13 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Half Marathon

13 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Half Marathon

Fall race season is nearly upon us, which means many runners will be running half marathons. Whether you’re running your half marathon for charity, with friends, as a tune-up race, or as your goal race for the fall, you want to do your best and enjoy the race. So of course, you want to train smartly and avoid these 13 ways you may be sabotaging your half marathon. 

The best piece of advice for the marathon is to respect the distance, and I would argue the same thing for the half marathon: you must respect the race if you wish to do well, run a goal time, or PR.

The thing is, many runners treat the half marathon as if it’s just “half a race”…even if they’ve never run a marathon. Yes, the half marathon may only be half of the distance of the marathon, but it’s run at a much harder pace, usually 20-30 seconds per mile or more faster than marathon pace (closer to your lactate threshold, while the marathon is closer to your aerobic threshold).

The half marathon is booming in popularity in the US, and for good reasons: you can train hard and race well without devoting all of your free time to running.

Now, of course, there are scenarios in which your half marathon time may not matter to you, such as pacing a friend or running for charity. But if you are training hard to achieve a time goal in the half marathon – whether that goal is 2 hours or 1:20 – you want to avoid unintentionally sabotaging your training.

13 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Half Marathon

13 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Half Marathon

1. You aren’t refueling after key workouts and long runs.

Long runs and tempo runs will tap into your glycogen reserves (how your body stores carbohydrates for energy). In order to keep running well, you must refill these stores after a long run or hard workout with carbohydrates, as well as eat protein for muscle recovery.

Your muscles are primed to replenish glycogen stores and start the recovery process within the hour after you complete a run. Take advantage of this window and eat a carb and protein rich meal within those 60 minutes. Otherwise, you may notice that your energy levels dip and you aren’t recovering quickly during training. 

2. Your training plan is a hodgepodge.

Hodgepodge isn’t a training plan. You simply cannot throw together a medley of workouts you found in running blogs or magazines and call that a training plan.

If you are aiming for a time goal or a PR, you want to follow a periodized training plan that becomes increasingly specified to the unique physiological demands of the race distance. Your workouts should follow a logical progression in order to peak you just in time for your race.

Sound overwhelming? That’s what a running coach is for! Hiring a running coach will take the guesswork out of training – there’s no need to stress over which workouts to do each week. All you have to do is run! (You can learn more about my one-on-one coaching and group training!)

3. You run your easy runs close to your goal half marathon pace.

Some runners believe that the more often they run at their goal pace, the more comfortable that pace will feel on race day. While I can see the logic in that notion, the reality of half marathon training is quite the opposite. 

As a coach, I’m a firm believer in polarized training: hard days are hard and easy days are easy. If you are running most of your easy days at what is actually a moderate or hard pace, you won’t be able to push yourself hard enough in your workouts.

The risks for running too often at your goal pace include injury, overtraining, fatigue, peaking too early, and leaving your race in your training. Essentially, running most of your miles at half marathon goal pace is a reliable training method if you want to miss your goal on race day.

4. You avoid fueling on race day.

Hitting the wall is a legitimate concern for half marathoners, especially if you are finishing in 2 hours or longer. The body stores approximately two hours worth of glycogen, so if you don’t fuel during a half marathon, you risk running on empty during the final miles – which are already difficult miles by the nature of the race.

Faster half marathoners with a finish time in the 1:30’s or faster don’t need to fuel if those so choose, but some of them do choose to do so anyway since carbohydrates can provide a performance boost.

Want to learn how to improve your fueling for half marathon training and racing? Sign up for my Master Your Fueling and Hydration e-course, which includes comprehensive modules, worksheets, and individualized feedback to help you run your best race.

5. You copy a friend’s training plan.

The plan that your friend used to train for her half marathon PR may not work well for you. Why? Because you are two individual runners with different muscle fiber compositions, training backgrounds, injury risks, strengths, and weaknesses. Find a plan that works best for you – even if it’s not the same training plan that your running group is using.

6. You’re running through pain or injury.

This should be obvious, but we runners are a stubborn, stubborn group and need this constant reminder. Don’t run through injury. Cross-train if you can, see a doctor to determine what’s wrong, and put your race on hold if you need to. Otherwise, you’ll just exacerbate your injury.

13 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Half Marathon

7. You ignore the rule of specificity.

Specificity is the idea that you train for the physiological demands of your race. You wouldn’t train for a 5K by doing 20 mile runs or for a marathon by doing 400 meter repeats on the track each week!

