Meeting Caballo Blanco

It is commonly said that the opening of a book is the most crucial thing that the author will write. I have found that to be true; in every great book I have read the opening lines have been captivating and exciting. That is absolutely true of Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run which I have now read twice and started again last night. Why have I started it for the third time? Well, last night I met the hero of the book, Caballo Blanco, at an event set up by Saucony to promote their range of minimalist footwear. The opeining paragraphs of McDougall’s book describe him meeting Caballo Blanco for the first time like this;

“For days, I’d been searching Mexico’s Sierra Madre for the phantom known as Caballo Blanco – the White Horse. I’d finally arrived at the end of the trail, in the last place I expected to find him – not deep in the wilderness he was said to haunt, but in the dim lobby of an old hotel on the edge of a dusty desert town”

My meeting with this mysterious man was much less dramatic and lacked the poetry that Chris weaves into his tale. But it was nevertheless quite an experience.

Saucony minimalist footwear

The event that Saucony invited me to was one of the best product launches I have had the opportunity to attend. Everyone from Saucony was friendly, knowledgeable and clearly enthusiastic. The products that were on show make up the range that Saucony have developed to appeal to those runners looking for minimalist shoes; the Kinvara2 and Mirage, with 4mm heel drop, flexible yet cushioned soles, unstructured heel-counters and minimalist uppers. And the Hattori, a sock-like shoe with zero heel drop (i.e. no more material under the heel than under the ball of the foot). I’ll write about these in a future post.

Meeting Caballo Blanco

So after an introduction to the science behind the minimalist range with Spencer White, the director of the Saucony Human Performance & Innovation Lab in Boston, I found myself momentarily alone, looking at a display of the shoes I had just learned about. I glanced to my right and there was a tall, upright, lithe gentleman, dressed in Saucony gear but wearing a bright green pair of Hattoris, standing all alone, seemingly lost in thought and sipping a glass of water. “That can’t be…” I thought. But it was – the man who started out as Mike Hickman, became Micah True and ended up as Caballo Blanco running with the Raramuri Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico’s Sierra Madre. So I pulled myself up tall (Caballo Blanco is well over 6 feet tall) and strode over to introduce myself and then I said something stupid:

“So what are your thoughts on the trend for barefoot running” I said…

Caballo Blanco thought for a moment and said “I don’t know anything about a trend, man. I just do what I do” That pretty much sums up what I now know about his philosophy and his approach to running.

Running and philosophy

I won’t spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read Chris McDougall’s book, but suffice to say that Caballo Blanco ended up in the Copper Canyons living with the Raramuri and adopting their approach to running. No training, no warm-up, no fancy gadgets or technical gear. Just go out and run. The Raramuri run for survival, for honour and for the sheer hell of racing for dozens or even hundreds of miles in footwear made from cut-up tyres and leather thongs. I got the impression that Caballo Blanco was less than impressed with the glass and steel building that we were meeting in, the busy PR people, the DJ spinning cool tunes for the assembled journalists and writers. He seemed out of place and I don’t doubt that what he really wanted was to go for a run, probably back home in the canyons that he loves. But he didn’t betray any of that; he was engaging and happy to answer questions and signed a copy of Born to Run for me (despite then telling me that he hasn’t had any contact from Chris McDougall for a very long time, which I thought was rather sad). Ultimately I doubt that Caballo Blanco worries about whether he has a message for someone like me, but he did have an effect. I left the event and rushed home along busy, concrete streets through London traffic thinking that it is very, very easy to forget that at the very core running is something totally natural for human beings and something that we should love doing, whether that is in minimalist shoes or not, in the Copper Canyons of Mexico or on the streets of a major city, for 2 miles or 200 miles. That brief meeting has reminded me to focus on the running and forget all the other stuff… a very important lesson delivered without pomp or pretence. Just get out there and run. Run Free!

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!

 

Review of the Mizuno Wave Ronin 3

I read recently that it is more complicated buying running shoes than it is buying a car. I whole-heartedly agree (despite the fact that I gave up owning cars a few years ago and now rely on running, cycling and public transport to get around). One of my on-going personal missions is trying to find the perfect racing shoe.

