When you’re planning to run a half-marathon, if life is busy, you may be feeling a bit overwhelmed. Fortunately, you don’t need to panic. Provided you’re reasonably fit and not a beginner runner, you can make it to the start line if you focus your training on quality sessions rather than quantity. But it’s important to be realistic about your goals. “You can run a reasonably good half marathon on three good running sessions a week,” says running coach Keith Anderson from Full Potential. “If your aspirations are higher then those sessions will only take you so far, but three really specific, focused sessions will offer some really good benefits.”
In fact, doing just three runs a week gives you more recovery time in between sessions, which may prevent injury. “Running on very sore and tight muscles is asking for trouble,” says physiotherapist Mark Buckingham from Witty Pask & Buckingham. “Recovery is everything when building up mileage.”
Each week, include threshold runs, hills runs and the all-important long run in your training. Threshold runs will improve your speed endurance, hills will improve leg strength and the long run will condition your body to cope with the demands of the distance.
“You’ve got to have a really good bedrock of speed endurance (your ability to run faster for longer periods) which comes from doing threshold runs,” says Keith Anderson. “You’ve also got to have some good volume in those sessions to develop a really economical cardiovascular system that allows you to move at a good pace for the right effort level.”
A threshold run means blocks of running at a pace of “controlled discomfort” (see training plan), which means that on a scale of one to 10 (with 10 out of 10 being a flat-out sprint and 4 out of 10 a gentle pre-run warm-up), you are running at an intensity level of 8/8.5 out of 10. You shouldn’t be able to utter more than a couple of broken words.
“Threshold runs develop speed endurance and also make the other slower running sessions seem much easier,” says Keith. “It’s manageable as long as you plan it well and progress when your body is ready.”
Complete a hill run once a week. “Hill running is good for strength as you are forced to overcome the resistance of the incline,” says running coach Nina Anderson. “It can also promote a better stride length and both factors help to improve running economy which then relates to a better performance.”
Complete one weekly long run. “The long run is about conditioning the muscles and body to get used to that time on your feet,” says Keith Anderson. “Otherwise, the hip flexors, adductors (inner thighs) or quadriceps (front thighs) are starting to feel the pain of the longer run.”
“Plan in advance when you are going to train,” says Nina Anderson. “On a Sunday evening, look at the week ahead and plot in where each training session will slot into your week.”
Prepare for a run in advance. If you’re running after work, lay all your kit out the night before, so that you get home from work everything is ready. Have your running shoes, sports bra and kit ready, along with your water bottle and any accessories so you’re not searching for missing items. And do your long run on a weekend when you have more time.
Strength work is crucial as it conditions your body to give it the strength to keep going over long distances. Bodyweight conditioning exercises at home for 10 or 15 minutes once or twice a week is enough. Not lifting heavy weights at the gym or doing too much is actually an advantage. “When half-marathon training it’s not the time to be hitting the weights hard,” says Mark Buckingham. “Once a week, do lower weights and higher reps – three sets of 12 to 15.”
You don’t have to spend ages stretching, but make it a habit at the end of each run. “It’s vital to stretch the leg muscles after every run,” says Nina Anderson. “This is more relevant than stretching for five minutes each day.”
Don’t underestimate the benefits of good nutrition and recovery. “I coach very busy people but they are organised and get the best rest and nutrition they can,” says Keith Anderson. “Make sure you’re getting all your vitamins and nutrients. Keep your training is focused. You may enjoy going to your running club but is it specific enough for you and therefore the best use of your time?”
There are various options and it also depends on your fitness…
Option 1: Incorporate hills into one of your weekly steady runs. Find a looped circuit that mixes different gradients of varying lengths. “This way a run of 45-60 minutes may have six to 10 hills of varying inclines,” says Nina Anderson.
Option 2: Complete 4 x 60 seconds uphill with a jog recovery of 4 minutes. “This can gradually be progressed to eight repetitions,” says Nina. “Once this has been achieved then increase the duration to 90 seconds – i.e. 4 x 90 seconds uphill with increased jog recovery of five minutes. This can be progressed to six repetitions maximum.”
Option 3: Choose a hill with a gradient of about 6% – run at threshold pace on the way up, turn at the top, freewheel down, turn at the bottom and go back up. “Try a block of five minutes or ten minutes like that,” says Keith Anderson. “Gauge the length of the hill for your fitness. Gradually increase the duration of the block or the length of the hill.”
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This piece was written by Christina Macdonald for Women’s Running magazine (UK). For more training plans, advice and inspiration every month, subscribe today!