I am a woman, 41 years of age, and have been fairly active with walking, hiking, strength training and dance workouts. I started running last year but stopped after three or four months and did continue with other forms of workouts. I want to do a half marathon as one of my lifetime goals. How much time is enough for training? What kind of training plan do you think is good? I am able to manage running for 3 or 4 miles but it does not come easy. I am wondering if trying to train for a half marathon at this age is too much. Please advise.
Ironically, just a couple of days ago Joan Benoit Samuelson announced that, at age 53, she would attempt to meet the women’s U.S. Olympic trials marathon qualification standard of 2:46—at age 53—in the upcoming Chicago Marathon. It’s a tall order, but she ran a 2:49:09 on the much tougher New York City Marathon course last year.
My point is, if Joan Benoit Samuelson can run sub-2:50 marathons in her 50s, you can finish your first half marathon at age 41. Forty-one is not very old! Not only can you take up long-distance running at that age, but you can do it pretty much the same way a college student would—that is, without making many training modifications to account for age. Kathryn Martin started running in her late 30s and went on to set numerous national age-group records, running times that most 25-year-old male runners couldn’t touch.
Yes, Joanie and Martin are genetic freaks with exceptional in-born running talent, but they are not immortal. They age at the same rate as the rest of us, so even though they are much faster than us, they are living proof of what’s possible for older runners, and even older beginning runners like yourself.
The fact that you have been active and are already able to run a few miles gives you a big advantage. This allows you to skip over the cautious, early-adaptation phase (walking, low-intensity calisthenics) that would be required if you were coming straight off the couch. That being said, I still recommend that you take a conservative, patient approach to building the fitness you will need to complete your first half marathon, because it is new territory for you.
My first recommendation is that you exercise at least six times a week every week. Everyone should, whether one is training for a half marathon or just hoping to avoid becoming obese and to live past 60. So if you’re not exercising daily already, make that your first step. Begin by adding very short, gentle workouts on the days when you’re not normally exercising. Give your body a chance to learn to recover from exercise stress in 24 hours, which it will. Then you can start making your “new” workouts longer and more intense.
You need not run more often than three times a week to prepare for a successful half marathon and, in fact, you probably should not run more often than four times a week. Obviously, you need to run with fairly high frequency to stimulate the specific fitness adaptations that will enable you to run 13.1 miles, but running is hard on the body. The more often you run, the more likely you are to still be sore from the last run when you start your next one, which could lead to a downward spiral ending in injury. Many experienced runners can run twice a day every day without getting injured, but that’s not you, so I say run four times per week.
On your non-running workout days you can do some form of non-impact cardiovascular exercise, such as bicycling, or some form of strength training, such as yoga, or both. I urge all 40-plus runners especially to fit in some strength training, as it is the closest thing to a fountain of youth in the realm of exercise. A little goes a long way, too. Just three well-designed 15-minute sessions per week will pay big dividends in the form of improved strength, running economy, and injury resistance.
As for how much time to allow, the answer is enough time to gradually build the distance of your longest run of the week from 3 or 4 miles to 10 or 11 miles. Twelve weeks should be plenty. Choose one day of the week on which to do your long run and increase the distance slightly from week to week, drawing back every third or fourth week to recover and consolidate your endurance gains. Here’s an example of how you might do it:
Week 1: 4 miles
Week 2: 4.5 miles
Week 3: 5 miles
Week 4: 4 miles
Week 5: 6 miles
Week 6: 7 miles
Week 7: 5.5 miles
Week 8: 8 miles
Week 9: 9.5 miles
Week 10: 7.5 miles
Week 11: 11 miles
Week 12: Half Marathon
If you want to be extra-cautious, you can extend this build-up a few more weeks, but again, 12 weeks should be plenty.
There’s no need to do anything fancy in the other three weekly runs. They should gradually become a little longer as your training progresses, but you need not ever exceed 6 miles in any of them. Throwing some higher-intensity work into some of them will give you a little more fitness than keeping the pace always moderate, but it won’t make such a huge difference that I’d call it mandatory.
I hope you find this information helpful. Let us know how your first half marathon goes!
Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.