Finding intensity

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Dennis Kimetto – a man with intensity

Recently I posted about happiness (or lack thereof) and I have to say I was pretty overwhelmed by the response I got to that – friends contacted me by the dozen to offer advice and ask if they could help (to those who asked if they could help, just asking if you could help, helped!) And I am really pleased to report that I have started to find my happy again. I’m not all the way back to unbridled joy – will I ever be? – but I am certainly above the line that divides happiness from unhappiness.

Now I feel as though I need to capitalise on the positivity and see what I can improve upon. My current thinking is about intensity.

I will admit that most of my life I have considered myself to be a lazy person. I don’t judge my laziness by any empirical measure and I don’t spend any time trying to compare myself accurately against other people. But the feeling that I am lazy is more like a nagging guilt that hangs around in the background.

I have thought about this long and hard and I now believe that the answer to feeling lazy is in finding some intensity.

Perspective

We were having a conversation in the office recently about how we view ourselves and I tried to make the point that it can be difficult if the people you aspire to be like – the people that you consider to be your peers even – are actually outliers: those who are the best in the world or at least those who dedicate themselves to doing one thing at the exclusion of all others. For example it would be stupid for me to compare myself as a runner with Dennis Kimetto. But I do have friends who have run 2:20 marathons (and faster) and I think that I am more like them than I really have any right to because they are, and have been, more dedicated to becoming the best runners they can be that I am (and have been). When I find that I don’t have the motivation to go out running and I know that they are training, I blame myself for being lazy. Actually I believe that when it comes to running, those people just have more intensity than I do.

Intensity

So what do I mean by intensity? Well I am defining it as a state of mind where there are no excuses, where the focus is completely on the thing at hand. Intensity to me means that the person has a clear goal and a plan to get there. And importantly, the discipline to make sure that they are not distracted.

In my life I feel like I struggle to maintain focus and that means that I don’t have the intensity that I need to succeed to the degree that I want to. I certainly get distracted too easily. So what do I need to do? Well here is a list that I have been thinking about (but if you can add anything to this, please chime in and tell me);

  • Have a goal or two and make them the priority. Don’t let other people prioritise things for me.
  • Have a plan – whether that is running or business, I know I need a plan to get me to the goals I have set.
  • Clear the decks – get rid of all the distractions that take time, emotions and energy away from the goals that are important.
  • Throw off negativity, especially people who want to drain my energy or focus.
  • Review regularly.
  • Have fun doing what I am doing.

Looking at that list it all seems so obvious. But in the last few months I have realised that the important things to me at the moment – especially my running – have suffered because of a lack of clear goals, a lack of a plan, too much mental clutter, the unwelcome distraction of negative people and – possibly as a result of all of those things – a feeling that there is not much fun being had.

I also know that when I look back on my running a couple of years ago, I had all of the elements I am now saying I need to put in place: I had intensity.

So, thank you to everyone who reached out when I was in a slump. Some of you know more about what was actually happening than others, but everyone I spoke to or who wrote to me or sent me a message was a massive part in helping me pull myself together. I am really grateful and humbled by the support.

Thankfully I feel that I have managed to clear the mental fog, I am back on track towards some clearly defined goals and I feel like I am regaining the energy and focus that I was missing.

Now is the time to bring the intensity.

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!

A rant about the value of training advice

With a sport growing in popularity as fast as running is, there will always be people helpfully offering advice and inspiration. Some are completely altruistically motivated, whilst others aim to use their experience or wisdom to make some money. And every so often – and I am afraid it seems to be more and more frequent nowadays – I come across a situation where advice (or in fact more than just advice) is being doled out by someone whose credentials strike me as being not really, erm, credible.

On Friday I received an email from an agency working on behalf of a charity in the UK. They, like many others, have a programme of endurance events in which they have places that they are ‘selling’ in return for fund-raising. Nothing wrong with that.

But this charity has added a twist – they are offering the opportunity to receive “specialised training plans, nutrition guides as well as video training guides” from someone they describe as “one of the UK’s leading amateur endurance athletes”. Sounds interesting, right? But the person they have fronting their campaign really isn’t what I would call one of the UK’s leading endurance athletes and I can’t really see how he fits into the definition of expert: A person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.

