Mailbag Monday::Ask Coach Joe | The Sisterhood of the Shrinking Jeans LLC


We’re excited to announce Coach Joe English, our Virtual Team in Training Coach for Team Shrinking Jeans, will now be a regular contributor here at the Sisterhood! You can send your questions about running to [email protected], we’ll pass them on to Coach Joe, and he’ll post his answers as part of Mailbag Monday every two weeks! Isn’t that awesome? We think it is because Coach Joe took many members of Team Shrinking Jeans from barely being able to run 3 miles, through injuries and setbacks, to the finish line of the San Diego Rock N Roll 1/2 marathon in 17 weeks. If you haven’t been to his site, Running Advice, I highly recommend you scoot on over there ASAP! His video series is great, and several Sisters will be featured in the upcoming weeks.

And now I’ll turn it over to Coach Joe!

Bari writes in with a question about running to the Sisterhood. I recently completed training a group of Sisterhood contributors for their first half-marathon and Bari wants to know more about their training.

I just completed my 2nd 10k using Hal Higdon’s 10k novice training program. I’m now toying with the idea of a 1/2 marathon in October. I’ve downloaded Higdon’s 1/2 marathon novice program. I’m a bit perplexed as to why the longest run during the training is a 10 miler the week before the half. Does Hal really expect me to add essentially a 5k to my longest run ever? His intermediate program has training runs up to 12 miles, but there is also a ton of speed work and other “stuff” that I’m just not ready to incorporate.

Here’s my question: When you lovelies were training for your half, what was your longest run before the race and how did you feel moving from that distance to race distance? Also, how in the heck did you find time to train, what with kids and families and jobs and all that other crap?

Good questions Bari. In my answer here, I’ll try to explain how long your longest run should be to get ready for a half-marathon. I won’t try to answer the second part of your question regarding finding time to train, other than to say that we all have to be creative in making the time to train. When it comes to taking care of the kinds that may mean using a baby jogger, a day-care service at your gym or swapping babysitting duties with another runner so that you can each workout. It can be a real juggling act to get in those runs. But the bottom-line is that if you want to make your half-marathon happen, the most important part is finding time to do that training. I’m sure that you’ll find a lot more on the Sister Hood of the Shrinking Jeans about those topics.

What is the longest run needed to get ready for a half-marathon? To answer the question of the longest run needed to get ready for a half-marathon, we first need to start with the type of runner and the amount of time available. I would split first-time half-marathoners into three groups: a) first timers with very little time to prepare, b) first timers with lots of time to prepare and c) more experienced runners who are stepping up to the half-marathon for the first time and want to be more competitive in their first race at the distance. There are some interesting nuances that come about when you separate runners into these three buckets, so let’s look at each.

First-timers / little time to prepare – Many people training for a half-marathon don’t have the luxury of a lot of time to get ready. If you’re starting from scratch as a runner and trying to get ready for a half-marathon in less than 12 weeks, then the plan has to perform a careful balancing act in trying to increase your distance slowly enough that you don’t get injured, but get in a run or two long-enough that allows you to safely complete the distance. A good progression of increasing the mileage of the longest run about one mile per week is usually safe for runners in a rush, although some runners may need a couple of weeks of very short runs at the start of the plan to get started at only 1 or 2 miles. What this means is that in these short time frames, sometimes a training plan will top out at 10 miles before a first half-marathon and this is normally enough to get the job done.

You ask in your question, “Does Hal really expect me to add 5K to my longest run (in my half-marathon)”? In essence, the answer to this part of your question is yes. Many training plans will include a fairly significant bump at the end when they are dealing with a very compressed time schedule. As an example, with full-marathoners – even when we have lots of time – we only train them to run 20 miles in training and then they have to bump up 10K in their first race. Your body can do this under the excitement of race day conditions and the strong desire that you’ll have to push through to the finish.

However, I do take issue with Hal Higdon’s plan, because it combines both the progressive increase in distance over the last few weeks of the plan and then doesn’t give you a rest week to recover from those increases. In plans similar to these that I’ve created, I usually have people peak their distance two weeks before the race, to give them a time to mentally and physically prepare for that jump in distance on race day.

If you’d like a plan that you can follow that I believe will be safer for you, visit the half-marathon training plan that I created for the June 2010 issue of SELF Magazine.

First-timers / lots of time to prepare – Now let’s have some fun talking about some other cases. In your question, you asked about the ladies of the Sisterhood of the Shrinking Jeans and how much they did to prepare for their first half-marathon. With their group, we had lots of time to train. I believe we had at least 16 weeks or more for their training. In cases like theirs, I took their distance to 12 miles and had them run a number of 10 and 12 mile runs to be ready for the race. With this level of training, they were all confidently able to finish the race.

Time is really the key factor: more time for training can enable more long runs. In my thinking an optimal amount of long runs is two 10 milers and two 12 milers and then 1-2 weeks recovery before coming into the race. If you have that kind of time, you’ll have no problem finishing and you’ll have great confidence coming into the event.

Now you might be thinking, “why not run 13 miles in training then?” and this really the fun part. For first time half-marathoners, it would be little anti-climactic to run the full distance (or more in a race). You’d have to tell people, “well, I did 13 this weekend, so I guess I should be able to finish…” I think people like a little mystery at the first half-marathon. If you can run 12 miles, you can run 13.1. At one race a person who had run 13 miles in training asked, “I’ve done 13, do you think I can finish 13.1 miles today?” ‘Yes’, I told her.

One year, I accidentally mis-measured a course and sent a whole team of half-marathoners for a 14 mile run, instead of 12, before their race. Thankfully this was before the advent of distance monitoring devices, so none of them figured this out. They were all very happy when they finished their half-marathons and many of them even excitedly told me that it was, “easier than our last training run!” (It was shorter anyway!)

More competitive runners – If you’re a more confident and competitive runner, then with the half-marathon you have even greater opportunities to prepare for the distance. For those that don’t mind running longer in training than in the race itself – those for example who are on their way to training for a full-marathon anyway – I usually suggest at least one or two runs at 14 or 15 miles to prepare for the half-marathon. These runs would be done at a slower pace than their anticipated half-marathon goal pace, but this “over-distance training” is a huge mental advantage coming into a competition.

So the bottom-line here is this often comes down to the amount of time to prepare for your first half-marathon. My preference is that runners get in at least one run at the 12 mile distance and get at least one week rest after that long run before the half-marathon. But the amount of time available is a key factor here and you’ll be surprised by what the body can do when asked to perform under the conditions of a race.

Good luck in your training!

Coach Joe English is a top women’s marathon running specialist from Portland, Oregon. He has been quoted in Runner’s World and SELF Magazines and appears on the radio in Portland at KINK 101.9 FM. His blog is read by fat and skinny runners alike and is located at

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Thirty-nine year-old wife and mom to BJ (11) and Mia (7). I’m the editor at the Sisterhood, and I really love to run (really), read, cook amazing things, and photography is my fledging passion. My motivation is motivating other people to realize they can do this whole weight-loss and exercise thing. I’m living proof!