Improving my half marathon pace in the last month of training
February 2, 2014 6:21 AM   Subscribe

What's the best mix of training runs to improve my likely half marathon time for a race that's on March 1st?

I am taking part in the Coastal Trail Series Northumberland Half Marathon on March 1st.

I did it last year, wasn't particularly well at the time, and finished in just under 2h30 (about 11m20 per mile). I'd like to beat that this year by as much as possible.

Today I did a 14k (8.4m) trail race, struggled a bit, it was very windy, and finished in just under 1h34 (11:08m per mile). It has kick-started my competitive spirit, though, and I want to be as fast as I can be for my next race.

What would be the best training mix over the next month to increase my half marathon pace as much as possible? Is it even possible? I still need to increase the mileage of my weekly long run - today's run was the longest I've done so far in this round of training. But I'd also like to boost my speed.

Bonus background info:
* I've not been following a written training plan so far. I've been doing a steadily-lengthening long, slow run on a Sunday, and about three shorter runs during the week, varying between about 2 and 4 miles; usually one of those is an interval run.
* The first couple of halfs I ever did were on similar terrain to the Northumberland CTS (flattish trails and a bit of hard sand) and I finished in 2h12 - but that was 10 years ago (I'm 39).
* I've done loads of other trail runs since then, including a marathon, but have never been very fast, and wasn't particularly fit when I started training for this run in the autumn.

I know it's fairly late in my training, but would love to use these last few weeks to boost my speed if at all possible, rather than bimbling along as I've done before. What's the best mix of training runs to achieve this without injuring/exhausting myself?

There are some previous answers to similar questions that are somewhat useful, but they don't address this specific time period.
posted by penguin pie to Health & Fitness (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
With only four weeks left, there's not a ton you can do, but it's great that you've already seen pace improvement since last year. I would include some speed work once a week for the next three weeks, either mile repeats or a tempo run. Also, if you're running more mileage per week than you were last year, that helps your endurance a lot.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 6:27 AM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

One piece of conventional wisdom in running is that if you want to run faster in a race, you've got to get used to running that fast in training. Most runners accomplish this by doing intervals at least once a week as part of their training regimen. You mention you are doing one weekly interval run in your training program, what is the it?

With a month to go, you aren't going to be able to move the needle on your aerobic capacity, but I would expect that you may be capable of just running faster by the expedient of running faster. Your current interval workout may already be taking care fo this, but I would be thinking about running longer intervals (like a mile each) at a pace a little faster than your planned race pace. If you are shooting for 11:00 miles, you need to spend some time at that pace to understand what it feels like. Bottom line: you need to find a way to run at, or faster than, your planned race pace in training.

Good luck!
posted by kovacs at 7:15 AM on February 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I've found running up hills to be a big help in improving my speed. They don't even have to be all that steep but they seem to give me a much better workout for speed than running on the flats does.
posted by octothorpe at 7:55 AM on February 2, 2014 [2 favorites]

It's a little late for this race, but the thing that has helped me the most with the half-marathon distance has been progression runs and long tempo runs.

One example of a progression run:
7 miles easy, 7 miles progressing from easy pace to HM pace (so if your easy pace is 12:00 and your HM pace is 11:00, you could do 12:00/11:50/11:40/11:30/11:20/11:10/11:00 over the last 7 miles)

A different kind of progression run: (this, or a variation on this, is my favorite HM workout)
2 miles warmup
2K (~1.2 miles) at HM pace
2 minute jog recovery
1 mile at 10K pace
2 minute jog recovery
1K (~.6 miles) at 5K pace
2 minute jog recovery
800m (.5 miles) at 3K pace

Because this gets progressively faster, it simulates how an HM will feel, because it will get harder throughout even though you're not speeding up.

A good tempo run might be 1 mile warmup/4 miles at HM pace/1 mile cooldown.

Now, you probably don't have time with a month left to build up to these actual workouts, but you can probably do an easier variation on them. Work at your level, you can't cram fitness. Overtraining or injury could derail you entirely at this point, so be smart with your training. Use your last week to taper-- no long runs and limit your speedwork. Good luck!
posted by matcha action at 8:05 AM on February 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks all for the answers so far.

In answer to kovacs, my intervals have been short but hard - flat out for a minute with 1.30 recovery x8, for example. So it sounds like it would be a good move for me to change that to longer intervals at a hard but not flat-out pace.

It shouldn't be too difficult to incorporate some hills, either (I live in Edinburgh - hilltastic).
posted by penguin pie at 9:40 AM on February 2, 2014

The problem that you face is that you probably want about two weeks of taper to run your best half and you really only want to do two really hard workouts per week (maybe three if you are really strong). At the half-marathon distance, you really aren't limited by your speed per se, you are almost always limited by your stamina and endurance. I would agree with matcha action generally on the best workouts in your particular case. I'd probably lean more towards tempo runs as the better workout for you. Warm up for a mile or so and then hold on to your target half-marathon pace for somewhere from 4-6 miles, depending on how strong you are. Make this a midweek workout and you should still be able to get in a nice long run at an easy pace on the weekend without overtraining or risking injury. If you feel strong enough, you can make your long run something of a poor man's progressive run -- just try to close your last couple of miles at your target half pace. This should also give you a better idea of what you can hope to achieve. If you can't hold 10:30 for five miles in training, you aren't going to do it for 13 miles in the race, "race day magic" be damned.

Unfortunately, particularly at longer distance races, there really are no shortcuts. The best way to build speed in an endurance race is to run lots more miles per week on a consistent basis. I don't the kind of classic sprint intervals that you have been doing are particularly well-suited to building what you need for a half, particularly a trail half. I prefer to do interval work earlier in my training regime and tempo runs later, which I think I adopted from Jack Daniel's book. You probably also need to be realistic about how much faster you can get in a month. If you just ran a race effort at 11:08 per mile, you aren't going to get down to 9:30 per mile in such a short time and if you set off at that kind of pace you are going to blow up and have an unpleasant race. I would think that taking off something like 30 seconds a mile would be the max and something like 15 seconds a mile is more attainable.

Good luck!
posted by Lame_username at 12:34 PM on February 2, 2014

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