Couch to Half Marathon Training Guide

Authored by Brady Holmer • 
February 14, 2019
 • 10 min read
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Doing something halfway is usually associated with slacker mentality. A wise jedi once said: “Do or do not, there is no try.” That’s why a marathon is the end goal for many runners–it’s the big one. Why would anyone run half the distance? Who cares about the little brother of the sport’s golden child?

Far from only half a race, the half marathon is the most popular running event in America, with nearly four times as many finishers as marathons: 1.9 million people finished a half marathon in 2016. Hop off the couch; this is one bandwagon you want to join.

Why You Should Run a Half

The half marathon is a great medium-sized event. Maybe you are looking for challenging race but don’t have the time to dedicate to full-on marathon training. The half is for you. Training for a half marathon may also be a good stepping stone to a full marathon–it provides the base and strength needs to increase distance.

Throughout the half marathon, thousands of spectators line the course. Motivational signs and charity teams and words of encouragement create a tangible buzz. Family and friends and fans create an atmosphere unrepeatable on solo runs. This is what you signed up for, an enjoyable and motivating experience.

If you aren’t motivated by all that, the health benefits of training are a perfect reason to sign up for a half marathon. Endurance exercise training has positive effects on health–improved metabolism, reduced risk for cardiovascular disease, and reduced risk of death from other diseases.1 Your chance of dying from all causes is reduced in proportion to your cardiorespiratory fitness.2 It might even enhance your sexual function.3

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Getting Ready to Train

Before starting half marathon training, you should be able to run at least three miles non-stop. Most running coaches and plans suggest this indicates you’re physically capable of running a half marathon. Bonus points if you have previous 5k or 10k experience. Training to finish a half marathon won’t be much different, other than a slight increase in training volume.

Half Marathon Basics

A worthwhile goal for your first half marathon? Finish. Don’t frame your race success on time goals but rather, train with the intent of finishing strong and feeling sturdy throughout the race.

If you completely run yourself into the ground on your first try, this may deter you from wanting to run another long race distance.

Treat yourself to some good running shoes. We don’t recommend going barefoot, but research has shown running in minimalist footwear (4mm heel drop or less) reduces loading rates compared to standard shoes.4 If you go minimalist, gradually ease these into your training routine. Use minimal shoes for shorter and easier runs until you build enough foot strength to transition full-time.

Investing in training and racing gear is a must. Moisture wicking shorts, shirts, and socks can prevent dreaded chafing and help with training in the heat. These fabrics pull sweat away from your body to enable superior cooling. Buying hydration belt or handheld water bottles may be a good investment for your longer training runs.

What it Takes: Half Marathon Physiology

The half marathon distance requires high exercise capacity and takes a toll on the body. Conditioning to build high aerobic capacity is the most important factor for your first half marathon performance. In one study, recreational runners completing a half marathon utilized ~79% of their max aerobic capacity during the race. This is just around “threshold level” for many runners.5

Running at half marathon pace leads to minor lactate accumulation, with one study showing blood lactate concentrations of 5.65mM at the end of the race.5 This is above “steady state” concentration, suggesting runners broke down glycogen anaerobically. A half marathoner maintaining a faster pace at lactate threshold performs best at the distance.

These runners also burned tons of calories–an estimated 1,500 during the entire race. That’s three Big Macs.

A half marathon burns about half of the daily calorie intake of active individuals. Proper fueling before, during, and after the half is important for performance and recovery.

There isn’t a training crystal ball to predict race day performance, but some research indicated running speed during training (and to a lesser extent, body fat and BMI) is related to better performance in men and women.6,7 Makes sense–runners who train harder and have better body composition race faster. But how does this apply to you?

Base Building

Building your base is the most important thing you can do going from couch to half. Essentially, training hopes to create a bigger aerobic engine and increase the strength of running muscles. The base-building phase is mostly made up of easy, long distance runs.

