Q&A with Hal Higdon

Got a question about running? You're in the right place. Each week, world-renowned coach, author and athlete Hal Higdon posts and answers athlete questions here.

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QUESTION: I am recovering from an ankle injury suffered during a half marathon on December 9. By taking a week off and doing intensive therapy with a physical therapist, I healed enough to run my last 20-miler this past weekend with minimal discomfort. My marathon is on January 12, and I would like to rest my ankle as much as possible until then. What is the minimal amount of running I can do to maintain fitness and allow more healing time for my ankle? If it matters, my half time was 1:50, and I am aiming for a sub 4-hour marathon.

HAL’S ANSWER: Time probably doesn’t matter. When you’re injured you need to rest, whether your marathon goal is in the 2-hour range, 4-hour range or 6-hour range. I’m not sure if even the best educated sports professional can give you a precise answer, particularly since runners differ so greatly in their ability to heal after injuries. But if you will permit me an experienced guess as to the minimal amount of running you need to do to maintain fitness, I’m going to say it would be 2-3 miles every other day. Yes, you might lose some fitness, but probably less than you would think. Most important, you don’t want to re-injure yourself by doing too much. During this final countdown period, stay in close contact with your physical therapist. He can give you better information on your recovery progress than someone like me watching from cyberspace.

QUESTION: I am a former power lifter who started running seriously in July and will run my first marathon January in Baton Rouge. I have run two 5-K races, but that is the extent of my racing experience outside of 3-mile runs in the Marine Corps many years ago. Following the Intermediate 2 plan, I have hit all the training marks except this week when slowed by a knee injury. Nothing serious according to the doctor; I will survive. According to my training times and heart rate monitor, I should be able to hit an 8:00 per mile pace, or slightly faster. I ran 20 a few weeks ago at 8:30 and literally was dancing and singing most of the way. But I failed to finish the next 20. With my injury, should I reconsider my race pace? Any other ideas to keep my fitness up? How about running in the pool?

HAL’S ANSWER: Running in the pool? I would prefer you rested until healed. I’m not certain you need more training at this point, since you may be approaching this marathon too aggressively, particularly when it is your first marathon. In considering your remarks, I catch little hints that may have caused you to run into trouble. You have only been running “seriously” since last summer, yet you are following one of my tougher programs. You seem to be intently monitoring your times in training and have decided that you can run 8:00 pace in the marathon. But while you ran a happy 20 a few weeks ago, you now are injured. The lessons you learned in power lifting may not necessarily transfer to the marathon, which is an activity that lasts hours, not fractions of a second. If you push too hard against the marathon, whether in training or in racing, it may push back at you. In fact, it will push back at you. I recommend at least a short Time Out until you can run again without injury.

QUESTION: Are your Post-Marathon schedules good for after half-marathons too? I’m following your Novice 2 half-marathon program and wonder how to recover after I cross the finish line. Should I do something similar to your Post-Marathon programs, including a Zero Week plus four weeks of increasingly more mileage?

HAL’S ANSWER: Something similar, but nowhere near the five-week recovery suggested for full marathons. Half-marathons don’t beat us up as much, which is one of their appeals. A runner who might run only one or two marathons a year often can fit a half dozen half-marathons into that time frame without problems. There is something about going past 20 miles in a race that tears us down. Part of it is that we drain the not-so-easily-replenished glycogen from our muscles. Tiny muscle tears also occur more in a full marathon. How quickly you recover depends partly on your fitness level: how much running and racing you have done in the past. A high-mileage runner can probably recover from a half in as little as three days, and even novice runners using my programs do half-marathons as part of their full marathon build-up. A new runner might need more recovery time, but a week or so of rest and easy running should be enough.

QUESTION: I ran my first two marathons this year using your Novice 1 training plan, and I’m planning on running the Kalamazoo Marathon in May. Training starts at the beginning of the year. I decided to use Intermediate 1 this time around to improve my time and log a few more miles, but I was curious: What is the significance of running that extra day on Saturdays before the long run at race pace? Is it just to get race pace mileage in? I’m just worried about not getting enough rest when I get around to the heavy mileage later in training. Or is the training going to help me get used to that weekend training?

HAL’S ANSWER: Each one of my marathon training programs gets progressively tougher—and so the jump from Novice 1 and 2 to Intermediate 1 (logically) includes the addition of one more day of running. Thus more miles. But there is a more fundamental difference. My intermediate and advanced programs couple a Saturday pace run with a Sunday long run. The purpose for those who accept the extra challenge of the intermediate programs is to learn race pace. But this also causes you to go into Sunday’s long run somewhat tired, which is one reason I suggest doing that long run at a relatively slow pace: 30 to 90 seconds or more slower than race pace. It’s not what you do on either the Saturday or Sunday runs; it’s the Saturday/Sunday combination that will allow you to progress. Keep in mind that you rest Friday before the weekend double load and rest Monday after it. If you feel you need more rest, you probably should stick with one of the novice programs.

