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May 9, 2014 4:21 PM   Subscribe

How can I shave 20 minutes off my half-marathon time in three weeks?

I ran a half-marathon last week and clocked 2 hours, 21 minutes. I'm running another in three weeks and ideally would like to shave 20 minutes off my time. (Though I'd be happy with 10.) I ran much of the race at about a ten minute mile pace; however, I petered out around mile 9 and was crawling the last third which seriously dragged my time down.

What would give me the most bang for my buck given my compressed time frame and particular weaknesses (see above paragraph and below)? Speed work? Long runs? Hills? Strength training?
What about diet?

The course for the next race will be fairly flat but later in the day (and therefore likely hotter) than I prefer.

I'm aware of warnings about overtraining and tapering down close to races though I tend to disregard them. Generally my body does well with muscle building and recovery (I was barely sore the day after the race) but I seem to have trouble building cardiovascular endurance (I'm still huffing and puffing up the subway stairs despite all this running), so I'm inclined to run more often and wary of plans that only having you running a couple times a week.
posted by unannihilated to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
HIIT is probably the answer.
posted by procrastination at 4:27 PM on May 9, 2014

You don't mention your current training regime, so it's hard to say.

But I am going to guess that your answer is in your question: you're overtraining and not taking rest days. The rest days are critical as is training properly.

I would mix it up to add HIIT, speed work and hills to increase your cardiovascular endurance. Training runs where you average 10 minutes per mile aren't as effective as alternating full on sprinting for 30 seconds, then a 9 or 10 or 11 minute mile pace for 2 minutes for about 6 miles, then rest days. You need those rest days.

Cool running has an easy to follow training schedule that should help you cut off some time, and your last long run is 2 full weeks before the race.

Speed work and rest will get you better times. Enjoy!
posted by kinetic at 4:38 PM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Running with people makes me faster, both in training and during the event.

Seconding HIIT.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 4:42 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Current training is just six mile runs 4-5 days a week with a goal pace of 10 minute mile. I usually keep the pace fairly even throughout the run. I usually try to do a 10-mile run once a week beginning a few weeks before the race but wasn't able to do that this most recent time. No strength training or other exercise.
posted by unannihilated at 4:46 PM on May 9, 2014

Seems like it might make more sense to shave 20 minutes off your half marathon time over the course of like a 12 week training cycle. Isn't 3 weeks in almost time to taper? I feel like the reason that's the gold standard for training advice is that it actually will help you run faster to have marshaled some of your extra energy reserves, and they say that your body takes like six weeks to adjust to a new speed workout anyway, so whatever you do now is going to start bearing fruit literally like half a month after your race.

I'm not an expert by any means, but why not run the half marathon at whatever pace your body is comfortable with given whatever level of training you have been doing, take a week break, then start a proper training plan with hill workouts or intervals or whatever? Setting your PR two months from now is not going to be different in the long term than setting your PR at the next thing you are running and you'll be much less likely to get injured and more likely to actually meet your goal.

Also, a lot of distance training plans have you doing 4/5 days per week short runs, and 1 day per week long run. So I would start there (like make the long run 8 miles instead of six or something). Then if that's working for you, make some of the short runs like speed training ones. (edited because I read your addition)
posted by mermily at 4:46 PM on May 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

With only three weeks to go, I think it will be hard to do much with just your training program.

However, nutrition (including hydration) and rest could make a big difference. Consume an energy gel shortly before you hit that 9 mile mark, get a lot of sleep for two nights before the race, and sip water at the water stations. You don't need to hit them all, but replenishing fluids will help your performance (especially on a hot day) even if you don't feel thirsty.
posted by bangitliketmac at 4:51 PM on May 9, 2014

Can you tell us exactly how you petered out? If you made it to mile 9 I think that's fixable.

