Your First Half Marathon: Exercise
Running Without Misery: Part I
Last week, I discussed my “Less is More” approach to run coaching. I train non-professional runners, and I write my own training plans for my clients based on their exercise history, injury history, and current level of fitness. I advocate working with a coach when you train for a race, because the most basic running plans that you can find online often cause overtraining and injury.
For me, “Less is More” is all about programming smart running and keeping total weekly mileage rather low. It’s also about variety – hitting the gym for resistance training as much as you hit the track for sprints. Finally, “Less is More” emphasizes a lack of ego – knowing when to take breaks and feeling peaceful with strategic running (rather than slogging through to say “I ran the whole way!”).
So here’s a few tips to get you started…
Secret #1: Take walk breaks.
This requires you to discard the arbitrary “I need to run the whole time for it to count” mindset. Who ever made that a thing? Repeat after me:
You don’t need to run the whole time.
Full transparency: I walk one minute for every 10 minutes of running, and towards the end of a race I start completing miles as fast as I can with .1-mile walk breaks every mile.
Taking walk breaks doesn’t mean you didn’t “really” run the race. That is an arbitrary construct.
It is better to take planned one-minute walk breaks (and feel awesome) than to take an unplanned four-mile walk starting at mile 9 (and feel terrible).
My experience is that your time doesn’t suffer when you take walk breaks, because you push yourself more when you know you have a walk break coming up.
My strong philosophy is that you can feel even better about your pace and overall time if you do plan and take walk breaks. And you will probably enjoy the race more and feel better mentally.
Secret #2: Run. Really run. Don’t jog. And do use a treadmill sometimes.
This ties into my last point, because if you are going to take walk breaks, then you need to be pushing yourself faster during the running portions.
Focus on getting your knees up, kicking your feet off the ground, taking fast and short strides, and finding a smooth (but effortful) rhythm. Besides, it is fun to run faster, and you will probably enjoy the race more if you adopt an empowered pace!
I have found that treadmill running is a helpful complement to outdoor running, because of the non-variability of pace. When I run on a treadmill, I will pretty much conform to whatever ambitious speed I set, even if I am exhausted. Outdoors, I naturally slow down when I get tired. Incorporating some treadmill training is a good way to ensure that you are not only achieving certain speeds, but also learning to maintain aspirational paces throughout a long run. Using a treadmill in a disciplined and focused way 3-4 times per month can yield incredible pace gains over time, because you are training your body to deliver more oxygen to your muscles faster.
Secret #3: Find your “joyful” pace.
Many of my clients unwillingly discover (with my guidance) that running slightly faster is often less effortful than slowing to a crawl. The more you drag, the more effort it takes to keep movement going. Slow, shuffling feet, twisty torsos, and lazy arms all demand more energy than short, fast steps, an upright posture, and tight arms.
For most of my clients, this “happy” speed is about .5 mph faster than what they think they should be doing. The additional speed turns the brain on and creates whole-body alertness that fixes many running form woes. I have seen – in the same workout – my runners go from effortful shuffling to relaxed striding just by clicking up the treadmill by .5 mph. The faster speed is surprisingly easier to maintain, because the whole body is cooperating and flowing, instead of slogging through.
Plus, I think it is mental as much as it is biomechanical. When you are running energetically, you are sending messages to your brain that you are alert and active and powerful. I think that slogging is a self-defeating running posture that only provides your brain feedback that you are suffering, which turns into a cycle of running slower and slower.
Secret #4: Do weight training.
I advocate lifting – even moderately heavy lifting – for runners, because it greases the wheels of proper movement. Characteristics like healthy hip flexibility, glute strength, ankle flexibility, and hip flexor strength are built in the weight room, not on the track, and these abilities that come from deadlifting, squatting, and other lower body activities make you a better runner.
I’m not saying that you need to be lifting the absolute heaviest weights you possibly can at all times. But I do advocate for lifting heavier than you think you can, while making sure that you are supervised for good form and technique.
It will not make you bulky, but it will make you significantly stronger and more resilient, and will give you the strength you need to kill it on hills and sprints while other runners lag behind.
Secret #5: Treat yourself like you’re in physical therapy all the time.
Core and hip strength are essential for injury-free running. I advocate a daily 20-minute core and hip routine, and I recommend treating it like a prescription. Just like you would take a pill every morning if you had a chronic condition or needed to kick an infection, doing a 20-minute round of exercises on a regular basis will protect your body from persistent, nagging injuries.
It is especially important to strengthen your abductors – the muscles on the outsides of your hips that move your legs into external rotation or move your legs sideways. These muscles tend to be underused in everyday life, and once you start running, you’ll find that hip and back pain can crop up unexpectedly. Strengthening your abductors is a smart way to safeguard your body against injury so that a nagging pain goes away, instead of flaring up into a full-blown herniated disk.
