Planning on hitting a new PR in your next half-marathon? No matter your fitness level, you can take seconds (maybe minutes!) off your time with some focused training.
Most people who aim to run a faster half-marathon want to do so without changing their training plan. But if you’re serious about increasing your speed and improving your race time, you must put in the effort and follow a tried-and-true strategy.
The good news is that you absolutely can smash a new PR every time you run. Follow the advice in this article, stay consistent, and believe in yourself… And wait for those seconds to fall away.
Assessing Where You’re At
The first key to figuring out how to run a faster half marathon is assessing where you are right now. It’s the only way to be able to set appropriate and reachable goals.
Current Fitness Level
Knowing your fitness level is the first step. How long can you maintain a consistent, fast pace? How quickly do you recover after a hard training run?
This will help you determine if you how much you can improve your half-marathon time.
Your Current Race Pace
To set a goal pace, you need to know your current race pace. The best way to do this is by looking at your most recent half-marathon pace.
If that was a long time off, you can figure out your estimated pace by plugging another distance into a race pace calculator. Many GPS watches will also give you an estimated time based on recent training runs.
Strength and Conditioning
How did your muscles handle your last half-marathon? Assess your muscular strength and identify any potential muscle weaknesses or imbalances that may be holding you back—like being quad dominant, for example.
Small form changes can make a difference in your training and race. If you can, have your running form analyzed by a professional running coach.
You can also use your GPS watch to help analyze your form by noting metrics like your cadence, stride length, ground contact time, and vertical oscillation.
Evaluate Your Current Training Plan
Does your current training plan align with your goals of running a faster half-marathon? Your previous training plan got you your previous PR, but you may need to make some changes to hit a new one.
Set Realistic Goals
Once you know where you are, you can set realistic goals for your next half-marathon. The best way to set appropriate goals that are easier to manage and reach is to follow the SMART principle: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound.
Detailing these data points will give you specific things to focus on and measure as you train toward your goal. Clear objectives help you to stay focused on the goal at hand, especially when it starts to become hard.
Setting Milestone Goals for Your Half Marathon Race
Set smaller milestone goals to act as stepping stones to your big race. Enter a 5K race a few weeks into your training so you have a smaller goal to work towards. Do a 10K race a few weeks before your half-marathon to keep you on track.
These “dress rehearsal” races can allow you to assess how well your training is working and practice your race-day strategy or make small tweaks before the big day.
Fine-Tuning Your Training Plan
If you’ve already been through a training plan for your previous race, there’s no need to go out and look for a whole new plan to help you run a faster half-marathon. You can stick to your training plan but fine-tune it to support your new goal.
Run at Race Pace
You don’t need to run every one of your runs at race pace, but if you want to hit a certain pace on the day, you need to get used to running at that pace.
While your training plan will include multiple different types of runs, you should be focusing more on tempo runs in the 8ish weeks leading up to your half-marathon.
Aside from a shorter 4- to 6-mile tempo run every week, you can start incorporating interval runs done at race pace, or even speeding up to race pace for the last 2 to 3 miles of your long runs to train your legs.
Include Speed Work
They say speedwork is the biggest contributing factor to running a faster race. If you aren’t already doing a certain amount of speedwork in your training plan, now is the time to start adding it in.
These are the different kinds of speedwork you should include:
Interval training is a classic running workout involving short bursts of speed followed by a recovery period. They train your cardiovascular system and muscles to get used to a faster pace.
You should be doing speedwork at least once per week in the 6 to 8 weeks leading up to your big race. This will help to get your body used to speeding up to a certain pace so it doesn’t feel foreign on the day.
A fartlek—which means “speed play”—is similar to intervals but in a more unstructured way. Rather than setting certain intervals and rest periods, you vary your pace throughout a normal run, which is more unpredictable but can also be more fun in a training plan.
You might start at an easy pace, and when you reach the corner of the road, increase your pace to race pace until you reach the big tree halfway down the street. Then, you may ease up for a short while and increase to faster than race pace when you reach the park.
Fartleks are unstructured, but it’s important to vary your pace between easy, 5K race pace, 10K race pace, and half-marathon race pace.
Long runs and easy runs are at a slower pace than your race pace. Intervals are at a faster pace. Tempo runs, on the other hand, are runs at your goal race pace.
Slowly increasing the distance you run at race pace will help you to maintain it for a longer time on race day.