I'm a fast casual runner and I got used to not eating or drinking in races up to 10k. In my first half I didn't take any water or salt and I ended up hobbling through part of mile 11 with muscle cramps due to lack of sodium. Between that and later marathon training I learned that sodium is huge for me, a prolific sweater. Maybe you have something analogous (or identical).
posted by ftm at 5:08 PM on May 9, 2014

Oh, and I'm a 1:30 half runner and I get winded on stairs... don't read anything into that!
posted by ftm at 5:09 PM on May 9, 2014

You aren't running smart enough. Take a look at the Higdon plan mermily linked; especially note that it combines shorter runs several times a week with one weekly long run that progresses in distance. The plan is designed to increase your fitness level gradually and teach you the difference in pace you need for 13 miles versus five and six miles. You absolutely no matter what need to be varying the distance of your runs and gradually increasing the length of one run per week to get where you want to be.

Regular six-mile runs, especially at the same pace as your 13 mile time, are going to give you exactly what you got last week- enough in the tank to grind out nine miles before you crash and want to murder someone and have to limp four miles to the finish.

I'm also concerned that you're thinking about improving your time by 20 minutes (which is an eternity in running) when you just finished a half a week ago. A GREAT rule of thumb is to give your body a day off for every mile you ran after a big race- for a half, that's two weeks. You won't be back to baseline until next week, and that gives you two weeks. It's absolutely enough time to maintain your fitness to run again and have an enjoyable experience, but not enough time to shave off 20 minutes. If I were in your shoes, I would focus on running a comfortable race in three weeks and targeting a mid to late summer race as my sub-two-hour race.

Did you run the whole nine miles and then walk/run the rest of the way in serious discomfort? If so, the easiest way to have a comfortable race in three weeks is to alternate running and brisk walking for the entire race, timing your transitions with a stop watch. 10/2 or 5/1 would both be fine. You'll finish in about 2:20 to 2:30 and be significantly happier and more comfortable. And have fun out there.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:43 PM on May 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

i'm also training for a half right now and will be running it on june 1st. (i've run several halfs before and this is pretty much anecdotal advice but take what you can from it.) as folks mentioned above interval training can help, which you can do by shortening your weekday runs to 3 or 4 miles instead of six and get those bursts of speed (w/ short recoveries) into those runs. really push yourself fast and hard and use that energy you would have on 6 and make your 3 miler that much more powerful! it might be painful to go faster but that's the only way you're going to GET faster. it helps to know the run will be over that much quicker because it's shorter. the point is to make the run brief but potent. these intense short runs help you push faster in the long run on the weekend, and the stamina you build from the long run will give you more room to push yourself that much harder on your next short run. they feed into each other in a way. rest also feeds into it, as does cross training. don't run everyday - ride a bike! go for a hike! change it up and you will see a difference.

oh and if you're not running with water/electrolytes (nuun tablets are great)/energy chews or at least eating a banana halfway through that may also be why you're dying around mile 9. another reason may be is that you are pushing yourself too hard too early - this is why we do the long runs, to get a feel for what our real race pace needs to be.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 5:55 PM on May 9, 2014

How did I peter out? I just ran out of gas. I got really tired. No cramping or pain. I wasn't in discomfort, just tired. I didn't walk, just jogged slow for a couple miles. I was able to pick up the pace a bit for the last mile.

I took an energy gel at mile 6, then started drinking a bit of Gatorade every mile after that - I do indeed have a problem with profuse sweating and getting dehydrated/losing salt. I wanted to do another energy gel at mile 10, but I was starting to feel uncomfortably full from the fluids.

I think taking two weeks off is overkill. My muscles were not hurting at all by Wednesday morning, and I've already gained five pounds since I haven't exercised this week. I guess it would also be relevant to say I'm in my early thirties and super healthy. I'm planning to start again tomorrow morning. The other reason I don't like to take off much during training is because I notice that my first run or two after taking a break is always poor - it's only after going a couple days in a row that I really hit a stride. It's also psychological/motivational (don't want to break the streak), which is a big issue for me.

