Thinking of tackling America’s fastest growing race distance? Here are some ways to get started.

In recent years, the half marathon has become America’s fastest-growing race distance, as the number of 13.1-mile races has swelled along with the number of participants. In 2012, 1.85 million people finished a 13.1-mile race, up nearly 15 percent from 2011, according to Running USA.

Why the half? For many runners, setting a 13.1-mile goal—whether it’s covering the distance for the first time or setting a new personal best—is a manageable challenge, offering nearly all the elation involved with finishing a marathon without the wear and tear of going (and training for) twice the distance. Plus, you can bounce back quickly enough, so doing more than one or two a year isn’t an unreasonable undertaking.

This year, whether you’re running your first half marathon or your 15th, make the most of your 13.1-mile experience — from sign-up to finish line — with these top tips.

1. Run for a reason

Training for (and competing in) a long race can be an arduous endeavor, even if you already have a few of them under your belt. Regardless of whether you’re a total newbie or a seasoned road warrior, ask yourself one simple question: “Why am I doing this?” The answer to that question gives purpose to your chosen pursuit and will serve as your primary motivation throughout the training cycle as well as on race day.

We all have our own reasons for lacing up our running shoes, from trying something new and dropping a few pounds to running in memory of a loved one, raising money for a cause or setting a personal best. The list is endless. Whatever your reason or reasons for running, remind yourself of them regularly and never lose sight of what crossing that finish line means to you.

2. Train for at least 13 weeks

While it may seem a bit novel to allow yourself one week of training for every mile of the race, 13 weeks is long enough period of time to safely build up your long run, weekly mileage and key workouts, but not so long that you lose motivation and get stale with your training. For beginners whose longest run might only be 4 or 5 miles at the start, adding as little as a mile to your weekly long run will put you in a position to confidently cover the distance on race day. If you’re an experienced runner and covering the distance isn’t of concern, a 13-week training block chock full of gradually increasing mileage and challenging race-specific workouts can put you in a good position to go after a new personal best. Once you’re in shape to run a half, you can shorten your training program to about 10 weeks for your next one.

3. Buy two pairs of shoes

The miles will add up over the course of three months of half-marathon training, and one pair of shoes likely won’t be enough to handle the entire load. Having two fresh pairs of shoes on hand when you start your training helps extend the life of each pair by giving them ample recovery time between workouts. Just as your body needs to recover after a long run or key workout, so do your kicks. Recent studies suggest that alternating between a couple different pairs of shoes in training can decrease running-related injury risk by varying the load to your musculoskeletal system. Buying two pair of shoes can be an expensive outlay in cash, but the return on your investment can be extraordinary. Consider it an investment in your health and your ultimate race goals for the year.

4. Recruit a training partner

Don’t go at it alone — training is better with a buddy. A training partner can keep you excited and accountable when the miles rise, workouts get more challenging or if motivation starts to dip. They’ll also be there to share every experience, celebrate with you on race day and swap epic stories afterward. It can be very tempting to stay in bed and skip a cold morning run if you’re running by yourself, but knowing that you’re meeting someone else to put in the work with you can be the catalyst that gets you up and out the door. If you’re looking to improve your time, find a training partner who is quicker than you and let them push you to become a faster runner.

5. Plan a 5K and 10K too

Three months out from your big race can seem like an eternity, so give yourself intermediate goals along the way to stay hungry and check your progress. Scheduling a 5K three to four weeks into training and a 10K three to four weeks before your half marathon will keep you motivated and provide a nice boost to your fitness while also serving as an indicator as to how well your training is coming along. These tune-up races also provide the opportunity to practice your race-day routine prior to your half marathon, which is perfect for newer runners, who can oftentimes be caught off guard by the chaotic, nerve-racking nature of a bigger event.

6. Run on different surfaces

Don’t get caught in a running rut. It can be easy to head out the door and run the same route from your house every day or cave to the convenience of the treadmill at the gym—yet again. As much as possible, try to switch up the surfaces you run on. Softer surfaces, such as grass or trails, can be great for recovery runs since the impact is less on your body, and the uneven nature of the surface can help strengthen your feet or lower legs. Running on roads can help harden your legs and work on your race rhythm, while the treadmill can help you dial in pace with laser-like precision. Much like switching up your running shoes, varying where you run can decrease running-related overuse injuries.

