Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 6 April 2020

Can you train for a half marathon in three weeks? Why, yes, you can

With a couple of simple caveats – a running trainer and good base-level fitness – a short-notice half marathon is indeed do-able

Nike Run Club coach Karl helped The National's Ashleigh Stewart get ready for the RAK half marathon in three weeks 
Nike Run Club coach Karl helped The National's Ashleigh Stewart get ready for the RAK half marathon in three weeks 

Signing up for a half-­marathon with three weeks’ notice isn’t exactly conventional. Running-training 101 states that the most important preparation for any kind of long-distance race is a slow and well-managed plan that helps you gradually build up your endurance over a matter of months.

So three weeks before the UAE’s premier 21.1-kilometre race, the Ras Al Khaimah Half Marathon (which took place last Friday), when Nike Running challenged me to take part on the premise that one of its coaches would help whip me into shape, I must have been feeling particularly ambitious to agree. Disclaimer: I’ve run long distances before. Though I’m not naturally a runner, I’ve run several half-marathons and three marathons (my most recent being Abu Dhabi Marathon in December), so I’m not a complete novice. But I had also taken the last three months off most forms of exercise, so while you could argue “muscle memory”, I could counter that with “too much cheese, bread and complete inactivity”.

Enter coach Karl

Luckily, coach Karl (who is actually a pacer for Nike, but my own personal coach in this instance) was up for the task. He chalked me up a three-week training plan and away we went. I was surprised to see that most of my plan involved speed and tempo work – and only a couple of long-distance runs. Surely that was contradictory to what we were trying to achieve here, I thought. But as it turned out, this attention to speed work was about to help me knock six minutes off my half-marathon personal best on race day.

It was the first time I’d had a running coach, mostly due to personal resistance. I don’t like running with other people because I find it intimidating, and I’ve never been particularly fast. But Karl was encouraging and positive about my progress, and I could feel myself improving after only a few sessions in and I was surprised at what I could do if I actually pushed myself. The day we completed a sprint session at a pretty consistent 3.45-minute pace, I thought my Apple watch was lying to me. And then, I was a convert.

The secret, from what I can tell, is to always keep your body guessing. Whereas my training has historically consisted of one speed run per week, here we were switching it up completely: some days were straight sprints, some days were longer runs but at a faster pace. Regardless of what they involved, the sessions were never longer than five or six kilometres. Again, this seemed to go against everything I knew about long-distance running. However, coach Karl was adamant that this would pay off.

Race day ready

Come race day, I’d notched up one 15km run, a couple of others of more than 10km, and a handful of speed runs. I felt incredibly unprepared. But having done marathons in the past, my perception of two hours of running had become more surmountable. So I thought I’d throw caution to the wind here and at least try for a new personal best – each of my previous half-marathons had been run at an almost identical time of an hour and 51 minutes.

I started out at RAK by sticking to a pace of five-minute kilometres, which I figured I could maintain for at least half the race, and then just do whatever I could to finish. Instead, when my trusty watch bleeped when I got to the 10km mark, I was surprised to still be feeling fine, and so I continued on. In the end, I ran a pretty consistent race that varied between 4.38 and 5.05 minutes per kilometre. I finished in one hour and 45 minutes, shaving a whole six minutes off my personal best. I was ecstatic – I’d never even run a 5km race that fast. I asked Karl to never leave me.

As part of the Nike challenge, we were also charged with trying out the brand’s new React Infinity shoes. Given that these are designed to prevent injury, I wasn’t exactly convinced when I wore them the first time as I ran over an uneven tile on the marina boardwalk and rolled my ankle. It had little to do with the shoes, sure, but it did seem an unfortunate omen. In the end, the shoes themselves were light and extremely comfortable to run in, but the real game-changer was the personalised and tailor-made training plan. If you’re serious about running, I’d argue that there’s simply no better way to improve.

I’m not about to start advocating for three-week training plans to become the norm, but sometimes less really can be more – and now there’s no excuse not to sign up for a race that’s just around the corner.

Updated: March 2, 2020 11:16 AM

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