His CV of endurance events is as follows: he has cycled 800 miles (doesn’t say how long he took to do that), climbed Kilimanjaro (in 6 days – Chris Moyles did it faster) and completed an Ironman (coming fourth from last in his age group). Now that would be impressive if he did them all in a week, but he took three years to knock that list off.

What point am I trying to make?

I think what I am trying to say, is that when it comes to dishing out inspiration, it is enough to have done something that other people admire. If you have run a marathon and your friends down the pub haven’t, then you are perfectly placed to inspire them. In my opinion, inspiration is a safe thing for someone to provide – you can inspire someone to start running by doing a marathon and as the catalyst to get them started, you should be thanked. But all you have done is start the person you inspired off down the road. You haven’t given them instructions on what to do once they have started.

I also think that if you have successfully undertaken some endurance challenges, you’re well placed to offer them tips and advice from what you have learned from your experience running a marathon – after all that is what I attempt to do with this blog. But again, I believe you are offering your thoughts to someone already making their way in endurance sports. I have only ever written three training plans for other people and they were more of a discussion and a few suggestions around an existing plan the runners had downloaded from the internet.

Beyond the pale

Screen Shot 2013-03-03 at 19.07.50Where I think the line needs to be drawn, is when people with no real empirically- or academically-derived knowledge, start writing training plans, offering advice on how to manage injuries or giving direction about nutrition.

And the reason I draw the line here, is that following a poorly thought-out training plan or injury rehab programme or nutrition guide can not just screw up someone’s chances of achieving their goals, it can actually hurt them physically. That is why the people who I believe do have the right to dispense training, nutrition and injury advice have taken decades to built it up, either by performing at the very highest level for years and years or by spending decades studying to ensure they know what they are talking about. In some cases there are people who have done both.

This is not just about charities either – clubs, organisations and groups of all sorts are guilty of the same charge: that of aiding and abetting the dissemination of training, nutrition and injury advice dished out by people who don’t really know what they are talking about.

It is a case of caveat emptor but I really strongly believe that as our sport grows in popularity, it is important that runners take time to understand where the advice that they are being offered comes from and the accreditations of the person offering it. Which probably means you should all stop reading my blog for a start…!

Do as he says, not as I do

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by my coach Nick Anderson, to a group of runners from my club, the Mornington Chasers. The subject of the talk was rather wide-ranging and essentially boiled down to…

Ways to be the best runner you can be

As usual, Nick got stuck in to some pretty specific advice. And I took absolutely none of it on board. It was almost comical.

Amongst other things and in no particular order, Nick gave the following advice:

  • Hydrate well – I had probably drunk a pint of water all day and that evening drank almost exclusively fruit juice!
  • Eat properly – the Chasers had organised a some lovely food, but I actually ate some chips, some pizza and a couple of handfuls of peanuts. Nick told us clearly in that what we had eaten was not enough – that it was a snack and not dinner – but by the time I had cycled home it was nearly 11pm and I was tired. So I had two small bread rolls with feta cheese and a chocolate mousse. Brilliant!
  • Eat within 5 minutes of finishing your run/session – I had been for a pre-breakfast run at 7am but when I got back it was at least an hour before I managed to eat anything. Then the first thing to pass my lips was a cup of tea.
  • Sleep well – Nick talked about the fact that our bodies enter the phase where we are really repairing the damage from training after four hours sleep. I got to bed around midnight and was up at 5am… so that would be one solitary hour in the recovery sleep phase then.
pizza chips
A runners dinner? It is if you’re an idiot.

To top all that off, I went out today to meet a trail race organiser to learn about how to put on a good off-road event (it was a brilliant day and there will be a report on here very soon). By 2pm I was freezing cold – having spent almost 3 hours walking and running around the course with the organiser and a photographer, leaping in and out of puddles to get the perfect shot – and I had not eaten anything since 8am when I had feasted on just 2 slices of toast.

Life gets in the way of perfect training for most of us. But that is no excuse for being an idiot.

