Things I Learned While Actually Training for a Half-Marathon

Running along the frozen Potomac River on a 45-degree day, the day after a huge snow and ice storm.
Running along the frozen Potomac River on a 45-degree day, the day after a huge snow and ice storm.

As of right now, I have finished nine half-marathons and I’m about to add two more to my race resume with the United Airlines New York City Half-Marathon and the Yuengling Virginia Beach Shamrock Half-Marathon. But I’ve never actually trained for a half-marathon. I have always just run them because they somehow fit into my training schedule for marathons or because I happened to have a decent enough fitness base that I could feasibly make it work (including my first half-marathon in March 2011, which got me injured). After having officially trained to run these races, I now understand that I’ve been taking the approach to the half-marathon all wrong. I think it’s accurate to say that I have completely underestimated the half-marathon and, in doing so, have missed out on the wealth of what that short, quick little devil of a race has to offer for marathoners.

Running during a blizzard. Things you do only once.
Running during a blizzard. Things you do only once.

Lesson #1: Build an On-Ramp in the Off-Season

I don’t remember how I first learned about the NYC Half-Marathon, but somehow I got my name in the lottery drawing and then I got the announcement that my name had been drawn and I’d been accepted to run the race. After not having gotten into the NYC Marathon, which was held about a month earlier, I was stoked for this race. The lottery drawing happened sometime just after Thanksgiving and well before Christmas. I’d just completed both the Chicago Marathon and the Richmond Half-Marathon within a month of each other, and was looking forward to a month off from any hardcore running. I ran when I wanted to, I ran what I wanted to, and  I didn’t apologize to myself or anyone else for taking days off if I just wasn’t up to it. Off-season, gotta love it. But this was actually when I should have been getting started. I was focusing too much on the big picture and not the little things I needed to do to set myself up for a PR in my next race by strength-training and working on balance and setting myself up to train well. Off-season isn’t every day off season: the little things done in 2-5-10 minutes a day add up.

January 5-miler
January 5-miler

After the start of the year, I looked at my calendar and decided to build a plan to train for the spring season and the many half-marathons I planned to run. Having never officially trained for a half, I didn’t know what plan to look for, so I went to my usual first stop: Hal Higdon’s Intermediate plan. I worked the 12-week schedule into my calendar and realized that I was already on the first week of training, but my mileage was nothing close to what I needed to have already accomplished to be on that level. I jumped into training almost immediately without an on-ramp. I’d been running somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 miles per week at that point, and this plan called for 18.5 in the first week, including speed work with which I wasn’t totally familiar. That’s a huge leap up in mileage. Having run 12 miles the previous week, I had to adjust it down to 15 miles for the first week. No big deal, really. But any training plan— including, as I have now learned, the half-marathon training plan– needs a sufficient on-ramp. I had written on my NYC lottery entry that I was planning to run the race in 1:45, or a pace of eight minutes per mile. If that was my goal, I should have been working on building that on-ramp weeks before I started officially training. I should have been working on building up to speed work by running 2 x 200s, then 4 x 200s, then 4 x 400s and so on as well as getting my core more stabilized to run faster, and incorporating long, slow recovery runs to condition my muscles to push even as I was tired so I could handle the fatigue running a 1:45 would present. While it’s true that mentally I needed the break from training after a huge marathon and a near-second fastest half-marathon at Richmond, once my name was drawn, that should have been go time. Sometimes training for a race isn’t always about logging insane miles at ever-changing paces. It’s about setting yourself up in the off-season to take it to the next level in the on-season.

Lesson #2: The Ancillaries

Finishing an 8-miler, which made 66.5 miles in January.
Finishing an 8-miler, which made 66.5 miles in January.

So, not every lesson I learned is tinged with shoulda-coulda-woulda self-criticism. Sometimes, it’s more about checking your work. For marathoners, half-marathon training feels like getting the answers from the back of the book. While it was clear that I could master the distance just fine, suddenly I was shifting my focus to things like form and learning how to focus in the moment and push hard. I was becoming aware of my posture and stride and realizing that clenching my water bottle uses up valuable energy. I felt more centered, focusing on my breathing because I wasn’t staring at another 12 miles over which I would need to keep my energy conserved and do those things, too. Marathoners need to focus on these elements during marathon-training, but I admit that I never really did before. The half-marathon is a great way for marathoners to train for all of those good habits because you’re released from the pressure of sustaining it over twice the distance. Instead, you learn how to build your running body now when you’re running shorter distances so it becomes natural when you’re running over long distances. Why I never realized this natural progression before, I don’t know. I guess I was all about the distance that was in front of me and not looking holistically at the picture. After half-marathon training, I sort of feel like an old classic, high-mileage car that has been completely refurbished.

Lesson #3: Run Types

Blending into the bland, white sky and bare branches on a Sunday run
Blending into the bland, white sky and bare branches on a Sunday run

In marathon training, I used plans that called for things like tempo runs and pace runs and long runs and and recovery runs and progression runs, but I never totally paid attention to them nor did I appreciate their differences. Half-marathon training felt like a crash course in race strategy. My tempo runs were true tempo runs (I know the jury is largely out on what these are, but I always viewed them as negative split runs sandwiched by a warm-up and cool down). I ran my long runs around race pace (not the best strategy for marathon-training), and I took my recovery runs at turtle pace. Speed work, admittedly, I only ran once on the treadmill because my usual speed work spot was usually always covered with ice and snow, but I learned that even as I am plowing through at lightning fast bursts of speed not to slaughter the first lap. It all sort of made me wonder why I used to “beast mode” my way through every single run. No wonder I was so exhausted.

