The half marathon is one of the most popular race distances in the U.S. Completing a half marathon (13.1 miles/21.1km) is a major accomplishment that requires a lot of dedication and training preparation.
Running a half marathon in two hours (or less) is a popular goal to work toward. Not only is it a nice round number to strive for, it’s also close to the average finishing time for both males and females. so it’s absolutely doable if you’re willing to put in the work.
We’re sharing our 7 best tips to give you the best shot at getting your sub-2:00 half marathon including:
- Starting Training With a Solid Mileage Base
- Gaining the Fitness to Maintain a 9:09 Per Mile Average Pace
- Running Most of Your Runs at an Easy Pace
- Getting in a Long Run Every Week
- Fully Committing to Your Training (Consistency!)
- Taking Injury Prevention Seriously
- Having a Strategy in Place for Your Race
Let’s dive in and get you on your way to training and racing right!
Top Tips to Run a Sub-2-Hour Half Marathon
Training to just finish a half marathon looks very different than going for a time goal such as finishing in less than 2 hours. If you want your best shot at reaching your potential and going sub-2, the following advice will put you on the path to success.
1. Have a Solid Mileage Base When You Begin Training
Before you embark on training for your half marathon goal, it’s important to remember that having a solid running mileage base is crucial to your success.
For the half marathon…distance, you want to build a good foundation of mileage so when you get to the race, your body has run through that fatigue before and knows how to handle the last few painful miles.Stephanie Bruce, American pro distance runner
While there is no magic number of base miles for everyone to have success, it’s recommended that you have a base mileage of around 20 miles per week BEFORE you begin training for your half marathon race. Have a little higher base than that? Even better. Here’s why:
- Ideally you’ll build to 35 miles per week or more to break 2 hours in the half. So going in with a solid base means you’ll have enough time during your training block to allow your body to adapt safely to build up to that type of mileage while avoiding injury or burnout.
- Aerobic endurance is a top factor for success in the half marathon. Starting training with a good aerobic base that comes from consistent weekly mileage means you’re set up to continue to have aerobic breakthroughs as your half-marathon training progresses.
If you have a time goal, weekly mileage matters!
2. Have the Fitness to Maintain a 9:09 Per Mile Average Pace for 13.1 Miles
In order to run a half marathon race in 2 hours or less, you have to have the running fitness to maintain approximately a 9:09 pace per mile for 13.1 miles.
So, how can you gauge your fitness level? You can use a fairly recent race time, or if you haven’t raced in awhile, complete a timed running trial, and plug the data into a handy running conversion calculator to estimate how you would fare in a half marathon. Two of the running calculators we like are McMillan and VDOT by Jack Daniels.
According to McMillan’s calculator, a 2-hour half marathon equates to the following race times:
- 7:28 mile
- 25:55 5k
- 53:50 10k
According to VDOT’s calculator, a 2-hour half marathon equates to the following race times:
- 7:44 mile
- 26:04 5k
- 54:07 10k
If your own race times are fairly close to any of these equivalents, you have a good chance of racing a 2 hour or less half marathon on race day (provided you do the proper training)! Though not perfect, no matter which calculator you use, both are fairly accurate in helping to estimate your racing fitness level at different distances.
If you’re not quite at these paces yet, don’t fret! We recommend consistent easy mileage over time and getting comfortable racing these distances in the process.
3. Run Mostly at an Easy Pace (With a Side of Speed Work)
As a half-marathon runner, the vast majority of your runs need to be completed at an easy pace.
Here’s how to determine if you’re running easy enough:
- You can easily have a conversation while running (more on that here)
- On a rate of perceived exertion scale, it will feel like a 3/10
- If you have an accurate way to measure heart rate, (chest strap monitors are typically best, you should maintain a heart rate of less than 75% of your max.
- It feels slow to you (yes, this is a good thing!)
Easy running may not as exciting as intervals or tempo runs, but lots of easy running is necessary because that’s how you develop and train your aerobic system, as we discuss more in our article Train Slower to Run a Faster Marathon (this easy running concept is true for any distance running event!) Aerobic development allows your body to more efficiently deliver oxygen and energy to muscles. Over time, this allows your body to run significantly faster!
“There is no such thing as a pace that is too slow for easy running,” according to running coach and Trail Runner Magazine columnist David Roche. He says that for most people, easy pace can start somewhere between 1-2 minutes per mile slower than your estimated marathon pace.
But what about speed work? In order to run a half marathon in 2 hours or less, most people will still need to incorporate speed work to prepare to run that fast on race day. But it’s not nearly as much as you’d think. Tempo runs, longer interval work, strides and half-marathon pace long run workouts can all be beneficial – and together those should make up around 20% of your mileage.
Find out how to properly balance your easy runs vs. speed runs, in our article What Is 80/20 Running? Using Polarized Training to Your Benefit.
4. Run a Long Run Every Week
The weekly long run is the bread and butter of long distance running. Long runs help build general endurance so that you can run farther. Long runs help improve your running economy (efficiency). It’s incredibly important that long runs not be missed during half marathon training, especially if you’re trying to run a half in 2 hours or less.
Typically, 1 mile should be added to your long run every 1-2 weeks. On scheduled cutback weeks, which Coach Jane likes to prescribe for her runners every 3-4 weeks, your long run distance will drop down a bit to allow you some necessary recovery time.
