The four things I did to reduce my half marathon pace by 2 minutes a mile for the Brooklyn Half Marathon

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The four things I did to reduce my half marathon pace by 2 minutes a mile for the Brooklyn Half Marathon

Going from running a 10:00 mile to a 7:59 one in about a year may seem an impossible feat, but I can say from experience it really isn’t that bad. Like any decent goal, it won’t be easy and requires planning and execution coming together, but it can be done. First, you’ll need to start with a plan. Next, you’ll need to buy in to and stick to that plan through training. If you can do this, you can achieve huge gains in race pace relatively quickly too. 

In 2015, I ran the Brooklyn Half Marathon about a week after running the Belfast marathon, my second marathon ever. In that race, I stressed my foot to the point where I had to keep it elevated on the flight home due to muscle pain. The muscles hadn’t fully recovered by the Brooklyn half and though the KT Tape I used to essentially hold my foot together helped, it fell apart around mile 8 just as I started to lose energy. I still finished decently, but knew I wanted to revisit the course. This year, I did.

About a month ago, I ran the Montclair NJ Baker’s Half Dozen, a half marathon in northern NJ. Though the course was hilly, due to a strong adherence to my training schedule, I was able to keep going strong at a high pace for me and set a PR at 1:44. Because I was able to hit this goal in this race, I instead focussed on running with a friend, my “bro in blue” from the NYPD who was running his second ever half marathon. For a new distance runner, he’s got lofty ambitions. I’m not normally a social runner, preferring to focus on running very methodically rather than talking, but running with him was great. Especially in a race like Brooklyn where the start is a bit slow due to the huge crowd size and where the lengthy straight shot down Ocean Parkway can get a bit tedious, it was awesome to have someone to talk to and break the monotony, even if he did get sick of me talking his ear off, trying to distract him from the pace. At the 10 mile mark, we split up while he needed to slow down briefly and I hit a sugar high from my jelly beans that carried me to the finish line. I credit four major components of training that helped me keep going this time where I had broken down earlier.

Speedwork

In the past, my training plans were entirely mileage based. As my focus was going from being a non-runner to a marathoner in a little over a year, and then on running two in one year, building up mileage was a larger priority than speed. An injury last fall which prevented me from running a marathon turned into a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to shift focus to fewer miles with higher quality and build up pace. I began the Hal Higdon intermediate half marathon training plan which assumes a base level of mileage and instead adds speed work. In this case, once a week I would run 400m (or .25 mile) repeats at a pace a little faster than target race pace. I’d typically split up the repeats into sets of three and do green, yellow red style paces for these. Green was a comfortable pace where I could just about maintain a conversation. Yellow was a moderate pace just slightly faster than target, and red was significantly faster, basically the peak level I could maintain for the short distance. This distance worked great for the treadmill where I end up running most of my weekly miles. Adding this speedwork allowed me to pick up the pace in bursts when I felt energy and also have a better muscle memory of different paces.

The recovery sections, typically .10 mile between the repeats, taught me to measure a relaxed pace as well. This was helpful in the first several miles of the race. The half is the largest half marathon in the US with over 27,000 runners. This means that even though it is well organized with a wave system and fairly well policed coral starts, it takes a while to get going after the start. A brief downpour before the start brought down the temperature and caused the road to be a bit slippery too, so a cautious pace to start was in order. This speed work allowed me to take a measured pace during the first 3 miles or so inside of Prospect Park. It also kept me from taking off too fast around the first mile that loops out and back past the memorial arch where the runners in front go past and large crowds can bring a lot of energy. It’s critical not to burn too much energy in the first few miles.

Prospect Park probably doesn’t get enough love as a running destination. Like Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park has a great loop that is perfect for a medium length run or multiple loops for a long one. There is no massive hill like Central Park, but there is one moderate one that stretches for a while that can be difficult. Knowing how to maintain a pace here is crucial in the early stages of the race. The loop of the park is nice and shaded, perfect for even a midday run. On this damp cool morning, the trees helped keep the breeze down and maintain a perfect temperature.

Tempo Runs

Another new type of training run on this plan was the tempo run. Similar to the green, yellow, red approach of the speed work, these runs are meant to work up tolerance to increasing paces, allowing you to negative split, or run faster in the second half of the race than the first. These are also the best time to build up a faster normal pace and train the muscles to maintain it. My approach was typically to use the speedwork to drive up to a new pace, then the tempo run to extend the time running at that pace. Tempo runs are split into three segments with increasing difficulty of pace. The last several minutes of each I would push myself just about to the limit and hold it. These runs usually lasted 30-45 minutes. These runs allowed me to build up pace week over week and go from that 10:00 / mile pace down to the point where 8:00 / mile felt somewhat comfortable. These runs themselves were probably the largest contributor to this drastic reduction in speed.

