Hal Higdon’s Running Programs

“[Hal Higdon]’s all about the democratization of running,” his daughter, Laura Sandall, said. “He was all about making sure that anyone who wanted to get out and run could have a training program at their fingertips.”

At their fingertips, and at the top of Google search results. His free training plans have remained some of the most frequently used — a rarity in a world where most plans and coaches cater to runners who are willing to shell out hundreds of dollars for personalized schedules.

-Talya Minsberg, “The 90-Year-Old King of Training Plans.” The New York Times: Running Newsletter. July 19, 2021

The Hal Higdon website has a variety of plans for various distances. I simply looked at the base plan for intermediate runners, which as you can see below, is a perfectly sane running program. Bookmarking for future reference.

Running, Building a Base and R.O.T.C.

I’ve never actually looked up what R.O.T.C. meant, the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps apparently, but it was always clear to me what it was about. It was a combination of education and military training. I’ve never really liked the idea, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I had some insight into why.

I’m in the process of getting back into my preferred exercise, running. After years of running too hard, too long or too fast when getting back into it, I’ve finally found an approach that works every time.

You start doing 10 miles a week. If you want to run 2 miles for 4 days and 1 mile for 2 days, that’s fine. If you want to do 6 miles 1 day and 4 miles another and take the rest of the week off, that’s fine too. It really depends on what your body can handle. Generally, I start with 3 or 4 miles a day and stop when I hit the weekly total.

And the next week, you do 2 more miles, which means 11 weeks of 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28, 30 miles a week. Once you reach 30 miles a week, then you can increment at 10% of your weekly mileage until you get to your goal weekly distance. If that goal distance is more than 60 miles a week, you need to think about doubling, or doing 2 runs a day and only running longer than 10 miles on your long run day, 1 day a week.

I’m currently on a week of 22 miles, so a little over halfway through this initial base building period. I’m thinking of a goal weekly distance of around 50 miles a week, something like this schedule:

  • Monday: 4 miles / hills, 8 * 0.5m speed
  • Tuesday: 9 miles, easy
  • Wednesday: Off
  • Thursday: 6 miles easy (morning), 9 miles easy (evening)
  • Friday: 6 miles, easy
  • Saturday, 16 miles
  • Sunday, Off

The nice thing about a weekly schedule is that you can modify it to conditions. If the weather forecast says rain on Thursday, then it is easy enough to shift your double to Wednesday. If you plan to go out Friday, then make Tuesday a double.

All of the above is a bit of prep for my anecdote. I was out running 6 miles yesterday when a group of R.O.T.C. cadets were preparing for a 1 mile run. They took off from my turn around point, a minute before I got there. Then, I passed about 1/3 of them before they got to their turn around point. Why? Because they went out and ran as fast as they could. They were poorly conditioned, and the non-commissioned officer was telling all the people that were turning around in front of me that they needed to run faster. While running past him, I said, “Their problem is they are walking.” And they are walking because they haven’t built a conditioning base. They are trying to run as fast as they can and a mile, much of it with a 4% or more grade, is not something you try to run without building up your conditioning first.

It’s a simple idea. You wouldn’t expect these cadets to go into combat without making sure they are competent with their weapons, would you? Shoot faster? No, you have to develop a training program that supports the capabilities you want to have to reach specific goals. Run faster would only make sense with this group if you were doing quarter mile sprints.

Of course, I suspect this is tied into the physical fitness test the military administers. I think tests are great, and I am all for them. But, you do not do physical conditioning to a test. A test is to help you understand what you need to work on. And the one thing that is obvious to me, as an observer of this group, is they need someone competent to run their physical fitness program.

2020 Experiments: Exercise & Running Program

Open Question: What is a reasonable program for people to follow to develop a good level of fitness?

I’ve been thinking a bit about the 2018 Experiment: HIIT Burpee and Running Program. The challenge of that program was to met a minimal standard for health, which I define using the American Heart Association standards:

  • 25 minutes of aerobic activity, 3 times a week
  • moderate intensity muscle-building, 2 times a week

Aerobic Activity

I prefer running for cardiovascular fitness. I have always wanted to run a sub-20 minute 5K. So, I was thinking that a speed program at the desired speed, 9.0 on a treadmill or 6:40/mile pace on Monday and Fridays, incrementing as the current level becomes easy.

  • 0.25 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 4 to 12 reps
  • 0.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 2 to 6 reps
  • 0.75 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 2 to 4 reps
  • 1 mile with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 3 reps
  • 1.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 3 reps
  • 2 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 2 reps
  • 2.5 miles with 0.25 mile recovery walks, moving up one from 1 to 2 reps
  • 3 miles at one rep.

On Tuesday & Thursdays, it’s an easy 4 miles. On Wednesday, it’s either a easy 6-10 miles, an easy 4 miler or a rest day, depending on how I’m feeling. I’m not sure how long this kind of program will take, but I think taking two years seems like an achievable time frame.

