How to master pacing and fuelling during the half marathon

Hands up if you're planning a half marathon? If so, check out these top pacing and nutritional tips and our look at some of the unwritten rules of racing over 13.1 miles.

Plan your pace

Good pace judgement is crucial in a half marathon and it’s something that doesn't happen spontaneously, so you will need a pacing strategy. Once you've set a time goal, you'll need to work backwards so that you can calculate your split times to ensure that you're on track during the race. However, remember that your plan should be flexible. You may need to adjust your time goal and pacing strategy to take into account the weather conditions.

Over 13.1 miles conserving glycogen in first half of the race is essential. The smartest runners are those who spread their effort over the duration of the race by running even or negative splits (where the second half of the race is run faster than the first).  Try not to think that getting ahead of your desired splits early on is 'money in the bank.' It isn’t. In fact it generally results in early glycogen depletion and slower finishing times!

Running long is easier when the weather is cooler. In fact, the ideal temperature for running a half-marathon is between 7 and 10c. This is because your body has to expend less energy regulating your body temperature. Cooler weather also means that you can be slightly more relaxed with your drinking strategy during longer training runs. However, don’t forget that it’s still possible to dehydrate during the winter and even mild dehydration can significantly impair your performance.

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Smart and safe fuelling

Your body can only store enough carbohydrate for around 90 minutes of exercise, so if you're going to be running for over 90 minutes, you'll need to consider topping up your glycogen stores by eating and/or drinking on the run. Water alone does not replace you with the sugars and salts you'll be losing during the race. You can do this with sports drinks but energy gels provide concentrated carbohydrate that is easily digestible on the go. Pop the gels in your pocket/drinks belt or pin them to your shorts and take one every 30 minutes. Try use isotonic gels with electrolytes. Isotonic means that the gels don’t have to be consumed with water at the time of ingestion however you still need to adopt a good hydration strategy that you’ve practiced. Gels with electrolytes will ensure that you are replacing minerals lost through sweating this is still important even in cooler conditions.

Even in cold weather you'll need to have a hydration strategy in place. It is vital to take on fluid in the early stages of the race, even if you don’t feel as if you need it. Drinking little and often is the best strategy to ensure that you remain hydrated and prevent any gastro-intestinal issues. If there are drinks stations en route then avoid the urge to dive for the table to snatch a drink as you could easily cut other runners up, causing an accident.

If possible, try to position yourself on the appropriate side of the road to pick up a drink before you arrive at the table. Before you discard your cup or bottle make sure to check around you and throw it to the side of the course. Nobody wants a face full of sports drink or to roll their ankle on a discarded bottle!

Generally during a half marathon there will be water stations and in the bigger races some sort of energy drink should be available for you to pick up. They are usually spaced out every 5km or so, which means there are plenty of opportunities to grab a drink. My suggestion would be to take on fluids during the early stages of the race because by the time you get to 20km, any liquid you drink isn't going to affect your performance. When you start to feel thirsty it is usually too late because that is a sign you are already in the early stages of being dehydrated. This is why taking on fluid early on means that it’s in your system and absorbed during the time you are still running. Obviously the faster you are running the less likely it is you will need to drink much during the race.

During a 10k I doubt that you will be thinking too much about how much to drink as it’s a relatively short distance and it is unlikely you'll be dehydrated during the run. However with the half marathon, which is more than double the distance of a 10k, it is important to think about your fluid intake during the race. Not only will this help you maximise your performance, but it’s also good practice for that marathon you might be thinking about running next year!

It is very rare that you'll see the elite runners drinking during a half marathon because the amount of time they are running is only around 60 minutes. Taking time to pick up a bottle and drink will only add to their overall time. These elites are all about speed and the finish time!

If you are looking to run say a 2 hour half marathon, you want to start the race having already drunk some water/energy drink a good while before the start. You should be monitoring your urine as this is a good indication as to how hydrated you are. Let's just say something that looks like apple juice means you should be drinking more, and lemon water means you should ease back on the fluids!

Water Station

For the first 10km you might potentially have 2 water stations and you should drink around 100-150ml of liquid each time. This may sound like a lot but you don't have to force it down in three gulps. You can run with the bottle for a couple of minutes, taking small sips, and then get rid of it. That way you'll find it is less likely to affect your stomach and allow you to get a good amount of fluid into your system.

By 15km you should be drinking a little bit less, and this should be the last time you take a drink. As I said before anything you take after this point will not affect your performance because it won't be absorbed by your body before the end of the race.

Another tip is to look at the race website (if there is one) and find out what drinks they are using on the course. When you have that information you can practice with them in your training runs beforehand to make sure you don't have any gut "issues" with them.

Stick at it because it might take a couple of attempts for you to get things right during the half marathon, and drinking while running is definitely an art, especially if it is out a paper cup! Good luck!