Like many people, I suspect, I allow the pressure of life and work to take over. But that is a choice I make. I can always make different choices if I want.

I could have taken a Tupperware box with a homemade pasta salad to the talk last night and done the same for the day out today. I could have ordered two pints of tapwater at the bar last night instead of orange juice. I could have made a sensible decision about not trying to go for a run before leaving to catch my train to meet the trail race director, which might have afforded me an extra couple of hours’ sleep.

What I think happened is that I did not follow my new mantra:

Run the day. Don’t allow the day to run you.

So please, do me a favour. Do not do as I do. Do as Nick says. If you really care about your running and you really genuinely want to be the best runner you can be, plan ahead and make sure you do the right stuff to allow you to eat, drink, recover and sleep well. That way the training will take care of itself and you will arrive at the start line of your race in the best possible shape. Oh and if you remember, can you drop me an email to remind me to do the same? The address is idiot@simonfreeman.co.uk. Thanks!

To train or not to train… that is the question?

For many runners, once they are bitten by the running bug, there are suddenly a whole host of complex reasons why they run, in some cases twice a day and in many cases every day of the week. The forces that drive people to miss out on social engagements, pretend that they really like salad and wholemeal pasta dishes, go for orange juice and soda water in the pub, are powerful indeed. And sometimes the drive to improve and to succeed can become too powerful. Sometimes we are driven to train when it is certainly not the best thing to be doing.

sick-runnerSo the question is, how do you know when you should most definitely not be training and when you can safely push on through?

Actually I don’t know that there are any hard and fast rules. For me, as with so many things in running, it comes down to experience and intuition.

Listen to your body?

Runners often advise each other (and probably themselves) to ‘listen to the body’ but I think that this is too simplistic. Sometimes the body is sending messages that should be heeded, whilst at other times it should be completely – and I would suggest – aggressively ignored.

But how do you know which is which?

There are times when all runners, indeed all athletes, feel pretty low. Fatigue, over-training, a slight cold, a niggle here or there. But in many cases, the problem is not significant enough to warrant stopping training altogether. But other times a cold can become a chest infection or a pain in the knee can develop into serious tendonitis that takes months to heal.

My experience is that the longer I have been a runner, the tougher I have got. Whereas when I first started running I would heed every cough and sniffle or twinge, now I tend to get myself out to do something, even if that is not the session that I had planned. So far, touch wood, I have not had a twinge turn into anything more serious and colds have abated without morphing into pneumonia.

What advice can I offer?

I know that intuition and experience is not very useful, so here are my top tips for working out if you should HTFU and get out there, or take a rest day or two and get better first:

Illnesses
  • If you check your heart rate and it is hammering, then your body is fighting some bad-dude germs and you should give it a chance to win. My resting heart rate (that is measured as I wake up before getting out of bed) is around 42-44 BPM. I measure it once every couple of weeks. If I wake up feeling rough and my heart rate is in the 50s I give it a break.
  • If your illness is affecting your respiratory system, i.e. you’re really coughing or your lungs are sore, don’t go for a run. Breathing hard in those circumstances is a bad idea.
  • If you have diarrhea or vomiting, especially if you are dehydrated as a result, take some rest and drink electrolytes to replenish the fluids and minerals lost.
  • If you have a tickly throat or a bunged-up nose, wrap up warm and get out there, even if you only go for 20 minutes easy, you’ll often find that the run clears the symptoms of the cold.
  • Hungover? No sympathy. Get out for a run and stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Injuries – this can be a more difficult area and these are only my rules of thumb. I’m no medical expert!
  • If you have a sore spot that eases up once you’re running, it is probably tightness rather than an injury, so get your run done and remember to stretch well when you finish
  • In my opinion if you have an injury that persists or even gets worst when you’re running, stop running. If you can’t at least be pain free after 10-15 minutes running then your injury is chronic and needs to be dealt with
  • Upper limbs don’t count. I ran races – including the New York marathon – two weeks after an operation to pin a broken bone in my wrist. Provided you’re not off your head on pain-killers you will be fine. Just don’t fall over.
  • If you don’t know what your injury is, figure it out. There are some things that cannot and shouldn’t be run-through. Check out the Running Injury Oracle or a physio for diagnosis
  • Accupuncture works… fast! Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Ibuprofen work… but they don’t fix the problem so don’t abuse that route
  • Change your shoes if you have knee/ankle problems and see how you get on before you confine yourself to your bed for a week

