Illustration by Elaine Liu

Lacing up the kicks and heading out for a short run is one thing, but training for a half-marathon? That requires some dedicated training (not to mention motivation!). But hundreds of thousands of runners shuffle through the 13.1 miles each year — and many even cross the finish line with a smile on their face. Going the half-distance is more than just a killer new challenge (or prep for that possible marathon). Research shows running on the regular can help thwart heart disease and makes it easier to maintain a healthy weightExercise in weight management of obesity. Poirier P, Després JP. Department of Pharmacy, Laval University School of Pharmacy, Sainte-Foy, Québec, Canada. Cardiology Clinics, 2001 Aug;19(3):459-70.The role of exercise training in the treatment of hypertension: an update. Hagberg JM, Park JJ, Brown MD. Department of Kinesiology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Sports Medicine, 2000 Sep;30(3):193-206.. Still not convinced? Studies conducted on our furry friends (ahem, rats) show that running might improve brain function and promote learning, tooEffects of forced running exercise on cognitive function and its relation to zinc homeostasis-related gene expression in rat hippocampus. Ni H, Li C, Feng X, et al. Neurology Laboratory, The Children’s Hospital Affiliated to Soochow University, Suzhou, People’s Republic of China. Biological Trace Element Research, 2011 Sep;142(3):704-12. Epub 2010 Aug 12.. Ready to toe the line? To get us to the finish line feeling good, we enlisted the help of some experts, including Greatist Expert Andrew Kalley, elite endurance coach at The Sports Center at Chelsea Piers. Check out his 12-week training plan (below), along with some helpful dos and don’ts to complete the distance in true greatist fashion!

Hit the Ground Running — Getting Started

Going the 13.1-mile distance requires more than just some sweet kicks and an iPod loaded with motivational tunes; it requires some real — sometimes intense — training. It also helps to have a background in running (think at least 6 months of consistent running totaling at least 10 miles a week) and a solid training plan. But first let’s get started with these essential tips:

  • Get going. Sometimes the hardest part is getting started. But having a solid running foundation will help decrease the likelihood of injury during training, Kalley says.
  • Pick a race. Everyone needs that goal set in stone. Just remember: location, location, location! Finding a race close to home can make travel easier and calm race day nerves. Traveling can also be fun, too, but may cause extra stress. The key: Pick the race in advance and make the proper arrangements so that race day is nice and relaxed.
  • Cross train. Running is crucial, but strength training and other methods of cardio are important as well. For Kalley’s trainees, that means at least 30-40 minutes of strength work twice a week, including single-leg exercise that improve running performance (such as single-leg squats and single-leg deadlifts). For other aerobic activities, find something enjoyable that’s low-impact like swimming or the elliptical.
  • Master the form. Get the form down pat to increase efficiency and feel better while running. Kalley’s two main tips to reduce stress on the body: Have a higher cadence (more steps per minute) and keep your feet “light and low to the ground.” For cadence, aim to have between 85 and 95 strikes per minute (that’s counting both feet).
  • Stick to the plan. Even if the workouts feel easy, Kalley advises sticking to the written plan (laid out below). Adding runs or tacking on some additional distance can lead to overtraining and injuries down the road.
  • Go the distance. For beginners attempting the half-marathon distance, endurance trumps speed. Jonathan Cane, coach for Nike and JackRabbit, stresses the importance of taking the long runs slow. Runners should finish feeling like they could run a mile or two more, Cane says.
  • Get fit… for shoes that is.A good pair of sneakers is vital for distance running — both to look good and feel good, too! Visit a local running store to get properly fitted. They’ll do a gait analysis to narrow down the perfect pair of kicks. Thinking of going minimal? Cane suggests beginner runners shy away from minimalist kicks and take some time to develop the musculature to handle long-distance running.
  • Do the extras. Resist the urge to head straight to the showers after a hard run. Always take some time to cool down and do some flexibility work. Kalley stresses the importance of foam rolling and stretching to his athletes. These added extras will help stave off injuries in the long run.

Get to Work! — The Program

For individuals with some consistent running under their belt, 12 weeks should be sufficient time to prep for a half-marathon. Here is Kalley’s custom training plan to get you to the finish line feeling great!

Ready, Set, Go! — Race Day

Race day can be extremely stressful — or it can be a walk in the park with proper planning. Here are some helpful tips to make the big day go as smoothly as possible.

  • Get there early. To avoid being rushed (and to snag a sweet parking spot) arrive a couple hours before start time. In general, the bigger the race, the earlier you should arrive, Kalley advises.
  • Scope out the Porta-Potties. Bathroom lines tend to be long at running events because of pre-race nerves, says Kalley. Hit the lines early to avoid the last-minute crowd.
  • Keep things consistent. Race day isn’t the time to try out new sneakers or hit the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. When it comes to the big day, “Don’t rock the boat,” says Jonathan Blake, triathlete and personal trainer at the New York Health & Racquet Club. Stick with what has worked during training to avoid nasty blisters or a stomachache that may hamper performance.
  • Get loose. Running a half-marathon doesn’t require an extensive warm-up, but some dynamic stretches and light jogging will help you avoid hitting the start line cold. Try high-knees, butt kicks, and some skipping to get game-ready!
  • Drink up. Dehydration has been shown to detrimentally affect performance, especially slowing runners down in latter parts of the raceInfluence of hydration status on pacing during trail running in the heat. Stearns RL, Casa DJ, Lopez RM, et al. Human Performance Laboratory, Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2009 Dec;23(9):2533-41.. Rather than worrying about a specific hydration strategy, focus on drinking when thirsty. If you aren’t parched, feel free to skip the water station.
  • Start off easy. Avoid the temptation of going out hard the first mile. Instead, try to negative split (making each successive mile faster than the previous one) throughout the race.
  • Run the tangents. Cane advises runners to stay calm during the first mile. Don’t run 13.3 miles instead of 13.1 by running around people and dodging through the crowd. Save energy and make up time when it matters.
  • Get some carbs. For those that are running for longer than 2.5 hours, having a quick source of carbs like an energy gel might be a good option to stay fueled and on pace.
  • Be realistic. Avoid going into your first half-marathon with a strict time goal. Having fun and finishing should be the number one priority. Cane’s advice to runners: “Enjoy yourself, enjoy the contest.”
  • Keep moving post-race. Take some time to relish in the post-race limelight after the race, but avoid being stationary. Gather up the friends and fam and go for a short walk to cool down. And rather than taking the next week off, focus on low-intensity activities like swimming or bike riding for 15-30 minutes to keep blood flowing and help ease soreness.
Which half-marathon are you aiming for this year? Let us know and we’ll cheer you on to a great finish! (Repeat after me now, #imagreatist!)