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How to walk a half-marathon — yes, you can walk one

13.1 miles can be attainable with the right plan in place.

Welcome to the Start TODAY Walking Challenge sponsored by Easy Spirit. Sign up for our free Start TODAY newsletter to join the challenge with Al Roker and receive daily inspiration sent to your inbox. Then, join us on the Start TODAY Facebook group for tips and motivation, to connect with others following the plan — and to get real-time advice from trainer Stephanie Mansour!

In May, Al Roker walked the Brooklyn Half Marathon. In the weeks before the race, he connected with running coach Hiruni Wijayaratne for support and guidance through an app-based program called runcoach. “I was randomly assigned to him, and I didn’t realize he was the Al Roker for a good bit of time,” Wijayaratne said. “He’s super down to earth. You would never know he is a TV personality.” 

Roker had completed a marathon in the past, but this was his first long-distance race in a while. And, with two knee replacements and a hip replacement, he needs to go easy on his joints.  

“Al had a really good base underneath him because he’s been committed to this wellness goal. He’s walking every day. He had that consistency, which is what most people need to get to before they can do something like sign up for a half-marathon,” Wijayaratne said. “It was easy to help create a path forward for him because we didn’t have to start from scratch.” 

While Wijayaratne created a personalized training plan for Roker, she said walking a half-marathon is an attainable goal for most people. Here’s what she recommends. 

Follow a training plan 

Most people can build up to walking a half-marathon in 12 to 16 weeks. If you’re sedentary or starting from scratch, you may want more time, while if you’re a regular walker, you can probably get there in 12 weeks or a bit less. 

Whether you work with a coach or come up with your own routine, you want to mix up your effort and your pace, and include uphill and downhill stretches. “You want to get used to those things that you’re going to encounter on race day,” Wijayaratne said.  

To start, just build a walking habit. “For the first month, I don’t care how fast you walk. I just want you to be walking at least four days a week,” Wijayaratne said. “I like to give people something that is very attainable, like 15 minutes on Monday, rest on Tuesday, 20 minutes on Wednesday, and then we go from there.” 

While everyone’s goal is different, walking a half-marathon in four hours is realistic for many people. Wijayaratne recommends going a quarter of the way toward that goal every month. Here’s how that might play out. 

  • After four weeks: Be able to walk for one hour at least once a week. 
  • After eight weeks: Be able to walk for two hours at least once a week. 
  • After 12 weeks: Be able to walk for three hours at least once a week. 
  • At 16 weeks (race day): Be able to walk for four hours. 

To reach those monthly goals, your weekly workouts might play out like this: 

  • One “window shopping” walk where you’re breathing comfortably, enjoying the scenery and just moving.
  • One moderate walk, as if you’re hurrying to an airport gate to catch a flight.
  • One brisk walk, where you’re working, breathing hard, and pumping your arms.
  • One long walk, where you work toward your goal distance for the month.

“That way, you’re able to vary your effort, you’re able to vary your breathing pattern, and it makes it fun—you have something to look forward to every day,” she said. “By the time we get to race day, you have all those really good minutes of walking underneath you.” 

Invest in good walking shoes 

“I think any good running shoe is a good walking shoe,” Wijayaratne said. She suggests going to a local running store, where they can analyze your gait and recommend a few appropriate shoes. You can probably walk 500 to 600 miles in a good pair of shoes. “For a walker, a pair of shoes could last for the whole year,” she said.  

Good walking shoes will cost more than casual shoes you might wear when you’re shopping or strolling, but Wijayaratne thinks they’re worth it since they can prevent aches and pains. “If you have this goal, invest in yourself and take care of yourself,” she said. 

Carry water and fuel on your longer walks 

If you’re walking for more than an hour, bring water in a handheld bottle or on a waist strap. Try to take three or four big sips every 20 minutes or so. “That way, you are never getting to the point where you’re dehydrated, but you’re giving your body those hydration intervals so you can keep going,” Wijayaratne said. 

On your long walks, you may also want to bring along energy gel to fuel your body as your glucose drops — Wijayaratne recommends one every 45 minutes.  

Walk on a softer surface, if possible 

Wijayaratne thinks soft, crushed gravel is the ideal walking surface, but that’s not a realistic option for most people. So, she suggests walking wherever you can, as long as you’re comfortable and safe. Walking on a treadmill is another good option: “The treadmill belt is much softer and easier on the body than walking outside on the sidewalk.”  

Here’s what to know for race day 

You’ve been preparing for months, and the big day is here. If you’ve never participated in a race before, here are a few things you should know: 

  • Bring about four gels for fuel — one for every 45 minutes or so. Don’t try a new gel that’s in your race goodie bag. “You never know how different things will interact with your stomach,” Wijayaratne said.
  • You shouldn’t need to bring water. Most races build in water stops along the route.
  • Try to get there an hour before the start time. That way, you can use the bathroom, stretch a little, and let your heart rate come down before it has to work hard for several hours.
  • Don’t try anything new on race day — it’s not the day for new shoes, clothes or fuel. “The last thing you need is a blister or chafing because you’re wearing something you’re not used to,” Wijayaratne said.
  • If it’s a big race, position yourself in the middle or back of the pack — leave the front for the faster runners. 
  • You should be able to finish in the time the course is open. In most half-marathons, the course will be closed to vehicle traffic for four to five hours.

Don’t be intimidated 

“When you’re starting something like this as a walker, it can seem intimidating. You have such a far distance to go from the start to the finish line. I want to encourage walkers not to give up their goal because they think it’s for runners. There are lots of people who walk half-marathons, and you get the same medal whether you run it or you walk it,” Wijayaratne said. “You’re on your own journey to your own finish line, and it doesn’t matter what your pace is. You’re successful, and you’re a winner.”