During a tempo run, you’ll set your pace from the beginning and stick to it for a set distance – usually 2 to 5 miles. This will build your body’s endurance for running at that pace.
Hill repeats or hill sprints are a form of intervals. They’re tough because you’re running against gravity, but they’re a great way to build uphill speed and develop your leg muscles to help power you forward.
You should include one hill training session in your training plan each week. Start doing 5 hill repeats in a session and add an extra one each week. Your final total of time doing hill repeats shouldn’t exceed 30 minutes, or you’ll be at risk of over-training.
Strides are also a form of intervals, but they’re shorter bursts of higher speeds—almost all-out sprints. They’re often done as a warm-up, but they’re also a great way to improve your running form. You should do strides for 15 to 20 minutes in one session.
You can introduce progression runs about 8 weeks before race day. This kind of run starts easy and gradually increases the pace so you can finish off stronger and faster physically and mentally.
Aim to do a progression run every second week, not every week. They’re easy to incorporate in your long run or one of your easy runs. Start off at an easy pace and either stick it or very slowly increase until you reach the final 2 miles or so.
At this point, pick up your pace to run those final miles at your target race pace. You’ll be more fatigued, but this helps to train your mind and body to push through those harder moments.
Importance of Long Runs
You should be doing one long run every week. Keep in mind that long runs don’t need to be done at your race pace—they should be done at about 90 seconds slower per mile than your race pace.
It might feel slow, but this is key to building endurance and strength. Your long runs will increase in length throughout your training plan. Beginners will reach a distance of 10 to 12 miles in their long run just prior to race day, while more experienced runners can get up to 16 miles in a long run.
Cross-Train to Improve Overall Fitness
If your training plan doesn’t already include cross-training, now is the time to add it in. If it does, you may want to optimize your cross-training to suit your new goals better.
Cross-training improves aerobic fitness, prevents you from over-training, and can even build muscular strength. Pick your cross-training activities wisely—we recommend low-impact activities like cycling or swimming, as well as a dedicated strength training day for legs and core (although the upper body shouldn’t be neglected!).
Run With a Friend or Group
Training with a friend can help immensely. It keeps you accountable and adds extra motivation. It might also help to train with a friend who’s slightly faster than you. They’ll push you to become better and faster.
You don’t have to train with someone else for every single run. But if you can include at least one or two runs per week with a friend to spur you on, you’ll see an improvement in your overall performance.
Work on Running Form and Efficiency
We can’t understate the importance of good running form. Poor form makes your running less efficient, adding seconds to your final time. So, if you’re serious about improving your time, work on your running form.
Schedule Rest Days
Rest is as important as training. Make sure you’re taking at least one FULL day of rest per week, and at least one day of “active rest”, on which you rest from running but do a cross-training activity.
Don’t neglect your rest, or you’ll be at risk of developing overuse injuries, which can push your training back and lead to you missing that all-important race. Listen to your body—if you need extra rest, take a day.
Fuel Your Body for Optimal Performance
Your training plan should be supplemented by a great diet and an effective fueling strategy. To maintain a higher pace during your race, you need to fuel yourself through the race, but also nourish your body in the days leading up to it.
If you’re an experienced runner, you may want to try carbo-loading before the big race. That doesn’t mean eating a pizza and a mound of pasta the day before—structure it effectively and choose the right carbs for the best effectiveness.
Experiment with in-race fueling during your training. You should already know what fueling works for your body, and you should be fueling every 45 minutes or so during your race to keep your energy up.
Remember also to fuel properly after training runs to set yourself up for recovery and being ready for the next workout. Eat something light, with a good mix of carbs and protein, and rehydrate.
Tapering Before Your Race Day
It might seem counterintuitive, but you should be easing up on your training from about 2 weeks before your race day. Tapering it down in terms of training volume will allow your body a bit more time to rest and recover.
During week one of your taper, you should reduce your training volume by about 30%. In week two, you want to reduce it even further to about 60%.
Aim to run shorter distances at race pace, and keep incorporating speed work, just to a lesser extent. We also suggest halting your cross-training during these few weeks to allow your body more time to recover.
Staying Inspired and Motivated
Training for a half-marathon is a long game. You’ll need to find what works for you in terms of motivation.
You can reward yourself for hitting small milestones, get an accountability buddy who spurs you on, or create a playlist that gets you psyched to run. Above all, remember your end goal—that PR time you’re aiming for.
Visualization can be an excellent tool for boosting your mental fitness because running can be just as much a mental exercise as a physical one! We highly recommend adding regular visualization exercises to your training program as well.
