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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Ten Tips for the Half Marathon

Mid to late summer means half marathon and marathon season is fast approaching.  I’ve gotten several questions lately about half marathon training and decided to compile some general thoughts.  What you won’t find here is a day by day schedule, as plenty of adequate ones exist in books and online (better yet, hire a coach!).  Instead, the focus here will be on fundamental concepts that novice to intermediate runners can apply into any training program, with a special focus on avoiding the common flaws or “rookie mistakes” that many seem to repeat each year…

1) Frequency. Running at least 5-6 days per week is crucial (6-7 ideal).   Running is a skill that requires maintenance.  Can a beginner finish the race on a three times per week schedule?  Sure, but its not optimal.  Even if you only go 15-20 minutes some days, you’re best advised to lace 'em up frequently. (see "One Day off Per Week?")

2) If someone says "I can't run every day...its too hard" they are likely running too hard or too long for their current fitness level.  See point #1…think short and easy with greater regularity.

3) And if your current level of physically tolerable training is insufficient to prepare for an upcoming race…better to postpone than to force training that the body can’t handle.  There’s nothing heroic about limping across the finish line in a death march.  Or worse, not even making the start line to begin with…(in full disclosure…been there, done that!) (see Overuse or MISuse)

4) Understand “date pace” versus “goal pace.”  Date pace is how fast you can race a particular event on that particular day; goal pace is the pace you wish to run at the goal event.  Half marathon goal pace is used as guide, but in the early stages of training is too hard for long workouts but too easy for short intervals.   

5) To that end, a 5-10k training phase is a good idea before any half marathon, even if you don’t actually race a 5k or 10k. Beginners often turn half marathon into survival fest rather than a challenge to best express your underlying fitness. (See Lessons in Intelligent Training Design from Coaching Legends)

6) Though the long run is important, most beginners place FAR too much emphasis on weekend long run.  Some teach 25% of weekly mileage as the cap but that should not be absolute.  More intuitively, if your long run leaves you so wiped out that you can’t run the next day or find running the next day to be a major struggle, you probably went too far or too hard for current ability.  

7) …And too much emphasis for in-race nutrition.  No, contrary to what sports nutrition companies promote, you won’t die of starvation in the middle of a 1-2 hour race on urban streets with multiple aid stations.  My advice for nutrition is start with “less” and go up from there, and not prepare for a three week backpacking trip.  I won’t give any specific guidelines because everyone is different and specific nutrition advice is outside my scope of practice, but ingesting solid or gel calories every 30 minutes for 8+ minute miles is probably excessive...(See, Bob Seebohar interview)

8) Some people can improve just by increasing mileage.  But there are certainly better and more efficient ways to make systematic progress.  Generally each week will have three key sessions, each spaced by at least one easy run day in between. Then divide the mileage throughout the week as appropriate:

a) Long intervals (sample: 3-4 x mile within 5 sec +/- half marathon pace. 90 sec rest between each interval. Finish with 4-6 x 100m light sprints after main set during your cooldown
b) short intervals (sample: 12 x 200m at 5k race pace with 200m jog rest)
c) long easy run ~25% weekly mileage

8a) That said, fartlek training, or  lightly structured "speed play," is highly underused and is often more effective than religious adherence to the stopwatch in teaching runners to "feel" the appropriate sensations of effort at higher velocities)

9) Slow down the easy days...most novice runners run near the same pace every day, with the easy runs too close in pace to hard runs, and hard runs not hard enough perhaps because they're so tired from running easy runs too hard all the time....Though it is possible to go too slow and distort mechanics, the ancient advice to run easy days “at conversational pace” is still the best mantra.

10) Be very anal about running on soft surfaces.  Yes, this can require a greater time commitment for urban dwellers who must travel further to locate grass and trails, but the payoff is more than worth it (assuming you value arriving to the start line healthy…).  Obviously some faster workouts must be done on harder surfaces (track, multi use path), but easy runs and long runs are best accomplished on softer ground. 

Bonus)  Hang out with faster runners whenever possible.  You don’t need to run with them (and probably shouldn’t anyway), but immersion into the habits of those faster than you can help break down mental performance barriers. 

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