Training for you first Half Marathon or Full Marathon?
I put a poll out a couple of weeks ago on instagram asking what I should write my next blog post about. The responses were pretty across the board but one that stood out was the number of people asking where to start with a half Marathon or full Marathon training program. I was pretty surprised about this because of the amount of resources already out there on the interwebs about half or full marathon training, but the internet spoke, and I listened.
Whenever people talk about running, I tell them all you really need is two feet and a heartbeat. While this is technically true, things like shoes, clothes, a watch and maybe some headphones certainly add to the experience. Oh, and a training plan will help a lot too. So I’m stringing together a couple thousand words here to get you going towards your first big race.
Picking a Race and Setting a Goal
This is the first step in getting to your first race is setting a goal and deciding on a race. This seems kind of obvious but I thought that it was worth mentioning. I find that most people who come up to me asking about race or training advice are doing so with a goal in mind already. This time of year, here in western Canada the ones that pop up in conversation a lot are SeaWheeze (I’ve done that one 6 times, as a PaceBeaver 5 times), the Calgary Marathon, and the Phoenix Marathon.
If you’re training for your first half or full marathon, you’ll want to pick a race thats at least about four months away to give you enough time to get a full training cycle in. When you’re picking a race, choose one that you can get excited about, it could be one that has got lots of hype like SeaWheeze or a Rock ‘n Roll, or your hometown race, wherever that may be.
Choosing your race comes first because what gets measured gets done. An ambiguous goal of running a marathon at some point in the future is one thats just going to get pushed back and pushed back. So step one is to bust out your credit card, pick a race, tell your friends, post it on instagram, recruit a training partner, and get it done.
Half Marathon and Full Marathon Training Plans
A quick Google search for half or full marathon training plans will give you an endless list of free training plans and a lot of really great pointers on getting started. Most big races (by that I mean races with over a couple thousand participants) will even have decent training programs on the event website. Which makes sense since race directors generally prefer people have a good time and show up reasonably well trained for their event. So I’m not going to go to the trouble of prescribing you with your training plan here.
BUT I will tell you that some of my favourite tools and resources are ones that you probably already have at your disposal as well. Fitness brands like Garmin and Strava have training programs available that cater to runners of all levels. Garmin, which controls the lions share of the wearable fitness tech market, even provides consumers/runners with a training plan that can download workouts straight to your Garmin watch. This can be done through their Garmin Connect Training Platform. Want to learn more on how to do that? They break it down step by step right here.
Now, what should your training look like for a half or a full marathon? There are a whole lot of different opinions on this and the honest fact of the matter answer is that it depends. People respond differently to different training volumes. Some bodies start to hit a wall at 30km per week of training, others can run double that without aches and pains, and elite runners will run easily upwards of 125km per week whether they’re a 3000m specialist or a marathoner.
It goes without saying that the closer to the couch that you’re starting from, the less your starting training volume should be. From then on your volume should increase by approximately 10% per week tops otherwise you risk injury.
The Basics of a Training Week
Because you’ve read this much, I’ll give you a sense of what the basis should be for your training each week. I’m only speaking from the experience of what worked for me when I started running, and the assumption here is that you have SOME background in a team sport like soccer, hockey, football etc, or have run a 5km or 10km race at some point. If you’re starting totally from scratch, I’d suggest also checking out some other resources in addition to this post to get you up to this point.
Your first week of training may look a little like this
- Monday – 5km Easy Run – Registered Perceived Exertion – 5/10
- Wednesday – 5km Easy Run – Registered Perceived Exertion – 5/10
- Sunday – 8km Easy Run – Registered Perceived Exertion – 6/10
- TOTAL – 18km
As you progress and your body becomes accustomed to increasing training volumes and stress, your runs will get progressively longer in duration or harder in effort. After eight weeks, your half marathon training could look a little more like this
- Monday – 5km Easy/Recovery Run – Registered Perceived Exertion (RPE) – 5/10
- Wednesday – 7km Tempo Run – 2km warmup, 3km tempo (8/10 RPE), 2km cooldown
- Friday – Speed Intervals – Warmup, (3 minutes HARD (9/10 RPE), 2 Minutes walk recovery) x 5, Cooldown
- Sunday – 16km Long Slow Distance Run – Registered Perceived Exertion – 6/10
- TOTAL – 32km
The single biggest difference you’re going to have between the half marathon and full marathon training plans is going to be the volume of training, or total mileage, the bulk of which will be found in that long Sunday run. Where the half marathon training program will probably max out at about an 18km long run a few weeks before the race, the marathon LSD run will probably get up to 32km or even 36km a month or so out from race day.
