Three is the magic number…

Three generations of Kinvaras... in a bowl

There is only one running shoe that I have ever owned every iteration of: Saucony’s Kinvara. I was given a very, very bright pair of the first release of the Kinvara to try out – they were my first foray into a more minimalist shoe. I then bought a pair of the Kinvara 2s, based on the fact that I really did like the original Kinvara. And then three weeks ago I received a very special box in the post – one of only 100 pairs of Kinvara 3s in the world (though don’t worry, they go on general release in the UK in May!)

2% of worldwide Kinvara 3s in Vilamora, Portugal

I was very lucky to get the shoes two days before I went to Portugal for a two week training camp, so I really was in a position to give them a thorough road-test. As it turns out, one of the other two pairs in the UK were also in Portugal at the same time adorning the feet of the incredible Ben Moreau, who is undoubtedly more worthy of testing shoes (he ran a 143 mile week while I was out there with him!) so I can incorporate some of his thoughts here.

The main thing about the Kinvaras for me, is that they are part of Saucony’s minimalist range. The shoe has a 4mm heel-to-toe off-set which means they have a pretty similar profile to a racing flat. However every version of the Kinvara has been aimed firmly at the runner who either wants to begin the transition from ‘normal’ shoes with a 12mm or 15mm heel-drop or runners who are biomechanically efficient and are looking for a shoe that is a little more cushioned then their out-and-out racing flats. The Kinvara is the latter for me.

First impressions

The first thing I noticed about the Kinvara 3 when I slid open the very, very cool looking box and removed the (rather large) Kinvara 3 t-shirt and USB stick that had been sent with the shoes, was the look. These shoes are very consciously stylish. There is undoubtedly performance benefits in the FlexFilm material that covers the upper of the shoe (which I’ll come on to in a minute) but from a purely aesthetic point of view, it is stunning. A big departure from the original Kinvara and the Kinvara 2.

The shoes felt typically light in my hand – Saucony say that they weigh 218g and that is what my scales at home read – but the FlexFilm gives them quite a robust feel. The sole is flared as with all the previous versions, but there are changes to the sole which are supposed to improve durability (I can’t comment on that yet and the shoes feel no different from the point of view of the sole material as far as I can tell).

The differences

There are differences from the first and second generation of the Kinvaras that I could feel however.

Snugger but not sweaty-er

The first is the development of the Hydramax lining. When I was out in Portugal it was warm (I suppose that is the point of a warm-weather camp!) and yet the Kinvara 3s felt cool and dry even on the longest runs in the hottest part of the day. The new lining seems to make the shoe snugger, which is a real bonus as far as I’m concerned in a shoe with such a flexible upper, without making the shoe hotter or restrictive.

This combines with the FlexFilm, whose introduction has mean that the upper can be thinner than the mesh material that the first two Kinvaras were made out of and at the same time feel more robust. This all adds to the feel that this is a fast shoe, more like a racer-trainer then before.

The second noticeable difference is one that Ben and I both commented on – the sole feels firmer. I think that the Kinvara 2, whilst a really great shoe, suffered somewhat from being a bit squishy. I even felt that its usefulness as a racer was compromised by the softness of the sole. The new Kinvara deals with that perfectly. The sole is still flared and there is still plenty of cushioning to ensure that my legs don’t feel wrecked after a long run in them, but the shoe feels more accurate and punchy than earlier versions.

So there you have it. The Kinvara 3 from Saucony is still a shoe that I love. It is light-weight, low-profile and minimalist with the benefit of some cushioning and it looks great. I think that Saucony have done a good job of improving the responsiveness of the sole and the snugness of the upper whilst retaining the good things that all of the Kinvaras have shared so far. It will be my tempo session and long-run-with-faster-bits shoe for the foreseeable future.

