Chris Finch is: Training for the Bupa Great North Run 2014

I love getting suggestions for posts from other people and I especially love it when they then offer to write a piece. This means that (a) I don’t have to come up with a piece myself and (b) the readers of this blog get a break from my monotonous droning! Anyway, Chris Finch, from Fanbed, has written about training for the Great North Run, so over to you, Chris…

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 14.33.23I’m not a professional athlete, but with a little bit of running experience under my belt, the up-and-coming Bupa Great North Run 2014 should be manageable. Running the half marathon along with athletes like Mo Farah and Stephen Kiprotich – who’ll all be competing in this year’s race – shouldn’t be attempted without the right preparation. I’ve never run in any organised setting before, so this will be a big accomplishment to say the least.

When I first started running, I didn’t know where to start or how I should train. With the help of some friends at work who were sports fanatics, the guidance of some beginners’ running books and blogs such as Simon’s, I’ve found that slowly building up your stamina, eating from all food groups and staying on top of hydration is the secret to conquering endurance runs.

Of course I can only speak for myself, as Simon says you should be cautious of where you’re getting your running advice from.

Stamina:

To build the stamina needed to tackle the run, I started weeks in advance and ran 3 days a week, with rest days in between runs – my strategy being to increase my distance by one mile every week. Right now, my stamina allows me to run 9 miles – 4 miles short of the half marathon, so I still have some way to go! When I first started I once went all-out, ran as far as my body could take and burnt out. This was, in essence, down to overtraining. I could hardly move for days, which is completely foolish – when you over-train, you put yourself at risk of injury. I needed to learn not to do too much, too soon, too fast. I had to do what my body is physically capable of and build it up from there.

Nutrition:

One of the very first things I changed when I started training was my diet. It’s imperative that your body has the energy needed to maximise your mileage – I don’t bother with calorie-counting, but I do make what I eat my priority. I feel that many novice runners make the mistake of thinking that, to train for any kind of run, you need to dramatically increase carbohydrate intake.

I’ve found that, while carbs (pasta, rice, bread and potatoes etc.) are crucial for energy, what you need to do is eat from all food groups. Each one plays a part in maximising and maintaining your health so that you’re in the best shape possible for the run – protein for repair/re-growth, calcium for strong bones, fat for protecting vital organs and vitamins and minerals to ward off illnesses. When it comes to the day of the half marathon, I plan to have a hearty breakfast around 2 hours beforehand – I need all the energy I can get!

Hydration:

Staying on top of hydration while you’re training is imperative. I’m one of those people who has to remind themselves to keep on drinking water. In order to go the distance, food is important – but in my opinion, water probably plays an even bigger part when doing runs. It affects my ability to withstand the training process and perform at my best.

If you run while dehydrated, you’re slowed down by a few minutes because your blood volume decreases, lowering your body’s ability to transfer heat. As a result, your heart rate increases – making it harder for aerobic demands to be met. That’s one of the most important things I’ve learned – and it’s been my absolute lifeline! I usually drink up to 16 ounces of water 2 hours before a run. If I run for longer than an hour (which the Great North Run will certainly take for me), I bring a bottle of water with me.

Wish me luck when I take part this September – and if you’ll also be running in the big race, I’ll see you there! Let’s hope that the (in)famous North East weather holds up…

About the Author:

Chris Finch is about to embark upon his first half marathon – the Bupa Great North Run 2014 – this September. Although usually a casual sportsman, he was spurred into taking part by his colleagues at Fanbed  – an accommodation website for sports fans and athletes.

Maintaining not training

Training (ˈtreɪnɪŋ/) is defined as

the action of undertaking a course of exercise and diet in preparation for a sporting event

and I have recently realised that I am not training. Not that I don’t have a sporting event lined up – I do – but I am not really training for it. Certainly not in my head.

Running… but not with any purpose

At the risk of becoming rather maudlin and reminiscing about the good old days, I think that quite a lot has changed for me since the London in 2013. The business I co-own with my wife has developed and expanded. We have launched a magazine, which has also developed and expanded. These things are taking up a lot of time and energy in my life and I love them, so I have no problem with that. But I also know that I am just ticking over when it comes to my running and my fitness.

I realise that my ‘ticking over’ is not all that bad – 30th place and an hour faster than last year in an increasingly competitive 60km mountain race a couple of weeks ago is OK. I know that I could knock out a 3 hour marathon without too much trouble. My default steady runs are always the same pace, around 7 min/mile which feels really comfortable. But age and a love of food and beer is against me and maintenance is becoming ever more of a task. In fact I know I have plateaued in the last year or so and that I need to do more different stuff if I want to avoid slowly slipping.