In a way, the half marathon is an odd duck: it’s a balance of both endurance and speed.

According to running coach and author Brad Hudson, the best way to gain specific endurance for the half marathon is to focus on tempo runs, 10K to half marathon pace long intervals, and long runs. Short speed intervals do have their place in the early weeks of training, but as the race approaches, you’re better off doing a tempo run on the roads than another set of 400s around the track.

8. You’re peaking too early.

That said, if you start doing long tempo runs with 12 weeks to go in your training, you may reach peak fitness before race day even arrives. But you’ll keep training through peak fitness, which means then you’ll either feel stale on race day or overtrain.

9. Negative self-talk overrides your physical ability.

The last 3-5 miles of a half marathon are challenging. Your muscles are burning. You’ve been running hard for an hour or longer. It’s all too easy to succumb to the discomfort, let negative self-talk rule you, and slow down. 

My best tip for improving your mental game? Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Find ways to cope mentally with physical discomfort and practice those methods during your training. I highly recommend Matt Fitzgerald’s How Bad Do You Want It? for learning how to cope with discomfort better (affiliate link). 

10. You pace yourself poorly on race day.

We have all experienced this: your tapered legs feel fresh and you get caught up (mentally and physically) with the excitement of the race, so you run the first few miles faster than your goal pace. Time in the bank, right?

13 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Half Marathon

Wrong. Starting out too fast is the number one pacing mistake that runners make in the half marathon.

Your half marathon race pace is very close to your lactate threshold. So when you run faster than your goal pace, lactate accumulates much more quickly in your legs. The more lactate, the more quickly you will fatigue – which is not the desired effect in the middle of a goal race.

11. You train based on a goal rather than your current fitness.

I confess: I’ve made this mistake before. It’s easy to commit this half marathon mistake. You set a goal and start training with workouts based off of that goal time.

But fitness doesn’t always match up with a goal and you may be setting yourself up for injury, overtraining, or disappointment.

Your half marathon pace is close to your lactate threshold. Training at tempo effort (moderately hard) will reveal where approximately that threshold is – which will then help you set a realistic (but still challenging) goal for race day.

12. You taper too much.

A 2-3 week taper works well for marathoners, who need to recover from weeks of 2-3 hour long runs. However, the shorter distance of half marathon requires a shorter taper. Usually, one week of tapering will suffice; your longest long run will be two weeks before the race, so the taper begins with a shorter long run one week before the race.

Don’t completely eliminate intensity either! A short tune-up workout at goal race pace will keep your legs and mind attuned to the pace in the week before race day without accumulating fatigue. 

13. Your race your tempo/goal pace workouts

Even if you follow a plan that progresses your workouts in order to peak you on race day, running your tempo workouts too hard is a reliable way to leave your race in your training.

You may be able to knock out that 8-mile tempo run 10 seconds per mile faster than your goal pace, but that doesn’t mean you should. Follow the prescribed paces in your training and always finish a run feeling as if you could give a bit more. Save that hard, all-out effort for race day when it matters!

13.1: You don’t recover well after the race.

Take a few days to rest after a half marathon. You pushed your body as hard as possible for 13.1 miles – and now it needs to recover. Honor your recovery and don’t run (or do any physically strenuous cross-training) for 3-5 days after your race, depending on your level of experience.

Quite simply, these 13 ways you may be sabotaging your half marathon focus around a few main points. You need to train individually for you, you should train specifically for the physiological demands of your race, you don’t run a smart race, and you should treat your body well both in training and on race day.

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner and Wild Workout Wednesday

What mistakes have you made in half marathon training?
What would you add to this list?
Are you running a half marathon this fall?

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43 Responses

  1. Great list! I think you covered everything I could think of. I didn’t know anything about fueling when I did my first half, so I didn’t practice it in training or take anything on race day. My fall half marathon is still very much up in the air…

  2. such a great list and definitely important reminders! you know I have a half in November and I listen to whatever you advise me to do. it’s so important as you said to do what works for you and not follow someone else’s plan. we are all so different!

  3. This is so timely for me as I’m running my first half since February! People who don’t know much about running are looking at me like I’m nuts to worry when, after all, I have done a ton of triathlons. Yeah, running 6 miles after a swim and bike is literally nothing compared with hammering out 13.2. I’m definitely not trying to PR (or even close) at the Leaf Peeper, just trying to avoid injury. I’m lucky to have a coach who will gently guide me toward fitness to complete the half but, it will be a tough pill to swallow!!