Each workout of the week has a purpose and its important not to skip them. You’ll see a lot of words thrown around in articles, and training plans that describe the type of workout, or the intensity of each workout. Here are the four popular ones you’ll see a lot of, which I just so happened to reference above.
- Recovery or Easy Runs– Early in your program recovery runs will be “easy runs” meant to get the volume in and help your body adapt to running. As you progress into the program, you’ll be carrying fatigue from longer or harder sessions into these runs and what should otherwise be an “easy” pace may actually be challenging. Thats fine, because the purpose of these runs is to help engage slow twitch muscle fibres and support your training volume. They also help get you used to running while tired, which is what happens in races.
- Tempo Runs– At this pace you should be able to say a sentence to your running buddy, but not hold a conversation. Tempo pace is the effort level at which your body is able to clear as much lactate—a byproduct of burning carbohydrates—as it produces. Your body’s lactate clearance is at the same level as its lactate production, meaning the dreaded dead-leg sensation doesn’t set in. That’s the key difference between a race and a tempo run. In an all-out session, your body bypasses this limit, allowing for fatigue to develop rapidly. A tempo pace, on the other hand, can be held steadily (albeit not too comfortably) for at least 20 minutes and is defined as “comfortably hard”.
- Intervals– Interval training involves running hard for short periods followed by longer recovery periods where you jog or even walk. Not to belabour the point, but the hard periods really need to be hard for interval training to deliver the benefits, which include improving your running efficiency and your ability to maintain higher speeds for longer, as well as burning boatloads of calories very quickly. As a rule, if you get halfway through your recovery period and feel able to run hard again, the chances are you didn’t push yourself enough on the previous interval. These are intervals and they serve to improve the efficiency of the oxygen delivery system to your muscles. The result over time will be measurable improvements in speed, endurance, and efficiency.
- Long Slow Distance Runs – The purpose of long slow distance runs is to work well within your aerobic capacity and train your body to metabolize fat as a primary fuel source, build blood volume and increase muscular endurance. This is done by training your body to move oxygen to the muscles more efficiently. These runs are key for half and full marathon runners as they’re closer to the intensity you’ll be running for first half or full marathon in.
I touched on this for a moment earlier and I think its important to revisit this. Individuals adapt to training volumes differently from one another. Personally, I find that beyond 50km per week, my body simply can’t recover from the previous run fast enough to maintain quality from one workout to the next. Thats partly to do with the fact that my training volume is split between running and cycling, but I’ve found that even when my focus has almost wholly been running, I still can’t squeak past that volume, so my sweet spot for training volume is in that 40-50km per week zone.
On the other hand, some people tap out at 35km per week, while other can run double or quadruple a normal runner’s volume. The important thing to note here is how important it is to listen to your body. If you’re carrying fatigue from one run into the next and it just keeps on accumulating, look at where you can reduce the volume a little bit. Knee pain starting to flare up and get worse, reduce the volume or take a couple days off entirely. Hard runs feeling too easy? Increase your intensity. The point I’m trying to make is that listening to the positive or negative feedback your body is giving you about your training volume is key.
Buying Running Shoes for your Full or Half Marathon
There’s a lot to know about shoes and there are a lot of questions you may be asking, do you need a neutral or stability shoe? One with plush cushioning or a firmer midsole? Something light and responsive or something durable that will keep you comfortable through long runs? All of these questions – and more – are important to keep in mind when choosing shoes.
Finding a good shoe store is key to getting into the right pair of kicks. And I’m not talking about heading over to your favourite Sport Chek or Foot Locker. Running is a big enough sport that there are retailers dedicated to running. In Calgary, head to a reputable retailer like Gord’s Running Store, Strides, or the Tech Shop to get one on one attention from a runner.
The difference between a gait analysis at big box or mall shoe retailer and a specialty run store is like night and day. A traditional retailer will have a retail employee eye up your gait while you run or walk back and forth along the shoe wall. If they’re super legit they might tilt their head to one side and put their fingers on their chin with a pensive sort of expression across their face. A specialty run retailer will probably have an experienced runner working and asking you lots of questions about your goals and run volume, and may even have a treadmill in store to watch you run gait in realistic conditions.
