Planning the half-marathon campaign

Although my campaign to run another ‘good’ marathon before age 70 has been buffeted by various misadventures, including an accident, several episodes of illness and occasional recurrence of arthritis, I have not abandoned my goal.  One the other hand, it is clearly an undertaking that cannot be taken lightly, and the build-up should be gradual.   My target for this year is to run a half-marathon in less than 100 minutes.  Despite building a fairly good base last year, a recurrence of arthritis in the early months of this year had set me back.  So my current task is rebuilding the base.  A few weeks ago, I outlined the principles of base-building. In this post I will outline my strategy for rebuilding the base, but first of all I should set base-building within the overall strategy of preparing for a marathon.

The physiology of a good marathon

Running a good marathon requires many physiological attributes:

  • aerobic capacity (the ability to sustain the required pace with only minimal accumulation of lactic acid) is paramount.  Other key attributes are
  • fuel efficiency, which largely corresponds to the ability to derive a substantial proportion of energy from fat at marathon pace;
  • endurance, which demands minimising the deterioration in pace over time;
  • conditioning of the connective tissues of the body so that they can withstand the rigours of both training and racing,
  • and speed.

Of these speed might seem the least important, but there is abundant evidence that speed over short distances is a good predictor of marathon performance.   In part, this might merely reflect the likelihod that reasonable speed over short distances and the potential for a good marathonanare are independent consequences of an inherited ability to run fluently, but I think there is more to it than that.  Even when endurance has been developed to full capacity, sustained heavy exercise results in a short term loss of muscle strength and power.  Therefore, one must start a marathon with some reserve capacity to allow for this loss.     In fact the Vdot tables initially developed by Daniels and subsequently refined by others, provide a good indication of the required reserve capacity.  A marathon in 3 hours 30 minutes (approximately 5 min/Km pace) would probably be beyond the capacity of a runner who could not run 5K in 21: 50.   My current target of a HM in 100 minutes will require the capacity to run a 5K slightly faster than that.  Last year, when I was at peak of my fitness since middle-age, I ran a 5K in 22:10, so I need to increase my speed.  This was the goal of my program of strength development in the final months of last year, but sadly arthritis intervened before I could convert strength into power, and at this stage, even 22:10 would be out of my reach.  Therefore at some stage between now and my planned half marathon in the autumn, I need to develop more speed.


Although one cannot afford to neglect entirely any aspect of the required physiological adaptations at any stage during race preparation, for most individuals, at least some degree of periodization works best.   For someone who lacks the speed required for their target half marathon or marathon pace, a periodized program requires three phases: base-building; speed development; and race specific preparation.   The primary goals of the base-building phase are conditioning the connective tissues, developing aerobic capacity and enhancing fuel efficiency.  In the speed development phase the task is to develop the required speed while allowing the body to recover from the rigours of base-building while allowing only minimal loss of the adaptations made during base- building.  The primary ask of race-specific preparation is developing the ability to maintain race pace for the full distance of the race.  The key sessions are longish runs with a gradually increasing proportion at race pace.   On account of the timing of my episode of arthritis I was left with a total about 28 weeks to prepare for the half-marathon.  I therefore decided on 10 weeks of base-building, 4 weeks of speed development, and 12 weeks of race specific preparation, leaving 2 weeks for a taper.

The components of base-building

Building up to a high volume is the key feature of building the base, so the first question is: ‘what is the target volume?’. In my younger days, when Lydiard’s ideas were spreading by word of mouth, 100 miles per week was the standard.  Because I was more committed to my studies and to mountaineering than to running, I rarely achieved 100 miles a week, but when I did, I was not concerned about my ability to cope with that volume.  However now I am entering my late sixties, I can no longer be so cavalier about volume.  Last year, when I was able to train without illness or injury, I found that whenever I exceeded 40 miles per week I became increasingly tired.  However despite being a year older this year, I hope that the residual foundation from last year will allow a slightly greater volume.

