Pacing & Fueling along the Half Marathon Race Route

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist
As we head into the last few weeks of our half-marathon training, us Spark runners are starting to discuss the logistics of the upcoming Flying Pig. Alongside the details of where to park, what to wear and what to bring comes the exciting, if slightly scary, realization that the race is no longer just a fanciful "what if" idea. It's really happening.

Although each of us has a personal goal for the race, the ultimate mark of success will be finishing strong—and that will depend largely on the decisions we make along the course. Two things can make or break a race: pacing and fueling. Coming up short or going overboard with either one can cause a runner to hit that proverbial "wall," crumbling his or her race goals. Ideally, we'll find the sweet spot that will enable us to cruise through mile 13 and beyond, feeling like the rock stars that we knew we could be.

Finding Your Race Pace

Each runner has a preferred pace—a tempo that feels comfortable and sustainable, the one to which you default when you're not thinking about speed. Then there's the "race pace"—that elusive pace you should target during the main event. Don't let the term scare you; we're not talking all-out sprints from start to finish. Your race pace is simply the pace you'll need to maintain in order to achieve your goals.
So how do you calculate it? Start by identifying your goal time, then figure out how fast you'll need to run each mile to achieve it. For example, if I want to complete the half marathon in two hours, I'll need to maintain an average race pace of 9 minutes, 10 seconds per mile. That's not to say I'll run every single mile at that pace—it's just an average. Some miles will be faster and some will be slower.
Once you have your race pace, you'll need to plan a strategy based on the distance you're running. For a half-marathon race, elite marathoner Jeff Gaudette* recommends keeping a comfortable, conservative pace for the first three miles, perhaps five to 10 seconds slower than your race pace. It can be tough to hold back, especially with the adrenaline and excitement at the starting line, but the surge of energy you'll pick up toward the end will be well worth the early restraint.
"One of the most common mistakes runners make is to run the first mile or two too fast," Gaudette says. "Remember that it will feel slow, and you might be getting passed by people you want to beat. While it is mentally difficult, this is the most effective way to run a race, and you'll tear by those people during the last mile when you're fresh and they are dying."
Between miles three and 11, Gaudette says it's best to pick up the pace a bit until you're at your target race pace. This will feel relatively easy at first, but as the miles peel away and your muscles start to fatigue, that tempo will require more effort to maintain. To help you stick to your goal pace, Gaudette recommends finding a group that is running at your desired speed and stay near them. This will also provide you with a little mental break, so you can cruise along on autopilot and save your strategic moves for the last couple of miles, when you'll go all-out to the finish.
This type of pacing is known as running negative splits, which is when the second half of a race is run faster than the first. Gaudette points out that every record-setting runner has used this strategy.
Ultramarathoner Beth Weinstein, owner of athletic apparel store Only Atoms, isn't a stickler for pacing—she usually advises runners to ditch the watch, listen to their bodies and just do their best. "I'm very in tune with my body, training and pace, and I usually know what works for me," she says. "At long distances, I keep steady pacing based on my goal time, and speed up the last few miles if I have it in me." For people running their first marathons, Weinstein's single most important piece of advice is to not start out too fast.
Fueling the Body for a Strong Finish
Once you've calculated your race pace and speed strategy, it's time to plan your race menu. Below are some fueling tips for optimal performance.
  • Carbo-load tonight, race happy tomorrow. After about 90 minutes of running, the body's supply of glycogen, or stored sugar, is depleted. This can lead to the infamous "bonk," the feeling of extreme fatigue (sometimes accompanied by nausea) that's also known as "hitting the wall." To prevent this, long-distance runners should eat a carbohydrate-rich dinner the night before a race, followed by a high-carb breakfast. This will stockpile some extra glycogen to keep the muscles fueled to the finish.
  • Keep the fluids flowing. Proper hydration can make all the difference between sailing through the finish and crawling to it. Gaudette recommends consuming six to eight ounces of water or Gatorade for every three miles (more in hotter climates, less in cooler). You don't have to slam it down without slowing—you can carry the cup with you and sip on it for a moment or two. For the last three miles or so, he says, you can skip the water stops unless you feel thirsty.
  • Pick your fuel. If you'll be running for two or more hours, you'll need to refuel with energy and carbohydrates along the course. Runner's World recommends consuming 30 to 60 grams of carbs per hour. Good sources include protein bars, pretzels, Fig Newtons, electrolyte-rich sports drinks and energy gels. Gels are a convenient, portable source of fuel that can be consumed quickly without weighing you down. For runs longer than three hours, Weinstein prefers gels that provide a balance of sugars, salts and carbs, along with caffeine for an extra energy boost.
  • Fuel before you're hungry. To get through her three- to seven-hour races, Weinstein eats every hour. "If you wait until you’re hungry to eat during a long run, it will be too late—your body will crash, and there goes your race."
  • Take advantage of aid stations. Water stations are a given, but some longer races will also have aid stations stocked with fuel sources, such as oranges, bananas, gels and candies.
  • Do what works for you. Even if your running friends rave about a certain race food, your stomach may not be able to tolerate it. "I have a few friends who drink 5-Hour Energy drinks during long races," Weinstein says. "I tried it during a long run, crashed really hard and then got weirdly jittery afterwards. Never again." Take the time to determine what fuel works best for your body and stick with that.
As any seasoned marathoner will tell you, it's never a good idea to try something new on race day, so be sure to test out all foods and beverages during training runs.
My Training Update:
Roughly a month out from race day, my training has been relatively smooth and uneventful. My weekend long runs are hovering right around 10 miles, with shorter, faster runs and cross-training (TRX, boot camps and spinning) throughout the week. I'm loving the cool spring temperatures and greener scenery. My only mild concern is a tricky knee that will feel perfectly fine for several runs before suddenly sending up some warning twinges of discomfort. After resting it with a couple of walk days, the pain goes away, I ramp up the mileage again and the cycle repeats. I need to start doing some knee stretches and strengthening exercises to help keep the pain at bay and prevent future injuries.
What are your favorite ways to maintain your target pace and/or stay fueled during a race?
Join us every other Tuesday as we update you on our Flying Pig half marathon training, and help you get prepared for a big race. Follow along on our journey on Instagram using the hashtag #runsparkrun.
*Expert information sourced from with permission from the author.