Choosing a new pair of running shoes is a big deal, since your footwear is responsible for protecting your feet through all of your miles (well, 400 of them at least). If you can, try running or walking around in a few different pairs of shoes at your local running store before you decide on your favourite.
To help you look for a good pair, make sure it meets these criteria:
- Properly supportive: Most running shoes fall under the category of “neutral” or “stability” shoes, the latter of which is designed to help overpronation, or inward rolling of the ankle. If you do need a stability shoe, make sure the shoe still allows your foot to move naturally while providing gentle support.
- Wiggle room: Because your feet swell when you run, you might need a larger size or width in running shoes, so your toes aren’t cramped or rubbing.
- Secure heel: Your heel should feel snug and supported but not restricted by the shoe. If your heel is slipping, you might need a size smaller.
- Comfortable: Remember, how the shoe feels in the store will be much different than how it feels at the end of a run. Make sure to pick a shoe that feels cushioned to your liking and springy as you walk or run around.
Buying the wrong size in running shoes is a recipe for black toenails – or even injury – so it’s important to select the right one. A well-fitting shoe should allow the toes to stretch, spread, and wiggle around in the toe box while keeping the heel and midfoot snug.
A good pair of running shoes is going to run you (pun) anywhere from $150 to $250 and should last you about 500-800km.
Buy more than one pair of shoes
There are a couple of reasons why you’ll want to buy more than one pair of shoes.
The first of them is because half and full marathon training puts a lot of impact into the foam designed to cushion your body from the roughly 180 strikes per minute you make with a force of up to ten times your static body weight multiplied by the length of time you’re running. If that seemed like a long run on sentence, it was, because it was meant to belabour the point of how much goes into those shoes. That foam in those running shoes doesn’t just bounce back overnight. Alternating between two or three pairs of shoes gives the foam in your running shoes greater time to re-expand to provide the cushioning your body needs.
The other reason I recommend people buy multiple, different pairs of shoes, is based around injury reduction. Running in the same pair of shoes day in an day out teaches your body to become accustomed to a very particular gait. That in turn increases the likelihood of overuse injuries by over extended periods of time by putting the same stress on the same muscles and tendons.
I personally rotate between a plush comfortable shoe like the Saucony Triumph 17 for long runs, the Saucony Freedom ISO 2 for a soft and pillowy shoe in a lightweight shoe with minimal heal-toe drop for tempo runs or long races, and the Saucony Kinvara 10 for a firm and responsive shoe for shorter races and track sessions.
Tracking Your Run
I said at the beginning of this blog (yeah, that was a long time ago), that what gets measured, gets done. I have a little bit of admiration for the zen runners out there who can just go out and run without a watch. But only a little bit, mostly I think they simply aren’t reaching their full potential and they frustrate me. Logging your runs allows you to see how you’re improving over time, and gives you valuable metrics and insights in to how you can continue working towards your goal.
So how do you track your run? I could go on and on and on about this. I could write a series of blog posts about this. I could probably even write an eBook about this (stay tuned…). But I’ll break this one down real simple for you. In bullet points.
- Budget – Your budget option for tracking your run is to simply bust out your phone (the one you’re probably reading this on), and download the Strava app. Strava is a GPS app that combines sports/activity tracking with social media. Think Facebook meets MapMyRun, but less creepy than Facebook because Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t own it, and less nerdy than MayMyRun, because it is. Strava has both a unpaid version and a premium version. The unpaid version is more than enough to track and share your runs (you can also set your runs to private), though the premium version does cool things like track your fitness and fatigue, and compare yourself against others on leaderboards for “run segments”.
- Basic – Your next best option for tracking your run is to invest in a basic GPS run watch like a Garmin Forerunner 35. At just $200 CAD, this is a worthwhile investment which will provide you with basics like time, distance, pace, etc. Layered on top of that however is a wrist based heart rate monitor that’ll allow you to integrate heart rate training into your program. The technology has come a long way over the years and just a few years ago fitness tracking tech like this would have been relegated to higher end devices and consumers. Today its basically standard in wearable tech.