The midpoint of the Brooklyn Half occurs somewhere between Prospect Park and Ocean Parkway. These two sections comprise the majority of the race. Other than a small section on the Coney Island boardwalk at the end and the out and back loop around the arch before the park, the entire run takes place on one of these two paths. Everyone claims this race is incredible flat, and on average it is, but a lengthy hill in the park leaves runners ready for the flat sections of Ocean Parkway. Unfortunately, the route between includes an onramp that is moderately steep, feeling more so to fatigued legs, and the first mile on the Parkway is ever so slightly uphill. By the halfway point, most runners will be feeling the hills in their legs and have to start focussing on keeping the pace up on the long straightaway of Ocean Parkway. Training with tempo runs prepared me to run with a hard effort on tired legs and maintain the pace.

Fatigued Runs

Though not explicitly named on the training plan, the last big change in plan was the addition of a Saturday moderate distance run at race pace. Typically 3-5 miles, these runs were short enough to not be to taxing to schedule or on the legs, but enough to be slightly fatigued the next day. This meant that Sunday’s long runs were on tired legs. By starting the run on tired legs, it simulated race conditions where legs would be worn out by the halfway point. Running distances over 10 miles switches from being a purely physical challenge to a mental one as well. No matter how much preparation is done, you will be hurting from this point on. In a marathon, the 18-20 mile mark is considerably worse when glycogen reserves are depleted and the body just wants to lie down and stop while it switches to stored fat burning which is less efficient. Being ready for this sudden drop in energy and preparing for it is the only way to get past it. Training by starting off with depleted reserves and fatigued muscles helps simulate this in a safer way where the body can adapt and adjust without injury.

Ocean Parkway goes forever. This three lane (on each side) road might have stop lights every few hundred feet, but it feels considerably faster and shorter when traveling by car. On foot, it is an endless straight shot from the park all the way down to Coney Island. At some points, you can just glimpse the tower awaiting you at the end. It never seems to get closer. Crowds line the sides of the roadway for long stretches, providing needed energy and motivation. Other stretches are fairly empty though and even with 27,000 other runs around you, it can feel lonely. These stretches, especially between miles 9 and 11 are exactly where this fatigued long run training approach becomes most valuable. Due to a moderated slow pace at the beginning of the race, I was being passed more often than doing passing. At mile 10, I turned this around and quickly swept up a large number of runners ahead of me. During this mileage, I not only passed another pace group, but not a single other runner passed me. This ability to mentally move past the pain barrier and fatigue levels in my legs allowed me to pass other runners who hadn’t prepared this way. It also helped me maintain a pace and even pick it up toward the end.

Increased base pace

Increasing the pace through speedwork and tempo runs is a good way to increase speed, but without building upon it, I would never get faster. Though it wasn’t part of the plan, I personalized my own plan to continue to increase my “base pace” or pace at which I ran non tempo, speed, or race pace runs from 10:00/mi to 9:00 / mi and eventually 8:30 / mi. I did this slowly and over time to avoid adding too much stress on my legs during the training. I typically increased the pace by a dozen seconds or so every two weeks until I got down to 8:30 / mi. By this point, this no longer felt like I was pushing it and felt fairly comfortable to maintain. At any point, if this base pace feels challenging or I find myself out of breath or otherwise out of the green zone, I slow down and build back to it. The speedwork and tempo runs should be building on this base, not the other runs. This is incredibly important to avoid burnout and prevent injury. This base building is intended to increase the level of comfort with a faster pace over time, not immediately and it should not be too challenging. This, combined with the other types of training is responsible from being able to run a 10:00 mi pace to an 8:00 one without running short of breath or feeling too bad.

Ocean Parkway, like all good things, must eventually come to an end. After cresting a small hill toward the end, nearly at mile 13 already, the ocean and a subway bridge come into view. As I cross under, a passing B train nearly stops me with a heart attack as it passes overhead. Welcome to Brooklyn, it seems to screech. I remember the boardwalk section being longer from my previous run here. Perhaps I’m confusing it with the NJ half which also ends on the beach, but it definitely seemed longer than the approximately 500 meters it actually is. Coming around a corner from the street and up a ramp onto the boardwalk which is absolutely packed with supporters is incredibly invigorating. Thanks to my preparation, I was able to push into overdrive on this section and power through the slowing crowds to the finish line. I don’t know why runners insist on stopping in their tracks the millisecond they cross the finish line, but I always seem to come crashing into someone at the line. No one ever seems to really mind though in the post-race endorphin high.

As I pass the famous sights of Coney Island like the tower and Wonderwheel, I collect my medal and a ton of free food. I make my way into MCU park, where the Brooklyn Cyclones minor league baseball team plays and enjoy a Coney Island beer. I barely even hobble, a sure sign that my new training methodology has worked well. The next day, I’m barely even sore.

Now it’s time to begin marathon training. My goal for the Chicago Marathon this fall is to finally break the 4:00:00 mark, one I have barely approached in three marathon attempts so far. It’s time to find new training methodologies.