Everything you need to know about tackling a half-marathon, whatever your ability or ambitions
Tackling a half-marathon is a challenge equally suited to those with just a few short distance races under their belts and those looking towards completing a full 26.2-mile challenge later in the year. With this in mind, we put a selection of your most frequently asked questions to coach Nick Anderson. Here's what he had to say...
Can I run/walk a half-marathon?
Definitely. Practice run-walking three or four times a week in training and the walks will become shorter and the runs much longer. Keep things moving along at conversational pace and set yourself realistic goals, related to time on your feet and the length of your runs. Fitness comes with patience and frequency of running, not sudden changes in routine.
I’ve only been running for two months – is it too soon for a half?
It is definitely not too soon. Once you can run easily or run/walk for 30 minutes, I believe you are ready to start training for your half debut. Set yourself some achievable targets along the way as practice and to help with confidence – maybe a 5K race early on, followed by a 10K or two a month or so later. Finally, consider putting in a 10-mile race as your long run two or three weeks before the big day. This will really boost your confidence. Remember to run frequently, rest when your schedule says to or when you’re tired, eat and drink well and surround yourself with positive people.
Do I need to run more than 13 miles in training?
To complete the half-marathon on the day – no. To race quickly and at a pace quite near to your threshold for the whole distance – probably yes. If you have only run nine or 10 miles in training, you will manage the extra three or four on race day, provided your pace is very sensible and consistent and you have sufficient fluid and fuel.
The faster runners will, or should, run beyond 13 miles in training regularly anyway. They might put threshold/race-pace blocks into their long runs as part of their preparation, for example a 90-minute run could comprise 30 minutes easy, 30 steady and the last 30 at threshold pace. This is a great way to educate and prepare the body’s energy systems
Why should I do speedwork for a half-marathon?
The key elements to half-marathon training should be long runs up to and beyond the race distance, race-pace efforts and steady-state runs.
Once your long runs are going well, your race pace efforts or blocks (probably threshold pace) and energy levels are good, you could consider putting in a weekly 5K- or 10K-pace session. This could perhaps become a regular weekly feature over the last six to eight weeks of your build-up.
You would also be wise to factor in one or two 10K races over the last eight weeks to help with the sharpening-up process. The 10K races and speed sessions (aerobic/anaerobic) would improve your leg speed and ability to work at higher than half-marathon race pace and heart rate. This, towards the end of your endurance training, will help to maximise your racing potential aerobically.
What kind of speed sessions should I do for a half-marathon?
Early training phase threshold/race pace sessions might be as simple as four sets of six minutes at half-marathon/threshold pace with a two- or three-minute jog recovery. These could build all the way through your plan. You might eventually end up being able to complete bigger blocks or more efforts, such as three sets of 15 minutes built into a 60-80 minute run, or six to eight sets of six minutes, but they must be at half-marathon/threshold pace.
A good 10K session in the later phases of training might be:
- 10 minutes at threshold pace
- 5x1K at 10K pace,
- 10 minutes at threshold pace, with two or three minutes’ recovery between parts one and two and two and three, and 200m jog recoveries between the 1K efforts.
This recruits your 10K pace and your threshold/half-marathon pace all in the same session. It could be quite close to 10K volume for some athletes, therefore very relevant.
Can I train for a half-marathon on a three-days-a-week schedule?
Yes, definitely, but you must make the three runs really count though, don’t just go out the door making it up or drifting along. With only three runs, the margins become slightly tighter and the runs must hit the spot.
I would run:
- 1 x long run per week that builds gradually but reduces in time/length once every three or four weeks to allow recovery.
- 1 x threshold block per week that builds up, for example begin with four sets of five minutes and build this up in length and time over the weeks, perhaps reaching four sets of 10 minutes by the last few weeks of your plan.
- 1 x race-pace practice run, for example 10-15 minutes easy, 20-30 minutes at race pace, 10-15 minutes easy. This could start as a 30-minute run with 10 minutes in the middle at race pace, but could build to 60 with 30 in the middle, or more, by race time.
Should I race shorter distances as I prepare for my half?
Yes, definitely. These will give you confidence as you practise your race routine and preparation. The shorter races will also sharpen your performance and give realistic markers for how your progress is coming along.
How much fuel should I take on during a half-marathon?
The first rule must be to practise your fuelling strategy in training. The bigger races will have official water and energy drink suppliers and sponsors, so try the relevant energy drinks out in training. Don’t get used to your favourite brand in training and then use another on the big day. They all differ, as do our reactions to their content.
The second rule is to respect the distance. A half-marathon could take two hours or more to complete. I would suggest taking on board a quality carbohydrate/electrolyte replacement drink every 5K if possible. Whatever you’re drinking, though try to sip it gradually over the period of a mile.
Another way of taking on fuel is through energy gels. They come packed with optimal carbohydrate and electrolytes, and most importantly can be taken as you require them. They can be held in your hand, tucked into your shorts or pinned to your vest. Take a gel roughly every 30 minutes, but practise this.
How often can I race a half-marathon?
If you are building up to a full marathon then I would suggest you race a half seriously four to six weeks before the main event. You could still run other half-marathons in the build-up but as training runs at marathon pace or with marathon-pace segments built in.
Alternatively, if you are not racing a full marathon in a season, I would suggest you could possibly race two half-marathons seriously in the spring and two more in the autumn. This is all very personal though. Most athletes require an easy week after racing their half, and after two or three big races, the body often needs a break mentally, as well as physically. I would certainly leave about four weeks between your half-marathons if you race more than one seriously.
I'm training for a marathon, how fast should I run my half?
My best advice for the experienced runner is to choose a good half four to six weeks out from you marathon and race this hard, possibly looking for a PB. If you run other half-marathons in your preparation towards the marathon, use these as marathon-paced efforts – great for confidence and fuelling practice. For the beginner to a marathon, I would only use the half-marathons as marathon race-pace target sessions. Logically, if you cannot complete a half at your marathon target pace, your marathon target pace is not realistic.
How can I save something for the last 0.1 miles? I always peak too soon.
Why are you saving yourself for the last 0.1 miles? It is over by then. Try to run an even pace and train regularly at your planned race pace. Perhaps even race a 10K at your planned half-marathon pace. If you feel great at the end and could have run much further, your training is on target. On race day, keep your head early on and run at your target pace, not faster. The wise will do this and then pick up over the last few miles.
How long should I taper for?
Your last longer run should be two or three weeks before the race. In the last two weeks your runs should gradually become easier in effort and reduce in volume. However, I would never reduce frequency of running by that much. Your body has become used to running regularly, so still go out as frequently as before, perhaps only reducing in the last week by a further run or two.
Your long run could reduce by 33 per cent two weeks out and by a further third the weekend before. Sessions could do the same. Elite athletes will probably put in their last really tough session 10 days before the race, then begin their taper.