Runner at the Sharp End #3: John Hutchins

I recently met John Hutchins at an event hosted by the team behind the Brighton marathon, which involved a coaching seminar on the Saturday night and a 20km time-trial run on the Sunday morning. John, like many of the amazing runners I met on the weekend, was really friendly and happy to talk to me about his racing and training and what really struck me about him was the fact that whilst holding down a full time job and family commitments, with a baby having arrived only a few months ago, John still manages to fit in the training necessary to compete at the highest level. Indeed as I write this I am sitting with my feet up recovering from the Wokingham half marathon yesterday, where John beat his previous personal best on a fairly undulating and certainly windy course, to record a brilliant time of 66:48 which was good enough for 4th place. So my thanks go to John for taking the time to tell us about himself and his running as well as sharing some brilliant tips from a runner who is certainly at the sharp end.

To begin with could you give us some background about yourself and your running? What distances do you run? What are your personal bests (and what were your first times for those distances)?
John Hutchins in the 2011 London marathon

I guess you’d call me a road runner these days, although I’ve run pretty much run everything from 800m upwards on the track and I still dabble in some cross country over the winter. My best event is the Marathon – I’ve run 2:21 for my first two (in November 2010 and April 2011) and I those are probably my best performances over any distance. I ran a fairly quick half in the Hague last year (67:06) and a decent 10 miles in the Great South Run 2010 (49:56 – and yep, I sprinted like Mo to stay under 50!). Off the back of those runs I was kindly given the chance to run for England in the Elgoibar XC, and then I was picked (but ultimately too injured to run) for the England team in the Odense marathon last year. Technically I’ve run 3 marathons, but the first was when I was 18, when I ran 3:56… My first 10k was about 32:30 back in 2004 and I think my first half run in anger was 68:26.

 

How long have you been running and why did you start in the first place?

I can remember my mum asking me to go to the shops from time to time when I was a kid and pegging it all the way there and back just because it took less time. So I guess I’ve always been a runner.  I did cross and track for my school and joined my club (Basingstoke) back then. But I kind-of gave up when exam work got tough around GCSEs and A levels with a view to getting properly involved once I got to Uni. Once I got there I joined the Uni team, got back in touch with Basingstoke and since then I haven’t looked back!

Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

Yep, my coach is Martin Tarsey. He’s an ex-Basingstoke athlete himself and has coached me since I rejoined Basingstoke. He coaches quite a range of distances-from 400m up to Marathon. His other athletes include Mark Berridge (47.1 for 400m and 1:48 for 800m) and some other very capable track runners like Dave Ragan and Max Roberts.

(Aside from your coach, if you have one) who or what has been the biggest influence on your running and why?
A Onesie. Ben Moreau may or may not have looked like this

It pains me to put this in writing, but I’d have to say my mate Ben Moreau. We were best mates at Uni and have stayed so. We train together sporadically, but I’m always chasing him. He’s a talented runner, but he puts the work in as well-so he’s a great example for anyone to follow (except for wearing a onesie/GB kit as pyjamas).

What is the best piece of running advice you have ever been given? Who gave you that advice?

I’ve always had a tendency to gun all my runs-whether it’s racing (lead from the front), track reps (kill the first two), tempo running (start fast and then die a horrible death) or easy runs (which usually don’t turn out to be that easy…). And then I get tired. And then I feel rubbish. And then I go into a bit of a stagnant patch.

So the best bit of advice has come from most of the people that know me well-particularly my wife Joanne, Tarsey and Ben, and that is to run the way you feel. If you’re doing a tempo and you feel rubbish, don’t fight it, just cruise and be able to run the next day. Likewise if you feel great on a steady run, let yourself run a bit quicker (within reason), but recognise that if you feel slightly jaded the next day, just back off – it doesn’t mean you’re cheating!! Sometimes I find that holding yourself back when you feel great is just as bad as running too hard-and this is going to sound a bit sad-sometimes you need to feel that rush that you only get when you’re going quick, but you could go all day…

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

The Basingstoke boys ran a training weekend in Studland for a few years. We used to have proper running tees made up for it. I love my first ever one which has my Basingstoke nickname “JT” (nothing to do with a trouser snake) on it.

