Jan 17

How Not to Train for a Half-Marathon


I’m a big fan of efficiency and getting the biggest bang for the buck. A fancier way to phrase this is I like to apply the Pareto principal to my life. In general, the smartest 20% of the effort results in 80% of the gains. If you apply this to all areas of your life you get more results from less effort.  You free up time and resources to do things that would otherwise not be possible.


If you have been reading the blog for a while you know I like to experiment. I have done many interesting and successful experiments with diet, exercise, meditation, alcohol, etc. My most recent experiment was to see if I would successfully run a half marathon without actually doing any running beforehand. I wanted to see how far I could push this principal of efficiency. My hypothesis was that if I did enough walking and core strength training I would still be able to run a respectable (for me) half marathon. I would do the vast majority of my ‘training’ in between short episodes of playing video games as I described in this post. You should probably go read it if you have not already done so. I actually have another natural experiment coming up over the next several months that I can’t wait to tell you about, but that will be another post.


Well the results are in and this experiment was a…



Utterly and completely a failure…


But I learned a thing or two…


And I want you to learn from my mistakes…


So many mistakes…


Things started off well. I started doing strength exercises every day. The core of these consisted of push-ups, two handed kettle bell swings, squats, and deadlifts (again using kettle bells). I even kept a journal for the first few days. I actually had to limit my video game play a few times because I was so damn sore from the working out! I continued my routine of walking, but I did no running.


I did get stronger without gaining any significant weight. I felt good. But…


I started to get a little lazy. Sometimes I would play a couple of games and ‘forget’ to do strength work every time. I was not 100% committed which is important.


Lesson 1: It is easy to slip back. Mental commitment is key to changing a habit.


I was progressing though. Things were looking good until…

Cross country travel.

I don’t mind actually being other places, but I really hate actually getting to other places, especially if it involves the increasingly uncomfortable and maddening experience of domestic air travel in the United States. Drive to airport. Fly on uncomfortable cramped flight with layover. Get crappy rental car. Drive to hotel. Sleep in unfamiliar bed.


This sequence of events caused me to wake up with excruciating back pain which lasted about a week or two. I’ve dealt with back pain before, and to be honest this was not nearly as bad as my last episode. But it set my training back a bit. Even when I recovered the habit I had created for myself was destroyed. I did halfhearted attempts at strength training, but never really got into the groove. Race day was approaching and I knew I was under-prepared. I was still confident though. Mental toughness and pride would see me through.


Lesson 2: Traveling sucks.


I was not running alone. Mrs. Happy Philosopher was running the race as well, and she is a mean, lean running machine. I knew she would beat me, but I thought maybe we could run together for a few miles.



I was wrong.


After a half mile or so she was lost in the crown ahead of me, and by a mile she was long gone. Oh well, all I had to do was run my race. Not too fast, keep form and stay strong. I’ve done this dance many times.


Almost from the very start I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy run. My legs felt a little flat and didn’t have the spring that I was used to. Anyone who runs often knows what I’m talking about. I attributed this to lack of running over the last few months. It was not that horrible though, and by mile four I actually felt pretty good. I think I was at just over an 8 minute per mile pace which is pretty darn good for me on the trails. I was breathing fairly easy and I could tell my heart rate was at a nice easy rate.


The good times were not going to last though, because at right around mile 6 is where my old nemesis came to meet me and reintroduce me to humility.


Mr. Philosopher, meet pissed off iliotibial band (ITB). The ITB is a tough band of connective tissue attaching your lateral pelvis to you knee.  It and its associated muscles are involved in flexion/extension and abduction of the hip. In addition, the ITB contributes to lateral knee stabilization, and is thought to absorb and store much of the energy generated from the impact of running. It is a major player in the whole running and walking thing.


Now the iliotibial band (ITB) may sound like a rather boring structure to you. I can assure you it is not boring when it is angry. When mine is fired up it feels like someone is stabbing my anterior lateral knee with a serrated dagger with each agonizing step. As I try and compensate and stabilize my knee by recruiting other structures, sometimes the pain moves up to my hip or even down into my calf and ankle.


I felt the twinge right around 6 miles. Shit. I knew my day was over and I still had 7 miles to go. Some things I can run through, but ITB syndrome is not one of them. I can gut it out for a mile or so, but after that my mental toughness just wears down and I have to stop. My ITB is what blew up my one and only marathon and made it my worst racing day ever. This was déjà vu all over again.


Lesson 3: You can’t battle an angry iliotibial band.


