Jeff Gaudette—Whether you’re a new runner, a savvy veteran or somewhere in between, there is a good chance a half-marathon is your favorite racing distance.
You’re not alone. The half, as we fondly call it, has become the distance du jour worldwide, with over 1.6 million finishers around the globe in 2011. It makes perfect sense when you consider that for beginners, the 13.1-mile distance is a difficult challenge, yet still an achievable goal. Moreover, for the experienced runner, the half-marathon is often a favorite distance because it still tests the limits of endurance, but requires far less training time—and recovery time—than the marathon.
Beginners and advanced runners alike face certain physiological challenges when training for the half-marathon.
For beginners, the amount of time spent running is the most important factor in training. Research shows that biological markers of muscle fatigue (aspartate aminotransferase (AST), creatine kinase (CK), lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) and myoglobin) increase significantly immediately after a half-marathon and remain elevated for more than 24 hours after the race. Put simply, two hours of running puts a tremendous amount of stress on the muscles in your legs. To prepare for the specific demands of a half-marathon, it’s necessary for newer runners to keep their workout and long run volumes fairly high.
On the flipside, the physiological demands of the half for advanced runners mimic those of the 10K distance. From an energy system standpoint, the half-marathon is 98 percent aerobic and only two percent anaerobic. This means experienced runners training to race faster must improve their threshold and develop their ability to clear lactic acid and reconvert it back into usable energy.
The physiological demands of the half-marathon clearly demonstrate that success at racing the 13.1-mile distance involves a blend of stamina and speed endurance. It’s important to progress training in a way that prepares the body to first handle the hard workouts and long miles before targeting the specific physiological demands of the half-marathon distance during the final few weeks of training.
Over the following pages, we’ll break down half-marathon training into three specific phases, identify the purpose of each phase for beginners and advanced runners alike and finally show how it all comes together in a well-rounded training plan.
The Foundational Phase
The first five weeks of this 12-week training schedule are designed to slowly increase your weekly mileage, as well as the volume of your key workouts, to the point where you can handle the longer, more challenging workouts in the specific phase. Not only will the workouts in this phase provide you with a strong base of aerobic mileage, but they will also strengthen muscles, tendons and ligaments so they can handle the stress of harder training.
Your weekly mileage, long run distance, and workout volumes will all gradually increase throughout these first five weeks. A blend of VO2max sessions, anaerobic threshold workouts and aerobic threshold workouts are designed to target all of your energy systems. By working each of those systems simultaneously, you’ll never become too weak in one area. Remember, the initial goal of this phase is lay a solid foundation of general fitness before gearing your training to the specific demands of the half-marathon distance later in the program.
Key workout strides: Strides are 20 to 35-second sprints at 85 to 95 percent of top speed. Typically performed after easy runs and before key workouts, strides help you work on your running mechanics in short increments and serve as a speed maintenance session.
Easy and long run pace: Your easy runs should be one to two minutes slower than half-marathon race pace. The main purpose of easy runs is to recover from your harder sessions and increase aerobic volume.
Tempo run: A tempo run is a sustained effort at, or just below, your threshold pace. Tempo runs help improve your body’s ability to clear lactate, a byproduct of your body breaking down glucose for energy.
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Threshold Intervals: Threshold intervals are longer repetitions that allow you to run up to 6-7 percent faster than tempo run pace, but because of the short rest, you can maintain a threshold effort, which helps develop your ability to hold a faster pace for a longer period of time.
Hill repeats: Hills repeats are short uphill runs (30-45 seconds) at a hard effort that help you to develop power and improve biomechanics, while also getting your heart rate up. Recovery is a walk or slow jog back to the bottom of the hill.
Combo workouts: Combo workouts train your legs, body, and mind to run fast when tired. A combo workout starts at tempo pace to get your legs tired and finishes at a much faster pace, simulating the experience of the end of a race.
Steady runs: Steady runs are medium efforts that facilitate the development of aerobic strength by challenging you to run at the top-end of your aerobic threshold. Steady runs won’t make you too tired to run hard the next day. Steady runs fit in nicely the day before long runs to help simulate running a longer distance without actually having to run the full distance.
VO2max intervals: Training at your VO2max, or the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise, increases the amount of oxygen your body can use when running, allowing you to run faster and longer without stopping for a breather. These intervals will be challenging and leave you gasping for breath, but yield noticeable benefits in just a few weeks.
The Specific Phase
As the name implies, the specific phase means we’ll be training to the race-specific physiological demands of the half-marathon. While running alone will help you get fitter, to achieve your peak potential at the half-marathon, it’s important to tailor your workouts to match the exact demands of the race.
The intensity of the workouts in this phase increases each week while remaining focused on specific workouts aimed at developing your half-marathon fitness, while your overall mileage doesn’t increase significantly from the foundational phase. The focus is on challenging, race-specific workouts and long runs while the easy days are designed to facilitate recovery.
Cutdown runs: Cutdown runs teach you how to continually increase your effort as you become increasingly fatigued, much like the mid-point in a race when you start to feel the effect of the early miles. The crucial aspect of a cutdown run is that every mile is faster than the one before it, with your last mile being the fastest.
Alternating tempo run: The goal of an alternating tempo run is to teach your body to clear lactate more efficiently while still running at or near race pace. To do so, run at race pace for a mile, flooding the legs with lactic acid, and then drop back to half-marathon or marathon pace to “recover,” which helps you become more efficient at clearing lactate.
Fast finish long runs: Fast finish long runs simulate late-race fatigue and help train your body to push the pace when your legs are begging you to stop.
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Long run surges: Planned surges during a long run inject speed into what would otherwise be a “slow” running day. They also teach you to run fast while fatigued, which develops race-specific strength and skills. Finally, surges help increase the overall quality and pace of your long run.
The Taper Phase
The last 10 days of this training schedule make up the taper phase. Unlike many traditional tapering strategies, the easy mileage doesn’t drop significantly until the final two days before the race. The reason for this is that the length of your easy runs should already be at a level that promotes recovery and isn’t making you overly tired.
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More importantly, easy runs help maintain your aerobic conditioning. Since we know the energy demands of the half-marathon are 98 percent aerobic, it is critical that you continue to train the aerobic system as race day approaches. Because easy runs shouldn’t be making you tired at this point in the training cycle, they are the perfect means of accomplishing this goal.
In the final two days before the race, the length of the easy runs drops as a safety net. Fitness can’t be lost or gained in two days. The purpose is to eliminate any possible detriment to your race-day performance.
Key workout Pre-race workout: The final pre-race workout is the last hard effort you’ll have before your race and puts the finishing touches on your preparation. It is essential you don’t run too hard. The goal is to stimulate your central nervous system, touch on some speed to get your legs feeling good, and build confidence without increasing fatigue.
The following schedule is written as a guide for both beginner and more experienced half-marathoners. Beginners should currently be able to comfortably run 20 to 25 miles per week. If you need to take a few weeks building to this mileage, make sure you schedule the time to do so.
In both cases, we’ve included suggested easy run volumes. If you’re comfortable handling a higher mileage total, feel free to run on the optional rest days or add mileage to the easy runs. Just remember the critical component of these schedules is the workouts. Make sure you’re not running too long or fast on your easy days to complete the workouts as scheduled.