Walkthrough: From Couch to a Sub 2h Half Marathon In 6 Months

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I recently looked once more back at my beginning days as a runner over ten years ago. Back then I was struggling with chronic illness and once medication started to work I decided lying on a hospital with an infusion in my arm that within six months I‘m going to run a half marathon. And I‘m going to finish in less than two hours.

As you might have already guessed, I succeeded. And not only did I achieve this goal, but also set the foundation of consistent running, many marathon and ultra mountain races and last but not least: A life that changed for good, not only regarding my health.

So with this post today I wanna walk you through my steps and present exactly how I went from being sick and inactive for years to training and finishing a sub two-hour half marathon.

Alright, let‘s get started

1. Setting the Goal

In hindsight I was crazy. Sure my intention to start with running was obviously a good thing. But why the hell was my first goal running a half in less than 2h? I wouldn’t say this was healthy goal setting.

But still I chose this goal. The main reason probably was that my mother was running half marathons at that time. Not fast, but always finishing. And I thought what my mom can do, I should also be able to achieve.

But no, just finish it was not enough. Before my health struggles started, I used to be active a lot. Cross country skiing in winter, hiking, cycling and some running in summer. And in my school days playing basketball was also something I did as much as possible. Maybe it was because of all that why I also thought I needed a time goal.

The two hours however were not the result of much thought and calculations. It just seemed like an achievable time for the distance and I didn’t want to come up with an odd time like 2h 3m and 14s.

Today I wouldn’t recommend starting out with these type of goals, I’d do smaller steps. However back in 2008 I now had something to work on.

2. Choosing a Race

So I had a goal in spring and now was looking for a nice race in fall. Luckily in Switzerland there’s not a shortage of races at all. Except in winter you can go racing somewhere on almost any weekend.

So I just had to choose one race. And that was easy. Close to where I was living at that time there was a nice, pretty well-known half marathon around a small lake. This race attracted an international field every year and thousands of amateur runners.

I signed up to the Greifensee Lauf in September and now had a date and a course I could prepare for. It’s a mostly flat route around the lake mostly on trails but not technical at all. The main difficulty I saw, was a climb a bit more than 1km in length after about 18km into the race.

3. Gathering Knowledge

After the date was clear I needed a plan. And I needed to know what the hell I should be doing in order to achieve my goal.

In my childhood days when we used to go cycling in the mountains during summer holidays, I had a little booklet about common sports injuries. I used to read it a lot and learned by heart how to prevent all of those injuries.

I remembered that little book when I started to learn how this running thing works. So from the beginning of my running career, avoiding injuries and focusing on increasing health through running and not decreasing it, was one of my main focusses. I learned everything I could about common running injuries, how they happen, how to diagnose and how to treat them as fast as possible should they occur.

Apart from learning how my body can survive this adventure, I started to gather knowledge on the workouts and the training regimen that is needed to prepare for two hours of running. I bought several books and searched for running websites and blogs.

I’m someone who wants to do things the right way and I think reading, learning and becoming a student of the sport is very beneficial. There are some runners that just went out one day running a dozen miles. But in my experience, learning a lot, making a plan and reflecting on the execution of this plan on a regular basis, is one of the best pieces of advice I can give to beginning runners.

4. Analyzing Where I Am

So I set some crazy goals, signed up for a race 6 months in the future and learned the basics of endurance running. But I still didn’t have a clue on where my body was at the time.

I set myself a time goal for a race but haven’t been running for years and didn’t know how far and how fast I can run and the amount of training I can do. Another question was: Do I have enough time for training?

As far as my fitness level, I knew that I have to start from scratch. I wasn’t able to do any sports for years and chronic illness brought me to a point where walking slowly for five minutes became a challenge. So not much endurance and fitness at all.

The good thing was my weight. I was never really overweight and my illness once made me lose more than 20 pounds within weeks. So an overuse of my knees didn’t bother me in the beginning.

Regarding time for training, the situation was like many know it. I recently finished my education and started working full time, moved alone into an apartment and was single at the time. So weekends were pretty free and I also could run after work in the evening.

5. My Training Scheme That I Still Use Today

The way I plan my training is still the same today as it was over a decade ago. I don’t plan out the entire training prior a race with every single workout. Rather I define a scheme on what kind of training is needed to achieve my goals.

