Half Marathon to Half Ironman in 1 year

On June 5, 2010 I nearly wrecked myself running my first half marathon.

On June 5, 2011 I finished a half ironman in good form and smiling.

I didn’t notice the 365-day separation until just before the race, but it seems like a pretty good accomplishment for a year, so I thought I’d share how I did it.

First off, I was neither over-prepared for the half marathon nor under-prepared for the HIM. In fact, it was the opposite. I hadn’t trained for the half marathon, and it showed. I ran a 1:47 on an all downhill course, and I was toast for days afterward. The HIM was just a stop-over on the way to a full ironman eight weeks later. I finished in 5:13, which put me in the top third of my AG, and I ran a 1:39 half marathon–shaving 8 minutes off last year’s time–on a very tough course and after 56 miles on the bike!

I trained a lot in the year between the two races — there’s no way around that. To be an endurance athlete, you have to consistently put in the time.

I trained pretty sloppily for an olympic-distance triathlon after the half marathon, and then trained for a full marathon. It was in the marathon training that I finally got serious. I found a plan that I liked, bought a heart rate monitor, got some quality running shoes, and started fueling properly for training. All of those things are essential, except for the heart rate monitor. (However, I love my Garmin. I’ll have to save why for another post, but knowing how hard you’re working and how fast you’re going is invaluable.)

After the marathon, I took a couple month off season, training sporadically (and foolishly running my first ultra, a 50k four weeks after the marathon). Then I started the long, slow build toward the ironman, including the HIM 17 weeks into that plan.

My training has been consistent — I miss a workout every week or two, when life takes over, and when that happens, I forgive myself and get back on it. But 95% of the time, I do exactly what my plan says. During many workouts I want to quit early. I never give in to that urge. Once you start letting that part of the mind take over, well, I don’t want to find out what happens. Part of what I love about training is the strength it instills in me — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I love going to work having completed a tough workout. How much less satisfying it would be to go to work having completed the first two-thirds of a workout and then given in to weaker side!

My build has been very gradual. When I try to build volume too quickly, I start to hurt. Too many people hurt themselves by training to get too far, too fast. I add no more than 5-10% total time each week, and every 3 or 4 weeks, I take a recovery week, dropping my volume by about a third.

I have done very little high intensity work. High intensity running has to be approached very carefully. As I’ve written about previously, despite the fact that I’ve done zero running at my 10k pace or faster, I still improved my 10k time dramatically. Doing almost all my training in zone 2 has enabled me to improve my aerobic efficiency and endurance, which translated to a solid HIM debut. Next season, I plan to add some high intensity work in my quest to get faster, but I will do so very cautiously. For athletes in their first year, I highly recommend sticking to a comfortable, conversational pace.

I’ve carefully refined my form. I’ve studied barefoot and minimalist runners, and I shamelessly copy the form of my triathlete hero — Craig Alexander. Look at how he runs: short, quick, strong strides (there’s a great shot at 2:33). I drove 4 hours for a top-rate FIST fit for my new triathlon bicycle. I do swimming drills and am always focused on my swimming form. Going long is hard enough — any inefficiency in your form just makes it that much harder and adds dramatically to the possibility of injury.

Finally, I’ve prioritized recovery. I get eight hours of sleep a night. I avoid junk food. I take a protein smoothie after tough workouts. I wear compression tights when I’m sore. And I make sure I’m not overdoing the training.

The reality of endurance sports rubs against this culture of instant gratification in a funny way. Maybe that’s why more of us feel drawn to it every year. There is no quick path to greatness in endurance racing. Aristotle said that excellence is not an act but a habit. Get in the habit of training consistently, making modest improvements week-in and week-out, and taking care of yourself between workouts, and a year from now, I guarantee you’ll be surprised at how far you’ve come.

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