On the other hand, the recurrence of arthritis has left my joints vulnerable.  Therefore, I have devised a compromise strategy.  I will aim to do about 30-40% of my sessions on the elliptical cross trainer.   The leg trajectory is similar to running and by virtue of weight-bearing, the demands on core support are similar.  However the eccentric contraction associated with the jarring impact at footfall is abolished.  For the purpose of calculating total training volume, I estimate 100Kcal of energy expenditure on the Elliptical is equivalent to running 1 mile.  I have set myself the target of building up volume during the first six weeks of base-building to a weekly total of 50 equivalent miles (approximately 30 miles run and 20 equivalent miles on the elliptical) and then maintaining that volume for the subsequent 6 weeks.

But base-building is not just about volume.   The aerobic system should be put under moderate pressure if aerobic capacity is to be developed efficiently, but the pressure should not be so great as to jeopardise my ability to sustain the target volume.   My plan therefore includes three types of session designed to put the aerobic system under moderate pressure.  First are elliptical sessions at a moderate tempo: sufficient to produce a very gradual rise of heart rate and a small rise in perceived effort over a period of 40 minutes.  A small amount of acidity is likely to accumulate, but I this session will be well below the second aerobic threshold (denoted by a marked increase in respiratory rate to above 60 breaths per minute) beyond which lactate accumulates rapidly.

The second type of session is the progressive run, starting at a very easy pace and increasing to just a little short of the second aerobic threshold.  The third type of session is an elliptical interval session modelled on Hadd’s 200/200 fartlek session.  I alternate between 60 seconds at a work rate equivalent to 5K pace and 60 seconds of easy recovery.  Although 5K pace is above lactate threshold, during 60 seconds there is only minor accumulation of lactic acid and this is largely dissipated during the subsequent 60 seconds of recovery.  Over a series of 25 repetitions, the peak HR achieved at the end of each effort epoch rises by only a few beats/min.  All three of these types of session are intended to help develop the enzymes of the Cori cycle that performs the re-conversion of lactate to glucose, and should therefore promote an increased capacity to deal with acidity.

Monitoring for over-training

Maximal increase in fitness is achieved by over-reaching (a level of training stress that produces a mild decrement in performance) while avoiding over-training (the level beyond which persisting damage to performance occurs).  As described in my previous blog posts, monitoring both resting heart rate and heart rate variability provides some guidance, though after several years of experience with these measures, I have decided that these measurements alone are too subject to other influences.  Therefore, I have developed a sub-maximal test in which I measure heart rate at several work rates in low and mid-aerobic zones.  I believe that information about subjective effort might enhance the reliability of interpretation of changes in heart rate.  In my next post I will describe this sub-maximal test, and in the following post, I will tackle the slightly dauting question of whether or not my carefully crafted strategy for base-building has actually produced the intended improvement in aerobic capacity.

16 Responses to “Planning the half-marathon campaign”

  1. EternalFury Says:

    I cannot wait to discover your sub-maximal test!

    I am still actively looking for a protocol to measure the effects of my training.

    I am also desperately trying to identify a protocol that would allow me to determine the degree to which my body is in a *fully recovered state*.

    As you did, I am slowly giving up on HRV and resting HR ; both are extremely sensitive to stress and other factors that have little to do with my level of aerobic or muscular fatigue.

    • canute1 Says:

      thanks for your comment. I certainly agree that HRV and resting HR are both are extremely sensitive to stress and other factors, and therefore, should not be interpeted in isolation. I still do measure both resting HR and HRV but as I will descibe in my next post, I think that perceived effort at a given pace or power output is vey helpful in the interpretation of HR.

      • EternalFury Says:

        In theory, I like the concept of RPE. In practice, I am terrible at using it. I have been recording a RPE rating for each of my training runs during my current marathon training cycle. I recorded a 7 once or twice. Everything else has been between 2 and 4, even though I have done speed work, tempo runs, long runs, threshold runs, etc.
        In my mind, it seems I cannot use a 10+-point scale. To me, a run is either “Yeah, easy!” or “OK, this was some work!” or “Ouch, that hurt a little!”. In other words, I must not be in tune with myself and I certainly cannot tell you what the difference would be between a 6 and a 8 on Foster’s scale.

    • canute1 Says:

      I think that it is easier to provide a reliable estimate of perceived effort in certain parts of the range. In particular, at work rates just a little below the second ventilatory threshold, changes perceived effort are easier to detect.

  2. Ewen Says:

    Looking forward to your next post Canute. I think HR variability has some merits. In my recent runs after the break I’ve noticed very good variability (the HR graph looks like a gentle wave), however that’s likely due to being highly under-trained!

