Monday, 5 February 2018

"Endurance running is an old man's sport" - musings on speed and training during a morning shakeout run

I'm not fast.* I've only podiumed once in an event worth mentioning - always the prizemaid, never the prized! - and my PBs, whilst being times I'm proud of on a personal level, are nothing to write home about. My running style which, taking a lead from kung fu, I have named "Badly Co-Ordinated Praying Mantis" does not lend itself to speed: flailing around in the hope that my limbs propel me in generally the right direction is not the epitome of good, efficient form. I'll be puffing around the track on a Tuesday night at a Harriers training session, eyeballs out, straining to hit low 70s for 400m, and some pesky kid will knock out a sub 60 as if they could do it all day. Some of them probably can, or at least for multiple reps.

Coming to the sport as an adult, something I remember from early 'beginner' training plans in the likes of Runner's World is the emphasis on building up distance. Speedwork of any kind was the Devil Incarnate until you started looking at occasionally 'intermediate' plans but, more often than not, 'advanced' plans. Speedwork carries a higher risk of acute injury, it's true, and that's particularly so for the older runner whose muscles and tendons maybe aren't as elastic and resilient as they once were. However, I'm not aware of any reason why that injury risk decreases with experience, other than perhaps that you get better at warming up and listening to your body.

Compare that with my understanding of youth training, and there's quite a contrast. Much more emphasis is put on speedwork, and the distances raced are shorter; the kids learn how to run fast before worrying about learning how to run long. So why do adult beginners get taught to do it the other way around?

I read something somewhere - probably the "World Famous Message Boards" on, so a hefty pinch of salt may well be needed - that said that top end speed was genetically pre-determined, and the majority of the training a sprinter undertakes is about developing their technique to utilise that. Aerobic endurance, on the other hand, is seemingly limitless in terms of development potential. The general progression of distance runners, with a few exceptions, is to only move up in distance when they've maxed out their performance at the shorter distance. See: Kipchoge, Bekele, Gebrselassie, Rupp, Farah, Radcliffe, Flanagan, Goucher... The marathon is what distance runners retire from.

So, quick summary: kids develop their technique first to best utilise their genetically pre-determined speed, and then undertake the comparatively easier task of developing endurance later on. Adult beginners develop endurance and then rarely work on speed, and the majority almost certainly not with a coach to correct their technique.

Why, then, do we not have adult beginners doing speedwork? Perhaps, because most adult beginners are self-coached and therefore have no-one correcting their form, the risk of acute injury (which is actually pretty low when we're talking about threshold runs and longer intervals) is considered to outweigh the benefits; if all you want to do is complete rather than compete, does it matter how fast you do it? If doing a marathon once is a bucket list event, you're going to PB by default.

Those kids at the club running sub 60 400s - with a few notable exceptions - aren't going to be able to keep up over longer distances; I'd drop them within a few kms. When they mature and develop their endurance at speed, however, that will change completely; they'll be combining technique with aerobic endurance and that, dear reader, beats pure endurance any day of the week. They'll be fast in a way that I am not.

So is speed a case of nature or nurture? Clearly, from the above, I consider it both; adult beginners rarely benefit from the nurture, however, and so nature isn't tapped. I'm sure I'm not the only person to suggest this, but I wonder whether adult beginners should train more like kids, with the grounding in speed, not endurance; learn how to do it right before you try and do it for a long time. Of course, as I've said previously, the problem is that speedwork is harder and more unpleasant than endurance work, even if it pays dividends, and so the attractiveness of the long slow plod, perhaps with friends or in beautiful places, wins out over the lactic acid sufferfest round the track or on the deserted roads of an industrial estate. It's taken me a while to embrace the interval work and threshold runs, but the benefits are undeniable. Unfortunately, neuroplasticity diminishes with age - it literally becomes harder to teach an old dog new tricks - and so technique is a constant battle; the muscle memory just isn't there to keep good form at the end of a long race. Would it be, if I had trained as a kid, or even focused more on it in the early stages of my running career? Almost certainly.

