I get this question a lot. Particularly at the moment. Everyone is planning their big plans and big goals for next year and it’s only about 20 weeks until one of the earlier running festivals – the Canberra Marathon. 20 weeks seems like a lot of time, but when you break it down into training cycles, it’s not really and it will sneak up on you in no time flat, so it’s great that everyone is already thinking about how they are going to plan out summer.
This is a kind of how long is a piece of string sort of a question because it really depends on your starting point. If you are comfortably running 10km then a 12 week cycle is a great amount of time for a half marathon. But if you want to set some aggressive goals, you might like one cycle to get really comfortable with the distance and another cycle to work on the speed. If you haven’t been running at all but you have run in the past – you’ll find you can get from zero to where your baseline run normally is pretty quickly. And if you are starting from scratch in an ideal world I would like to see about 3 12 week training cycles but I can work out a plan for 2.
Training is an intuitive process so it’s all about having an idea of what you need and then adjusting based on how your body is coping. There is no point in risking injury by dramatically increasing distances or over-taxing the body with high intensity work if it means you won’t get to that start line. The key to any training is all about getting enough recovery to make use of the training and gradually building so that your body can adjust to the physical demands being placed on you. Generally the rule is if you are increasing distance you can do that by about 10% every week. Keep in mind that’s not just your long run – that’s your whole week. So if you are running three times a week for 30 minutes for a total of 90 minutes – you could increase that by about 10 minutes the following week – but that’s not 10 minutes on each run – that’s 10 minutes in total. This can seem like a painfully slow process, but distance running is all about discipline – so it’s an excellent opportunity to start developing that.
It’s easy to see people off running big distances and think that they’ve built up to that over a year, but the reality is most runners have built up their running base over decades and it’s not something you can just jump into right away.
So how much time do I need?
If you had to tie me down to a guide for half marathon training this is what I would say, but everyone is different so it really depends on personal circumstances:
I haven’t started running yet – my preference is for 36 weeks, but we could do it in as little as 24 if we had to.
I can comfortably run 5km – my preference is for 24 weeks but we could do it in as little as 16 if you twisted my arm
I can comfortably run 10km – if you had 24 weeks you would be in great shape but 12 is all you would need.
I can already run a half marathon but I want a PB – again around 12 weeks is a good amount of time for this.
When I’m talking about ‘comfortably running’ it’s totally normal for that to include walk breaks, so don’t exclude yourself from that just because you are walking as well. It being comfortable is more like it feeling like a relaxed pace when you are out there and not being such a huge effort that you are wiped out for the rest of the day when you get home.
I’m looking at building up my distance on my own and then jumping into a 12 week coaching plan, what should I be doing?
Again, this really depends on personal circumstances but roughly base building includes three main components:
1) The long run – look at increases this by about 10% every week, and every 4-5 week have a lighter recovery week. This run should be at a super easy, conversational pace. If you have a heart rate monitor aim for Zone 2-3.
2) Easy runs – like the long run – but shorter. Your long run and your easy runs should make up about 80% of your total running.
3) Steady state runs – these runs are faster than an easy run, but slower than a tempo. For heart rate they are in Zone 3. And just think of them as about 70% effort. You are just taking it up a notch from your easy runs.
4) Tempo runs – these runs are also known as threshold runs and can be anywhere from about 20 – 40 minutes. They are in your heart rate zone 4 and are about 80% effort. You should still be able to talk in short sentences – if you can’t you are going too fast!
5) Fartlek runs – these are runs where you have periods of fast running, followed by periods of easy running. It can be as simple as 10 x (1:00 Fast, 1:00 Easy).
6) Hill running and hill sprints – either doing any of your above runs on a hilly route or doing short hill sprints (or both!)
Confused about stretching and what you should be doing to warm up and cool down? You can download a guide here.
What happens if I get sick? Do I need to allow extra time for if that happens?
The good news is that you don’t. Any training plan has a kind of contingency buffer and would only expect that you get to about 80% of the sessions, because life happens! Just make sure you do the ones you can do.
What should my longest run be before my race?
I tend to have discussions with people and work out what is going to be best for them. My preference (for myself) is to run slightly over the distance in training so I have that mental confidence going into my race, but sometimes people might want that first time they run the 21km to be at their planned event, because it makes it more special. The risk of running 21km or a bit over in training is that you might feel demotivated as well because you’ve already achieved it so have a think about what is going to serve you best – certainty or excitement! If you want to do a shorter distance in training – generally we’d aim for about 16-18km. That way you know it’s just one of your quick local runs to finish!
But can I do it?
Yes! You know what I love about running is that there’s not a whole lot of mystery about why people get better. You put in the effort, and you improve. It’s that simple. Sometimes there will be obstacles (either health or work or family commitments) but in terms of the physical requirements it’s really quite simple. There’s no magic in it. How do you increase fitness? You apply stimulus (in our case running), your body responds with fatigue. You then rest and recover and if you do the recovery part right, your body then elevates your fitness level to overcompensate for the fatigue. And then you keep going. The half marathon is much the same. All the work is in the training and then you just keep going until you get to the end. How hard could it be?