Thursday, 5 March 2015

Trying Different Things

I find it interesting from time to time to look back on previous blog posts; not only does it improve the page count, but it reminds me of the steps I've taken since I began running, in order to try to improve my performance.

Slight injury - enforced rest

I have plenty of time for reflection at the moment. Following a couple of reasonable 5kms since Tarpley, with a 19m37 at Club Time Trial followed by a 19m24 at parkun, I am now unable to run due to a slight injury. It's too early to panic, and I'm pretty sure a couple of days rest and all will be well. It was during my long slow run on Sunday, which (mercifully) was only 13 miles. Most marathon plans follow a structure of 3 weeks of increased mileage followed by an easier week, to help your body recover a bit more. And, after last week's 20 mile effort, only having to run 13 this time was very welcome.

Is it just me, or is there a touch
of Claudia Winkleman about him?
All was going well as I set off on what has now become my favourite local route, from my home in Chedburgh out towards Barrow. Not being one for calculating the precise distance of routes beforehand, I tend simply to run for half the distance required, and then turn and run back. It's a pretty safe way of ensuring you don't run too far, providing of course you don't get lost on the way home. I turned after 6.5 miles of decent-paced running, Paolo Nutini's newest album on my ipod, the sun shining, and everything seemed to be going well.

I have a new tactic now, on my regular training runs, of not checking my watch for the first mile or so. My aim, unless it's a specific type of run (eg tempo, threshold, recovery) is to settle into a comfortable pace without knowing exactly what speed I'm going at, the hope being that my body can decide for me what feels manageable for long distance running, rather than me reacting to the watch.

I am getting better at judging this natural pacing, and resisted the temptation to check on this occasion until three miles in - my willpower must be improving too. I was very pleased to see I was running at around 8min mile pace - pleased because it felt so comfortable and yet that's pretty much my target marathon pace. However, it's too quick for a Long Slow Run (LSR.) I struggle with running my LSRs, because whilst they should really just be about time on feet, I find it very hard to maintain interest without having some kind of target to aim at. Once I knew I was at 8min mile pace, I immediately wanted to maintain this for the remainder of the run. It may well be that I need to consider running without the watch so that I don't continually fall into this trap. They should really be about 1 minute slower per mile than marathon pace. If I were to do this on my longest LSR, which will be 22 miles, this would take 3hr18mins - which would mean being on my feet for almost as long as I expect (hope) it will take to complete the marathon - target 3hr30. I desperately need to practice time on feet, in my efforts to combat the cramping towards the end of long runs that I've blogged about previously.

Anyway, I was still on 8min mile pace up until mile 8, when suddenly my right leg gave way. I have no idea why - and no sooner had it happened than it felt fine. I tried some stretches, but was unable to find any pain and so restarted running. About half a mile later, the same thing happened again - and then a third time maybe a mile later. Each time, I stopped (obviously,) stretched, and then set off again. For the last 3 miles I found a decent rhythm again and resumed 8min mile pace. There was some discomfort in the leg, specifically just behind the knee and down the calf - but not enough to stop me running.

Nice venue, but how would Gran manage?
It wasn't until later in the day that it started to become pretty painful - whenever I put any weight on it. We were looking around a potential wedding venue that afternoon, and at one point someone mentioned it was important to consider if we had any guests with mobility issues, since the building had a lot of stairs. Since I was in some discomfort with every step, I found myself agreeing whole-heartedly.

One thing I have become better at over time is dealing with injury. I used to get very worried by the slightest twinge - but I have now grown to accept that it's just part and parcel of being a runner. Very few of us get through a whole year without being out of action for a least some part of it. There are of course many things you can do to reduce the risk of injury - and many poor choices you can make to increase the risk - but the chances are, if you're doing relatively high mileage, which will increase if you decide to train for a marathon, then something will start to hurt at some point. I have bleated on for ages about my ongoing injury that has affected my running for some time - although not so much recently. This is now being dealt with, and because it's not actually stopped me running, it's been frustrating but I've learnt to manage it. The frustration has been because it's been a difficult problem to diagnose, and so there's been no way of knowing when it will be fixed.

