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!

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 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!

Top ten reasons to go on a training camp

I am just back from my second ever training camp and this one was a belter. My coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, spends three weeks in the Algarve, Portugal and for 10 days the athletes he coaches or knows through running, are invited to come out and ‘enjoy’ the benefits that a running camp can offer.

Last year was a novelty for me, but this year I have been able to survey the whole concept of a training camp with a more experienced eye and I think there are quite a few benefits to getting away to a training camp or even a running weekend. Here are my top ten;

1. the weather

The group that trains together eats together...

– there is always going to be the chance that the weather won’t play ball. Indeed on our camp there was one day when a storm blew in and we all went for a run in the rain while the UK basked in sunshine. However in general finding a spot where the weather is generally better than at home makes training more pleasurable and can even allow runners to acclimatise in case they have hot weather on the day of their key race.

2. a change from the old routine…

The reality is that for many of us, training – and especially marathon training – can become monotonous. So going away for a few days or a week or even more can provide new places to train, new people to train with and even new training sessions to ward off staleness

3. … a new routine!

There are few, if any, distractions, on a camp. No meetings being put into your diary. No need to travel for business. No family commitments. No issues with public transport. In short, not very much that requires a training schedule to be re-jigged. So if the plan is for a morning and evening run every day, that is what you end up doing.

4. company

Training in a group = harder, faster sessions

– the romantic notion of the loneliness of the long distance runner might be embedded in the minds of many runners, but the reality is that in Kenya and Ethiopia, running is a team sport. One of the benefits of a training camp is the opportunity it train in a group, to surround oneself with positive people with a similar focus and drive, to watch and learn from others and to get immediate feedback from others about how we are doing. The only problem is that solo pre-breakfast runs the day after you return from camp can tend to be very, very lonely affairs!

5. food

– one third of the training triangle is fuel and a training camp is the ideal opportunity to get nutrition and hydration right. All too often I find that I end up eating on the go on the way to a meeting, bolting lunch after a midday run or squeezing meals in around runs or sessions. On a camp, with no meetings to go to and the chance to run at the optimum time, rather than when work or other commitments allow, eating well and regularly is much more possible. Which results in feeling strong enough to run more or harder. Virtuous circle!

6. rest and relaxation

– as with nutrition, the lack of time pressures plays a crucial part in allowing more training but also more of the things that support more training: rest and relaxation. Anyone who has read about the way that the worlds most elite runners, from east Africa, train, will know that when they are not running, they take their rest very, very seriously, spending hours sitting or reclining out of the sun or taking long snoozes between sessions. A lack of stimulus and an appalling choice of TV channels, as well as the aforementioned good weather, means that all of us on the camp spent hours on sun-loungers or stretched out on sofas, recovering from one session whilst preparing for the next one.

7. hands-on coaching and advice

is a luxury that we all really benefited from on our training camp. It is rare for runners, except for the most elite, to have as much contact with their coaches as we had with Nick and Phoebe from RunningWithUs on this camp. The opportunity to ask those things that you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask over a coffee after a morning run, was priceless (well, not quite – there was just the cost of travel and accommodation…)

8. the opportunity to try something new

– for me the new-ness on this camp was running twice a day every day except the two days when we went for a long run. So 13 runs in 7 days, brought to you by the ability to spend the majority of the day eating, sleeping or resting.

9. positivity

– I have yet to meet someone who goes to the effort and expense of going on a training camp to moan or whinge. Sure, there were points where injuries flared up or sessions didn’t go to plan, but in general the mood was massively positive and the closest I came to an injury was a side strain from laughing so much.

10. the aftermath

– having returned I am pleased to report that all of the things that I think about my training camp have an effect after the fact – I am back in the UK and despite the terrible inconvenience of work and the worse weather, I feel fit, lean and positive. And ready for my marathon in three weeks.

So in conclusion, I can only say that I think that camps, whilst undoubtedly indulgent, are hugely useful and great fun, so if you have a chance to try one, I suggest you do. It might be the key to unlock a new level of running.

Fuel for thought

Ed: Dionne has written a piece about dehydration that spells out the dangers and importance of preparation. If you have any comments please leave them for us and if you’d like to contribute, please contact me.

The ballot for the London marathon 2012 has been drawn and autumn marathon season is well and truly underway with less than a week till marathoners take a bite of the Big Apple across the other side of the pond…. forget Christmas, marathon fever is upon us!!

