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10 Things I Didn’t Know About Training For A Half Marathon PR

Many of my runs pass this important marker every morning, a reminder of where I qualified and what I'm capable of.

I’ve never trained, I mean trained trained, for a half marathon before. 13.1 have always fallen in the middle of another training cycle, right before or after a goal race (two of my fastest halfs sandwiched the Boston Marathon), or I just rode existing fitness into running one for fun. Last October, I decided to jump all in and focus on a goal half marathon—the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon, which is on Super Bowl Sunday. Why this one? I could mentor for another season with Team Challenge, the course is flat and I wanted to get out of town.

I’m running the fastest workouts I’ve run since high school, and I’m having a total ball doing it. I love the distance—I’ve done it close to 30 times—and now I love the speed that training is affording me. There are also those unexpected joys you stumble upon when you tackle a new form of training—training to run really, really fast. My really, really fast is a 90-minute half marathon, and I’ve encountered a few surprises along the way.

You’re not as chronically exhausted as during marathon training…

This makes total sense now—my total weekly mileage is about 60 percent of what I was doing for marathon training. It’s refreshing to pound out eight half-mile repeats at a hard effort and not have to take a three-hour nap before dinner. It’s fun that the longest run is 13 miles, not 22. Don’t get me wrong—my legs are still screaming WTF? half the time, but it’s easier to find the energy to stretch after a run instead of stretching out on the couch, and I still have enough mojo to stumble into yoga at least once a week.

Tip: I also make a point to drink, drink, drink a ton of water and at least one nuun tablet during the work day, which (surprise, surprise…not) makes a heaping world of difference. 

…but you’re still tired AF after all the speedwork.

Part of me did get long-run amnesia, thinking 13-milers after a week of zero 10-mile tempos would be a breeze. Wrong! Stacking harder efforts on top of each other can still take it out of you, even if it is just a 6-mile tempo. By the time the weekend long run rolled around, I was either riding the high of a successful week or still tapping into that inner strength to get me to finish. (Thankfully it was usually the former.)

Tip: Hot yoga after a hard workout, even if it’s the next morning, really takes the sore out.

You’re faster than you think you are—promise. 

If you’ve never explored speedwork in a serious, let’s-get-uncomfortable way, then I believe you don’t truly know how fast you are. I’m not saying go hit the pavement right away; if you want to get faster, then build up, and do it with a coach. I never ever thought I would be coming close to 6-minute mile pace for half-mile repeats and still feel like I could do one more after I was done. Insane! When the half is the only thing you’re focusing on, it’s so much easier to let your body find and refine that speed I know you have.

Tip: One of my new favorite workouts is 1 minute on/off, and you can make it whatever pace and however long you want. If you want to try it for one mile, do 1 minute at your goal pace, then 1 minute at a slow jog or walk.

Having a coach for a speed-related goal is key, at least for me.

I want to shave nearly 6 minutes off my current half-marathon PR, and there was no way I was doing that with the same willy-nilly “plan” I sort of used on other races. I needed someone to create workouts, objectively review the progress, give me a nudge where I needed it or reel me in where I got too excited. Working with Ekiden, a new online coaching platform, has been a joy and a breeze. Half the time the workouts are brand-new to me, and I’ve grown to enjoy (and, shocker, look forward to) each one.

Tip: Be honest with the coach and, like mental coaches (therapists), don’t settle if it isn’t a good fit.

You don’t need to be a scaredy cat about new workouts.

Meow. The unknown has always been a weird spot for me, as I’m sure it is for everyone. I’m afraid of failure, and in the past that’s kept me from even trying. I have grown to love exploring fresh workouts and figuring out how to execute them well. The best part about it is you have nothing to compare to. Sure there are goal times to hit, but it’s a fun chance to check in, talk to your body and assess the best way for you to hit those desired paces—all while running in a way you’ve never done before. How cool is that?!