Timing

There is something to be said about timing – if you are two or three weeks out from a key race and you pick up an injury or an illness, the most important thing of all is getting well as fast as possible. I promise you that any fitness you loose by not training in the last 14-21 days before a key race will pale into total insignificance in comparision to how you will feel and perform if you try to train through and allow whatever it is to get it’s teeth into you. Stop training, rest and rehabilitate in the most appropriate way so that you have a chance of getting to the start line in decent shape.

If you get ill or injured with a month or more to go, the trick is to assess whether you do need to rest and rehabilitate or whether you can afford to take your foot off the pedal and simply train through whatever ails you, whilst keeping some training going. This is not, however, the time to give yourself a week off because you’re tired or have a little cold. If you are in the 16 weeks-to-go zone, you really need to be training as much as possible.

Final advice

The main thing to focus on is getting well again. Remember that for most of us (and I’ll assume everyone reading this) running is a fun activity. Sure, it is wrapped up in self-worth and how we define ourselves. But you’re not a contestant in The Running Man. So be smart – if you’re just feeling a bit tired, ill and daunted by the prospect of training, do something else, but DO get out and do something.

If you are unlucky enough to end up with a proper illness or injury, deal with that first and then get back to training. You won’t loose anywhere near the amount of fitness you fear you might and if you’re clever, you’ll be back and ready to regain your former fitness and more in no time at all.

 

The storm is coming

Think back if you will, to the point before your marathon preparation cycle started. Let’s take November last year for example. Whether or not you raced last autumn, it is highly likely that last November you were not training for anything specific. Wasn’t that a lovely time? Blissful in fact. You were running, sure, but it was base building stuff – more steady runs and less sessions. Maybe even skipping a run or two if life or work got in the way.

But now, if you listen carefully, you can hear the rumble of the approaching spring marathon. Coming like a train down the tracks, ever day it is getting closer and closer…

And the training is getting harder and harder.

Welcome to the Twiglet Zone.

As I look around me at my compatriots, my training partners and the people I have contact with through this blog or through social media, the incidences of injury and tiredness are becoming more and more common.

At the track last night, people were missing. Others didn’t manage to finish the session. The recoveries between reps stretched out from 60 seconds initially to 75 seconds.

I have heard from friends who are starting to get over stretched. Little injuries are appearing. General fatigue is setting in.

I’m suffering too. As I write this I am sat on the sofa with my feet up and a cup of tea, like an old man. I felt OK after my track session last night, but a combination of a hard session, a rather restless night and possibly not eating very sensibly after the track last night, left me feeling utterly drained as I went out for my run this morning. I managed the 60 minutes and kept to the pace that I usually manage for those runs, but I felt ragged and there were several very sore spots in my legs – right calf, back of the left knee and both quads. I was in a sorry state!

But I have now got to the point where I realise this is all part of the training. If you want to be the best runner you can be, you have to manage these difficult periods. Training for a marathon involves having injuries treated or resting them for a few days. It involved making sure there is enough food in the house. It requires making sure that you create the environment that will allow you to sleep properly. And most of all, training to run the best marathon you can (or excelling in any sporting endeavor for that matter) requires you to embrace the challenges that come with training hard and the build-up of fatigue that is part and parcel of training week in, week out.

Professional athletes suffer too!

It is tempting when you see the runners at the top of their field, floating along at super-human speeds, to thing that the pros have it easy all the time, but that is far from the truth. Check out Jessica Ennis in this BBC film, at about 4min 25sec talking about the struggle of getting out of bed when the weather is horrible and she feels broken from all the training. Or consider Julia Bleasdale, who I interviewed recently, who told me that

Sometimes when I am really tired and I have a second run to do and the weather is miserable – those runs are very difficult, but of course they can also be the most beneficial.

