A Back-of-the-Envelope Half-Marathon Training Program
[I was recently asked if I could publish a training program for the half-marathon distance in the Nittany Vallley Running Club Newsletter in time for our December Nittany Valley Half-Marathon. The problem was that the next issue of the Newsletter would come out in mid-November, leaving only three weeks to train. I responded with a quick-and-dirty program via email in time to give my correspondent at least 6 weeks to work with. What follows is a somewhat expanded version.]
So you want to run a Half-Marathon. Did you get hooked on running races after doing your first 5K? Great! There's a whole spectrum of races out there! If you are still a relative beginner (say, you've only run 5K races or less), then you should take a longer approach to Half Marathon training, and maybe try a 10K first. A 10K is less than half the length of a half-marathon, but it's twice the length of a 5K and starts giving your body some of the challenges you might experience in the half. If you're ready to give the half a go, here is an outline of a program to do it.
First, you need to have a good mileage base. One thing you should never do is ramp up your training too quickly. The rule of thumb is a 10% per week increase in miles, max. To be ready for the Half, you should be running at least 20 miles a week by about two months before the race, otherwise consider putting it off until a future half. A training program for a half entails 25-35 miles of running per week for the 6 weeks or so before the race.
Second, do some long runs. For most recreational runners, the long run of the week is 5 or 6 miles. You will need to go considerably longer. Once a week, between two months and 2 weeks before the race, do a run of 7 or more miles at a slower-than-race pace. If you can run 8-10 miles, you can probably finish a half-marathon, but it's best if you do some training runs a bit closer to the actual distance. It'll make the experience more pleasant. At least 3 of your long runs should be 10+ miles, and at least one of those should be 12-14 miles. The longest one should probably be two weeks before the race. The NVRC Weekend Group Runs are ideal for this, and we usually tour the NV Half course itself some time in November. Scale back starting on the last weekend before the race. Maybe do 7 miles for your long run the weekend before, and don't run from Thursday on (or just do a couple of light jogs to stay lactic acid free). A good plan for your weekly long runs for the last 8 weeks before the race would be runs of 7, 8, 10, 8, 11, 9, 14, and 7 miles.
Third. if you want to do more than just finish with a smile on your face, you can do some pace work and speed work. Work some fartlek (Swedish for "speed play") into your medium-length runs and even into some of your longer runs. Fartlek training builds endurance, and is more fully explained on the Old Fartleks web page. You can also go to the track and do some medium distance pace work. Repeated 800 meter and 1600 meter runs at a target pace will help you increase your racing speed and endurance. Do about 3200-4800 meters worth at an elevated pace with a few minutes rest between each repetition. Try to maintain the same pace for each repetition. When you can do this, increase the pace at your next workout. You can also come to a Thursday Track Crew workout at the Penn State track any Thursday at noon. You'll probably find someone in the group who can run at your speed or who can challenge you to run a little faster.
Fourth, for race day, follow this strategy: Carbo-load. Maybe have some bread and pasta the night before. Eat your fill, but don't overindulge. On the day of the race, warm up well. Jog a mile or two slowly, then stretch, then do a bit more jogging about 10-15 minutes before the gun goes off. Make sure you hydrate pretty well and drink at the water stops. Even on a cold day, you can dehydrate running for 2 hours or whatever. Don't take just a sip. Actually stop and have a whole cup of water. It won't kill your time, and you might even feel revitalized. Bring some energy food like a "Gu" packet (or whatever light, high energy food you can eat that won't give you a stomach ache). Eat that at around 9 miles. Take water with it, or you'll risk a stomach cramp.
As for running the race, what follows might sound a little discouraging. That's because the NVHM is a tough course. Some people look on it as a quasi-religious experience (see comments on the Half page). It's not horrible, however, if you've trained enough. The first two times I ran it, I didn't train quite enough. I felt like hell near the end of the race. The third time, I trained in the manner described above. I took 5 minutes off my best time and felt great even on the long hill near the end of the race.
If you have never run a long race, whatever you do, don't go out fast (like your 5K pace). You will definitely pay for it. On the Nittany Valley Half course, the first 3+ miles are mostly downhill, so it's easy to get a false sense of security. Miles 4 through 6 are uphill or rolling, and take their toll. The downhill on Rock Rd (miles 8 and 9) is very steep. You want to flow with this one. Don't tighten your quads (upper front leg muscles) too much to try to brake, otherwise you'll feel brutalized toward the end of the race. After Rock Rd, there are a few short, steep, and dispiriting little hills until you get through Houserville. On Puddingtown Rd (mile 11), you can see the stadium and hospital on the hill. (Depending on how you've done, you might feel like taking a short cut directly to the hospital!) The race is flat for about a mile here before you tackle the last long hill. Orchard Rd starts shallow, and just keeps getting steeper. The steepest part is just before you turn onto Park. Then, you think you're done, but Park is uphill for a quarter until you turn onto Porter. As you turn onto Porter, you think you're done, but Porter is uphill for a block. Then you turn onto Curtin and the finish line is just a couple of hundred yards away. To get through this series of hills, the best thing to do is to relax and just put one foot in front of the other. And don't be afraid to say a word or two of encouragement to runners you pass (or who pass you). It'll help make you feel better, too!
It's always good to get a spectrum of opinions on training programs. Here are a few links to other Half-Marathon training programs:
Finally, a few years ago, I wrote a review of the 2001 Half that had some helpful race day hints for middle-of-the-pack runners. Take a look!