Moderate Intensity Muscle-Building

But, the burpee program I came up with was positively brutal. I wanted to avoid making the same mistake this time, and keeping this easy.

This year, I spent some time revisiting The Hacker’s Diet, and I think his idea of having a low-intensity, low-time commitment exercise regime that can be done daily and anywhere is a good one. I took his program, and modified it to include a stepped program that increases 7% from 10 up to ~200 of bends (hands over head, legs spread, touch toes and return), sit-ups (hands across chest), skydivers (one rep, 4-count, hands to head and legs), push-ups, scissors (one rep, 4-count), jump squats, planks (front, back, each side for X seconds and 20 second rest period in between each), and jumping jacks (one rep, 4-count).

Each exercise is done for one set. The first rung takes less than 15 minutes. It’s easy to start, but it has the potential to become seriously challenging as you progress.

Modified Hacker’s Diet Exercise Program

Rung Bend Sit-up Skydivers Push-up Scissors J-Squats 4-Planks Jacks
1 10 10 10 10 10 10 45 10
2 11 11 11 11 11 11 50 11
3 11 11 11 11 11 11 50 11
4 12 12 12 12 12 12 50 12
5 13 13 13 13 13 13 55 13
6 14 14 14 14 14 14 55 14
7 15 15 15 15 15 15 60 15
8 16 16 16 16 16 16 60 16
9 17 17 17 17 17 17 65 17
10 18 18 18 18 18 18 65 18
11 20 20 20 20 20 20 70 20
12 20 21 21 21 21 21 70 21
13 20 23 23 23 23 23 75 23
14 20 24 24 24 24 24 75 24
15 20 26 26 26 26 26 80 26
16 20 28 28 28 28 28 80 28
17 20 30 30 30 30 30 85 30
18 20 32 32 32 32 32 85 32
19 20 34 34 34 34 34 90 34
20 20 36 36 36 36 36 90 36
21 20 39 39 39 39 39 95 39
22 20 41 41 41 41 41 95 41
23 20 44 44 44 44 44 100 44
24 20 47 47 47 47 47 100 47
25 20 51 51 51 51 51 105 51
26 20 54 54 54 54 54 105 54
27 20 58 58 58 58 58 110 58
28 20 62 62 62 62 62 110 62
29 20 66 66 66 66 66 115 66
30 20 71 71 71 71 71 115 71
31 20 76 76 76 76 76 120 76
32 20 81 81 81 81 81 120 81
33 20 87 87 87 87 87 120 87
34 20 93 93 93 93 93 120 93
35 20 100 100 100 100 100 120 100
36 20 107 107 107 107 107 120 107
37 20 114 114 114 114 114 120 114
38 20 122 122 122 122 122 120 122
39 20 131 131 131 131 131 120 131
40 20 140 140 140 140 140 120 140
41 20 150 150 150 150 150 120 150
42 20 160 160 160 160 160 120 160
43 20 171 171 171 171 171 120 171
44 20 183 183 183 183 183 120 183
45 20 196 196 196 196 196 120 196

So, I’m going to give this a try next year, and I’ll report back on how it worked out.

Bad Exercise Advice, Exhibit B

“Despite the apparent complexity of modern exercise programs, you really have only two options if you want to get fitter: you can train harder than you’re currently training, or you can train more. Those two variables, intensity and volume, are the basic levers that all training plans fiddle with in various ways. But let’s be honest: two variables is still too many. We all secretly want to know which one is really the master switch that controls our fitness.”

-Alex Hutchinson, “Is It More Important to Run Faster or Run Longer?Outside. August 14, 2019.

As covered in the discussion on adaptation response, there is no “master switch that controls our fitness.” If you want to be good at doing push-ups, do push-ups. If you want to swim the English Channel, then practice swimming miles at a time in cold water currents. If you want to be able to hold your breath for an extended time, then practice holding your breath. If you want to have six-pack abs, then you need to reduce your eating and increase your activity to the point that you can get your body fat below 10%. Everybody has six pack abs, it’s just that, for most of us, they are hidden behind a thick layer of fat.

Of course, goals tend to be more complex. If you want to run your first marathon, then you need to run more. You should work up to running 50 miles a week and be able to run for 20 miles straight a month before your race.

If you want to run faster than your last marathon, then you can increase your mileage up to 120 miles a week of elite runners and you can work in as much speed work as your body can handle at that volume, which will not be much unless you have been running that kind of volume for years and your body has adapted to it.

It is possible to run shorter distances fast and move up to the marathon. So, after years of adapting to a high volume of speed and middle distance running, you can start training for longer distances and increase mileage.

However, if your new to running, your goal is to run a marathon and you don’t have a decade time horizon to do it, then it’s probably easier to start with running more rather than a running program focused on running faster. Conversely, if your goal is to run a sub-20 minute 5k race, then running more than 50 miles a week will likely make you slower, not faster. Better to do intervals of 5k, a mile, a half-mile and a quarter mile with lower total mileage.

