Half marathons are challenging runs. There are usually more runners registered in a half marathon, and many participants try to run faster than the full marathon pace. Running for 13.1 miles is stressful on the muscles and joints. However, many half marathon racers have improved their personal bests by taking walk breaks during the race to allow for enough recovery time to blast the run.
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Half Marathon First Third
Think of the half marathon distance as three sections, each almost 4.4 miles long. The first third of the half marathon is used to warm up to race pace, and get into a good hydration pattern. Most races start very early in the morning, and for some runners a good 15 minutes of running is needed to get the muscles fully warm and the joints loose. The crowd at the start is usually in corrals of elite, good, and average runners so the first few minutes of a big race can be at a walking pace for non-elite runners.
Physiology of Walk Breaks
For a runner who is new to half marathons, finishing the distance is an accomplishment in itself. Taking a few breaks to walk allows the diaphragm a full range of motion taking deep breaths. The lower body muscles and joints will also recover, because the increased deep breathing allows more highly oxygenated blood to circulate. This will carry waste products from the muscles, including any lactic acid built up from hill climbs or sprint intervals. All levels of runners in the half marathon can benefit from these methods.
Second and Final Thirds of Half Marathon
Coming into the second section of 4.4 miles, a good strategy is to slow down approaching the water/sports drink stations and walk while consuming the drink. Taking a minute to walk at these stations and perhaps stretch is a natural way to incorporate walking intervals into the half marathon. The final third of the half marathon is key to a strong finish, and the walking and hydration and nutrition from the first two thirds of the race will establish your comfort level and speed at the end. Walking a minute or more during the last 4.4 miles can seem counter-intuitive, but it will get many runners past the finish line and can prevent injury.
Hydration and a gradual cooldown are important aspects for recovering the immediate first few hours after the race. Most half marathon finishers sprint to the finish line and then stop immediately to walk and get out of the way of the next finishers. Many marathon and half marathon events offer a post-race expo, and it's the ideal time to loosen up the laces on your shoes and walk around, drinking water, beer or a sports drink. Make sure to keep a hat on if it's hot outside and eat a banana, granola bar, protein bar or other easy-to-digest food. For a few days after the race, stick to a good mix of carbohydrate and protein, not much fat and a lot of water. Getting enough sleep is also essential to help repair muscles and connective tissue.