    On the requirement of speed for a particular marathon time goal, there’s a range of requirements depending on the individual athlete. For example, at the elite end there are some Japanese male 2:07 runners who haven’t broken 14 minutes for 5k, yet there are runners like Lee Troop who ran 2:09 off 13:18 5k speed. Locally I know a veteran marathoner (not racing them now) who ran low 2:40s, yet he could ‘only’ run 38 minutes for 10k. The only speedwork he did was short races. In fact, with his rare track appearances his 5k pace was faster than his 3k pace. He said he took “a while” to warm up!

    • canute1 Says:

      It is great that you are back running again. The slow fluctuations in HR that you describe are probably quite strongly influenced by fluctuating sympathetic nervous activity in addition to parasympathetic activity. In contrast, high frequency HRV (best assessed by examining beat to beat variation) is mainly a reflection of the parasympathetic activity that indicates ‘rest and recovery’

      I agree that there is individual variation in the 5K pace required to provide the necessary reserve speed for a specified marathon pace. I consider that the Daniels’ tables provide a reasonable estimate for typical runners, provided they have done enough base-building to achieve their marathon potential, but at the extremes one might expect to see exceptional individuals. According to the Daniels’ tables, a 2:07 marathoner would require the ability to run a 5K in 13:15. Lee Troop’s 13:18 5K would have given him the reserve of speed for a 2:07:34 marathon, so he was not far from Daniels’ prediction.

      With regard to the local veteran who ran marathons in the low 2:40’s with no speed work other than short races, that is somewhat similar to Ed Whitlock – though I understand Whitlock was running shorter races quite frequently when he set his spectacular marathon records, and he had done a lot of speed work a decade or so previously.

      • Ewen Says:

        Thanks Canute. With my return to training, I’ve been monitoring morning resting HR closely as a means of telling if I’ve recovered from the previous day’s activities. I say ‘activities’ as from reading Phil Maffetone’s book I realise now that everything one does in a day (from work to nutrition to play to rest) effects how we will cope with the following day’s activities.

        My morning resting HR today was 53 (yesterday 56, before that 53) so I take that as a sign I’ve recovered from yesterday (except that my calves are a little sore!).

        The difference between Whitlock and the local marathoner is the latter was never a fast runner in his youth. He started running in his 30s, was introduced to Lydiard and became a life-long follower. However, he rarely followed the full Lydiard system – he was hooked on the base mileage after having good results with just that phase of training. He did however run short races like Whitlock, so that was his speedwork.

    • canute1 Says:

      It is interesting to hear about the training of your local vet marathoner who ran low 2:40’s despite ‘only’ achieving 38 min for 10K. I agree that the base-building phase of Lydiard training alone can produce a good marathon time while also producing respectable but modest pace for 5K or 10K.

      In recent years, my own experience of high volume low intensity base-building is that I get locked into plodding mode – I am not sure whether this is merely a neuromuscular coordination problem or whether in fact the ‘central governor’ loses faith in my ability maintain a faster pace. If it is only neuromuscular coordination, the wind sprints that Lydiard recommended during base building should deal with the problem, but as an old timer, I tend to be cautious about doing the wind sprints when tired because of fear of tearing muscles. I also suspect that the homeward stretch of Lydiard’s Sunday morning run in the Waitakere Hills reminded the central governor that maintaining a fluent pace was still possible. When I lived in Adelaide, my own version of the Waitakere run started on the beach at Brighton and climbed via Sturt Gorge to the summit of Mt Lofty (not really a mountain, but nonetheless a solid off-road climb from sea level). The really exhilarating bit was the gentle downhill stretch from Waterfall Gulley through Burnside on the way back to the beach, which I ran a bit faster than 5K pace despite the fact that I had already done about 20 hilly miles. In those days we didn’t measure HR, but I loved the feeling of exhilaration, and my brain was reminded that I could still run fluently.

  3. Robert Osfield Says:

    Hi Canute,

    W.r.t HR monitor usage the following article published by Runners World looks appropriate:

    The article suggests that periods of over-training following by taper can be effective.

    On the shorted distance speed being a predictor of marathon performance, indeed there is a correlation but as Ewan points out there is plenty of variation. In general I’d guess Daniels data probably fits faster runners better than slower runners as the disparity between short and long distance speeds has been greater for slower runners when I’ve done statistical analysis of ultra races. Again there is huge variation with how the speeds slow with distance.

