Run for the Journey

Run for the Journey

Doing It By Half - How to Prepare for a Half Marathon

“13.1. It's not 'just a half'. It's an accomplishment." I once saw this race sign as I was doing a half marathon – and the message really rings true. But the beauty of a half marathon is that, while still a significant accomplishment, it is actually much more accessible than it’s bigger, longer, tougher brother – the full marathon. That’s why people always cite half marathons as their most popular distance (alongside 10K) and why race organisers are pushing new events seemingly every week.

Next year sees the launch of two major half marathons in London – the Landmarks Half and the Big Half – to capitalise on the popularity of running in the capital. If the London Marathon can attract almost 300,000 people into its ballot, filling two half marathons should be easy (in fact nearly 70,000 people applied for the limited number of ballot places in the Landmarks Half, if further evidence was needed of the distance’s popularity!). And, of course, let’s not forget that the UK’s biggest running event is the well-established Great North Run which regularly sees nearly 50,000 runners flock to Tyneside in early September to sample the North East’s hospitality and not insubstantial sea breezes.

So just why is the half marathon so popular? Dan Cruz, an event organiser for the popular Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon series gives his thoughts. “The marathon is a bucket list type event whereas 13.1 miles is something that pretty much anyone can accomplish given a little bit of training and the proper mindset on race day. But it’s also long enough where you do need to train for it to have that preparation. It’s a distance that means something because you have to overcome mental obstacles along the way–the sense of achievement is still there.” 

The half marathon - a popular event

So, if you’ve made that decision to take on the distance in the forthcoming half marathon season, what practical advice do you need before the big day arrives? Firstly, think about training. Unlike the marathon, where you need to focus more on mileage, you can comfortably train for a half marathon on just three runs a week. This makes it achievable for even the most time-pressured of us. And if you’re going to opt for a 3-runs-a-week strategy, aim to do one steady run (building to at least 10-11 miles before race day); one set of intervals (so 4 x 5 mins at race pace or 10 x 60 secs at a faster pace); and then one other medium pace run of around 4-7 miles. Even if you started this now, you’d have plenty of time to build to completing – comfortably – an autumn half.

But remember 13.1 miles is a long way. Running that distance does require some training. Those hoping to just “wing it” on the day are setting themselves up for a bad experience. Respect the distance: put in the training and reap the benefits on race day. Try tempo running too: defined as “comfortably difficult”, tempo running sees you running at about 75% of your maximum effort. It’s absolutely ideal for half marathon running as it will help boost both your speed and endurance. Aim for 10 minutes of tempo work to start with, and build it up from there. You could also supplement your running with some cross-training (cycling to work, swimming, rowing etc) and you’ll only help your body cope with the demands put on it come race day.

It also pays to know the course. There are half marathons over all types of terrain and profiles, from pancake flat to seriously hilly. Knowing the course will help to prepare you for what lies ahead. There’s nothing worse than heading to a race hoping for a PB only to find there’s a huge hill about four miles in. Do your research and pick your race accordingly: if you like hills, go off-road; if you want to run flat, this will most likely see you finding a road half. Whatever you choose, just remember to enjoy it!

5 quick tips

1. Pace your race. Don’t go off too fast – you’ll pay in the later stages

2. Go easy on the gels. If you’re going to be finished by 2 hours, you’ll only need one or two

3. During your run drink little and often to avoid dehydration and ensure carbohydrate is being consumed

4. Bring some supporters. Don’t under-estimate the recuperative powers of a friendly face

5. Recover with protein. Try and get a protein drink down you within 30 minutes of the finish and eat a protein-rich meal later on to aid your recovery. Your body will thank you!

Half marathon medals

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David Castle

Editorial Director, Men's Running magazine