It’s not a nice feeling knowing you haven’t done something to the best of your ability. Knowing that you haphazardly prepared, and casually went about completing the task at hand. That’s how I felt after completing my first half marathon, aged 18.
The failure of my first half marathon
I didn’t train enough, ate poorly, didn’t warm up or stretch, stayed up late the night before, didn’t pace myself properly. I’m sure you can guess, this resulted in a fail.
I injured my knee 8 miles in and couldn’t run properly. Driven by not wanting to let down friends and family who’d donated to my charity of choice, Parkinsons UK, I ran through the pain.
‘I can do better than that.’ That feeling you have when you know you can run a faster half marathon.
As I was crossing the line I remember thinking ‘I can do better than that.’ I finished in just under 2 hours, and I learnt my lesson the hard way.
Without the correct preparation, running a decent and fast half marathon isn’t possible.
I turned things around and now run faster half marathons
Two years later and I’ve completely turned things around. I’ve completed an additional 6 half marathons, with a top time of 1 hour and 31 minutes.
What did I do to go from 1:59 to 1:31?
To run a faster half marathon, I discovered some tips and tricks through trial and error, asking fellow runners, and asking a few friends who compete for team GB in the triathlon event for our age group.
Here are 13 tips for running a faster half-marathon
1. Book a half marathon
Okay, this may seem obvious. However, it’s an important part of running a quick half-marathon.
Ever had the idea of going to see your favourite artist in concert? At one stage, it was an idea and there wasn’t much to get excited at. What about when you took the step forward and booked it though? Remember how suddenly it became real and exciting once you physically made the booking and stopped dreaming about it?
Physically booking the event and receiving that confirmation email, acts as a psychological trigger to commence training. It’ll be easier to get the shoes on and train because you have a real half-marathon to train for.
If you don’t book a half-marathon, you’ll have nothing to train for. There won’t be an event to psyche your self up to put in the many miles required. Simply put, it’s not likely you’ll run a quick half marathon without an actual event to train for.
Start out strong and book a half marathon. Experience receiving the confirmation email and get into training mode.
2. Get into, and stay in, ‘training mode.’
‘Training mode’ refers to the state of mind you’re in when preparing for an up and coming race.
There’s a huge difference between being a casual runner and a runner in ‘training mode.’
Casual runners will run when they feel like it. It’ll often be for fun and leisure, and training isn’t often that intense.
On the other hand, a runner in ‘training mode’ is preparing for an event some point soon. The stakes are much higher, and training is more intense. Being in ‘training mode’ means you run whenever your training plan tells you to, whether you feel like it or not.
Being in training means a high level of discipline and holding your self-accountable. It means you push yourself during speed sessions and hill workouts and strive to hit your weekly target mileage. No excuses. No easy way out.
There’s a clear distinction between being a casual runner and being in ‘training mode.’ Make sure you understand it and put yourself in this mode.
3. Run more miles
Running more miles is key to a decent half-marathon time. Running at this distance requires a good level of endurance. The Oxford dictionary defines endurance as ‘the ability to endure an unpleasant or difficult process or situation without giving way.”
Running a fast-half-marathon isn’t like running a fast 5K. During a 5K, you can push yourself to breaking point and get away with it because it’s a short race.
Try doing that in a half-marathon and you’ll be in trouble. Instead, make things easier for yourself and run more miles during training to improve your physical endurance.
Working out for longer periods of time develops your lung capacity and your ability to run for long distances at a time. If you want to run a faster half-marathon (13.1 miles), it’s no good training for 2 to 3-mile distances only. Mix it up, with more runs on the further end of the mileage spectrum.
Try running at least 4 to 5 miles, with a weekly long run of about 8-10 miles. It will do wonders for your endurance, and your ability to maintain a fast pace on race day.
4. Get yourself a running watch and use it
A powerful weapon in any runner’s arsenal is their running watch.
These are electronic watches that monitor data sets like your location, heart rate, pace per minute, elevation, time spent running and so on. They’re helpful to achieve a fast-half-marathon.
Depending on the running watch you have, these clever devices report on real-time statistics during training to help guide your actions and allow you to achieve your goals.
For instance, you could have a target of running a sub 1:45 half-marathon which equates to roughly 8-minute miles. You can set the watch to bleep every time you run a mile, then inform you how quick you’re running. Without a running watch set to this pace, it’s difficult to know whether you’re on course to achieving this target during the half-marathon.
If you’re running too quick (say 7:20 miles per minute) it’d be a good idea to slow down because you will probably wear yourself out soon. On the other hand, if you’re running too leisurely (say 8:30 miles), the alarming bleep of the watch can be a powerful motivator to pick up the pace.