What I am looking for

My requirements are fairly simple; low profile but not zero heel drop*, wide toe-box, snug heel, light-weight. I spent a few years racing in ASICS Tarthers which certainly did the job for me, but recently I have been looking around at other shoes. I have raced in the Brooks ST5 Racer which I like a lot, but which has quite a plush heel – more than I think I want for racing – and a medial post that I don’t think I need. I have also raced in the Saucony Mirage (a review on them is in the pipeline).

Mizuno Wave Ronin 3

The shoes I love at the moment are the Mizuno Wave Ronin 3’s that I bought from Toby at Alton Sports. They tick all the boxes as far as I am concerned, although the toe-box is a little narrower than on the Tarthers, but not so much that it causes me a problem.

Mizuno describes the shoes as “Fast and dynamic with great flexibility and cushioning” and I tend to agree. There is a very lightweight and highly breathable upper made from a mesh material that is bonded to the G3 outsole which is described by Mizuno as being made from a lightweight material “which provides awesome grip without weighing you down”. Actually the only issue I have with the Wave Ronin 3 is the same that I had with the Tarther; the durability of the outsole. Made up of a million little dots (actually it might not be a million, but I’m not going to count them), the outsole does tend to wear pretty quickly, especially at the front of the toe box. On the other hand, these are racing shoes and there has to be a compromise between weight and durability, so really my issue is not one that will stop me buying the Mizuno Wave Ronin 3 in future.

So in conclusion, I would say that the Mizuno Wave Ronin 3 is a great racing shoe. I have raced 3,000m races on the track in them, 5k park-runs and a half marathon. So far they have been really comfortable, especially for such a light shoe, weighing 210g according to the kitchen scales, which means they are in the same weight category as the Adidas Adizero Adios (209g) or the ASICS Gel DS Racer 8 (219g). They could just be the shoe that gives you the extra ‘pop’ you need for that ever-elusive PB.

* Heel drop is loosely defined as the difference in thickness between the front of the shoe – the midsole and the outsole – and the heel. In theory a drop of zero would mean that the when wearing the shoe the heel and the ball of the foot would be at the same level. In a shoe which is described as having a drop of 10mm, the heel sits 10mm higher than the ball of the foot. As for why we worry about these things, the normal answer is that with a small or zero heel drop it is easier to land on the mid-foot which is considered by many to be more efficient. For me, I prefer racing in a shoe with a minimal heel drop but I suffer more when I run in those types of shoes so for training I run in a shoe with a more cushioned heel and therefore a bigger differential.

 

 

 

There’s no ‘arm in trying something new

I am afraid to say that the weather is turning towards autumn. It is September and now, during early morning runs or late evening runs, there is a distinct chill in the air. It is not cold, not by a long stretch, but I am tending to find that I want to add a little bit of warmth without breaking out the winter gear. This is why I have dug out and started wearing my arm-warmers.

What are arm-warmers or arm-sleeves?

Basically a tapered tube of technical fabric, arm-warmers cover the arm from the armpit to wrist, gently gripping the arm at the top. They provide an effective barrier against the wind and cool temperatures, whilst having the enormous benefit of being removable. A pair of arm-warmers gives me a little bit of extra comfort when I head out of the door, but can be pulled down to the wrist or removed completely and shoved in a pocket when I warm up.

When I started wearing arm-warmers it was during cycling training for triathlons. But soon enough I was wearing them for chilly runs and now that I am focused completely on running, I still pull them on when it is too cool for just a t-shirt, but not cold enough for a long-sleeve top or even a jacket. They can also have other uses, when it comes to pure fashion, which Ben Moreau wrote about here, but I am not sure that is what they are intended for!

What sort of arm-warmers are available?

For such a simple piece of kit, there is quite a wide range of arm-warmers on the market. By far the most extensive range is amongst the cycling stock. However due to the higher speeds that cyclists tend to achieve (because they use wheels which is cheating, but that is a different story!) the arm-warmers designed for cycling tend to be made of thicker and more wind resistant material. They also tend to have rubber or plastic grippers at the top and sometimes at the bottom, which most running-specific versions don’t have. That said, they are easy to find and therefore might be a good option, certainly if you are thinking you might use them for cycling and running.

Amongst running-specific arm-warmers, the price is often lower than that of cycling arm-warmers, simply because there is less work involved in manufacturing them if they don’t have arm-grippers and as mentioned before, the material is often thinner. However I have found that it is more important to make sure that running arm-warmers need to fit really snuggly in order to ensure they don’t fall down, which can happen if there are no grippers.