What the pros know is that when it comes to the day of the race or event, all the hard training will pay off and succeeding will look easy. That is what we have to focus on – the end goal.

So, there is no way to sugar-coat this. If running a marathon was easy, there would be NO POINT DOING IT. We do it because it is hard and because it is a challenge. But in reality the bulk of the challenge is now, not on the day. So get that injury fixed and make sure you have the right stuff and the right environment to train hard and recover. And visualise the moment when you achieve your aim… I promise you: the pain and fatigue you feel now will pale into insignificance on the day. You didn’t really think it would be easy, did you?

The heart of the matter

I recently was included in a tweet from a friend looking for advice (by the way, if you’re reading this and we’re not yet connected on twitter please do look me up: @simon_freeman)

Any running friends use a heart monitor (polar?)? if not how do u tell wen u r at optimum?

I thought about this for a while and realised that 140 characters would never be enough to offer any meaningful advice, so I thought I’d write a little blog post and share my thoughts that way.

Never mind the monitor

I must admit that I haven’t seen the chest strap for my heart rate monitor for a few months. I’m sure it is in a bag with some kit that should have been washed quite a while ago. But me neglecting my heart rate monitor (HRM) is something that has been developing for a while. When I bought my first HRM I was obsessive about it, making sure that I had it for every run – easy runs, steady runs, sessions and races. I had to know my heart rate for every step I took.

After a while I decided that I wouldn’t wear my chest strap in races. I reasoned that in a race you don’t need to know how fast your heart is beating, you just need to know how fast your body is moving towards the finish line.

Then this year I discovered on one run that my heart rate had not been recorded. I guessed the battery in the chest strap needed replacing – I was right – and when I looked back on my downloaded run stats, I found out that the battery had run out several weeks before! Quite simply I had stopped caring about my heart rate.

What to do instead of measuring heart rate

I think that your heart rate can be an extremely useful way of gauging effort. But it is not the only way to measure effort and I think that too often a number can be a limiting factor whereas a feeling can be more flexible. Allow me to explain…

I have started to work on understanding how different sessions should feel. My coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, is a great proponent of running by feel. There are effort levels that runners should work within. For me they are pretty much as follows:

  • easy or recovery running – this is a pace at which I can hold a conversation
  • steady running – this is quicker than easy or recovery runs, but still very comfotable and talking is possible
  • tempo running – I usually think about this as half-marathon paced stuff where the pace is quicker still but still manageable (well, for 13.1 miles at least)
  • threshold running – this is controlled discomfort where I can manage 3 to 4 word sentences whilst running
  • faster running – anything quicker than threshold which is 5km-type pace where a grunt is about all I can manage rather than talking!

That is it really. I have a training programme where I run at different paces and I try to make sure I am in the right zone by feeling it. A good example might be tempo running – if I am doing a session which includes that pace I check that I can utter a few words whilst running and imagine that I have to keep the pace going for 10 miles. If neither of those are possible then I’m going too fast.

Return to the tweet

So back to the tweet. I think that heart rate monitors can be useful for measuring development – if you run an identical route at the same pace some time apart and your heart rate on the later run is lower, then you are fitter and you have progressed. But you could also feel the difference which would also denote development.

I would say that it is more valuable to learn what the zones feel like. That way when you are racing, you know how hard you can push because you know what it feels like to run that hard and you know how long you can sustain that pace. Once you have hardwired the feeling of different paces in to your running, you won’t run the risk of being limited by a heart rate and you can race like a real runner!

The power of the pen (or the keyboard)

I have discovered something about myself and I suspect I am not alone – I need to write things down to really get my head around them. If I don’t I tend to imagine things are better (or occasionally worse) than they really are and that is not a good platform from which to progress. This weekend I have had a few moments where I realised that I may have been deluding myself and if I want to make changes I have to see the reality and then work from there. Time to start making lists.

Training diary

It might surprise you to know that I have never successfully kept a training diary. I have started many times, but I can never work out whether paper or electronic is better and if electronic wins, whether it should be on my laptop or online. This means that I don’t have an accurate record of the training I have done which I think is pretty poor.