Running watches aren’t just helpful for race day itself. Utilise their features to help you train for the big day. Use running watches for speed sessions, measuring the incline during hill training, to keep track of how many miles you’ve run each week.
For added usefulness (and fun), download and connect your watch to the free programme known as ‘Strava.’ This is basically social media for people who are physically active (including runners). Keep up to date with your friends’ workouts, challenge them to get the fastest time possible over a specific segment in the world, and make training more effective.
Get a running watch and run a faster half-marathon.
Examples of great running watches
5. Eat properly during training and on race day
Nutrition was one of my biggest mistakes when I experienced the embarrassment of a slow half-marathon on my first attempt.
Leading up to the event I ate and drank horrendously. Crisps, chocolate, sweets, fried foods, fizzy drinks and so on. I’ve never been overweight, but I guarantee my insides didn’t look too pretty…
You can probably guess what happened when I tried running after eating a load of rubbish. I crashed early and couldn’t maintain the decent pace I knew I was capable of. A breakfast of sugary cereal and energy drinks didn’t too me too good on race morning. Lesson learnt.
Like a car or an aeroplane making an important journey, we need proper fuel for exercise.
Before running, eat healthy carbohydrates to give your body enough glucose to power through the training session effectively. Bananas, berries, energy bars, brown rice, oatmeal, porridge, whole wheat bread or pasta, and energy gels are all good options.
After training, eat proteins and healthy fats. Eggs, white meats, nuts, seeds, beans, cheese and fish are good examples of what you can eat. Your muscles need to recover so give them the food they need and deserve. They’ve just allowed you to train after all!
If you’re interested in great food ideas before a run, check out the blog post here:
6. Learn proper running form
You’d be amazed what difference learning and adopting some proper running form can do for your half-marathon time.
Many runners are intimidated when they hear about ‘proper’ running form because it will be too technical or they’re not talented enough at running to implement these techniques. It doesn’t have to be that way at all. A few adjustments are easy enough to make and do not need to be feared by any runner.
Here are a few tips for improving your running form:
Posture– This is instrumental in a quick half-marathon. Common amongst runners who sit at a desk all day or those who may drive is the ‘sitting’ running style. This is where the hips seem to ‘sit down’ into the running stride, meaning energy is directed to the ground. Stand tall and lean forward from the ankles.
Head position– When your running, keep your chin down a little bit but don’t look at the floor. Imagine there’s a string going through your body, keeping you centred. Look where you’re going and try not to look behind you. Keeping the head nice and still means a relaxed, focused and steady half-marathon.
Feet– Try landing within the mid-foot and the ball of your feet, so the shock of hitting the floor is reduced and distributed evenly. This way, you can establish a steady rhythm and work smoothly throughout the race. If you strike the floor with your heel first, your ankles are coming up against lots of pressure. Not only can this be painful and lead to injury, it can lead to a slower half.
7. Be gradual when increasing speed during training
The best thing about half-marathon training is the freedom to take thing at your own pace.
Don’t shoot off at the start of every training session trying to be The Flash, or Dash from The Incredibles. You’ll look cool for 1 minute, then probably injure yourself. Trust me, I’ve been there.
Instead, gradually increase your speed at a rate you’re comfortable with during training. You don’t need to be the fastest runner on day 1. Start a little bit slower than what you’re comfortable with for a week or two to establish a base level of fitness.
Once you’ve gotten your feet wet, then you can make gradual speed increases. Maybe on week 1, you’ll be running 8:30 minutes per mile, and in week 2 you might be running 8: 22-mile minutes.
Don’t worry if a friend is running their miles half a minute quicker. Everyone is different so find what’s comfortable for you, then go for it.
8. Take some time out when you start to recognise a possible injury
Runners tend to think they’re invincible and can ‘run through the pain’ when they notice a possible injury on the horizon. I’ve done this and let me tell you, it ends badly.
Training for my second half-marathon, I thought I could run a quick 7 miles on my second training run and everything would be okay. What a mistake that was. My legs weren’t ready for this and as a result, I could barely get up the next day. I took a week out of training and learnt from the mistake. Had I fought through the pain, I probably would have been severely injured and not able to run.
Don’t play the hero and try to fight through any pain you experience. An effective half-marathon training regime is built around consistency. It’s impossible to be consistent when you’re injured, barely able to walk.
When you start to notice some pain during training, an injury may be on the horizon. Take a few days off your training regime and give your body time to heal.
You can still be active on these off days. Go for a long walk or a swim. Something which is light impact and doesn’t put too much strain on the legs or feet. Remember, running is a high impact sport and most of the injuries come from pounding the ground.
