The Hype Around the Half Marathon - Challenging Instead of Torturing

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The distance of over 21 kilometres is booming - not only in Germany, but throughout Europe. Why is that? takes a closer look at the growing popularity of the half marathon distance and the motivations of the runners.

34,000 runners take part in the Berlin Half Marathon every year.
34,000 runners take part in the Berlin Half Marathon every year.

There are plenty of reasons to go running regularly: running is good for health, promotes discipline, makes you happy, helps you lose weight - the list could go on forever. The ever increasing number of running events has enjoyed corresponding popularity since the end of the last century: "When we started back then, there were 50 marathon events in Germany, that was in 1997. Meanwhile there are almost 200," reports Markus Frisch, Managing Director of Köln Marathon Veranstaltungs- und Werbe GmbH.

While the figures for marathon registrations are stagnating, the organizers of the Rhine Energy Marathons in Cologne from registrations for the half marathon: "By the end of July, all places had already been filled. In September we sold another 300 remaining tickets from returns, which were sold out again within two minutes. Altogether we expect almost 16,500 runners for this distance. This makes us the second largest half-marathon event in Germany," reports Frisch.

The fact that there are not even more participants at the start is solely due to the urban framework conditions, which do not allow even more runners, because there was no shortage of other interested parties: "We could have sold 2,000 or more starting places, so many inquiries have still reached us," says Frisch.

Reduced Training Effort for Half Marathons

The reasons for the popularity of the half marathon distance are manifold. On the one hand, pragmatic reasons play a role: "Running is one of the easiest sports you can do because you don't need much for it. The tendency, however, is towards shorter distances such as the half marathon, because the training effort is not that high. They are mostly working people, and the training effort for a half marathon is much more family-friendly than that of a marathon," says Frisch.

The former German marathon champion and running book author Herbert Steffny also sees the lower training effort as a big plus: "The marathon is still considered to be the 'Matterhorn of the little man', but its preparation is very time-consuming and the regeneration takes longer. With a little less effort, on the other hand, the 21.1-kilometre distance can be easily managed and there is also a city running experience in many attractive cities around the world".

Herbert Steffny is an author of running books and was a world-class runner.
Herbert Steffny is an author of running books and was a world-class runner.
Image credit:
Herbert Steffny Run Fit Fun GmbH

In addition, the timing for many major half-marathon events is well chosen. Steffny comments: "The New York Half Marathon, for example, in spring is the counterpart to the world-famous marathon in autumn. Even the Berlin Half Marathon with around 30,000 participants, is an attractive spring goal for many. Over the winter you may not have so much time to do a more comprehensive marathon training in the cold and darkness."

Not as Big a Sporting Challenge as a Marathon

Meanwhile there is a marathon on a lot of people's bucket lists. But once the goal has been reached, many people's willingness to torture themselves again decreases. Nevertheless, many do not want to do without competitions. They need the incentive to motivate themselves. So a half marathon is a good compromise. For Herbert Steffny this is a sensible development, because for him "from zero to 21" is a much more sensible project than the former "zero to 42" hype.

A half marathon is therefore more demanding and prestigious than a five kilometre run, but not as challenging as a complete marathon. According to Steffny, a runner needs at least a year and a half to prepare for a marathon properly. A few months are usually enough for the half marathon training plan, and in an emergency you can even cheat your way through, even if this is not recommended.

Suitable for Men and Women of All Ages

The numbers of the Cologne Marathon show that a half marathon is realisable for almost everyone.

  • While only 24 percent of the participants in the marathon are women, the figure for the half marathon is 46 percent.
  • The youngest participant in Cologne is 16 years old (minimum age).
  • The oldest participants are regularly over 80 years old.
  • The class with the highest number of participants is the 20- to 30-year-olds.
  • Even if the average age is 39.

Many Thousands of Spectators Bring Adrenaline Rush

Another factor for the increasing popularity is the change of the events themselves. While in the past it was the result that counted most in races, today the character of the experience is more important. For many, it is true that being part of it is everything.

Even though there are a few spectators on the sidelines of a smaller fun run, the atmosphere at a major event like the Berlin Half Marathon is incomparable for many runners. Running while thousands of spectators cheer on you at the edge gives many participants a real adrenaline kick. This means that there is no end in sight for the boom in the near future.

The Five Biggest Half Marathons in Europe:



Number of Participants

Date of Next Marathon





Great North Run

Great Britain



Paris Half Marathon




Lisbon Half Marathon




Berlin Half Marathon