Over the next 6 miles I did a combination of light running, stretching and walking. I was not discouraged though. I just kept pushing on.


By about mile 10 or 11 it was apparent the types of people I was running with had changed. There were fewer hard core runners back here. I was firmly in the ‘cotton tee-shirt and backpacks full of water crowd’. This is not usually where I find myself in a race. In case you were wondering, you should never run a race that long in cotton (really you just shouldn’t wear cotton period when running). It is a terrible racing fabric. It has very poor temperature control when it gets wet and it chaffs like nobody’s business. You also do not need one of these in a fully supported race with water stations every mile or so in temperatures below 50 degrees. It will only weigh you down and tempt you to over-hydrate, consequently increasing your risk for hyponatremia (too little sodium).


In any event,I actually had a good time chatting with people a bit. I had more time and breath to encourage people. The race had a much mellower vibe back there and it was quite enjoyable. Incidentally I have never heard the phrase ‘on your left’ more times than this race, as a steady stream of runners politely passed me.

This garden gnome may have passed me.

Lesson 4: You can still enjoy life when it doesn’t go as planned. Detaching from outcomes leads to greater satisfaction.


I had a couple of chances near the end of the race to bail out the last mile or two, but I forced myself to continue. I’m not sure why. I fully realize at this point that there was no real purpose to my decision. It was not rational. Any ego I had was long since demolished since IF I finished I would still be about 30 minutes behind my goal time. The last two miles were particularly nasty with hills and my risk of injury running on tired, painful legs was high, but I kept pushing. The pain was horrible on the steeper downhill stretches but I wanted to see where I could take my mind and body. I wanted to feel the extreme discomfort. I think we can learn something about ourselves in these moments.


Lesson 5: Pain is an excellent teacher.



I limped across the finish line to a mildly concerned Mrs. Happy Philosopher.


“IT band”, I muttered.


She nodded and instantly knew in three syllables the last 2 hours of my life.


“Well it’s not raining and they have beer!”, she said with a smile.


And there you go. I may not have the best training plans, but at least I married the right woman.






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  1. The ending was perfect. Nuff said.

    But since I tend to speak more than I should, I want to point out I’ve run a race or two myself over the years. I had a plan and trained hard. Half marathons are grueling.I felt your pain.

    And about that cotton thing. I made that mistake . . . once. The inside of my legs were bleeding and nipples too. To your unaware readers that hurts like the devil. I apologize for laughing as I read your plight.

    That ITB thingie is something new to me. The worst running ever did to me was sore knees.

    Finally, traveling sucks; we agree here. But you have Mrs. HP and she knows what is important: no rain and they have beer. She’s a keeper. Now it’s enough said.

    1. Amazing how getting a few of the big decisions right allows me to get a lot of the little decisions wrong!

      And yeah…don’t run in cotton…ever.

  2. Dang, I’m sorry to hear it was such a painful process! But you’re right that unless you can commit 110%, it just won’t happen. I’m the same way with exercise, and I’m also too harsh on myself when setting goals. I’ve modified my original goal of waking at 5 am each day and working out for an hour to exercising three times a week for an hour, usually after dinner. Homegirl needs her sleep.

    I can’t believe you kept going with all that pain! But at least there was beer. 😉

    1. I think the thing that made it easier was I knew what to expect. I’ve dealt with it in several half ironman races and the one terrible marathon I attempted. I seriously contemplated bailing, but then I would have to explain that in the blog post. Maybe that is what kept me going 😉

  3. OUCH.

    Good for you for persevering! Bad for you for not training, even if it was intentional. 20 years ago, I’ll bet you could have pulled it off, but we’re not in our twenties anymore, are we? I suppose you never know until you try. Now you know. 🙂

    I hope you felt better after the BRICE treatments.
    That’s beer, rest, ice, compression, elevation.


    1. BRICE=awesome!

      We need to research and publish this. Think it will bass an IRB?

  4. Gandalf may have said it best – “Fly you fools” – Meaning run like the dickens. Of course in this case for you, “Run early, run often you fool”. :O) Of course I know you announced your intention in the earlier post to try this with very little running.

    I think most people can do a 5K, maybe a 10K without training. Half-marathon, I don’t think so. It is just running in a different realm, as you well know, especially now. So hopefully no one else decides to try to repeat your performance. I’m not convince that even if you had kept up your strength training that it would have made much of a difference either. Strength training and running are both necessary but in different plains.

