How To Run A Faster Half Marathon

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Run faster half marathon

Running a faster half marathon involves patience and hard work.

There is no way around it, no secret blueprint to drop significant time. There are fundamentals you can listen and adhere to that will assist you in doing so and I will share some of these below.

My first experience at the distance was when I was still a junior in at Malone University. My coach, Jack Hazen, had us do a 13.1 mile time-trial in order for those of on the Malone track and field team to qualify for the NAIA National Marathon Championships. 

We needed to run a 1.15.00 in order to earn our ticket to Nebraska for the championship. The best I had run for 5000m in college was a very modest 15.19 and was, at that time, the farthest I had ever run. A half-marathon was light years ahead of any distance I had ever considered ‘racing’.

Long story short I ran a 1.11.44. What did I learn? I had far more in me than I was giving myself credit for. Does this sound familiar? Sound like someone you may know personally?

The further you branch out in terms of racing longer distances the more mental concentration and physical preparation play a vital role. To do that, you have to have a passion to challenge yourself further than you currently have.

No one did it better and taught the importance of hard work more precisely than famed basketball coach, John Wooden. I have been a fan of his for years. How he handled winning and held his players to a far higher standard.

Give me 100 percent. You can’t make up for a poor effort today by giving 110 percent tomorrow. You don’t have 110 percent. You only have 100 percent, and that’s what I want from you right now – John Wooden

I want the same for you and to see you, the visitor to to see breakthroughs in your next half-marathon.  I just received an email the other day from a subscriber to my newsletter.

He told me about how he had just dropped his half-marathon best from 1.56 to 1.44. An enormous improvement. I was totally stoked to hear the news.

There is nothing better than hearing about individuals achieving their personal goals. I remember the day I ran 1.07.06 at the 2007 Rock and Roll Philadelphia Half-Marathon.

My best time previous to that was a 1.10.32 I had run en route to the 2007 Grandmas Marathon (I finished, in a then-PR of 2.40). Review  Fueling. How To Avoid Bad Races By Taking In More Calories.

I was rooming with a 1.07 half-marathoner, Matt Pelitier, we discussed our goals for the race. I am a big believer in thinking big and I will pull no punches when it comes to this. You have to think big and do it often. See yourself doing something that you do not think you are capable of.

I think if you do this often enough you’ll be amazed at just how capable you truly are (provided you are willing to make the sacrifices needed to match that enthusiasm). Visualizing is not enough but it can help you.

Visualizing Big+Hard Work=Breakthrough

I had never broken 1.10.00 prior that race yet here I was talking about wanting to run 1.06. I came close but I had done the work and was going for it. I ended up finishing 28th overall, averaging 5.07 per mile for the 13.1 miles and finished as the 4th american.

It was a tough and competitive race, nothing has changed since. The rock and roll philadelphia half-marathon is probably the flattest half-marathon (and most competitive) in the United States and one I will always recommend to runners seeking to run a faster half-marathon.

I hear all the time the term ‘fast course’ used by runners. It doesn’t matter if it is a flat course or not. Race erratically and it doesn’t matter what the course looks like. It won’t guarantee you a fast time. What will is preparing wholeheartedly and racing strategically.

If you want to extend a winning streak – forget about it. If you want to break a losing streak – forget about it. Forget about everything except concentrating on hard work and intelligent planning – John Wooden

The most important thing you can do to run a faster half-marathon is being patient in the early miles. I have broken 1.10 several times since, 1.09 a few times and 1.08 twice. The second, ironically came in the first half of my 2.19 marathon. I hit the half-way mark in 1.07.09 (3 seconds off my best for the half itself).

Here are a few key points to help you run a fast(er) half-marathon.

1. Make the long run your most important workout of the week. No single workout seems to have brought me more drastic running improvements than doing a ‘quality’ long run once a week.  There is a place for LSD (long slow distance) but hone in on that type of running for your easy, recovery runs.

The long run should be your bread and butter workout. You may have a different viewpoint than I and if you do, please leave a comment and let’s discuss, but from my own experience holding a sustained pace for a long period of time will yield significant results.

