What’s it all about, anyway?

I’m a firm believer that, assuming no major problems or injuries, most healthy people can train themselves to complete a 13.1-mile race. Take me, for example, I went from the extreme bare minimum (I could only run about a mile and a half at the time) to training for and completing my first half marathon in just about 21 weeks or 5 months.  

My goal for my first race was to cross the Finish Line – a perfectly respectable goal for any first-timer. And just think – the next race you’ll have a Personal Record (PR) for sure! It wasn’t until I started running subsequent halfs and then a full that I really started paying attention to pacing. I wish I knew more about how to pace and what pace to follow much earlier on in my training.

I get a lot of questions about pacing and how fast (or slow) to run and believe me, while it is not a specific science, there are a few key elements that can help you train to your full potential without getting injured or burned out. Below you will find some information that has helped me, and I hope you can find it beneficial too!

Most importantly, don’t worry about how fast you run your regular workouts. Run at a comfortable pace. If you’re training with a friend or running with the group, you should be able to hold a conversation. If you can’t do that, you’re running too fast. For those wearing heart rate monitors, your target zone should be between 65 and 75 percent of your maximum heart rate. The Long Slow Run (or LSD, as we like to call it), usually on Saturday or Sunday, forms the basis of all of your training.

Here is an example of one week of the MIT training schedule for beginning half marathoners:

While it may seem overwhelming at first, the beginner schedule is fairly simplistic compared to an intermediate or advanced schedule that incorporates speed drills and hill workouts. As a beginning runner, you should be focused on “time on your feet” and not how fast you can run. As with most things, speed will come with time and practice.

On this schedule, the LSD is coded in yellow as the Endurance/Long Run/Walk and should be 60 – 90 seconds slower than your race pace. This training is done in a moderate-intensity zone and is used to improve overall conditioning and endurance. Our long Saturday runs form the basis of everything we do. Keep in mind, you are not running at your goal race pace! You should be running at least 1 minute slower than race pace. For example, many people who train in our 13-minute per mile pace group actually run a 12:45 or 12:30 in a race scenario. Still others, me included from time to time, run a 13:30 or 13:45 during training and stay closer to an even 13 minutes on race day. For these reasons, it is not only fun, but beneficial to run a 5K or two or even a 10K before your goal race to stimulate race conditions and learn how your pace is affected in a competitive setting. You will be able to use your times to predict your finishing time in the half marathon, and what pace to run that race. Plus, it helps to eliminate a lot of pre-race jitters.

The key to getting ready to finish a Half Marathon is the LSD, progressively increasing in distance each weekend. Your runs will range from 2 to 12 miles. And inspiration will carry you to the finish line, for the last 1.1 miles! You should not feel rushed or pressured to finish your long run in a certain amount of time, what matters is the time you spend on your feet covering the miles.

Coded in blue are the Rest Days when you should refrain from running. Yes I said it and I will say it again – DO NOT RUN. Even if you feel fine, don’t run. If you feel better than ever, please don’t run. Rest is as important a part of your training as running. You will be able to run the long runs on the weekend better–and limit your risk of injury–if you rest before, and rest after. While training for my first few halfs, I did not even worry about cross training on my days “off.” I focused on hydrating, eating right, and not running. Was it hard? Absolutely! Especially when my mileage was low, but I took the time to let my body recuperate and did not struggle with injuries, illness or burnout as a result. Rest days are the key to staying healthy.

Finally, you will see a red code on the schedule. These are Over-Distance of Recovery Runs and should be 90-120 seconds slower than your race pace. This is a low-intensity zone used to establish a strong cardiovascular base. It promotes increased oxygen absorption, fat-burning capacity, capillary and mitochondrial density. This zone is also used for active recovery after intense or extended durations of training. Typically, your recovery run comes after your LSD/Long Run with a day of rest in-between. Again, what matters is time on your feet – gets you out there and gets your body moving, work the stiffness out from your previous long run.