7. Get fast first

If you’re an experienced half marathoner targeting a PR this year, work on improving your speed at shorter distances by training like a 5K/10K runner in the first four to six weeks of your half-marathon training cycle. By emphasizing shorter interval workouts and quicker tempo runs before you start lengthening your long run and piling on more weekly mileage, you will greatly improve your speed and efficiency, which will make the five to six weeks of half-marathon-specific training far more effective. The faster you are over 5K and 10K, the better you’ll be able to handle your goal half-marathon race pace.

8. Practice at race pace

The above statement seems like a given, but many runners, even experienced ones, will train either far slower or much faster than the pace they hope to maintain for 13.1 miles and then wonder why they couldn’t do so on race day. Like anything else in life, practice makes perfect! In the six to eight weeks prior to race day, mix some race-pace running into your weekly schedule in the form of tempo runs (a continuous 4- to 8-mile run at your goal half-marathon pace), interval workouts at race pace, or long runs that finish at goal pace the last 2 to 4 miles when your legs are tired.

9. Experiment with fuel

Nutrition is far from an exact science and it’s important to experiment with fueling and hydration strategies prior to race day. The last thing you want is to have an upset stomach after you take off from the starting line. Do your research and plan ahead — know which sports drink and gels will be on the race course and practice using those products if you don’t plan on carrying supplies with you. Over the course of 13.1 miles, your tank will run low and it’s important that you fill it well beforehand and know what (and how much) to take in to stay topped off during the race.

10. Don’t overdo long runs

The long run is one of the first workouts runners think of when they think of training for a half marathon. And why wouldn’t it be? Thirteen miles is a long way! Long runs are indeed an important cornerstone of any half-marathon training program, but it’s an element that can be easily overdone, whether you’re a beginner or a veteran. How do you avoid this? Plan your training in three-week cycles: Build the length of your weekly long run by 1 to 3 miles for two weeks in a row before scaling it back 3 to 6 miles in the third week. For beginners, aim to build your long run up to 10 to 12 miles two weeks prior to race day, while 13 to 16 will be plenty for most experience runners.

11. Study the course

A general wouldn’t go into battle blind and a runner shouldn’t go into a race without knowing the course he or she is about to take on for the first time. Learn as much as you can about your chosen race course in the weeks leading up to your goal event, and try to simulate those elements in some of your key workouts. Is the course hilly or flat? Are there lots of turns? Does it get narrow in spots? Will there be a strong wind? These are all important details worth knowing before race day. Prepare accordingly and don’t get caught by surprise after taking off from the start line!

12. Train your mental muscle

The most important thing you can take to the starting line with you on race day is the confidence that you’re ready to achieve you goal. Just as you practice running race pace in training, or tackling a tough uphill, it’s important to work on your mental fitness as well. Visualize race day in training: See yourself on the course hitting goal pace, taking in nutrition and strategizing how you’ll respond when your legs start screaming at you to stop. Gain confidence from all the work that you’re putting into achieving your goal. Being mentally fit allows your physical fitness to manifest itself on the race course.

13. Run negative splits

A sound, basic goal for any half marathoner is to finish the race faster than you started. Not only does it feel good to fly across the finish line, but starting conservatively for the first few miles will also keep you from depleting your energy stores too early in the race and allow you to finish strong. A good plan of attack for negative splitting a race is to run the first 2 miles 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than your goal race pace, build up to goal pace by mile 3 and finish faster than goal pace for the final 5K. It doesn’t just work for beginners: Nearly every world record ever run for the half marathon has been achieved by running negative splits.

13.1. Plan your next one!

Congratulations! Crossing the finish line of a half marathon, whether it’s your first time or your 15th, is a huge accomplishment and something to celebrate. But don’t stop there. After you’ve had some time to soak in the entire race experience and evaluate your training leading up to it, start strategizing for your next 13.1-mile adventure. We all have room for improvement, and chasing a new personal best or working on your weaknesses in training can present a new, fulfilling challenge. Running a half marathon shouldn’t be a one-and-done deal—embrace the process of preparing for the event and making training and racing a part of your lifestyle. The best part about half marathons is that, unlike the marathon, you can do several in the same calendar year without massive wear and tear. Consider making your next half marathon a destination race as part of a vacation.

