13 Ways You May Be Sabotaging Your Half Marathon

Many runners treat the half marathon as if it’s just “half a race”…even if they’ve never run a marathon. While a marathon gets all the attention, the half marathon is a challenging distance in its own right. However, many runners miss out on their potential in the half marathon because they don’t respect the distance – or don’t view it as an opportunity to train hard. This article features half marathon training advice for intermediate to experienced athletes who have already done a half marathon. Specifically, this article provides guidance on specific ways that runners sabotage their half marathon race.

1. You aren’t implementing recovery nutrition after long runs

Long runs and big midweek workouts will use a large amount of your glycogen reserves. Additionally, these runs will break down the muscles. If you want to be able to progress your training, you need to provide your body with resources to replenish the glycogen and repair your muscles. Recovery nutrition has a direct impact on how well you recover – and therefore, how well you adapt to your training.

During the hour after you complete a run, your body experiences a hormonal response that primes it to store carbohydrates as glycogen. By eating a combination of carbohydrates and protein shortly after finishing a long run or midweek workout, you provide your body with the resources it needs to recover. You are able to perform better in your next session, thus enhancing the overall quality of your training

Read this article for more information on recovery nutrition and how to implement it in your training.

2. Your training plan is hodgepodge.

Hodgepodge isn’t a training plan. If you are expecting a big PR in your next race, you simply cannot throw together a medley of workouts you find on Instagram or Strava.

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 as your race approaches: easier workouts in the early phases, and more race-specific workouts closer to the event.

It can help to hire running coach or find a well-structured plan online. Most importantly, stick to your plan even as race nerves set in. Resist the temptation to add more hard workouts or extra miles.

3. You run your easy runs too fast

Some runners believe that the more often they run at their goal pace, the more comfortable that pace will feel on race day. While half marathon tempo runs have a place in a training plan, not every run should be run at race pace.

However, the opposite is true. As counter-intuitive as it sounds, easy runs are key in half marathon training. If you keep most of your runs slower than half marathon goal pace, you will be fitter on race day (so long as you have deliberate hard workouts). By slowing down on a majority of your runs, you can push in hard workouts when it matters most.

The risks for running too often at your goal pace include injury, overtraining, fatigue, and leaving your race in your training. If in doubt, reserve running at half marathon pace (or faster) for just one run per week.

4. You skip fueling on race day

Just because you can run a half marathon without any fuel, doesn’t mean that you should – especially if your goal is peak performance. Carbohydrates consumed during the race ensure that your body has enough substrate available to support the higher intensity of half marathon pace.

Generally speaking, most half marathoners will benefit from 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Even if you are finishing a half marathon in under 90 minutes, you will still experience a performance benefit from a mid-race gel. You can use gels, sports drinks, or chews (or a combination) during the race.

Read this article for more information on why and how to fuel during a half marathon.

5. You lose confidence playing the comparison game

A productive training plan is focused on where you are presently. However, many runners lose sight of their present fitness. Instead, they focus on their past fitness or on the race times of a running buddy or social media influencer. The comparison trap happens to everyone – but if you give too much voice to it, it can sabotage your half marathon.

The goal of a half marathon training should be to build your fitness from where you are, so that you are as ready as you can be for race day. If you get stuck in the comparison trap, it becomes all too easy to lose sight of the goal of your training. You may start pushing too hard and practicing negative self-talk – neither of which will do you favors on race day.

6. You’re running through injury

It’s a common slippery slope: you experience some minor pain, but your race is upcoming, so you ignore it. (Here is how to distinguish pain vs soreness.) Over a week or so, that minor pain worsens – and soon enough, you have an injury that is painful and alters your running form. If you try to keep training through the pain, you will likely have to skip your race due to injury.

Instead, if you experience worrisome pain, the best choice is to address it sooner than later. Cross-train for a few days and then contact a physical therapist sooner than later. The sooner you stop running through pain, the more likely you can resolve your injury before the race.

7. You ignore the rule of specificity.

Specificity is the idea that you train for the physiological demands of your race. On the most basic level, specificity means you train for a running race by running. On a more nuanced level, it means that you prepare your body for the metabolic and biomechanical demands of race day. You wouldn’t train for a 5K by doing 20 mile runs; you do more interval training. For a marathon, you do long runs and higher mileage, not short sprints on the track.

The half marathon is a long-distance race. Depending on your speed, you run somewhere above your aerobic threshold yet below your lactate threshold (for most recreational runners). You need to have the endurance to cover the distance. If you want to run a half marathon PR, you need to raise your lactate threshold so you can run faster before you hit it.

A well-rounded training plan will incorporate a wide variety of workouts. Usually, you will start doing a mix of speed and threshold workouts. As the race gets closer, you will do more workouts near or at half marathon pace to prepare your body for the specific demands of race day. Additionally, half marathon training does rely on long runs and training volume to support the endurance demands.

8. You’re peaking too early.

The most specific work of training should be done closest to race day. Likewise, the most intense workouts and hardest training weeks should be done shortly before the taper. If you ramp up mileage too early, or start big hard workouts too soon, you could peak too early before the race.

Peaking too early can also start if you spend too long training for a race. Ideally, a training cycle for a half marathon lasts eight to fourteen weeks, depending on the athlete. It is generally acknowledged that a training cycle lasting longer than 20-24 weeks will lead to a training plateau or overtraining.

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 overtake 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. A tune-up race or time trial provides practice for learning how to handle physical discomfort before your goal race. Ideally, a tune-up race or time trial should occur three to six weeks before your goal half marathon. If you do not want to race, you can include one or two deliberately challenging workouts in the peak weeks of training.

10. You start out too fast 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?

Unfortunately, that approach does not work. 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, you will experience fatigue sooner in the race. As a result, you struggle to hold pace and slow down in the final few miles.

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

Another common mistake is setting your half marathon pace based on an arbitrary time goal – not your current fitness. It’s not just a matter of race day expectations. If you attempt to train based off of a goal time, you may target the wrong physiological zones in workouts.

For example, let’s say you recently ran a 56-minute 10K race (9:00/mile or 5:36/km). If you set your half marathon goal pace as a sub-2 and do your training paces based on that, you end up training your half marathon goal pace at what is actually your 10K pace. You may end up overreaching in most of your workouts.

Instead, base your training paces off of your current fitness. If you have not raced recently, you can do a time trial to assess your current fitness.

12. You taper too early (or not at all)

The half marathon taper can feel like a fine balance. Too long of a taper can leave an athlete feeling flat and deconditioned by race day. However, training hard straight up until race day can cause unnecessary fatigue. Generally, most half marathoners respond best to a 10-14 day taper before the race.

The taper does deliberately reduce training volume, but it’s not a total cessation of training. Instead, you gradually reduce volume over 10-14 days, while maintaining intensity (just slightly scaled down). This article delves more into the theory and practice of how to taper for a half marathon.

13. Your race your workouts

Another common temptation that can sabotage a half marathon occurs in training. So many runners believe that if they can push just a bit harder in each workout, they will get fitter. Running too fast during your hard workouts does not make you faster – it can make you injured or overtrained.

Follow the prescribed paces and effort in your training. A reliable rule of thumb is to 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.

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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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