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How much should you train if you want to run a good half marathon?

There are two distinct types of runners who ask this question: the first-time half marathon runner who runs just 2 to 3 days a week for 5K to 8K. On the other end of the spectrum is the runner who has raced several half marathons and wants to race faster. Thus, the key distinction between these two runners is the 21K distance—the first athlete has not run a 21K run whereas the second one has run 21K or longer several times.

When it comes to training for the half marathon, the key workout each week is the long run. If you make the long run the focus of your training, you give yourself a great shot of running well come race day. I like to see the first-time half-marathon runner give himself at least 12 weeks to train adequately for the race.

Beginners: Your 12-Week Half Marathon Training Plan

Assuming you're doing 7 to 8K once a week, 12 weeks gives you plenty of time to build up to a 16 to 18K long run. You don't necessarily need to run 21K in training to be confident that you can finish the half-marathon race, yet you don't want your longest run to be just 13K. Getting up to the 16 to 18K distance for your weekly long run is the goal.

After that, you want to do one aerobic workout a week. Fartlek workouts, threshold workouts, longer aerobic repeats on a track or on a dirt path are all good options. Once you've done that, you can get away with running just two more days a week to be prepared to run the race, giving you a total of four running days per week to be able to finish a half marathon. You should cross-train two days a week and then take one day a week off.

The schedule might look like this:

  • Monday: easy run
  • Tuesday: workout
  • Wednesday:cross-training
  • Thursday: cross-training
  • Friday: easy run
  • Saturday: long run
  • Sunday: off or brisk walk

Again, the key to this schedule is the weekly long run. Don't skip that run and make sure you have a safe progression from your current longest weekly run to the 16 to 18K long run that is your goal.

Intermediate and Advanced Runners: Your 12-Week Half Marathon Training Plan

For the seasoned half-marathon runner, the goal for training is to run a faster half marathon. The long run is still the key workout each week and, ideally, you have 12 weeks to train for the race. Let's assume you're running 10 to 11K once a week. If you're at that level, then you can easily get up to a 21 to 22K long run leading up to the half marathon. These runs don't need to be fast, but they are key if you want to race fast.

Just like the beginner plan, you want one workout per week in addition to your long run. But the workout should be longer—perhaps 13K. You might do a progression run of 5K steady, 2K a bit faster, 2K faster, 2K fastest, and then 2K to cool down.

You will also want to do some workouts where you groove at your goal half-marathon pace. You can run half-marathon pace as part of the weekly long run. For instance, if you were doing a long run of 10 miles, you might do 2 miles easy, then try to run 6 miles at half-marathon pace, then run 2 miles as your cool down. That gives you a 10-mile run, and it also gives you 6 miles to challenge your aerobic system while simultaneously getting the neuromuscular stimulus of running at race pace.

Finally, complete some running at faster than race pace. This is beneficial a couple of times during the training. So 10 x 400 meters with a 200m float is a short workout that has you running faster than race pace, which is important, as it makes half-marathon pace feel slower. This helps boost your confidence—you know you'll be able to sustain half-marathon pace for the entire race distance.

For the seasoned half-marathon runner, your schedule should include at least five days a week of running. Is five days a week of running enough to run a good half marathon? I believe so, especially if the alternative is getting injured if you attempt to run more than five days a week. Here is a sample schedule:

  • Monday: easy run
  • Tuesday: workout
  • Wednesday: easy run
  • Thursday: cross-train
  • Friday: easy run
  • Saturday: long run
  • Sunday: off or brisk walk

It's important to keep the easy days easy, and it's also important that your cross-training days are easy. You don't want a cross-training day that is intense, such as a killer spin class or a session in a Cross Fit gym. You'll get better results in your half marathon training if you follow the mantra of "hard days hard, easy days easy." Cross-training days are in the schedule to help you absorb the training that you've done on the running days.

Pre-Race Taper

In terms of resting before the big day, the first-time half-marathon runner should drop their long run to 10 to 11K the week before the race. The seasoned half-marathon runner might feel better with a 13K long run the week before, as long as he keeps the run easy.

The week of the half marathon, you should run a shorter workout that includes some running at half-marathon pace. That's the best workout for your neuromuscular system, as it helps you groove the pace you'll run in the race. Just make sure that you don't get scared of the pace, thinking, "There is no way I can run this pace for 21K." If you've put the work in, you'll be able to sustain this pace on race day.

Finally, when training for a half marathon, it's smart to do some strides a couple of days a week on your easy days. Strides are simply 20 to 30 seconds of running at 5K pace with roughly 60 seconds of easy running between them. You can do strides as part of your run, ideally in the last third of your easy runs. In the schedules above, strides would be done on Mondays and Fridays. Strides will help you feel more poppy on the subsequent workout and long run days, so that's why you should do them on Mondays and Fridays.

Remember: When training for a half marathon, make sure you value the long run and make it the focus of your training. If you do that, then you give yourself a chance to run a solid effort come race day.

Content provide by Coach Jay Johnson works with runners of all ages and abilities. A former collegiate coach at the University of Colorado, he's coached U.S. national champions, adult and high school runners, and is the coach for Athletics Boulder, an adult running club. Follow him on Twitter @coachjayjohnson