Half Marathon training – do it under 90 minutes!  How to train for a half marathon.

Half Marathon training – do it under 90 minutes! How to train for a half marathon.

So I can tick another event off my bucket list, the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon. As someone who’s more into sports like tennis and surfing, I never thought I would enter such an event. Training and participating in the event has helped me become more acutely aware of the strains runners place their bodies under during distance running.

I felt compelled to enter a half marathon for a number of reasons. Many of my patients are runners and have participated in events that range from fun runs like the City 2 Surf through to half and full marathons, and even the more death-wish inspired events like Ironman and the North Face 100. Entering and training for a half marathon would bring me closer to understanding the physical challenges and potential injuries runners subject themselves too. If I’m being honest with myself though, the real reason for my participation was to beat someone.

This certain individual stated that running your first half marathon in under 100 minutes was an impressive achievement. As a competitive individual, and one who probably has an inflated opinion of his physical fitness, I scoffed at this. “I’m easily good for sub 95 minutes”, I said. The look I received from my remark however, was a clear “well show me then”.

Fortunately, with a wealth of experienced nut-case runners and triathletes amongst my patient base, I began sourcing valuable training tips from them. Here’s what I learnt:

What timeframe should I allow for training?

Perhaps irresponsibly, I gave myself six weeks of training before the event. I was coming from a good fitness base from my tennis training that involved a lot of running, albeit a very different form to road running. The important point here was that I was used to exercising for as long as 2.5-3hrs at a time. It is not uncommon for tennis matches and training sessions to last as long. I was confident I could finish 21.1km in less than two hours and so I wasn’t worried about excessive fatigue. My goal was to run as fast as I could without injuring myself either in the lead up or the event itself.

It’s difficult to suggest a time frame for the average Joe as to how long one should allow for their preparation. If your schedule allows however, I would recommend twelve weeks of preparation time. The basic aim in training for such an event is to familiarise your body with endurance running. For most people, three months is ample time to progress from shorter to longer runs. If you follow a properly designed training schedule, it won’t be a question of whether you finish or not, but rather a question of what time it will take you.

How often should I train?

I was recommended a three-day training schedule whereby I did one long run per week, plus a hills session and a speed work session.

As I had only six weeks, I scheduled my long runs to start at 8km and increase by two kilometres each week. I had to keep in mind however that during week six I would be scaling back on the distances and focussing just on running at race pace. I ended up doing 8km, 12km, 14.4km, 16km and finally 18km from weeks one to five. The long runs are important for endurance; you need to get your body used to running non-stop for long periods of time and distances.

For the hills sessions, I picked out a hilly section of road on one of Sydney’s north shore suburbs. I would run from the traffic lights at the bottom of Ben Boyd Road, Neutral Bay all the way up to the top by the primary school. This is exactly one kilometre. As I’d never done such a thing before, in week one I ran up and down three times, otherwise known as doing “three repeats”. The next week I did four repeats and the following two weeks I did five repeats.

In week five I traded a hills session for a medium distance run (13km) done at race pace. I was advised to do this for two reasons. Firstly, each of my long runs by default included hills so I was still effectively getting some hills training in these runs. Secondly, hills sessions are taxing on your body. Ironically, the down hill running places the most stress on your body. If you’re not a seasoned runner, you will tend to take long strides and slap your feet against the road. This can lead to foot and/or calf pain. It’s important to remain fresh and ready the week of your event so I limited myself to runs I knew I would recover quickly from.

If your goal is just to finish a half marathon, you might choose to focus solely on endurance. Assuming you are intending on finishing in a certain time frame however, speed work is arguably the most important part of your training. Many of those whom I spoke to who did not achieve their goals in similar events, told me of their regret for not having done enough speed work.

Speed work is intended to increase your base running pace. When you first start running training, you will find yourself running at a particular pace. As you will have little experience running long distances, you will find it difficult to know how much energy to expend or conserve for your runs. The speed work will have you running shorter distances but at significantly faster paces. In doing this, you will essentially be throwing a different set of stimuli at your nervous system. Your body will learn to move itself through space faster and in turn, on the longer runs, you will start to increase your average running pace.

