Reader’s Roundtable: What’s Your Half Marathon Race Strategy?

Are you a half marathon "sprinter" like Des? Photo by Miriam Udosenata/Salty Running©
Are you a half marathon “sprinter” like Des? Photo by Miriam Udosenata/Salty Running©

Congratulations to Tara Welling and Christo Landry, the 2016 USA Half Marathon Champions! Not only was the Half Marathon Championship race thrilling to witness, but it was also an ideal place to learn strategies for racing half marathons from the country’s top distance runners.

Of course, within a large group of athletes there were many different schools of thought. For winner Tara Welling, since it was only her second half ever and an almost three minute PR at that, she didn’t feel confident recommending any particular strategy other than to say that hers is to simply go for it and give it everything she has. Road racing veteran, Des Linden, on the other hand, says she feels like the half is closer to a 10k than a marathon, that she’s sprinting for the entire race. Kelsey Bruce, who at 23, came to Cap City for her fourth half marathon, learned the hard way not to sprint from the gun when she crashed and burned in her third half in January, instead, favoring a strategy of finding her rhythm and saving the speed for mile nine and beyond.

But what’s the best half strategy for mortals? Do you favor Tara’s strategy of essentially winging it? Are you like Des and work hard from the gun? Or do you like Kelsey’s plan to save up some energy for a late push? Or something else?

What’s your half marathon race strategy? 

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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24 comments

  1. Wow, this is really interesting! I can confidently say that the word “sprinting” has never and will never feature in any half marathon strategy of mine!

    Hmm. for mortals, the first thing is to make sure you don’t start too far back – and since, in my experience, most people are not great at seeding themselves even within an assigned corral situation, you should probably plan to have the first mile be slower than you might want. Which is not necessarily a bad thing! At least you won’t start too fast…

    My best half experiences have been to run at what feels like a slightly conservative pace for the first 15 km, then pick it up towards the end. My worst have been: 1. Starting too fast, duh, and 2. Starting out ok, but getting irrationally exuberant after 10km and start passing a lot of people, only to run out of steam at 10 miles.

    In general, I’ve found that any time in a race I’m thinking “wheee! Why is everyone running so slow?” it’s time to reevaluate my pacing strategy 😉

  2. My strategy is more similar to Kelsey’s-I hang out a touch slower than goal pace then start picking up the pace around mile 8. Usually because I’m over it by then and I know the faster I run the faster I’m done 😉

    1. Ha! Yeah, my husband used to tell me that it’s still going to hurt to slow down, so you might as well go faster and get done sooner 🙂

    2. That was one of our cross country team cheers in high school. We used to huddle up and yell it before meets: the faster you run, the sooner you’re done!

  3. My first big breakthrough with running came in a half. I distinctly remember feeling around mile 3 or 4 that the pace felt way too fast to keep up for 9-10 more miles, but I kept going anyway, hit 10 and was able to up the effort even more from there. So, I believe in an aggressive race strategy for the half. Maybe not Des-balls-to-the-wall from the gun (although she looked so relaxed through about 7-8, she’s most definitely not *actually* sprinting the whole way), but I think a good half has you questioning your sanity somewhere in the early-middle miles.

  4. I’ve only recently started racing longer road races so I can’t say I have a half-marathon strategy to share, but I do wholeheartedly agree with Desi that the half marathon is much more similar to the 10K than to the full marathon. Now and then I read things about how the “half marathon” is a misnomer, and the race distance needs to be called something else. I think that’s really true, especially since it seems to often serve as a gateway race for people to then move up to the marathon, which maybe it shouldn’t.

    1. The half is SO different from a marathon. When people say “the marathon is just two halves” I cringe! I mean, it literally is 2 halves but in the grand scheme of things it’s so much more. Just because someone CAN run a half doesn’t mean they are ready for a full (I say that as someone who probably wasn’t ready to run my first full when I did).

    2. It’s also important to consider how long you’re going to be other there. If you’re closer to two hours than it’s more like Des’s marathon that her half marathon so a 2-hour half marathoner shouldn’t approach it like a sprint – 2 hours is a long time to sprint! But the closer you are to an hour the harder the effort should be from the gun. The longer you’re planning to be out there the more controlled the early miles should be, perhaps.

  5. My best halves have all been accomplished through pretty similar race plans. I like to keep it controlled through the 10k, and not do anything dumb in those first 6 miles. From the 10k- the 10 Mile its adding another gear and reeling things in. Then, at mile 10- it’s time to just go. I always tell myself when I get to mile 10, that there is only a 5k left. We can run a 5k in our sleep, so just go run that 5k!

    1. Yes! My best halves have been having faith I can sustain another gear over the last 5k even when I wasn’t sure. Just do it and push until the finish!!!