A bit of a ramble, but that's what happens on a dreary Monday morning. Anyone with any kind of background in coaching or sports science who would like to tell me I'm talking nonsense, feel free!

*In an attempt to avoid being "that guy" who makes other people feel inadequate, let me be quite clear that I'm talking about my place relative to people who might reasonably be considered my peers, in dedication to the sport if not actual performance. The serious club runners who are hitting upwards of 100km and who knock out the holy trinity of intervals/threshold/long slow run every week. I wouldn't ever want to put someone else down, even unintentionally; everything is relative and what's slow for me might be a lifetime best for someone else, in which case have a hearty "chapeau!" (the same works the other way, of course... Kipchoge and Bekele run their recoveries at my PB pace!). A very hamfisted and probably patronising attempt at a disclaimer, but hopefully the intention is clear.

Monday, 29 January 2018

My heart's just not in it anymore...

Or rather, I don't know if it is or it isn't. You see, for the last few weeks I've been running without a heart rate monitor; initially because it wasn't working properly and the data I was seeing was bonkers, and then without bothering to wear it at all.

To give a bit of background, round about November 2016 I jumped feet first into training by heart rate: first, by loosely following Phil Maffetone's theory, and then actually working out my zones (approximately) using the Friel protocol. I had my watch set-up to display my HR as the primary field, rather than pace as might normally be expected; my theory was that, as my friend Owain said (though claims not to remember!), the body doesn't distinguish between stresses. What constitutes an easy day can change depending on a variety of factors: sleep (or lack thereof), work stresses, weather conditions, terrain etc.

I was mainly focused on training for ultras at this point, so I was pretty much running long, slow, and with a tonne of vert. My plan was to keep my HR under 148bpm (coincidentally, both my MAF number and the upper limit of zone 1 according to Friel) and if that meant walking, well, so be it; there's nothing wrong with the odd tactical hike in an ultra. The first few weeks I literally couldn't run up an incline at that heart rate but that soon resolved itself and, whilst I still had to slow significantly, I was able to maintain a legitimate running gait.

What did all of that tell me? Basically, for the few years previously I'd had no idea what 'easy' actually meant! Aerobically, I was underdeveloped. I hadn't been doing any actual speedwork, but every run I went on I tried to PB. I was running too hard for easy, and too easy for hard, occupying that grey area of neither recovering nor developing.

Unfortunately, it seems that the Suunto SmartSensor belts are not the most robust pieces of equipment and, having got only 330 hours use out of my second(!) one since 2016 before it started giving me utterly bonkers readings, I decided to ween myself off it on the basis that I didn't want to keep buying new ones! Since starting to train with Tynedale Harriers, and also reading Jack Daniels' Running Formula, I've begun working to pace far more anyway, particularly for workouts. I used to say that running with an HRM kept me honest, in that I couldn't kid myself that I was running easy when I wasn't. Having now trained myself to recognise that feeling - rate of perceived effort, as they say - the HRM is largely unnecessary.

So what difference, if any, has it made? It's still early days but, other than no longer having patches of eczema on my chest from the strap, it's largely had no effect. I do have to make a conscious effort to hold back at times on easy days, but I recognise that and act accordingly; a much more holistic approach! Hard days it hasn't affected at all, and the only thing I miss is geeking out over/laughing at the data and charts from VO2max workouts and races. My watch now thinks I'm permanently overtrained, but I'm confident that that isn't the case based on old data; I know that a 50 minute 10k is not pushing my system to a PTE of 5.0, whatever it says!

A useful experience, and I'd recommend to everyone who runs to learn how to use, and then experiment with, a HRM at some point. If the kit was more robust, I'd still be using it now, just 'cause. That said, at the risk of some kind of confirmation bias, feeling what is easy and what's hard does seem far more useful than being a slave to numbers.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Race Report: The High Fells of Hedgehope Half Marathon

"Mudkicker kiiiiiiiick... I don't fuck around!"

