The half marathon is a difficult beast to tame and there are lots of things to consider when training for a sub 90-minute time. It’s further than a 5k or 10k, where you could get away with gunning it and hoping for the best. A half marathon needs careful planning and consideration, both in training and on race day.
- What is a fast time for a half marathon?
- How can I improve my half marathon time?
- Fartlek workouts
- Using training metrics to improve performance
- Planning a half marathon pacing strategy
- Maintaining race weight
We get the expert take on training for a fast half marathon with Nick Bester, elite runner and running coach. Nick knows a thing or two about what it takes to train for a fast half marathon, having won the 2022 Cambridge Half Marathon in a time of 1:06:19 and finishing the Rotterdam Marathon in 2:20. Read on to find out how you can run your fastest half marathon ever.
What is a fast time for a half marathon?
Of course, trying to decide what is considered a ‘good’ half marathon time is like asking ‘how long is a piece of string?’ The average half marathon time across all ages and genders works out to be 01:50:15, so this is a fair benchmark for a good amateur half marathon time. Elite male runners will finish a half marathon in under an hour, with elite female runners coming in around one hour and ten minutes. If your goal is to run a sub 90-minute half marathon, this would place you among the top percentile of amateur runners.
How can I improve my half marathon time?
There are several factors to take into consideration when training for a half marathon and looking to improve your time. Including a variety of run workouts in your training is one of the best ways to run a faster half marathon. There are lots of workouts for runners, such as tempo runs, track runs, interval workouts, and fartlek workouts. Nick says, “Let’s not forget the importance of the weekly long run too. All other runs in between should be easy/recovery runs.”
The time you spend on your feet is important, but the time you spend off your feet is important too. Nick says, “Adequate rest is crucial and I highly recommend at least 1 full rest day every week, regardless of your ability and what you’re training for. I encourage runners to have 3 ‘easy’ run days plus 1 full rest day per week.”
Fartlek may sound like a humorous word for us English speakers, but it’s actually a Swedish term that translates literally as ‘speed play’. It’s a type of interval training in which the intervals are random and never repeated, in order to keep providing new stimulus to the body so that it doesn’t adapt and keeps making progress.
Unlike a regular interval workout which may consist of the same intervals repeating over and over, a fartlek workout will play around with the pace, length of interval, and even the gradient you’re running over. A recent study from 2021 found that interval training (like fartlek) significantly increased the anaerobic threshold and VO2 max of elite athletes compared to athletes who did not do interval training, which means it could certainly help you to run a faster half marathon.
Using training metrics to improve performance
If you’re looking to run a fast half marathon time of sub 90-minutes, you must track your progress using metrics. One of the top metrics to measure for running is cadence, which measures how many steps you take per minute. In general, the higher your cadence the better. Nick says, “When I check on my cadence, I always aim for it to be in the region of 180.”
Stride length is also a very important metric to measure and is linked to cadence. Several studies have found that a reduced stride length is linked to a reduction in injury risk due to less shock absorption at the hip, knee and ankle joints. The shorter your stride, the higher your cadence.
Heart rate is the other most important metric to measure, as it can give an insight into how hard your body is truly working, regardless of your rate of perceived exertion. Easy runs should stay at around 60-70% of your maximum heart rate, while harder runs will take you up to 80-90%.
Planning a half marathon pacing strategy
One of the most popular pacing strategies for a fast half marathon is a negative split, which is where you run the second half of the race faster than the first.
Nick says, “A negative split is something I always try to do and I highly recommend to the runners I coach.” Nick goes on to say, “Running a negative split half marathon is not the be all and end all. But if you are able to run a negative split, it shows that you were comfortable and running within your limits for the first half of the race.”
Running a negative split shows discipline and a defined pacing strategy, which is always more likely to end in success. If you run too hard at the beginning of the race - perhaps because of nerves or excitement - you are much more likely to go over your lactate threshold, burn out, and have to finish the race with the survivor’s shuffle. Calculate and plan your marathon race pace in training and stick to it religiously on race day. Include negative splits in your training, such as in your long run sessions. Trust the process and you could be amazed at how a negative split could be the secret to running your fastest ever half marathon.
Maintaining race weight
In general, it’s important to keep eating habits healthy and not restrict yourself so as not to develop disordered eating. However, when you’re training at the top end and looking for a sub 90-minute half marathon, your body weight does play a part.
Nick says, “I’ll train slightly heavier than my goal race weight by about 1-2 kg. I’ll then drop down just before race day, mostly by keeping my diet a bit cleaner.” However, it’s important to find balance and not to train at your race weight. Nick goes on to say, “I call this the ‘red/racing’ zone. If I train in this zone, chances of niggles and injuries increase.”
About the author: Alex Parren is a Freelance Health & Fitness writer as well as a qualified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist.