When You're Just Not Feeling It

I'm now eleven weeks through with a 16-week half marathon training schedule, and I feel slower, more lethargic, and more mentally drained than I did at the outset of the program. I have about four more weeks to train for my half marathon and, for the most part, I won't be following the Garmin schedule anymore. I'll be doing my own thing.

Let me acknowledge a few clear positives about this training schedule. First of all, the initial four weeks of training were interesting because they seem to be geared toward building up the runner's endurance base. I didn't expect this, because the schedule's materials indicated that the schedule was for experienced runners who are already used to interval training. In my experience, that has most often meant that one should only use that training schedule if one is already in shape; but in this case, I think what they meant was that this schedule is appropriate for anyone who runs and who has done speed work in the past. At any rate, the first four weeks are definitely intended to build endurance, and in my view, they succeed in accomplishing this. I had worked my way up to running 60 miles per week, which is something I hadn't done for a decade or longer prior to this plan.

A second positive note is that I did not get injured on this plan, so it appears to be quite safe for most runners. I know, I know… that's only one data point, but I have a pretty good feel for these things. I sometimes felt as though I was putting in lots of miles and getting tired, but I never felt that I was at risk of running-related injury. That's worth something.

Another positive - maybe - is the way the plan is constructed. I've never trained under a philosophy quite like it before. The general idea seems to be that the plan starts with workouts that are all between 10 kilometers and 10 miles in length, plus a weekly long run. Each subsequent week, more of the time spent running those 6-10 miles is dedicated to running in HR Zone 4, the aerobic threshold. So, one starts the plan running mainly in Zone 2, and slowly the plan phases in more and more Zone 4 running. I think the idea is that, by the end of the plan, the runner should be able to run in Zone 4 very easily for extended periods of time, and thus the final half marathon will be a breeze.

For people who have never spent much time running at their aerobic threshold, this might be a good approach to take. For runners who have never run competitively and need to get used to pushing themselves harder and harder, I can see how this might get them used to it. So the plan is not all bad. I can envision a kind of runner who would succeed on such a plan.

For me, however, the plan is a terrible fit. So many of the scheduled workouts are assigned to Zone 2 that my "base rate" of running actually declined. I got used to running slower, and that's not beneficial at all. If a runner doesn't spend adequate time running fast, he loses his speed. I don't see any benefit to slowing down in order to achieve a particular heart rate. There doesn't seem to be any underlying purpose to that. If someone already spends the bulk of his time in Zone 2, then fine, Z2 running is just a proxy for "go for an easy run." But for someone who spends a lot of time running fast in order to run fast, this it's counterproductive to slow down on purpose.

Meanwhile, I found that Zone 4 running wasn't hard enough, either. In some cases it is, such as tempo runs and fartlek interval training. But this schedule pretty much maxed out at Zone 4 for all speed work. So I never spent time training to increase my foot speed. Usually, we use track workouts or other kinds of sprint intervals to build that speed, but there were no such workouts in this training schedule. All intervals were to be performed at Zone 4. There were also no tempo runs whatsoever.

Finally, a lot of the workouts were structured in a way that I found unorthodox and not to my liking. A good example of this is the way long runs are structured in this plan. Yesterday's workout, for example, was supposed to be a one-hour-and-twenty-minute easy run (Zone 2 again), followed by 40 minutes at race pace. How on Earth is a runner supposed to run 40 minutes at race pace after a long, slow slog? The schedule essentially asked me to completely tire my muscles out, and then try to run at race pace. That's obviously never going to work.

A better way to do long runs is to either do the entire thing at a moderate pace - say, Zone 3 if you're going by HR zones, or just a comfortable pace otherwise - except for perhaps 10 kilometers in the middle of the long run, done at race pace.

A similarly flawed structure permeated the "threshold runs." The schedule would call for a 10-15 minute warm-up followed by 10-15 minutes at threshold pace; then, without pausing for a brief recovery, the schedule would immediately call for 4-6 intervals at threshold pace again; then, another 10-15 minute threshold interval. In other words, the first "interval" would be 15 minutes at threshold pace, plus the addition of a shorter interval, all together, with no recovery in between. The result of this was that my legs would be completely spent by the end of the first shorter interval, and my remaining intervals would be done at a much slower pace.

That's not productive! What would be better? Well, if I needed to do two "long" intervals and six "short" intervals, then I might organize them like this: 3 x 1 km at a hard pace, with 1:30 recovery in between, followed by 1 x 3 km at hard pace with 3:00 recovery. I'd do that twice, with a warm-up and cool-down, and that would be alright. It might be a tough workout, but it wouldn't expend all my energy on the first two intervals and leaving me too tired to benefit from the later intervals.

So, what's next? Next I spend four weeks training my way. You can get a feel for what that is by checking out my marathon training plan in the blog's header links, but basically I'll be doing standard, comfortable runs on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; I'll do a speed/interval workout on Tuesdays and a fartlek or tempo run on Thursdays. Saturdays will be long runs, again done my way, and Sundays will be rest days. As for two-a-days, I will likely do morning runs on Tuesdays and Thursdays to try to remain consistent with what I've been doing up to now.

I expect this more traditional training approach will work better for me than the training plan that I've become disillusioned with, but we shall see. That's the great thing about training: the proof of the pudding is in the tasting and the numbers don't lie. So let's see how it goes.

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