    To me this suggests two things 1) More speed at short distance is important, 2) Ability to maintain speed with distance is also important. Improving 1) will tilt things towards peak muscle strength and developing anaerobic performance, while improving 2) is really about resilience against muscle damage and sparing muscle glycogen i.e. aerobic performance and slow twitch fibre development.

    As for doing a marathon after a build to good half marathon performance with a specific time in mind, personally I’d not wait, if you want to do a marathon do it sooner rather than later. Training required is really not too different between a half marathon and marathon. If you focus less on actual time and just on enjoying a run then the pressure on getting the training exactly right is taken off, one just has to focus on making sure you can finish comfortably.

    Perhaps an easy going approach to a marathon would give you an aerobic base that you could leverage to do a quicker half marathon…

    • canute1 Says:

      Thanks for those thoughts. The article by LeMeur and colleagues that Alex Hutchinson reviewed in his Runner’s World column is actually about functional over-reaching. The title is: ‘Evidence of Parasympathetic Hyperactivity in Functionally Overreached Athletes’. I think it is useful to reserve the term ‘over-training’ for the situation whether there is persisting impairment of performance. LeMeur et al clearly demonstrate that over-reaching is associated with increase in parasympathetic activity, and a subsequent rebound to enhanced performance. It is the combination of increased parasympathetic activity with increased perceived effort at a given pace that I consider to be an important indicator that one has reached the border between functional over-reaching and potentially harmful over-training.

      With regard to your point that Daniels’s tables give a better estimate for faster runners than slower runners, there is little doubt that many recreational athletes fail to achieve a marathon as fast as that Daniels would predict from their 5 K time. I suspect that this largely reflects inadequate base building. Ian Williams recently analysed the large body of evidence regarding half marathon and marathon logged on the Fetch website, and demonstrated quite convincingly that the predominantly recreational runners who log their times on Fetch achieve marathon times slower than Daniels would be predicted from their half marathon times. However I think that relatively few recreational runners do an adequate amount of marathon-specific training to maximise their marathon potential. My own belief is that to maximse your potential as a marathon runner it is unequivocally essential to build endurance in order to minimse loss of muscle power during the race, but is also necessary to make sure that one has an adequate reserve of speed to allow for the fact that some loss of power will nonetheless occur during the marathon. For well trained athletes I think Daniels tables give a fairly good estimate of the reserve speed required in most instances.

      Your suggestion that I might prepare for a marathon rather than aiming first for a half marathon might have worked for me a decade ago. However at my current age, I simply cannot handle the weekly volume of training required for preparing for a marathon within a single season. In my late fifties, I did make one modest attempt to prepare for a marathon. On that occasion I was under no illusion that I could reach my full potential in one season, but nonetheless I was able to do long runs of 20 miles or more with relative ease after a couple of months of training. I am afraid that last year, even after many months of consistent training, I found anything more than 13 miles was extremely demanding. Although I have slowed with age, my ability to handle a large volume of training has declined even more markedly.

  4. EternalFury Says:

    Another factor I have found to be extremely important over the past year is “nutrient intake timing”. Basically, what you eat and when you eat it in relation to your training bouts. I found it makes a world of difference in terms of recovery and injury prevention.
    I can send you some book recommendations if interested in exploring this. As with all things of that sort, you have to take some and leave some, but I truly believe this is extremely important.

    • canute1 Says:

      EF, I agree that there are a lot of interesting ideas about the infuence of diet on recovery as well as on performance. So far my own response to the evidence is the relativley conservatvie approach of ensuring adequate replacement of calories with predominantly low GI carbs, moderate amounts of protein and moderate amoutns of oily fish. I would be interested in the books you recommend.

  5. EternalFury Says:

    LOL Nice try.
    Rule #1: Posting a comment to insert a backlink on a blog does not work here because such link is marked with “nofollow” and therefore it won’t increase your page rank.

    • canute1 Says:

      EF thanks pointing out to that the (now deleted) attempt by a spammer to create a backlink was pointless. When I saw the spam, I sent it to trash, but I did not delete your comment since my policy is to leave all genuine comments by people who have an interest in the content of the blog.

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