A couple of readers have either emailed or commented that they want to know how I went from a 2:20 half marathoner to a 1:4X half marathoner in the space of about two years. I figured I’d address some of those questions and talk a little bit about how I improved so much over a relatively quick period of time. First, I wish that I could tell you that there is some magic workout or pill or plan that will make you faster. The sad truth is that the only magic pill is a lot of hard work, determination and discipline.
As usual, let’s start with some background. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I have a lot of athletic talent. I have some talent when it comes to sports that require raw strength (I’m actually a pretty good swimmer and absolutely freakishly strong. Seriously I can lift anything) but endurance sports don’t come naturally. While I don’t have talent I do have discipline. In spades. Self-discipline is probably my single greatest strength as a person. If I have a goal (straight As, run a marathon, get a promotion, buy a house) I will find a way to get from point A to point B no matter how much self-denial and sacrifice it takes. I was just born that way. This, of course, has a downside in that I sometimes get a little type-A and intense and over the top about my goals and forget to enjoy life. Plus, I’m prone to sacrificing relationships and fun to get to my goal. Annnnnnnnyway, I say this because I think to progress in distance running you need some discipline.
So, after I ran my first marathon and decided that I wanted to qualify for Boston I bought a Garmin. This helped me quite a bit– I could actually see my paces and closely monitor my progress. This helped on several fronts: 1. You can’t cheat on pace and 2. You can visibly watch yourself get faster. Over time I slowly started increasing my overall mileage (volume) and added speed work (intensity) to my program. I started slowly– run one mile at a 9:20 pace during my long run, speed up one of my midweek short runs, etc. I also started running with other people who were stronger runners than me (at the time, haha). Initially I was not up to run with other people– I was nervous that I’d hold them back, I really enjoy the solitude of running alone and wasn’t sure how I’d adapt to someone else’s pace. But! I really enjoy running with other people and it pushed me to stay strong during long runs. It was scary at first, though. Running with other people is also beneficial in that it will give you someone to ask questions to, validate your training schedule, encourage you and just break up the boredom of all the miles. I’m not best friends with anyone that I run with, but I do treasure them as key parts of my training.
During this time I also started to pay a lot more attention to what I was eating. In fact, the combo of running and eating better resulted in losing roughly 25-30 pounds and I went from a size 10 to a size 2 sort of unintentionally. Basically I cut out all white flour, started eating more veggies and axed cheese 100% from my diet (it makes me sick anyway so that was good all around). For transparency, I still weigh a TON given my relatively small size. I’m a size 2 but I’m around 148 pounds. It’s almost a fun game for me to tell people how much I weigh because their jaws usually drop. So don’t pay attention to the pounds! Here’s some race photos for context:
And so, in March of 2008 I dropped my half marathon time from 2:18 (the previous October) to 2:05. I was absolutely ecstatic. My goal was 2:10 and I clearly blew that out of the water. I was so happy after that race– I could hardly stand it. I really surprised myself that day and it was a LEAP forward in confidence. Suddenly I felt like a real runner. Someone who belonged on the starting line and someone who knew what they were doing.
After the half-marathon in March I kept running– kept my mileage in the 20s, kept running with my people but switched to running 5ks during the summer. This is when things got fun. My first 5k was at an 8:20 pace and I had no idea I could run that fast. I remember thinking I might throw up a few times but seeing the number 26 absolutely elated me.
That summer I continued running 5ks and also adding some more focused speed work to my routine. I hadn’t yet fallen in love with the track, but used my garmin to do 1/2 mile and mile repeats and also tempo runs. Mostly though, I just kept at it. I lowered by 5k PR by about 20 seconds that summer (I say this like it wasn’t 9 months ago, ha!). One thing I found useful when running ugly repeats was to repeat to myself, “I do what I do not want to do so that I can do what I want to do.” I don’t know where that quote came from but it helps me immensely. Speed work hurt, but my faster friends told me that their workouts hurt, too so I figured I was doing something right.
Then, August rolled around. Time to train for another half-marathon! I set an ambitious goal of breaking 2 hours and upped my mileage yet again. I peaked at 37 miles per week (which, at the time, felt enormous and was quite an accomplishment since I was working probably 70 hours a week last fall) and this is when I fell in love with the track. This was also the first (and only) time I designed my own running program. Easy Monday, Track Tuesday, Easy or off Wednesday, Tempo Thursday, Off Friday, Semi hard Saturday, Long Sunday. I still use this pattern actually! Anyway, I had a blast during this training session. Improvements were still coming easily and I ran the Cowtown Half Marathon in 1:58.
So a couple keys to the improvements I made in this time:
1. Find someone who is a better runner than you and run with them. Ask them questions. They were probably slower at some point and relied on a faster runner to show them the way. They’ll pay it forward and mentor you. But ask every question you can think of. And listen to what they have to say. There’s a reason they’re fast. But ask a variety of people and find what works for you.
2. Keep at it. Be consistent and don’t get complacent. Switch up your speed work and continue to add volume to your program. And work hard. Everyone hurts. Even elites. If it’s not hurting, you’re not pushing yourself.
3. Garbage in, garbage out. Eat well. Take care of your body– you’ll be rewarded in both appearance and speed. I promise.
4. Keep track of your progress and set short-range, attainable goals. Make sure your goals aren’t crazy, but also push yourself a little bit. If you aren’t a little scared at the start line, you’re setting your sights too low.