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Stop Using Finish Time Marathon Plans: Discover a New Approach to Run Training

I got a message on Instagram from a guy with a goal of running under 1:50 for the half. He was asking if he should adjust his 1:45hr half marathon training plan or leave it the same.

I immediately got annoyed at these silly finish-time training plans because they do more harm than good. 

Here’s why they suck;

1. You have no idea if the finish time is realistic

2. Easy runs are often too hard because everything uses pace rather than HR

3. There’s no ability to personalise the plan to your thresholds and intensity zones

OK, so let’s call my mate Steve. Steve’s got himself this finish-time training plan designed for a 1:45 half marathon. Steve’s goal is 1:50. That difference is 20sec/km or 40sec/mi.  MASSIVE.

To mitigate the pace difference, Steve can simply adjust the prescribed paces to align with his finish time goal. Problem solved, easy. 

Still, I have no idea if Steve is even capable of 1:50. Steve’s either training too hard or too easy. There’s zero chance Steve is dialled on every session.


From my experience, Steve is going to pick a training plan for a time that is faster than his goal, he’s going enter into the plan guns blazing only to fit out the big sessions are really hard, and he’s struggling to hit the targets. Not only that, Steve’s getting tired from training too hard, so he starts to miss some sessions and deviate from the training plan. Now, Steve’s glancing at the plan and picking and choosing from workouts he likes the look of and ignoring the recovery runs or really hard sessions.  Steve rolls up to the event with zero idea whether he can complete his goal, plus he’s tired from panic-training the last couple of weeks because he needed to “catch-up” on some fitness. 

Steve starts the race fast, obviously because despite knowing exactly the splits he needs to run to achieve his goal time, he feels good the first few Kms and thinks “banking time” early will help in the backend. 

Steve has no nutrition plan because it’s “only a half”, so he doesn’t take a drink until about an hour in. 

Inevitably, but still very surprising to Steve, he begins to slow down, maybe some cramp, before struggling across the finish line 5 – 10min slower than he had hoped.

Steve concludes that he didn’t train hard enough and probably should have drunk a little more to avoid cramps.

Here’s how Steve could have had a 100% better race experience.  

First up, Steve needs to start training based on his personal physical capabilities. Not some arbitrary times. As Steve gets closer to his goal half marathon, he can complete some race-specific sessions that will give him an indication of his potential finish time. 

Use your physiology to predict your finish time rather than letting a finish time dictate your physiology.

From the outset, Steve should do a threshold test to find his anaerobic (lactate) thresholds from which he can set his training zones.

Training Zones Calculators

Now Steve can complete each run at an intensity that is directly related to his physiology. Steve’s zone 2 will be specific to Steve and allow him to build fitness faster than using a pacing guide generated for a 1:45 half marathon runner.

As Steve builds fitness and speed, his thresholds and zones will adapt with him, which means Steve is always training at the correct intensity.

From decades of research, we know that a half marathon is typically completed between 90 – 100% of a runner’s anaerobic (lactate) threshold. Steve could run a 10km or 60min time trial (TT), during which he is to keep his pace/power/HR between 90 – 100% LTH. Whatever Steve’s average pace was for the TT is going to be the best indicator of his capabilities for the race. 

Steve could go even further and look at the relationship between his HR and pace or power to get an even better insight into his race capabilities and develop a more robust pacing strategy for the race. That’s a process I outline in my “Run Faster with Data” course. I have lessons on “race day planning” for half, full, and ultra-marathons with worksheets and calculators to help you run your best race.

Summary

When you’re training for an event, time should be your motivator, not your dictator. I outlined the psychological side of that concept in my last blog, “Why I’m Giving Up on Ultrarunning.

Working backwards from a finish time makes it hard to personalise your training. I recommend working forwards from your personal fitness level and developing a realistic finishing time goal from there. 

A great place to start is to download my FREE “Pro coach formula for running mind-blowing PRs”. 

I also have training plans and courses specifically designed to help you train more effectively and run faster!

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