You want to hold a pace where lactic acid is just beginning to build up within your blood stream. This is called your lactate threshold. You can heighten your body’s ability to clear lactic acid faster then it is accumulating within your body by practicing your goal half-marathon pace for a longer period of time.

This plays an even more crucial role the farther out you run. The half-marathon is unique in that endurance is important but stamina will get you to the finish line faster.

You will better your stamina by practicing running at just below that ‘red-line’ effort pace you are aiming for. If your goal is to run a 1.18.30 half-marathon you have to hold 5.59.5 per mile pace (2.37.00 marathon pace).

Running at about 75-80% effort of that goal pace seems to be the magic area you want to aim to run a good portion of your long run at. This may be around 6.30 pace for someone wanting to hit a 1.18.30 half-marathon.

If breaking 2.00.00 for the half-marathon is your goal. You have to hit roughly 9.09 per mile. This is your ‘race pace’. What has helped me drop significant time off my marathon and half-marathon race times is running a great deal of my long runs at about 25-40 seconds slower per mile that my goal race pace.

Although my current best, at the time, was 1.10+ for the half-marathon (5.20 pace). I had been running many of my 20 milers at or around 5.45-6.00 per mile (at 6,010ft). I knew I had done my homework going into that race. Do yours and I can promise you a finish time far faster then you think feasible.

2. The long run is demanding. Do the right thing and take the next two days and run extremely slow to recover. In preparing for half-marathons (as well as the marathon) I would run painfully slow two, sometimes three days after a very hard long run. Do not neglect this.

3. Don’t try to PR in your first mile. The half-marathon is 13.1 miles and like the marathon, a great deal can happen in that time frame. Fortunately, you have far more time to think and can make more mistakes then you can in a 1-mile or 5K event.

4. Run smart and conservative early on. I was fortunate to have Matt Pelletier in the race with me when I went from a 1.10 guy to a near-1.07 half-marathoner. Why?  I made a common mistake early on and Matt was running next to me and yelled at me to not take off with the lead Kenyans.

Our first mile was 5.05, our second was 5.07. I got too aggressive and ran the next in 4.44 with a Kenyan that took off to break the race up. Matt has great leg speed and stuck with us and was barely breathing. He had run much faster than I had going into that race.

I listened, backed off the pace significantly and had the energy to finish in an all-out sprint and a significant personal best. Matt, finished as the third american just ahead of me in a new personal best of 1.06.11.You can’t run faster by trying to accomplish the mission in the first 20% of the race. Don’t do that!

Never underestimate the importance of proper pacing. Sometimes you just have to get out in the race, make your mistakes and adjust course. You went out too hard and it cost you in the end. I got it. What can you do about it next time?

Were you aiming for 7.30 pace and ran your first 6 miles at 6.15 pace…something to think about. You can’t win the race or run a personal best by running significantly faster than you have trained at.

Strive to accomplish the very best that you are capable of. Nothing less than your best will suffice. You may fool others, but you can never fool yourself. Self-satisfaction will come from the knowledge that you left no stone unturned in an effort to accomplish everything possible under the circumstances – John Wooden

5. Don’t be afraid of the competition. I took a quote from coach Joe Vigil with me into that race. I was against some very big boys (the winner ran 1.01).

Never be afraid of the competition. It will bring out the best in you. If someone passes you, let them no they are in a race, don’t pat them on the ass as they go by.

Now, grant it, your goal may not be racing someone, but you are racing against a clock and yourself. Never give in. Mental toughness really does play a crucial role and it is really hard to harden that aspect of racing. You just have to practice being uncomfortable in training.

I have had countless races where I thought I was not going to be able to hold the pace but did. I ran a 1.08.44 to take 2nd behind kenyan Micah Tirop at the hilly 2011 Germantown Half-Marathon in Germantown, Tennessee last March.

