Prepare for the Orca Half Marathon

Here is a cheat sheet on how to prepare for the Orca Half Marathon held every September by Orca Running. This is their flagship race. It’s flat and fast. It provides great views. And it is so popular that they now run the race on both Saturday and Sunday to accommodate everyone wanting to do this event. This guide provides an in-depth look at how to train, and how to pace yourself so that you can be your best on race day, be that setting a new PR or simply crossing the finish line. 

Preparing for the half marathon

Time to train: A half marathon training plan is a bit dependent on your current level of fitness and running experience. Most plans will run 12 to 16 weeks and have you running anywhere from four to six days per week. One benefit of having a coach versus just following a plan is that you can adapt and adjust your training based on your schedule and needs versus following a rigid plan. But regardless of if you have a coach or not, you need to recognize that preparing to be your best on race day requires time, and consistently showing up to prepare! 

Here are the key pieces to the training puzzle, and while each runner likely requires a different recipe for training, these are the key ingredients in nearly every successful half marathon training plan. 

Easy Efforts: Though half the distance of a marathon, the half marathon is still a long-distance event. The foundation for running long distances is building aerobic endurance. “Easy” or “conversational pace” runs are the bread and butter of building endurance. If you’re following heart rate zones, we’re talking about z1 and z2 here. There are a variety of ways to assess how much training volume one can sustain and benefit from during any season – the key is to avoid overdoing it so that you can reduce injury risk. Conversation pace running is 70-80% of your overall running volume. A coach can help find the ideal total training load for you, and balance the easy efforts with the more challenging training sessions. 

Half-Marathon-Paced Long Runs: Whether you’ve raced several half marathons or you’re running your first one, a critical component of your training is running at the pace you plan to run in the race. There are numerous methods to determine your race pace, but most all deal with the concept of zones. Some of the most common zones are aerobic recovery, aerobic training, lactate threshold, critical zone or “race pace”, V02 Max, and anaerobic. Each individual will have unique needs and limits, but generally for the half marathon distance your race pace zone usually sits at an effort above aerobic and below lactate threshold. Determining race pace is dependent on current fitness levels and your experience with running. Race pace workouts usually comprise 1-2 days per week or 10-15% of weekly volume. They can be standalone workouts or folded into your weekly long run. Typically, in the first part of your training you will run 5-10 seconds slower than your goal race pace, working your way up to sustained race pace runs, and some workouts 5-10 seconds faster than goal race pace as you approach tapering. This specificity of repeated bouts of training will help your body adapt to the stresses of running faster and longer.

Tempo Runs: Running at a pace positioned above half-marathon pace combined with bouts of running at easier paces will prepare your body for the stress of race day, and boost your overall aerobic capacity for longer, sustained efforts. Tempo runs (aka threshold, steady-state, fast pace) are done at a swift, sustained pace, generally for 20-30 minutes and sometimes as long as an hour or more. Your coach can help you determine a “comfortably hard” pace for these types of workouts. Novices sometimes find this difficult, but tempo runs are the bread and butter for experienced runners. Tempo runs train the cardiorespiratory system and muscular systems to efficiently absorb, deliver, and utilize oxygen. They improve endurance, promote more efficient running form, and teach runners how to deal with low-grade physical discomfort. Distances, paces, and times will vary depending on the runner’s goals, but most tempo runs start at a comfortable pace with increasingly faster running to stimulate the race effort. Individual needs and limits apply, but a common approach is to have one day per week or 10-15% of your weekly volume devoted to a harder, faster than goal pace effort. 

Race strategies for the half marathon

Yes, the course is shorter than a full marathon, but that doesn’t mean you want to hammer the pace from start to finish. A common mistake in races of all distances is going out too fast too early, and the half marathon is no exception. You may feel great for the first part of the race, but you will pay the price for it later if you’re running beyond your current fitness. To help you reach your potential on race day and avoid the common mistake of pushing too hard too soon, I’ve provided this framework for you. I like to think of the race as a few different phases of racing, each with their own strategy.

Race start: From the start line to about four miles in it makes sense to run a bit slower (about 5-15 seconds/mile slower) than your goal half marathon pace. You are feeling your way into the race and tamping down some adrenaline at the same time so this phase will be slightly more mentally taxing than later phases. You will be tempted to run faster. Don’t.

Race middle: From miles five through 10 you will start to settle into your goal race pace. Gradually start running faster until you hit your goal pace. Earlier in this phase running at your race pace will feel comfortably challenging, but be prepared for it to take progressively more effort as the miles click by. Appreciate the flow and wait to start pushing the pace.

Race end: From miles 11 to the finish line. You went out slower and gradually worked up to your goal race pace for a reason. Now is the time to push the pace (about 5-10 seconds/mile faster) and see what you have left in the tank. Use that conserved energy you banked earlier to lean into any challenges you might feel. With one mile to go now is the time to throw the hammer down and give it all you’ve got left.

Racing this method is what’s commonly known as a negative split, meaning you run the second half of the race faster than the first. It takes practice and discipline to nail this strategy, but it’s a common approach in part because the proof is in the pudding. Races are inherently unpredictable, but if you can focus on what you can control – pace, effort, nutrition, gear, and your training – you might just find your reward is a PR.

While half the distance of a full marathon, preparing for a half marathon still requires dedication, consistency, and a well-structured training plan. By focusing on building aerobic endurance through easy efforts, practicing at half-marathon pace during long runs, and incorporating tempo runs to boost aerobic capacity, runners can set themselves up for success on race day. Additionally, understanding race strategies like pacing yourself throughout different phases of the race can make a significant difference in achieving your goals. Remember, training for a half marathon is not just about physical preparation but also mental discipline and strategic execution. By following a tailored training plan, staying committed to your goals, and executing smart race strategies, you can maximize your performance and potentially achieve a new personal record. So lace up those shoes, hit the pavement with purpose, and enjoy the journey towards conquering your next half marathon challenge! And if you’re in the Seattle area, I hope to see you at the Orca Half Marathon in September! 

Jon Phillips is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with him, check out his coach profile.