One of the things I've been doing while on hiatus (which will, barring a couple of exceptions, continue for a while yet) is getting back to my running. (Yes, yet again I am getting back to running.)
Now that, knock wood, I am in reasonable health, it's time to be improving on that by getting active. Running is my prime way of getting active. Even though there's no logical or physical requirement, if I'm not running some, I also don't do other good things like lift some weights, do some rehabilitation exercises, do some core strengthening, and so on. So it's more important for me to run than if I were otherwise more virtuous.
At the end of April, my youngest son gave me an excuse that will help me with my goal setting process. Some people do fine with 'just do it'. Many people, and I'm one, do better with having a goal. My major goal is to complete that half marathon race next year the same day as my son. I'd say with him, but with little training he ran a time that I'll probably need a couple years of steady training to reach! So that's a nice goal itself, but how to get from here -- almost no running or other aerobic exercise in the previous 6 months -- to there -- running 13.1 miles (21.1 km) straight through?
That's where intermediate goals come in. Athletes, I'm told, make much use of this, and it seems like a generally good idea. A big goal a year out is the major motivator. But it doesn't say much about the roadmap. And without a decent roadmap, it's easy to do nothing for the first 9 months and then exclaim "Oh no, how am I going to run that race in only 3 months!?"
My plan is to break the major goal in to quarters. 3 months at a time, each ending with a goal race. It will be 5k at the end of July, 10k at the end of October, 15k at the end of January, and the half marathon iteself at the end of April 2012. I know that there are couch to marathon in 4 month plans, but I dislike that approach greatly. I've heard from too many people who never ran again, or who got injured (and probably never ran again) after that approach. Since I plan on keeping running, and am doing it for my health, such an approach is out.
The first 3 months take me from couch to 5k. In this period, I'll be working towards running 30 minutes straight through. Right now, I'm at run 2 minutes, walk 1 minute. You can see my suggestion for how to choose run:walk proportions on my running progression note. The basic idea is to start with walking for 30 minutes as a comfortable activity and then toss in some comfortable running as part of your 30 minutes. What's happening in my body (and yours if you go through a similar program) in this phase is that the cardiovascular system is improving at pulling in oxygen and distributing it around to the muscles.
Going from 5k to 10k involves a couple different things. The obvious one is that I have to increase my running duration from 30 minutes to 60 minutes. Regardless of your pace, by the way, those times are good durations to work with. 30 and 60 minutes seem to be important durations for your body's response to the training. The other training consideration is that even though by this time my cardiovascular system will be in relatively good shape, the muscles will still be adapting to the new activity of running. They 'forget' that running is normal in something like 6 months. It takes 3-6 months for them to relearn how to run, rebuild to be strong enough to run easily, and so forth. This doesn't mean that you can't run at all; but it does mean that running is still taxing the muscles and they need more time to rebuild after each workout than will be the case later. It also suggests that this is not the time to run on particularly hilly courses, or with extreme speed (sprinting 100 meters). They're good things to do, in principle, but first the muscles need to be trained and ready.
After these 6 months, the muscles and cardiovascular system will be in decent shape, and ready for the demands of running good long distances and even with pretty good speed. Comments about speed are always compared to the person. Compared to an elite runner, I have never run with speed. My fastest 1 mile race is far slower than an elite marathoner averages for 26.2 miles. Still, for me that is speed. More importantly, in terms of health and training, it is speed to my body -- challenging and requiring extra time for recovery.
From 6-9 months, I'll be working on going from 10 k to 15 k. This will also be when the last major system in the body will be starting to finish up its adaptation to running. That's the tendons, ligaments, and bones. One of the major types of injury in runners, perhaps especially in the first year, is to inflame the tendons. Even though the muscles are fine by this point, and perfectly happy to contract many, many times, and do so with speed, the tendons they're pulling are still adjusting. Those 30-60 minute runs at moderate speed of the first 6 months aren't terribly taxing (if they are -- slow down, run shorter, or both) on the tendons and such. But in this quarter, I'll be taking the duration up to 90 minutes, and starting to introduce some more challenging running (more significant hills, running pretty hard for 100-400 meters). So, to permit the adjustment, my pace will be pretty relaxed on those long runs, and I won't be running as many of those hard/fast stretches as I will a year later. Enough to encourage the body to adapt, but not enough, knock wood, to encourage injury.
The last stretch will be 9-12 months in to training -- working on going from being able to run a 15k race to being able to run a half marathon. In some respects, this is the easiest stage. There is a rule of thumb, which has worked for me also, that if you can run some distance, you can survive a run 1.5 times as long. It won't be pretty, and you're somewhat asking for injury, but you can probably complete it. What I'll be training for is to complete it in reasonable comfort and without injury. In this phase, the body should be pretty much finished with adapting to running. So it is here that I'll be less restrictive about how fast I run, or how hilly the routes are. This last is particularly good, because I really like running on trails, and they tend not to be flat around here. I'll also work on increasing my longest run of the week from 90 minutes to 120 minutes. Maybe that'll be every other week for the runs longer than 90 minutes. 90 is really my longest 'do it every week' kind of duration.
Along the way, I'll have an eye on numbers. (You're shocked that I look at numbers, I know.) There are two sets, paces and equivalents. I have a conservative goal of 2:15 (hours:minutes) for the half marathon. That means a certain pace per mile (km). So one thing I'll have an eye on is how far I can jog the required pace. At the moment, with my walk:run approach, that's about 1 mile. The other thing are the equivalents. The farther you race, the slower you run. When I was in shape last, I could run a 4 minute mile (pace) -- for about 100 meters. For most people, if they're equally well-trained at both distances, they'll take 4.67 times as long to run a half marathon as a 5k. And I have rules for other distances as well. The positive part of this is, I don't need to run very fast by my standards to meet these numbers. The only thing I 'need' to do is meet the 100 meter time that is equivalent to the 2:15 half marathon*, which I did last week and which did not require me to strain the muscles and tendons. The equivalent for an optimistic time (1:45, let's say) would require serious strain, and, at this point, probably get me injured. This way, I get to check something off -- mark off a milestone, another good thing for training plans -- without having to risk much. Positive feedback.
And then celebrate the year back to running by doing that half marathon race with my son.
* There's more than a little fiction involved in extrapolating from 100 meters to 21.1 km. And that qualifier of 'equally well trained' is important. It takes much longer to get to a given performance level for the half marathon than the 100 meters. Still, for my own amusement, and for having things to check off for my progress, it works. If I were already in reasonable shape, I wouldn't look at equivalents for anything shorter than 5k.