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If you are training for the upcoming Bank of America Chicago Marathon, or any fall marathon, you should certainly consider running a half marathon between now and then—preferably in late August or early September. Although a half marathon is not a necessity, nor a predictor for marathon performance, it can serve a variety of purposes.

First, a half marathon should be perceived as either a solid effort to attain your marathon pace goal, or as an opportunity to run faster than you intend to run in October, mainly so that the marathon feels easier, according to Dan Walters, co-owner and head coach at DWRunning.

Lauren Kersjes, a 2:44 marathoner and Olympic trial qualifier, fully agrees with this objective, adding that a half marathon gives runners “a feel for what it’s like to race a slightly longer distance.” This is especially true for first-time marathoners, who Denise Sauriol, owner of Run for Change, advises to “run,” rather than “race,” the half marathon so that they save their legs.

“They can even add a one- to three-minute walk break after each mile so that they’re able to get the 13.1 distance in without ‘spending’ their legs like they would if they had ‘raced’ the half,” Sauriol suggests.

In addition to attaining your marathon pace goal, running faster than you intend and acquiring a “feel” for your upcoming marathon, a half marathon can also provide you some replication that simply can’t be duplicated in training, thereby allowing you to change any aspects of your half marathon preparation you weren’t overly positive about.

For instance, according to Alyssa Schneider, a 2:42 marathoner and Olympic trial qualifier, you can practice pre-race routines like packing your bag, eating the day before the race and eating the morning of the race. Not to mention, you can also learn how to manage your pre-race nerves, hydrate properly, improve your logistics to the race (transit, parking, etc.) and hone in your in-race execution—by pacing yourself, managing crowds and fueling throughout the race.

Achieve Optimal Performance through Your Diet

The bottom line is this: regular training will certainly help you achieve your marathon goals, whether you are a beginner, a runner with some marathon experience or an expert. But nothing compares to in-race experience.

After all, there are so many factors you must bear in mind for marathons—unpredictable weather conditions, corral starts, bathroom and hydration station locations, and gear preparation. Two factors stand out above all others though: fuel and hydration. Simply put, without them, you will not achieve your goals on race day. And, just as importantly, without half marathon experience, you won’t know if your diet is sufficient enough for optimal performance at the Chicago Marathon.

“Unlike a 5K or 10K, the distance of a half marathon is long enough that runners can experiment with fluid and food intake before and during the race, which is especially invaluable for new runners,” says Brendan Cournane, owner and head coach at Coach Brendan Running. “For an experienced runner, a half marathon can reveal what works and what doesn’t work as they prepare for their full marathon.”

He adds, “Fueling during a race takes practice, and practice during a race is different than practicing on a training run.”

Prior to running a half marathon—let alone a full marathon—runners should practice with various forms of nutrition so that they know what is best for their bodies, according to Kersjes. By the time the half marathon (and, in turn, marathon) arrives, runners will be fully prepared to nourish their bodies adequately with the brands and nutrients that improve their fitness and vitality.

“I don’t recommend trying anything new on race day. Use your workout and pre-marathon races to figure out which foods work for you,” Schneider explains. “If they worked for you for the half, it’s a safe bet that they’ll work for the full as well.”

To avoid cramping—a direct result of your body taking energy from your muscle—Matt Marol, a runner who recently finished 19that the Boston Marathon, and Joel Feinberg, the former owner of Universal Sole, recommend that you acquire extra calories from gels, energy chews and beans, each of which should be eaten during your half marathon so you can determine which flavors you prefer the most before you compete in October.

“We stress to all of our customers that they should practice their hydration and nutrition strategies in racing and training environments,” adds Nick Hurley, manager of Dick Pond Athletics Hoffman. “The worst thing you can do is show up to the starting line holding a gel you’ve never tried or not having a plan for taking in fluids.”

Cournane also believes runners (particularly beginners) should learn how to consume fluids at aid stations so that they’re well-versed in grabbing water cups and drinking on the run—each of which can be practiced at half marathons.

“There’s that old adage—‘Nothing new on race day’! Practice, practice, practice, so that you’ll avoid surprises with your fluid intake and nutrition during the marathon,” he emphasizes.