My favourites

With a plethora of products on the market, I am not going to attempt to provide a comprehensive review here. However of the arm-warmers I have, my favourites by far are my Nike ones. They fit, ahem, like a glove. They are quite thin but give just enough protection on a cool morning run and, despite not being in any way water resistant, they are great for reducing the chill when I wear them in the rain. They are also pretty good value in my opinion.

My other favourites are the Assos pair that I wear. I did initially buy them for use on the bike, but they are great for running. The extra weight of material, which means they are the ones I reach for when the temperatures really drop, is off-set by the grippers at the top which are just enough to hold the arm-warmers up without being irritating. The only downside is that, like all Assos kit, they are pretty expensive.

Other products that it is worth considering include those made from wool, which many runners believe are more comfortable, warmer and more perma-stink resistant than technical fabric versions. One example of this is the product from Smart Wool which you can see here.

And if you want to avoid the ‘long cocktail gloves’ look that I was rocking at the Florence marathon last year (see left) there are arm-warmers that are not black, although there don’t seem to be many interestingly designed options in the UK at the moment. However if you can find some or you have a trip to the US planned, these ones look great. Finally, I really like Kalenji kit from Decathlon stores because it tends to be so simple and good value. Their offering might be worth checking out which you can do here.

As I have written before, being comfortable is crucial when it comes to training and racing well and for that reason I would recommend arm-warmers as a useful and practical addition to any runners’ kit-bag. And just ignore the odd looks you might get wearing them with a vest; your arm-warmers simply mark you out as a serious runner!

 

 

Ice, ice baby!

I have been running for around 6 years now and I have to admit that I have never been a fan of ice-baths. I suppose that in an attempt to avoid the unpleasantness of immersing myself in cold water, I imagined that they were only for elite athletes or only for injured athletes… of injured elite athletes. Basically I was too chicken!

Last year in March I went on a week long training camp to the Algarve with my coach, Nick Anderson, and a group of the runners he coaches. You can read about the week here. It was a great week of training with so many things that I would incorporate into my training if life and work didn’t get in the way so regularly – at least 8 hours sleep every night, training with a group of totally positive people, spending the day between two runs resting by the pool, hydrating and fuelling well, running off-road for most of the easy runs… the list goes on and on.
And there was something else; after every run we would arrive back at the hotel and all wade straight into the unheated outdoor pool.

Now I’ll admit that there is a world of difference between an unheated swimming pool and a proper ice-bath, but I think all of us on the camp realised the benefits of cooling our legs down immediately post-run. It is a habit that I have tried to resurrect in the last couple of weeks. But being the curious type I decided to try to understand what the benefits are and how plunging into cold water helps us as runners.

The theory

The basic theory is that by immersing oneself in cold water – ideally between 12 and 15ºC – blood vessels are constricted which reduces blood flow, swelling and tissue damage. There is also talk of an additional benefit once one gets out of the water, which is that the re-warmed muscles increase bloodflow post ice-bath and this helps “return the byproducts of cellular breakdown to the lymph system for efficient recycling by the body” (according to Nikki Kimball, a physical therapist in Bozeman, Montana, who was named USATF’s Ultrarunner of the Year in 2004, 2006, and 2007).

This is just the tip of the iceberg (I know, that was terrible… sorry) as far as cooling is concerned. The latest technology, adopted by those at the cutting edge of training methods like Alberto Salazar at Nike’s Oregon Project, is the cryosauna; an upright tube that athletes climb into and which is filled with liquid nitrogen which cools the athlete’s skin with temperatures as low as minus 170 degrees Celsius. Click here for a great interview by Steve Cram interviewing Mo Farah in a cryosauna . Quite an amazing bit of kit and dangerous if mis-used; only recently the US sprinter Justin Gatlin suffered mild frostbite from climbing into a cryosauna with wet socks on. Ouch!

