The half marathon is one of the most appealing race distances for fitness enthusiasts, recreational runners and competitive athletes because it’s challenging without being overwhelming.
Training and racing a half marathon provides the challenge most runners are looking for, yet is not as intimidating as the rigors of a full marathon. Preparing for a half marathon still requires an extended training cycle of progressive overload without the wear and tear of 26.2 miles.
The numbers bear this out: 2.1 million runners participated in a half marathon in 2018, according to a recent meta-analysis conducted by RunRepeat and the IAAF. This was second only to the 2.9 million participants who ran a 5K in the same year.
Part of the reason half marathons are so popular, though, is due to their ubiquity. In the United States alone, there were 2,800 sanctioned half marathons in 2016 (the most recent year the data is available), according to Running USA.
The half-marathon provides a fun, relaxed environment for runners of all ability levels, and can be completed in a time frame that doesn’t require an extensive logistical effort or a four-hour post-race nap.
The average finish time for half-marathon runners in the United States is two hours and ten minutes, according to the RunRepeat/IAAF study. This trend has held steady over the past two decades, with the average finisher completing the distance between two hours and two hours and fifteen minutes.
According to the same study, however, half marathon finish times have been slowly increasing since the mid-1990s. But even with slowing times overall, runners keep a faster pace in the half marathon than they do in the 5K, 10K and full marathon.
So, if 13.1 is your thing, how can you beat the trend? Can you improve your half marathon time, despite the fact that others are falling behind? You can, and here’s how.
Many runners are chasing a sub-two hour half marathon finish time, after repeatedly falling into the 2:00-2:15 category. While specificity (to run better, run more) is a fundamental tenet of sports performance training, these runners often see a boost in performance by incorporating cross-training and strength-training into an existing routine.
Running is a repetitive, unilateral movement. By taking a diverse approach to athletic conditioning, though, most two-plus hour half marathon runners can experience a quantum leap in their efficiency and economy, which leads to faster race times.
Simply put, using cross training and strength training to increase your overall quality of movement has a direct correlation to your athletic ability as a runner.
“Whether you run 12-minute miles or six-minute miles, your weekly training and race day performance can be positively impacted by what your cross training emphasizes,” says Jeremy Smith, MS, CSCS.
Smith is the Director of Fitness and Performance at the Pittsburgh-based Iron City Elite Strength and Conditioning facility. In an email with Fleet Feet, he says he divides a comprehensive training program into four fundamental components: mobility, soft tissue work, stabilization and resistance.
Smith emphasizes three things with his athletes:
What about picking up the weights?
“Utilizing resistance training, like free-weights, cables, bands and bodyweight, and incorporating both plyometric and strength training exercises of moderate to higher weights with lower reps, has been shown to increase overall power output and provide more overall capacity versus lighter weights and high reps,” he says.
Runners who have already beaten the two-hour mark and are following regimented cross training and strength training programs can also use specific race-day techniques to set personal best times at the half marathon distance.
Slowing down to grab a cup of water from a friendly volunteer can not only throw you off your groove but carries inherent safety risks, like getting tangled in another runners feet or bowling over the person in front of you who came to a complete stop.
If you need a drink, taking a direct line through the aid station can keep you on pace to hit your target time, without a decrease in performance.
“The day before, increasing fluid intake by 36 oz is essential,” he says in an email. “Then, the morning of the race, it would be wise to have 20 oz of (a sports drink) and a 24-32 oz water bottle in the three hours leading up to the race.
“This amount of fluid pre-race will get the runner to the level of hydration that they do not need additional fluid for the first eight to 10 miles of the race depending on temperature. By the time a runner gets to any of the aid stations beyond mile eight, traffic has diminished greatly, which reduces the chance of tripping up and keeps the aid station usage to only one to two stations.”
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and by running the tangents, or running along the centerline of the course, you can ensure you are actually racing as close to the 13.1 mile distance as possible.
By not running the tangents, you could add seconds per turn over the course of the race. This not only significantly increases your overall finish time, but it could mean that you actually raced more than the half marathon distance by the time you cross the finish.
Herb Cratty from Miles of Smiles Timing Service runs the tangents of each course. He says the easiest explanation is to compare to running on a track.
“If you and I would run the exact same speed, and you’re in lane six and I am in lane one on the track, by the time we run four laps (one mile), I will be way ahead of you,” he says. “You have to practice turns, look up ahead of you and get yourself in position to run the shortest angle. It could mean the difference from winning a race and losing it.”
Both uphill and downhill running require different biomechanics than racing on a flat surface. So use hills during a training cycle to become more efficient, especially if your course calls for significant climbs.
Ken Presutti, a triathlon coach and Chi Running instructor, advises his athletes to approach hills tactically.
“Don’t crush the hills, but hit them at a moderate intensity, with a short, quick stride,” he says in a phone interview with Fleet Feet. “Once you crest the top, take 30-50 steps to recover, then turn on the afterburners and pull ahead of everyone who over-cooked the trip up.”
Life is a team sport, and racing is no different. If you are facing a strong headwind, or stuck in a downward spiral of negative self-talk, sharing the workload with other runners can keep you focused on the task at hand.
The starting line corral is a great place to find people who are shooting for the same finish time as you, and to create a strategy before the gun goes off. A group of runners could take turns breaking the wind, or perhaps one or two runners in the pack have a strong kick or can pull the group through the late stages of the race. It’s effective to use your competition to help you beat the clock.
No matter what level of runner you are, or what your best half-marathon time is at the moment, using race-specific training protocols, improving your economy as an athlete and implementing race-day strategies can all help you achieve the personal record you are after.
By Timothy Lyman. Timothy is the director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh and an ACE certified personal trainer. With over a decade of experience in the field, his education ranges from sports psychology to exercise physiology. He has coached runners at all levels on every surface at any distance, with an emphasis on economy, injury-prevention and functional fitness.