Despite its branding problem of being defined only in relation to its older, bigger brother, the half marathon has emerged as the race of choice for millions of runners, second only to the 5K in popularity. And it’s no wonder, as the half is often the perfect race for all runners. The perfect stepping stone, the perfect tuneup race, the perfect change of pace, the perfect challenge.
Whether you’re just starting out in the sport or you’re a veteran marathoner, it’s time to make the half marathon part of your plans for the new year.
The Perfect Stepping Stone
The marathon is often a bucket list goal for new runners, but jumping right into training for a marathon usually isn’t the smartest approach. “The half marathon really is so much more doable than the marathon in every way, shape, and form,” says Dimity McDowell, co-author of Run Like a Mother.
Jason Fitzgerald, the head coach of Strength Running and author of Running for Health and Happiness, agrees that the half marathon is the perfect option if you’re ready to step up from 5k and 10k races. The half marathon is long enough to be a good endurance challenge, he says, but short enough that it has significantly less training demands than a marathon.
Compared to a marathon, where you’re pushing it if you put in 40 miles per week, Fitzgerald says that you can successfully finish a half marathon running 20–25 miles a week and topping out at a 10 mile long run. Ben Rosario, the head coach of Northern Arizona Elite, points out that those reduced training demands means less risk of injury.
If you’ve been training for 5k and 10k races, half marathon training is also likely to be more familiar to you than marathon training, says Luke Humphrey, owner of Luke Humphrey Running and the author of Hanson’s Marathon Method. Humphrey says that you can keep many of the same elements and schedule you’re currently doing for 5k and 10k races and the mileage doesn’t need to increase as dramatically, as it would with marathon training.
And, of course, the half marathon can be an effective and useful stepping stone to the marathon distance. Humphrey says that when you are ready to make the jump to the marathon you will have a much better idea of what you’re capable of and what to expect if you have half marathon experience. “Essentially,” Humphrey says, “training for a half is a great opportunity to test new waters without getting overwhelmed.”
Rosario agrees that runners would do well to run one, or ideally several, half marathons before going the full 26.2. “Even though it’s only half the marathon distance, it’s still a heck of a lot closer than a 5k or 10k,” he says. “The mental and physical challenge of staying locked in for 13.1 miles, and taking on that challenge multiple times, will callous the mind and body for an eventual marathon debut.”
Still, even though the half marathon may be the perfect first endurance race, Humphrey cautions that it shouldn’t be your first race of any kind. “The half marathon is still a significant amount of mileage and something that should really be built into,” he says. “I would really want the runner to at least train for and race a 5k or 10k first and then make the jump to the half marathon.”
The Perfect Tuneup Race
If you have already moved up to the marathon distance, don’t think that you’ve graduated beyond the half marathon distance. Even in a season when you’re focused on a marathon, there are benefits to including a half marathon in your marathon training cycle.
McDowell says that she frequently recommends using a half marathon as a way to get used to the race atmosphere before a marathon. You get to experience all the emotions and logistics in advance, allowing you to be more relaxed and comfortable on marathon race day. Half marathon races can also serve as a way to keep long runs from feeling too monotonous, especially if you primarily train by yourself.
You can approach a tune up half in a couple of different ways. Humphrey recommends not doing it as an all-out race, but rather as a “dress rehearsal” run 3–4 weeks out from the marathon. He doesn’t have runners taper their mileage at all leading into the half marathon, and instructs them to run the first 10k at goal marathon pace. From there, they can either continue at marathon pace or pick it up, depending on how they’re feeling.
For a veteran marathoner who wants to break up a long training cycle, Rosario recommends running the half as a true race, roughly six to eight weeks out from the marathon. This means that you’ll be fit for the race, but will have enough time for recovery before the marathon.
If you want to use the half marathon to gauge your potential marathon time, Fitzgerald recommends racing it as an all-out effort roughly four to six weeks from the marathon. “Half marathons are ideal tune-up races for marathons because they’re long and mimic some of the demands of the marathon,” Fitzgerald says. “The time an athlete runs in a half will largely predict what they will be capable of in a marathon.” Rosario cautions that it is important to take four to six days of easy running following the race before getting back to your normal training routine.
Besides providing a guide for your marathon race-pace, Humphrey sees the half marathon tune-up as good mental and physical prep for the marathon. “[Runners] are going to run into patches during the marathon when they feel like they can walk on water and then all of sudden be in the hurt locker,” he says. Getting the opportunity to experience those feelings during the half marathon makes it easier to handle them during the marathon.
The Perfect Change of Pace
Even if your sole focus is on improving your marathon times, it’s still helpful to occasionally have a training cycle that is focused strictly on half marathon performance, Fitzgerald says.
“It’s definitely a good idea to step away from the marathon occasionally and focus on shorter races like the half marathon,” he says. “This helps a runner develop more speed and do different workouts than they would probably do if they were training exclusively for marathons. Speed is highly transferable to other race distances and faster runners tend to run faster marathons.”
Rosario agrees that the ability to run at different paces and focus on different types of workouts is a key reason to include half marathon training cycles in your plans. Rosario calls this “developing your overall tool box” which will help you continue to improve and develop as a runner.
Finally, Humphrey finds that repeatedly going from one marathon training cycle to another causes runners to become stale and bored. He says that older runners also tend to avoid shorter, faster work because it gets more difficult as you age. But that work is still important. “The truth is, we need to shift gears on a regular basis,” Humphrey says. “Then when they come back to the marathon, it just feels so much more comfortable.”
The Perfect Challenge
Of course the half marathon doesn’t need to be done for any reason other than it provides a great challenge all on its own.
“Half marathons are short enough that they can be ‘fast’ but long enough that you can’t fake your way through it,” Fitzgerald says. That combination provides a unique balance that forces you to include both speed and endurance work in your training. And that balance means that the training is often more fun—not the slog of marathon training and not the searing pain of 5k training.
“Training for the half is a breath of fresh air,” says elite and recreational coach Greg McMillan. “It gives you all the fun stuff. You get the long runs—they’re not super long, but they’re long enough that they fatigue you and you get that feel—but you get to do speed too, and stamina. You get to do a nice variety of training, which is a really good way to train.”
Half marathon training also has a way of fitting in better with the rest of your life. “Half marathon training is doable when you have a family, when you have a full-time job,” says McDowell. “You can still get up and get the training done.”
In addition, the race itself often has a higher ratio of joy to suffering than any other distance. When you’re prepared well, you get to cruise for the majority of the race, even when you’re speeding toward a PR. When it does start feeling long, you’ve only got a few miles left where you have to dig deeper and keep it rolling. And, after it’s over, you’re satisfyingly fatigued, but not fall-over, roll-up-in-a-ball exhausted like after a marathon.
That combination of approachability and challenge may even make you wonder why people feel the need to train for anything else.