At twenty-one-point-one kilometers, a half marathon is the ideal breakthrough for any runners wanting to test their endurance and speed capabilities. “It’s the ultimate distance,” says Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston Marathon champion. “It’s a true test of fitness, endurance, and speed, meshed all together.” Which is also why the half marathon is the fastest growing race distance since 2003, according to Running USA.
“Just about anyone can do a half marathon with the proper training. The key is to prepare your body for the distance without overdoing it and causing injury,”says Mark Coogan, team New Balance coach and former Olympic marathoner.
Running a sub-2 hour half marathon means running at a pace of 5:40 per kilometer for twenty one solid kilometers. That’s tough - but indeed a very worthy goal for any aspiring runner. Let’s have a look at a few key steps that will get you there in no time!
Step 1: Evaluate Your Fitness
If you’ve run a half marathon before, it’s likely that you’ll find the distance a lot easier the second time round - thanks to something called muscle memory. You might be able to complete a 5K with ease in 25 minutes, or a 10K in less than 54 minutes - but running a half marathon requires certain adaptations.
Your body needs to be in a prime condition to run a further distance, and if you want to crack the sub-2:00 mark, then your body needs to operate at a pace of 5:40/km for the entire distance. And let’s not forget about the mental side - you need to be able to overcome the urge to quit, and feel confident that your body can keep going.
This is why you need to give your training all the attention it deserves. Evaluate your fitness level, and use that as your starting point to gradually build stamina and speed over time without risking injuries along the way. For example, if you’ve never even ran a 10K race before, it’s a good idea to build up to that first - much like learning to crawl before walking.
Step 2: Build Endurance
Hands down the most vital element of crushing a sub two hour half marathon, is building endurance to cover the distance comfortably. Essentially, teaching your body to run as efficiently as possible should cover three basic elements in your training schedule: increasing the number of times a week you run; increasing your weekly mileage; and increasing your single run distance.
Frequency: When training for a half marathon, you’ll want to gradually increase the number of days a week you run. If you’re a running newbie, start with running two days a week. If you’re looking to run a sub 2 hour race, ideally you should work towards running 4 days a week.
Volume: This refers to your total weekly mileage. The key is training consistently and logging enough weekly mileage to get your body used to running for long periods of time. New runners may start with around 15-25 kilometers per week total, gradually building to about 40-50 kilometers. Since your body gradually adapts to running faster over longer distances, it makes sense that elite runners log over 160 kilometers per week.
Single Distance: You’re not only trying to RUN 21 kilometers, you are trying to RACE 21 kilometers - which means you have to be completely comfortable covering the distance before being able to run it fast. This means that eventually most of your training runs should be between 25-30 kilometers, otherwise the distance itself will remain challenging.
Step 3: Build Speed
In order to crack a sub 2 hour half marathon, you need to work on building speed to cover the distance at an average pace of 5:40min/km. Since running fast is quite a challenge for 2 hours straight, you’ll want to focus on building speed along with stamina.
Tempo Runs: These are all about pushing yourself harder to increase the tempo of your run. This means running at a speed that is just above what is comfortable for you. Tempo runs are incredibly useful for improving your lactate threshold in order to run faster at an easier effort level. Plus, they may also help you push yourself harder on race day by simulating the act of “pushing yourself” continuously throughout training. For a sub 2 hour half marathon, aim for a pace between your 10K and current half marathon pace.
Fartleks: The name might encourage a giggle, but these are in fact an excellent tool for becoming faster over long distances by encouraging the body to adapt to various speeds. Fartleks (Swedish for “speed play”) implies including varying speeds and effort levels into your runs. You’ll be running a certain distance, but altering your speed, for example, by focusing on certain markers along the route: sprinting from the tree to the lamppost, then running easy until you reach a certain driveway. To improve endurance, you would simply make your recovery segments shorter.
Step 4: Fuel Up
Never neglect the importance of adequate nutrition and hydration as part of an effective training plan. During the last three days of training, you’ll want to focus on eating carbohydrate-rich foods such as pasta, potatoes, bread, fruit juice and sports drinks. This is because the energy from carbs (not fat or protein) will fuel your muscles on race day. “Since you’ll be tapering and expending fewer calories, you don’t have to consume a great deal more food than usual. Rather, make sure your food choices are carbohydrate-rich—for example, spaghetti with red sauce, instead of Alfredo sauce, or a bagel versus a croissant,” advises Suzanne Girard Eberle, M.S., R.D., and former elite runner.
Additionally, if you suffer from a sensitive stomach, you’ll want to use the same sports drinks and energy gels you’ll be using during the race. Remember that sports drinks are often more effective than water by providing fluid, carbs, and electrolytes.
On Race Day: Girard Eberle recommends eating a carbohydrate-rich breakfast two to three hours before the start of the race to refuel your muscles with glycogen lost during sleep. Eating a few hundred calories (like a bagel and banana) will restock your glycogen stores, making it less likely that you’ll run out of fuel along the way.
Also remember to fuel during the race. Nutritionist, Pamela Nisevich Bede, says, “Some runners think they can get through a half marathon without sports drinks or gels, but that can make for painful and slow final mile. Aim for 45-60g of carbs each hour you’re running and practise fuelling on long runs so there are no surprises on race day.” It’s a good idea to always be prepared with enough fuel for the entire distance. This will help postpone or prevent serious dehydration or carbohydrate depletion, making you a lot more likely to maintain a good pace. “During prolonged exercise, our thirst mechanism doesn’t keep up with our actual needs,” says Girard Eberle. “Then, as you become dehydrated, less oxygen and fuel is delivered to working muscles, and you run slower.”
Step 5: Follow a Training Plan
*Adapted from the Runner’s World Plan
Completing a sub 2:00 half marathon is a challenge - but it sure is a rewarding one! Have confidence in the fact that if you prepare properly, you have nothing to worry about. You’ll cross the finish line feeling accomplished and ready for the next milestone - the full marathon!
“The miracle isn’t that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start.”