    1. They are such different types of fitness! It’s like how even at my peak fitness the tris that you do no problem would leave me a crying mess after the swim. I bet with your coach, talent, and hard training ethic you will have no problem at Leaf Peppers!

  4. I think I’ve made every single one of these mistakes. Supposedly I’m “training” right now for a half but my heart isn’t fully in it for some reason. I know I can do the distance but I’m not gunning for a PR so I’m kind of winging my training plan. Not the best scenario and definitely not something a running coach should be advocating. Lol! 🙂

    1. I think I have also – they’re common and easy mistakes to make! The training is different when not aiming for a PR, but from what I see on Insta you’re getting in some killer fartleks and hill workouts! I’m sure that you’ll do great at Leap Peppers!

  5. I think I’ve done all of these in the past! Thanks for the reminder on things NOT to do 🙂 Another thing I do a lot is wearing my shoes WAY too long, which sometimes leads to injury, or not breaking in my shoes enough before the race!

  6. I have definitely been guilty of running workouts too fast in my marathon training. I don’t go out there and purposely push the effort level but if I see my splits are fast I don’t slow down, either. And I basically ran mile repeats all-out, which I later learned is definitely NOT how you’re supposed to do that workout! As more time passes between me and the Pittsburgh Marathon, I’m starting to suspect that I overtrained a little bit and left my race in training. I didn’t feel awesome on race day, my half marathon times didn’t improve much, and I was setting other distance PRs in training runs. It’s good to have you on board this time to temper my overeagerness!

    1. It’s so tempting (and I’ve done it as well in the past) because you want to see where fitness is! Years ago also I used to think that mile repeats were an all out effort also. I think some people describe them in that way! And thank you!

  7. You pretty much nailed them all with this list! I’d add, “Don’t get drunk the night before your race” to the list and then it would be complete. 😉

  8. Easy runs seriously ARE key and it took me a while to realize that. I have a fellow running friend who refuses to run anything but hard and she struggles to improve her race pace.

  9. This is such fantastic, comprehensive advice! I’m marathon training right now (my first!) and I haven’t had the pacing issues yet thanks to the heat, but I do worry about going too hard on my easy runs, which I know is a big no-no! I will say ever since I started working with a coach, I feel much more structured!

    1. Thank you! I think once marathon training gets into the swing, it becomes easier to keep the right pace on easy runs – the legs are so tired from the long runs and hard workouts. Good luck as you continue your marathon training!

  10. I always thought that a half marathon should have its own name (though I have no idea what). It is completely different training from the full, though some workouts can be similar.

    These are great tips that everyone should be following for their half marathon. I still break the “going out too fast” rule, even though I know better and have paid the price.

  11. These are great tips. The worst mistakes I’ve made were going out too fast, although I tend to do that more in 5Ks (thinking “it’s only 3 miles”) and start half marathons fairly conservatively. I actually like to start at about the pace I hope to maintain/finish at rather than aiming to negative split, and this has worked out well for me in half marathons. But soooo many people around me went out too fast and even with consistent pacing, I passed a lot of people.

    Also, I think it’s a GREAT idea to take a “down week” after a half marathon. I did that after the Charleston Half last year and it really helped me with recovery and getting ready to train again. Way too many people just keep on training without taking even a day or two off!

    1. Thank you! A recovery week after a half – even a few days completely off – makes such a difference! I don’t know how so many people keep training without missing a beat if they raced it!

  12. Excellent tips! I’m approaching half # 28 (or #29?) next weekend, and there have been numerous mistakes along the way, especially in the early days. My biggest one? Doing all of my training runs at the exact same pace…my “ideal” 13.1 race pace. UGH.

  13. All so true! I’ve had a few sub-par halves recently. One was due to signing up for the race last minute and wanting to PR even though I hadn’t been training and the other was just bad luck (got a fever the day of the race). I also got injured after one half when I didn’t fuel properly during my race. Don’t learn the hard way, people!

  14. I think you covered them all and I’ve probably done most of them! lol! I’ve run nearly 60 half marathons, so I haven’t done them all perfectly but the majority have been under 2 hours, so I’m good with that. I’m running Monumental Half marathon in November and Santa Hustle half in December…..as long as my knees say Ok. I’ve been dealing with bum knee this summer and have been told my knees are “bad” so I have to learn to manage them. 🙁

    1. Wow, 60 half marathons is a lot – that’s awesome! I hope your knees hold up for your half marathons! Hip and core strength and stability work can usually help with “bad” knees.

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