So what I think I need is a target. What I used to think is that I needed a target that is a race. But even with a 105km mountain race in 6 weeks, a 24 hour relay race next weekend, a whole load of other races between now and the end of the year AND having made a decision that I am going to have a crack at the London again in April ’15, I am still not motivated enough. I think that I need something even more immediate – a target for today, tomorrow and next week. So that is what I am working on. Something that I can get my teeth into NOW. That might be a challenge to do some exercise every day.

And I’m open to suggestions. So what do you think? What would you set me as a challenge that is going to get me going – give me a reason to forego sleep and put myself on the line. Something more motivating than fighting advancing years and too much good food…

Unbalanced: how I need to fit sport back in to my life

I raced a 5km leg of a triathlon relay today and found myself thinking about a question that someone had tweeted me, all about how to attack a race of that distance. My advice a few days ago had been to go out hard and concentrate on catching the person in front. Having raced today, I followed up on that tweet and said that I had used that tactic. Frustratingly the person in front wasn’t up for getting caught and I never closed the gap. I finished in 17:47.

The tweeter then asked me:

How come? Your pb is much faster than that.

To which I replied:

The short answer is that since that PB @freestakuk & @LikeTheWindMag have happened – work vs. training is not balanced!

And that is the truth.

Simply not training

In the last 7 days I have raced a mile (on Saturday), run 14 miles (on Sunday) and then not managed to do any exercise whatsoever until last night when Julie and I messed around on some gym equipment in the park. And then today’s 5km relay run-leg. That is possibly a total of 18 miles and around two and a half hours of exercise.

At the same time I estimate that I have been getting around five and a half or six hours sleep per night. For some people that is fine. But I have always needed sleep and when I was training hard, 8 hours was the minimum. Nine was preferable.

Love Freestak. Love endurance sports.

So what point am I trying to make? Well, I feel pretty frustrated at the moment. Don’t get me wrong – I love what I do for a living. I love what we do at Freestak and I truly believe in us as a business. We have amazing clients and we work on fantastic projects.

I just can’t understand why I seem to be unable to find 45 minutes in an 18 hour day to do some exercise – go for a run or swim or bike ride.

I think the answer to that question is that I do have a bit of a single-track personality. In the build-up to the 2012 London marathon, I was almost totally consumed by the race and I made sure that as far as possible life fitted around training. Now the situation is different and I love what I do at Freestak so much that I happily prioritise that over exercise. I know plenty of people – even some who own their own business – who prioritise their sport over their business. That is up to them.

I also think that I enjoy running more when I do it with other people and with all of the excitement at work, it is too easy to put off meeting people for a run or a ride, because I don’t want to commit to that in case something more exciting or pressing comes in to the office.

So I have decided that I need to achieve a more zen-like balance. I really am not going to try to deny myself the amazing opportunity that we have at Freestak. But I must, surely, be able to find 45 minutes every day to do some exercise? In fact, you can all help me. Could you send a tweet or write a comment on this post or send me a message asking me what I am going to do today or what I have done: that will keep me honest… So who’s up for helping me get back to some semblance of fitness? I’d really like to get back to my tweeter and give him a different answer soon!

More or less – what is the key to being a better runner?

Is running a matter of more or less?

For many runners, certainly many I know, the usual response to the desire to get better at running is to do more running. But I have recently been thinking about running in terms of balance. Whether more is always better. Or in fact whether sometime less is optimal. I have decided that it is ultimately always down to the individual – I know runners who can manage 140 miles a week running. If I was to try to do that, I would certainly not last into week two. For me, less mileage but more quality seems to have been the key (although that might be about to change with all the ultras I have coming up this summer…)

So here are a few thoughts, based on my personal experience, of where more is better and where less is better.

More

Focus on the mental side: I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the London marathon in the run up to the 2013 race (where I ran my PB). I would imagine scenarios where I was feeling bad and think about what I would do to over come those moments. I thought about what it would feel like from mile 20, when I would see Nick Anderson, then the RunDemCrew and then the Mornington Chasers all within a couple of miles. I imagined what it would feel like to round the corner in front of Buckingham Palace and see the clock with two-thirty-something on it… In the end I think all of that mental preparation was essential and meant that I felt relaxed and ready on the start line

Quality training: I was short on time by the time of the London marathon 2013 – Freestak was growing and I was struggling to find the motivation to get out for 9 runs per week. So instead I tried to focus on quality – harder and longer hill sessions, better track sessions, longer threshold runs and more marathon pace efforts in long runs.

Rest: linked to the above, I made sure that I was able to rest more. The quality sessions were going to fall on stony ground if I was not allowing myself to recover so I tried as much as possible to limit the times when I would not get enough sleep.