For my first race, and most races I do now, my focus is mainly on three things:

In order to prevent injuries I knew I need to do more than just running. Stretching, some strength training, healthy nutrition and enough sleep were crucial in order to stay healthy. And most importantly: I need to learn the signals of my body, how it reacts to the training and how much work I can do.

To gain endurance a weekly long run was needed. Low intensity, so pretty slow and close to walking in the beginning, and week by week increasing in distance.

And to increase my pace I obviously also need a workout that is fast. Either one interval training, tempo run or hill workout needs to be done in order to increase my fitness.

And that’s pretty much the training scheme I still use today: One low intensity long run each week to increase endurance, one tempo session per week to increase speed, and a constant focus on healthy and injury prevention. All the other workouts be it runs or cross training like cycling, are great but just a nice to have.

And in fact I mostly didn’t run more than two times a week. But I made this two workouts focussed and of high quality.

6. Buying Equipment

Many pages of knowledge have been read. Many thoughts been made. But the first mile of training was still to come. And before that, there was only one thing left to do: I needed some equipment.

I focused mainly on two things in the beginning. Shoes and a GPS running watch that also measured my heart rate.

For shoes I went to a local running store and got my stride analyzed. I wanted to do things right and as already mentioned do everything I could to prevent possible injuries. So they filmed me running on a treadmill. I had a bit of overpronation so they handed me a pair of supported and cushioned Nike trainers. Something I don’t use at all anymore. But that story is for another day.

I also bought a Garmin watch with GPS and chest strap for heart rate monitoring. I could also sync it to the computer and with the Garmin software I could analyze my training runs. That seems pretty obvious but things weren’t as sophisticated in 2008 as as it is today. The watch had one issue: It used mostly touch control. Sounded nice back then but was pretty annoying every time when I went running in rain. On these days the rain controlled my watch…

The total beginner I was, I didn’t buy any running clothes but thought I’d be well off with some regular shirts and shorts. That changed quite fast as chafing became an issue. After using sportswear specifically for running, I never went back.

7. First Steps

So here I was in my new trainers with my fancy GPS watch that also showed a surprisingly high heart rate even before I started running. I planned to take things easy in my first week. First I wanted to get to a point where I can run 5k without stopping.

So I started out easy running for 5 minutes. Then I walked for 2 minutes to get my heart rate down and then ran again for another five minutes. On this first training “run” I did three times 5 minutes of running interspersed by 2 minute walk breaks. And that was it!

I felt great to finally get started with my training. Alone getting out there being on the move and working towards my goal, boosted my motivation even more. But the data of this session didn’t look very promising. I did a bit more than 2k of running with a pace that was way above what would be a 2h half marathon tempo. But I still had some months to come so no worries, I thought.

I did about five workouts in the first two weeks. Every time I’ve added another 5 minute running segment. After these first two weeks I took a recovery week. I did run in this week but not much. Instead I focused on recovery and checking my body if there are any aches and issues and tried to sort things out.

After recovery it was time to skip intervals for one workout each week and try to run without walk breaks. I managed to run for almost 30 minutes at an easy pace. In the coming weeks this workout developed into my long run. I’ve tried to add 2k every training week. On the other mandatory workout I retained intervals but speeded up a bit to get my heart pumping. On some weeks I did a third run that was about half the distance of my long run but the intensity a tiny bit higher.

8. Run, Eat, Sleep, Repeat

So week after week I put on my trainers after work and on weekends, headed outside and went running. From the beginning I started seeing improvements. I was able to run longer and also my pace improved slowly but steadily.

Before I even noticed, running became an integral part of my life and next to performance I also started seeing other changes.

I had an eye on what I ate. My diet wasn’t healthy at all before (and it still isn’t perfect) but at least running put what I eat into my consciousness.

Also my sleep improved. Normally I’m a person that needs some time to fall asleep. Mostly because my head is still working and often it is still processing everything that happened during the day. With running, my stress level reduced and my body was tired enough to fall asleep faster if I put in a workout after coming home from work.

And I felt better each week. I felt energized and my body that I gave up some years ago felt like it can do some great stuff. That alone was worth starting to run.

One thing I learned in these months of training was that consistency is key. When training regularly you’ll for sure keep improving. My focus on not getting injured paid off especially in these early days of running, in which this new activity needed to earn its place in my everyday life.

9. Race Day Preparations

As training weeks passed and I got closer and closer to the level that might bring me to success at my goals, I started to think about race day. And with that all the preparation that come along with it.