You can do them in the morning when you first wake up, as you’re falling asleep, or take 10 minutes during the day to meditate and visualize. See yourself on the course, hitting your race pace and crossing the finish line with that PR.
The key to effective visualization is feeling and emotion. Feel how your muscles would feel during the run. Experience the emotions as you cross the finishing line and see your time. These frequencies are what change your body and mind and build confidence.
Race Day Strategy
Ready to run a faster half-marathon? Here’s your race day strategy to strip seconds off your time and set a new PR (almost) every time you run.
The Night Before Your Race
What you do the night before your race matters! Going out for a pizza and a few beers will obviously set you back, so you want to maximize your nutrition and your rest to set you up for a great day the next day.
For dinner, eat a carbohydrate-rich meal with a decent amount of lean protein and healthy fats. Make sure to hydrate well throughout the day, but stop drinking a few hours before bedtime—you don’t want to wake up in the night to go to the bathroom.
Prepare your race day essentials before going to bed. Lay out your clothes, pack your duffle bag, and make sure every box is ticked so you can grab your bag and head out in the morning.
Then, get a good night’s rest. Go to bed early, make sure your room is quiet and dark so you have no interruptions, and do whatever you need to to make sure you get a decent rest. Meditate before bed, journal, or listen to sleep binaural beats—whatever works for you.
Race day is where all the excitement happens. If you’ve trained well, eaten well, slept well, and got your mindset right, you might just be setting a new PR today! Here’s how to optimize your day.
After Waking Up
Wake up early enough that you can do your morning routine without rushing. Factor in the time it takes to get to the race and what time you want to get there, and then work backward from there to figure out a waking time.
Eat a light breakfast with a good balance of carbs and proteins, like a bagel with peanut butter and a banana, or scrambled eggs on toast. Hydrate here like you normally would, but make sure you go to the bathroom before you leave the house.
Get dressed and make sure you’re appropriately protected against the weather. Apply sunscreen or layer up before you head out the door.
Before Your Race
Go to the bathroom again before heading to the starting line, so you start in top comfort. Also, spend 5 to 10 minutes doing some dynamic stretches, to get the blood pumping and prepare your muscles for the exercise to come.
Pro tip: If it’s a hot day, warm up in the shade to prevent being affected by the heat before you even get to the starting line.
At the Starting Line
Make sure you get to the starting line with more than enough time to spare. Know where you’re supposed to be, and position yourself in the right place. Here’s where the adrenaline might start pumping, because you’re in a crowd of excitable, jittery people.
Stay calm, remember your race strategy, and let everyone else fade away. When that gun goes off, don’t get swept up in the crowd—allow them to surge ahead and stick to your pace.
During Your Race
Stick to your pace! You’ve got a strategy for a reason—don’t be tempted to speed up. At about the hour mark, take your first energy gel or energy chew. From there, follow your fueling plan.
You can hydrate at fueling stations but don’t chug it down, or you’ll risk stomach issues or bloating. Rather, drink your water in little bits regularly.
If it helps, break the race down into smaller segments that you can “tick off” mentally as you move through the course. Positive affirmations can be hugely motivating, so pick a short phrase and say/think it rhythmically along with your steps.
We recommend reassessing your pace and energy levels at the halfway mark. If you need to, adjust your pace here and decide if you need to fuel more or not.
If you’re feeling strong, you can up your pace a little in the final 4 to 5 miles, but otherwise, stick strictly to your strategy. With the final mile and a half, push yourself hard, but make sure to fuel yourself with a gel or chew right before!
Also, as hard as it may be, do your best to maintain good form as you near the end of the race. We don’t believe in sacrificing form and inviting injury just to hit a PR—but we do know that amazing feeling that comes with hitting that PR fair, square, and with excellent form.
At this point, you’ve done everything you can to run a faster half-marathon. Now is the time to rest, rehydrate, and celebrate your finish!
If you hit your PR, you can pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Now you know you can do it, so follow the same steps to do the same next time!
If you didn’t quite hit the time you wanted, that’s okay. You can still be proud of your effort and take some time to chill after the race. When you’re feeling up to it, you can assess your race and see where your strategy needs improvement.
Maybe your fueling wasn’t so effective. Maybe you started too fast out the gates and faded halfway. Or perhaps the heat caused you to slow down. From there, you can tweak the strategy and aim for that PR in your next race.