed Endurance a company centered around building aerobic fitness by optimal means. MacKenzie emphasizes maximizing the benefits of training with minimal amounts of volume. He does not negate the need to run extensive miles, but challenges the need to put in 100+ miles each week, especially for a beginner who’s body will not be adapted to this high volume of training.

Instead, this training plan focuses on short to medium length sprinting intervals mixed in with longer training days3.

Sprint Days

Two of the days spent on the road, track, or trails (whatever your preferred training

environment is) should be used to focus on sprint intervals. Day 1 is used for shorter intervals, 400m or less, while Day 2 is for medium length sprint intervals, anything between 600-1000m. Repeat the interval 8-10 times with 90s or less of rest between each.

Why should you be using sprints to train for a half marathon? It seems counter intuitive, we know, but it works IF you perform these sprints at maximal effort.

This form of training is very similar to high intensity interval training- to learn more about the benefits of HIIT check out the first half of this article- and is effective because of how our body produces energy and its recovery process.

When the body needs energy there are 3 systems it can use to produce what it needs. The first two systems are referred to as anaerobic systems because they are responsible for producing energy for the first 2 minutes of explosive movement before the body is able to provide increased levels of oxygen to the muscles (this is why there is a delay in heavy breathing when exercise begins). After the two-minute mark, and our breath rate has increased, the third energy system can use oxygen aid in energy production. This system is referred to as the aerobic energy system.

When we engage in any form of exercise we break down and stress the body to a small degree (either by breaking down muscular tissue while strength training or producing waste in the blood to stress the cardiovascular system). After exercise, time is needed for the body to recover and the body rebuilds itself to a point above the stimulus it previously received. It wants to ensure that the next time it faces the stimulus it is strong enough to handle it. This concept is known as supercompensation and is the reason why muscle grow bigger and we can run faster with training.

Putting these two concepts together, the sprint intervals you’ll be performing will generally last between 1-4 minutes. This means the first interval taxes the anaerobic system, but trying to maintain maximal effort in intervals 2-10 greatly taxes the aerobic system. Recovering from these types of workouts our body builds the aerobic (and anaerobic) back up to be stronger and more efficient at producing energy, thus increasing cardiovascular abilities. Since the aerobic system is the primary energy producer in a half marathon, these sprint intervals are directly taxing and training the system you will need to complete the 13.1 miles.

Distance Days

No one can deny the need to put in miles if you are going to race in a half marathon or marathon. For this reason, MacKenzie’s protocol does incorporate one day of increased mileage. This day is structured to be a time trial day. Meaning you should be completing the mileage at 85% or greater effort3.

Athletes who follow the Lydiard Model, and are trying to put in 100+ miles a week, often run at 60-80% of their race pace. This is because the increased volume and mileage makes it increasingly difficult to maintain race speed day after day.

On the new protocol, you will only need to put in an extended number of miles once a week so take advantage of this day and use it to train at a high pace than most other beginners using the old form of training.

A Training Week

At this point you may be asking yourself how to lay out a week of training? You know to use cycling/swimming once a week for active recovery, treadmill workouts one or two days a week and we’ve only provided 3 days worth of running workouts. So how does this all fit together.

Following this half marathon training paradigm means a typical training week will look similar to the following:

            Sunday- off

            Monday- Sprints Day 1

            Tuesday - alternative training

            Wednesday- Sprints Day 2

            Thursday - off

            Friday - Distance day + alternative training

            Saturday - active recovery

Where did alternative training come from? This is where you should incorporate some strength training workouts. And we will discuss this in much further detail after we finish up our cardio discussion, for now just know you should be incorporating some resistance training to further supplement your body’s ability to handle a 13.1 mile race.

Looking at the week above choose 1 running workout each week to perform on a treadmill. This day should change eevry week so that within a given month you are able to perform each type of workout multiple times outside and at least once on the treadmill.

As we touched on earlier, the active recovery day is reserved for cycling and swimming. The concept of active recovery is to be able to get in a low-intensity workout to increase the number of total miles in a week and time spent challenging the cardiovascular system without completely breaking down the body. For these workouts you should aim to get 45-60 minutes of movement in at 50-60% effort.

Picking the Right Shoes

The last aspect on the cardio side of training we will look into is that of shoes. As a beginner this is a big thing to consider; most people do not realize the strain a bad shoe can put on your feet and legs over an extended period of running.

There are many options out there, and when it really comes down to it the right shoe is going to depend on the person; so instead of telling you what shoe to buy, we will provide you with what you should consider when picking out the right shoe for you.