With a more specific injury, at least I can know how long I'll be out for, and I can then deal with it accordingly. At the moment, I'm resting the leg as much as possible, applying some muscle relaxant each night, and I'm hopeful I'll be back running in a few days time. If there's no improvement soon, I'll go to see a physio, and no doubt get a diagnosis and a recovery estimate. The rest will probably do me some good, and in the meantime I shall probably do some gym work so I still get my exercise fix.

Trying different things

I clearly recall how certain tips I've picked up over the last 3 years have seemed like game-changers at the time, but are now things I don't particularly worry about.

Coconut water, for example - a great way to hydrate, yes, but pretty expensive, and I'm no longer convinced it does that much more than a free glass or two of water from the tap. And it tastes vile!

Bottle this and I could make a fortune
Beetroot Juice - I don't recall how long I persevered with this, having heard about the many benefits to runners of this super-food. But it tastes a bit like drinking your garden.

When I first heard about Gels, I began using them for pretty much every longish training run. Again, this adds cost to every run, and there is a theory that their effectiveness is reduced the more you use them - certainly now I wouldn't bother with them for anything less than 20 miles, although perceived wisdom does maintain they are crucial for a decent marathon, and so I will probably start using them for a few of my LSRs between now and London, just to give my body a chance to get used to them again.

Other changes I have introduced have, however, become permanent parts of my training and racing routines.

Pre-race breakfast is now always the same - honey on toast. I find porridge disagrees with me, but my usual breakfast cereal doesn't really provide enough energy, so I smother on plenty of honey and that tends to get me through without any problems. I'm still not sure it's enough to get me through a marathon however, and again I need to experiment with some other options before race-day, to find something that works.

Adapting my running style has been a major change that I've managed to make over the last few months - I've talked about this before, but the more I improve, the more I'm convinced of the importance of good form. I try very hard to take on board the advice of our coaches at our club Tuesday sessions, and whilst you may feel a bit daft the first few times you try out a new idea, they do invariably help. The last time I sprinted up the hill on a club speedwork session, I could feel a real difference in the way my feet were landing, and having a good understanding of decent running form comes in really handy when you notice your pace beginning to slip towards the end of a race. Spend some time concentrating on regaining good form and you'll notice your pace improves with almost no perceptible increase in effort.

So this means leaning slightly forward with every step, which will in turn help with your attempts to toe or at least mid-foot strike (rather than heal strike.)
Picking your feet up quicker, and trying to plant them under your body rather than in front. Taking longer strides to try to cover the ground quicker seems logical - but in fact, a foot planted in front of your body will act as a brake, and the most economical way of running is proven to be shorter steps, but more of them. Increasing cadence - the number of times your feet hit the ground per minute - is a sure-fire way of improving. I have taken my average from about 160 to 180 per minute, which has not come easily, but now feels natural and has made such a difference.

My aim has always been to try to emulate the running style of fellow amateur runners I admire - some of you will know who I mean when I mention John Oakes, Dave Edwards, Danny Aldis - just to name three. The closer I can run to the way they do, the closer I will get to their times - although there is still some way to go!

The importance of gait analysis

Another change I made, perhaps about a year ago, was to purchase some molded insoles. These are made specifically to the shape of your foot, and help reduce problems with your gait - the way your feet land when you run. Because there is a strong chance that each foot lands slightly differently, custom insoles can correct more problems than simply the right type of shoes - I overpronate, but far more on one side than the other. Each individual insole corrects the problem for each individual foot.

