The half marathon is a difficult balance between conserving fuel and energy while running just at the edge of your lactate threshold. Start too fast and you’ll burn through your carbohydrate stores and bonk. Start too slow and you’ll be too far behind in the final miles to record your best time.
You need to find the ideal half marathon pacing strategy that will ensure that you conserve enough energy early to finish strong while still pushing your limits the entire distance.
The Overall Strategy
To race your best, you should focus on running a patient and conservative race over the first 3 miles, relaxing during the middle miles, and then attacking the course for the last 2 miles.
Interestingly, every world record from the 1500 meters to the marathon has been set running negative splits—running the first half of the race slightly slower than the second half.
This means that if you want to ensure that you run the fastest time possible, you don’t want to run the first mile or two too fast, which is one of the most common mistakes runners make. With the adrenaline and competition, this can be difficult and will require focus. Your normal half marathon pace will feel like you’re almost walking, so it’s very important you pay strict attention to your pace.
Pacing Over the First 3 Miles
You should target a pace that is 5 -10 seconds per mile slower than your goal finishing pace for the first two to three miles. While this is a scary proposition for many runners, you will easily make up these seconds by being able to close the last few miles fast as opposed to fading and crawling across the finish line.
Remember that it will feel “slow” and you might be getting passed by people you want to beat. While it is mentally difficult, this is by the most effective way to run a race and you’ll tear by those people during the last mile when you’re fresh and they are dying.
Pacing for Miles 3 Through 11
At 3 miles, begin to increase your pace and effort so you’re running at goal half marathon pace. If you’ve practiced this pace in training, it should feel like a comfortable rhythm for you.
Be aware that you need to increase your effort to maintain the same pace or run faster as the race goes on. As you get more tired, it gets more difficult to keep running faster, so you have to try harder. Many runners make the mistake of thinking that the same effort at mile three will net them the same pace as it will in mile 11. Unfortunately, with each mile your legs will get more tired and it will get harder to remain on pace. Be conscious of this reality and maintain focus.
After 3 miles or so, start looking around and engage the competitors around you. Find a group that is running your pace or a little faster and latch on. Try to relax and keep your focus on staying with the group, not your splits. Use the group and the people around you to help you relax and take your mind of the distance ahead.
The half marathon is a very long race, so giving your mind a little break by letting other people in the race do some of the pacing work for you helps keep you mentally fresh for the last 3 to 5 miles when you need to bear down and focus.
What About Gels or Fluids?
Hydration: You’ll want to try and take a little bit of water or Gatorade during the race. If it’s hot, you should aim to take in 6 to 8 ounces of fluid every 5K. If it’s cooler, you can take a little less fluid each 5K or space out your stops.
When drinking, you don’t have to gulp everything down in 5 seconds; you can take your time and carry the cup with you. You don’t need to drink after the 8 to 10 mile marks unless you feel thirsty.
Gels and Other Energy Sources: Using energy gels and other sources of carbohydrates is optional if you plan on finishing under two hours. The body can store close to two hours worth of glycogen in the muscles and liver. Therefore, you theoretically do not need energy gels if you plan on finishing under two hours.
However, some runners may burn through energy slightly faster or draw confidence from having a gel (probably because energy gels stimulate the brain, allowing you to focus more). Find what works for you during your long runs in training and use the same strategy on race day.
If you do decide to use energy gels, wait until the first 45 minutes to an hour to begin ingesting them. Waiting 45 minutes to an hour gives your body time to get in a rhythm, get comfortable and efficiently process the simple sugars you’re ingesting.
If you’re running more than two hours, you can take another gel at 90 minutes into the race, if you feel you need it. If you’re running under two hours, you do not need two gels because you’d increase the risk of stomach issues due to insulin spikes that would send you crashing the last two miles.
When ingesting a gel/gummy/bar, make sure you always take it with water, not Gatorade or another sports drink, because these energy products contain high amounts of simple sugars. Combining the two at the same time means you’re ingesting too much simple sugar at the same time. Your digestive system can’t process quickly enough, which may lead to cramps and side stitches.
Pacing the Second Half of the Race
As discussed previously, after 5 miles, the pace is going to start getting hard—it’s part of racing the half marathon. Be prepared for this part of the race mentally and it won’t derail your confidence mid-race. Keep you mind and body relaxed. Look within yourself and focus on you. Think confident thoughts and repeat confident mantras to yourself: “I am fast, this feels good” or “I am strong.” Every time you feel tired or feel the pace slip, repeat to yourself that you need to refocus and concentrate and get back on pace.
The Last 2 Miles
With 2 miles to go, keep your head up and start to try and catch people in front of you. This part of the race is going to be hard if you want to PR, but you can use some mental tricks to make it easier and to keep you on track:
• Pick one person and focus solely on reeling them in, nothing else. As you pass them, surge and put your eyes on the next person and repeat. Imagine tying a fishing line to their back and reeling them in.
• Visualize fast runners when you start to hurt. Imagine yourself running just like them with good form: head straight, arms swinging forward and back slightly, powerful strides. Just having the mental imagery of good form can help you maintain your pace when the muscles become increasingly tired with each step.
• If the pace starts to slip, throw in a surge to get your legs fired up again. Sometimes all it takes is a small burst of speed to reinvigorate your legs and pace. Try incorporating surges during your long run in training and it will be easy to execute this strategy on race day when it matters.
• Finally, try to break the remaining distance into bite-sized and easily digestible pieces. For example, if I had a great 2 x 3 mile session, I’ll remember how it felt and think to myself, “Hey, I did this workout before, let’s get back on pace and do it again.” Likewise, sometimes a mile can seem like a long distance, so break it down into a time instead. Thinking you only have four to five minutes until you hit the halfway point of a mile makes it seem a lot easier.
Follow this plan exactly as outlined and I guarantee that you will have your best race performance, if you’ve put in the training.