Breakfast Matters—to a Degree

On the morning of a marathon (as well as the morning of a half marathon), your fueling and hydration needs will vary considerably depending on your speed. For instance, according to Walters, if you’re a faster athlete who can run a half marathon in an hour and 10 minutes and a marathon in two hours and 30 minutes, the difference in your times isn’t too considerable, so you may only need a light to moderate snack before you run either race.

However, if you finish a half marathon in two hours and a marathon in four hours and 30 minutes, you’ll need many more pre-race calories before your marathon than you’d partake before the half marathon.

“There are also individual needs, as some athletes get major intestinal distress before a race,” Walters states. “It’s best for each athlete to experiment in training and find what works best for them.”

Cournane believes that runners with well-balanced diets—again, throughout their training periods—won’t need to overload their food and fluid intakes the night before a half marathon or full marathon, as well as the morning of either race. In fact, overeating or overdrinking can actually be a detriment to your race performances.

Rather, do what Kersjes and Kevin Havel, a 2:20 marathoner and Olympic trial qualifier, do: eat the same amount of food before a full marathon as you ate before a half marathon. After all, you’ll be consuming more nutrition throughout the full marathon anyways, so more fuel isn’t necessary during the morning.

“I would keep breakfast the same for either race as well,” agrees Michael Lucchesi, head coach and owner of Second City Track Club. “If you train properly, you should be burning around 50 percent carbs and 50 percent fat during a longer aerobic race. So you don’t need as much fuel as you may think.”

Ace Your Pace

With regards to pacing, the impact of half marathons (and, ultimately, marathons) is entirely individualistic as well. In fact, Marol advises you to already have a goal in mind for your marathon time before you even run your half marathon.

“Every runner is different, so there is no exact science around how fast you need to run a half to run a certain full time,” he says. “It’s more important how you run the race. Practice getting into a rhythm early and try to run the second half faster than you ran the first.”

Regardless of the individualism that pertains to pacing, a half marathon is still a great opportunity for you to practice your marathon pace, as Walters believes it ensures you’re more aware of how your paces (particularly the ones near your intended marathon pace) actually feel in a race setting.

“If your race pace is reasonable for the training you’re doing, you’ll have more confidence before the full marathon that you can hold a pace for a longer distance,” Schneider states. “I also remind myself that it won’t feel easy, but that’s why I need to have a chance to practice it.”

Havel, however, stresses that a half marathon is roughly 10 percent faster than a full marathon, an aspect of the half that you must bear in mind, especially since your adrenaline will be higher than it usually is on regular training days.

“This will lead to an increase in pace and will show that most people can indeed run and sustain their planned marathon pace,” Feinberg adds. “The key, though, is to remember the marathon will have another half and it can really be a tale of two halves, so plan your pacing accordingly and stick to your pace from your overall marathon training.”

As you seek to achieve your ideal pace during a half marathon, consider implementing a wide range of strategies—running even splits throughout the half marathon, running a negative split or running as fast as you can from the start—so that you not only learn more about yourself as a runner, but also discover what you need (and don’t need) to do to achieve your full marathon goals.

“Even though the distance of a half marathon is shorter, make sure you learn from the approach and discover what type of runner you are,” Cournane says. “This will be invaluable as you prepare for your upcoming race day.”

And, as you participate in a half marathon and focus on your strengths and weaknesses (and the ways in which they can be improved for the full), ensure you’re able to recover properly. You don’t want to overexert yourself to the point in which you aren’t able to run the marathon to the best of your abilities—or, worse yet, have to withdraw from the race.

“Set realistic goals when you have a particular pace you want to achieve,” says Lori McGee Koch, head running coach at Chicago Endurance Sports. “You want to be able to recover quickly after the half so you can resume your marathon training without interrupting it with several recovery days.”

Recovery is still vital though. In fact, Tom McGlynn, founder and CEO of runcoach, advises you to not run for three consecutive days after a half marathon, followed by another four to six days in which your mileage is drastically reduced.

“Remember that a half marathon is normally run in a state of glycogen depletion and muscular degradation from overload,” he stresses. “This recovery period will help spring board you into the final stage of your marathon training.”

Looking for a local half marathon to register for? Visit our online calendar!

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