How do you know if you are ready to take on a half marathon? How about a full 26.2 mile marathon? In this episode, I share how to tell whether or not you are ready to start training for a distance event. I also share what you can expect as far as training, including how long you should train and what you should focus on during your training.
For those of you who have been through a full or half marathon training season, chances are you know what to expect. But for many of you, who haven’t, you may have questions about what you can expect going through a training season and this episode should help you plan all that out. Even if you aren’t planning on running a half or full now, I think you’ll find this episode insightful. Maybe it will give you some visibility into what it takes to train for a half or full marathon.
So when I was thinking about how I wanted to structure this episode, I wanted to make sure that I first put out there, that I fully believe with all of my heart and soul that with few very rare exceptions, anyone can run a half or full marathon.
For the vast majority of runners, who right now are thinking “No Way”, the biggest limitations they have about running distances like these are not physical, but mental.
Trust me when I say this, your body is always up to the challenge but if you are of the belief that you can’t do it, or you possibly can’t see how you could cover that kind of distance, then running a half or full is not a physical limitation, it is a mental one.
Having said that, if you have no desire or no interest to run one, then by all means never feel obligated to do so.
Taking mindset out of the equation here, how do you know you are physically ready to run a marathon or half marathon. Well, my answer from a “best practice” perspective is that I like to see runners focus on shorter distances for at least one year.
If you have been running for at least one year in a fairly consistent and regular fashion, (say 3-4 days per week) then you are more than ready for a half marathon, and at the early end of where you should be to take on the full marathon.
Now, having said that, you can bump that up earlier as I know people who train and are successful even after just a few months of running who have went on to complete races. It’s not recommended, but I promise I won’t send the running police to your house and confiscate your running shoes should you decide to do so.
The primary reason I do not recommend racing so soon is that you have not been running long enough and your chance of developing overuse injuries once your mileage gets substantial is considerably higher than those who take a much longer runway to getting their muscles, ligaments, joints, and bones adapted and conditioned to support the kind of distances that you will be running.
Beyond the main muscles we think of, a lot of your stabilizing and intrinsic muscles like many found in your feet and lower leg need time to really adapt. Now without diving off into the topic of why running injuries occur which is way beyond the scope of this episode, keep in mind that the more impact and stress you place on your body, the more likelihood that injury may occur. Even runners with years of experience get injured because they just ran and did not focus on preparing their body for the increase in distance and impact through preventative measures like cross training, stability, flexibility and mobility. If you allow your body time to adapt, the more likely you will have a positive experience.
So to recap, I recommend 12 months of running experience (where most weeks you averaged 3-4 days per week) combined with cross training that focused on strength, stability, flexibility, and mobility. At 6 months I wouldn’t yell at you though, just be extra cautious and always be aware of your progress and how you feel.
You may have heard me say in the past that your cardiovascular system sees incredible gains in just a few short weeks and continues to improve for about 12 months before it eventually starts to slow down. You will continue to improve your cardiovascular system, but the rate of improvement slows down considerably. On the other hand, your soft tissues like ligaments and muscles can take months to build up and hard structures, like bones, can take a couple of years to fully adapt to the stresses that running places on them.
The problem comes into play, when your cardiovascular system improves and you start feeling like you can continue further than your muscles and bones are ready for. Since the rest of your body isn’t prepared, little inconsistencies in form or weaknesses in strength and flexibility increase your chance of getting injured faster. Think of it this way for a second. Repetitive motion, for long periods of time may cause your body to react negatively by breaking down faster and thus getting injured sooner.
There is something you can do to prevent injury when you are training for a half or full marathon. Even if you have mild form issues (which lets face it, we all have), your body can build a natural resistance to injury. When running is combined with strength and flexibility training, your body will become more resistant to injury. This resistance does not give you a free pass to be reckless with form, but it should give you hope that every step you take does not have to be perfect because your body is strong.
To reduce your likelihood of getting injured, you just need to minimize poor form and build resistance by doing things like exercises for strength and stretches for flexibility. Think of those things as runner’s armor. You can still get injured even though you strength train, fix your form, etc, but it certainly helps reduce that risk. So in essence that is why I like seeing runners wait a bit if they are new to running until they have built up that armor and put it on a strong, well conditioned body. I hope that analogy made sense.
