How to Run a Half-marathon in Under 2 Hours

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I’ve seen it asked many times before, “What’s a good half-marathon time for your first marathon?”  While this answer will vary a great deal depending on your previous running experience, and overall fitness level; running a half marathon under 2 hours is a common goal.

And in fact, I think its a great goal to set for a first half marathon (if you have some running experience).

How Many Finish a Half-marathon Under 2 Hours?

So, what percentage of half marathon finishers complete the race in under 2 hours?  I took a look at one of the largest half marathons in the US, just to get a point of reference.  Here’s what I found: Out of the 5,535 Men running the 2012 PF Chang’s Rock n Roll Arizona Half Marathon on Jan. 15th, 2013, approximately 2,050 finished under 2 hours.

This would equate to about 37% that finished under 2 hours and 63% that did not (over 2 hours). I also found some data here, that shows the median finishing time of all male half-marathoners in 2012 was 2:01:28.  While the median finishing time for females was 2:19:47.

For the same race, approximately 7,895 woman completed the half marathon.  Of those finishers, 1,193 crossed the line in under 2 hours.  This equates to about 15% of women finishing the half marathon under 2 hours and 85% finishing over 2 hours.

While many races will vary with how many half marathoners complete the race under 2 hours, I think this is a good sample.  So, if you are a man finishing under 2 hours, you are likely faster than 60% of the men out there.  If you are a female, you are likely faster than at least 80% of the women in the race…congrats!

My Personal Half Marathon Races

I have now run 3 half-marathons under 2 hours.  But my first half marathon was about 2 hours and 10 minutes!  Now my fastest time is 1:40:50 (see all my PRs Here), but I hope to beat that by at least a few minutes this weekend at the Famous Idaho Potato Half Marathon in Boise.

So, its VERY possible to get below 2 hours…even if your first attempt wasn’t under that mark!  Personally, I ran a poor race and went out much too fast during my first half marathon, and ended up walking a couple of miles at the end.

If I had gone out at a much slower pace, I believe that I would have gotten under 2 hours.  In fact, that is what I did my next half marathon…and I have since been able to drop well over 20 minutes off my time.

So, how did I do it? (and how can you?).  I believe that tempo training and long runs are the key.

Training for a 2 Hour Half Marathon

Here is a typical training week that I am following right now for my race on May 18th (except my mileage is a bit higher).  However, I believe the following schedule can help the average runner get to under a 2 hour marathon:

  • Monday – Easy Run: 6 miles (about 1 to 2 minutes slower than half marathon pace)
  • Tuesday – Intervals: 5 x 1 mile repeats (at 5k to 10k pace).  With a warmup and cool-down.
  • Wednesday – Easy Run: 6 miles
  • Thursday – Tempo Run: 5 or 6 miles (at very close to half marathon pace; with warmup and cool-down).
  • Friday – Rest or 3 or 4 miles Easy Run
  • Saturday – Long Run: 8 to 15 miles (Build up mileage slowly, and run slow at about 2 minutes slower than half marathon pace).
  • Sunday – Rest

Total weekly miles – Average around 35 miles

While intervals can help with speed, and if you are truly trying to max out your running potential, I do think they are important.  However, if your goal  is to get under 2 hours, the Tempo and long runs are more important.

The tempo run essentially gets your body used to running at your half marathon pace.  So, if you want 1:59:59 in the half marathon, then your average pace should be 9 minutes and 9.14 seconds.  Just run it at 9 minutes and 9 seconds to be safe :).

So, your tempo run should be run at about 9 minute mile to 9 minute 9 second mile pace.

The long run is not meant to test your racing ability, its there to train your body to run long distances.  So speed is not a concern during the long run!  In fact, if you are running it too fast, you could be hurting your training…so slow down.

I personally like to run at least a few long runs at the full 13.1 mile distance or longer during my training plan.  I highly recommend the same for you if you truly want to finish the race under 2 hours.

By going further on your long runs (some training plans have you stop at 8 or 9 miles), you are much more likely to finish the race strong, rather than walking (like I did during my first half marathon).

Race Pace Strategy

I believe the primary 2 reasons for people not accomplishing their race goals is poor preparation and poor race strategy.  Obviously you need to train well.

But even if you train well and don’t set an appropriate race pace, you could be setting yourself up for failure.  I know, because I’ve made the mistake of going out too fast in several races!

So, trust me as someone who has made all the mistakes and fortunately learned; you need to set a realistic goal and stick to it.  Many people simply go into a race without really knowing what their goal should be.  But if you have planned properly (using your tempo runs as a gauge), and you know you are shooting for 2 hours, then you can set a good pace.

I would recommend going out your first first miles right at or 5 to 10 seconds slower than your goal pace (9 min. 9 second miles).  This will help you mentally prepare to NOT go out too fast, which is a big mistake.

  • So miles 1 to 3 at about 9:15 pace.
  • Miles 4 to 7 at 9:09 pace
  • Miles 8 to 10 at 9:05 pace
  • Miles 11 to 13.1 9:00 pace (or whatever else you have left in the tank).

This will get you you to your 2 hour half-marathon.

Overall, running a half marathon under 2 hours is very feasible even for the average runner.  If you go into the race with the proper training and right strategy, you can find yourself in the top 37% of men or top 15% of woman.

Have something to add to this article?  I would love to hear your comments below.

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Comments

  1. Adam says:

    Appreciate the tips. My previous half marathon was 2:00:00.4 (still kicking myself for the wasted 5 tenths of a second).

