I have always considered the Half marathon distance to be the most versatile running event. I base this on all the possible running goals that can be achieved during this one race. When coaching an athlete for a Half marathon, my first and most important question is, “What is your goal?” The Half marathon can serve as a challenging distance to beginning level runners or a challenging competitive event for intermediate athletes. Depending on the answer to this question, very different training approaches are developed to achieve the athlete’s desired performance goal.
Half marathons can represent a daunting challenge for athletes who normally compete in 5k and 10k events for fitness or age group competition. I position the Half marathon as a midseason opportunity to utilize aerobic training and tempo training over the 13.1 mile distance. For most of these athletes the distance may be equal to or slightly more than their over-distance aerobic training runs. Following a period of aerobic training I will plan 3 to 4 weeks of tempo training to establish pacing. Pacing will be based on a desired goal time or from past race performances. Workouts will progressively increase in volume week to week:
- Week 1: 2 x 12 minutes at tempo pace (within 10 seconds per mile) with 2 minutes recovery.
- Week 2: 2 x 15 minutes. Recovery between sets is minimal, 1 to 3 minutes at aerobic training pace.
- Week 3: 3 x 10 minutes. Recovery between sets is minimal, 1 to 3 minutes at aerobic training pace.
Tempo training focuses the athlete on paces that may seem slow to them, but which are appropriate for the longer than typical distance.
Training for Time Goals
I recently worked with an athlete to prepare him to compete in the same race as he had competed in last year. Having already established his aerobic capacity, and with successful competition in short races, the Half marathon served as a spring benchmark for his training. His goal time was 1:20, three minutes faster than the previous year. We determined that pacing for the event would make the most impact on his performance and I planned a progressive plan of tempo workouts in Training Peaks. The progression began 4 weeks prior and looked like this;
- Week 1: 15/12/8 minute interval workout at 95/100/105 percent of goal pace, with three minutes recovery at aerobic training pace between intervals.
- Week 2: 2 x 20 minute tempo workout at goal pace with 2 minutes recovery between intervals.
- Week 3: 6 x 6 minutes at 105 percent of race pace with 3 minutes recovery aerobic jog between.
- Week 4: Race week, 3 x 5 minutes at goal pace with 2 minutes recovery.
I use time instead of distance with most athletes to allow flexibility in training venue and with the use of wearable technology training can be analyzed after they download the file to their Training Peaks account.
Training for Placing Goals
If this athlete had decided the race goal involved competing for position instead of time, the training would have included racing simulation in the training. To simulate Half marathon racing situations, I focus an athlete’s training around adaption to what I refer to as “surging and settling”. The Half marathon is similar to the marathon, as compared to a 10k or 5k for most beginner or intermediate level athletes, in that pacing is vital to performance success. I incorporate similar tempo-based workouts but add pyramid style or variable intervals to the workouts. Examples include:
- 3 x 14 minutes (1 minute at goal pace, 1 minute at 105 percent, 1 minute at 110 percent, 1 minute at 105 percent, 10 minutes at goal pace).
- A second example would be a stricter pyramid workout of 3 to 4 x 11 minutes consisting of 3 minutes at goal pace, 2 minutes at 105 percent of goal pace, 1 minute at 110 percent of goal pace, 2 minutes at 105% goal pace, 3 minutes at goal pace, with 3 minutes recovery jog. The workouts goal is training the athlete to initiate or react to surging in competitive races and then effectively settling back into pace.
The athlete used in my example hit his performance goal of 1:20. We met to discuss the training and their performance. When reviewing the race, he said, “I felt a lot more comfortable and relaxed than last year.” I then asked him what part of the training they felt contributed the most to their success. They replied, “The tempo runs gave me a better sense of pace in order to run my goal time of 10 seconds per mile faster than last year.”
As a coach I am always looking to learn and improve, so I asked him what could have been done differently to improve his performance. Interestingly, he said, “I could have started off slower and built into my pace. I got caught up with the leaders and was initially running sub 6 minute miles (goal pace 6:06) for the first few miles.” This led to the discussion about next year’s goal and how we could adjust the training – providing the inspiration for this blog post. Establishing the purpose or goal for a Half marathon determines the training approach and the mindset an athlete must develop to perform successfully. Following that process and using tempo runs as a basis for training will insure Half marathon success and create development opportunities for improved performances in the future.