So snarled Seb Bach, as the closing chords of 'Mudkicker' by Skid Row rattled the car windows. An apt song for Spotify to randomly select from my pre-race playlist, as one thing the lower slopes of Hedgehope have a lot of is mud.

Formerly the Hedgehope Winter Wipeout, and now re-named to form part of the 'High Fells of...' trail series, it's a fairly straight forward "See that big hill? Ye run oop, and ye run dahn, 'n' try not to get ye'self deed!" type of affair. A classic fell race, really, except that it's marked out so there's no route choice or nav required. Having done it last year not entirely structurally sound, I was keen to improve on my 2:16/38th place.

The wind was up when I parked up on the field at Ingram, and that prompted a fair bit of fannying around trying to decide on what kit to wear: do I start off in my waterproof to block some of the wind and risk being 'Boil-in-the-bag Ben'? Decisions, decisions... Pondering this, I had a natter with Tricia, got registered, took the piss out of Helen for a bit, and then generally got ready for the insanity to follow. A few Harriers were milling around though, other than Helen, I only actually spoke to Rachel (who eventually convinced me that my waterproof was overkill, and she was right!).

Outside for the safety briefing, and then it was 10 minutes to the start. I was in a much better spot this year so didn't get caught in the bottle neck when Alison counted us off, and was able to settle into a fairly decent rhythm rather than feeling I had to overtake essentially the whole field in the first km, which I tried to do last year(!)

Bit of road, then onto a rutted muddy track, at which point the fun began. Beyond wanting to improve on last year, I didn't have any goals in mind - I knew I wasn't in contention for honours of any kind in a race like this - so I was happy to steadily make my way up the field. Legs were feeling pretty strong for climbing, which I was pleased about: clearly, the small amount of strength & conditioning work I've been able to motivate myself to do has actually paid off a bit! By about 3k, the lead guys were well ahead and largely hidden by the clag, but I was still in contact with the chase group and in the top 10 (I think). From 5k onwards the classic fell runner 'hands on knees, blowin' oot yer arse' pose was adopted by most of us in that group, as the grind up to Cunyan Crags and then on to Dunmore Hill began. A little bit of slip-sliding on the rocks, but it didn't seem as bad this year as last, so that was nice! A swooping descent from the top of Dunmore Hill is a nice little pick-me-up before the bog-fest that occurs skirting Threestoneburn Wood. Gradually, the bog turned to ice, becoming a full on ice-rink in places. Horizontal sleet/snow and frozen eyelashes added to the experience! The boulder field below the summit was a foot deep in snow in places, making for some interesting postholing but, having run round the flag that marked the turnaround, I reckon that snow actually made the descent easier, once I got over my nerves and committed to it; last year there was little-to-no snow, but the boulders were slick with ice, and the potential for a snapped ankle was high. The crust of the snow was just frozen enough to allow for running over the top this year, which made for a quicker and safer descent.

The return leg past Threestoneburn Woods was fast and fun. At one point, the lad in front of me had his arms out, pretending to be an aeroplane. "Huh!" I chuckled to myself, "Well, I do say 'if yer not flyin' yer not tryin'... OOOFT!" Yes, at this point, with perfect comic timing I hit the deck, landing on my left shoulder and performing a slick little commando roll onto my feet, which then started running again whilst the rest of me wondered what exactly just happened?! You have to laugh really.

Photo: Jim Imber

Coming down off Cunyan Crags the temperature rose noticeably and the clag lifted. It's very easy to be head-down focused on the race, but it was worth slowing down a bit to take in that view. A few more undulations and then it was back to the rutted track and the road. And, of course, the fell runner's ice-bath that Barry 'kindly' puts on for us... A zig-zagged fording of the Breamish. Saves cleaning the shoes, anyway!

