Rebecca Cairns, Becca Cairns, Hong Kong Writer editor digital content creator

Up To Speed, or, How To Train For A Half-Marathon In 6 Weeks

Last year, on a whim, I decided to sign up for my first half marathon. It was the Bromo Marathon on October 1st, on Indonesia’s Java Island in a mountainous, volcanic national park. I’d heard about it months before when writing an article about races in South East Asia—but it wasn’t until August 18th I bit the bullet and signed up. I booked flights on the same day. It was official. I was going to Indonesia to run my first 21km race.

Probably time to start training.

Training for races of any length varies from person to person, depending on your level of fitness and the amount of time you can commit to training. Most say 12 weeks is the optimum, while others say 3-6 months for complete beginners, and some say that you can get away with just six weeks of training if you’re already an experienced marathon runner.

It all comes down to where you’re at personally in your fitness, and only you can really judge where you’re at. A good indicator would be how much you’re already running before you actually begin training.

For me, at that moment, I would have liked a nice 12 weeks to train. My last race—a 6km Spartan Sprint—had been in May, and since then I’d been on a bit of a running hiatus. I had been moving house, moving job, travelling… I was doing weekly runs as a token gesture to maintaining something I’d been building up for so long. I was in shape, but certainly not at my peak.

However, I didn’t have the luxury of choice. I had six weeks to train. I made a training schedule which looked something like this:

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I’ll tell you straight: I didn’t follow it. I stuck to maybe half of it. After my first couple of runs, I had the sudden realisation—one that is both a runner’s worst nightmare and incredibly frustrating—that I was not as fast as I used to be. Not just a little slower, but a lot slower. The finishing time I’d fancied for myself was disappearing fast.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and one week down I was beginning to panic so I put myself through some rather intensive training to get myself literally up to speed.

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Me, scrabbling around trying to train in six weeks | Image courtesy of Spartan HK

Training in extreme conditions

When I started running, most of my runs were in the evening, in the dark, but as my work schedule changed, I started going in the mornings. I struggle to eat before I run (I need around two hours to digest) so if I ran in the morning, I would run on empty. I found that while the individual runs themselves were slower and harder, my speed and endurance improved on other runs when I had eaten/wasn’t half asleep.

The same goes for extreme weather conditions, which in Hong Kong is 90% humidity and a 30-degree low in summer. It’s exhausting, but during my training, I forced myself to run in the heat, humidity, rain, and often early in the mornings when I was running on little more than water. When it actually came to race day—a balmy 13 degrees in the fresh mountain air, bouncing to go at the start line after two days of carb loading and an energising breakfast—I was not only faster than I thought I was but found the conditions pleasant and the race enjoyable. If you’re doing this, it’s important to be smart about what you eat and drink the evening before, and make sure you have water available during and after your run.

Scheduling varied training

One thing I learnt from my Spartan Race training was that over-training kills you: not just making you tired, but actually demotivating you. I needed to pack a lot into a short space of time so I didn’t really feel I had a lot of time to not train—so instead I tried to vary it. While doing a Muay Thai session might not look like the best way to train for a running race, it actually helped in multiple ways:

  1. The sessions are 90-100 minutes long, which builds up stamina: I was preparing myself for the half-marathon by spending an intensive period of time doing a cardio activity.
  2. Muay Thai builds muscle, and strengthening your muscles makes you run faster.
  3. The warm-up and cool-down during each Muay Thai class helped me properly stretch out some of my sore and tired muscles, and aided recovery.

Working in yoga to my ‘recovery’ and ‘rest’ days was, funnily enough, a little trickier: I find yoga too slow most of the time and get restless. I joined a few ad-lib sessions around Hong Kong, but mostly I worked it with YouTube videos or replaced it with basic stretching. The stretching element of it was most important for me because it’s something I (and I’m sure many runners) am guilty of never doing enough.

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Track attack | Image courtesy of Kelly Nordurth

Running track

When training for a 21km race, it’s obvious you need to be running those long-distance trails—what’s maybe less obvious is working on your short game, too. Track nights have always been invaluable to me: over a period of time, working on shaving those seconds off your 400m sprints will always aid you in the longer races. Over the last three years, I’ve watched minutes fall off my time, and it’s due to the work I put in here. Spending one evening a week focussing on sprinting and speed is a great way to improve your overall race time.

Making a D-I-Y retreat boot camp

This was one of the quirkier things I did. Realising after week one that I was not up to scratch, I realised what I needed was a quick-fix to bring me back up to speed, quite literally. Now, there aren’t really a lot of ‘quick-fixes’ in the fitness world, and certainly not easy ones.

I had a one-week membership to Pure Fitness that gave me access to their classes, gym and yoga studios, so I decided to make myself a one-week’ fitness boot camp’ using their facilities. For seven days, I worked my ass off:

  • 10 fitness classes, including Body Pump, Body Combat and TRX
  • 2 yoga classes
  • 1 personal training session
  • 3 treadmill runs (2km/3km/4km)
  • 1 outdoor run (5km)

What I learnt from that week is that rest days are super important (see above: varied training) but that also I not only could handle doing exercise every day but my body needed it.

This intense boot camp had the desired effect: on my first regular run after my week at Pure, I knocked my time down to 5.37/km, which had been 6.25/km just nine days before. I was pretty shocked my gamble had paid off: but focussing on getting my general aerobic fitness back up to scratch while pushing the limits of endurance with back-to-back and frequent classes had worked.

* * *

I think the things that I did—applying pressure, varying your running, and working on general fitness and stamina—could be applied to training for anything. Of course, you could just give yourself enough time to actually train properly, following gentle increments of speed and distance with nice rest days in between. If I ever manage to do that, I’ll let you know how it goes.

How do you train? Let me know your top training tips in the comments!

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