While half-marathons have grown in popularity, they are still often overlooked. Once that 10K has been accomplished, many runners want to jump right to the marathon. Nothing wrong with that, but a half-marathon can be a great training tool in seeking that bigger marathon goal. The half marathon is also just a great race in itself.
The half-marathon is just about the longest distance race a seasoned runner can run without changing his/her regular routine. There will be training and there will be long runs, but the time commitment isn't nearly what's involved in training for a marathon. Because of this, training for a half-marathon can be a great stepping-stone for newer runners who are eventually wanting to conquer that 26.2-miler. It's also a great way for the seasoned runner to get in some great endurance races without having to carve out a huge chunk of time training for just one race.
Often it's thought that the half marathon is just that—half of a marathon. It is definitely that, and it does involve a good amount of strength and endurance. But often runners don't realize that the half-marathon has a speed component often not a part of a marathon. The combination of endurance and speed can make this a fun race to train for as well as compete in. Training for a half-marathon will also help pick up your pace in other shorter distance races such as a 10K.
As with any endurance run, you'll still need a good base before beginning your half-marathon training. This varies from person to person, but you should be logging about 20 miles a week for a month before beginning your training. Sometimes base building and training get confused. Often runners think the first few weeks of a training plan is the base-building phase. The confusing lies in that it is the base-building phase for the training plan, but the plan is not assuming you're starting from scratch. It's assuming that you already have a good base tucked under your belt.
It takes your body about 4-6 weeks to acclimate to a particular distance. So for example the first time you run 6 miles, you may feel good, but that doesn't mean your body has acclimated to running at that distance or intensity. If you keep running that 6-miler and even do an 8- or 10-miler, then about 4-6 weeks down the road is when your body becomes accustomed to running that 6-miles. So in other words, base-building is key in getting your body used to running various distances as well as the cumulative miles. If the line between base-building and training blurs then you risk the chance of overtraining which could lead to the "I" word you want to avoid—Injury.
Once you have your base and your ready to start your training, then what? You need to find a plan that's diverse in it's training. Your plan should involve a Base, Sharpening, and Taper phase. The "Base" within your training plan is usually just a few weeks where you're taking that good base you've built and you're gradually increasing your weekly mileage and adding some distance to your long run. The "Sharpening" phase is the time in your training when you begin to add in more workouts focused on endurance, pace, and/or strength. In other words your long runs get longer, you add in some faster-paced runs such as tempo runs and/or interval workouts, and you add some hill workout to build strength (as well as speed). The "Taper" phase is usually the last week or two prior to race day. The total weekly mileage is usually decreased to 50% the week prior to the race.
The length of half-marathon plans is all over the place. You'll find plans for 12 weeks all the way to 22 weeks. Look closely. Typically the shorter programs have very little base-building incorporated into the program and the longer programs will have more weeks of base-building included. A longer plan may be more beneficial to a newer runner, while a shorter plan is probably better suited to a more seasoned runner who already has a solid base of weekly miles.
From personal experience, the weekly speed workouts (I did interval workouts) is the key to a fast half-marathon. Now, I'm no speed demon, but my half-marathon PR is 1:30:47. No record-setter, but for a 40-something, a 6:55 pace per mile ain't half bad. My fastest time prior to adding speed work was 1:36. I cut 6:13 from my time in just one season from adding a weekly speed workout to my training plan.
Why do interval, tempo, and hill workouts help improve your endurance and speed? VO2Max! Your VO2 is your body's ability to take in oxygen and use it. The more oxygen your body is able to take in and utilize, the longer and harder your body can go before fatiguing from lactic acid buildup. Ever get that burn in your legs that makes you feel like your trudging through mud? That's lactic acid fatiguing your muscles. The best way to push out your lactate threshold is by doing speed and/or hill work. Even though a half-marathon is an endurance race, having a higher VO2Max will help you keep that fatigue at bay. Also, later in the race when you need to kick it up a notch, you'll have the reserves to do so. Also, your body will be used to that extra speed requirement and you won't throw your body into shock. So, be sure to incorporate at least one speed and/or hill workout into your weekly training routine. A good half-marathon training plan should include some type of speed, tempo, easy, and long runs for each week.
So, work on building your base, check out some training plans, and get in gear for some great spring half-marathons! Half-Marathon.net is a great resource for finding half-marathons across the country and even the world!