    Congrats and huge kudos to finishing though. It certainly would have been easy to just give up, but you plodded along. Well done!!!

    At least you got beer and you were met at the finish line by your wonderful wife. So all in all, a reasonably good day, I suppose.

    cd :O)

    1. I’m determined to keep experimenting. I know there is a truth waiting to be discovered, I just don’t know what it is yet. I will run a bit for the next one though!

      In spite of the pain it was a wonderful day. Good company, lots of friends, nice weather and good beer 🙂

  5. Ow – been there with the IT band… Congrats for getting through it and love the end of the story. Keeping a sense of humor is key! We’ve given up running (hip/knee arthritis) but some of our favorite memories are finding each other at the end of big races. We stick to long walks now 🙂

    1. Long walks are just as awesome. Racing is much more enjoyable with humor and when you don’t take yourself too seriously 🙂

  6. This makes me laugh and cry as I just signed up for a half and it will be my first in a couple years. I do plan on training a bit which should help, but the extra 15 pounds aren’t.

    Regardless, you’re braver than I am to just out and do it. It always takes my legs a while to get used to the pounding.

    But hey, more power to you. Go for it. I’m curious if you could try the same thing with a full.

    1. Attempting this training plan for a full marathon is absolutely crazy – I would never consider it. Something terrible happens to the body right around mile 20 and the average mortal needs to be trained up for that. I would say trying to run a marathon without training is a guaranteed injury.

      Good luck on your race, hopefully you have more common sense than me!


      1. Yeah, I can’t imagine doing that with a full. It would be awful, that wall you hit is horrendous. I would say even with proper training, it’s almost a guaranteed injury.

        Thanks for the well wishes… I’m hoping to come in right ahead of the Cotton & Camelback crowd.

  7. Oh IT band, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… This is what I should have been saying that fateful day 5 years ago I decided to do my first road race. Having never ran a race before and really not built for long distance running, I also should have started with a 5k, then done a 10k and then maybe considered a half. Nonsense I thought, why not just start with a half? I started running every other day and was doing crazy, bootcamp workouts 5x week, as well. I would surely be ready for this half. But little did I know, this ITB would rear its ugly head just one week before the race. I could barely move, let alone, bear weight on my left leg. My dream of doing that half ran on without me and I was left with excruciating knee pain. To this day, I still need to babysit my knee any time I run. Needless to say, not preparing for a race (like you) is just as bad as preparing the wrong way (eh hem, pointing finger at me). My tidbit of info, invest in a foam roller. Hurts like nothing I have every experienced before, but it is a game changer.

    1. I feel your pain, both literally and figuratively! The foam roller is great, but I just can’t bring myself to rolling the ITB, which I equate with torture. I’ve found strengthening core and glutes are the best defense against this terrible and ruthless enemy.

  8. Dude! You are brave. I’ve found that I have no business running a half unless I have done a couple 14ers the few weeks before. You have to overcome the foam roller pain. It is the absolute best thing I’ve found for recovery. That and jumping in my swimming pool in the winter from the waist down after a run. Both are probably the worst thing you can do to yourself beside running the 13.1 miles in the first place but I feel so much better in the days to come.

    1. Haha, foam rolling and cold therapy are very helpful, although I have trouble doing them both. Cold exposure is actually a very interesting tool that I am exploring now.

    • wendy on July 30, 2017 at 2:59 pm
    • Reply

    I did a 60mi charity walk and discovered what my ITBand was, and not in a good way… I always thought it was a knee issue when it would ‘tweak’ during downhills, carrying heavy boxes down stairs, etc…. that absolutely insane aggravating pain/discomfort/whatever thing that happens
    The PT at my first event very quickly (metaphorically) smacked me upside the head and said it was IT Band, not the knee… My local PT back home prescribed cool stretches that help TREMENDOUSLY…
    Of course I slack off for months at a time, but at least I know a method to help improve my resiliency and address the issue…
    I did 3 events after that with no issues… now I’m doing a lot of hill hiking and running into issues because OF COURSE I slacked off the appropriate stretches again…
    Imagine what we all could achieve if we could get that primitive brain to just obey…

    Glad you did not collapse in an absolute heap! Hopefully you’re next experiment will be less painful, though I’m sure the beer helped!

    1. Beer helps most situations, except driving and impressing people 😉

  1. […] a relatively high level of racing without actually doing much training. This worked up to a point…right up until it didn’t. I tried to train for a half-marathon by doing moderate strength work between playing video games. […]

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