 Padding

There are two types of padding to consider when choosing a shoe. The first is the padding within the shoe that your foot sits on. For this you want something comfortable but not too soft. Materials that are overly soft or squishy usually are not durable. These shoes need to last through training and a half marathon race.

The second is the amount of padding in the soul. Some may think more is better, but in reality it is better to have a shoe with a thinner soul. This is because the thickness of a shoe’s soul can greatly affect your running technique. Thicker souls lead to more heel strike running which increases the GRF your leg has to handle (and the soul will not absorb these extra forces). When possible opt for the thinner soul so you can conserve your technique and save your knees.

Drop

When examining the thickness of the soul also take note of the difference between the soul’s thickness in the front and back of the shoe. The difference between these two areas is referred to as the shoe’s drop. Two typical drops advertised to runners are 10mm and 0mm. Either one of these is acceptable and comes down to personal preference. Try on both but avoid anything with a drop greater than 10mm. 

Materials

Once again the ideal material will be personal choice however you should keep a few things in mind about the material of the shoe. First is breathability. The thicker the material the harder it will be for your feet to breath. This isn’t something we normally think about, but excessively sweaty feet start to slide within the shoe and can develop sores or blisters when running for extended periods of time.

Second is the weight the material causes. Again, we don’t normally consider this when choosing a shoe but ounces can have seem like pounds come mile 5 and later. Pick a shoe comfortable to you before hitting the road or gym.

Resistance Training

Training for a half marathon is not just about building your cardiovascular endurance; resistance training should be a staple in any training program and is essential for a beginner half marathon runner. Resistance training is used to strengthen and develop the legs and core to better handle the beating of running (think back to the GRF). As strength increases the rates of injury decrease4. If you incorporate resistance training from the beginning, you will be miles ahead of the competition. Like your cardio training there are some do’s and don’ts of resistance training which we cover here.

Circuit Training and Building a Workout

The most beneficial form of resistance training for half marathon runners is circuit training. In circuit training, 6-10 movements are chosen and set up in close proximity to each other. Starting with movement 1, perform 10-20 reps, take a 30s rest before moving on to the next movement and performing 10-20 reps at that station; complete 3-5 rounds before moving on to the next circuit. Each training session should be comprised of 2-4 circuits.

All these numbers depend on how close you are to race day. If you are more than 6 months out, start with 8-10 movements for 20 reps for 5 rounds for 3 or 4 circuits. As you get closer to race day decrease each number to allow your body to fully recover before the day of the race. Your last resistance training workout should be a week before race day to allow for maximal recovery.

This form of resistance training provides several benefits for a beginner half marathon runner. To begin, the high repetition and high volume taxes the energy systems in the same manner as the sprint workouts, further increasing your endurance4. Next, this amount of volume is also taxing the muscular system to the point of building stronger legs and core. As leg strength increases, you are better able to disperse ground reaction forces which protects the knees, ankles and low back from overuse injuries. Lastly, this form of training typically requires less equipment and allows for more variation in movements to prevent boredom.

Implements

Being a marathon runner requires strength but nowhere near the level of a power lifter; this mean you will not need 90% of the equipment found in a typical gym. As a beginner you can build effective and efficient workouts with just a few dumbbells, a box and a  medicine ball.

Movements

The movements chosen should be primarily bodyweight and free weight compound movements. This means each movement should target more than one muscle group, avoid isolation movements such as bicep curls or hamstring curls. As a beginner you want the biggest bang for your buck, and you should only be incorporating resistance training twice a week at most, so don’t waste time with movements that only work one muscle group. Here are some common movements you should be choosing from

Legs

Core

Upper Body

- lunges

- sit ups

- vertical press

- squats

- hanging leg raise

- lateral/front raises

- step ups

- planks

- rows

- deadlifts

- Russian twists

- push ups

- back extensions

 

- dips

- toe raises

 

 -flies (chest and back)

- glute bridges

 

 

Furthermore, each circuit should be a combination of legs, core and upper body movements. Aim for at least 2 leg movements and 2 core movements in each circuit (since these are the primary muscles utilized when running a half marathon), fill in the rest with a mixture of the above. To keep things balanced also try to choose movements that target the front and the back of the body. For example, planks should be paired with back extensions or deadlifts while step ups (a predominantly quad movement) can be paired with glute bridges.