If you’re sick and too ill to run, find some advice here:
9. Incorporate the half-marathon course terrain into your training regime
Every half-marathon course is different. Some are flat and relaxed, whilst others are gruelling and feature lots of hills and wavy pieces of terrain. If you’re not prepared for the terrain on race day, there’s a good chance you won’t achieve the quick time you want.
10. Easy long runs once a week
Whilst not ideal for everyone, this is a definite way you can make your half-marathon times shorter.
Long runs should be a weekly feature of your running regime. I do mine every Sunday, for instance. A long run is referred to as the bread and butter of an endurance programme. It gets your body used to running long distances, increases anaerobic capacity, and acts like a dress rehearsal for race day.
A long run should be further than you normally run. For example, if you typically run 4 miles during training your long run could be 9 miles.
The long run doesn’t have to be your quickest performance. You can take things slow and get used to running for prolonged periods of time. The most important aspect of a long run is upping your endurance and teaching your body to utilise fat as its primary fuel source in true anaerobic fashion.
For importance on long runs, find the blog post here:
11. Make sleep a priority
Without proper sleep, your hopes of a fast-half-marathon are small. Proper sleep helps you maintain endurance, speed and accuracy during training, and is also essential for muscle recovery.
Some research indicates that sleep deprivation (not getting enough quality sleep) increases stress, tiredness, and lowers athletic performance on race day.
Not getting enough sleep can also be dangerous with the risk of running into others heightened due to lack of awareness. As if these consequences of neglecting your sleep isn’t enough, a lack of shut-eye means your body is less effective at producing glycogen from carbohydrates, so you will feel more tired quicker during training and on race day.
Quality sleep for runners is like foundations for a building. Not the most obvious thing for success at first glance, but when it’s removed disaster quickly follows. Like a house crumbling without a solid base, failure to sleep properly means you can’t function adequately.
Do yourself a favour and make sleep a priority. The good thing about training for a half-marathon is that your body finds it easier to fall asleep, and there’s a less likely risk of insomnia.
To make sure you prioritise sleep properly, you can do the following:
Turn off your mobile phone and leave it in another room before bedtime. This means you won’t spend hours scrolling through social media or watching funny Youtube channels like ‘top fails of 2018.’ You know what I’m talking about, we’ve all done it.
Make your sleeping space as dark as possible. Upon detecting darkness, your body ups the production of the melatonin hormone and makes you feel sleepy. Close your curtains, wear an eye mask, turn the lights off, and turn off all electronic devices. You’ll be asleep in no time.
Avoid caffeine 6 hours before bedtime. Fizzy drinks, tea and coffee all contain reasonably sized doses of caffeine, which stimulates your brain and makes it difficult to fall asleep.
Enjoy a cup of Joe in the morning but limit your consumption as the day ends. Prioritise your sleep.
12. Add a weekly speed session to your routine
Your pace is an important factor to run a successful half-marathon. Incorporating a weekly speed session will increase your fitness threshold, so you can run faster for longer.
How do you structure a speed session?
Go for a run on a familiar route, ideally no more than 5 miles. Run at a quick pace, above what you’re comfortable with, for 1 minute straight. Walk for 1 minute to recover then repeat. Repeat this for at least 6 reps on your first speed session.
As you get quicker and find the pace easier to maintain, increase the time to 1 minute 30 seconds and the reps to 8. Keep increasing the time and reps as you get comfortable with each level.
The high-intensity running, for the extended period, will condition your body to hold a quicker pace for longer, resulting in a faster half-marathon.
13. Wear comfortable and appropriate running clothing
Wearing proper clothing can have a massive impact on your half-marathon time. It may seem unlikely, but it can make all the difference.
If you’re training in a two-year-old pair of battered Asics trainers which leave your feet aching and in pain, it’s probably time to get new shoes.
Something I’ve been guilty of is being stubborn when I noticed my shoes were at the end of their life. ‘I’m not spending money on new shoes. Mine is fine.’ I thought. What a fail! My shoes were old and worn, and I knew it. I was getting slower and my feet were hurting more and more.
Upon changing my shoes for a brand-new pair, my runs were much more comfortable, and I found myself getting faster times. Wearing comfortable and appropriate running clothing can make a world of difference.
Make sure you’re wearing decent running shoes, lightweight bottoms, and tops. Ensure you feel comfortable and your clothing isn’t rubbing on you. Even the slightest discomfort from poor fitting clothing can make race day feel like hell.
For more advice on great running shoes, signals you need new running shoes, running sunglasses, and running gifts, find the blog posts here:
- 7 Signals You Need New Running Shoes
- 30 Great Gift Ideas For Runners
- Top 5 Men’s Running Shoes For 2018
- The Benefits Of Running Sunglasses