Coach Jeff

Written by Coach Jeff

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How RunnersConnect Half Marathon Training Plans Compare to Other Popular Programs

Choosing the right half marathon training plan can be a difficult endeavor.

If you’re a beginner, it’s a matter of trusting the plan to help you stay injury-free and run the full distance on race day. The challenge is you likely know only a little about training and thus struggle to evaluate how a plan works and how it’s designed to help you achieve your goals.

As you get faster, the margin between a PR and just another mediocre race gets razor thin. You need to start implementing the most race-specific workouts and getting that final 10 percent right. Thus, you need to pay attention to the finer details of your plan.

This can make choosing a plan a somewhat stressful decision.

That’s why, as a complement to our already popular comparison of top marathon training programs, I’ve put together this guide that outlines the RunnersConnect Half Marathon training philosophy and compares it to Hal Higdon, RunnersWorld, Active, and McMillan.

Whether you are couch to half marathon, looking for a half marathon training schedule as an intermediate runner, or are the most experienced half marathon runner looking for something to get you a PR, this guide is for you.

Half marathons can be one of the most enjoyable races for runners, but we need to make sure training goes well for it to happen. Enjoy this comparison of training programs to see why you need a coach, and which plan to go with.

Now, as I stated in our marathon comparison article, there are some important notes and caveats before getting started…

1. I can only compare our philosophy to those I know well, have studied, or worked under myself. If I don’t mention a coach/program specifically, let me know in the comments and I can try do some research. However, the plan must be publicly available in some way.

2. It’s important to remember when comparing any two training philosophies that there isn’t only one way to train. While there are certainly training concepts that apply universally, the specifics of how to approach a race can be different. Obviously, each coach believes in their system.

3. If you have no intention of ever using us as coaches, that’s ok. I still think this can be a valuable read as you’ll get to learn different approaches to training and definitely some ideas you can implement in your own plan.

4. This comparison is in no means written as a way to besmirch any of the following plans or coaches. I actually really like some of them. It’s simply a means to compare our differing approaches to the same goal – helping you run faster.

5. Finally, I have no doubt that for the plans mentioned below that offer personalized coaching options they would accommodate your needs. This is simply a comparison of philosophies based of generally available plans and literature produced.

The RunnersConnect philosophy

First, it’s helpful if you know our overall approach to training so you have something to compare it to if you’re not currently coached by us.

Our overall approach to half marathon training is that as a runner gets closer to race day, we want their workouts and training to become more and more specific to the demands of the race.

This progression is generally called “general to specific”. In essence, your training is split into two these two phases – general and specific.

Phase 1: The general phase occurs at the start of your training cycle and is designed to slowly build each energy system to its highest fitness before starting the race specific phase.

During the general phase you slowly build upon each component (speed, strength, long run, mileage) so that no particular energy system is left behind. You start at whatever fitness level you’re at and by the end of the training cycle, your aerobic development, speed, and threshold are at their maximum levels simultaneously.

The general phase can also be broken down into subsections with a particular focus.

For example, if you’re a little weak on speed, workouts can have a more speed development focus whereas if you need to develop your aerobic system, you can target more threshold runs in this phase.

Phase 2: The race specific phase is typically 6-8 weeks long, depending on your fitness level and training history. It occurs directly after the general phase and comprises the last 6-8 weeks of your training before the race.

As the name implies, race-specific training means training to the specific physiological demands of your race distance.

In a half marathon specific training phase, your goal should be to develop your lactate threshold, improve your ability to clear lactate, and increase your speed endurance. The more you can develop and target these systems, the faster you will be able to race.

In almost all runners we coach, our goal is to build them up to their highest level of overall running fitness during the general phase and then target their training specifically in the final 6-8 weeks.

Focusing on the specific demands of the race

For beginner runners, the amount of time spent running is the most important factor in training.

Research shows that biological markers of muscle fatigue (aspartate aminotransferase (AST), creatine kinase (CK), lactate dehydrogenase (LDH) and myoglobin) increased significantly immediately after a half marathon and remained elevated for more than 24 hours thereafter.

To put it simply, when you’re running for close to two hours, you’re putting a tremendous stress on the muscles in your legs and you have to prepare your body for this challenge in training.

To do so, I believe the focus for beginner runners should be on increasing their overall mileage, their long runs and increasing the total amount of miles they do each week at half marathon pace.

The other challenge of the half marathon is that it requires that you train yourself to be able to run at the top end of your lactate threshold for increasingly longer periods of time.

This is accomplished by improving your lactate threshold itself, teaching your body how to clear lactate back into usable energy more efficiently, and increasing your speed endurance.

I believe the more you can perform workouts that target these specific systems in the final 8 weeks of training the faster you will run.

Hopefully, that helped give you an overview of our philosophy and how our half marathon plans are structured.

Focus on aerobic development

The major mistake most runners make when training for the half marathon is neglecting the aerobic system.

You can see from the research summarized in this chart that the aerobic system comprises 90-95% of the energy demands for a half marathon race.

More importantly, development of the aerobic system is the single most important factor for long-term progress.

Therefore, for both short-term and long-term gains, we try to build as much aerobic work into your training plan as possible through long runs, targeting the right easy paces, and ongoing threshold work.

Learning about half marathon training and how to get it right! Click To Tweet

Speed endurance more important than speed development

From a training standpoint, speed is rarely the limiting factor in how fast you can race.

Yet, when most runners approach us for help improving their PRs at shorter distances they almost always tell us they need to “work on their speed”. But is this really the case?

Speed endurance is your ability to hold a specific pace for an increasingly longer period of time. This is the key to running a fast half marathon. Let’s use an example to illustrate.

What is the average pace you need to run to break your HM PR?

Now, what is the fastest pace you can run a mile?

As you can see, you easily have enough speed to break your HM PR. What you can’t do is hold that speed for 13.1 miles.

This is what we call speed endurance – your ability to maintain and hold a fast pace for the entire race. If you can whittle this down you’ll be able to capitalize on your existing speed to run a faster half marathon

That’s not to say we ignore speed development all-together. Like I discussed in the section on the purpose of the general phase, it’s important to touch on all training systems throughout a training cycle.

We definitely include speed development workouts in half marathon training.

However, we also “sneak” speed development work into the plan by including strides, hill sprints, drills and other subtle, yet effective speed development training elements.

Now that you have a good idea of how our training plans are structured, let’s look at some other popular plans.

I love the way @Runners_Connect explains running topics. Makes it clear and understandable! Click To Tweet

Hal Higdon, RunnersWorld, Active HM Plans

Most of these half marathon plans on these three sites are designed the exact same way; if you looked at each of these plans on a calendar, it would be difficult to tell them apart.

Again, not that this is wrong. These plans all follow the same philosophy and thus they should look very similar (which is why I have grouped them together here).

Overall plan structure

The overall philosophy of these three plans is a pretty basic, old-school training structure: One VO2max or speed session early in the week, a tempo session the second half of the week, a faster run on Saturday and a long run on Sunday.

The plans use the same pattern week-after-week, with the same exact workouts, incrementally increasing the mileage of each workout through the cycle.

While I find this approach ignores both the concept of periodization and race-specific training, I think it’s actually helpful for beginners who are intimidated by workouts late in a training cycle.

Most beginners get a plan and immediately look at the final few weeks of the schedule. When the workouts look complicated (as race-specific workouts do) or it’s not clear how you’re building to do them (as is the case with periodization) it’s very intimidating.

The approach these plans use makes it very clear how you’re going to take the next step each week. In essence, it makes it very easy to have confidence in these plans, which is a definite plus for new runners.

That being said, I still think it’s important to include a variety of workouts in a training plan to attack your physiological systems from different angles.

As an example, I believe there are three types of thresholds – aerobic threshold, lactate threshold, and anaerobic threshold.

While a “tempo” run can mean targeting any of of these three subtly different systems, I prefer to specifically attack each one with different types of workouts. We incorporate cutdowns, alternating tempos, lactate clearance tempos, and steady runs.

When trying to reach your peak and absolute best, attacking your physiological systems with many different stimuli is critical.

A basic tempo run performed at the same pace each week targets the same energy system with no additional or new stimulus.

Training like this would be akin to going to the gym and only doing straight bicep curls to help get bigger arms. The body will respond initially, but will quickly plateau.

