Half Marathon Pace Strategy – Explained

by On Jan 13, 2020

Good planning without good working is nothing.

Half Marathon Pace Strategy – Explained

Half marathons present an awesome personal challenge – whether you’re preparing for your first or your fiftieth.

However, in every race many runners show up with no pace plan in place. As a result, they often start off too quickly, try to maintain a pace that’s beyond their training, and then crash and burn.

In this article, I’m going to explain why having a race pace strategy will help you train better, avoid some of the common pitfalls of racing, and finish stronger, happier, and faster.

Why You Should Have a Half Marathon Pace Strategy

Rock up to the start line of your local half marathon and ask the more experienced runners what their pace strategy is.

Every one of them will have an answer ready.

But pace strategies aren’t just for advanced runners; they can benefit everyone preparing for a half marathon.

The simple truth is that rookie runners often suffer due to a lack of pace strategy. The story is the same in every race; they go out too fast – fuelled by adrenaline and ambition – then try to maintain their ruthless pace, before often bonking or ‘hitting the wall’ in the second half of the race.

As any sports nutritionist will tell you, running at a high level of intensity typically burns through our readily-available fuel sources in 60 – 90 minutes, causing us to burn out …right around the latter miles in a half marathon.

Having a pacing strategy in place can help any runner avoid these pitfalls by running at a pace they’ve trained for.

Half Marathon Pace Strategy – Explained
Photo Credit: Candra Winata

Pacing Lingo Explained

Let me first map out some of the popular lingo around half marathon pacing:

The first thing to note about running pace is that it’s typically measured in minutes per mile, or minutes per kilometer (as opposed to miles per hour, or kilometers per hour). You should train with a GPS device so you gradually develop a feel for what your comfortable running pace is, then you can start to think about your half marathon target pace.

In a running event, splits refer to the time taken to run different portions of the course. It’s common for a half marathon route to be split into four portions, for example, and there to be timing mats in place to record the time you take to run each consecutive interval.

If you gradually slow down over the half marathon route, you’re running positive splits. In other words, your split timings increase over the event.

If you manage to run a constant pace, then all of your split timings will be practically the same – this is called even splits.

And if you gradually speed up during your half marathon, your split timings will reduce – we call this running negative splits.

The Even Split Strategy for Rookie Half Marathon Runners

If you’re new to the world of half marathons, I recommend you aim to run even splits. This means that you aim to run at a constant pace throughout the race.

The advantages of the Even Split Strategy are that:

  1. Once you’ve determined your target race pace, you can structure your training around this pace.
  2. As long as you choose an achievable pace, you can avoid the ‘start fast, suffer later’ cycle that is common with rookie runners.

The Negative Split Strategy for Experienced Half Marathon Runners

More experienced runners may wish to plan for a negative split strategy – as in, gradually speed up your pace throughout the race. This is a common technique with advanced and elite runners looking to set PRs. 

The main idea of this strategy is that you start off at a slightly conservative pace, then increase the intensity as you go on. 

This allows the body to ‘warm up’ to the fast pace, and means that if you have extra fuel in the tank you can speed up more towards the end, finishing strong.

This strategy is a little more difficult for newer runners to implement, simply because it requires a good understanding of one’s own pace abilities over the half marathon distance.

Half Marathon Pace Strategy – Explained
Photo Credit: Quino Al

How to Structure Your Training Around Your Pace Strategy

If you are targeting even splits, I recommend choosing a half marathon target pace early in your training. Check out a half marathon pace chart to check the average pace against the predicted finishing time.

If you are struggling to choose a target pace, go out for a run and try to find a pace which is slightly faster than your easy, conversational pace.

I always recommend first-time half marathon runners to choose a conservative pace. Why? In your first event, you want to make sure you finish comfortably. Those fast finishing times are always going to be around for you to aim for later.

Find a half marathon training plan which suits your goals, and aim to do the majority of your training runs at your target race pace (or slightly slower). Your long runs at the weekend should be done at a slower, easier pace.

If you are aiming for negative splits, you should include one day of speed training per week in your half marathon training plan. This helps improve your base speed, running power, and running economy.

Finally, if you are finding your target pace to be too challenging, don’t be afraid to choose an easier pace.

Remember, it’s always better to run a slower race and actually finish, than to risk injury, burnout, and fatigue!

Thomas Watson is a UESCA-qualified run coach, ultramarathon runner, and founder at Marathon Handbook.

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