    I would add that nutrition is VERY important for running this distance. Eating too few calories has caused me more performance blows than injuries.

    • Spencer Haws says:

      Great point, Adam! I agree that nutrition can really help or hinder ones performance. We will be tackling this subject in more depth in future posts.

  2. sally says:

    Wow. Finally a guy who can write a training article in everyday terms! You really sold me on this. I’m going to start today. I’ve got 12 weeks and I’m really going to hit it hard! Thanks!

  3. denis mcdonald says:

    hi i am doing 2 hour runs once a week with tempo runs. i am geting ready for half marathon, last one was 1.53 hope to go under 1.50.

    thanks

    denis

  4. karen says:

    hi.
    can you share your 8 week training plan? thank you!

  5. karen says:

    hi Spencer,

    Do you carry your own hydration and gu? Or do you stop at mile stops for them? I was thinking if you stop at the support stations, it’ll slow you down.

    What’s your take? Thanks.

    • Spencer Haws says:

      I do carry gu with me. I used to always bring a full hyrdration belt with gatorade,etc during races…but no longer. I just make sure to hydrate at eat water station and bring my gu’s with me. I think its better to slow down at the water station and get hydrated than racing through and not being properly hydrated.

  6. S. the Kannan says:

    I am 60 year old. I started running from 2010 and except once where I finished Hm in 1.58hrs,all other marathons were finished time ranging from 2.05 hrs to 2.15hrs.
    I never use to stop and use to carry my fuel belt with me.
    I use to run the first half within 55 minutes but get tired in the 2nd half.
    I will be running Mumbai marathon on 19th Jan and will try to run slow during 1st half and try to accomplish sub 2 hour finish.

  7. Chris says:

    Just got back from my first Half Marathon, and happy to say I was a good few minutes under the 2 hour mark. (1:56:????).
    I trained for a good 2 months in preperation for it. doing at 4 seperate 15 km prep runs. It is good to know that your body is going to be able to hande the distance. In the pater month, a few days of strict tempo runs, and get off the beer and control your diet as best you can. Two days prior, dropped as much fibre as I could from my diet, and got into a lot more easy carbs including rice, bread, and pasta dinners cooked at home of course. Didn’t take any water with me, but made sure I hydrated well on the run, even if I thought i didn’t need it.

    For a half marathon, I don’t know whether you really need any gels or gums on the run. If you are properly carbo loaded prior to the race. you should be all set to blast through the last 5 K’s at a faster pace than your first.

    Also, on another topic, if you really want to make the most of your run and energy, make sure you are running efficiently. When training, the more time you spend on the road, the higher risk you have of causing some damage. Make sure you are wearing the right fitting shoes, and making your run as energy efficient as possible. Recently I have adopted the flat foot, or mid foot running style and it has done wonders to my efficiency. Also, feeling a lot less pain in the shins, hams and lower back. Adopting mid foot striking takes some time, but when you have it under control, you will notice you are going faster than you could have previously imagined with very little effort.

  8. Seems to make sense to me, my first half marathon after a year of running was hilly and I did find it difficult but managed 2.03 and I was kicking myself because I didn’t make sub 2 hours but I think realistically after only 1 year of running you haven’t learnt enough about your gait, your own pace, what it’s like to race etc. I then did a full marathon that same year and trained to 4.30 which I would have done if it hadn’t been for injury all my friends who I trained with ran 4.15 which I think is great for a first full marathon. Anyway, we are now training for a half again and are going for sub 2 hours, we plan to do more than 13 miles in training so we can finish strong. At the moment I can manage 8.44 over 6 miles so although I don’t know if I can keep that pace over 13 miles I am sure I can do 9.09 but this time I will be tracking my time during the race so I know when to be faster and slower

  9. Kim says:

    Hi, your article inspired me for my next race. I just finished my first half marathon after 3 months trainig. Running has always been difficult but as I was determined to keep my all time goal to run I managed to get the pace up. Finished at 2.32 minutes with the goal of 2.30. Next time 2hours and better training and nutrition!

  10. JC says:

    Thanks for the article! It´s good to know where I’m at and know that my next goal (running the Vancouver half this Sunday) is feasible. I did 1:50 in my first half, and I’m aiming at 1:40-1:45 this time. I’ve been training since January but the last two weeks I was too busy with other things and didn’t run much. So I started to freak out.

  11. dencio david says:

    Of all the training articles i have read. This is the most encouraging ang informative. Thanks to you that even if i am weeks behind my schedule, i feel i can do sub 2. Please post more informations. Thanks

  12. Alan says:

    Done my first half marathon in 2hrs 14mins yesterday. Been struggling with the cold all week tho! Really good experience tho. Sore today

  13. Richard says:

    Just ran Columbus in 1:57:43 and trained in very similar fashion to this article. I was using a Hal Higdon plan with slow runs, tempos, pace runs, and speed-work on the track. My race strategy was 6 miles at 9:10, mile 7 at 9:00, miles 8-13 at 8:50. My goal was actually under 1:58 which requires 9:00 even.

    I do recommend the negative splits. In a big race, you’ll need to be mindful to hold back even if you feel good, as the excitement and the other runners are kind of pulling you with them. I also recommend a GPS watch which tells you your average pace per mile rather than your current pace. So if you plan to run a mile at 9:10 and you see that you’re halfway through and you’re at 9:05, you can relax a bit for the rest of the mile. You can start thinking about abandoning the plan at the end of the race if you feel good. My last mile was 8:17 so I was using what I had left.

    Good luck!

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