What has been, or where is, your favourite race?

My favourite races have been the Florence marathon and the Elgoibar cross country. Florence because it’s a beautiful city, the crowds really get behind you and because it was a breakthrough race for me. I loved going through halfway feeling good and pushing on, waiting for the hurt to kick in, only to find out that I didn’t feel too bad. Elgoibar because it was a unique experience. The race is really historic and has a formal opening ceremony the night before. The course was crazy-set in the foothills of the Pyrenees and with a lap of a tartan track in each of the laps!

What do you think has had the biggest effect on you improving your times?
  • Mileage
  • 2 hour+ runs
  • tempo running

Hard to tell which of these has the biggest impact – each adds its own little piece. High mileage for me is 80+ per week. That’s not a great deal in comparison with the elite elite marathoners, but it’s just about all I can fit in around family life and work.  2 hour+ runs give you that marathon specific training that nothing else can – where you run close to empty and actually prove to yourself that you can run the whole distance. And tempo runs prove you can run quickly and make running slower feel easier.

With the benefit of hindsight, if you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be and why?

I’d probably say to myself that I should train easier, but more often.  I used to get really tired and have to take days off to recoup.  Much better to take things easier and improve aerobically.

Do you stretch enough?

Nope. But I also have chronic Achilles issues as a result.  I’m like an old man in the mornings.  Word of advice to anyone would be DO CALF RAISES. I’ve started, and they’re helping, but I wish I’d done them all along…

What do you think about the general state of running in the UK and, assuming you don’t think it is perfect, what could be done to improve it?

It’s obviously not as good as it once was.  Other sports and pass times seem to have stolen / stifled the talent that once came through the ranks. Having said that, I think London 2012 is a good stimulus for change. I also think the runBritain Grand Prix is a great way of encouraging good club runners (not just the elite elite) to race in high quality events. The atmosphere, organisation, serious competition and the fact that there are a series of races to target are all awesome incentives to train and improve.  Sometimes I also feel like the club structure we have in the UK must have been great when there was mass participation, but now numbers have fallen there almost needs to be a bit of consolidation to drive growth.  But that kind of change is way above my pay grade…

What is your overall ambition for your own running? What do you think you need to do to achieve that?

This year’s ambition is to run under 2:20.  I think I possibly could have been ready for this had I had an amazing run at London last year.  So I’m basically approaching training in quite a similar way, but a bit more sensibly with respect to keeping fresh.  Ultimately I would love to run in a major championships, but I’m just about training at capacity at the moment-what with work and home life.  I guess I will see what I can achieve this year and work out what I could change to continue to improve.

Please complete the following: I run because…

I love everything that running allows me to do; to meet great people, to run in awesome events and to travel; to rarely get bored; to eat ALL the time; to keep fit; to compete; to work hard and get results.  Most of my mates think I’m mental…

I would like to thank John for a really great interview. He is very modest about his achievements but for me he embodies the idea of a Runner At The Sharp-end and I am sure that everyone reading this blog will agree with me that John has given us some brilliant tips and lessons that he has learned that we can apply to our own training. If you enjoyed the interview you can also follow John on twitter @HutchinsJohn.

Despatches from the front line

I’d done my run this morning (actually my wife, who, being Swiss, is genetically programmed to forgo drink, food and sleep in the presence of snow, had me out running by 7am this morning in London’s first snow this winter) and I had settled down to write a blog post or two and check what the world was up to when I happened to notice that Ben Moreau (@ben_moreau) was online. Ben flew to Iten in Kenya a week ago for a few weeks’ training in advance of his attempt at Olympic qualification at the London marathon in April this year. So I jumped on the opportunity to ask him how things were going. He updated me on what was happening out there and I thought I’d pass on his news.

Ben said that he has finally acclimatised to the altitude and had “experienced one Kenyan training session”. How was it? “It was brutal”. Now coming from a man like Ben Moreau, who I have seen train and race on numerous occasions, when he says it was brutal, that means it must have been massively tough. Ben also said that he is being sensible, but that has to be put in the context of where he is and what he is doing – his sensible and most other peoples sensible are certainly going to be different!

