Running 13.1 miles isn’t something you just go out and do. You have to train for it in order to get to the finish line injury-free. One of the best ways to prepare for such a physical and mental challenge is to follow a proven training plan, one that not only pushes you but also puts your safety and health first.

We spoke with exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist Tom Holland, a 60-time marathoner and author of “The Marathon Method,” about effective ways to train for a half marathon. With his help, we created a step-by-step guide to best prepare runners for a big race.

Runner Guide

1. Set Goals

Setting realistic goals and intentions for both your training period and your race day is the first step. “My first goal is to get runners to the start line injury-free,” says Holland. “I also recommend that the primary goal of first-time half marathoners is to finish, rather than have a specific time goal.”

“Be sure to buy your sneakers at a reputable store that specializes in running. Once you find a pair of shoes, stick with them. It’s about function, not fashion.”
Tom Holland

2. Plan Out Your Miles by Week

Holland recommends running three to four days each week on nonconsecutive days, to give your body time to recover. This way you can space your mileage goals throughout those days. He says runners should stick with four-week training blocks, upping the mileage each week for three weeks, followed by a lower mileage recovery week.

Week 1: 15 miles total

Week 2: 18 miles total

Week 3: 20 miles total

Week 4: 12 miles total

3. Mix It up with Cross-Training

Despite what you might think, training for a half marathon shouldn’t only involve running. Cross-training, or doing other activities on the days you don’t run, can help you stay strong as well as prevent injuries.

Run with a group, if possible. This will help with motivation as well as serve as a place to learn valuable information.
Tom Holland

“Biking is a great complementary sport for runners,” says Holland. Contrary to a high-impact activity like running, biking is a nonimpact cardio exercise that helps to correct muscle imbalances. He also suggests strength training, yoga, swimming, and Pilates.

A 17-mile training week with cross-training might look something like this:

Monday: Go on a 4-mile run.

Tuesday: Do 25 minutes of strength training.

Wednesday: Go on a 5-mile run.

Thursday: Do 25 minutes of strength training.

Friday: Go on a 45-minute bike ride.

Saturday: Go on an 8-mile run.

Sunday: Rest.

4. Stay Hydrated and Eat Right

When it comes to mealtime, runners in training should focus on healthy carbohydrates (for fuel) and lean sources of protein (for muscle repair). “Sports nutrition is highly individualistic,” says Holland. Some runners might find that a pre-run banana and peanut butter sandwich is enough to fuel them, while others may prefer something more substantial, like oatmeal. He suggests keeping a training log to track what you eat and find what works best for you.

Listen to your body. Don’t try to run through pain — deal with these inevitable aches and pains immediately. Rest when your body tells you it’s needed.
Tom Holland

“Hydration is important, too,” says Holland. He suggests drinking 8 to 10 ounces of water before every run, and rehydrating with 10 to 20 ounces as needed. If you’re going for a long run, lasting an hour or more, Holland recommends bringing water with you, “sipping 4 to 8 ounces every 10 to 15 minutes or so.”

Training for a half marathon can be hard work. Focus on keeping yourself safe and injury-free!