The half-marathon has quickly become the favorite race distance for runners. Marathoners enjoy the break from the high training loads (particularly the long runs that take up so much of the weekend and require so much recovery time). Shorter distance runners like that they can get the challenge of a long race without sacrificing their desire to race frequently and to do a balanced variety of workouts (endurance, stamina, speed and sprint).
Factors for Success
While the factors of success for the marathon are fairly consistent from the front to middle to back of the pack, the factors for success in the HALF-marathon vary a bit based on your finish time.
For the really speedy runners, they are only racing all out for slightly more than an hour – removing the need for as much fueling and leg durability issues that those of us who take a bit longer have. But, for half-marathoners that take over two hours, the factors for success are similar to the marathon – with leg durability and fueling become very important. Let’s take a look at the factors and how they may vary based on your expected finish time.
Factor #1: Leg Durability
The first factor is leg durability, but as mentioned, it’s not consistent across the pack of half-marathon runners. For the faster runners, finishing in less than an hour and a half, there isn’t as much muscular damage as for runners finishing in over 90 minutes. Yes, the race is still stressful to the legs but it’s just not as extreme as for the half-marathoner that takes longer to complete the race.
Therefore, if you’re a fast half-marathoner, then you don’t have to worry too much about leg durability and all half-marathon training plans should give you what you need to build strong enough legs. But, if you are a slower half-marathoner, then you need to focus on building stronger, more durable legs in order to race your best.
As with my marathoners, my half-marathon training achieves better leg durability in four ways – sustainable and consistent weekly mileage, long runs, race-specific long runs and specialty leg strengthening exercises like in the available Marathon Legs program.
This is especially important for half-marathoners toward the back of the pack because they can actually hit the wall like marathoners do if their legs get too beat up during the race. Bottom line: If your race takes over an hour and a half, make sure you have strong legs.
Factor #2: Lactate Threshold Speed
This is the big difference for the half-marathon compared to the marathon. Racing your best for one to two hours requires a very fast lactate threshold speed.
As you run faster and faster, you produce more and more lactic acid. While your body has mechanisms to deal with lactic acid (called the lactate shuttle and buffering system), at a certain speed, you produce more than you can remove, and the acid begins to build up. This is called the lactate threshold – the point where your production of lactic acid outpaces your ability to remove it. A buildup of acid interferes with performance and leads to early fatigue.
You’ve probably experienced this where running just a bit too fast and you suddenly are breathing much faster and fatigue comes early. That’s because you’ve crossed your lactate threshold.
Note: The lactate threshold is usually around your one-hour race pace. (See the vLT pace in the Race Times of the McMillanRunning.com Calculator for an estimate of your lactate threshold pace.)
The half-marathon is ultimately a dance between running fast and yet not exceeding your lactate threshold (or getting too close to it). As a result, lactate threshold training (aka Stamina Zone training) becomes very, very important for half-marathon success.
If you’re an experienced runner, then you’re familiar with the ever-popular tempo run – a continuous run lasting 15-40 minutes performed right at your lactate threshold. Tempo runs result in pushing your lactate threshold speed faster. While you can certainly do tempo runs exclusively, I actually propose training the lactate threshold with a full-spectrum approach – some workouts slightly slower than, some at and some slightly faster than your lactate threshold.
The lactate threshold is what I studied in graduate school and I found in my research (and in my coaching over the last 30 years) that this variety in stamina workouts leads to better results, more fun and less boredom than just doing tempo run after tempo run.
As you can see in your training paces from the McMillan Calculator, I recommend four types of stamina workouts.
- Steady state runs are continuous runs at a pace that is slightly slower than your lactate threshold. These runs are especially beneficial for the half-marathon.
- Next is the tempo run as previously mentioned. Tempo runs are run right at your lactate threshold.
- Then comes tempo intervals. Tempo intervals are like slightly faster tempo runs but you intersperse recovery jogs since you are running slightly faster than your threshold. The recovery jogs are short but because you are slightly faster than your threshold, you really trigger the body to improve your lactate threshold speed.
