Essential half marathon Q&A

Running a half marathon is a challenge suited to both fairly new runners with few short distance races on your CV, and those building towards the challenge of a full marathon later in the year.

Beginner's Training

Q. Can I run/walk a half marathon?
A. Absolutely! Practise run-walking three or four times a week in training – the walks will get shorter and the runs much longer. Make sure your running segments are at conversational pace and set realistic goals for yourself, related to time on your feet and the length of your runs. You will get fitter with patience and frequency of running, not sudden changes in routine.

Q. I’ve only been running for two months – is it too soon for a half?
A. No, you can do this! Once you are at a stage where you can run easily or run/walk for 30 minutes, you are ready to start training for your first half marathon. Set yourself some achievable targets along the way as practice and to help with confidence – maybe a 5km race early on, followed by a 10km race or two a month or so later. Finally, consider using a 10-mile race as your long run two or three weeks before Race Day. This will really boost your confidence. Run regularly but make sure you rest when your schedule says to or when you’re tired. Ensure you eat and drink well and surround yourself with positive people.

General training

Q. Do I need to run more than 13 miles in training?
A. Not if simply completing 13.1 miles on Race Day is your sole aim. 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 taken on sufficient fluid and fuel.
But if you want to race quickly and at a pace quite near to your threshold for the whole distance, then you will probably need to have gone longer in training. Faster runners will most likely run beyond 13 miles in training regularly anyway. They might put threshold/race-pace blocks into their long runs as part of their preparation. A good example is a 90-minute run consisting of 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.

Q. Why should I do speed work for a half marathon?
A. 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 5km- or 10km-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 10km races over the last eight weeks to help with the sharpening-up process. The 10km 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. As you reach the end of your endurance training, these will help to maximise your racing potential.

Q. What kind of speed sessions should I do for a half marathon?
A. 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 10km session in the later phases of training might be:
10 minutes at threshold pace
5x1km at 10km 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 1km efforts.
This recruits your 10km pace and your threshold/half marathon pace all in the same session. It could be quite close to 10km volume for some athletes, therefore very relevant.

Q. Can I train for a half marathon on a three-days-a-week schedule?
A. Yes, definitely, but you must make the three runs really count. With only three runs, the margins become slightly tighter and the runs must hit the spot.
A good three runs per week plan might look like this:
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.


Q. Should I race shorter distances as I prepare for my half?
A. This is a good idea. 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.

Q. How much fuel should I take on during a half marathon?
A. First of all, make sure you practise your fuelling strategy in training. Many races will have official water and energy drink suppliers and sponsors, so try the relevant energy drinks out in training. It’s never a good idea to get used to your favourite brand in training and then realise you have to use another on Race Day. They all differ, as do our reactions to their content. The second rule is to respect the distance. Your half marathon could take you two hours or more to complete. A sound strategy is to take on a quality carbohydrate/electrolyte replacement drink every 5km if possible. Whatever you’re drinking, 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 again, practise this.

Q. How often can I race a half marathon?
A. If training for a full marathon, it’s wise to race a half marathon seriously between four and six weeks ahead of the main event. It’s fine to still run other half marathons in the build-up but use these 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, you could possibly race two half marathons seriously in the spring and two more in the autumn. This is all very personal though and you will know your body better as you become more experienced.
Most athletes require an easy week after racing their half marathon and after two or three big races, the body often needs a break mentally, as well as physically. It’s sensible to leave roughly four weeks between half marathons if you race more than one seriously.

Q. I'm training for a marathon, how fast should I run my half?
A. Experienced runners should choose a good half four to six weeks out from your 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 marathon runner, it’s better to 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.

Q. How can I save something for the last 0.1 miles? I always peak too soon
A. You don’t need to save yourself for that last 0.1 mile. The race is run! Focus on maintaining an even pace and train regularly at your planned race pace. Perhaps even race a 10km 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. A clever runner will do this and then pick up over the last few miles.

Q. How long should I taper for?
A. Your last long run should be two or three weeks before Event Day. In the last two weeks your runs should gradually become easier in effort and reduce in volume. Remember, though, your body has become used to running regularly, so you can 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.