So I have decided to give DailyMile a go. I like the simple user interface and there is a nice iPhone app that I can use to add runs to my total. It is also really easy to see how much running I have done. You can see my profile here if you like!

And that was my first surprise. Last week (week commencing 22 October) I ran 40 miles. Had you asked me, I would have guessed at more like 50 miles (possibly even more!) I knew that I had taken two days off because of work commitments and had a planned rest day, so I missed two days – maybe 20 miles in total. But seeing the stats in all their (in)glory really made me take note. I am not the 70 mile per week runner that I imagine I am.

If you want to know where you are in your training, you must keep a record. Whether that is an excel spreadsheet on your computer or an online service like the one I am using (there are dozens of them!) or a folder with sheets of paper in it, you cannot progress until you know what you are already doing. Please join me and start – today – recording what you are doing.

Food diary

The realisation that I am not running as much as I thought I am, then made me think about food. I love food and I love eating. In fact I would say that I might be rather addicted to it. But I probably eat like a 70 mile per week runner and as we have established, I am not that.

The problem here is the casual availability of food. I remember coming back from a three week trek in the Peruvian Andes with Mrs. F. and remarking on how lean I looked and felt. A combination of low-level exercise for hours on end trekking every day and a relative scarcity of food (you’d be surprised at how few fast-food places and convenience stores there are at 5000m in the Andes!) meant that I felt better than ever.

But back here, there is always a well-stocked kitchen and innumerable opportunities to buy more food just around the corner. So I eat. And I don’t record what I eat. I think that it is highly unlikely that I stick to the recommended guidelines for calorie intake – I’m a 70 mile per week runner after all! – and I have no idea at all what my food intake breaks down in terms of fat – carbs – protein. It’s probably far too much sugar in cakes and biscuits and processed carbs (like pasta and bread).

So I am going to start keeping a food diary. That, I’ve decided, will be a notebook which I will try to carry wherever I go. I will also use a note taking app on my iPhone to record anything I eat when I don’t have my note book. There are two reasons for choosing paper in this case – (1) I have yet to find an app that does what I want and (2) I am rather shy about how much I eat (a legacy from my chunkier days!) so I don’t want to go public just yet. But I’m sure I’ll share what I discover along the way.

I think that knowing what I eat will be very useful when it comes to working out where I can improve. I also suspect that forcing myself to write down what I eat will lead me away from temptation, thus improving my diet at the same time as recording it. We will see I suppose.

Running plan

This is an area where I am not so bad and it is a joint exercise, so I have help. It is essential that all runners sketch out their plans for the running at least six months and ideally more like 18 months in advance. This is a classic case of needing to know where you are going so you can work out how to get there. For many runners, especially those just starting out, it is enough that they just run from time to time and maybe enter races that their friends are running.

But as soon as you start to really challenge yourself, a plan is required. Time slips past inexorably and if you want to break a time barrier in a marathon or half-marathon or do a triathlon or Ironman or tackle an ultramarathon, you need to put the date for that endeavor in the diary and work backwards to today, plotting your training and races all the way: you need to factor in family holidays, work trips, friends stag weekends and you have to make sure you book the races you want to do well in advance before they fill up and you are left wondering what to do now! Having a plan will also allow you to adapt when unexpected things come up – if you know where you are going, you can always plot another route.

As I mentioned, my running plan is a joint effort with my coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs. We sit and discuss what the next challenge is going to be and work out the steps to get to that, including any races I really want to do and other commitments I have. If you are not doing that, I suggest you get started now and one place to get some resources that could help you plan is the RunLounge where you can sign up for training programmes tailored to your race date and distance.

The future is bright… or at least mapped

So there you have it. I think that what can be measured can be managed, whether that is your progress towards a running goal or your diet. I am going to focus on measuring three things and I will report back on how I get on.

But please let me know – what do you measure? How do you measure it? And what benefits have you seen as you have measured your progress… I’d really like to know!

Getting rubbed up the right way.

I love a massage, there is no getting away from it. In fact before I started running I used to love a massage. But now that I train and run regularly, I find that a massage has gone from almost a pleasure that I afford myself to a necessity.