I definitely agree that I need to mix it up, but given the compressed time I wasn't sure if I should focus more on the interval training or long runs or really do both like I would under a normal training plan. There are lots of nice 12-week plans out there, I'm just not sure how to adapt them.
posted by unannihilated at 6:03 PM on May 9, 2014

I think taking two weeks off is overkill. My muscles were not hurting at all by Wednesday morning, and I've already gained five pounds since I haven't exercised this week. I guess it would also be relevant to say I'm in my early thirties and super healthy. I'm planning to start again tomorrow morning. The other reason I don't like to take off much during training is because I notice that my first run or two after taking a break is always poor - it's only after going a couple days in a row that I really hit a stride. It's also psychological/motivational (don't want to break the streak), which is a big issue for me.

I definitely agree that I need to mix it up, but given the compressed time I wasn't sure if I should focus more on the interval training or long runs or really do both like I would under a normal training plan. There are lots of nice 12-week plans out there, I'm just not sure how to adapt them.

It's perfectly fine to do some light exercise the week after the race. I would try to mix in low-impact exercise (swimming or biking) for as long as you would usually run (sounds like about an hour for you?) with light and shorter jogs. Even if you feel good, you need to give your joints and bones a rest. For you, I'm worried about a stress fracture, especially if you're running on concrete. A post-race week for you could be: Monday-rest or yoga; Tuesday-swim/bike/elliptical; Wed-three mile/30 minute run; Thursday-swim/bike/elliptical; Friday-rest; Sat-4 miles; Sunday, swim/bike/elliptical. Maybe use the the Week 1 plan below as your Week 2 post-race plan.

For the next three weeks, let's see. Daily workouts separated by semi colon. Not a pro, just an interested amateur.

Week 1: 4 miles; interval training; 3 miles; rest/light run if you want; 6 miles
Week 2: rest; 5 miles; interval training; 3 miles; rest/light run if you want; 8 miles
Week 3: rest; 5 miles; interval training; 3 miles; rest/light run if you want; 10 miles

If you want, do stuff other than running on the rest days. You aren't going to get a lot out of the interval training in three weeks, but you can start getting familiar with how it feels if you haven't done it in the past. Or you could sub a six mile run for the interval training if you don't want to fool around with intervals yet. If you do that, you can probably make all the three mile runs four miles.

I don't have you doing your usual six mile runs because a) you've just taken a week off; b) you don't know yet how you're going to feel out there and c) the interval training and increased weekend mileage should off-set the lack of distance.

Also, it sounds like you are maybe running at least partially for weight control and are reluctant to do lower levels of training for that reason, a little? Running is a great way to control your weight, plus it can be super-relaxing, so that's great. But you can only keep doing it if you are uninjured, and you'll enjoy it much more and see much greater gains if you train smarter, which by necessity includes workouts of lower intensity and distance at critical periods in your training. It's totally normal to put on a little weight after a big race- you probably ate a ton and had a couple beers that afternoon, then laid around for a few days. That's exactly what you should do! It'll slide right back off again once you put your shoes on again. Plus, the longer you run, the more your body will rearrange itself, and you'll very likely find that you look and feel slimmer despite your weight not changing too much.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 6:28 PM on May 9, 2014

I think taking two weeks off is overkill.

No. Taking two weeks off in order to improve performance would not be a good idea; nobody suggested that.

Your last LONG run with the Cool Running training program is two weeks pre-race; you don't STOP running completely.

I've already gained five pounds since I haven't exercised this week.

It's doubtful that you gained five pounds because you haven't run in a week. Really unlikely.

I'm a runner and I completely understand getting into a groove after several days, but running improvement comes with rest days, HIIT, hills and interval training. Running 6 or 7 days a week at the same pace isn't the way to do it.

Back to your original question, you could probably shave some time off by doing intervals if you currently can run a half-marathon. But 20 minutes is unrealistic.

Something to also think about; two half-marathons within 4 weeks and running 6 miles 4-5 days weekly may be something you're capable of doing, but if these are mostly road miles and you're relatively new to running, this can be hard on your body.