(Good) food: I started running to try to lose weight and that nagging feeling that I might be eating too much has never gone away. I have even dabbled in calorie restriction from time to time, even as a sub-2:40 marathon runner. But for the London 2013, I ate well. I made sure we always had enough food in and I made sure I ate soon after sessions. I tried to avoid processed food and junk, but not at the expense of being hungry.

Group runs: I tried as far as possible to get runs done with other, like-minded and similar pace runners. Not just long runs, but track, hills and threshold sessions. Even recovery runs. Meeting people for a run is part of the attraction for me of running and I indulged myself as much as possible.

Listening to my body: I am not getting any younger (vet. 40 next year!) and the aches and pains seem to come on and stay on a little more. So I listened to my body and if I needed a break, I took one. I think that allowed me to be more consistent than if I had hammered myself and then needed weeks off at a time.

Less

Stress: I tried to remember that running is supposed to be fun. I didn’t worry if I missed a session or if my weekly mileage was measly. I just redoubled my efforts and got on with it.

Booze: I do like a drink and I will usually be topping my glass up if I’m drinking wine at home at a rate of 2 glasses for me to 1 for my wife. Or if we are in the pub, I will always be happy to have a second (or even third pint). But in the run up to the marathon 2013, I was much more reasonable. Not only did my waistline thank me (I think) but I was also more clear-headed and therefore likely to run in the morning the next day.

Water: I ran all of my runs without water. I couldn’t be bothered to carry it and I know how hard it is to stay rehydrated in a race – even one with bottles – at 6 min/mile. So I went without and I didn’t once have a problem on a training run.

Germs: I did everything I could to minimise germs, so I washed my hands a lot, carried a hand-sanitising gel and avoided people with colds. I think that in marathon training the immune system is suppressed and I really didn’t want a cold!

So there is a list. It’s not definitive I’m sure and it is specific to me. You’ll have to work out what works for you. And if you do, please let me know – what have you done more or less of (or are planning to do more or less of) to improve your running. Perhaps together we can find perfect balance…

Seven things I believe have transformed my running

Like many people I have met through running, when I started I really had very little idea what I was doing: all I knew was that I needed to take back control of my life. A friend of mine had made the same lifestyle changes that I needed to – stopping smoking, getting fitter, eating more healthily – a year before me and he had some advice for how I should start running. But my progress was all a bit hit-and-miss to be honest. I remember buying Runners World and trying to decipher the best advice for me and I bought a couple of books – the most useful of the first few books I bought was probably The Competitive Runner’s Handbook by Bob Glover.

But in general I made up my training as I went and hoped for the best. The more I ran, though, the more I was able to discard the useless things I was doing and refine the good stuff. Once I met my coach, Nick from RunningWithUs, I had a real boost in terms of things that made me a better runner. And now I am training for my next London marathon and tilt at a PB, I feel that I have uncovered a few things that have really made a difference for me. Obviously there are other small things that have also contributed and there are certainly things that I should be doing that I am not doing. But here’s the list as it stands:

Threshold

Without a doubt this was the one thing that Nick introduced that made the biggest difference for me. I am still not 100% sure that I get the pace right every time, but I go by feel: I aim for a pace where I can manage to blurt out a three or four word phrase, that I think I can probably sustain for 10 miles and where there is the faintest feeling of a build-up of lactic acid in my legs after maybe 10 minutes. I usually describe it to myself as running hard and sustainably. Nick describes it as controlled discomfort, which I think is a very useful way to consider it.

I don’t really have a deep understanding of the physiology behind threshold runs, but for me it feels like I am driving the engine hard for reasonably extended periods of time, which makes the goal pace for the marathon feel much, much more manageable. It is like tuning a car engine so that it runs like a sports car and then driving at 70mph – it makes marathon pace feel like cruising.

Probably my favourite threshold sessions are longer runs with sections of threshold in them, a good example would be 75 minutes with 3 x 10 minutes at threshold with 2 minutes jogged recovery in between. But there are many, many variations. The key, I think, is just pushing your body up to the limit (the threshold) and holding it there for a period of time.

Results? Well once Nick incorporated threshold in my training, I went from a 2:43 marathon PB in Paris to a 2:40 in Florence five months later. That could have been due to a number of factors, but the biggest change I could see were the threshold sessions I was doing.

Discipline

I believe this is a cornerstone when it comes to being a better runner. Life is busy, undoubtedly, and there are myriad distractions. But without sticking to the training, results will not come. I do think that a fit person can blag a result at distances up to a half marathon. But the marathon is different.