Photo: Andrew Hewitt

2:03:09 and 13th place, a little over 15 minutes behind the winner. It would have been nice to have got under 2 hours, just 'cause, but I achieved what I set out to do - better last year's performance - so mission accomplished. Got my bling from Barry, then signed back in, collected a t-shirt, and went to get my 'survivors' mug' filled with broccoli and stilton soup by the lovely folk at the Valley Cottage Cafe. That soup tasted just as good as last year! Hung around at the end talking to folk and waiting for Tricia and Helen to come in, then grabbed some lunch before heading home.


As I walked in the door, Xander started shouting "I JUST WANT TO GO FOR A RUN!!!" so on his shoes went, and we had a jog up our lane. We saw a chicken. "HELLO CHICKEN!!! WE'RE GOING FOR A LITTLE RUN! CLUCK CLUCK!" When we got to the turn around point, a little voice said "Want a carry..." I looked down, and he was staring up at me mournfully with his arms outstretched. Naturally, I said "No chance, mate!" to which he replied "Ok... I'll just have a little walk..." Passed the chicken again. "HELLO CHICKEN! ARE YOU HAVING A NICE CLUCK?!" Re-enthused by the sight of said bird, we started running back down the lane, which was a slight downhill. "RUNNING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN! RUNNING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN! HOW AM I GOING TO STOP?!?!"

Which, coincidentally, is almost exactly what I was shouting coming off the summit of Hedgehope mere hours earlier. The apple didn't fall far from the tree there, like...!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

So long, 2017...

2017 has been a year of high contrast. I’ve had broken bones and angry tendons, but also more than a few top ten finishes. I’ve joined one club, and left another (on good terms!). I’ve run over 100km through the Lake District, and yesterday ran a parkrun for the first time. I’ve seen some incredible sunrises whilst on dawn raids, and been hit with depression and anxiety so hard that I’ve barely managed to make it out of bed and be a Daddy to my little boy. It’s not been an easy year and, to be honest, I’m pretty pleased to see the back of it.

Prudhoe Riverside parkrun.
📷: Janine Calkin 
Instead of ruminating on what’s been and gone, though, I’m going to look forward to what 2018 has in store. Since knuckling down to consistent training sessions with the Harriers, I’ve definitely noticed improvement (once I got that pesky anaemia sorted out!). The last two years of focus on trail marathons and ultras has left me with a pretty sizeable aerobic engine, but top-end speed has left a lot to be desired. Track intervals (which I’ve actually started to enjoy?!), strides at the end of easy runs, and time spent working on my form are all redressing that balance a bit, and I’m hopeful that time spent with weights a couple of nights a week will do some good in terms of resilience and injury prevention.

With the exception of the Pennine Barrier 50, everything I have planned so far is road based, and I think that probably accurately reflects a slight shift in focus. Training for long distances is fairly easy and uncomplicated; if all you want to do is complete rather than compete, you basically just up your mileage and, in the case of ultras, get really good at eating on the move. I’ve been caught up in something of a race to the bottom in terms of the ever-increasing distances of my races, and I’ve realistically maxed out this year with UT110k; training for a Hundred just doesn’t fit into my life at the moment. Training to be fast at shorter distances hurts, but when it pays off it’s a lot of fun. I still want to break 3 for a marathon, and I’d like to bring my half marathon PB down a bit. I’ve no idea what I’m capable of on a road 10km, so that will be fun to discover, and I may yet find my way into a track race... Plus, XC is my latest obsession, and I’m hoping to finish the season having been promoted to the medium pack at some point. I’ll still be doing some of the local fell races of course, but I’m definitely at my worst racing on that kind of terrain, even if I love running on it.