The debate

There is a huge amount of debate in the running world about the potential benefits of ice-baths with many runners pointing out that there is very little, if any, scientific evidence for ice-baths delivering any advantage at all. Indeed a study published in 2007 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concludes with this statement: “The protocol of ice-water immersion used in this study was ineffectual in minimising markers of DOMS in untrained individuals. This study challenges the wide use of this intervention as a recovery strategy by athletes. “ (Effect of cold water immersion on repeated cycling performance and limb blood flow Br. J. Sports. Med. 2011;45:825-829)

However there are other studies that take the contrary view, in particular a study by the French Ministry of Sports which concludes by stating that “Overall, the results indicated that the WBC [specific whole body cryotherapy] was effective in reducing the inflammatory process. These results may be explained by vasoconstriction at muscular level, and both the decrease in cytokines activity pro-inflammatory, and increase in cytokines anti-inflammatory.” (Time-Course of Changes in Inflammatory Response after Whole-Body Cryotherapy Multi Exposures following Severe Exercise. Source, Research Department, National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP), Paris, France.)

To ice, or not to ice?

So where do we go from here? Well, I think that the scientists will continue to debate the issue for a while yet. For me, I take a slightly less scientific view. I believe that cooling my legs helps me recover from strenuous sessions and long runs more effectively. I also think that elite athletes like Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe would not use ice-baths and cryosaunas if they didn’t have a positive effect.

But more than anything I think that it may just be that leaping into a cold bath makes us feel like serious runners who are prepared to endure discomfort for the sake of improving our results and that adds immeasurably to the psychological strength we need to go hard in those sessions or on race day. I am a strong believer in the theory that one reason for the east African dominance in middle and long distance races (though not by any means the only explanation) is the hardship that the runners there know, which makes running feel like an easy option. That may also explain the dominance of other countries in the past, where strong economies now mean that few endure the sort of hardships that were common even in the UK a generation or two ago. Who knows, but for now I’ll be maintaining my ice-bath routine and secretly hoping there is a definitive study that says they do no good!

And I will leave the last word to David Terry, M.D., an ultrarunner who has finished the Western States 100 and the Wasatch Front 100, 10 consecutive times. “Ice baths don’t only suppress inflammation, but help to flush harmful metabolic debris out of your muscles” and with his record of ultra running, if he says it, it must be true!

Team Dean – a review of Dean Karnazes’ book ‘Run!’

I love reading (especially now that I am trying as much as possible to leave my laptop in the lounge when I go to bed – one of the most important steps to getting a good nights sleep is the lack of too much iStimulus in the bedroom) and my two favourite subjects are running and business or economics. It will come as no surprise that on balance I read running books much more often than business books. And I rarely have time for novels.

However I do sometimes lament the writing quality of books about running. Undoubtedly there are many running books that are beautifully written and as a result are engaging and captivating and motivating. Charlie Spedding’s book ‘From First To Last’ is one book that springs to mind when I think of running books that are not only informative and interesting, but are also easy to read and real page-turners.

So I was excited to buy a copy of Dean Karnazes’ book ‘Run! 26.2 stories of blisters and bliss’ because I really enjoyed reading Dean’s first book ‘Ultra-marathon Man; Confessions of an all night runner’ not least because the book was so well written.

‘Run!’ does not disappoint on that score; it is brilliantly written – or rather dictated because Dean points out that much of the content was spoken into a digital recorder on his smart phone whilst he was out running – and I was so absorbed in the book that I started and finished it in one day.

As far as the story goes, I thought that ‘Run!’ does two things; firstly it gives an insight into what Dean does as an ultra-marathoner, entrepreneur, campaigner, husband and father (and it comes as no surprise that Dean reportedly gets by on 4 hours sleep per night. I’m sure he doesn’t have time for any more!) Secondly I enjoyed getting a real understanding of team Karnazes. Let me explain.

Whilst there is no doubt that what Karnazes does is a very individual sport both in terms of competition and even more so in terms of training, Dean clearly relies on a group of people who support him in different ways. The book really highlighted for me the relationships Dean has with some key people including his wife Julie, his father – who he refers to throughout as Popou – and another ultra-marathon legend Topher Gaylord, who it seems had little or no interest in running until he met Dean and is now considered to be one of the top ultra runners in the world (whilst also being President of Mountain Hardwear Inc).  There are naturally other people who appear in the book, but these three seem to have a special place in Karnazes’ life and his continued professional and athletic careers.

