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9 learnings from taking 5 mins off my Half Marathon time

I recently took around 5 mins off my usual Half Marathon time at the highly recommended Brass Monkey race, despite a low run base and not many weeks to build up. Given so many are also building towards a Marathon or Half Marathon right now, and often without the perfect foundations, I thought it would be useful to share my evaluation of what I think I did well (and not so well) to get a far better result than I was expecting.

Context: I followed one of my Standalone Half Marathon plans. I didn’t get my place until November so I only had 9 weeks to build up to race distance (from pretty much zero, I had not really run at all since my IM last summer). Normally I recommend at least 12, ideally 16 weeks to build up to a Half from a low run base. The compressed time to build up training and low existing run conditioning massively increased the risk of injury so the most important thing was to minimise the other risks.

Limited speed work in my plan – most people think that speed work is the key way to get faster, but in reality, consistent training is by far the most important factor. Getting injured prevents consistency and speed running has a higher risk of injury. So I chose my Standalone Half Marathon plan that has nothing faster than race pace intervals*.

Keeping it easy – The vast majority of my training, as per my plan, was easy running (around 6 mins/km in my case), using nose breathing where possible (except when it was just too cold!) to moderate my pace. Easy running gives great returns in aerobic development but with much lower stress on the body. So again I reduced the injury risk, and I could combine it with harder turbo training without feeling wiped out.

Respecting recovery – Training isn’t just about the running and S&C. You don’t get fitter from training, you get fitter from recovery from training. So I made sure I getting enough sleep and protein to support my recovery and rolled out anything that was getting too tight.

Testing and refining race pace - All my plans include race pace intervals which get longer closer to race day, so you into race day confident that you have a tried and tested pacing plan rather than going in too fast and blowing up.

I started fairly conservatively but really struggled to hit the pace at first so I slowed things down. After a few weeks of consistent running, I felt my run form come back and just before Christmas, I increased my race pace (I’m pretty sure slowing my pace contributed to being able to increase it more in the long run - had I battled on, trying to hit the initial pace, the risk is I could have got injured, thoroughly demotivated or endangered future sessions by being too tired).

Resting when ill - I was due to do my longest training run, and my final Race Simulation run (final test of my new race pace and the rest of my race day plan including fuelling etc) on New Years Eve, but Covid hit at Christmas.

It’s so tempting to go back to training as soon as possible, but the risk is you prolong the illness and end up taking longer off (plus more serious risks with Covid) so I waited until my resting HR was completely back to normal before restarting training.

Adapting the plan and pacing - I did a cautious 8k to see how I was feeling (fairly crap!). I tried not to let that derail me, knowing I was still recovering. I took a bit more rest and then rescheduled my final race pace session, shortening it, given I was into my taper.

I went in with an open mind. I started at my lowest predicted pace, and when that felt fine, took it up slightly, and slightly more again. I learnt far more this way than going in too fast and blowing up.

Mindset is key - Working on my mindset to ensure I got my training done and to manage the unhelpful thoughts that could have derailed me was crucial, but that's a blog for another day.

If in doubt, start easy… Far too often in the past I’ve gone into a race with the pace I’m hoping for, even though I’ve not really backed it up solidly in training. I've gone too deep, and ended up with a slower time overall than if I'd started slower and paced it more consistently. And there’s nothing more demoralising than seeing everyone start to overtake you when you’re already struggling. This time I was determined to learn!

I’m all about positive mindset and avoiding the “I’ll go a bit easier so I don’t fail to meet my goal” (in my mind this is just “pre-failing” - you are deliberately aiming for less than you think you are capable of).

But given my time off with Covid, and some issues with my toes (don’t even ask!) I wasn’t confident I had really proven I could hold my race pace, so I kept my goals conservative and started with a slightly slower pace than I’d done in training.

…. And speed up if things feel good (but not too much!) – By halfway I was still feeling really fresh, and fuelling was going well, so I went a little harder (there was a slight incline and headwind in parts on in the second half so this was only a slight increase in speed). When someone at the side of the road shouted ‘just a park run to go’ I sped up again.

This is where tings started going wrong. He was wrong, there was over 6k to go, and I felt every centimeter of that extra kilometer! Plus there were a few hills (aka road bridges!), a slight uphill drag and the headwind suddenly felt like a wind tunnel. Every step felt so much harder showing how even a very small change, combined with fatigue, can have such a BIG impact.

I was still overtaking people until the final kilometer but the last 800m was my slowest of the race and felt almost as far as the previous 20km. There was a women behind me who was also struggling, and we battled in slow motion through to the end where I collapsed on the grass at the side for a good 5 minutes after crossing the line.

On the positive I got my fastest time (1.35.46) since 2016 , despite being 7 years older. On the less positive, I'm still definitely feeling the effects almost a week later, which isn't that helpful towards my marathon training! But luckily I've left myself enough time for this one, and got lots of learnings from this last race under my belt, so I'm feeling confident.

How did your last race go? Whether it went well or worse than expected, did you take some time to evaluate and capture your learnings, both in terms of the race build and the day itself? We improve by learning. But in my experience we spend hours and hours training, but very little time learning what we did well and what we could improve on.

If you want some help evaluating your training or racing, or want some help building up to your next race, give me a shout.

* Full disclosure - After not racing cross country for a good few years, I couldn’t resist a few of the local off road races.

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