25 Half Marathons Worth Running

With its surging popularity in the U.S., hundreds of half marathons have popped up in recent years. With all these options to choose from, we’re lending you a hand by providing you with 25 of the best.

Austin Half Marathon

Feb. 16; Austin, Texas

Many Texans would argue that Austin is one of most enjoyable and unique cities in the Lone Star State, which is why this race has made our top-25 list. According to organizers, more than 80 percent of the runners who take part in the event come from outside the Austin area.

Colonial Half Marathon

Feb. 23; Williamsburg, Va.

This annual event, which takes place in the historic town of Williamsburg, offers history buffs the chance to sightsee before and after the race. The course offers a great mix of hills and flat sections and, with a field of 1,000 runners, is a smaller, more intimate experience.

Canyonlands Half Marathon

March 14; Moab, Utah

This scenic point-to-point race winds along the Colorado River on the roads adjacent to Canyonlands National Park and offers stunning red rock vistas from start to finish. It dates back to 1976 when 22 brave souls and one dog crossed the finish line. Since the 1990s, Moab has become a destination for endurance fiends of all kinds, so the race’s popularity has grown. It’s a bit off the beaten path, but that’s just another reason to make a weeklong running vacation out of it. If you can’t get into this race, the race organizers—who take pride in reducing environmental impacts though various green initiatives—put on two other Moab half marathons in June and October.

March Madness Half Marathon

March 16; Cary, Ill.

The Hillstriders Running Club based out of Crystal Lake, Ill., hosts this race. The challenging course is perfect for anyone looking for a good hilly tune-up before a spring marathon. But this race sells out quick (and is likely already sold out for 2014), so plan ahead and put it on your schedule for 2015.

New York City Half Marathon

March, 16; New York City

If you can’t manage to run the full New York City Marathon in November to experience the Big Apple, then there’s always the city’s half marathon in March. Hosted by the New York Road Runners, the race loops through Lower Manhattan and finishes on the East River waterfront.

Shamrock Half Marathon

March 16; Virginia Beach, Va.

You don’t have to be Irish to give this race a shot. But you can take in some of the best that Ireland has to offer in the form of Guinness and Irish stew, which are served to hungry and thirsty runners at the post-race party.

Caesar Rodney Half Marathon

March 23; Wilmington, Del.

Named after one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, this race celebrates its 51st anniversary this year. The course, which takes place in Delaware’s largest city, is an out-and-back that winds along the Brandywine Creek.

Transamerica Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon San Francisco

April 6; San Francisco

The second edition of this race will boast one of the most scenic (and challenging) routes on the west coast. The point-to-point route starts at the Pacific Ocean on Great Highway and traverses three lanes of the Golden Gate Bridge (offering picturesque views of Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco Bay) before finishing on Polk Street in Civic Center Plaza.

Hapalua Half Marathon

April 13; Honolulu, Hawaii

No top-25 half-marathon list would be complete without including a race in the Aloha State. This course allows runners to take in the sights of Waikiki, downtown Honolulu and the famous Diamond Head crater.

Kentucky Derby Festival Half Marathon

April 19; Louisville, Ky.

Horse-racing fans can find themselves on their own run for the roses at this annual event held two weeks before the famous Kentucky Derby. Besides getting a tour of downtown Louisville, runners will also get to run through scenic Iroquois Park where the race finishes.

La Jolla Half Marathon

April 27; La Jolla, Calif.

The lead photo alone on this race’s website will make you want to sign up for it. With a point-to-point course, the event starts at the Del Mar Fairgrounds and winds along the coastal route, with beautiful vistas of the Pacific Ocean spurring them on.

500 Festival Mini-Marathon

May 4; Indianapolis, Ind.

The nation’s largest half marathon, this race is commonly referred to as the “mini.” Dating back to 1977, it kicks off the 500 Festival, a month-long celebration of the Indianapolis 500 car race. Fittingly, runners get to complete one loop on the actual Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hospital Hill Run Half Marathon

June 7; Kansas City, Mo.