- Bougy – The next step up from your basic run watches is higher end wearable devices like the Garmin Forerunner 635, 945, etc. And on the REALLY high end you have devices like Apple watches and Garmin fenix series. I recently wrote a post comparing the Garmin fenix 6 with the Apple Series 5, and these devices take activity tracking and body metrics to the next level. To make a long story short, these devices pack so much tech onto your wrist that you can’t really go wrong whatever way you go. There’s certainly a difference between the two in that brands like Apple and Samsung create smartwatches with fitness watch capabilities, while devices from Garmin and Suunto are thorobred fitness/GPS watches with good smartwatch capabilities, but if you’re running your first big race you can be rest assured that these will more than get the job done.
Now, I’ll talk a little bit about what I use and what my workflow looks like for activity tracking, just for the hell of it. I wear a Garmin fenix 6x Pro Solar. I’m a huge Garmin fan so I may be biased, but its what works for me, and its what works for most runners (Garmin leads in market share in the wearable tech biz). I use my fenix for sports/activity tracking, as well as as my daily watch. When I go for a run my fenix pushes my run data to Garmin Connect, which in turn syncs to Strava. Using Garmin Connect post run I’ll look at interesting metrics like my run cadence, heart rate through the workout, and pace/elevation/distance. Together Garmin Connect looks at that data and does cool things like estimate my VO2 max with reasonable accuracy, and recommended recovery time. After that I’ll may glance at the run on Strava to look at who I ran with, or if there were any segments on my run where I was faster/slower than I have been previously (really useful for intervals).
As you may have guessed, I’m pretty into the numbers here and could go on and on about this. So I’ll leave the tech discussion right there, but feel free to ask any me anything in the comments section down below!
Run with a Crew
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the importance about running with a group. As one of the founding members of YYCRunCrew, I’ve seen first hand the good that gets done when you share the miles. Running with others allows you to share your goals with others who’ll help keep you accountable, it gives you the opportunity to discover new running routes and parts of your community, and most importantly it gives you a place to find other runners who may run further or faster than you, contributing to your overall success by giving you the space to push yourself as an athlete.
As you progress as a runner it’ll also give you the unique opportunity of being able supporting other runners on their journey. One of the most rewarding things I’ve gained over the past several years is the opportunity to watch other runners progress from barely piecing together a 5km training run on a Tuesday night, to finishing their first marathon or setting their sights on a BQ. Whether I’m hanging in the back with a first timer to the crew, or hanging on to the front with the local “fast guys”, or just chilling in the middle holding a conversation, there’s always something that I get from running with the crew.
Start your own crew
No crew in your area? Start your own.
It can be as casual as finding one or two other runners to hit the same route with you, the same time, the same day every week. Or it can be as big as creating a brand, starting an Instagram account, building a website, getting a photographer, and finding a sponsor retailer. If there are three things that I can say are keys to success when starting your own crew, they’re as follows
- Consistency is key. Start at the same place every week, same time, same day. And don’t cancel unless you’ve got a really good reason. At YYCRunCrew we’ll basically run regardless of the weather, which includes -30C Canadian winter nights, and +30C summer days (the former is far tougher than the latter). That may not be feasible or advisable for some, but keeping things consistent means that someone can just show up without worrying about whether or not the run is happening.
- Have a place to hang afterwards. There’s nothing more rewarding than a post run coffee on a Sunday morning, or a post run beer on a Tuesday night. Just as important as having a route, having a home base for post run is important because it creates the space for runners to connect. When runners connect they form bonds that are built on sweat and smiles, and thats what’ll keep everyone coming back.
- Know who you are. Are you a group of elite runners laying down 4:00min/km paces and chasing BQs? Are you dedicated but intermediate running group just getting into it for your first half marathon? Are you a fully inclusive group that has enough support to help runners across the spectrum? Sort this out early and make sure that you can support what you’re chasing.
Crews mean community. And community makes us all better. So if you want to get to your first half or full marathon, and you want to show up big, show up with your crew.
If there’s one thing that I can leave you with now that you’re starting out your half or full marathon training, its that I’m stoked for you. If you’ve made it this far reading, then you’ve got the grit and resilience to make your way through a marathon.
We’ve all got our own reasons to run and to get through your training and eventually your race, be straight up about what your reasons are. Are you crossing something off your bucket list? Are you looking to discover a new, more active way of living? Are you running because there’s someone in your life who maybe can’t do the same right now? Or are you doing it simply to see how far or how fast you can push yourself? All great reasons, so just know your reason.
I’ll leave you with one of my favourite quotes thats applicable just as much to running as it is to life.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, 1910