- Lastly, there are cruise intervals, one of my favorites. Popularized by legendary coach, Jack Daniels, cruise intervals (also called Critical Velocity by some coaches) are run slightly faster than tempo intervals with again, short recovery intervals. Cruise intervals are especially good for runners new to stamina training or who struggle with long, continuous running.
I find that by training across the stamina zone range, you get more efficient at running near your lactate threshold (the steady state runs and tempo runs) and you push your threshold much higher (the tempo intervals and cruise intervals). The result is an athlete that is very, very prepared to race the half-marathon.
Another great benefit to stamina zone (aka threshold) training is that the half-marathon goal pace lies within the zone. The stamina zone extends from 25-minute to two-and-a-half-hour race pace so no matter if you are really speedy at the half-marathon or not, running at your goal pace will also provide a boost to your lactate threshold/stamina.
Like preparing for any race, the more you can practice and get comfortable at your goal pace, the better. My training plans include this goal pace running as well as the other stamina workouts, so you arrive ready to perform your best.
One last note if you are new to stamina zone workouts. The goal in the workout is to fatigue yourself with the duration of the workout, not the speed. This is different than in speed workouts where you more often work to fatigue yourself with the speed of the workout.
For the half-marathon, I find it is much better to run on the slow end for the pace range and to do more volume in the workout than it is to run faster but shorter. The half-marathon is a long race so getting used to sustained efforts over a long time will serve you well on race day.
Factor #3: Nutrition/Fueling
The third factor is fueling. For faster (sub 1:30:00) half-marathoners, little to no fueling occurs during the race. But for those of us that take longer to finish, we need to fuel during the race.
You’ve probably heard that you have plenty of fat within your body to power you for hours and hours but when running at half-marathon pace, you also burn carbohydrates and those carbohydrate stores (called glycogen) start to get low after ninety minutes or so.
As a result, you must fuel along the way. There are about as many fueling strategies as there are runners so it may take some experimentation to find what works for you. Here is my article on marathon fueling but it also applies to the half-marathon if your race takes longer than ninety minutes.
Factor #4: Proper Pacing
The fourth factor is proper pacing. Just like marathoners, you need to protect the legs, but you also need to make sure you aren’t running too close to your lactate threshold early in the race. Go too fast, too early and you’ll pay dearly later in the race.
Depending on the course, an even pace (equal splits for the first and second halves) or a slightly negative split (faster second half than the first) leads to your best race performance. Here is my full video on pacing.
Something many runners are surprised by is how you must greatly ramp up your mental intensity later in the race just to maintain pace. Normally, if you up your intensity you go faster but in longer races, you up the intensity just to maintain pace as fatigue sets in. Here is my strategy to get ready for this mental challenge. I call it Go Zone Racing and here is my article on it.
Components of a Successful Half-Marathon Plan
#1) Long runs
It goes without saying that a proper plan for a long race needs long runs. Remember, you need long runs 1) to fatigue the leg muscles (to address leg durability), 2) to learn to burn more fat and spare your limited carbohydrate stores (and to increase the carbohydrate stores), 3) practice fueling if your half-marathon will last more than ninety minutes and 4) to expose the brain to suffering from running for miles and miles – all related to the factors of success mentioned earlier. Due to its importance, I have several articles and videos linked in the resources section below – but here is a good one to start with.
In my plans, I like to build up the long runs at a safe rate while taking a “down” or step back week every 3rd or 4th week so the body can recover. Building up then reducing the long run to a shorter level in this way has greatly reduced the injury rate in my runners.
Then, once we get to 8-10 weeks before the race, I begin to alternate a regular long run (run at an easy effort with the goal of just covering the distance/time) with fast finish long runs, where you run the middle/later stages of the run at goal pace and then try to run the last 5-10 minutes as fast as you can. These fast finish long runs are my secret to racing success as they give you lots of practice at running fast while suffering. That’s exactly what you’ll face in the race so getting used to it in small doses in training is very helpful.