A sample circuit may look like the following:

            4 rounds, 15 reps each

                        Lunges with 15lb dumbbells

                        Russian twist with medicine ball

                        Glute bridges

                        Push ups

                        Sit ups

                        Bent over rows with 10lb dumbbells

Building workouts of this nature will ensure a full-body workout with direct correlation to building cardiovascular endurance. The chance of injury decreases and joint stability increases. This will be a secret weapon in your half marathon training.       

Nutrition

The amount of work you are going to be putting into your training needs to be matched by efforts in nutrition. To perform at optimal levels the body must be fueled properly. This may be another realm new to you, so we are breaking down exactly what you need to fuel your half marathon training as a beginning runner.

Macronutrients

Before discussing what foods to eat we must first discuss what food is. Have you ever stopped to wonder why or how food provides us with energy? Or what certain foods do for our body?

When it comes to food, and the benefits it provides, we can place any food item into one of three general categories. These are fat, protein and carbohydrate and are referred to as macronutrients. Every food item is comprised of macronutrients; most are primarily one or the three, but generally will include some level of each. Take an avocado for example. This food is primarily made of fats, but has a small amount of protein and even smaller amount of carbohydrate it in.

All three of these macronutrients provide their own benefit to the body and need to be consumed daily in different amounts.

Fats are the primary nutrient for hormone production. Hormones are needed for almost every process in the body, from falling asleep to building muscles, hormones are vital to normal bodily functions. Though fats play a key role in daily living they only need to comprise 15-20% of your daily intake of calories.

Proteins are essential for muscle building and maintenance. As a runner, and a beginner, your muscles will need an increased amount of protein to keep up with the demands of your running and resistance training. For this reason, it is suggested that half marathon runners get 1.0-1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day (that’s 0.45 - 0.70 grams per pound of body weight per day)5. This means if you are 120 lbs your goal is to eat 54 - 84 grams of protein per day. This should be 25-35% of your daily caloric intake.

The last macronutrient can arguably be considered the most important for a marathon runner. Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for the body. Earlier when discussing the energy systems, we stated that the anaerobic system is responsible for energy production until oxygen transport to the muscles increases and the aerobic system takes over. Well in all three of these systems, the cells are converting carbohydrates into a molecule called ATP, and this is what is used for energy. If carbohydrates are not present energy production slows to a stop (this extreme takes place around the 20 mile mark of the full marathon and can be avoided with the use of goos or carb supplements).

When training for a half marathon your energy production will increase. This correlates with a rise in calories the body burns through and must be matched by an increase in food consumed. Using a 15/25/60 split of fats, proteins and carbohydrates you’ll be able to provide enough of each macronutrient to keep the body running efficiently; provided you are eating quality whole foods.   

Pre and Post-workout Nutrition

You’ll want to be eating quality foods throughout the days and weeks, but the food you consume directly around your training session is the most important thing to focus on. If you are unable to change other eating habits, at the very least you should be changing these habits.

Pre and post-workout nutrition is essential because of the way the body handles the macronutrients, and in particular carbohydrates. When we eat carbohydrates our body breaks it down to the molecular form of glucose. This is the actual molecule that cells convert to ATP when energy is needed. As carbohydrates are broken down into glucose we can do one of three things with them: use them right away for energy, store them in the muscles and liver form for later, or convert them to fats for long term storage.

If energy is needed right away the body will shuttle glucose through the blood to the cells that need it for energy production. If the body isn’t in immediate need of glucose (immediate being the first 30-60 minutes after consumption) it will try to store the glucose in the liver or muscles, but our bodies can only store so much. Once these storage spaces are filled the glucose is converted to fat and stored in the adipose tissue (this is partly why a high carb diet can lead to an increase in body fat).

Why does all this matter?

Well as we have discussed, the forms of training you will be utilizing tax all three energy systems at a high level; this means you are going to need increased levels of glucose to sustain your training sessions. This is where the pre-workout meal or snack plays a big role. 30 to 60 minutes prior to your training session you should consume food containing a significant amount of carbohydrates. This can be a full meal- such as a chicken sandwich on whole-grain breads- or a snack- like a piece of fruit. Providing the body with carbohydrates during this window will provide enough time for the gut to break the carbs down into glucose, meaning there is an increased level of glucose in the blood as you begin your workout and are in need of energy. This pre-workout meal takes full advantage of the first option for glucose usage.

It is likely that this pre-workout meal or snack will not provide enough glucose to fuel the entire workout. And that’s ok because your body has some glucose stored in the muscles and liver. As the glucose in the blood gets used up, the body will release the glucose it has stored to fuel the rest of the workout. Depending on the intensity and duration of your training session, you can deplete these stores significantly and this brings in the importance of the post-workout meal.