Better to rein it in a bit, add other activities and be a lifelong runner.
posted by kinetic at 6:33 PM on May 9, 2014

It depends on a ton of factors but I agree that dropping 20 minutes off your time in 3 weeks is pretty unlikely. I eventually improved my half- marathon time about 30 minutes but that was over the course of years.

If you were running a half marathon a year from now and you wanted to drop 20 minutes off your time between now and then (this is probably quite possible, btw) I would suggest some of the following, in addition to your easy runs:

1- Steady Tempo runs. These should be runs between 20-40 minutes at a pace you would consider 'comfortably hard'.

2- Tempo intervals. Instead of doing, say, 40 minutes at your tempo pace, you break it up into chunks. You can adjust this to be very specific to the half-marathon; one workout I like a lot is 2x4miles at half-marathon pace... So 4 miles at half-marathon pace, take a short break, and then run 4 more miles at that same pace.

2- Fast-finish runs. I like something like 5 miles easy, and then 5 miles getting faster each mile until the last is at your half-marathon pace.

These are tough workouts so I am not at all suggesting you jump into them, I would consider them something to build up to. So for example for the tempo intervals you could start with 2x1 mile, then 3x1 mile, then 2x2 miles, then 3x2 miles, etc. Over the course of about 12-16 weeks you build up to 2x4 miles. If you can manage 2x4 miles at around a 9:09 pace (which will get you a 2-hour half marathon) that's a very good indicator that you can run 13 miles that quickly in a race setting.

In 3 weeks though, there's not too much you can do. Recover well, maybe do a couple faster workouts between now and then, and look into the sleep/nutrition/proper taper side of things as much as possible because you're not really going to improve your fitness too much between now and then.
posted by matcha action at 9:10 PM on May 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

You didn't have sufficient endurance to complete a half-marathon running 10 minute miles and had to slow dramatically for the final 4 miles one week ago and now you hope to run 9 minute miles in three weeks without blowing up? To be blunt, this is entirely unrealistic.

As you have correctly assessed, your problem is not muscular but rather cardiovascular. You lack the stamina/endurance to sustain your level of effort for the entire two hour window. Unfortunately for you, the process of building up your stamina and cardiovascular capability is one that will take you longer than three weeks. We could suggest training that will improve that specifically (it mostly involves longer periods of running at lower intensity), but that will not help you significantly in three weeks.

There are some improvements you can make to your race pacing and execution that will improve your times. For instance, if we assume that you will have the exact same level of fitness in three weeks that you did last week, we could come up with a race strategy that would undoubtedly result in better results. Your report of the race is that you ran 9 10 minute miles and then averaged 12 minutes or so per mile for the last 4.1 miles. At that level of fitness, it is likely that had you started the race at a pace more like 10:20 per mile, you would not have reached the point of breaking down until much later, if at all. If you maintained a 10:20 pace for the entire race, you'd finish at 2:15 and shave 5 minutes off your time, which is entirely realistic.

In a longer race like a half, it is important to run the first 3 miles or so at a pace that feels almost ridiculously slow to you. If you are showing any signs of labored breathing or hard effort in those first few miles, you are not going to be able to sustain that pace. Even by the halfway point, you should still feel relatively comfortable. If you do it right, the urge to slow down or quit will not become really strong until the last mile or two and at that point you can either suck it up and force yourself to push through that feeling or only give up a smaller amount of time because you have deferred your blowup to the very end.

For most relatively new runners, the key to a better result in the half or full marathon is paradoxically to run slower. I'd suggest that you run at 10:20 for the first 8 miles. If at that point, you think I've held you back beyond reason, feel free to pick the pace at that point. Otherwise, try very hard to hold onto that pace to the end, even as your lungs start to protest that you are being tortured and I think you have an excellent chance to take 6 minutes off your previous time.