How do the popular half marathon training plans compare? Find out here Click To Tweet

Lack of race-specific training

As mentioned in yesterday’s email, I believe one of the keys to maximizing your performance is performing race specific workouts in the final 6-8 weeks of training.

Doing workouts that don’t specifically target the demands of your goal race are not as effective as they could be.

As an example, the half marathon requires you to run on the edge of your lactate threshold and is a test of your ability to quickly clear lactate while running at a pace that is just above comfortable. Moreover, you need to train your legs to endure running hard for 13.1 miles.

So, how does a workout such as 5 x 800 meters at 10k pace 3 weeks before your goal race (a sample workout from Hal Higdon’s advanced plan) train you to do this?

It doesn’t.

A better speed workout would be 5-8 miles (depending on experience level) at slightly faster then goal half marathon pace with a short, jogging recovery.

Now you’re teaching your body how to run fast while tired and with little rest – basically what you’ll experience during the race.

An even better workout would be something like 6-8 miles alternating between slightly faster than marathon pace and slightly slower than 10k pace.

This workout is called an alternating tempo and teaches your body how to clear lactate efficiently – precisely what you need to do during the race to finish faster and stronger.

Lack of aerobic development

Another flaw in the Hal Higdon approach is the lack of focus on aerobic development.

But, why is the aerobic system so important and why don’t Higdon programs improve it?

In any event longer than 5k, the aerobic system contributes more than 84% of the energy required to run the race. In the marathon, that number is 99%. Here’s the data if you don’t believe me.

That means to run your best at longer distances from 5k to the marathon you need to fully develop your aerobic system.

So, how do you develop the aerobic system? With slow, easy runs.

If you’re curious, I outlined in great depth what the aerobic system is and exactly how easy runs develop it here. I highly recommend reading that article if you haven’t already.

The problem with the Hal Higdon method is that easy running is a very small portion of the plan. That means you’ll spend less of your training time working on the energy system that contributes 95% of the energy required to run a fast half marathon.

But doesn’t running more lead to injury?

Most runners have an irrational fear that mileage is a primary cause of running injuries.

While I’m certain drastically increasing weekly mileage totals play a role in the likelihood of running injuries, my experience and research has shown that too much intensity is a far more likely reason you might get injured.

Intensity (or speed work) increases your chances of getting injured because it places a far greater stress on your structural system (muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones) than easy running.

For example, you may be able to head out the door and hammer out a long run or a tempo run at 8 minutes per mile (or whatever your tempo pace is), but your hips might not be strong enough yet to handle the stress of the pace and, as a result, your IT band becomes inflamed.

If you progressively and slowly build your mileage while adding the appropriate ancillary work you can handle more miles, train your aerobic system to be stronger, and continue to improve year after year.

This is another awesome post from @Runners_Connect about half marathon training. Click To Tweet

McMillan

The main difference between RunnersConnect and McMillan is how we approach the phases of training.

McMillan envisions the base or general phase like a pyramid. The pyramid model is based on the idea that you begin with a large aerobic base, transition to strength work such tempo runs and hill work, add in speed work, and then peak at the end of the training cycle.

Here’s a good illustration:

McMillan’s methods and this pyramid idea are based mostly off the Lydiard system, which has been shown to be highly successful, specifically because of it’s focus on aerobic development.

However, my main argument against the pyramid model is the notion that aerobic development, lactate threshold, and speed have to be trained independently of each other.

I believe, if done correctly, you don’t have to run months of just mileage or taper off your tempo runs as you introduce speed work.

Second, when you train using the typical pyramid model, you’re forced to revert back to a base building period after each training cycle and you lose many of the of the strength and speed gains you’ve made at the top of the pyramid.

Therefore, you spend a good portion of your next training cycle just trying to get back to that level of speed and strength, instead of constantly improving the current point that you’re at.

My approach is to use what we call the “diamond” model in the general phase, which is designed to slowly build each energy system to its highest fitness before starting the race specific phase.