  6. This is interesting as I feel like I haven’t really learned how to race a race yet. During my last half, I ran conservatively in the first mile, let my body find a pace it could click off until the end and picked up the pace in the last 5K.

  7. I have nothing valuable to contribute here because I still don’t feel like I know how to race! I’m always too afraid to push myself for fear that I’ll empty my tank too early. Training I’m great at, racing I struggle.

    1. After the marathon you should jump in a race try to push past your comfort zone. Like make it your goal to puke in the finish chute. One, you’ll run WAY faster than you ever thought you could and Two, you’ll see that you can handle it and won’t actually die!

  8. I’ve only ever run one half marathon with a decent time result that wasn’t horribly painful, so I am the wrong person to answer this! For that one, I considered it a long progressive tempo training run but if I’m being honest it ended up being more like race effort.

  9. I think I like to go out a little conservative and cut down in the second half. You never know how you’re going to feel when the racing actually starts in the last 5 miles, so might as well save a tiny bit just to be safe!

    1. Interesting! At JAX how did you handle it with trying to hit an aggressive time goal? Did you say “F it” and go out hard to hang on to Brianne and the others? Did you learn any valuable lessons from that experience that you can use now that you might not have that kind of hard time goal you’re going after for a little while?

  10. I suppose my strategy is keep it steady/controlled/fast from the get go and then let ‘er rip after mile 9/10. I’ve actually done more marathons than halves, so they feel short. I like to reel in guys over those last miles as well while repeating to myself “I am a marathoner” to keep it in perspective/remind myself that I have the endurance to do the half at a harder effort. #teamkelsey I guess, then!

  11. I think I’m still learning to race the Half too. I do think the first few halfs I did, I didn’t race them hard enough. After running my second marathon (14 years after my first) and training better, I realized you can run hard half marathons. My half PR came with a too fast first mile, then reigning in a strong pace that I could hold and which felt controlled, then fighting to hold that through the last 3. I faded a bit but had enough left to run hard to the finish. Interestingly, trying the same approach a week later, I was less effective and the race felt hard from mile 6 onwards, even being conservative and letting folks pass me at the start. I was 3 minutes slower and yet it felt 3x harder. I think I was insufficiently trained for back to backs.

    My last half was at elevation to start with a 1000 ft gain. I tried to run more conservatively the first half (striving for negative splits) but even in the middle of marathon training, I was unprepared for running hard at elevation. So, the net is, I am learning (and different courses will have different PR potential) but I think I tend to follow Desi’s model of going hard and fighting to maintain it (like a 10k). Holding back (more like a marathon) didn’t gain me anything at the last half. Then again, I think elevation for those of us who train at sea level, is hard regardless.

    I’m hoping for a marathon bound PR half this month so we shall see if my Desi-race strategy works.

  12. My most successful halves have all been run pretty evenly. I definitely agree w/ Des that the 1/2 is closer to the 10k. Interestingly, whenever I’ve run my best halves, I’ve also run some of my best 10ks (when they were in the same segment). When I train for a half, I practice with the goal pace I’d like to run and then also paces that are +/- 10 seconds per mile from goal pace. When I get to the race, I try to find the effort that yielded hitting goal pace in practice and then I check in with myself that I am running an effort that I feel confident I can sustain for 75-80 minutes. If it seems like I might be running too hard early on, I’ll dial it back a bit. If I feel like I’m being conservative, I keep it in check and save the push for the final 5k.

  13. My fastest half (still not particularly fast) was achieved by doing the first mile at 5k pace, PR’ing my 10k at the split, and basically dying somewhere around mile 9–who could have seen that coming? Oh, and pretending that the searing pain in my left foot was DEFINITELY NOT an injury that I should stop running to care for.

    So anyway, it’s interesting to read people’s more intelligent strategies.

  14. I usually like to start out running ten seconds per mile slower than my goal pace, work down to goal pace by the 10k, push hard the second part of the race and make sure I finish with no fuel in the tank. A negative split has always seemed the best way to go.

    Saturday I raced a half which happened to have the same start as a 10k. I went there hoping to win my race, so I started in the front and got caught up in the herd of speedy 10k-ers at the start. I found myself running 5-10 seconds faster than race pace for the first 5-6 miles. It felt great, so I threw my strategy out the window and decided to bank some time at the beginning and get ahead.

    I ended up with a positive split by about a minute, a six minute PR, and I got to break the tape and stand on the top podium for the awards. Thinking I might have a new strategy???

  15. I think the 1/2 is possibly one of the hardest distances to run, and I certainly haven’t figured it out! I agree that it’s most similar to a 10K… you have to go out hard, but in control. Unfortunately most of the time I end up running/pacing 1/2s more like marathons, and end up with slower times than I should. My best one I actually started out with a slow first mile and negative split the race.