My speed work routine was ten 400m runs with 60 seconds rest in between. This is known as interval training. I chose a section of road in Manly. I would run from the sandstone archway on North Head Scenic Drive to the signpost at the start of the driveway you see below. It was slightly uphill in this direction. I would then turn around and run back for the next interval.

To say the least, these sessions were gross! The 400m run is renown as one of the toughest middle distance runs in the Olympics. Towards the end of my training, I was averaging 73secs across my ten by 400m speed work sessions. This was probably faster than it needed to be. Given my goal of breaking 90mins, averaging between 80-90secs would probably have been sufficient. Nonetheless, I was quite happy with this. I estimated this would put me around the 60-62 second mark for a one off best. Breaking 60 seconds in the 400m would definitely require specific 400m training. Perhaps one day I’ll be stupid enough to attempt this challenge as well.

What else should I be doing?

Whilst the actual running training is the most important component of finishing your half-marathon, finishing it well, which means in a faster time and injury free, requires further attention to detail. If you strive for perfection or want to go about things in a more professional manner, there are three other areas I would suggest you give some thought to: weight training, nutrition and recovery.

Fortunately, I have conditioned my body over a number of years in the gym with exercises like squats, dead lifts, lunges and many more exercises for competitive tennis. This has provided the much needed leg strength needed to sustain the heavy pounding my body would be subjected to in the half-marathon. In addition to this, the upper body strength work I had also done prevented me from looking like a bottom heavy weirdo keep your body in balance.

Nutrition is a huge factor, would you put ethanol fuel in your Ferrari? Of course not. The better you eat, the better you perform. You will need to be consuming good quality carbohydrates and fats for energy, adequate amounts of protein for muscle recovery and plenty of fruit and vegetables for the wealth of mineral nutrients they provide. The topic of nutrition is too broad to cover here, but try reading these tips on how to eat healthy for some ideas on where to start.

Recovery is another hugely neglected facet to training – for any sport. Recovery includes rest and physical therapy. You must rest in between your training sessions. I would never run on consecutive days. Why run when you’re tired? How can you expect to perform effectively on little sleep or energy? Run when you’re feeling fresh, strong and fast.

Very importantly, if you ever feel pain anywhere in your body, you must see someone about it. Better yet, see someone for a check up before you even commence training. If you’re stupid enough to drive your car around whilst it bellows black smoke out of the exhaust, then you deserve to break down in the middle of nowhere. An experienced health practitioner can alert you to any potential weaknesses that lurk in your body. Insure against injury with professional advice and further capacity for training.

What gear do I need?

The good thing about running is that it does not see you spending money like you would with golf or F1 racing. You can get carried away with GPS watches and fancy sunglasses but all you really need is a decent pair of shoes.

I would recommend going to a specialist running shop. Do some research online if you must but be weary of making an online purchase just to save $50. In my experience, the clerks in these running shops are passionate runners; they will talk to you all day about shoes if they have the time. Most often, they are sufficiently knowledgeable to assess one’s foot type and recommend an appropriate shoe.

I would again recommend seeking professional advice from a health practitioner to assess your foot type. You do not want to be sold a pair of shoes that is going to end up giving you foot or leg pain.

What should your goal be?

By all means reach for the stars and set yourself a challenge but I would suggest seeing how fast you can complete a flattish 5km run first before you set any goals. This is essentially how I started. It’s a good starting point to gauge what you are capable of and what is a realistic or unrealistic goal for you completing 21.1km.

Personally, I don’t see the point in setting the goal of just finishing. I believe anyone could finish a half marathon, you might start off running and finish walking and it takes you two and a half hours. Rather set yourself the challenge of at least running non-stop, and then trying to beat that time on your following attempt.

I was ecstatic to know that I had achieved my goal of breaking 90 minutes for my first half marathon. I recorded an official time of 85mins 52seconds. Oh yeah, and I beat the person I set out to beat too.

The very best of luck to you!

*DISCLAIMER: This discussion does not provide medical advice. The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained in this discussion are for informational purposes only. The purpose of this discussion is to promote broad consumer understanding and knowledge of various health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment and before undertaking a new health care regimen, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in this blog.