QUESTION: I hope you can give me some guidance on selecting the right pace team on race day. I ran my first marathon in October 2010 and had so much fun I plan to run another in May 2012. My time in the Dublin marathon was 4:03. I followed the Novice 1 training program, but plan to follow Novice 2 this time. My goal is to have another successful, fun, injury-free run, but I would also love it if I could beat that previous time. I am a 47-year-old female. A Boston qualifier might be tough, even though that is a possible goal. I plan to run a half marathon in March per the schedule. Should I use the results of that race to select a marathon pace team? The marathon I plan to run offers pace teams in 5-minute increments between 3:30 and 4:00, then 10-minute intervals from 4:00 to 4:30.

HAL’S ANSWER: Certainly you can wait until March to pick your goal time. There are some excellent prediction programs online. The one I usually refer people to is that offered online by Greg McMillan. But a lot of variables enter in when it comes to predicting performance (and picking a pace team). Course and weather are two, but your fitness level may change from one month to the next. Thus, selecting pace and pace team is a choice you can actually postpone until the moment you show up at the expo and talk to the pace team members about their plans and strategies for the race. Given the number of pace teams offered at the marathon you intend to run, you can fine-tune your choice then.

QUESTION: I am debating whether to sign up for a full marathon in March. I ran my first half marathon in September and I loved it! I really want to try for a full. My problem is having time to train, especially during the week and during the winter. I work full time and have a toddler. I was wondering if it would be enough for me to run a few times a week being sure to do the long weekend runs. I know I should be doing cross-training, weights, etc. I am just not sure if I can squeeze those things in.

HAL’S ANSWER: Who said you needed to cross train and use weights? Not me. Well, I do include a day of cross training on many of my programs, and I also suggest on what days to do some lifting, but need to do them? No. The sport is “running,” not “cross training” or “body building.” Therefore, what is the most important thing you should do? Answer: Run! If your time is very limited, you should do just that and forget about supplemental exercises that will make you more fit, but might not necessarily contribute to marathon success. Take a look at Marathon 3 on halhigdon.com for a minimalist program that will get you to the start and finish lines. We’re all busy, but a lot of individuals with back stories just like yours have run marathons. I have faith that you can too.

QUESTION: I have finished two marathons and just completed a half in a PR time. I tend to train for a race, then take time off and do other fitness activities until I get the itch for another race. My next planned marathon will be Chicago in October 2012, so I figure I need to begin specific training for it around May. My question is this: Over the winter, while I am focusing more on other exercises, what should be my baseline for running (both distance and number of times per week) so I don’t feel like I am starting over again when Chicago training time comes?

HAL’S ANSWER: The research on detraining is simple. For every day away from running, you need two days to catch back up. This doesn’t mean you can’t take rest days, but you want to avoid long periods of inactivity. Thus, one month away; two months climbing back up the ladder. For those who switch sports during the winter - or move from outdoor trails to indoor machines - it’s a good idea to maintain some running in the mix. My Winter Training Program recognizes this fact. Work out on the weights. Use an exercise bike or elliptical trainer, but don’t get too far away from the treadmill. When I used to do a lot of cross-country skiing, it kept me fabulously fit, but I still liked to mix in a couple of pure running days a week to make the transition back to pavement easier in the spring. Most important, find physical activities you like to do even during small breaks away from running. Painting with a broad brush, I’m going to suggest that you run two to three days a week during your winter break and those runs should be 3 to 6 miles. Someone wanting to remain closer to his or her running roots might want to increase the mileage load, although not necessarily more days a week. Maintaining some balance between running and non-running activities will allow you to minimize fitness losses, and you’ll be ready to rumble again in the spring.

QUESTION: I did my last 20-miler today in preparation for the Philadelphia Marathon. I am relieved to be done with it and glad to taper. But I worry about pacing. I have no clue how to pace myself for the race itself. I ran a half marathon in week 5 of your Novice 2 program. Needless to say, I was totally unprepared for the distance, my longest run then having been 9 miles. I finished in 2:03, 9:30 per mile pace. That predicts a 4:21 marathon, or 10:00 pace. I trained with that in mind: pace runs at 10:00; long runs at 11:00 or 11:30. I finished the 20 miles averaging 11:00 and felt strong. I picked up the pace a little for the last couple of miles and felt like I could go further, those mysterious final 6 miles that my coach (you) won’t let me attempt yet. So, what should I do? What pace to choose? When would it be ok to accelerate pace if I am feeling good? I just want to have fun and try to avoid crashing, although breaking 4:45 would be nice. Is that unrealistic? I should add that the 8-mile pace runs were okay, not easy, I had to concentrate to stay on pace, but my heart rate stayed on target the whole time. But now what?

HAL’S ANSWER: It’s hard to predict performance from training runs. Your half in 2:03 offers some clue, but that was early in your training, so you may have improved in fitness since then. But we don’t know, do we, and there never is any guarantee once the gun goes off. If 4:45 is your goal, I suggest that you have a lock on the time, provided the Storm Gods don’t turn against us. Thinking conservatively, I would start the race at a 4:45 pace, or even slower. Then see how comfortable you feel through at least 13 miles, if not to the make-or-break 20 miles. If feeling great, you can make a mad rush to the finish. This might bring you in at a time slower than you might be capable of, but that’s better than setting the bar too high and watching the mad rushers go past you in the last half dozen miles. The bottom line is that, particularly in a first-time marathon, you are better off running too slow than trying to run too fast. You’ll enjoy the race more, and that leaves the door open for better performances in the future.