So, here’s to 2018 and, in the words of Sage Canaday, “any surface, any distance”. #backinblack

2017 in summary

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Race Report: The Hexhamshire Hobble

Despite being almost literally my back garden, I’d never done this race. I was entered for it last year but DNSd because of a nasty cough, so I was keen to give it a shot this year if at all possible. I was obviously pretty familiar with most of the route, but hadn’t done the leg from Allendale to Hangman’s Hill. It would be an interesting test of the efficacy of the ferrous gluconate: would I have the oomph I’ve been lacking of late?

A warm-up trot up the first hill was promising, with no crazy HR spikes, and legs feeling pretty strong. As well as taking the iron supplements, I’ve been making some effort to do leg strengthening work, and I think that’s helped the climbing a bit too.

Returned to the school for the safety briefing, and then it was time to head to the start line. I didn’t want to get caught in a bottleneck but also knew I didn’t have any business being right at the front, and I think I got my start position pretty spot on for once! The air horn went and we were off.

A big ol’ road climb straight out the blocks seemed to settle everyone down a bit, and positioning didn’t change  much. I was feeling pretty good once we got onto the fell itself, and tried to set a decent pace whilst it was still runnable. Unfortunately, the melting snow had left it clarty in quite a few places, and this slowed me down, especially on a descent a few km in, where I lost a couple of places.

Once we hit the first checkpoint and turned up the Broad Way I was into more familiar territory, and the legs were still feeling alright. Tired, but a totally different feeling to Gibside. The reward for making it to the top of that big drag was a fast swooping descent on roads, where I did my best to up the pace again. I was too far back from the guys in front to really make a move though and, when we hit the last incline, I rapidly lost ground to a guy from NSP. The descent down into Allendale again was a bit nuts on the road, but I managed to claw back at least one place; much as it pains me to say so, I think I’m much better on roads than fells! Into the finish chute, job done.

Photo: Lee Cuthbertson 
One thing I do love about fell racing is, for £8, I got a good run out, a mountain of cake, and no crappy t-shirt or medal to take up drawer space! Seriously, the tiffin was worth £8 on its own... Managed 19th out of 150, so moving in the right direction. To be honest, given that I’m not great on fells anyway I don’t think I would have been top 10 regardless of serum ferritin levels.

Today was also my first time running a fell race as a Tynedale Harrier. After some thought, I decided to switch my first claim to be entirely black, and not continue running for NFR competitively. I don’t really race on the fells that much, certainly have no plans to do any Lakeland Classics any time soon and, given that Tynedale is affiliated for fell anyway, it seemed a bit daft to be paying twice. Added to which, I’d like to see more folk from Tynedale trying fell running/racing, and that means showing up in club colours; people are less likely to come out if they think they’ll be the only black vest there.

All in all, there are worse ways to spend a Sunday. North East XC Championship next weekend; hopefully the positive progress will continue.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

The scores are in...

Blood test shows a serum ferritin level of 9 ug/L. “Normal” is 12-250 ug/L - a pretty big range, if you ask me (which of course the medical profession will do imminently) - with anecdotal evidence suggesting that many runners notice a drop off in performance if they go below 50 ug/L. Last time I had bloods done, back in June, I was at 32 ug/L.

So, a bit of a relief. Not only do I have a valid excuse for sub-par racing over the last few months, but it’s one that will (hopefully) be easily correctable. At least I have a literal note from my doctor to explain a crap run at the XC on Saturday!

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Race Report: The Gibside Fruit Bowl

Four days before Ennerdale 50k, I did a track workout with the Harriers. It was nothing crazy - we rolled through 300s in 58s, and I felt pretty comfortable doing so (backed up by the consistency) - but the next day I felt completely drained on what should have been a relatively easy trail 10k. Putting it down to Being A Bit Silly That Close To An Ultra, I went into an emergency taper and rested completely until the 50k. Ennerdale wasn't my finest hour, but I put a lot of that down to Storm Brian; being a lightweight I struggle running into the wind. I did decide to take the 2 weeks between Ennerdale and the Gibside Fruit Bowl off completely though, just to be sure.