But there is actually not all that much scientific research on the benefits of massage that I can find (if you have any, please post a link in the comments section!) A little like ice-baths, there seems to be more anecdotal than empirical evidence for their value. But given the range of types of massage on offer, I think that there is most certainly a market and that wouldn’t exist if there weren’t benefits, however intangible.

So what should you be doing?

I believe that if you can have a massage once a month then you should. More than that could be a bit indulgent and actually not have that much more benefit. And there is the cost factor. Once a month seems to be regular enough for ‘normal runners’ (I know that many elite athletes are on the masseurs table at least once a week and often more than that) and then you can always throw in another one if you have a niggle or something that needs working on in between your regular sessions.

As far as what to go for, I would say that you should see a sports specialist. Anyone that isn’t familiar with the rigours of regular training is unlikely to know exactly what is required and there is no value in seeing someone who is too soft, too hard or simply doesn’t know which areas to concentrate on.

I would also say that many chiropractors and osteopaths offer sports massage and their intimate and specialist knowledge of the human anatomy means that they can treat any little issues that they find as they go. I tend to also always have a look at the books that a practitioner has in their massage room or in the surgery and have yet to find one where the books are about athletes physiology and specific injury treatment or prevention, where I have not had a great treatment.

How to choose your masseur

It is also important that you choose someone you are comfortable with in an environment you are comfortable in. Lets be honest here, we are talking about a stranger (certainly to begin with) rubbing your skin with oils and, if they are doing their job right, getting into some pretty intimate muscles – glutes, anyone? If you don’t feel comfortable, you will be tense and that is not great for you or the masseur trying to loosen off your muscles.

As far as which type of massage to go for, I think that there are lots that can help. This article in Competitor Magazine describes four of the most common and is worth a read.

But for me, I tend to not worry what the massage is called. The person that I go to see, Chris Wilson at BodyLab in Islington, London, has never discussed the actual type of massage he uses, but he is a runner and triathlete and knows what needs to be done to keep me feeling supple and uninjured. I am sure it is a hybrid of all the things he has learned and I feel completely safe in his hands.

So there you have it: massage – possibly one of the best things you can invest in as a runner and if you find the right person, a great way to keep your body in great shape.

Some things that a runners should never do (and how to avoid doing them)

This is a post inspired by my own stupidity. I run quite a lot and it is all too easy for me to forget to do things that help to keep me up-and-running: things that I know I should do, but don’t. So today, when I got back from my run, I decided to start listing the things that us runners should never experience and what to do to avoid these pitfalls. What do you think? Do you have other pitfalls that us runners should avoid?

1) Chafing

Skin rubbing against skin or fabric plus moisture equals sore, red chafing and even, in some cases, bleeding. Whether the location is inner thighs or arm-pits, chafing can be very distracting during a race or a training run and potentially very painful afterwards. In extreme cases, it can be too painful to keep running or to get out for a run the next day. Probably the worst time to for an area of chafing to develop is mid-race where there is little or nothing that can be done about it. In a race, distractions are bad and so the burning and stinging from some skin rubbing raw, can sometimes mean missing a target time or even not being able to finish.

The answer: there are a few options here. My top tip and favourite product for this is BodyGlide. Available from many, many running outlets and online retailers, this product, which is applied in the same way as a solid deodorant, has meant that I have never had issues with chafing when I have used it, including during a 78km mountain race where I was running for 10 hours continuously. BodyGlide is not the cheapest product in the world and some people swear by good, old Vaseline as an alternative. I tend to find that Vaseline can ‘melt’ after a while and that then leaves the skin exposed and vulnerable to chafing, but it’s probably better than nothing.

Another option is making sure skin doesn’t come into contact with skin. Tights and cycling-style shorts (minus the chamois) are an option to keep inner-thigh chafing at bay. Arm-pits are more difficult, although a long-sleeved top will usually do the trick.

Finally if the chafing is due to fabric rubbing against skin, the best way to minimise the risk is by not wearing baggy clothes which can ruck-up and rub and making sure what you do wear is a wicking material that doesn’t absorb and hold on to moisture.