Evidence supports the more you run, the more you refine running gait and ultimately, improve your running economy (RE). Ten weeks of training changes gait variables in runners enough to favorably improve running economy.8 Having a high running economy is important for the half marathon.8 Even small increases in efficiency add up over the race to result in better finish times.

Base building is necessary for injury prevention.

Before transitioning to higher intensity and faster running, it’s necessary to have proper strength and stamina. Fatigued muscles injure more easily. LSD (long, slow distance) training hardens your body to become an endurance monster.

During this phase, it may be valuable for beginner runners to have a professional gait analysis done, or have a family member or running partner video you while running. This can allow you to observe mechanics and notice what might need improvement. Having a strong running form is good for injury prevention and efficient running.

Two or three times per week, integrate form drills into your pre-or-post-run routine. Drilling for just 15 - 20 minutes can build strength, improve form, and increase stride cadence and speed. Butt kicks, high knees, grapevines (also called carioca), slow skipping, hamstring extensions, backwards running, and lateral bounding are all examples of drills used by runners as form work.

New half marathoners can also benefit from time spent on their feet to build general strength and muscular endurance. Integrating low-intensity walking (or run-walking) outside of training is an easy way to log extra miles. Walk home from work, hop off the bus one stop earlier, or take the stairs throughout the day. These may seem trivial, but the time adds up. Think of these activities as cross training.

Speed Work and Tempo Runs

Faster running can be added to a training plan after the 4 - 6 week base-building phase. This allows enough time to develop a bit more speed before the half marathon.

Speed work (intervals) and tempo runs teach your body to maintain efficiency and speed. For this short training block, one speed or tempo session per week suffices.

Begin speed sessions with a one or two-mile warmup, some form drills, plyometrics, and a few strides.

What are strides? They’re fast runs of about 20 seconds at mile pace. Strides improve speed and economy while teaching you to stay comfortable while running fast. They loosen up your legs before a fast running session without tiring you out.

Do the Tempo Run

Run 20 minutes at a pace that’s 20 - 40 seconds slower than 5k race pace. If you don’t have a previous race for reference, running at a comfortably hard pace works. Just make sure you finish feeling like you could keep running, and maintain your effort throughout the entire workout.

After the tempo, do an easy one or two miles as a cool down to prevent blood pooling and muscle soreness.

Performing this tempo or other speed sessions with friends can enhance the enjoyment of the workout. Just make sure you aren’t racing. In a large group of runners with different speeds and experience, things can get competitive, sometimes unnecessarily so.

Easy Does It

In such a short training block, it’s important not to jump into speed work too quickly or too intensely.

Remember, your half marathon will probably be around 80% of your max capacity, so training all-out likely has little benefit. The worst thing you can do is arrive at the starting line feeling fatigued due to training. The goal is to finish training feeling fresh and fit. Only a small amount of speed work will be necessary to achieve this. Make sure to sandwich speed sessions in between two easy runs for freshness and proper recovery.

Race Tune Ups

It is common for many runners to do one or two shorter races in preparation for an upcoming half marathon.

These can be great substitutes for a weekly speed workout or to dial in pace for race day. Doing a race as a workout also makes running fast easier, since you’ll be surrounded by other runners. Sign up for a local 5k or 10k (nothing longer!) about 2 - 3 weeks out from your half marathon. Run this race at your projected half marathon pace to build confidence and help you home in on your race-day pace.

The Long Run

Long runs are the cornerstone of a half marathon training plan. These efforts are essential to build strength and endurance. Rather than a daunting task, see it as a challenge, a worthy dress rehearsal.

For couch to half runners, it’s recommended to build your long run progressively up to at least 10 - 12 miles before race day. This may begin with a weekly 5 - 6 mile run, adding one mile every other week.

Long runs are about confidence and stamina. If you can run 10 - 12 miles, finishing 13.1 is no biggie.

Tackling the Long Run

Don’t worry about pace. The long run is about spending time on your feet and building mental and physical endurance. Schedule a long run in once per week (or every nine days, if you prefer a bit more time in between).

