Run Your First (Or Fastest) 21.1-K!

The answers to all your training and race-day FAQs, and a 16-week half-marathon training plan for newbies, returnees and experienced runners alike. – By Lisa Abdellah and Sean Tait

Image by Casey Crafford

Finishing a half marathon in under two hours is a common goal for many South African runners. The good news is, you can do it if you work hard and follow the right training plan.

The half marathon is a popular distance in South Africa for two reasons. Running 21.1km is achievable for most people – whereas running a full marathon puts severe physical stress on the body. If you can do a parkrun, then you can do a half marathon – even if you have to walk some of it.

Secondly, the distance is recognised across the world; not just in our country. Runners enjoy comparing their times with friends, both at home and abroad. What if you don’t just want to finish? Where do you start if you have a time goal in mind?


How long will it take to train for a sub-2:00?

Generally, 16 weeks is enough time.

Why do I need to train to run for two hours?

The average person might be able to run for 5km quite comfortably, but the effort starts to take its toll after that. You may experience muscle cramping and even fatigue, to the point where your muscles don’t have anything more to give.

That’s because there are certain neuro-muscular adaptations that need to take place for your body to be in condition to operate at the intensity it takes to run at a certain pace – for a sub-2:00, we’re talking 5.40/km.

There’s also the mental side to consider: you need to feel confident your body can continue running for two hours. How will you know that, if you’ve never done it before?

How fit do I need to be?

You must be able to run 5km in 25 to 26 minutes. Take terrain into consideration: was it a flat 5km, and will your half marathon be hilly? If you have prior experience and are returning to running after a layoff, chances are you’ll progress more quickly than a newbie, thanks to muscle memory.

I’m a newbie. Should I approach the programme in a different way to an experienced runner?

Regardless of whether you’re a newbie or an experienced runner, you need to condition yourself to feel comfortable running for two hours – i.e. you need to feel that in running for two hours at a slower pace than you plan to run on race day, you’re not left feeling ‘broken’.

Another requirement is that you need to be able to run at 5.40/km. Include race-pace segments: 8km at first, gradually progressing to 12 to 13km.

If you’re struggling to run at that pace, then you’ll need to do speedwork or threshold work, depending on what your weakness is. It’s typical of newbies to be stronger at shorter distances such as the 5km, so you may need to focus on building your endurance.

Why is sticking to the programme important?

You’re trying to train the individual aspects that will be put together on race day. Provided your sessions aren’t clustered together too much, the programme offers a feasible way of getting through all of these different types of sessions within the space of a week, without putting your body at risk of becoming injured.

Remember: nothing is achieved in one day; rather, it’s achieved consistently over a period of time. Each day’s training schedule is written with the next few weeks in mind, and not just what you’re capable of doing on that one particular day. For example, if you don’t train at the right intensity during your recovery run, then you won’t allow your body time to heal from the high-intensity training you’ve been doing prior to that, which will increase your risk of injury.

What happens if I get injured?

Don’t train. If you’re out of action for:

One week: skip it, and continue with the programme as it arrives.

Two weeks: repeat the previous week and continue from there – bearing in mind you may not get to the same point as someone who has been following the programme without interruption.

Three weeks: Jump back two weeks, potentially even three, because you’ll have lost significant fitness.

Four weeks plus: that’s a quarter of the programme. Adjust your goal.

Do I need to taper?

Your body doesn’t benefit from training, it benefits from recovery. Reduce your long-run mileage in the final two to three weeks, and do a couple of short, race-pace efforts in the final week to keep yourself ticking over.

Image by Casey Crafford

Race day

What seeding batch should I start in?

The batch containing the two-hour bus. Don’t be tempted to run with the pack; it’s better to follow your pace watch, as opposed to running someone else’s race.

Plan your pacing strategy according to the route profile. For example, at the Two Oceans Half you won’t run a negative split, because the second half is hilly. The answer is to run faster in the first half.

Ask yourself: will the terrain be even? Will I run out with a headwind and back with a tailwind?

I’m feeling great! When is it okay to scrap my original pacing strategy and go for it?

If your plan is going to derail, your effort will start to feel tough by around 7km or 8km. If you’re feeling comfortable, persist with the same pace, but don’t get too excited yet. If you reach the half-way mark and you still feel you’re not being stretched, gradually pick up the pace and run by feel.

I’m not feeling great. How do I get out of this one? Is there such thing as a second wind?

The first thing you need to do is distinguish between mental and physical fatigue. If it’s physical, you’ll be cramping or have no power left in your body to keep pushing. If it’s mental, your body will ‘feel’ tired and you’ll be looking for a way out. If you can pick up the pace in the latter stages, that means you’re mentally fatigued; if it tapers off gradually, that’s physical.

Focus on short-term goals: if it happens at kilometre 10, tell yourself to continue to 12km, and that if you’re still feeling bad by then you can pull out. Feeling better at 12km? Carry on to 14km, and so on.

What adjustments should I make if there are external conditions such as wind or heat?

Both will cause you to run more slowly. If you’re an elite runner vying for a top position, you won’t be phased by it, because it will affect everyone. But if you’re a recreational runner aiming for a sub-2:00, at the limit of your ability, you need to accept that adverse weather conditions will hinder your race time, and prepare for a tougher-than-expected day out.

You’ll be more hindered by the slowing-down effect of a headwind than you’ll be helped by a tailwind. Even a cross-wind will sap your energy. In this case, forget your pace watch and run by feel instead.
Heat will definitely slow you down, because your body will have to work extra-hard to cool you down.

If the heat you already generate internally through exercise is topped up with external heat, that could lead to heatstroke and dehydration. Make sure you hydrate well before your race.

Training Programme

Download your SUB:2, 16-week haf-marathon training programme here.

Meet The Expert
Sean Tait, Running technique coach and owner of

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