Many half marathon training plans have you top off your long runs around 10-12 miles, but going up to 13-16 miles can be even more beneficial. More advanced or elite runners may run as many as 20 miles in advance of their half marathon race!
5. Fully Commit to Your Training
My best running friend, who is a busy realtor and mom of 2, recently achieved her longtime goal of running a sub-2:00 half marathon. When I asked her about any advice she might have for runners who are chasing the same goal, her advice had to do less with running, and more with balancing every day life along with training.
So what was her advice exactly? Make sure that when you begin training, you are able to fully commit to your training and your goal. Make sure you’ll have the time and energy to run in your daily schedule.
For a busy adults already juggling jobs, family, and social lives, adding an intense half marathon training cycle into the mix is a lot. You need to be able to complete your runs as prescribed one your training plan as much as possible. Of course, things will come up during your training cycle that cause you to miss a run here or there, but aim to complete about 90-95% of your training as intended.
It may feel like you don’t have time to properly train for a half marathon (and that may be true in some circumstances), but as with any goal it’s often more a matter of making it a priority. If the 2-hour time goal matters to you, think about how you can commit to making it work.
6. Prevent Injury by Getting Enough Sleep, Strength Training, and Cross Training
I cannot stress this enough: when you’re in the midst of a training cycle, especially for a race in which you’re hoping to PR, the “little extra things” you do to supplement your running are crucial to staying injury-free in your training cycle. You need to stay on top of getting enough sleep, strength training, and cross-training.
By neglecting supplemental training, injuries are more likely to occur, which could potentially derail your ability to toe the line at the race you’ve trained so hard for. Last year, I had to withdraw from a half marathon race just 3 weeks out, because I thought I could get by without strength training the entire training cycle. WRONG! My low back and hamstrings were weak and imbalanced, and my body couldn’t handle the increasing mileage and time on my feet. Neglecting supplemental training during your training cycle is playing with fire, and I learned my lesson the hard way.
Here are some reasons why you should keep up with supplemental training while preparing for your half marathon:
- Sleep and Rest/Recovery: Quality sleep is crucial because that is the time when our bodies recover and repair themselves. During a training cycle, runners need at least 7-9 hours of sleep a night in order to properly recover from the impacts of training. On a related note, take your planned rest days and cutback weeks seriously as well. Your training plan includes them for a reason – your body actually adapts and grows stronger when you rest.
- Strength Training: You need to strength train, usually only two or three times a week, throughout your training cycle and beyond. Strength training your lower half helps you to have more force and power, which translates to increased running speed on race day. Upper body strength training helps with your form and posture. And overall, strength training helps correct imbalances in your muscle strength or mobility that can lead to overuse injuries. Here’s a video with 5 Top Bodyweight Exercises for Runners.
- Cross Training: Cross training is a way for runners to add variety to the body’s movements. With cross training, you’re using your body and muscles in different ways and continuing to build your aerobic endurance, which will help you become a better runner. (It’s best to stay in the aerobic heart rate zone when completing cross-training exercise.)
7. Have a Fail-Proof Strategy for Your Race (Pacing, Fueling, Hydration)
You can have the perfect training block and fitness that demonstrates you can race a half marathon in less than 2 hours, but if you don’t pace well, lack energy or are dehydrated, none of that will matter. Pacing your race right, fueling properly and getting the right balance of water and electrolytes will help ensure you have the race outcome you trained for!
Pacing Strategy for a 2-Hour Half Marathon
Pacing is very important for getting your goal time.
One of the worst things you can do is go out too fast – this will most certainly come back to bite you.
It’s best to start conservatively, not quite reaching your half marathon goal pace in the first 2-3 miles (ideally you’ll go about 10 seconds slower or around 9:15-20/mile pace for a 2-hour-half-marathon time goal). This way you can ease into your race. Miles 3 through 10 should hover around your goal pace (9:09) and once you hit that last 5k you can leave it all out on the course to get your very best time.
Sticking to your plan and running your own race are two of the very best things you can do to pace well and have a successful race.
Hydration and Fueling Half Marathon Plan
In order to snag your 2 hour or less half marathon time, you are going to need to also take in hydration and fuel during your race. You’ll need to practice how and when you do so during your training long runs. Skipping out on fueling and hydrating means you are less likely to achieve your goal.
Half marathon runners racing over 80 minutes or more should consume approximately 30-90 grams of carbohydrates an hour. Read Half Marathon Nutrition – What and When to Eat During Your Race where we explain all of this in detail. What you eat for breakfast also matters – we share what’s best (and what’s not) here.
For in-race hydration, you’ll need about 4 ounces of fluid every 15 minutes, give or take, depending on how well-hydrated you are and how warm the race course is that day. Our article, How to Hydrate for Your Next Half Marathon, provides a thorough overview of all things race hydration, including how to make sure you’re also getting enough electrolytes.
Further Support for Achieving a 2-Hour Half Marathon Time
Achieving the milestone of a 2 hour (or less) half marathon requires a lot of time, dedication, and preparation. If you need extra support and guidance from an expert in reaching this goal, be sure to check out Coach Jane’s run coaching services. No matter your age, level or ability, coaches can be a huge help in achieving your goals much sooner than you might on your own.