During the general phase you slowly build upon each component (speed, strength, long run, mileage) so that no particular energy system is left behind. You start at whatever fitness level you’re at and by the end of the training cycle, your aerobic development, speed, and threshold are at their maximum levels simultaneously. Here’s a good way to visualize how this works:

 

The general phase can also be broken down into subsections with a particular focus. For example, if you’re a little weak on speed, workouts can have a more speed development focus whereas if you need to develop your aerobic system, you can target more threshold runs in this phase.

When doing this, I think there are ways to target both or multiple systems, for example by doing a combo workout (tempo run followed by interval work).

Finally, as discussed above, rather than “sharpening” at the top of the pyramid, the RunnersConnect philosophy is to continually get closer and closer to the specific demands of the race with each workout.

In summary, I have no qualms with McMillan’s training philosophy. I think it’s great for long-term development and has a proven track record. There is definitely more than one way to train.

I think the only potential downside is that most runners these days participate in a lot of different races during their training cycle, even when they have 1 or 2 big goal races at the end.

Personally, I’ve found that the base structure of the pyramid makes it very difficult to race well as you build up. This is totally find for elite runners who are training for a big championship race and are generally fast enough to run well all the time.

On the other hand, using the diamond model allows you to be as fit (generally) as you can be and thus better able to perform for these tune-ups. I think it gives you more confidence and allows you to have more consistent results across the board.

Those are the two major coaches/philosophies I can think of. If you have a question about a specific plan type, reply to this email and point me to the plan. I can do analysis and tell you how it compares.

Why an individualized approach matters

Like many coaches, I am not a big believer in stock or template training plans. I strongly believe that there is too much individual consideration that needs to be taken into any training schedule.

Yes, I understand I am in the business of selling training and coaching, but I still believe a personalized plan is always going to be better than a stock plan – regardless of the training philosophy.

Specifically, mileage, number of training days and paces are critical elements of a training plan that are trivialized by template schedules.

They simply assume that you’re running a certain number of miles or days per week based on your “experience level”.

Beginner, intermediate and advanced designations for a runner can vary widely in mileage and tolerance for training. The only mileage progression and total that will work optimally for you is one that takes into account YOUR background and injury history.

Likewise, factoring in your strengths and weaknesses is critical to maximizing the effectiveness of a training plan.

By targeting your weaknesses and using your strengths to your advantage you can ensure that each and every workout is progressing you forward.

As an example, a session of 200 meter repeats is somewhat wasted on the runner who has an abundance of natural speed while it’s essential to runners accustomed to marathon success.

Finally, getting your paces correct is essential for targeting the right energy systems. A lactate threshold run performed at 10-15 seconds faster than your actual threshold means you actually ran zero miles training your threshold and improving that system.

It was a wasted workout.

By getting your training paces correct you can maximize each session.

That’s why we addressed all three of these issues with our custom training plans.

You get a plan specific to your strengths and weaknesses, tailored to your mileage levels, and assigned exact paces to target the right physiological systems.

If you’re interested in receiving a customized training plan based on our training philosophy, you can start a free 14-day trial of our RunnersConnect membership.

It’s a free opportunity to see what a customized, race-specific schedule can look like for you.

Plus, you get coaching support from our coaching staff, access to our live coach chats, our supportive community of over 350 runners, and out insiders library of articles that guide you every single day of your training.

The plans then start as low as $37/month (yearly) or $49/month monthly.

Another informative post from @Runners_Connect. If you are racing a half marathon, read this! Click To Tweet

Free Strength Training Course

The Right Way to Add Strength Training To Your Running to Avoid Injury and Improve Performance

Here’s what we’ve got for you

How the “core” actually contributes to your running and which muscle groups are most important for staying injury-free

Which type of strength training exercises are most likely to directly improve your running performance (based on scientific research)

The 5 most common mistakes runners make with strength training (and how you can fix them)

References

Connect with Jeff Gaudette on Google+

4 Responses on “How RunnersConnect Half Marathon Training Plans Compare to Other Popular Programs

  1. Interesting article. Lots of good information. I note that your energy demands chart refers to the marathon and not the half.

  2. Have you studied the programs offered by Coach Patrick McCann, Marathon Nation/Endurance Nation? His programs, though standardized, are based upon the runner’s current fitness level (Vdot), tested (about) every four weeks.

    Thanks for all your researched articles.

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