So, I think that ‘Run!’ surprised me in one regard. It is a predictably great account of some of Dean’s crazy antics – the chapter on the 48 hour treadmill run is utterly brilliant – but in another regard I was surprised at how strongly the book reminded me that despite the fact that we are engaged in a solo sport, runners of all levels rely on and take inspiration from those around them. I think that Dean has written a brilliant book and I would recommend it to runners of every level. It might also be wise to buy a copy for your loved ones if you are thinking of embarking on a career as an ultra-runner… just so they know what they are letting themselves in for!

Sleeping beauty

There are three elements that make up the triangle that is essential for ensuring success in running – training, nutrition and rest. When I was first shown this short list I was more than a little surprised by the fact that rest is considered as important as training and nutrition, but it is considered by almost every coach to be absolutely crucial. Like many runners I know, when I started out I probably used to think that rest was merely ‘not training’, but I now know that in the same way that darkness is not simply an absence of light, rest is not merely an absence of training – it is something that must be thought about and factored in to a training programme.

In our daily lives, it is pretty obvious that we do most of our resting during sleep. However with busy work and social lives it sometimes feels as though we are on the go all the time and therefore it is a good idea to make sure that rest days are just that – a day where there is as little physical activity as possible.

But when it comes to really giving our bodies an opportunity to recover from the stresses of training, nothing beats sleep. So it is essential that we get the most benefit from the precious hours that we spend in bed.

There is plenty of literature about the mechanics of sleep. The website Running Research News has a very interesting article about sleep which is worth reading. You can read the full article here.

The section of the article that I was most interested in is this:

“We sleep in stages that last about 90 minutes. Stages one and two are light sleep stages and last around 3 hours. Then we move into stages 3 & 4   (Slow-wave, delta sleep)  Deep sleep with depressed vital signs and slow, low frequency, high amplitude brain activity (delta waves), leading to Rapid Eye Movement (REM).  During REM our eyes dart about rapidly and we have vivid dreams.  General protein synthesis, cell growth and division, and tissue repair and growth take place during all four stages of sleep, but mainly during slow-wave delta sleep.  The release of growth hormone for cell growth is at its circadian peak during delta sleep, and most scientists agree that delta sleep activity reflects the metabolic activity and energy expended by the athlete during the previous day (Shapiro et al. 1984).”

So given that we have established that sleep is crucial to improved performance, what steps should we take to ensure we get adequate sleep? Well one of the recommendations in the article is to buy a good quality mattress… which is exactly what I didn’t do. When I went to buy a new bed a few years ago on moving into a flat on my own, I went to a well-known Swedish flat-pack furniture retailer where I bought a very fine wooden base and a very cheap mattress which initially was fine. However after a couple of years the mattress resembled a squidgy saucer and my wife and I would struggle to get a good night’s sleep, often managing only a couple of hours before we were woken by having rolled to the middle.

After a trip to the Andes trekking, we returned to stay at a friend’s house who has a memory foam mattress and the incredible sleep we had there whilst house-sitting for her convinced us that something had to be done.

The answer was found in an advert in Athletics Weekly – the Mammoth Sport mattress as endorsed by Liz Yelling. At the same time it turned out that a good friend of mine, and one of the people who has inspired me to train and race hard when I first joined the Mornington Chasers, had also recently bought one of the mattresses and he highly recommended it. So I ordered one hpoing that it would make a difference to my training by improving my rest.

When the mattress arrived it was vacuum packed in a roll – increadibly dense and heavy, I was amazed that it could fit into such a small box. However on opening the plastic packaging the mattress expanded and unraveled to its full size and within a few minutes it was lifted into place on the bed and we were ready to go (ahem, in a manner of speaking!)

At this point I am going to mention the only downside of the Mammoth Sport mattress – the smell that comes off initially. On opening the plastic covering the smell of foam and plastic was very, very strong and as we live in a small flat where we had to get rid of the old mattress before opening the new one, we had no choice but to air the mattress on the bed frame for as long as possible but then sleep on it that night. For a couple of nights I must say that the smell was pretty strong, although within a week there was no smell at all.

However as far as negatives go, that is it! The mattress is wonderful to sleep on; supportive, firm and perfect for someone like me who sleeps on their side. The temperature is great and I even like the look of it (although that really is a very minor consideration). I sleep much, much more consistently and many of the aches and pains that I used to suffer from with the old bed have gone now.