Lesson #4: How to Incorporate Strength and Cross-Training into a Plan

Running after work; wind chill somewhere in the singles. Going all ninja-runner to get my 3 miles done!
Running after work; wind chill somewhere in the singles. Going all ninja-runner to get my 3 miles done!

Here’s another thing that fell to the wayside during marathon training: cross-training as well as strength, hip, and core work. As much as I love to run, I also love to have a life. People may think I’m a gym rat but honestly sometimes I would rather just go straight home after a run, kick my feet up in front of my Netflix, and crochet for the couple of hours I have after a day at work and on the trails. I don’t like to think about doing all the extra exercises that are critical– I repeat, critical— for maintaining a healthy runner’s body. Unsurprisingly, this is probably why I got injured and have yet to beat my two-year old marathon and half-marathon PRs. The truth is, if you’re going to put your body through this cycle of tearing it down and rebuilding it up, you have to take responsibility for the imbalances, misalignments, and all of the havoc that running wreaks onto your body. You have to do the core work on the side. I got my wake-up call when, after a glorious 7-mile run, I woke up the next morning with my right calf feeling like it’d been stabbed, and after a few too many weeks hobbling around with my left foot feeling like my plantar fascia was short a few inches. No way was I going to find myself back in physical therapy again. So, I foam-rolled every where– quads, IT band, hip adducters, calves– three minutes each at at time. I got out a resistance band and did some hip extensions. I stood on elevated staircases and did hip dips. I started planking again. Clam shells, hip bridges, donkey kicks– I did them all. I ordered this DVD and I now do the exercises every day. And guess what? The stabbed calf feeling is a mere flutter and I’m walking like a 30-something, not a 30-something 6 times over. My paces have been in my usual neighborhood of 8:30 to 9:30. When I’m running, I can literally feel when my torso is correcting my bad form. And all it takes is 20 minutes for the DVD exercises–great way to wake up–and the length of a TV show that I can watch while I’m dipping, extending, crunching, kicking, planking, or lifting. Now that I know how very little time and effort it takes to keep your running body strong, you better believe I’ll continue my exercises through marathon-training. Because sorry, DC-area physical therapists, but you will not see me on your table this year.

Lesson #5: How to Have a Life and a Running Goal

Embarking on a 3-mile tempo run that turned into a pace run because of icy patches on the trail
Embarking on a 3-mile tempo run that turned into a pace run because of icy patches on the trail

When I started training for a half-marathon, my heart sort of groaned at the idea of having a set schedule again. Running a marathon is fun; training for one is hard as hell. To think about all the times I’d have rather just gone the eff home instead of get my butt to the trails for a 3-, 6-, or even 10-miler after work or slept in on the weekends instead of beating the hot summer sun to the trail for a double-digit distance run, I loathed the idea of committing to something else when I just wanted a life for a little while. But once I jumped in and saw that my weeknight runs were in the neighborhood of 3-5 miles and my weekend runs (that I could do in the afternoons when it’s warmest in winter) were nothing like the 16-20 miles I’d rotate through during marathon-training, I knew that half-marathon training was the best of both worlds I wanted to belong for awhile. Don’t get me wrong– it’s still hard to get out there, not just when the temps are half your age, but getting out there at all in the winter. But put in the context of “I’m only going to be out there for, like, half an hour” and what kind of run it was that day (speed work days will always be hard but going for “4 easy miles” was like the bread basket that comes with dinner), my training runs were done before I knew it and I still had time to go home and throw my feet up on the couch… after my stabilizing exercises, of course! Plus, I could incorporate runs into my day better with half-marathon training. Lunch run? Well, why not. Feel like running 4 miles home instead of commuting by train? Go for it. Happy hour you say? I’m 30 minutes behind you.

First double-digit run of the year! I was up early trying to beat a snow and sleet storm coming through later that day, but it hit early. Hard run...my face says it all.
First double-digit run of the year! I was up early trying to beat a snow and sleet storm coming through later that day, but it hit early. Hard run…my face says it all.

Knowing myself well enough, training for races is the best way to instill some fitness discipline into myself, and having a schedule– something I could quantify, be held accountable to, and map out– is my recipe for success. I can’t just run– I need a goal. Half-marathon training was the perfect balance to these very competing interests of having a life and having a race goal. And now I feel better prepared to have a life and keep my goals intact when marathon-training when it starts in June.

Last long run of half-marathon training!
Last long run of half-marathon training!

Moving forward, half-marathons will probably be my spring race distance of choice and not “just” something I do because I can. Although, I can’t really say that for sure about some of the great fall half-marathons on the East Coast. But having now officially trained for that specific race distance, I can say with absolute assuredness that the half-marathon is probably one of the best learning experiences a distance runner can get. I’m excited to see how my hard work has paid off in New York City and Virginia Beach. Whatever the time on the clock, I know I have something of which I can be extremely proud.

**March 11, 2015 update: I don’t know why I didn’t think that tapering was part of half-marathon training, but of course it is. It’s race week and I’m still not quite sure how to do that…

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