Even if you started walking or running mostly for fitness reasons, you've probably at least considered entering a race. If so, rather than either having a strict time goal or aiming "merely" to finish, maybe you're eyeing a little of both. The half-marathon is an ideal distance for this -- at 13 miles, it's long enough so that you can't fake your way through it, but training for it won't threaten to cannibalize all of your energy the way marathon training can.
Before choosing a goal race, you need to make an honest appraisal of your fitness. If you are starting purely from scratch -- that is, you've never run or have been out of the activity for a long time -- then you need to allow yourself at least four months to prepare adequately, even if you plan to mix in walk breaks during your training and racing. Former 10,000-meter Olympian turned coach Jeff Galloway recommends being able to comfortably run three miles at a time before embarking on his training program, which revolves around a combination of running interspersed with walking breaks that are longer for slower runners and shorter for faster ones.
The Run/Walk Method: Nuts and Bolts
In decades past, it was unusual to see anyone walking in a road race. The prevailing idea was that races were for hard-core specimens only and that walking was invariably a sign of poor pacing, lackluster preparation or mental weakness. Happily, with the ever-growing number of "casual" runners in the mix, it's now common to see people not only taking walk breaks, but planning them ahead of time for strategic reasons.
Jeff Galloway recommends doing two or three 30-minute runs each week and a longer run on the weekend, with the distance alternating between about five miles and as many as 14 toward the end of the four-month program. The long runs should include walk breaks that scale with your speed; if you can run 8:00 per mile, use a run-to-walk ratio of 4-to-1 or greater, whereas if your running speed is 13:00 per mile or slower, try 1-to-1.
Forming a Time Goal
Your training runs should offer a good indication of how fast you're prepared to go on race morning. It's important to keep your run-to-walk ratio consistent within each long run, although as you become fitter this ratio may rise from week to week along with the total distance you cover in these efforts.
Once you reach a total of 10 or so miles of walking and running at a pop, use the speed at which you run to estimate your race pace. For example, if you run at 10:00 per mile and walk for one minute for every five minutes of running, your overall pace is about 11:00 per mile, which translates to a half-marathon in around two hours, 25 minutes. Since you can expect to get a boost in the race from adrenaline, the others around you and resting for several days before, rounding down to 2:20:00 is reasonable, too.
If the half-marathon is your maiden road-race voyage, you should keep a number of things in mind. Most important, make sure that when you take your walk breaks, you don't come to a sudden halt in front of others who are running the whole way, as is very common is large race fields; keep to one side of the road and if you're part of a group, try to go single file. Be careful not to start out too quickly -- being too jazzed up can cause this, as can the other entrants who in effect suck you along. Write your planned time at each mile marker on your arm or carry them on a piece of paper tucked into your waistband so that you can adjust your pace on the fly if necessary. Wear sunscreen if the conditions demand it and always, always drink at least every two miles at the aid stations.
L.T. Davidson has been a professional writer and editor since 1994. He has been published in "Triathlete," "Men's Fitness" and "Competitor." A former elite cyclist with a Master of Science in exercise physiology from the University of Miami, Davidson is now in the broadcast news business.