I mentioned to Ben that I’d been out running in the snow and how hard I’d found it and he replied that whilst I was jogging in the snow he had discovered myth #1 about east African runners: that Kenyans always start runs slow. He told me about the long (erm, slow) run that he did yesterday where the 3rd mile was 5.28 min/mile and he was hanging off the back of the group!

Today included a well earned easy 45 minutes run after yesterday’s run and who can blame Ben for taking it easy. The long run was 16 miles in 95 minutes with the last 4 miles uphill.

Ben sent me his Garmin stats for Saturday’s run, just to give me an idea for what a long slow run looks like in Kenya:

Total time: 1hr 40mins
Average pace: 6:10 min/mile
Fastest pace: 4:59 min/mile
Elevation at highest point: 7,845 ft

Ben's splits for his long run in Kenya
It's not flat then...

But whilst those stats tell a story of running in a very different place, some things never change. Ben told me about catching another runner whilst out on that run who appeared to be labouring somewhat. As Ben passed him, the chap in question rushed back past Ben and shot off into the distance… until about eight miles later when Ben caught him again. This time when Ben went past there was no response! Sounds just like the people who hate to be passed on the canal towpath around Victoria Park in east London!

So we had covered training. And seeing as Ben was on Facebook, I think it is safe to assume that he was resting. So what about nutrition? How was Ben getting on with Ugali for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Well, who knows? He told me that he was having… wait for it… spaghetti bolognaise for dinner. What??? He did say though that he loves the chapatis that are served in Iten. At least that is authentic Kenyan cuisine!

Hopefully I will have the opportunity to catch up with Ben again and find out how he is getting on, but for now I think it is safe to say that he is in a great place to train well and come back in the best possible shape to make the Team GB selectors sit up and take notice. I hope you’ll all join me in wishing him luck.

“The only antidote to mental suffering is physical pain” Karl Marx

When I started running, pain was something that I understood would be inevitable, but assumed would be temporary and periodic. However as I progressed my training over the years increasing my mileage as well as the intensity of my sessions, I came to realise that pain could be a pretty constant companion. At the moment, as I am logging regular 65-70 mile weeks, I wake up every morning with a very tight, sore right ankle. Following my easy morning run and after an hour at my desk my right knee twinges. By lunchtime there is a pain in my lower back. And before I set out for my session in the afternoon my IT Band feels like a tensioned steel cable. These niggles are a part of being a marathoner.

The regular companionship of mild pain or discomfort has, however, made me think about what it is like for other runners and especially 100+ mile-per-week elite athletes.

Elite runner, elite pain

In Charlie Spedding’s brilliant autobiography, From Last to First, he describes how, when he was training full time, pain was something he had to deal with constantly. This was especially true for his Achilles tendon, thanks to which he almost died after a negative reaction to an operation he was having.

Ben Moreau
Scott Overall

So what about contemporary elite athletes? I had the opportunity to ask Ben Moreau, an aspiring Olympic marathoner, Scott Overall, whose 2:10:55 at Berlin in 2011 secured him the first place on the Team GB marathon team and Alyson Dixon who is also hoping for a place in the Olympic marathon for Team GB.

When I asked Ben about whether he deals with constant pain he said that, thankfully, he doesn’t. However Ben went on to tell me that he has trained through pains that have lasted for weeks and that in fact at the moment – with 13 weeks until his shot for a place on the Olympic team at the Virgin London Marathon – he has a hamstring issue that has been going on since early December (that is for around seven weeks). Ben said that this pain has meant that he has reduced intensity of training somewhat but that his volume of training has remained constant.