Without consistent training (which I mention below) I don’t think that a runner can expect to perform well and the key to consistency is discipline. Make a choice about what you want to achieve and then work out what it is going to take to get there. Then do everything you can to stick to the plan – discipline is about controlling all the things you can control. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked at my training plan for the day and thought “oh no, I don’t want to do that”, but without sticking to the plan, without being disciplined, I would never had been able to see what I am capable of. And finding that out is why I run.

Self belief

Two really obvious phrases: If you want to run a particular time in a race then you need to start at, or very close to, the pace required to finish in that time. And: if you want to improve your PB at a distance, you have to be prepared to run faster, over that distance, than you ever have before (borrowed from Nick and Phoebe at RunningWithUs).

The thing is, if you are going to choose a target time that is faster than you have ever run before and set off at a pace that is quicker than you have ever run before, you have to believe that you can do it. If you don’t, you will almost certainly fail. Because in every marathon I have run for a time, there has come a point where I thought I would not be able to keep going at the pace I was running. Every time. And if one gives in to the voice that says “you can’t keep this up” you will slow down and you will fail. So you need to believe – you need to start the race knowing that you can do it. Then when the pain builds and the road seems to go on forever and things start to look like they might be going wrong, you can dig into you belief and say “No! I know I can do this. Head down, think about form. Get on with it”

Where does the belief come from? The discipline that you have shown to train consistently. You should know that you have put in the work. You have made the effort. You have got what it takes to do this, because you have earned it.

Trail running

By trail running, I mean off-road running, wherever that is possible. I think that getting away from the pavements is great for the body and soul. Physically my Achilles heel, is my right ankle. I broke my fibula playing rugby in my first year of university and needed an operation where the surgeon screwed a plate to the outside of the bone. Due to the injury and probably also the surgery, it feels as though there was quite a bit of damage to the tendons and ligaments around my ankle and as a result I always have some pain in my ankle, varying from a dull ache to real tightness and soreness. By getting off-road, I believe that my ankle is both protected and strengthened. The soft surfaces seem to reduce the pain that I get post-run and the unevenness of trails means the muscles supporting my ankles work harder and get stronger.

I live in north London and face the typical challenges of anyone training for a marathon whilst living in a built-up urban area. But I am lucky to live within a few miles of some great off-road running in Highgate Woods, Hampstead Heath, Trent Park and even Waltham Forest, so I can run on the trails regularly.

I also think that getting off the pavements is great for the soul. Many of my favourite runs have been those where I have found myself alone, on a trail in a quiet wood, just running without a care in the world. Moments like that are a huge boost psychologically and remind me of why I am a runner.

Training in a group

When I started running, I only ran on my own. None of my friends were runners and I wasn’t confident enough to join a club. That has changed over time and I have increasingly come to the conclusion, that I am more motivated and I enjoy my running more when I train as part of a group. I even like racing in a group. For me, running is a team sport and the more people I can find to train with, the better I train and the closer I come to finding what I am really capable of.

I have really thought about this and studied the idea of a group being greater than the sum of the parts and I have found so many examples that I am now 100% convinced that if anyone wants to be the best runner they can be, then a group of runners at an equal level, with similar goals and the desire and commitment to make the effort to train together, is invaluable. Go make friends!

Consistency

This is the sibling of discipline. It is about training all the time, utilising periodisation to make sure that mind and body stay fresh and motivated. It is about building on last week’s efforts, last month’s efforts and last year’s efforts to get better and better.

I met an elderly gentleman at a race a few years after I had started running and he asked me what I was trying to achieve. I told him about wanting to find out how good I could be. He simply said to me

You need seven years! If you train and race consistently for seven years, your body will have adapted to the rigours of the marathon. Then you will be in shape to see what you are capable of.

My marathon PB of 2:37:07 at the 2013 VLM came seven years after I started training and racing consistently. So I believe that you need to keep your foot on the pedal all the time. I certainly do not think that you should keep the pedal to the floor, red-lining it 52 weeks a year: that is not sustainable. But by making sure that running is a constant factor in my life, punctuated a few times a year by a build-up to a key race, I think I now have reached a point where I can increase the training load and push my limits to see what I am really capable of.

Enjoyment

The last point is really the most obvious. Running is for everyone – I think that we really have evolved to run and because it is such a primary activity our bodies respond well to it. However I know that the type of running I do does not appeal to everyone. So if you feel like you have to train and that it is a chore and you don’t enjoy racing, find something else to do. Because I really believe that the thing that has played the biggest part for me, is that I really love running. I certainly love it a lot more than I loved my old, unhealthy lifestyle. I love the finish line feeling in a marathon, I love the training, I love long distance trail races with my wife. I love the friends I have found through running. If you can find that sort of enjoyment from running, then, my friends, I believe you will become the best runner you can be.