This casts my mind back to this year’s London marathon; there I was at the mile 25 mark watching zombie like figures stagger along the Mall. It was obvious to me that many of the runners had ‘hit the wall’ putting every last ounce of blood, sweat and tears to reach the finish line after 26.2 miles of the famous roads of London town and battling through the pain pushing themselves to exhaustion!

Hitting the wall

This got me thinking; what causes this phase of hitting the wall and how can athletes steer passed it so they have a much smoother and enjoyable ride to the finish line?

It was when doing my dissertation whilst studying sports management at the University of Birmingham that I got some ‘fuel for thought’ about one of the detrimental causes which could have such a negative effect on performance.

Research into dehydration

According to research, one of the common causes of hitting the wall is dehydration. When an athlete becomes dehydrated fluid is lost from the blood making it thicker and harder for the heart to pump an adequate supply of blood with each heart beat. This places the body under huge stress as the heart works to supply an efficient amount of oxygenated blood to the working muscles. Just a 2% reduction in body fluid can have a negative consequence for performance whilst dehydration can lead to a 6% reduction in performance and often will have a detrimental effect on the health of the runner, leading to symptoms such as intense thirst, impaired judgement, fatigue, anxiety, headache and in more severe cases, where adequate fluid had not been replaced, it has been known for runners to suffer from strokes or in extreme cases can lead to death.

Many of us are guilty of waiting for the thirst mechanism to tell us when we need to drink, however there is reason to suggest that this thirst mechanism is ineffective, because by the time it kicks in you are already likely to be mildly dehydrated by around 2% body weight. This is the 2% body weight that can lead to a 6% reduction in performance, meaning those that are not keeping hydrated could lose out on reaching their target time no matter how well their training leading up to the marathon has gone. It has therefore been noted that the athlete must be well educated in the advantages and importance of being properly hydrated in order to avoid severe dehydration and the consequential conspicuous impairment on overall performance, specifically when competing in endurance events like the marathon.

Effects of dehydration

As a result of the notable effects of dehydration on performance, specific hydration guidelines have been recommended by the American College of Sport Medicine. They suggest that an athlete needs to consume between 150ml and 200ml every 15-20 minutes of exercise equivalent. This is up to 600-1200ml per hour. However it is important to note that you don’t over hydrate as this could also cause adverse effects on performance, not least the dreaded ‘stitch’. Fuel for thought indeed!

This brings me to my final thought and the famous quote ‘poor planning leads to poor performance’ as it is clearly evident that without having the efficient amount of fluid in place performance is likely to be reduced and those goals you have worked so hard to achieve will be further out of reach, so grab those water bottles, find the drink that suits you and stand on that start line feeling fully prepared, confident and ready to fly. Good Luck!

Fuel on the run: SIS Go Gel

As you would expect, I am increasingly paying attention to nutrition in an attempt to squeeze more running performance out of myself. Training and rest make up two sides of the performance triangle – the other side is nutrition. However as much as I do to improve my nutrition from day-to-day, there is always the matter of race-day nutrition to worry about and, like most runners, I turn to gel sachets to fuel myself whilst racing.

I have tried quite a few in my years of running. I have tried High5, Powerbar and Lucozade, often based on what is available at the race expo and which are pretty standard, sticky, gloopy offerings. I have also tried slightly unusual fuel sources including Honey Stingers, which are essentially little packets of honey and Torq gels, which come in a delicious albeit slightly odd Black Cherry Yoghurt flavour.

But my current gel of choice is the SIS Go Gel and I’ll tell you why. Mainly it is because I like the fact that the gels are isotonic which means that, except for on a really hot day or at the end of a marathon when I am always going to be dehydrated, the gels can be swallowed without liquid. I tend to find that I want to be able to take my gels when I plan to take them and not have to wait for a water station. There is however a trade-off, which is that the gels are quite big but there isn’t the same amount of carbohydrate (SIS claims that there is 22g of carbohydrates in each sachet) that there is available in the other, smaller gels.

I tend to approach the use of gels by taking one a few minutes before any race longer than 10 miles and then one gel every 45 minutes (so ideally one during a half marathon and three during a marathon) during the race. I know that I am lucky in that I have no problem getting gels down and keeping them down and whilst they are not the most palatable things in the world, I believe they help to top-up energy levels during a race and put off the ‘wall’ until… well after the race has finished, which is ideal!