On Thursday, I laced up the Hokas (yes, I'm risking putting them back in rotation for easy recovery runs) and trotted out for a gentle 4 miles, figuring that it wasn't a good idea for my first run back after a hiatus to be a race. In order to keep my HR where I wanted it, I was having to run much slower than I would normally have expected to. I raised an eyebrow at this, but told myself that a certain amount of rust was to be expected after some time off (though it wasn't THAT much time off really!) and everything would be fine at the Fruit Bowl.

The Fruit Bowl, organised by the Blackhill Bounders, is my favourite race of the year. My very first trail race (possibly even run!) was around the grounds of the Gibside estate, albeit not this particular race, and so it holds a special place in my heart; I've only missed one, I think, since I've known about it, and that was because my oldest friend was inconsiderate enough to get married that day back in Nottingham. I've even raced it with a probable broken toe - yes, I had prior form for idiocy like that - and given that entries usually open in April I spend a good 6 months of the year looking forward to it.

A brief warm-up wasn't positive. I felt sluggish, and my heart rate quickly rocketed into the 160s; bearing in mind this was slower-than-marathon pace, it did not bode well. Thinking back, I experienced similar during my warm-up for Robin Hood (I didn't do any kind of warm-up for Kielder, and very little for Ennerdale) but I assumed that was the effects of SSRI withdrawal. It probably was, in part. Strides didn't feel good either, and I was apprehensive as I made my way to the start, via a quick manly hug with JB. I settled myself a few rows back from the sharp end and awaited the gun.

The gun, or klaxon more accurately, split the autumn morning and we were off. Already things felt off. I'd planned to go out conservatively - no zachmiller today - but my HR was climbing and there was nothing I could do about it. Before I knew it I was up in the mid 170s, where I would pretty much stay for the whole race. I'd probably expect that HR for a 10k or thereabouts, to be fair - my lactic threshold, based on a couple of tests following the Friel protocol, is 174 - but the concerning thing was the pace didn't match the effort and, even more so, the lack of hill legs. I'm not going to pussyfoot around the issue: for the last few years I've primarily focused on trail and fell running, and even my road running usually contains a fair bit of vertical gain. No way should I have felt as weak as I did on those climbs. Climbing used to be a relative strength of mine, and I was getting passed constantly. Something was very very wrong.

Coming to the finishing straight, I had nothing. There was no kick. No disrespect to the chap who finished ahead of me - after all, he finished ahead of me! - but he did so by one second, and that was the gap between us for most of the final straight; even at the end of Kielder Marathon I was able to kick for 100-200m but today there was nothing. Crossed the line, did my customary forehead-against-the-wall recovery pose (thanks to the two Heaton Harriers who were in civvies at the finish, who checked I was alright), and grabbed my finishers' swag consisting of a banana, some water, a Mars Bar, and a t-shirt. The t-shirt had quite a fun design on it this year.

Found Rachel and Xander, and spotted JB, who'd finished 3rd (1st MV40). "Do you want to know your placing?" Rachel asked. "Not really...!" I replied. 48th (actually 45th according to the official results when they went up). Fucking atrocious. Last year, I ran that race with a chest infection and came 21st(!) Fair enough, I spent 10 minutes after I'd finished unable to talk, or indeed stand, due to the coughing fit, but still... There's no way that was a normal result.

Chatting to JB via Messenger a few hours later, the symptoms do seem to fit with anaemia. I’m wary of hypochondria but being a vegetarian I’m prone to such things anyway; combine that with a less-than-sensible race calendar over the last couple of months and it would seem to suggest a smoking gun. Hopefully supplements will knock it on its head and I’ll be back firing on all cylinders soon; it’s not a pleasant sensation, whatever it is.

So. Far from the race I’d hoped for, but a beautiful day for hooning along some singletrack and catching up with friends.