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Frequently Asked Training Questions Part 1

Man is confusedI’ve been fielding loads of training questions in the Nottingham Marathon & Half Marathon coaching group I’ve set up as part of my role as Training Partner.

There have been some really good ones, but the frequency with which they’re popping up suggests that they’re common areas of confusion so I thought it’d be a good idea to cover some of the basics here as well.

Here are 4 of the most frequently asked training questions.

Q1) How long should my longest run be?

This is the ultimate question for these distances and everybody’s going to have their own answers.

Here’s mine.

You don’t need to go to full distance for the half and definitely not for the full marathon. 

With my iMarathon & iHalf programs I work to time rather than distance so I recommend a max duration of 2 hours for a half marathon and max of 3-3.5 for a full.

This freaks a lot of people out who are concerned that there’s just too much unchartered territory to deal with on race day but there’s a good reason for limiting your long runs in training.

The bigger the mileage you lay down on your Sunday morning long run the more it takes out of your body.

This is bound to have a knock on effect on your next few training runs as you won’t be properly recovered.

In truth you will get a few extra points of aerobic endurance by going longer but the benefits are tempered by the drop in quality of your higher intensity sessions like thresholds & hills.

The only other reason for going super long is to gain the confidence that you can do it.  But again, you’re likely to leave some of your best miles out there on the training ground and besides, where’s the fun in knowing everything ;)

Q2) What pace should my long runs be at?

This is a biggie and where a lot of runners trip up.

Think about how you’re likely to feel at the end of your half or full marathon.

Pretty tired right?  Legs like jelly?  Stairs giving you more trouble than they should?

Well it’s not too hard to imagine that doing 2/3 of the distance AT PACE is going to have a not-too-dissimilar effect on how you feel after your training run.  It’s not going to be quite so bad, but it’s still going to take you a few days to recover.

In other words, you need to be slowing down.  For the marathon, generally speaking the slower your target time the less you need to slow down for your long runs.

So if you’re after a 5 hour finish, just 30 seconds or so per mile slower will make sure that you’re keeping things aerobic without breaking your body in the process.

If you’re after something a little sharper like a 3 hour marathon then add a minute and a half or so to your race pace.

This is what I did for my one and only sub-3 a few years ago – race pace was 6:51 and most of my long miles were done in around 8:30.

Your half marathon pace will obviously be quicker than marathon.  Therefore your long run pace needs to be even slower than your race pace.

In the end, the numbers don’t really matter a whole lot because what’s most important is that you’re working aerobically.

I often use the talk test as an indicator: can I easily hold a conversation at this pace?  If not, then I need to slow down.

It’s a tricky one though I’ll grant you, because at the start of your run you’ll feel fresh and easy and it can be hard to slow down enough.

If you’re in 4 hour marathon shape for example, the first few miles even at race pace are going to feel like a breeze so it can seem counterintuitive to slow down even more.

But keep checking into your body, taking an inventory of how you feel and slowing down if necessary.

Q3) How do you get back on track with training after missing a few weeks with injury?

Training-stopping injuries are frustrating but unfortunately they do happen.  i’m not going to get into the whole injury prevention thing here, today I just want to deal with reality.

And that’s exactly what I recommend you do as well.

If reality says that you have lost 3 weeks of training, then there’s no point in trying to argue with it because it’s a fact.

Reality will always win, regardless of how many times you tell yourself that you shouldn’t have got injured.

Once you make peace with reality you can move forwards, and part of that can mean adjusting your expectations.

If your plan was to follow a program to get you round in a particular time then you must consider reevaluating your goals.

If missing those 3 weeks of training was going to have zero impact on your performance, then they would have been written into your program.

But they weren’t.

Every session has a role to play in your race day performance so missing a chunk of them means missing out on some of the physiological gains you would otherwise have gained.

That’s not to say your dream is over, just that you need to reevaluate.

Optimism is good, but realists have a better ability to make adjustments to their plans and have a better experience.

Here’s an example.

If you’ve run half marathons in 2:06, 2:05, 2:02 and this year you’re determined to get under 2 hours, you know that’s going to be pushing your limits.

If you then get injured and miss 4 weeks of training, you can clearly see that this is going to have an impact on your chances of dipping under 2 hours.

Now, if in previous years you’ve just winged it and not really done much training but this year you’ve been training hard and following structured programs, then those 4 weeks might not have the same impact.  The step up in your training might negate some of the missed weeks.

But if you’ve been training hard in previous years as well, 4 weeks out this time round isn’t going to go unnoticed.

The worst thing you can do is to try and accelerate your training in an effort to get caught up.

If you got injured previously, adding extra stresses to your training is likely to cause additional issues than the extra fitness you may gain for boosting your workload.

The only exception would be if you were only running say once or twice a week, then you might claw back some of the lost ground if you bumped things up to 3 or 4.

Q4) “I’m struggling to get beyond 8 miles, help!”

This has been cropping up increasingly regularly and the underlying question I suppose, is ‘how do I get beyond X miles?’

It can seem overwhelming when you’re training for a 13 mile run and are struggling to get beyond 8. 

All sorts of thoughts go through your mind about how hard it’s going to be on race day if you can’t even do this now.

The solution to this one nearly always comes down to pace.

Running a half marathon isn’t hard.  In fact I’d say that running a marathon isn’t hard.

The distance will rarely get you, but the pace will every time.

If you had to go out tomorrow and cover 26.2 miles but you had 10 hours to do it in, you’d be ok.

But who wants to run a marathon in 10 hours?

Nobody who’s prepared to do a bit of training and wants to do the best they can, that’s for sure.

(Unless of course you have a fridge strapped to your back or you’re wearing a divers suit, but we won’t go there.)

The distance isn’t the problem.

The problem is running faster than your body can handle.

I’d take a bet that anybody who struggles to get beyond a certain distance in training could do so if they slowed down.

It’d take a little longer, but they’d make it.

And that’s also the reason that most people don’t slow down.

When you have a goal time in your mind and everything is referenced to that, slowing down isn’t a very attractive option.

On the assumption that you have everything else in place in your program (e.g. progressive threshold runs & a good dose of strength-building hills), struggling to get beyond a certain mileage might be an indicator that you need to take another look at your targets.

Ultimately it’s going to come down to what kind of experience you want to have on race day.

If your dream time is gold or bust and you’re not prepared to compromise, you need to be prepared for the very real chance of blowing up with a few miles still to go.

Sounds harsh but this is exactly what your training feedback is telling you.

If you allow a little wiggle room with your goals however, and are prepared to go out a little slower in the understanding that your finish time won’t be everything you had hoped for when you signed up, you’ll likely have a much more positive experience.

I can tell you from experience, it’s always more fun finishing a race breezing past other runners, than to be the guy or girl waddling along at the side of the road stopping to stretch out cramping hamstrings every 30 seconds.

The thing I love most about running is the unknown.

Feeling fulfilled requires a balance between certainty and uncertainty.

You can feel certain that by training diligently you’re going to make improvements to your running ability.

But you can never know exactly how things are going to turn out until you get on that start line and race.

If you want a proven structure to follow with your next race (10k, half or full marathon), then check out my range of iRunning coaching programs