Having decided to run the Berkeley Half Marathon in late November last week,* there were a series of considerations to get started that had to be made. I thought it would be quite helpful to any runner to have a coach's perspective on what the first steps are when deciding to run a race. This is a quick look at my thought process and how I'd quickly make a custom training plan for myself.
This part may be obvious, but it cannot be overlooked. So to start, I had to make sure I had the basic fitness to be prepared to race by late November in a time that provides sufficient motivation for me to plan to race at all. I also had to take a look at my schedule to see how much time I can take to train, and to see if I could race. At first the time commitment isn't big, as I'll be starting from 20-25 miles per week across mostly 4 days. But by the week of the race I'll be running 40-50 mile weeks across up to 6 days, which will take more time.
I mapped out a weekly calendar on a spreadsheet to see the hours it would take and if I felt ok with my weeks looking like that. I do feel good about it, although it made me realize that I wouldn't want to be at the high end for more than maybe four months.
Having determined that I have the time, both during the week and in terms of enough weeks to train given my base fitness and goal, the next step is to create a training plan. Mine is a bit unique, and not one I'd really recommend to anyone else. I chose it because it worked well for me in the past as a safe way to rapidly build up my weekly mileage without exhausting myself- and since I have run 100 mile weeks in the past my weekly mileage ceiling is higher than most. So moving up to half the mileage my body became familiar with in the past would be reasonable. For any runner, if a past training program worked well before, it probably will again provided a similar mileage base has been established by the starting point of this round of doing it.
Next is designing an actual training plan. My situation is probably a bit different from the average runner. Since I have the advantage of about 15,000 miles of running over the last 18 years under my belt, I know I can run a half marathon at about 7 minute mile pace whenever I choose, and with essentially no training. I still have to consider my recent training though- my mileage over the last year has actually been quite low by my standards- ranging from 0 to 30 miles per week, usually more around 20 or so. This means my starting point should be at the average mileage I've logged in over the last six weeks or so provided it was consistent. When embarking on any training program, that's a good safe way to determine the initial mileage.
My pattern for weekly mileage is as follows: 25, 20, 30, 25, 35, 30 and so on. By the week of the race I will be at 50 miles including the half marathon. I won't back off my mileage in the last week because I want to train through the race and make a later race in March the primary focus of my overall training cycle.
Keep in mind that safe training plans generally won't see more than a double of weekly total mileages across a roughly three month period. Also note that there are still the back off weeks- in my case it is every other week. You'll see many approaches to back off weeks. Some are every third or fourth week, or back off slightly on a second week for example and then more so on a fourth week. Having those cycles is very important though. For a fast build up I chose every other week, but if I continue to train I will back off every fourth week after three weeks of the same mileage.
This weekly mileage pattern is based on what I know I can safely run without being too exhausted- basically anything up to 80 miles per week can be done this way for me. However, this was learned thanks to past experience and from what I know I can safely run in a week. I also had a similar starting point in terms of fitness from the last time, which is a crucial consideration.
Next up in a training plan are the workouts. For a half marathon training plan, its helpful to have a progression of long runs slotted in at some point during each week. I scheduled mine to be on Friday mornings because that is my most flexible and generally available day. They will start at 7 miles with last week's run and build one mile at a time each week until they get to 16. They will also all end in moderate effort for the last 1-4 miles (1 in the beginning, 4 by the end). You'll see many training programs that do this gradual step up, although sometimes it is done even slower or with back off weeks also including a shorter long run. In my case, none of those distances should be challenging for me so this progression is my plan. I will of course make adjustments if I find myself exhibiting any sign of overtraining.
I will also have hill sprints twice a week for the first half of the training program. These will start at 4 each time for 10 seconds or so and gradually build to 7. Hill sprints are great for developing some raw speed, building strength, and preventing injuries. A quick note here: hill sprints should at least be starting on a 6% grade and then taken to a steeper hill later in training. In my case, I will be doing a steeper hill from the start. This is one downside of coaching yourself- sometimes a questionable decision sneaks in there due to my stubbornness and pride in this case. So, not that I am following this advice right now, but don't coach yourself even if you could!
Weeks 3 through 9 (of 11) will have one or two distance runs that have fartleks (or speedplay) worked into them. They will start from 4 100 meter sprints at 75-90% effort level and will gradually increase to longer and harder repetitions within a distance run. By the last ones it will likely be 1 to 3 minute sections at paces as fast as mile race pace and as slow as tempo.
Finally, I will do a series of tempo runs designed to get me comfortable with half marathon pace. These will start at 3 mile of tempos for three weeks within a longer run that has a warm up and warm down and then increase to 4 of miles of tempo for the following three weeks. Why three weeks? My coach when I was a sponsored athlete designed it that way, explaining that three similar workouts within four weeks or so gives the body the best chance to incorporate the full benefits of a run.
That's essentially it for my training program. Most good programs would divide up the training program into three large blocks of training focuses- building a base, building general fitness, and building race specific fitness. There are workouts most appropriate for each of these phases depending on the race one is training for.
I won't bother with that in this case, because I had a lot of success in the past with simply maximizing mileage, getting in quality long runs, and doing lots of tempos. Some people can manage multiple hard workouts in a week, but I found that two hard workouts and a long run were a bit much for my body- learned thanks to keeping a training log. I also consider this portion of the potentially six month long training plan I will likely embark on as building basic fitness and speed, so it won't have the shorter faster workouts characteristic of the final phase.
Stay tuned for next week's post! I'll be talking about cross training and other training considerations.
* (originally published Sept. 2016)
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