Tip: Remind yourself it’s a clean slate, and the first time you tackle a new workout can be a baseline. You don’t have to knock it out of the park on the first go.

Being fair with yourself should be the primary goal.

About a month ago, I had a key workout on the schedule, and I skipped it. The world is ending. All fitness up to that point will be lost because I didn’t run 6 miles. I’ll probably have to drop out of the race. All of these thoughts were things that nagged me and ate at my soul when I was prepping for Boston. Nothing was going right, until I threw my arms in the air and said, Whatevs. Borrowing that last-minute mentality heading into my second-ever marathon, I didn’t bat an eye when I hopped over a scheduled run simply because I wasn’t feeling it. Being fair with how I’m feeling has gone from a lie I tell myself to something that I consciously prioritize daily. Because I’m running speeds that are very fast for me, resting the legs, lungs, gut and mind are sometimes more important than forcing a workout that really isn’t exciting me. And guess what—my runs are actually getting faster, not slower.

Tip: If you skip a workout or feel down about training in general, go do something else that has nothing whatsoever to do with running.

I’m not cranky.

I joke with my boyfriend about how much better my mood is during this training than before a marathon. Not only do I just enjoy these types of runs more than the sometimes monotonous marathon miles, but I’m also sleeping more, eating the right amount and just leaving time for real life outside of running. I feel pride every time I surprise myself with a fastest final rep or a negative-split run (which I’ve done more of in the last three months than ever). I share with my friends, post on Strava, get text-message high-fives from my coach. It’s a well-rounded, exciting experience; I’m not just training “to get through it,” something I’ve admittedly done too much of in the past.

Tip: Life outside of running is so incredibly important; sometimes you have to force it to exist at first, but once it does, running is so much more enjoyable.

Strength training is 100 percent legit.

I’ve talked about this before, but taking some time off from regular running and zeroing in on bodyweight strength training mixed with yoga has been the best thing I’ve done for myself. I feel the added muscle working in my favor, and my love for yoga has trickled into my normal routine. Chasing a hard or long run with one hour in a heated studio has decreased my soreness to a point of near-nonexistent on most occasions. Bonus: I feel energized enough to get to said yoga class every week.

Tip: I tried Kayla Itsines BBG program and catered it to myself where I needed to.

I’m just really, really excited is all.

I never thought I would be so excited for a race, both for the big-time goal and just to see what happens. I’m confident I will run a PR either way, and I think there’s something to be said about maintaining a level of jazz through training that precedes any frustrations, setbacks or obstacles. No matter how my gut feels, how my mind is thinking or how my legs feel, I’ve created excitement and curiosity for myself and let that be the main driver this entire time.

Tip: Think of your best races—were you grimacing the whole time, or were you kind of enjoying yourself? 

I feel like a kid again.

Over the holiday break, I had the opportunity to do repeats at my high school track. Stepping onto the oval will always cause something to bubble up inside of me. I can taste the competition even when I’m the only one out there, I can feel the nerves deep in my gut even when there are no clocks, and my legs instantly recall how to navigate a track. Settle on the backstretch, lean the turns, knees up across the line. I feel like a kid again, wide-eyed and terrified of what’s about to go down, but stoked because you know there’s no feeling like it. Feeling like a kid has been an ongoing theme this whole time. Even though I talked myself through my final half-mile repeat yesterday morning, there was no malice in my thoughts or hatred toward having to dig for 3 more minutes. The workout wasn’t a chore—it was playtime on the road.

Tip: If you lose that sense of freedom you had as a kid, ditch the watch, run for fun and jump right in the middle of the deepest puddle. I did that on a recovery run two weeks ago!

Caitlyn Pilkington

Caitlyn Pilkington

Caitlyn Pilkington is the web editor for Women's Running. She started running competitively in 2001 and has completed three marathons and tons of half marathons. Her proudest moment as a runner was crossing the finish line of her first marathon in 3:29, qualifying for the 2016 Boston Marathon.