Your training has to reflect the activity you are training for. Sprinting is not the same as long distance running. Cycling isn’t the same leg exercise as doing squats and deadlifts. Our body (and mind) adapts to the training (or lack thereof) we give it.

Do X. Evaluate. Do X Differently.

“Why don’t you just try X for 30 days and see if your life gets better?

Today, roughly two-thirds of the population will make New Year’s resolutions. The most common resolutions:

  • Eat healthier
  • Get more exercise
  • Save money
  • Take better care of ourselves
  • Read more
  • Make new friends
  • Learn a new skill / hobby

Looking at this in the context of having recently read James Clear’s Atomic Habits, he makes a really interesting point that these kinds of improvements require tackling three aspects of the problem: identity, systems and goals.

For example, instead of resolving to eat better, we might resolve to become vegetarian. This is adopting a new identity that shapes the kind of food choices we make into healthier alternatives. You could also make it smaller, and maybe adopt an identity as a “water-drinker”.

You can extend these to the other resolutions. Instead of resolving to exercise more, decide to become a runner. Instead of saving money, you could become a person that pays cash or pays your entire credit card bill every month.

Identity feeds into systems. If you are going to become vegetarian, will you eat dairy and eggs? If you will occasionally eat meat, say during Thanksgiving, how often will you need to eat a vegetarian diet to think of yourself as vegetarian? What does a healthy vegetarian diet look like?

Same goes for running. How many miles and how many days per week do you need to run to think of yourself as a runner?

These, in turn, lead to goals. If you run sporadically, then setting a consistent schedule will result in more exercise, just as consistently eating vegetarian will result in eating better.

Goals have the problem that life gets in the way, and we give up on them. If your goal is to run a marathon, you cannot continue if you get injured or develop a cold that prevents you from following a training program. If you think of yourself as a runner, being sick is only a momentary set-back. But, the minute you know you can run again, you need to start. Otherwise, you aren’t proving to yourself your identity that you are a runner.

The start of a new year is an excellent time to think through the kind of person you want to be and the identities you want to adopt. But, the beginning of the month, of the week or each new day are good times to start trying to be a different, better person too.

Don’t let the inevitable failures that life throws in the way of each of us stop you from pursuing being the kind of person you want to be. The question isn’t whether you always eat healthier, but whether, in the main, you are eating better than you were before. You need to have systems and goals in place to get feedback on your progress, and you need to build in flexibility to change course. Do, evaluate, and do it differently. The goal is to be the person you want and not the number of miles you ran in a given week, that’s just the feedback.

Courtney Dauwalter Takes On Big’s Backyard Ultra

“By hand-selecting a field of ‘warriors,’ and dropping them into a last-man-standing arena, he’s managed to create an endurance event with the coup de gras thrust of bloodsport. ‘It’s an incredible spectacle to watch. It lends itself to drama,’ Backyard’s emperor told me two days prior to the opening bell. ‘I provide a venue where people can find greatness in themselves. They’ve got a lot of time to let these thoughts coalesce.’…

…’My eyes were droopy and I was seeing a lot of weird things—a giant 12-foot tall cowboy with a yellow bucket hat twirling a rope, an ice castle, people lining up along the road. That was during the daytime,’ she said. ‘At night, out on the road I tried to let my eyes close. Sometimes I started thinking about how much further we might go but I consciously brought myself back to stay in the loop. I tried to keep any doubts or breaking on the inside, even from my crew. Vocalizing didn’t help anything. Somewhere in the early 200-mile range, I may have told my crew that my legs were really tired.'”

—Sarah Barker. “Courtney Dauwalter Takes On Big’s Backyard Ultra.” Deadspin. November 9, 2018.

An account of Big’s Backyard ultramarathon, a race of a 4.1667 mile loop run every hour until only one runner remains. This year, it went for 283 miles over almost three days. It is put on by Gary Cantrell, who also organizes the Barkley Marathons.

5k Math

Over the last several years, I’ve taken my weight before a 5K race and logged the time. After 12 measurements, it looks like I can get a good, conservative prediction of my time from my weight: weight x 7.5 = seconds to complete 5k. To put it another way, for every 8 pounds lost, there is a corresponding decrease of ~1 minute of time to run the 5k. Once a sub-10% body fat weight is achieved, it may be possible to bring down the 7.5 number to ~7, but prior to that I think the best way to get faster is to lose weight.

Obesity and U.S. Marathon Times

Conclusions

  • The average American runner have never been slower (across gender and distance);
  • This effect is not due to the increase of female participants or “runners” – people who run slowly or walk the race.
  • Signs of poor health are highly correlated to the decrease in speed. Though we cannot with certainty say that these are the causes for the slowdown. And if they have causal nature that they show the full picture.

—Andersen, Jens Jakob. “American Runners Have Never Been Slower (Mega Study).” RunRepeat. August 2017.