Racing a half marathon

A race - photo by David Knight

A race

This is my favourite distance.  The UK’s largest mass participation road race is a half marathon (the Great North Run, from Newcastle to South Shields) which reflects the popularity of the distance. It is sufficiently far to be a serious challenge, even to experienced runners.

But you can recover from a half marathon in a fortnight, unlike the marathon, from which it can take several months to recover fully.

The half marathon pace is very close to your aerobic threshold (see Chapter 10), which means that running at this pace enhances your overall aerobic performance, and so improves your fitness and running at all distances.  The half marathon is also an essential stepping stone for anyone interested in running a full marathon.  It builds confidence and racing experience, and helps you to judge what you will be able to achieve in a longer race.

Training for the half marathon

If you want to train seriously for a half marathon you will need to do at least 16 weeks of training, beginning with at least of month of aerobic running.  Beginners should be running 30 miles a week, and serious runners nearly 70 miles a week.  Runners of all standards need to include a long run at least three times a month, of between 10 and 18 miles.

Speed training for a half marathon inevitably involves slower, longer repetitions that the 10km, with efforts between 800m and 3km.  It is a good idea to race a 10km in the build-up to your half marathon, to test your endurance and sharpen your speed.

You should reduce your running considerably in the last two weeks before a half marathon race.  This tapering will help you to build muscle glycogen and rehydrate, and ensure that your legs are fresh for the race.

Racing the half marathon

Because this is a long race, you don’t need to warm up much before the start.  Your task is to preserve your stored energy.  You may want to jog for half a mile before the race to loosen up your muscles and get your metabolism going, but you should not do any intense running before the start.

All runners should drink water during a half marathon.  The general guidelines on drinking during races apply: drink little and often, right from the gun.  Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to start drinking.

The half marathon is long enough to give you plenty of time to catch up if you start slowly.  The pace of a half marathon will generally seem slow at first, because you are used to running faster for short runs.  But if you go off too fast, you will pay the price in the closing stages of the run.  You are racing at your aerobic threshold – if you push too fast you will kick into anaerobic metabolism and lactate build-up, and once you have “blown” you will find it very difficult to regain your equilibrium.

“Don’t worry about the miles you have that are behind you: only think about the miles you have still to go.   Keep focused on what is ahdead. That is the best way to get your pacing right.”

Nick Slade, ultramarathoner

So go out slowly, and ease in to the race.  Try to get in step with some other runners who are going at about your pace.  Let runners go past you for the first few miles: you will probably overtake them in the last few miles.  After the second or third mile (not before) you should reach your target pace, which you can hold for most of the race.  Try to avoid sagging during miles 6-9.  Don’t just keep pace with the runners around you, because they might well slowing down during the second half, just when you should be speeding up.

At the ten mile mark, you have only the equivalent of a 5km to complete.  Begin to increase your pace, identify runners ahead of you and begin to close them down.  Don’t accelerate too much – try to remain on the right side of your threshold.  In the final mile, push hard, and remember all the speed work you have done on the track.

6 Responses to Racing a half marathon

  • Timmons Roberts:

    Absolutely agree here, Owen…my favorite distance, and really all I have any interest in these days. I think the training suggestions seem about right, but I worry about getting hurt much over 35 miles a week. But that’s just me.

  • Mark Crilley:

    My partner and i are doing our first half (Peterborough) this coming October 2102, your information is a great help thank you.
    Although i do need to ask one question. I have been suffering with shin splints and concequently have done hardly any training for two months, it seems my shin is getting better as in the last week i have managed 6 miles steady in around 55 mins steady, and a park run 5k in 24:58 again seady and with no shin pains.
    Also i am still doing a couple of exercises to help myself (bottom stair raises and curling toes towards shin) is there anything else i could do to help me in my preparation??

    Thanks in advance Mark C (48yrs)

  • Elena Perez:

    Hi! I need some expert advice as to whether I should run a 1/2 marathon or not. The situation is as follows. About 15 weeks ago my husband and I signed up for the Barcelona Half Marathon. I have been running for a while, but not steady and constant training. More than anything I am a recreational runner. I don’t care about time and I do not consider myself a super runner.
    For the past month (over 4 weeks) I have not trained at all. This past monday, just 2 weeks before the race, I retook my training. I did a 10k the fisrt day back running and 7k the following day. Today I am in pain but I need to go out again to build stamina for the race.
    I am now very nervous that I may not be ready to do a Half Marathon at all. The furthest I`ve ran is 13k.
    In your opinion, and based on the background I’ve described, is two weeks enough time to train for a half marathon?

    • Anna S:

      Hey Elena,
      Did you end up running that race? How was it?
      I am in a pretty similar situation at the moment, less then three weeks before the race, debating if it’s doable…
      Furthest I’ve run is 11k. In the last two weeks I’ve had a cold and did’t train as much as I would’ve liked.
      Should I still go for it?

    • Elton Toussand III:

      No two weeks will not do. You just cannot make up several weeks of should’ve been consistent and steady training in two weeks time. If there are commitments that make it hard to be consistent with your training, find ways of building running in. For example, instead of driving to work, run to work, then after work have your husband pick you up or take the bus home. The key to any race is consistently in the training, otherwise you have nothing to work with.

  • I like the article. I disagree that hydration is going to play much of a part in a half marathon. I would stick to drinking when you’re thirsty. Love the advice of focussing during that 6-9 mile period. Here’s some more suggestions for a half:

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