As you transition from a beginning runner to more experienced, you will also add in a Progressive Long Run/Walk. For this, you should begin 60-90 seconds slower than race pace and progressive to  15-20 seconds faster than race pace by then end of your run. This should incorporate your over-distance/active recovery pace, endurance training pace and tempo/race-pace training. Start slightly slower than average run pace, progressively increase pace to end your run at a faster than average (race) pace. This zone increases tolerance to lactic acid and increases aerobic threshold. Typically, you will see this type of run on an advanced schedule. You will also begin to add in Lactic Acid/Tempo Runs as you progress, but you should not engage in tempo runs if you in your first year or so of running. There is plenty of time to take up this type of training later on! This is a high-intensity zone used to improve aerobic conditioning while introducing and aerobic component. Lactic acid is produced, but not in sufficient quantities to immediately degrade performance. This zone increases tolerance to lactic acid and increases aerobic threshold. You will not see any Progressive or temp runs on your first-time half marathon or marathon schedule, which is how it should be.

Some other important factors in a reliable training schedule?

Flexibility: Don’t be afraid to juggle the workouts from day to day and week to week. If you have a commitment to work or your family on Monday nights, do that workout on Tuesday instead. If your family is going to be on vacation one week when you will have more or less time to train, adjust the schedule accordingly. Be consistent with your training, and the overall details won’t matter. Get your overall weekly miles in, even if you have to rearrange the miles run on what day from time to time. For example, there were several times during our last training season that a number of people who had commitments on a particular Saturday met on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon to get a long run in. You can be flexible in your training and still not have to run alone!

Walking: Walking is an excellent exercise that a lot of runners overlook in their training. Feel free to walk during your running workouts if you feel overly tired or need to shift gears. For example, while training with MIT, we typically stop to hydrate at the water stations. This practice translates to a race and we make sure to walk through the hydration stations, helping to ensure adequate hydration and nutrition. What matters is that you will finish your race, even if you take a few walking breaks to get there. In fact, there are specific training plans also devoted to run-walk an entire race. Don’t be embarrassed by listening to your body and giving it what it needs!

Cross-Training: While running is probably sufficient while training for your first half marathon, cross-training can be an effective way to try something new or beat burnout if you are feeling frustrated with your running schedule. For example, you could swim, bike, spin or take an aerobics class if you choose to take a break from running every once in awhile. Sometimes it is nice to try something different and you will find your renewed interest and passion in returning to running. What cross-training you select depends on your personal preference. Most importantly, do not cross train too vigorously. Cross-training days should be considered easier days that allow you to recover from the running you do the rest of the week. Cross-training can also factor in nicely with flexibility, for example, if you are going to be spending the afternoon with your children at the pool, you can get in a swimming workout if you know you will not have the opportunity to run later in the day. As you become stronger and more accustomed to running, you may also choose to gradually incorporate strength training into your weekly workout schedule.

Goal of the Week:

Experiment with your pace. Begin to learn what is too fast, or too slow, and what is comfortable for you. Try to focus on the schedule, including resting when appropriate, and vary your pace according to the color codes.

Inspirational Quote of the Week:

“If running marathons were easy, everyone would be doing it – but they’re not. You’ve got to be committed to your training. If you’re not focused on being a success, you won’t be successful. You’ll never succeed if you’re not willing to prepare.” – Bill Wenmark

Until the next mile marker,


  1. I can make no comment on pacing because we all know I can’t pace myself. I think the hard thing is that my comfortable pace can be up to a minute faster or slower depending on the day.

  2. Sara,

    This post has some awesome information! I am so glad you posted about this…I am still learning the importance of pacing and what is good for my body and what is not. This really reminded me there is still a lot for me to work on and improve upon. Also…I wanted to let you know that I am so glad I found your blog a few weeks ago. It has been a true inspiration for me as I get closer to my own first marathon this saturday. Thanks for everything and just being you on your blog. All of your posts and comments are so genuine and inspiring and I am so grateful!

    have a fabulous week!

  3. I have read this post through from top to bottom 3 times now. Thanks so much for this information. You have a way of relating that makes it easy to understand as well as interesting.

    Please keep writing these informative posts…

  4. I am going to start wearing my HRM again for my long slow run. Do you have a suggested % of maximum for a LSR? I don’t have a normal ‘pace’ that I can add a minute or so to..

  5. I am going to start wearing my HRM again for my long slow run. Do you have a suggested % of maximum for a LSR? I don’t have a normal ‘pace’ that I can add a minute or so to..

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