How to Race Your Best Half Marathon

We’ve talked one mile, 5K and 10K race strategies, so it only makes sense to move it on up to the half marathon, right? Right!

If you’ve read all three posts, you will definitely notice some common themes. I think it’s best, from a big picture perspective, to keep your overall race strategies fairly similar across these distances. As the race gets longer, there is more room for variation within each phase of the race plan, and there is more potential for outside variables to affect your race. These strategy posts can serve as fundamental building blocks for your race plan. You can easily tweak these strategies as needed based on any weather or course specific issues that you encounter on race day.

Fueling: Fueling needs vary from person-to-person, so I hesitate to give a fueling “strategy.” Fueling wasn’t specifically mentioned in the one mile, 5k or 10k race strategy posts, so adding it here should serve as a reminder that fueling needs to be addressed, at least on some level, during a half marathon.

The important thing is to test whatever you are going to do during the race during your key workouts and long runs. I try to eat a light, simple, and easily digestible breakfast an hour or two before the race starts (definitely nothing new!). If I get thirsty during the race, I will drink whatever water or sports drinks are provided along the course, but that is all I take in during the race itself. Personally, I find that I don’t really need an elaborate fueling plan for a half marathon, but others may disagree. Nailing down a half-marathon fueling strategy will likely involve practicing your fueling during your training and learning via trial and error at races.

Warmup: For a goal half marathon, I typically do a one mile warmup. Remember: you do you! Try to pick the pace up a notch or two to a tempo type effort during the last minute or two or the warmup to stir those aerobic enzymes and prime your engine for the race. Try to stay warm and loose while you stand at the start.

First 10%: As usual, try to avoid the early sprint out and ease into the pace. You’ll want to start off as smooth as possible and use the first mile to gradually settle into your rhythm and goal pace.

Speaking of goal pace, you may be wondering how you know what this should be. I recommend racing a shorter distance race (a 5K or 10K) during your half marathon training and using a running calculator to predict your goal half marathon pace based on that result. Take your predicted pace and create a goal pace range of about 10 to 15 seconds per mile around it. By easing into your goal pace over the course of the first mile, you will not only increase your chances of feeling good later in the race, but you will also be setting yourself up for a nice little negative split. Patience is a virtue that we want to possess during our longer distance races for sure!

Middle 70%: Once you settle into your goal pace range it’s time to relax, get comfy and plan to stay here awhile. The “middle” section of the half marathon is going to take us from the start of the second mile to mile 10. You will want to be running as strong, as smooth and as sustainable as possible (after all, this is a half marathon, not a sprint).

The goal during this middle section is to stay within the targeted pace range and use as little energy as possible to do so. Try to stay in the moment and engaged in the race, executing one mile at a time. If you think it is better mentally to break the race up into other manageable “chunks” then, by all means, do that. I have tried this in the past, with some success, but I end up coming back to the whole “run the mile you are in” philosophy most of the time.

Last 20%: You ran the first part of the race with your head, by easing into it and then staying mentally focused, holding a good strong rhythm through mile 10. Now it is time to race it home (the last 5K) with your heart, by competing and pushing yourself to give the very best effort possible on this day. Depending on how you are feeling at this point, you will likely still be within your goal pace range or hopefully even a little quicker if you can manage it. This is often the point in the race where, if you paced correctly, you will catch up with and pass a lot of people who didn’t have as much success with their pacing strategy and are slowing down.

Cooldown: After the race, get in an easy mile jog to flush out the system and jump-start the recovery process. It’s a good idea to take an ice bath or warm Epsom salt bath in the afternoon for recovery. It can be difficult to make yourself do anything else after the race, but it is always worth it to do a proper cooldown and pay attention to your recovery needs. We take our races seriously and we should take our recovery seriously as well!

What races do you have coming up?


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