So next I want to focus in on the right amount of time and duration of marathon and half marathon training. This area is highly subjective and can change considerably based on your particular running goal and level of experience. For example, do you want to run conservatively or maybe your goal is simply completion? Do you want to run to get that PR that has been eluding you, or are you training in a self competitive manner. By the way, most of us runners, are self competitive so going back to what I just covered, really watch out for that. It can get you in trouble if not kept in check. It is OK to be driven, just be aware of what your body tells you.
Always cover the distance, before worrying about speed.
Always be sure you can cover the distance, before worrying about speed.
So what do I mean by that. It does not matter how fast you are if you can’t cover the distance. Whether your goal is to run the whole thing, or run/walk interval, or run some and walk where you need to or even just walk the whole race, you need to cover the distance first and foremost.
If you doubt you can cover the distance, or if right now it may seem unfathomable that you can run that far, here is the thing. In my opinion it is harder to train as a runner to get to 5 miles, than it is to go from 5 miles to 26.2 or 13.1. In other words, once you hit the 5 mile mark, it really does get easier. The hardest part is behind you.
Every half and full marathon season in my running club I see first time half and full runners look at me with glass eyeballs when I tell them that the long run training miles sneak up on them and one day they will look back and laugh at why they were afraid of the mileage, or couldn’t see themselves running that far. Here’s the thing: When you are at 5 miles for your longest run, 6 seems possible. When you are at 8 miles, 10 seems possible. When you are at 12 miles, 16 seems possible and when you run 20 miles after 4 months or so of cumulated fatigue, 26.2 after a rest period, known as a taper, combined with adrenaline, excitement and other runners and spectators cheering you on, 26.2 is possible.
If you are consistent, you will wake up in a few months and be more than prepared. The success rate for successful race completion is very high for those who completed training and lined up on race day. Not that something beyond your control can’t go wrong, but it usually doesn’t.
Something else. You may have a time goal in your head before you start your training. Unless you are very familiar with your goal, throw that out. Not forever, not for the race, but for the first part of your training throw that out. The reason why, is that it will change. Once you get some long runs under your belt, you will have a much better idea, but most people who start out with a time goal in their head are usually wrong with that actual goal. In most cases, it actually limits you, and in some other cases, it is way too fast. That doesn’t mean don’t have a time goal because you will want to have a pace strategy so you can run a smart race and not go out too slow or fast, but when you start training focus on workout intensity for the specific runs, and ignore pace. Your’ll derive your pace and speed goals over time.
So, another thing to think about is duration. For someone who is running their first marathon and is running around 20 miles per week or so, with maybe their longest run around 5-6 miles, I recommend a training plan that is around 20 weeks. Why? because it allows you to build miles in a safe and controlled manner and allows your body to respond accordingly. If your weekly miles is higher than that and your longest runs are further than that, then you can shorten this time to 12 or 16 weeks, but I do recommend allowing yourself enough time to train. This way, if you get sick, go on vacation, get injured, etc. you can typically recover.
For half marathoners starting at around 15 miles per week and maybe a long run of 3-4 miles, then a 12 week plan is a great place to start. We actually do a 20 week plan for our half marathoners in our club but we will start someone from 2 miles and work up to it. The main reason we do it is not that we can’t train them faster, but rather we train them with our marathoners who are training for the same goal race (usually) and since many of our new distance runners start with a half, it is a much conservative build up. The only downside of this is that it does tend to extend the training season further than what it needs to be and sometimes it can lead to burnout of you are not careful.
I think the key point I want to make is that if you have been running for at least 6 months or a year and are at that 3-5 mile mark with your runs, you can ramp up really quickly to 13.1 or 26.2 and still do it conservatively. You do not need to train for a year just to run a half or full. In fact, I recently trained someone from 8 miles to 50 miles in just 5 months so just recognize that your body is amazing and will adapt and in a lot of cases adapt faster than your mind will want to let it.
Trust in your training and you will be fine.
So if you train for a half or full, you must run every waking hour you are not at work, correct? I mean it must really be a time suck, correct?
Well I would answer not really. I mean it can be if you go overboard, or want to compete at elite or semi elite levels, but in reality, the average half marathoner only runs 3-4 miles a day through most of the training with the only exception of one run per week being a long run. Many of us, do a 3-4 mile run per day anyways when we run. And, for a half marathon, most people only need to train 3-5 days. 3 being the minimal to completion and 5 being for people who want to push themselves a little harder. A small percentage will do 6 days per week, but most will do 3-5. So most people will dedicate 45-60 minutes for 3-4 days per week and maybe a couple hours for a long run. As the season gets longer a few of the weekday runs may trickle up to 5-6 miles, but half marathon training isn’t really that big of a time commitment. And if you run early, you get it out of the way. Even on our long runs, our half marathoners are usually in by 9am if they start at 7am.