#2) Stamina Zone (aka Lactate Threshold) workouts
I talked a lot about stamina training above but will reiterate it here. You must improve your lactate threshold speed to race a faster half-marathon. Include the full spectrum of stamina zone workouts – steady state runs, tempo runs, tempo interval and cruise intervals in your plan. And start to learn which type you excel in and which ones you struggle with. This starts to give insight into your runner type.
After entering your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator, you’ll see the Recommended Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of workouts, I recommend you include in your training plan if you aren’t using one of my plans.
#3) Speed Zone workouts
One thing I didn’t discuss yet is speed training. While the race is a delicate balance around your lactate threshold, getting faster also helps your performance. Traditional speed workouts are designed to boost your maximum oxygen consumption (aka VO2max) but they also help with a a few other performance enhancers. First, you improve your running economy. This will help race pace feel easier. Second, you get a lot for mental toughness training. Speed workouts really challenge your brain to keep going even when you are suffering. This, too, is great for improving your racing ability.
Lastly, speed workouts break up all the stamina and endurance training and I dare say are fun – often because runners get together to do speed workouts and the camaraderie really helps these tough workouts go by faster. Plus, there is a big sense of accomplishment when you finish a speed workout.
Again, after entering your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator, you’ll see the Recommended Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of workouts I recommend you include in your training plan if you aren’t using one of my plans.
#4) Pace practice
A great training plan includes goal pace workouts. Grooving your goal pace keeps you from going too fast too early in the race. Plus, goal pace workouts make you more economical at race pace. Plus, your brain learns what goal pace feels like when you are fresh at the start of a run as well as when you are fatigued later in a run.
My plans include a sequence of goal pace workouts that start with short, easily accomplishable goal pace workouts and build and build across the training so that by the time you get to the race, you really have goal pace dialed in and know with confidence that you can achieve your goal. (And if your goal pace workouts aren’t going well, you’ll know to adjust your expectations so you can still have a positive race.)
After entering your information into the McMillanRunning.com calculator, you’ll see the Race Pace Workouts section where you can see examples of the types of goal workouts, I recommend you include in your training plan if you aren’t using one of my plans.
Don’t get hurt. I’m going to say it again. Don’t get hurt. A few years ago, I made it my mission to reduce running injuries. If you’ve seen any of the research, it shows that 50-80% of runners get injured every training cycle to the point that it interrupts their training. That’s unacceptable.
As a result, I not only created plans that better fit into runner’s lives and how they are feeling, but my plans include your prehab (core, strength and mobility) routines. The combination of these smarter, more flexible training plans -plus the prehab routines- resulted in a reduction in the injury rate for athletes using McMillan plans by 80%!
I’m really proud of that as there is nothing worse than a runner who can’t run. I never want you to be the fittest spectator at your goal race. With my plans, you’ll get to the starting line healthy and the finish line faster.
Start your New McMillan Plan
Enough talking. Let’s start training!
I have them for different runner levels (novice, intermediate and advanced), for different runner types (speedster, combo and endurance monsters) and even have some specialty plans for hilly or downhill courses.
If you want to add coaching access to your training plan, I’m here to help. I created my online training called Run Team. In Run Team, you get your training plan, all of your prehab routines, a weekly check-in email from me and the opportunity to ask any questions you have as you train. You can try Run Team for free here.
Bonus Feature: Better Prep Improves Your Chances
If you have more than three months until your race, you can add preparatory training to help you get even more prepared to excel in the race-specific training. My prep plans help you build a bigger aerobic base (including more long runs), get faster so half-marathon pace feels easier, build your durability so you don’t get hurt in the training plan and allow you to enter your half-marathon plan excited to really nail the workouts and the race.
Here is an article on how I like to sequence the plans to build a longer training cycle. And here is my article on the preparatory plans.
I know you can run a fast half-marathon. It just takes a smart plan that allows flexibility along with prehab training, so you stay healthy. My plans provide both along with a fun dose of variety and just the right amount of brain training to keep the training exciting and build a brain that helps you get the most from yourself on race day. I look forward to working with you!
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