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From Meathead to Half-Marathon

I ran my first ever half-marathon this past weekend. After a slight (though perhaps uniquely situational) health scare regarding the state of my blood pressure at the beginning of the year, I started to take my cardiovascular work a bit more seriously. My girlfriend, being an avid runner, convinced me to train for a half-marathon with her as a sort of goal. And being the overly competitive person I am, I set my sights on running one and being as analytical as I could about it.

For some background, I've not run much more than a mile in close to a decade, save for a few instances where I did exactly a mile. Other than this, my training has mostly consisted of air bike intervals and lifting heavy things. In the last four years, I'd competed both at the USA Weightlifting National Championships totaling 290kg, and in a Powerlifting meet totaling 650kg. I have done very little structured conditioning. Though, as a teen who was a full time wrestler, I had logged a number of miles each week cutting weight for matches and tournaments. But a decade later, I had avoided beating the proverbial path.

Now, being the strength coach and meathead I am, I like to be analytical about my training. I tracked heart rates, spent specific time running in zones, and was specific about weekly mileages. The first question I had to ask, however, is what was going to be a realistic goal for this occasion?

For someone whose bull-headed, finishing a half-marathon wasn't in question, but rather finishing it without stopping and in how long.
In my hay day, I could squat close over 550lbs, yet would get out of breath walking up the stairs. It was clear something had to change.

When I started out, my best mile sat in the low nine minute marks. Any pace below 9:00/mile would cause a pretty significant Heart Rate (HR) spike, and my time would be limited. I identified pretty quickly how I wouldn't be able to recover my HR if it breached 170bpm, which was pretty easy to figure out living in an area which is mountainous. With this in mind, my goal was to get my way down to 10:00/mile pacing, with a final time which would put me at 2:30:00 or less. But I forgot about all the adaptations and about super-compensation.

I started by doing three 2-3 mile runs each week, with a goal of increasing mileage from 10 miles per week, to 25 miles per week over time. I also wanted to learn to run by feel, so while I tracked my HR via a Polar HR Strap, I also wanted to learn how to regulate my pace based on what my HR was doing. Knowing my HR would not recover to tolerable levels after breaching 170bpm, I set a goal to keep my runs from breaking the 160bpm mark. Especially with a lot of hills around, this was harder to do than originally thought out. I found myself running many hills at 14:00-15:00/mile paces, and sometimes even slower than that. I worked my way up to 15 miles per week of total distance over three weeks, then did a deload week by dropping the volume back to 10 miles. During this time, I was lifting 2-3 times per week, with main lift volumes sitting between 3-4 sets of 5 reps, and accessories sitting at 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps. On one lifting day I would do a 20 minute Zone 2 ride on an air bike with nasal breathing. This was contained in a four week block.

My second four week block increased the mileage from 15-20 miles per week, ramping up over three weeks, with a fourth week deloading back to 15 miles. During this time, I was doing one slower run of 3-5 miles, a moderate paced run of 5-6 miles, and then a longer run of varying intensity of 8-9 miles. This is not a typical running style or progression, but I like to lift so I wanted to keep lifting and running focused days separate. During this time, I dropped my lifting volume, keeping intensity high. I was hitting main lifts in 2-3 sets of 3 reps, and accessories of 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps. I also added an additional day of Zone 2 work to my strength days, completing a total of 40 minutes of additional non-running conditioning work. This block lasted approximately four weeks.

The third block lasted three weeks, largely due to the increase in running volume leading to the flare up of older shin splint/stress fracture symptoms. In the past as young athlete, I had struggled from posterior tibialis syndrome, or a form of shin splints affecting the back side of the Tibia unlike its more common occurrence on the anterior side of the Tibia. This occurred shortly after my first 10 mile long run, and right as I breached the 25 mile mark. During these weeks, I swapped a singular Zone 2 bike session for an interval session on an Assault Air Runner. After two weeks, I was forced to deload in order to preserve my shins.

The third and final block was the final three weeks leading into the race. I dropped volume to 12-15 miles per week, and started doing more interval based runs and more dynamic efforts. I found I could do five miles of running volume at a time without incurring any shin splint symptoms, so I focused on working on increasing pace. I would end up doing two lifting sessions, which included 20minute Zone 2 bike rides at the end. Then I would do a 3-4 mile run to start the week, a mid week 3-4 miles comprised of timed or distance intervals, and then one long run to reach the weekly mileage. My strength sessions consisted of heavy sets of 1 repetition, and I dropped most of my accessories out. At the last two weeks, I tapered off volume to below 10 miles per week, and kept intensity on those runs high.

What I noticed in this process, however, is how little I understood adaptation and supercompensation. Those deload weeks did something magical for my body. The first run after the end of a lighter volume week almost always noted an 15-20 second reduction in average mile time. My body felt better. I got leaner. When I started, my mile splits averaged 10:30-11:00 across a run. By the end of the first deload week, they had dropped to 10:00-10:30. After the second deload week, they dropped 9:50-10:10. I started being able to hold a conversational pace for 8-9 miles at 10:15/mile. By the end of the third deload week, I was running 9:45/mile averages while staying under 160bpm on a heart rate. And after tapering off volume in the last two weeks, my body was ready.

What I also noticed here, is how maximum strength didn't necessarily go away. It did initially as my mileages crept up, but as mileages tapered back down and my body adapted, I started to touch weights on my Olympic Lifts which I hadn't hit in two or more years. Three days before the half-marathon, I almost hit my old opening Clean and Jerk weight from my last weightlifting meet.

A glimpse from the last mile of the recent half-marathon.

On race day, everything seemed to come together. After 14 weeks of training, I checked my watch at the 6 mile mark to notice I was running a 9:30/mile pace and was feeling good. At 10 miles, I was holding a 8:30/mile pace. In training, I had never held this fast a pace. As I did the math, I realized if I held the pace I'd be just over two hours on a final time. As a wrestler, and then a competitive lifter, you learn to suffer and deal with some pain and high fatigue. I told myself to hold the pace to see if I would have enough in me to push for sub two hours.

Ultimately, I ended up just barely making the sub two hour time mark with a time of 1:58:14. A far cry faster than 2:30:00 like I originally predicted. But, it was a crazy insight into how the body adapts, recovers, and super compensates for the stimuli you give it.

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