Ok, bad joke - ignore this one...
Since you then place these insoles inside whichever shoes you are running in at the time, it allows you more choice on the type of shoe you can buy - so I am no longer restricted to the structured shoes I previously had to wear, and can instead run in the more lightweight types of shoe that I prefer. And I can take them out and pop them in my trail shoes for when I'm running off-road. However, it's important to remember that the insoles may not completely correct your gait on their own, and certain people may still need certain types of shoe as well, to reduce injury risk.

So the best advice would be to take your insoles with you every time you think about buying new shoes, insert them into the potential purchase and have the shop check your gait to ensure everything's in order. If it's a proper running shop, with properly trained staff, they will be more than happy for you to do this. If they're not, try another store!

Any good running store will offer this service
Irrespective of whether or not you go with the insoles, it's always sensible to get your gait checked with every new purchase of shoes anyway. Not only because of the difference in the shoe - but because your gait itself can change over time, particularly if you are making conscious changes to your running style.

And if you're marathon training, or running high mileage regularly in general, unfortunately you need to change your shoes pretty often.

Standard advice suggest every 300-500 miles, with the effectiveness of the shoe deteriorating from about 300 miles onwards. Which doesn't take long when you consider most marathon plans call for over 100 miles per month. This mileage figure will of course be different for each runner - another tip is to take your current shoes into a shop to compare with a new pair of the same make, to see how much they have worn away.

Finally, when you find a shoe that you really like, it may be worth buying more than one pair if you can afford to - shoe companies have an annoying habit of discontinuing certain lines, or making slight changes that mean the shoe no longer feels so good. There is a theory that this is deliberately done to encourage people to buy multiple pairs before their favourite is changed, but even if this is true, there's still some logic in doing so. Shoes are expensive, and just buying one pair can seem prohibitive enough - but when you factor in the cost of a series of visits to a physio to fix problems caused by wrong or worn-out shoes, it really makes sense. And of course, having bought your perfect pair in a proper running shop with expert gait analysis, you can then search for the same shoe online and maybe save some money on duplicate pairs - providing of course they are indentical: as mentioned above, even a slight modification to the make of shoe you are currently running in can mean they are no longer right for you.

Setting targets

I have talked about setting targets often over the course of my blogging. These targets are constantly changing, as I improve. I believe this is healthy, providing of course they are realistic, and that failing to achieve them isn't too soul-destroying.

For 2015 I anticipated having three main aims, the first of which (going sub 19mins for 5km) I actually managed at the end of 2014. Of course, I have now set myself a new target, which is sub 18mins by the end of the year. This is going to be tough, and for now I am very happy that I have hit sub 20mins regularly since November, in fact for 10 consecutive races (8 parkruns and 2 time trials.) To go sub 18mins I am going to need a fast flat course, and also to do some very specific speedwork training. With the fast approaching marathon my priority, I have to accept my 5km time is unlikely to improve a great deal at the moment - if I can keep below 20mins then I'll remain pleased with that level of consistency, and it'll be something to work on for the remainder of the year. Frustratingly, the quickest 5km course I can think of - the first of the Kevin Henry Series of races our club competes in - falls only 4 days after London, and so - whilst I'll run it, to ensure I get a point for the club - I can't believe I'll do anything particularly impressive. There is a new fixture this year in Ely, which is bound to be flat (being in the Fens) so maybe that could produce a PB. I am looking forward to tackling Thetford parkrun in the summer, when there will be no mud and it should be possible to run the course a bit quicker.

Looking forward to the new ELY 5km

My next HM has a couple of tough hills and
is unlikely to yield a fast time for me
Another aim was to get under 1hr30 for a half marathon, and again, regular readers (!) will know I managed this at Gt Bentley in February. The new target for a half is to average sub 6m30 pace, putting me under 1hr25 - this should be achievable this year since I'm not far off it, but again it's a question of finding the right course, and the only remaining half I'm currently scheduled to run this year (Ipswich, since it's part of the Suffolk Grand Prix) is not bursting with PB potential. If everything's going well in the second half of the year, I'll be looking hard for somewhere flat and fast.