When and where can I get my race bib? What equipment should I use on race day? How is the aid station situation? Is there someone who accompanies me? How can I get there and how do I come back if I can’t walk anymore after the race?

All these questions needed an answer in order to calm my nerves. But it’s mostly organisation and thinking ahead, so I didn’t struggle with that too much. But still you need to think about these things so you’re ready on race day.

Another thing was mental preparation and a race strategy. I went through the race multiple times with all the things that can happen on race day. Rain and cold temperatures, getting sick, lack of energy, injury. I just wanted to be mentally ready for every possibility.

10. The Gun Goes Of

And then I was finally at the starting line and placed myself in the start block with my anticipated finish time of 1:45 to 2:00. My longest training run was close to a 20k and my data indicated that a pace that brought me to the finish in less than 2 hours seemed realistic.

And then the gun went off and all the thinking and preparation didn’t matter anymore. Now is the time to execute!

It’s the start that’s crucial in many races. It happens easily that out of anticipation you go out too fast. And that might kill you further in the race.

For me I took the first mile to get into the race, pace didn’t matter but finding a rhythm I felt comfortable with and taking a position where I was surrounded by runners with more or less the same level were my priorities.

Also as a total beginner I had some looks on my watch to check if heart rate is in a decent range. Going over 90% of my maximum could get me into trouble. So in the first few miles I checked in regularly until I could trust my feeling.

11. Nervousness, Runner‘s High, Struggles, Finish!

To be honest I was quite nervous at the beginning. Never have I been running the distance especially not at a pace below 6 min/km. I had no idea for how long I can maintain the pace or if I can speed up towards the end.

Also I had no clue about food intake during a race. I did all my training runs without anything but water. The plan was to drink something at every aid station and in the last third of the race I planned to take in one or the other gel.

After I found my rhythm, I calmed down and started to enjoy running in a beautiful landscape in this nature preserve area. I had some great tunes in my ears, the weather was fine and soon that runner’s high got me going. I was flying now and very confident that I can finish this race and the sub 2h time goal seemed to be achievable if I can keep going like this.

But after about 15k things started to get tough. The distance wasn’t the problem as I’ve done it several times during training. But I wasn’t used to the pace and my energy level started to drop and it felt harder and harder to maintain my pace.

One kilometer later I took a gel which soon after gave me another boost. Right what I needed to get over the short climb towards the city where the finish line waited for my arrival. I checked my watch and thought that it really can work out if I finish strong.

After coming across the last turn I saw the finish, heard the speaker and the many people cheering to us runners. I gave everything left in my tank and finished in 1:58:47, totally happy but also exhausted.

I’ve done it!

12. Recovery

The moment you cross the finish line your recovery process starts. That might sound a bit technical and not very emotional. And that at a moment where your emotions are going nuts.

Well for me that’s all part of recovery. If you’re happy and pleased with your performance, recovery is much easier. Sure you still have sore muscles, but you view it differently with positive feelings. You should try to hold on to the post-race buzz as long as possible. Let it carry you to the next challenges!

Right after the finish, getting my fluid levels back to normal was on top of my priority list. So hydration is the first thing to do. And yes, I started with a beer.

After you’re back home and took a nice shower, prepare yourself a big, healthy meal. Take in enough carbs to restore your levels and enough proteins to foster the reparation of damaged muscle tissue. Also an extensive stretching session should be done.

Sleep enough in the days after the race and if you can, get a massage or foam roll.

My appetite was above average for a couple of days after the race. It’s kinda hard to not fall for tons of chocolate 🙂

13. Next Steps

So my race was done, my goals achieved. What now?

Sure achieving the goals I set myself was great. But the best thing was that I didn’t ever consider to stop running. Getting out there running on a regular basis for 6 months got me hooked and I wanted to keep reaping all the benefits that come along with it.

And after all I started to love running, I’ve developed a passion for it. So only four weeks after my first half marathon I did another one and was able to cut 10 minutes from my finish time.

After that I did two more halfs before going for the full marathon and beyond. I kept going with running setting myself ever more goals and I still love every single training run I do. What started out with a crazy goal and 6 months of training, turned into a life-long passion. And I even ended up writing dozens of article about running so you, my dear reader, might get the one or the other insight that helps you on your own running journey!

Happy running,
mikula

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