I ran my first half marathon almost four years ago, clocking in a 1:46 finish time. I was beyond elated – it was faster than I dreamed of running. In the four years since then, I’ve taken almost 12 minutes off my finish time, dropping down from that 1:46 to a 1:34 at my most recent half marathon. In today’s post, I am sharing how I took 12 minutes off my half marathon time – and how you can drastically improve your finish time over the years as well.
Know that Progress Isn’t Linear
A lot of runners tend to think of PRs as a straight progression: sub 2 hours, then sub 1:55, etc. But growth does not follow cut-and-tidy progressions.
My progression over the years:
November 2014: Valparaiso Half Marathon, 1:46
April 2015: Go! St. Louis Half, 1:43
March 2016: Lake Sammamish Half, 1:38
March 2017: Lake Sammamish Half, 1:38
May 2018: Snohomish Women’s Run, 1:34
Notice a trend? There’s not a linear progression. Some training cycles results in significant PRs. Some were a plateau. And that’s how it should be. Running is not some sort of input/output equation where x amount of miles or workouts equals a PR of y minutes. Taking several minutes off of your half marathon time requires patience and acceptance that progress is not linear. With that in mind, these tips will guide you in shaving time off of your half marathon time.
I Didn’t Force Fitness
I made this mistake for the 2015 half marathon – I attempted a 1:39 – and I quickly learned that you can’t force yourself to run a pace just because you wish to run a certain finish time. You can’t force fitness. If you try to train at a much faster pace than your body is ready for, you lose the purpose of your workouts and risk overtraining, injury, and a decline in performance. My biggest PRs came when I trained where I was and let myself grow naturally throughout the training cycle.
Instead, train where you are at. Learn how to run workouts based on perceived effort – such as how half marathon effort or tempo effort should feel – and get an idea of your training pace ranges based on recent races. You may find that you can’t always hit x goal by y race, but you will find that you continually and sustainably progress without serious issues in training.
Focus on Quality
Here’s the surprising thing: once I found the approximate mileage where I thrived in half marathon training (starting at about 35 miles, peaking around 45 miles, most weeks in the 38-42 mile range), I stayed there. Half marathon training is different than marathon training: in marathon training, you want to often run on tired legs. In half marathon training, you want to strike the balance of training enough but also being able to complete some challenging tempo or speed workouts.
Instead of focusing on just increasing volume at the expense of quality, I focused on increasing quality within that volume (you can see a sample of what this actually looks like in training here). The half marathon is not just about endurance – you need to possess the ability to sustain a comfortably hard pace for a long period of time.
How can you improve the quality of a training cycle to improve your half marathon PR?
- Extend your long run from 13 miles to 14-16 miles.
- Increase the duration of your tempo runs, whether continuous or in long intervals.
- Add in more running at faster than half marathon pace, such as 5K to 10K pace repeats.
This is not to discount the value of running sufficient mileage to support your goals; running more mileage does improve your endurance and efficiency. However, if you are plateauing and running at least 35 miles per week, try looking at the quality of your training as well.
Try some of these workouts to add quality into your half marathon training:
Two Mile Repeats (And Other Half Marathon Workouts for Runners)
Three Variations of Mile Repeats
Tempo and Interval Combo Workout
Half Marathon Specific Workouts
Train for Other Distances
Between all of these half marathons, I trained for and raced marathons, 10Ks, and 5Ks. I periodized my training and focused some segments on speed and others on endurance. The 55-mile weeks of marathon training and the gut-busting 800m repeats of 5K training both contributed to faster half marathons in the following seasons. Shorter distances teach you to cope with pain and run faster, while longer races can teach you how to pace well over a long distance.
Read more about speed training for long distance runners and how shorter races can help you race a faster half marathon in this blog post.
Constantly Progress Your Training
One common error many runners make is to repeat a training plan without changing any details. When you complete a challenging training cycle and run a PR, it is the result of physiological adaptations. When you progress, you then require new physiological stimulants to continue to progress further. Repeating the exact same training plan season after season can lead to plateauing.
That doesn’t mean you must adapt a completely new training philosophy each time. Not at all. Rather, you want to constantly progress the type of training that works for you. If 2 x 2 mile repeats helped you improve your half marathon pace, try 3 x 2 mile repeats. If 3 x 1 mile repeats built speed for you well in one training cycle, try running them slightly faster in the next training cycle or adjust the recovery intervals to make the workout harder. Try new workouts, try extending your long runs, try something new. The physical progression will help you continue to improve and adapt; the mental variety will prevent training boredom and mental burn-out.
I repeat some of the same workouts, but I never do exactly the same training plan. I’ll experiment with new workouts, try dividing up intervals in a different way, or play around with my pacing to turn a single-pace workout into a multi-pace workout. When I do repeat a workout, I progress it in some manner, usually in terms of pace.
Strength Training for Power and Speed
My half marathon times became significantly faster when I changed how I strength trained. I used to structure my lifting workouts for endurance, with high reps and low weights. Now, I do a combination of slightly heavier weights/moderate reps and plyometrics to strength train for power and speed.
Strength training should not replace running, but rather be viewed as a non-negotiable part of a training plan. Strength training makes you more durable, more powerful, less fragile, and more mobile – all of which are necessary for running faster. For more on how lifting weights improves power and speed, read this blog post on strength training for runners.
I don’t plan on plateauing or slowing down; I hope to continue to take more time off of my half marathon as I can. I encourage you to do the same – don’t place self-imposed limits on yourself and don’t become discouraged when you don’t reach your goal with each and every race. Trust in your training and keep putting in the hard work – and soon enough, the results will show in your racing.
What have you done in training to improve your race times?