I hope this list is helpful. Or at least interesting. And I would love to know what you think has made the biggest difference to your running, in the comments below. There might be something that I have overlooked and that I can do to bring me one step closer to that PB on 13 April this year!

Chasing the Chasers – why group runs really work for me

Tuesday night is track night for me – well it is now that I have given myself a kick up the backside and started to take my training for VLM 2014 seriously. These track sessions are brilliant and will be one of the crucial things that makes a difference to my training. There is one downside, however, which is that Tuesday nights are also the club run at the Mornington Chasers – my running club. So I have to make a choice. And seeing as the track sessions are coached by one of the most experienced endurance coaches in the UK, my friend and the man guiding me to another PB in London in 4 and a half months, Nick Anderson, the club runs take second place.

This week, however, Nick was away and so the track session moved to Thursday. I could go to run with the Chasers. Little did I know that the sociable, fun club run that I was perhaps expecting would turn into one of the best (and hardest runs) I have done for a very long time.

Same route: different runners

As is to be expected, membership at the club changes. People drift away, new people join. And when I went on Tuesday, I was delighted to find that two new runners have joined, who are very fast indeed – Will (a 74 minute half marathon runner) and Rory (a former 800m runner and contemporary of Andrew Osagie) are not only really nice chaps, they are also blooming fast. As I was about to discover.

We set off on the usual ‘Winter Route’ which takes us from the club house in Kentish Town, up towards Highgate and Hampstead and the heath, before returning via Swiss Cottage, to where we started. For those who don’t know, this is a very hilly route, with one particularly long steep hill in it.

Start easy, get tougher

The first mile or so was lovely, a large, friendly group clipping along at a decent pace, but not one that meant we couldn’t chat and take in some of the sights along the way. Soon, though, we hit the aforementioned hill and the pace picked up as the conversations all petered out.

We hit the top of the hill and as the three runners ahead of me stopped to catch their breath I blurted out words I would later regret

Come on, no stopping – it’s not an interval session

And I continued over the crest of the hill and down the other side. Soon there were four of us – me, Will, Rory and Tom Craggs (a great friend and brilliant personal trainer/coach).

By the time I had caught my breath from the climb, we were clicking along at almost 5.5 minutes per mile on the gentle rises and downhills, with someone seemingly always at the front, pushing the pace.

The runs that put the tiger in the cat!

This was why this particular run turned out to be so good for me. It was like racing. The pace felt like it was on my lactate threshold almost the whole time. The urge to stop, to drift off the back of the group and slow to a more manageable pace was really powerful. The desire to suggest we slow a little or take a break at the next hill-top / corner / road crossing was almost overwhelming.

But I didn’t. I was having immense fun and really felt as though this was the sort of run that puts the tiger in the cat. So many times I read about elite athletes putting together long tempo or threshold runs, and wonder firstly ‘how’ and secondly ‘why’.

The run I did on Tuesday answered both questions: ‘how’ – with a group (or perhaps in a race) and ‘why’ – because these are the runs that build the speed endurance and mental strength that is crucial to being the best marathon runner you can be.

This was the sort of run that prepares me mentally and physically for the battle ahead. It will get tough in the marathon, but runs like the one I did on Tuesday, show me that I can push a little harder and hang on a little longer.  A few more like that and I know I will be ready for 13 April 2014.

Training, racing and time on the feet: why slower marathons are as challenging as faster ones.

In the last two weeks, I have run two marathons. That makes it three marathons since 21 April, i.e. five weeks ago. And I have learned from all of them. But the lessons have been very different, certainly between the first marathon and the last two.

The first marathon this spring was the London marathon and you can read my race report here. The second was the Copenhagen marathon which I ran with Charlie Dark from the RunDemCrew. Then yesterday I ran a trail race with my wife in Devon, part of the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series.

Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series Race report

Trail running at its best!
Trail running at its best!

The Coastal Trail Series races have featured a few times in our racing calendars since a friend, Alex from my running club, introduced Julie and I to them with a half marathon race on Chesil Beach a couple of years ago.

These races are the antithesis of the big city marathon: friendly people, stunning wild scenery, off-road trails and – as far as I have experienced them – very, very un-flat!

Yesterday’s race was no exception.

With all the wonderful activity that had been keeping us super-busy at freestak recently, Julie and I were not as organised as we should have been and we ended up deciding that we would drive to the race on the morning of it. That meant getting up at 3am to drive for four hours towards Plymouth. Seeing the moon ahead of us, as big as a plate in the sky while the most amazing sunrise lit up the hills and bathed Stone Henge, shrouded in morning mist, with golden light as we drove past, was worth the effort of getting up alone and set the tone for the day.