Within the first hour following your workouts you should be eating a full meal comprised of 60% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 15% fats. Eating carbohydrates at this time are key to replenishing the glucose stores you just used up. The hormones released during the workout make it very easy for the body to store glucose in the muscles; the further away from the workout you the harder this process becomes so fuel with carbohydrates within the first 60 mins.

Protein during this meal is also essential to start the recovery process in your muscles; remember muscle tissue is made of protein and gets broken down during the workout so we need to replenish this macronutrient as well, and pronto. Adding in fats will aid in hormone production at this time since an increased level of hormones will be needed to drive glucose storage and muscle repair.         

Supplementing

Sometimes whole foods just aren’t enough, and supplementation is needed. Before turning to supplements we encourage you to follow the preceding guidelines as close as possible, whole foods will always be a cleaner source of nutrient than any supplement.

That being said, it can be difficult to get all the vitamins and minerals you need to support your increased level of training. In order to get adequate amounts of all the vitamins and minerals needed by the body many different fruits, vegetables and meats need to be consumed. To help compensate for a lack of variety a beginner half marathon runner can supplement with a high-quality multivitamin.

Another supplement commonly used by half-marathon runner’s is whey protein and/or BCAA’s. These two supplements can help increase protein consumption for individuals who are either vegetarian/vegan or unable to handle high amounts of protein consumption. If you fall into either of these categories whey protein and BCAA’s can be used to mitigate muscle damage and improve recovery between workouts6.

The last item that can be considered when looking at supplements is some form of carbohydrate goo or gummy chew. These items can be used during distance training days to provide extra carbohydrates and energy mid-workout. When choosing a goo or gummy look for well-known brands and try a few different types. These supplements are not known for their taste so try a variety.

Your nutrition can make or break your training efforts. Make the most of your cardiovascular and resistance training by providing your body with quality foods in the correct amounts. As training volume and intensity increases, be sure to increase food intake as well. The last thing you want as a beginning half marathon runner is to be in a calorie deficit, which puts you at risk of muscle loss and injury.

There we have it. A comprehensive in-depth look at how to train for a half marathon. As a beginner you should consider your need to build your cardiovascular system as well as the muscular system. Building strength and muscle in your legs and core will reduce the risk of overuse injury from the time spent running.

Spread out your running workouts amongst different workout types- short sprints, medium sprints, and distance days- as well as a variety of implements - treadmills, bikes, and in a pool. Grab a pair of reliable, comfortable and worth-while shoes to protect your feet and hit the gym at least twice a week to build strength and further challenge all three energy systems.

Eat a significant amount of carbohydrates 30-60 minutes before your workout and have a full meal within an hour of the workout to better regulate glucose and energy needs within the body. If needed use a multivitamin, whey protein, BCAAs or carb goo’s to supplement your nutritional habits and keep your macronutrient levels up. Supplements or not, aim for a 15/25/60 split of fat, protein and carbohydrates.

Following along with these training and nutrition guidelines will allow you to maximize your efforts and raise your level of success as you chase down your first half marathon. 

References

1Su, J. (2014 Apr 15). Biomechanics of treadmill and road running. Retrieved from:  https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/web.sas.upenn.edu/dist/1/223/files/2016/09/Biomechanics-of-Treadmill-and-Road-Running-121vhll.pdf

2Mackenzie, B., Cordoza, G. (2012). Power speed endurance: A skill-based approach to endurance training. Victory Belt Publishing Inc.

3Mackenzie, B. (2011 May 27). Brian MacKenzie’s 12-week CrossFit endurance advanced training program. Retrieved from: https://www.podiumrunner.com/brian-mackenzies-12-week-crossfit-endurance-advanced-training-program_28400

4Hamilton, A. Circuit training: Strength and stamina training. Peak Performance. Retrieved from: https://www.peakendurancesport.com/endurance-training/strength-conditioning-and-flexibility/circuit-training-strength-stamina-training/

 5Percy Collier, C. (2008 Mar 28). Eat more protein. Runner’s World. Retrieved from:

https://www.runnersworld.com/nutrition-weight-loss/a20834480/eat-more-protein-com/

6Hanson, C. (2018 Jun 01). From 5k to ultramarathon: 8 supplements to get runners started off on the right foot. Progenex USA. Retrieved from: https://www.progenexusa.com/blogs/science/from-5k-to-ultramarathon-8-supplements-to-get-runners-started-off-on-the-right-foot

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