This race is one of the oldest half marathons in the country. It first started as a 6.8-mile event back in 1974, and the half was added two years later. Organizers pride themselves on the support that the race provides to the local community through its various charity initiatives and partnerships.

Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon

June 21; Duluth, Minn.

Held during the same weekend as Grandma’s Marathon, this annual race is named in honor of 1976 Olympian Garry Bjorklund. One perk about the race is that participants can receive training schedules provided by Grandma’s course-record holder, Dick Beardsley.

Disneyland Half Marathon

Aug. 31; Anaheim, Calif.

At what’s billed as the “Happiest Race on Earth,” there is no shortage of smiles. Runners interested in more of a physical challenge can sign up to earn the Dumbo Double Dare Finisher Medal, which entails completing the half and the 10K in the same weekend.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon

Sept. 21; Philadelphia

The “City of Brotherly Love” comes together every September for this race that kicks off in front of the stunning art museum. With cheer squads and bands aplenty, there isn’t one lonely stretch of the famous course that parallels the Schuylkill River.

Grete’s Great Gallop

Oct. 5; New York, N.Y.

This half marathon, which takes place in scenic Central Park during the middle of autumn, is all about celebrating the lives of running legends Grete Waitz and Fred Lebow. The half comes at the perfect time for prospective New York City Marathon
participants to get in their final tune-up training run before race day.

Leaf Peepers Half Marathon

Oct. 5; Waterbury, Vt.

Timed to coincide with one of the most perfect times to be in Vermont (fall foliage season), the Leaf Peepers Half is a great opportunity to run in a smaller race in a small Vermont town. Most of the course is on dirt roads, which makes for ideal peeping at the colorful autumn scenery.

Wineglass Half Marathon

Oct. 5; Corning, N.Y.

If you’re looking for a fast race, this event is for you. The Wineglass Half is on a point-to-point course with a net drop in elevation. Known for its one-of-a-kind glass finisher’s medal, the race ends on Market Street in the historic town of Corning. It’s one of New York State’s most popular half marathons and sells out fast.

Nike Women’s Half Marathon

Oct. 19; San Francisco

Although not the first women’s half marathon in the U.S., this is one that made the trend explode. (It doesn’t hurt that all finishers receive a Tiffany necklace!) Now in its 11th year, this point to point race from Union Square to Golden Gate Park along the Pacific Ocean is part of the Run Nike Women Series, which also includes the sold-out Nike Women’s Half Marathon in Washington D.C. on April 27.

Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon

Oct. 25; Healdsburg, Calif.

Oenophiles take note: What could be better than a gorgeous course that routes you through the rolling vineyards of Northern California’s wine country? Waiting for you at the end are many Sonoma County wineries, who will be pouring all day. Not a bad way to spend a day, huh?

Big Sur Half Marathon

Nov. 16; Monterey, Calif.

In terms of stunning views, this race takes the cake. The race begins in downtown Monterey and then snakes past Cannery Row along the waterfront, out along Ocean View Boulevard and to a turnaround point, which affords more vistas of the gorgeous Pacific Ocean.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon

Nov. 16; Las Vegas

It’s been said that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but there’s a good chance that running this adrenaline-fueled race along the famous Las Vegas Strip could result in something worth taking home: a new personal record. The race, which begins at sunset, is run along a fast, flat course through new, old and, well, um, quirky parts of Sin City. You’ll run past the always raucous Fremont Street Experience and there’s even the opportunity for a run-through wedding at one of Vegas’ drive-through chapels.

Atlanta Half Marathon

Nov. 27; Atlanta, Ga.

When most people choose to eat turkey and stuffing on Thanksgiving, thousands of brave runners make it an annual tradition to show up for this race. The event is organized by the Atlanta Track Club and gives participants great views of the city, including a run past Centennial Olympic Park.

Naples Half Marathon

Jan. 18, 2015; Naples, Fla.

Organizers of this race give prospective participants nine good reasons to run it. At the top of the list is the course, which is billed as flat, fast and shady. There’s also cash to be won with $15,500 in total going to the top finishers in several divisions.