We arrived at the venue – a large field on the Flete Estate – and parked up. Immediately the Endurance Life team were friendly, welcoming and full of life. I was full of coffee!

After a typically easy-going race briefing, at 8:50am we were off: a big gaggle of chatting, laughing, encouraging runners making their way down a country lane to the beach and on to the coastal path for a two-loop race of around 28 miles.

The scenery and the weather were stunning all day (I have a few patches of sun burn to prove it) and the banter with the other runners – particular shout out here to Rory Coleman and his amazing up-hill technique – meant that we were just moving fast along the paths without a care in the world, taking photos and chatting all the way.Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 09.06.27

The finish was great – the field was full of people who had run the half marathon and 10km options as well as the 33 marathon finishers in front of us – and we were soon munching on a delicious locally produced burger and enjoying an equally delicious, albeit much less locally produced lager.

Job done: race completed at a decent pace, no stroppy incidents, perfect weather, no injuries and massive, massive grins on our faces.

Lessons learned from two marathons

I have taken two important things from these two recent races.

Self-ee with wife-e
Self-ee with wife-e

The first is about sharing. Both the Copenhagen marathon and the CTS race – whilst very different from one another – involved running with someone else. My London marathon experience was all about the ego. There is not much to share and indeed the training as well as the racing, was pretty selfish. But Copenhagen and yesterday’s races were about taking on a challenge with people I love and care about and enjoying being part of an amazing experience with them.

I think there is a place for single-minded, oblivious focus and striving to achieve something yourself for yourself. But balancing that with the opportunity to share laughter, pain, struggle and victory with someone else is, in my opinion, an unbeatable experience. Long live the team!

The other thing I have learned is that being able to run a 2:37 marathon does not really prepare you for running a 3:48 marathon or a 5 hour, 28 mile trail race. I think that I went into both thinking that physically I ‘had got this’ and whilst I feel fine, I have relearned the respect that you need to show to long, slow races and ultra-distance races.

I have not been training for three+ hours runs. My longest training runs in the lead up to the London marathon were two and a half hours. Yesterday I ran for more than double that. Sure, from a cardio-vascular point of view, I had no problem handling the pace. But my 60kg frame was putting pressure on hips, knees, ankles and feet for much, much longer than I have been used to and let me tell you – I can feel that today!

So, thank you to the ever-beautiful Julie for yesterday’s amazing run. And thank you to Charlie Dark for last weekend’s similarly epic run. I have learned a lot from both of you and from both events, mainly that you train for what you intend to race and if that is for a three, seven or 24 hours race, you had better be prepared… you cannot blag a marathon, no way!

Why focussing on the marathon might be the wrong thing to do

I was recently at a really cool event called Write This Run – a get-together for running bloggers in Bushey Park. There were 12 speakers at the event, from inspirational characters like Mimi Anderson and Kevin Betts to a running form coach, a personal trainer, some blogging experts and Scott Overall. This post is all about Scott and one of the things he said during his talk.

A potted history of Scott Overall

Scott Overall in Berlin 2011
Scott Overall in Berlin 2011

Scott Overall is an international athlete and Olympian, having pulled on a Team GB vest to represent the country a number of times, initially over 5,000m and then, in 2012 in the marathon. You can find out more about Scott on his website: www.scottoverall.com.

But it was probably Scott’s marathon debut in Berlin in 2011 that catapulted him into the limelight and certainly meant that he was the male winner of the inaugural RESPY awards. He ran 2:10:55 and finished in 5th place overall.

Possibly the most impressive thing about Scott’s debut marathon was that at the end he said that it felt easy!

Easy! 5 min/mile pace… But the reality is that if you are used to training for and racing over 5,000m on the track, marathon pace does feel easy. This is why we all do track training. If you train part of the time much faster than marathon speed and can manage the fuelling issues around the marathon, then the pace won’t be a challenge.

Since Berlin

Since Berlin, things have not gone so well for Overall. He decided to pace other British athletes in the London marathon to try to help them get the qualifying time. They didn’t follow him and he stopped before he had said he would.

Then Scott went to the Olympic Games marathon and ran a disappointing 2:22:37. He followed this up with 2:14:15 in the Fukuoka marathon later in the Olympic year. And then in the London marathon this year he didn’t finish, dropping out just after half way.

Too much focus

Listening to Scott talk at the bloggers meet-up at the weekend, I was really struck by his plan for how to rectify the few poor marathons he has run since the amazing race in Berlin: he is going to focus on track work and training for 5km and 10km races.