My main aim though, and one I've had for a while, is to break the magic 40min barrier for 10km. I'm almost 2 minutes off this at present, best time coming at the Haver10 last May - but I haven't raced the distance for a while, and certainly not since the recent improvements which have seen me set PBs at 5km, 5mile, 10mile and Half Marathon. So I suspect I would be close to this were I to race one now - and to this end, I am looking to book into both the Breckland 10km in early May, and the Colchester 10km the week after, both of which have the potential to yield fast times. To get under 40mins you need to run 6m30 pace with a sprint finish - or back to back sub 20mins 5kms, which a few months ago would have seemed unthinkable, but now seems much more possible. Another good gauge is my average pace of 6m26 over 5 hilly, wet and windy miles at Hadleigh - so surely maintaing the same pace or slightly slower over just 1.2 more miles is achievable?

Race Day Expectations

Multiple targets: a great way
to remain positive during a race
One of the best bits of advice given to me was from my friend Angela, who writes about her own running in an excellent blog entitled Long Road to Boston 2016. She recommended having 3 targets for each race: Gold, Silver and Bronze. The theory behind this is simple - if you just have one particular time target in mind at the start of a race, then if at any point you realise you're not going to achieve it, your race is effectively ruined. If you have a couple of backup targets, then if Gold is slipping away, you simply re-focus on Silver, and if necessary on Bronze. Charlotte and I both use this tactic now - often adding in a Platinum as well, depending on confidence levels!

Getting a PB was beginning to look unlikely
What I have become better at, crucially, is settting those targets at the correct level. If I know a course is tough, for example very hilly or off-road, then my targets will be adjusted accordingly. If weather conditions are unfavourable, again I will downgrade my targets before the off. I also try to avoid simply setting my Gold target as a new PB. It's so important to be realistic, and if my training has not gone well in the build up, or if I've had time out with injury, or illness, then I try to set a time I would be happy with given those circumstances - in particular I do this for parkruns, which I race so regularly that it would be impracticable to aim for a PB every time.

Conversely, however, there will be some races where everything goes really well in the days and weeks leading up to the start, and where just aiming for a new PB would not be challenging enough. Gt Bentley HM was a prime example of this - a new PB would mean anything under 1hr34, but I would have been disappointed not to break 1hr30, and actually believed I should be able to do so comfortably, based on recent 10 mile times. Therefore setting 1hr34 as Gold would have been nonsensical. Instead, Gold was 1hr28m30 (6m45 pace give or take) Silver was sub 1hr30, and Bronze was to simply get a new PB. I did have a sneaky platinum target in mind of 1hr25, and I although I didn't quite manage this, I was delighted to come in way ahead of Gold target.

I did a similar thing with Tarpley 20 - convinced I would see a big improvement on my 2014 time, I set targets way above my PB. In the event, despite having a bad run (see previous post!) I was actually only a few seconds outside my PB - but even if I had just beaten it, I would have been disappointed, based on where I believed I should be for a 20 mile race. No point setting impossible targets, but equally why set a target you wouldn't be happy to achieve?


You may be justified in suggesting there is very little joined-up thinking across my various posts. Try not to say it to my face though, I'm very sensitive. But I am aware that sometimes I write about something, and then in a later blog completely contradict myself. Rather than go back and correct myself, I want to leave each blog more or less as first published, since they are snapshots of how I felt about my running at the time. There's no shame in trying something, even maybe swearing by it for a period of time, and then deciding to abandon that approach in favour of something else. I've only been running for 3 years, and I'm learning all the time. Returning to each individual post after a period of time, I find that reading about things that subsequently didn't work is just as helpful to me as reading about things that did, and even if no-one but me ever bothered to read my waffling, the fact that looking back is helping me to improve is the main reason why I do this.

And of course, to those of you who do chose to follow all this nonsense, I remain pathetically grateful.

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