So full marathon training must be much worse, right Steve? Well it certainly requires a bigger time commitment, but again it might surprise you. Doing the early part of the training you may see runs in the 45-60 minute range, and by middle of the training maybe up to 60-90 minutes. Towards the last few peak volume weeks you may have a run or two during the week that hits upwards of 90 minutes to 2 hours, but again, not too bad considering you are training for a full marathon. The one run per week that you do have some time commitment is that long run. That long run is very important, but you only have to do it once per week, or every 10 days depending on the type of plan you are on. That can take from as little as an hour in the beginning to up to 5-6 hours at the peak of training and that just depends on how fast or slow you run. Again, if you start by 7am most would be done by noon giving you the rest of the weekend to do other things. When it was really hot, I would start earlier and be done by 9am.
The last thing I want to cover, is the types of workouts. Most of your runs will be the slow, low intensity runs. Each week you will have a day dedicated to a long run. This is a long, slow easy run that should be as slow as you can get it without your form falling apart. In fact, many coaches are struggling slowing down their runner’s natural tendency to want to speed up, that they are starting to have them break each mile up by doing a small walking interval in them just to slow down the runner’s heart rate so they can train at a lower intensity. If you are wondering what intensity you should be running at, for any of your runs, go back a few episodes to the series on heart rate training. Even if you do not do heart rate training, you’ll learn why that long run needs to be slower than the rest of your runs. That doesn’t mean you can’t occasionally do a more progressive long run where you pick up a little pace as you go, but the majority of your long runs should be that long, slow, low intensity distance run that works on your ability to build endurance the fastest way possible.
This run should be the one that is the most important run of the week. Its ok to miss one, but don’t skip them very often.
The long run is also where you will test out your hydration and fueling plans as well as test out your gear to make sure it is comfortable to wear. As you go through training, you will need to learn about hydration and fueling. I won’t go into it here since that is a huge topic and one I covered elsewhere in earlier podcasts or webinars, but keep that in mind should you take on the training. The longer the distance, the more important and more specific you will need to be with your fueling plans.
So back to the weekly workouts, The majority of your runs will be at a normal aerobic training pace that simply just feels comfortable you. This is what I like to call the nice, “Go out for a nice run pace”. Not too hard and not what I would call the “I had a bad day”, stress busting I just want to take out my anger on the running trail pace. Many plans will allow you to have that one day per week where you focus on track speed intervals, or Tempo Runs, and if you do that be sure to follow it with an easy day or rest day. Don’t do it before or after a long run. Generally speaking, I do not recommend speed type workouts for people under that one year of training, for the very same reasons I do not recommend half or full marathon training with under one year of experience.
Again, should you be under that year, it is up to you if you want to do it, but most coaches will recommend that you get some time under your belt before you try them. The reality is that during that first year, you will get much faster by increasing your aerobic capacity the best you can, then the minimal amount that speed drills will get you. That is not to say the speed drills aren’t important, because they are, its just that at that point in your running, you are better off doing the aerobic training and avoiding injury.
I think the things that surprised me the most when I ran my first half or full was (1) my miles ramped up much faster than I thought possible and that it really was not as hard as I thought. and (b) the time commitment wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought it would be. And finally, it was WAY more worth it when I completed my first half and full marathon, then I ever thought it would have been when I started. It was totally worth it.
So guys, I hope I gave you a glimpse on what you can expect and that you have found this helpful, especially if you are on the fence about whether or not to train for a half or full and that you would consider it. While these can be challenging, they are fun, and do not have to be a painfest if you approach your training seriously and follow sound training. In fact, each one usually gets easier and easier and when I was at peak training, I could just run a half anytime I wanted. So be sure to check out runbuzz.com/32 to get access to the show notes, and feel free to leave feedback in the iTunes store for the podcast as I would love to hear what you have to say about this podcast, and definitely join us in ythe private FB group for more discussion and support.
Next episode I have an exciting interview with my health coach, yep you heard it. You’ll meet one of my personal coaches and we’ll share how we are working on making me healthier and how you can apply several tips and cool things that will impact your health and diet so you can run even better.
Until next time, Happy Running!
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