Recommendations for half-marathon runners

Statistics say that in 2018 there were 2.1 million finishers in half marathons. This distance is becoming more popular because of its benefit for people’s health. The tips provided here are for people who aim at finishing a half marathon in the range of 1:40-2:10, which is a time that covers the majority of runners. Some recommendations apply to any runner, regardless of speed or distance.

I’ve run around 20 official half-marathons, with 5 races in 2022. My times range from 1:46 to 2:10. Here, I want to share my experiences; maybe some people will find them helpful. Of course, I made mistakes during my races and learned from them, but I made good progress in preparing for the race.

Many thanks to my coach, Stefan Oprina, who reviewed the initial form of this article and made valuable suggestions added to the text below. He has a lot of experience in running marathons and half-marathons.

This post will cover three moments: before, during, and after the race.

  1. Before the race
    • Equipment
      • Shoes
        • Try the shoes before buying them. Don’t buy them online just because you read excellent reviews or because they look nice.
        • Buy shoes with 1/2 or 1 number in size more than what you usually wear. During the race, your feet will swallow. Having more oversized shoes will help with that.
        • Don’t lace your shoes tight for the same reason as above.
        • Buy good shoes even if they are more expensive. Otherwise, you risk injuries and pay the doctors the money. I have an upper weight limit of 210-215 g per shoe. If you get injuries or black nails because of the shoe, you should stop using them. For example, I have Adidas Adizero Takumi Sen 8 and Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next 2%. Both are under 200 g. A light shoe has a good impact on your running time.
        • Make sure your laces will stay intact during the race. Lace your shoes with a double knot and slide the tip of the laces under the lace. If, during the race, your shoes untie when you bend to lace them back, you’ll become instantly dizzy because of the blood pumping through your body. You don’t want that to happen.
      • Shorts/pants
        • Use synthetic shorts. I’ve tried many types, and so far, Nike shorts are the best for me.
        • Buy shorts that have pockets and zippers. If you have to carry a key with you, don’t risk losing it. Also, if you take a phone, gels, etc., it’s good to have more pockets to avoid your pants sliding down.
        • In the case of winter running, I prefer leggings from Salomon.
      • T-Shirts
        • Use synthetic T-Shirts. You get T-Shirts from any competition organizer.
        • Wear the T-Shirt over the shorts. When running, the shorts slide easier on the T-shirt than on the skin.
        • I put a blouse over the T-shirt if the weather is under 10 Celsius for the whole race. If you start at 8 Celsius but finish at 15 Celsius, I wouldn’t add clothes over the T-Shirt. It is better to endure cold at the start than to sweat hard during the race.
      • Other
        • Lately, I am running with a belt around the waist where I carry gels or a phone protected with a zipper.
        • You can use a cardio belt to accurately measure the pulse during the run. That is good if you follow and set your pace according to your heart rate.
        • You can add a foot pod or other devices.
    • Nutrition
      • Everyone knows about the party pasta before the race. Pasta is good because it contains carbohydrates, and the energy is released over an extended period.
      • In the morning before the race, you can get proteins.
      • Don’t drink too much coffee, especially on a sunny day.
    • Warm-up
      • Come to the start 45-60 minutes before the beginning of the race.
      • Begin with a 2 km slow run in 13-14 minutes
      • Do a stretching session for 5-10 minutes.
      • Do special runs to warm the body and prepare it for the race.
      • Run at full speed for 50-60 meters, then walk back to the starting point. Repeat this 6-8 times.
  2. During the race
    • Nutrition
      • It is possible to run a half-marathon without drinking any liquid; I have done that in the past. Now I am drinking once or twice but not more.
      • In all the races, you’ll see volunteers providing the runners’ with water and isotonic drinks every 4-5 kilometers. Drink isotonic and don’t drink water. I’ve tried both options water only made things harder for me. You are already low on minerals, and water only dilutes them.
      • It is possible to run 21.1 km without taking a gel. Before 2022 I didn’t use any gel during races. However, if you take gels, you will suffer much less during the run. Lately, I took one gel at km 9 and one at km 16. I’ve read that most people recommend one single gel after 45 minutes in the race. You need to read the contents of the gel carefully, as you are taking that at your own risk. I have limited experience with gels and can’t make a strong recommendation on this topic.
      • Don’t try any gel or something else during the race you did not experience before. I tried GU gel and Maurten jelly, and both were ok. Maurten and GU have different options with caffeine or without. You can choose whatever works for you. Keep in mind that one cup of coffee has 100mg of caffeine.
    • Strategy
      • Before each race, I make a table with intended times at 5, 10, 15, 20, and 21.1 km. I do this to ensure I run smoothly during the first part of the race. This exercise reduces the pressure on me and ensures I start slowly.
      • Human nature is to run fast for the first part of the race (you feel strong, adrenaline is high, many people around) and slow for the second part. My advice above helps you avoid this.
      • Ideally, you should start slowly and increase the pace as you go. Otherwise, for every minute you run faster in the first part of the race, you lose 2 minutes in the second part. Running fast at the beginning is a bad strategy. However, if you feel you are well-trained for a certain pace, you can start with that pace throughout the race.
      • In the most favorable scenario, you should run as fast as possible during the last few kilometers. If you have a muscular fever after the race, it means you had a good race.
      • If you feel you can’t keep up that pace, slow down. If you continue, you’ll end up in an ambulance in an optimistic scenario. In every race with more than 1000 runners, I’ve seen people lying down under medical assistance or taken to the ambulance. Some competitive people find it hard to know they are running out of steam.
      • You can follow some pacers aiming your desired time. Most races have pacemakers for 1:30, 1:40, 1:45, 1:50, 1:55, 2:00, 2:10, etc. I only used pacers to see where I was, compared to a targeted time but did not run with them.
    • Control
      • You can control your pace based on your watch. Most runners do that.
      • You can set a limit for your heart rate, and if you pass over that heart rate, you slow down.
      • You can set the desired time to finish on your watch, and the clock will tell you how you’re doing. I don’t recommend it as it adds more pressure on you to see that you are lagging N minutes.
  3. After the race
    • It is good to run 2 km at a slow pace to recover after the race, but in reality, it is less likely to be able to do that because of the crowded finishing lines.
    • If it’s your first race, you need to get some rest.
    • Otherwise, you need to drink some water and don’t stay under the sun’s heat. If it’s cold, change your clothes.
    • Celebrate, take pictures!

The purpose of this article is not to cover training for half marathons. That is a much more complex topic, and I should have covered other topics like cadence, posture, nutrition, etc.

Remember Emil Zatopek, the great runner, if all the things written here seem complicated and you lack motivation. He said: “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.” We’re talking only about half of that here.