The lesson we can all learn

Scott’s comments made me think that perhaps the problem has been that he had been focussing too much on the marathon, both mentally and physically? And I suspect that for many of us the same might be true. It is all too easy to get overly obsessive about marathon training and that can have a negative effect on both body and mind.

In Overall’s case, leaving the marathon to one side while he trains for shorter distances will allow him to get some mental perspective on the 26.2 mile race and also allow him to train in a way that his body is more used to: still likely to be very high mileage, but fewer of the really damaging long runs.

In my case, I think that the launch of the business I run with my wife, meant that I had less of an obsessive focus on the marathon. I missed sessions because of work and possibly through that avoided over-training. I also did other things like a little bit of swimming and cycling. And I felt more relaxed: suddenly my self-esteem and confidence was not precariously reliant on the time that I could run a marathon in. The result for me, was that I went into the London marathon this year relaxed and ready to do my best come what may… and I loved every step of the way to my new PB!

I hope that for Scott the same is true. He is undoubtedly a hardworking athlete and I really hope that he has a great race when he returns, refreshed mentally and trained perfectly, to the streets of Berlin later this year.

And maybe if you have been training consistently hard for marathons for a while now and worry that you are hitting a plateau, a change will be as good as a rest. Try training for 5kms or 10kms or even for a bike race or a triathlon. Mix it up and let me know how that works for you…

How to get your preparation on track

For many runners, training on a track is something other runners – more talented, more dedicated, more serious runners – do. There is a perception that training on the track is for the elite or for athletes training for track distances. But that should not be the case. We have a few athletics tracks still open in this country (despite the apathy of the powers that be and the insatiable appetites of sport-centre managers for all-weather fiva-a-side football pitches) so we should all be using them, if for no other reason than to keep them open for other runners.

And there are other, better reasons for why all distance runners should run on the track. Here are a few that I believe are important:

  1. it is the best place to run as fast as you can – nothing to navigate, nothing to trip on, no one to crash into
  2. it is a great way to make sure you are measuring your effort/pace/distance
  3. track is a great place to get competitive in sessions
  4. a good track is easier on the legs than the equivalent session on concrete or tarmac
  5. track sessions make you feel like a real runner*

Run fast or go home

I think that the approach to track sessions should be slightly reckless. No one wants to go off in any run at a pace that is so unsustainable that it is impossible to finish the session. But unlike on the road, if you do find that it is impossible to continue with a session, you are never more than 200m (provided it is a 400m track – the standard distance of an oval in the UK) from your bag. So I believe that people who run conservatively on the track are wasting their time…

© Tom Hull
© Tom Hull

I think that the real value in running on the track for an endurance athlete is pushing yourself harder, much harder, than you would in a race, so that your body – conditioned to deal with that higher level of discomfort – will feel much more comfortable at, for example, marathon pace.

I am sure there are biomechanical and physiological explanations for why track training is good for you. But I prefer to keep it simple.

If you train by pushing your body to run at a pace that, at times and for relatively short intervals, is much faster than the pace you want to run your 5km, 10km, half marathon or marathon at, then when you do run at your target pace for those longer distances, your legs will cope better allowing you to go further at a faster pace

Ultimately successful endurance training is about bringing speed and endurance together at the right time for your target race. So you need to do the speed work to go along with the endurance stuff.

What can be measured can be managed

One of the other great things about the track is that it is an exact distance around the oval. A 400m track will be measured around the inside lane and that means that 2.5 laps is a kilometer. Four laps is a near to a mile as you need to be (a mile is actually 1609.344m and the extra 2.33m is usually marked on the track so you can be super-exact if you want to).

This means that you can be really accurate with your running:

  • If you are doing a session at 10km pace and you have run a 45 minute 10km race (or you want to) then each lap should take you 1min 48 seconds.
  • If you want to run a 3 hour 30 minute marathon then your pace will be 8 min/mile pretty much. That is 2 minutes per lap.

So no GPS required. Just tick off the laps at the required pace with a glance at your stopwatch every 400m or listen out if you have someone at the track calling out splits.

The legs and lungs are all well and good, but what about the brain?

You laughin' at me?
You laughin’ at me?

Track training is not just good for the body. It is also great for the mind. Track training will make you feel like a real runner (*) and that is important. If you are confident and you believe in yourself when you toe the start line of your next race, then you are much more likely to succeed at whatever target you have set yourself.

I also think that the competition that comes from track training is also useful. Usually reps in a session will have the same start point and this means that at the start of each rep, the group that you are running with, will all be together. You will naturally respond to the runners in your group and as people push the pace, you will respond, probably surprising yourself with what you are capable of – bottle that feeling, it will serve you well in due course.