Good luck!
posted by Lame_username at 3:52 AM on May 10, 2014 [10 favorites]

Think about this another way: do you think you can take a minute and a half off each mile? I don't think it is realistic in a 3 week timescale (and I have run several half-marathons). Lame_username has very good advice about getting the best out of your current level of fitness.
posted by crocomancer at 7:43 AM on May 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

So you're a pretty regular runner, and that's good, even a great start to being able to improve your times. But one thing I'd definately recommend is to take a look at the difference between the novice half and the advanced half training plan on Hal Higdon's site. The advanced person isn't training for any more time, they're just working on more advanced techniques, mostly intervals and tempo runs. So for a race that was in 12 weeks, that'd be the right thing to do.

If you find it hard to pace yourself for a long runs, a heart rate monitor might help out, in that it will help make you more aware of how hard your body is working. There are also a lot of books out there about training with the help of a heart rate monitor, though other than helping with the pacing that Lame_username mentions, I wouldn't expect major results in 3 weeks.
posted by garlic at 4:11 PM on May 12, 2014

Okay, okay. Hearing someone put it this way ("do you think you can take a minute and a half off each mile?") as well as going out for a long run (10 miles) on Sunday in conditions that replicated how things will be different for this next half marathon (9am instead of 7am so I was facing sun and heat) and utterly failing at it makes me concede that 20 minutes isn't doable. Not to mention the fact that I started using the Nike fitness app on my Ipod and discovered to my horror this morning that my six-mile regular training run is actually a five and a half mile training run and only if I run immediately after exiting the door which I don't always do. So my training time went from barely respectable to boy I kind of suck.

Still, running another half marathon without making any improvement at all, no matter how small, is pretty demotivating for me. So I'm doing a training plan with speed work and long runs, even though I'll only be able to train a little bit, and will implement Lame_username's suggestions on pacing on race day.

posted by unannihilated at 7:34 PM on May 13, 2014

Even without increased fitness, or training, or nutrition, chances are very good you can run faster. Not 20 minutes, but significantly faster. You say you "just ran out of gas. I got really tired. No cramping or pain. I wasn't in discomfort, just tired."

So what if there was someone literally pointing a gun to your head - could you have run faster? Probably. There's a lot of evidence (see here or here for examples) that a lot of it is mental. Partly it's willingness to suffer, and partly it's mental training, and of course there's overlap between those two.

So the simple advice is: You can go faster (true); just do it (not so simple).

If you really wanted to get your optimal time, you'd hire a coach to work with you and better determine your target time. Then you'd hire a pacer to run with you at exactly that pace and yell at you if you went faster or slower.

For example, Lance Armstrong did a 3 hour marathon with limited training. He had a tremendous aerobic base and a huge pain tolerance, but he also had a team of world-class runners pacing him.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:22 PM on May 14, 2014

The most effective thing you can do in the short time left before the race is choose a good strategy. Given the details in your question, I completely agree that the best strategy would be to run in short intervals, with walks in between. Once you hit mile 9, race the rest by feel.
posted by sudama at 7:17 PM on May 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

I just thought I'd report back on my results.

Either the Nike Fitness app on my IPod Nano is wildly off on both pace and distance or that half marathon course was short by a few miles, but at least per the official race clock, I ran 2 hours, 9 minutes. This is a ten minute improvement over my race last month and made me deliriously happy.

I'd spent the past month following the last three weeks of the Hal Higdon training plan: I did three long runs as well as several speed-oriented shorter runs per week.

I did not walk at all today. I felt slower at the beginning and didn't get bent out of shape about it and just went with it, then picked up speed toward the middle. (So I felt though the app was sometimes telling me otherwise.) I did NOT boink at the end this time, which I think was key to my success, though I'm not sure which piece of training helped me. Or maybe none of it did. Maybe it was because this course was flatter? But it was also hotter. And there were very few cheering spectators. Maybe I wanted it more? Who knows! I think I was hydrating and refueling at about the same rate as the last half marathon.

Thanks for all your responses. :-) I'm going to go lay down and bask in my success.
posted by unannihilated at 10:30 AM on June 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

posted by kinetic at 8:14 AM on June 8, 2014

Well done.
posted by crocomancer at 5:33 AM on June 9, 2014

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