When it comes to the core and hips, think stability, stability, stability. Anti-rotation exercises, planks, side planks, a variety of leg raises, and clamshells are all an important part of a running program. And they need to be done often.
Secret #6: Don’t over-focus on stretching.
If you feel tight, you’re probably weak, not actually tight. Sometimes the body does “tighten up” in order to protect an area that is compromised. So don’t lean into it by over-stretching. I use a very small repertoire of stretches that are healthy for the back and hips, and I don’t recommend trying to develop extreme flexibility if it doesn’t come naturally to you.
The stronger you are, the more flexible you will become. My definition of flexibility is pain-free movement – not being able to sink 100% into a forward fold with your stomach against your legs. Some people are hyper-flexible, and when we compare ourselves to those people, we can feel like we’re missing out on the whole flexibility thing.
When it comes to flexibility, I advocate trusting your body. If it doesn’t want to go somewhere, in terms of mobility, don’t force it.
For stretches, I recommend lying on your back and stretching your hamstrings and glutes by moving through a few non-stressful poses, and throwing in downward dog and child’s pose for good measure.
Also, I strongly recommend against stretching during a run. If you start to feel tight, that is your body’s way of protecting a muscle. Just finish your run, and trust that your body knows what it’s doing. However, if you are actually in pain (not just “tight”), you should stop running and re-assess.
Secret #7: You can’t “catch up” when you’ve missed a few runs.
If you miss a week of running but want to be “caught up” for an upcoming race, I recommend just jumping ahead to wherever you are in the plan, not “catching up” by doing all of the runs you missed. Of course, I advocate this within reason. If you’ve missed a week, you’re not as behind as you think. If you’ve missed three weeks, you’re really behind.
Let’s say you have a 10-mile run on your plan and you don’t feel ready for it because you haven’t trained in a week. This often happens because of vacations or trips, even when your intentions are good.
It would be better for your body for you to try out the 10-mile run on time than it would be to cram the training runs you missed into a compressed period of time. You could always stop at 9 miles if you really need to, but you’re less likely to get injured.
Just like you can’t “make up” sleep, you can’t “make up” fitness.
Here’s another thing: the body can interpret running as stress. So if you stress your body out for a week trying to catch up, you’re more likely to end up falling behind because of exhaustion and other fun side effects of chronic stress, like compromised immunity and nagging injuries.
Here’s an important thing to keep in mind:
You are probably less behind than you think.
In some ways, the recuperation time could have helped you recover from any minor injuries that you may have had prior to your unplanned break.
Secret #8: Periodize.
In other words, after you’ve completed a race, stop doing long-distance runs until it’s about four months before your next race.
You shouldn’t be doing the same thing all the time. This applies to both running and weight lifting, as well as nutrition. You should really go through phases of intensity – your body will experience enhanced recovery and health by taking some breaks in your calendar year.
My general recommendation (common to most fitness professionals) is to slightly change your workout structure and nutrition strategies every 4-6 weeks.
For example, if you have a race within a month, you should focus your exercise time on long-distance runs, and do your “physical therapy”-style workouts consistently on the side. But the month of the race is not the appropriate time to join a new boutique gym with high-intensity workouts.
However, once the race is over, it can be fantastic to switch your focus. Spend more time in the weight room, do a new type of workout, or work on your sprinting speed with shorter runs. Then, once you’re ready to train for a race again (I recommend about four months out), you can go back to a more structured running plan that emphasizes endurance.
Please note – this doesn’t mean you should completely stop running. You should just switch your focus to shorter, consistent runs for maintenance.
Secret #9: Do a variety of runs every week – a maintenance or tempo run, a set of sprints or a fartlek run, and a “long run.”
As I mentioned in the first post in this series, most running plans that you find online prescribe an overly-high weekly mileage. The “Less is More” plan allows you to excel at long runs on weekends but only do shorter runs on weekdays. My clients only run three times per week, and only one run is over 4 miles. My running program limits weekly mileage to less than 20 miles per week, regardless of the phase of training.
I think that this – again – maximizes results while minimizing risk. One run should be a “steady” shorter run where you work on your endurance running speed, like a tempo run. One run should be a shorter, faster run like a fartlek run or sprint intervals. Then, once a week, do your “long run,” where you work on increasing your distance.
This structured variety helps you make progress and condition your body to running, while avoiding overuse injuries and overtraining.
I also firmly believe that this structure also helps with weight management and muscle maintenance. Many people gain weight when they are training for a half marathon or marathon, for two reasons:
- The high volume of running creates intense hunger that results in eating more calories than you burn.
- The body interprets the high volume of running as a stressor and simultaneously retains more water, breaks down muscle, and increases fat storage.
A little variety helps short-circuit this process, and allows your body to recover from long runs and stay metabolically conditioned.