The long run is a great time to practice hydration. If you plan on ingesting fluid or fuels during the race, bring the same formula / brand out on your long run or place them along your route. Become familiar with what it’s like to eat and drink on the run. You don’t want a mishap to ruin your perfect race.

Long runs may be the ideal situation to experiment with your race day nutrition, whether that’s trying out new energy gels, bars or exogenous ketones. Beta-hydroxy-butyrate, the ketone body in HVMN Ketone, has been shown to enhance endurance exercise performance.

Since long-runs are typically done at a sub-max intensity, athletes will primarily rely on burning a mix of fat and carbohydrates to fuel exercise. Boosting blood levels of D-BHB lowers the need to breakdown carbohydrates during prolonged endurance exercise–it spares glycogen. Athletes who ingested HVMN Ketone with carbohydrates prior to exercise reduced reliance on muscle glycogen and protein during exercise compared to consuming just carbohydrates.9

Breaking down less glycogen in your long effort means you’ll performer longer and harder, and recover quicker.

HVMN Ketone can take your long run to the next level.

Ingest one serving of HVMN Ketone along with your pre-run snack about 30 minutes before heading out the door. Recover with another serving after your run along with your recovery meal to speed up glycogen and protein synthesis.

Cross Training

While running should make up the majority of your couch to half marathon training program, developing strength (strength training) and increasing range of motion (yoga) to ward off injuries is crucial.

This is where cross training comes into your training plan. Cross training involves performing non-specific activities (such as swimming, cycling, elliptical training) to improve your main sport (in this case, running).

Don’t think of cross training as taking away from your running time. New and experienced runners fear that cross training might cause them to lose fitness. Rather, cross training with different activities such as elliptical training and swimming has been shown to maintain and even enhance fitness and performance in runners.10,11

Most cross training activities are much lower impact than running, subjecting the body to less potentially injury-causing impact forces. It’s estimated the prevalence of injuries among runners is anywhere from 37% - 79%, most of these being overuse injuries.12 Cross training provides a break from high-impact running while still boosting fitness.

Include two cross training days per week into your couch to half plan initially. Later on, one of these may be substituted for a shorter run as you boost running strength. It may be a good idea to schedule a cross training workout before and after one of your harder sessions of the week (speed session or long run) to maximize recovery and freshness.

The Body Shop: Staying Healthy

Jumping right into a half marathon training program is ambitious but not unreasonable.

As part of a thoughtful training schedule, ensure recovery is part of your routine. Your body will be adapting to new stress in a short amount of time. With lots of miles on the odometer, constant maintenance is required.

Rest Days

Make one day of the week a complete rest day. This is especially important in the initial 1 - 6 weeks of your base-building phase. This “day of rest” will allow your muscles to regenerate and soak up the replenishing nutrients it may lack as a result of hard training. If you get restless, active recovery in the form of a light walk or hike can stimulate blood flow and get you outside without a demanding workout.

Rest days are about mental and physical recovery.

Stressing about not training or getting out of shape defeats the purpose of this day. One day off won’t sabotage your training. If anything, you’ll get better. Relax, you’ve earned it.

Don’t Forget to Ice (and Sleep)

Sore muscles may be a common theme in your first few weeks of half marathon training.

You’ll be running more than your body is accustomed to, leading to small microtears and damage in the muscles. This causes delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS),13,14 which is associated with reduced muscle strength and range of motion, reducing performance. Cold water immersion might be effective in reducing the discomfort and performance reduction due to DOMS. Draw yourself a nice relaxing ice bath, sip some hot tea, and recover right.

Regular sleep habits are great for overall mental and physical health. For runners, proper daily shuteye is even more important to promote recovery from training. If you want to make your training stick, sleep is the best way to do it. To promote recovery and restore physiological processes, 7 - 9 hours per night is recommended. 15 Couch to half training may make you want to go right back to the couch post-workout.

