Half marathon distance: how to achieve this challenging yet achievable run

Tough, exciting, and very rewarding – running 13.1 miles is all about the right training. Here’s how to go about it.

The half marathon distance is a hugely popular race, with upwards of 40,000 people taking part in events like the Great North Run or the Big Half in London.  

And while those events may grab the headlines, there are plenty of others up and down the country every weekend, often run in exciting venues like the racecourse at Aintree, or past Cambridge’s colleges. 

The key is to remember how long a half marathon is, and that running the 13.1 miles (21 km) is as much about the preparation as it is about the day itself. It’s the satisfaction of completing a training programme that helps make the distance so rewarding.  


Runners cross the Tyne Bridge in the Great North RunCredit: RecCap/Shutterstock
The Great North Run half marathon attracts more than 40,000 runners every year

It’s achievable

The half marathon distance is a target most of us can reach

It was a good, realistic goal when I first began running, and was something I could build up to and achieve when a full marathon seemed daunting and out of reach,” says Phil Martin, an award-winning runner. “For someone who is running their local Parkrun, the half marathon distance is a good challenging step up from 5k. From there, who knows?”  

Martin, who was a 20-a-day smoker before he turned to running, has represented England at age group level, and won five British Masters titles, and in 2018 took first place in the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, run at the base of Everest.

Phil Martin has gone from a smoker to international masters athlete over half marathonCredit: Graeme J Baty/Shutterstock
Phil Martin has gone from a smoker to international masters athlete over half marathon

Training advice

How to start your half marathon distance training

There are just three elements to think about when you target a half marathon

Firstly, if you’re a 50-year-old runner (and older), your journey over the half marathon distance is all about one thing: recovery, especially as your muscles tend to repair more slowly after hard work than younger people.   

Of course, you’ll need to do the actual running training and get used to pacing yourself for 5k and longer distances like the 10k. But successful running at an older age is also about how well your body recovers.  

My easy runs are ‘easier’ than they used to be, as I’ve learned to ease back, and I think terrain is important,” says Louise Rudd, multiple World Masters champion. “I find running round grass like football pitches helpful in terms of an active running recovery rather than pounding the pavements.” Rudd echoes what many experienced runners have learnt as they venture into running after 50.  

Secondly, think in eight to 12 week blocks. For training to start having an effect, be that from a complete beginner’s point of view or a seasoned veteran’s, you need to allow muscles time to break down, repair and grow stronger.  

And thirdly, mix and match the distances you run. To build up to the half marathon’s 13.1 miles, during the 12 weeks you could tackle one shorter run of around three miles; one medium run of around six miles; and one longer run of around eight or nine miles. Add a mile each week to your overall total and fit in one strength training session every ten days, and you pretty much have the perfect formula.  

Eat properly

Fuel yourself right for the half marathon distance

Your key here is to think about fuel and hydration. Your usual well-balanced diet will provide the base for your needs, as your energy stores (glycogen levels) should be sufficient for any run up to about 18 miles – quite a bit further than a half marathon.  

Of course, the cumulative effect of training will mean you have to keep an eye on what’s occurring. A six-mile run will burn roughly 700 calories, which over a week adds up to a significant amount if your regular diet doesn’t meet your needs.  

There’s no single diet that’s right for everyone, writes registered nutritionist Anita Bean in her book The Runner’s Cookbook, adding: But burning calories doesn’t mean you can eat pizzas, crisps and drink beer to your heart’s content.” Eat sensibly and you won’t go far wrong.  

And when it comes to hydration, the key is to ensure you’re properly hydrated before and after your run. For runs further than six miles, carry some fluid and remember, when you finish, to rehydrate at once. Each kilo (2.2lb) of weight lost in a run equates to one litre (1 3/4 pints) of fluid. A rule of thumb is to try to avoid losing more than 3% of your body weight in a workout. 

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The clothing you need

Invest in the right kit

Start with your feet and work upwards. Invest in a pair of good running shoes, which will provide cushioning, support, breathability, grip and performance. The correct pair of shoes will not only be comfortable, they can minimise your risk of injury.  

There are some great bargains to be had by looking at last year’s models. I tend to head to Sportsshoes or Runners Need. Joss Baldwin, Runners Need buyer, says: It’s important to wear the right running kit all year round, and the different seasons mean different garments. Your clothing and accessories will determine how successful your run can be, so invest in the right kit for you and make it simple to transition from season to season smoothly.” 

When it comes to running clothes, always choose sweat-wicking, quick-drying, and breathable fabrics to keep you cool and running comfortably. Layering the right kit will keep the moisture continually moving away from your body and help keep you at a comfortable temperature. Look for mesh ventilation panels for air flow, seamless construction to avoid nasty rubbing, and UV protection to shield your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. 

Inspiring tales

Set some amazing goals

Johannes Mosehla, who is 81 and has recently finished the 90km (55.9miles) Comrades Marathon in South Africa, perfectly illustrates the importance of having a goal. “I will be back at the Comrades. I want to improve my time,” Mosehla told South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper, after finishing it in nine hours 26 minutes. He’s been training since 1963 but is always looking to the future.  “I intend to continue as long as I’m alive and still strong.”  

Goal setting is hugely important and will play a big role in your half marathon journey. Of course, everybody will have a different goal, but elements you should consider are including two intermediate distances to achieve as your first few goals. Plan to run a couple of 10k races as you prepare for your half marathon and instead of a time, opt for a strategy.  

We use that in my own training group all the time to great success. For instance, Elizabeth in our group recently ran a 100k race just a few months before her 51st birthday; she was not focusing at all on time but concentrating instead on how to eat on the move, and how she should feel early on. She got that right and finished third overall. Find what works for you, whether that’s losing weight or making it to the top 10 in a race. And enjoy! 

Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins


Paul is Senior Coaching Editor at Saga Exceptional. He has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors.

But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide. In fact, he’s still very competitive. In 2022 he ran in the World Masters’ Mountain Running Champs in the over-55 age group and is now looking forward to moving up a category and taking on the 60-year-olds.

He’s also part of the England Team Management set-up in road running as well as being an England team coach in the U18 age group for track and field athletics. Currently, he coaches a group of athletes ranging from 13 years old to 55 at his local club.

Outside of work, Paul loves cooking and driving classic cars. He’s owned everything from a 1966 Ford F-250 pickup to a clapped-out 1987 Porsche 944. He’s married to Elaine and they have a West Highland White Terrier named Benji, who’s not that keen on being timed for every run!

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