2) Black toenails

A badge of honour or a sign that the runner is too stupid or mean to replace shoes that are too tight? There is only really one reason that runners get blackened toenails and that is because their toes are touching the end of their shoes. During a marathon the average runner takes 35,000 to 40,000 steps in a marathon and if your toes nudge the end of your shoes everytime, the cumulative effect is to lift the nails a little thousands of time. Et voila! Black toenails.

The answer: quite simply, buy shoes that fit. That is not entirely as simple as it sounds, but it is the answer. My advice, at least to start off with, is to visit your local running shop when you have been running. I have done this a number of times and because a runners feet can easily swell by a full size on a long run on a hot day, it is worth thinking about. That way, the shoes you try on will not fit when your feet are at their normal size and then suddenly end up too tight at mile 20 of your key race.

Other things to think about include making sure your toenails are cut short to avoid the nail over-hanging the end of the toe and catching the inside of the shoe. And when you try on a pair of running shoes, wear the sock that you will run in; cushioned socks or double-layer anti-blister socks are almost always thicker than every day socks so you should be wearing the thicker socks when you try on your shoes.

3) Dehydration

Dehydration is really bad for performance. If you don’t drink enough you will NOT run as well as you are capable of. Believe me. I know. In the London Marathon 2010, I was hoping for sub-2:40. It was warm and I didn’t take on more fluids than usual. By mile 13 I was dry. By mile 18 I was in big trouble – head spinning, unable to breathe properly and incapable of keeping my 6 min/mile pace. I ended up walking through a water station. And guess what? After two full bottle of water and a bottle of Lucozade from an aid station, I was back up to speed within seven or eight minutes and finished in 2:43. Obviously I was pissed off that I had missed my target, but I learned a very, very valuable lesson about dehydration.

Fast forward to 2012 and I was racing the same race and again it was going to be warm. But this time I made sure I was well hydrated before the race and drank sips at every water station. End result? A PB with 2:38.

This is really easy to get right. Make sure your pee is light yellow or straw coloured at all times. Then when you have a key session or a race, get some fluids in before the race and sip something throughout, especially if like me, you tend to run hot and sweat quite a lot.

4) Post-run stiffness

This is an interesting subject, because I believe that hard training will result in some stiffness – if you are training for a marathon and running 70 or 80 miles a week like I have and expect that you will not feel stiff, you are deluded. However there is a difference between a little stiffness that eases up a few strides into your early morning run and the type of stiffness that puts you off going out to run at all! That needs to be avoided.

The answers include making sure you are hydrated. Stretching after every run (and that does mean every run). Using a roller or some massage from time to time when you feel stiffness coming on. Getting enough rest. Drinking green tea (OK that might be a bit spurious, but it is a proven antioxidant which reduces free-radical damage). Making sure your recovery runs are just that – recovery. Stretching… after every run. That’s about it. Apart from stretching after every run!

5) Boredom

I sometimes hear people complaining that one of the problems they have with running is boredom. Well, I struggle to understand that, although I do sometimes find running on my own to be a little less than inspiring. So I try to run as often as possible with other people. Sunday runs, when speed is not all that important, is a good chance to get a group together and go at an easy, conversational pace. That is a brilliant way to stay motivated to go out running. I also am lucky to have some training partners nearby which means I can do some of my recovery runs with other people. It is most definitely worth making the effort to go and meet others to run with.

I also think that within reason music or podcasts can have their uses. I worry about people who feel they cannot run without music, but from time to time, I use my iPod shuffle to give me a little boost. And if you have to do long slow runs on your own, a podcast can be a great way to pass the time and learn something along the way!

Just don’t ever race with music. The motivation is NOT going to come from the latest chart hits or whatever else you are listening to. Get into the spirit of the race, feed off the crowds and your fellow competitors and concentrate on what you are doing!

So that is a list of five things that I think all runners should be able to deal with. There will obviously be other answers to these common problems, so please feel free to add your suggestions and if you can think of any other complaints or issues and ways they can be dealt with, please post them in the comments below.