All of this is great for your race-day head. If you know you are capable of monster sessions on the track, then you know that you have the mental resilience to hit your target pace in the marathon and stick to it. You might even find yourself racing the person in front, just like in those track sessions.

All for track and track for all

Track training, despite the fact that is should be tough, is really inclusive. The pain of track training is universal and anyone who thinks that fast runners are not working as hard as everyone else is deluded. And therein lies the beauty of the track. You can run your session at your paces and there is no fear of getting abandoned miles from home as there would be if you were out on a long run. Simply set your own targets and work hard according to your paces.

Convinced?

As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of track training. It certainly made a big difference to my training when I started. However I do have a word of caution. In my opinion there is absolutely no point going to the track to run around at your steady, or even threshold, pace.

Track is where you run your heart out. Track is where you ensure that there is a big differential between your fast runs and your slow runs. Track is where you earn the right to collapse in a heap after the session. Track is where you will make a difference to your running, that come race-day will pay off the biggest dividends. Good luck!

The Simple (Simon) Guide to Racing a Marathon – Part four: Psychology

The final post in this mini-series is all about the head.

Screen Shot 2013-04-08 at 21.54.07

Race day can be stressful and whilst I think that a degree of nerves can be a good thing, I want to keep it under control. And control is what I focus on. Control the things you can and don’t worry about the rest.

Getting prepared

I make sure my race day kit is washed, checked and packed days before the race. I pack spares of everything. I write a list of things I will need on the day – tape, Vaseline, Bodyglide, plasters, pins, something to eat and drink in the hours before the race, etc. Getting all that stuff organised on the Thursday before a Sunday race means less stress closer to the time. I figure out how I will get to the race days before the big day.

In the days before the race I spend time visualising the race. This year I am racing the London marathon, which I know well, so that makes the visualisation even easier. I know what it will feel like to cross Tower Bridge just before half way – look left and see the Mornington Chasers cheering station on the far side of the road. Pass the half way mark and check my watch (more on that in a minute) then focus on the Isle of Dogs. After that Canary Wharf where the crowds are immense. On the way beck west, there will be the 20 mile mark, which is an important point for me (again, more on that in a minute). Then the fun really starts.

Highlights of the race

First the RunDemCrew cheering station at mile 21’ish – a wonderful, life affirming sight and a huge emotional boost. The RunDemCrew means a huge amount to me and my running and to see them there yelling and waving will be amazing.

Then the Mornington Chasers just after mile 22. This is my club and they are all runners who know what it means to be at that point in a race. There will be people there who have played big parts in helping me achieve what I have and I can’t wait to see them and hear the  shouts.

After that, it is a parade of wonderful sights and sounds – the Blackfriars underpass, which feels a bit like a re-birth when you emerge onto the Embankment. Seeing the Houses of Parliament. Turning into Birdcage walk… the turn onto the Mall and the finish line.

Race tactics

As far as tactics for the race are concerned, I like to control the things I can, such as my target pace, as much as possible. So here is what I am planning –

  • Reach the half way point in around 79 minutes – that is five minutes slower than I finished the Cambridge Half Marathon, in the freezing cold and snow in the middle of a heavy training period. That should feel manageable.
  • Keep that pace going for another seven miles.
  • Then at mile 20, have a stern word with myself and start to race the person in front. Slowly, slowly start to increase the pace. 10km is all I have to run at this point and I can afford to dial up the effort one click at a time, working on catching the person in front and then the next one and then the next one…
  • All the way to the finish: if my plan comes together and I manage to dial up the pace from 20 miles then I should manage a PB (currently 2:38:30) which will be a very pleasing result.

There are many ways to approach a marathon. But from a psychological point of view, I think that breaking the race down into manageable chunks – 13.1 miles slower than you know you can manage, another 7 at that pace and then 6 miles as fast as you can manage – makes the marathon feel less daunting. And I believe you should visualise the things that you are going to look forward to so that you enjoy the journey. After all, enjoyment is the reason we run, so the marathon should be the pinnacle of that enjoyment.

Final thoughts

I really think that running is woven into our DNA. I don’t care to debate whether we should wear shoes or not. Or whether we should run 100m or 100 miles. I just know that when I run, I feel fantastic. You only have to watch children do what they love doing, to know that running is one of the most natural things we do.

I have decided to pit myself against the classic distance of 26.2 miles and I hope that I can motivate others to do the same. If you are doing the same, I hope that the last few blog posts have been though provoking and/or useful. Most of all, I hope you have a great race and do yourself proud. And remember, keep it simple…