I literally chased him from the start all the way to the finish line and was reeling him in (he won in 1.08.28). Our first mile was 4.59. It isn’t necessarily a comfortable pace so early in a 13.1 mile race. Be smart but don’t be overly conservative either.

If your goal is to run 7.30 pace. Hitting your first mile in 9.00 will not help you. Get in the right pace zone and try to hold on to it for dear life. Train at goal pace and you will be far better prepared to accomplish that goal.

You have to take risks in trying to do something better then you ever have, but it is much more comforting knowing you have practiced the fundamentals to achieve it.

Thus, knowing you have trained at the pace you want to hold is so vital in creating a faster half-marathon effort. Have you done your homework? Only you can answer that come race day. Practice your race pace.

Easy days, day after day, without testing your capability is not proper training for a breakthrough race performance.

6. Finish the last 4-8 miles of your long run at goal race pace finishing the last 2 miles at 10 seconds faster than goal pace. I used long runs as my main tactic to not only improve at the half-marathon but also the marathon distance.

If you do long runs nearing 20 miles at about 25-40 seconds per mile slower than your goal pace you are going to build some real strength. Think of the enormous potential you already have and consider trying this every other long run.

Don’t be in a rush. I can only give suggestions and I can tell you, the long run is, hands down, the most difficult workout I do. Not repeat miles under 4.45 per rep on the track, nor tempo runs.

That being said, it takes time to build into the type of fitness you need to have in order to hold that type of effort that length of time. Be patient. Running a new personal best at the half-marathon, like getting in shape, takes a consistent, well-thought planned approach. Follow suit.

I often times dreaded my long runs but I knew they would yield the results I was seeking and they were big goals. Don’t listen to the common train of thought. Your not ‘talented’ enough, your too slow or have the right body type.

No one can hold you back but you in this race (or any other race distance). The only way to make a dramatic increase in speed, per mile, for the 13.1 mile distance is practicing at or above that golden race effort often and especially when you are fatigued because you will get no rest in a race.

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4 thoughts on “How To Run A Faster Half Marathon

  1. Nathan, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. It gives a lot of mental tools for me to use. I haven’t been running for almost 10 years and is picking it up again. First goal is 22:30 minutes on the 5K and 45 minutes on the 10K. Then I hope to do a half in 1:45 hours in some time (I hope this year) and finally the Copenhagen marathon below 3:40 ‘ish hours next year in May. After the first 2,5 month I am almost at the first goal with a 22:45 race the other day. When building up for the half, I will definitely use your advice and do some long runs in the red zone.

    Btw: my PR on the half is 1:45 hours, but thats 10 years ago. I never did a marathon. I am 38 now.

    Do you think it’s too paced?

    Cheers from Denmark

  2. Hi Jes,

    Thanks for your message and is great to hear from someone in Denmark. I lived and training Belgium (near Mons) for nearly two years and absolutely love Europe. I was considering coming over to compete in Copenhagen and the race director there is a great guy. You are still young, 38 is not old. I turn 36 next month and know the best runners in the world rung great times even in their early 40’s.

    I think if you focus on taking the long runs and gradually extending the amount of time you spent at just above goal race pace in the early build up of your training and then transfer to running at or near goal marathon race pace in the last 4-5 miles of your long runs you will build up a great amount of lactate resistance and help you get ready to hold your goal pace come race day.

    Keep me posted on how the training is going. Certainly, that long run is where the performance comes. Fartleks, hill reps and interval all are part of it but you don’t race 26.2 miles at a specific pace without specific race pace efforts for extended periods of time.

    All the best,

  3. nice blog. I will be doing the NYC half in March. My best is 1:23:10 in 2008, but in the last year or so, I have run very little due to going back to school, working full time and the birth of our first child. Time has been hard to come by. I got into the race via lottery, so now I am forced to get myself back in shape (or embarrass myself).

    Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. thanks a lot chad, appreciate it. Having a race to look forward to will help hold you accountable. I am running Boston in April so have that as a reminder everyday, especially the days I don’t want to get out the door. 1.23.10, nice! Wishing you all the best in 2013.

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