Trouble getting to sleep after a hard run? Some athletes experience an anxious feeling if they exercise too close to bed or can’t sleep because they’re too sore. If this occurs, calling on the help of a sleep aid such as HVMN's Yawn might allow you to fall asleep quicker and get the high quality rest you need to adapt.

Race Day Advice

As a new runner, if you haven’t heard this phrase yet, you will. “The hay is in the barn.”

This implies that no more work needs to be done. If you’ve trained hard enough and are confident in your abilities, now is the time to rest on your fitness laurels. Nothing left to do now except let your training do the talking.

On race day, don’t go out too hard. While you may have a pace in mind, you’re a first-timer; a finish means a win. From the gun, stick with the pace at which you’ve trained. If you get nearer to the finish line and notice you have some in reserve, open up the last few miles.

Many half marathons have pace accurate groups. If you happen to locate a pace group running right around your goal pace, stick with them and ride it out to the finish.

The most crucial advice? Enjoy the race.

You’ve gone through hard training and accomplished your goal of reaching the start line. Now is time to show off your fitness, and relish in the achievement along with hundreds or thousands of running comrades.

You could be on the couch, but instead, you’re tackling 13.1 well-earned miles. Enjoy each one of them and be proud of the well-oiled machine you’ve become.

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Scientific Citations

1.Morici G, Gruttad'auria CI, Baiamonte P, Mazzuca E, Castrogiovanni A, Bonsignore MR. Endurance training: is it bad for you?. Breathe (Sheff). 2016;12(2):140-7.
2.Mandsager K, Harb S, Cremer P, Phelan D, Nissen SE, Jaber W. Association of Cardiorespiratory Fitness With Long-term Mortality Among Adults Undergoing Exercise Treadmill Testing. JAMA Netw Open. 2018;1(6)
3.Penedo FJ, Dahn JR. Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 2005; 18 (2), 189–193
4.Rice HM, Jamison ST, Davis IS. Footwear Matters: Influence of Footwear and Foot Strike on Load Rates during Running. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016;48(12):2462-2468.
5.Williams C, Nute ML. Some physiological demands of a half-marathon race on recreational runners. British Journal of Sports Medicine 1983;17:152-161.
6.Rust CA, Knechtle B, Knechtle P, Barandun U, Lepers R, Rosemann T. Predictor variables for a half marathon race time in recreational male runners. Open Access J Sports Med. 2011;2:113-9.
7.Knechtle B, Knechtle P, Barandun U, Rosemann T, Lepers R. Predictor variables for half marathon race time in recreational female runners. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2011;66(2):287-91.
8.Moore IS, Jones AM, Dixon SJ. Mechanisms for improved running economy in beginner runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012;44(9):1756-63.
9.Cox, P.J., Kirk, T., Ashmore, T., Willerton, K., Evans, R., Smith, A., Murray, Andrew J., Stubbs, B., West, J., McLure, Stewart W., et al. (2016). Nutritional Ketosis Alters Fuel Preference and Thereby Endurance Performance in Athletes. Cell Metabolism 24, 1-13.
10.Joubert D, Oden G, Estes B. The Effects Of Ellipical Cross Training on VO2 max in Recently Trained Runners. International Journal of Exercise Science, 2011; 4 (1)
11.Foster C, Hector LL, Welsh R. et al. Effects of specific versus cross-training on running performance. Europ. J. Appl. Physiol. (1995) 70: 367
12.Wen DY. Risk factors for overuse injuries in runners. Curr Sports Med Rep (2007) 6: 307
13.Diong J, Kamper SJ. Cold water immersion (cryotherapy) for preventing muscle soreness after exercise. Br J Sports Med. 2014;48(18):1388-9.
14.Snyder JG, Ambegaonka JP, Winchester JB, McBride JM, Andre MJ, Nelson, AG. Efficacy of Cold-Water Immersion in Treating Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness in Male Distance Runners. Medicine and science in sports and exercise 2011; 43 (5):766
15.Bird SP. Sleep, Recovery, and Athletic Performance: A Brief Review and Recommendations. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 2013; 35 (5), 43–47
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