Q I’m training for a series of half-marathons this spring, and my goal is to improve my time by two to five minutes. I feel my goal is realistic, but I’m crashing and burning with my plan. I upgraded to an advanced plan this year, which involves running five to six days per week (from four) with higher mileage, and it might be too challenging for me at this point. My problem is I can’t seem to get my energy and strength back in my training sessions. Can you help me get back on track again? – FRANCESCA
A It can be tempting to up the ante and increase your training to much higher levels when reaching for higher goals. I love that you’re tuning into your body now rather than later, as venturing down this training path too far can really put you behind the eightball.
When I coach my runners, I have them assess their training throughout the season. How’s it working? How am I feeling? Am I feeling stronger or weaker? This is important because every year – and every runner – is unique. Some of you are able to push harder than others due to the happenings in your life, your health, stress, sleep, and other variables.
The key is to understand that your body is telling you something isn’t working and you need another plan. That’s where the marathon makeover comes in.
Here are three ways to modify your plan to get back on track with your fall half-marathon racing goals:
1 Give yourself a mid-training timeout.
In most cases, with the initial level of fatigue you’re describing, taking a step back from the progression, intensity and mileage is enough to reboot your training. Although you may be concerned with getting off your training plan, the goal isn’t to finish a perfect training plan, it’s to reach your goals and get stronger. You can’t do that until you recover.
Circle the date on the calendar two weeks from today and reframe it as a mid-season reboot to allow you to recover, regain strength, and set yourself up for a stronger second half of the season. That way it holds meaning for you rather than seeming like a setback. Keep in mind, I’ve had more runners reach their goals with less training under their belts than too much training, so even if you come in under what you planned training-wise, it doesn’t mean you won’t achieve your goals.
2 Run short, easy, and hard-effort runs.
The body can recover and maintain with a healthy dose of rest days, easy short runs and a few short, hard interval runs. The short distance (30-40 minutes total) will allow your body time to heal while still maintaining your running workouts. Because you’ve been running five to six times per week, it’s best to cutback to four total runs for 30-40 minutes and include two easy-effort runs and two hard interval workouts for the next two weeks. Here is an example of those workouts:
Stagger the workouts every other day and invest in downtime on the days in between (complete rest – not yoga, or Zumba, or cycling).
Monday: 40-minute easy-effort run
Wednesday: 30-minute interval run
Friday: 40-minute easy-effort run
Sunday: 30-minute interval run
Easy-effort run: Run 40 minutes at an easy, conversational (aerobic) effort. If you can talk in full sentences, you’re in the right zone. The easy effort allows for easier recovery, so make sure to dial in the right effort (not pace) here.
Interval run: 30-minute interval run. I know what you’re thinking – “30 minutes? What’s the point?” The key is that running short, hard intervals maintains fitness without pushing beyond the point of fatigue. Be cautious to avoid adding more to this powerful workout. It’s enough all on its own.
First, warm up by walking for two minutes and then running five minutes at an easy effort. Then repeat the following seven times: Run one minute at a hard but controlled effort (sprint). Follow with a one-minute walk, then jog for one more minute (two minutes total recovery). Walk it out for two minutes after your final interval to cool down. You’ll be surprised at how good you’ll feel with this short workout.
3 Develop a Plan B training plan.
Part of the benefit of taking a mid-season timeout is you have a chance to develop a Plan B for the rest of the season. You already know from experience that this one isn’t working for you, so it’s best to go back to the drawing board and revise a new and improved plan. It’s best to look at your last season or the last plan that worked for you and make small changes. For example, before increasing the number of running days per week, I’d increase the intensity of your runs during the week (speed, hills, tempo), increase the volume of your longer runs, add some race-effort simulation runs on your cutback weeks, and include strength training and cross-training. There can be a lot of improvement in these changes without moving to more running days during the week.
Once you’re through the two-week timeout, start back gradually by lengthening one of the 40-minute easy runs to a 60-70-minute long run and keep the other three runs as is for one week. The week after that, continue to lengthen the longer run by five to 10 minutes, and add more time to the other easy-effort run. From there, you can continue to run the 30-minute interval run once, add in a tempo or hill workout, and then see how you feel. If you feel strong, it’s working, and you can continue to build your mileage gradually. If you find yourself fatigued again, hold the timeout one more week and try again after that.
It’s not too late to save your race. It’s a matter of first identifying where you’re at, easing back on the throttle, and devising a new plan to move forward. Sometimes the detours in life lead us to our greatest accomplishments. Keep running strong.