Scott Overall was similarly sanguine about pain when I asked him, telling me that

I think the aches and pains that athletes have are natural as I think its quite un-natural to be running over 100 miles per week, week in and week out

and he went on to say that in his experience a pain is often a sign of a problem away from the site of the discomfort. In his case calf pain was due to hip issues:

once I had a calf problem but the cause of this was because my pelvis was out of alignment and the pain was showing itself at the weakest part of the chain. No amount of stretching or icing the calf would help it because the root of the problem was with my pelvis, and it was this that needed to be corrected.

Alyson Dixon

Last weekend I was at a marathon training conference in Brighton and had the opportunity to run with Aly Dixon, who is looking to take the third and final place in the Team GB  Olympic team for the London Games. When I asked Aly about managing pain she laughed wryly, after all Aly has only recently returned from injury having run last year’s World Championship marathon in Daegu with a the double whammy of fracture to the distal phalanx (big toe) and sessamoid (ball of the foot) that she thinks started when she ran the Great South Run in 2010.

Aly is reported as saying that she was in pain during that race “but thought it was because I needed to change my shoes as they were worn out.” Aly went on to tell me that because the pain was intermittent she assumed it was a natural part of having increased her mileage and that it was something she just had to manage. In interviews Dixon described how the physios at Team GB in Korea did a great job at managing the ‘niggle’ to allow her to run after which they discovered the broken metatarsal.

Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional (according to the Buddha)

So we have established, from some of the best runners in the UK, that with hard training comes pain and niggles. There is of course, quite a challenge in telling the difference between natural soreness or tightness and the start of an injury. So what do the experts say? Well Scott Overall told me that

Elite athletes tend to be very in tune with their bodies and would know why something is sore, it might be my calves are sore because I did a session on the track the night before, or my Achilles is sore because I’d stupidly been walking around in flip flops the previous day. A lot of the time there is a reason for the pain and you can generally narrow it down to what’s caused it.

and Ben Moreau gave me tips on how he manages the inevitable discomfort:

  1. if I feel like I’m changing my running style to accommodate it [the pain], I’m on a hiding to nothing and so will have to rest
  2. if it is getting worse constantly, that’s a bad sign, so I’ll rest
  3. assess rest vs healing and see if a reduced training amount now will impact the end goal vs possible benefits

Aly Dixon, now something of an expert in dealing with pain and recognising (or ignoring) injury, told me much the same as Ben – that she tries hard to recognise when pain is constant or worsening and affecting the way she is running and then decide whether, with a goal in mind, rest is possible and appropriate or whether she simply needs to push on and manage the issue.

How does that affect me?

To summerise, it seems that pain is an inevitable part of being a marathon runner and to avoid all pain would mean that the runner was not able to train enough to really reach his or her potential. The challenge comes when the pain is not a niggle but actually an injury. Scott Overall advises that

It’s important to nip these niggles in the bud before they get anymore serious. Keeping on top of things and getting regular physio and even massage can really help – if those things are not an option then just simply stretching or getting a foam roller to massage yourself.

One thing I have learned from talking to Ben, Scott and Aly is the importance of getting to know your body and recognise the difference between a niggle and an injury. Obviously being overly sensitive will mean that one doesn’t run enough whilst not being sensitive enough means that a serious injury could develop whilst the runner stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it.

I think that my advice would be that if you feel sore before you run, get out of the door and go for a 10 minutes warm-up. If after that the pain goes then it is fine to carry on (but get a physio to check out the area of pain anyway) but if the pain really remains or worsens, go home and immediately book an appointment with your favourite physio!

To conclude this ramble about pain, I think that my coach Nick Anderson of runningwithus, gave me some great advice this morning. We were out running together and I mentioned my sore ankle. I told Nick that the pain subsides within a couple of minutes of waking and goes completely once I have been walking or running for a minute or two. Nick said that this meant that the problem is manageable at the moment, but with three months until my ‘A’ race – the London marathon in April – I should get the ankle checked out by a physio now to avoid problems later as the volume of training continues to increase. I think that this is pretty good advice for all you marathoners out there so please let me know what you think and what you are doing to be the best runner you can be despite the pain!