All in all I would say that this mattress has been one of the best investments I have ever made. I am definitely sleeping better than ever and I am absolutely sure that my wife and I will never go back to a ‘normal’ mattress. So if you can, try one out and see if a new mattress could be the very thing to help you rest more effectively and balance that all important training triangle.

The long slow run… or is it?

I am not sure when I first heard about the long slow run (though I suspect it was from my best friend who gave up the party lifestyle that we both were involved in and started running about a year before I followed suit), but as I was always clear that my focus was going to be on longer distances – I was nearly 30 by the time I started running, so sprinting was never likely to be on the cards! – the long slow run entered my vocabulary very early on. Indeed it seems as though there isn’t an endurance runner in the world who hasn’t heard of, and more importantly completed, many long slow runs in their build-up to their races.

However since I started my coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, has introduced me to the structured long run. What do I mean by that? Well it is like my friend Dan, a former contestant on Master Chef once said; you can serve a cheese plate with some bits of cheese on it, or you can create an event at the end of the meal with individual cheese dishes created by the chef. The long run can be simply time on the feet, run at an even pace, or it can be the pinnacle of your training, simulating racing effort and training the body for the rigours of racing, rather than teaching the body to plod along for hours on end.

I read a good discussion on this subject by the coaching legend Greg McMillan in Running Times (you can read the article here) and was reminded of it by talking to some friends at RunDemCrew who are training for the 2011 Chicago marathon. These runners have been given training plans and in some cases there are questions about the sessions they are doing and why they are in their training programme. Questions that I have attempted to answer. And one of the most common questions is around the long run and how it should be approached.

When I first started out on my running journey, I viewed the long run as simply a way to ensure that I would get round the race, whatever the distance happened to be. I believed that in training it was important to ‘do the distance’ so for my first few half marathons I ran at least 11 miles a few times in training (in fact for my second half marathon I remember running the full 13.1 miles in training to ensure I was ready!), for marathons I made sure I had run at least 22 miles more than twice and for my 50 mile ultras, I ran far enough in training that I knew that the last ‘bit’ would be manageable.

However as I have read and learned more about training and had more input from Nick, I have come to recognise that there should be more to the long run than simply bashing out miles and miles and miles. There are two main aspects to this, in my opinion, which are as follows;

1) the long run is one of the best opportunities we have to analyse how our training is going, second only to tune-up races. However that analysis is only really valuable if the run has some relevance to what we are going on to do. As serious runners, we are looking to run at the limit of our ability and exploit enhanced fitness to achieve better times. This suggests to me that a very long, very slow run is not going to provide much useful feedback. However, I would also suggest that it is not really sensible to undertake extended runs at race pace because…

2) … recovery is crucial. I run 9 times per week. There is no point me going out for a 20 mile run at race pace on a Sunday and then thinking that I will be running on Monday, doing a double day with a track session on Tuesday and a hill session on Thursday and so on. The long race pace run will take too much out of me.

So I now advocate the structured long run. A favourite of mine that Nick sets me is 50/50/50 which is 50 minutes easy, 50 minutes steady and 50 minutes at race pace (the structure here is key, so 30/30/30 is equally relevant if you are not used to such a strenuous session or you are training for a half marathon for example). Another is a progressive run, where the pace starts off gently and increases throughout the run up to race pace for the final few miles. Or another version I like is a run where the middle section is at race pace – say 120 minutes with the middle 60 at race pace.

Sessions like this are tough, but they also offer a chance to check progress without the brutality of an extended period at race pace. They also remind the body of what will be required ‘on the day’ and have the effect of getting different energy systems working. So I commend them to you – the long run might seem like the staple of the marathon runner’s training diet, but it need not be a boring cheese plate… you could really make it the crowning glory of your training week.

Shoe review – Mizuno Wave Rider 14

When I started running back in 2005, I was told a dozen times that I should go and get a proper pair of running shoes as soon as possible. That was very good advice. I took myself off to my local Runners Need and was fitted out with a pair of Nike Pegasus. They were a workhorse type of shoe, with lots of cushioning and a really plush feel. They also squeaked.

My second pair of shoes were ASICS and I bought them specifically because the Nikes squeaked. But I never forgot the value of a comfortable pair of shoes and so it was that after six years of running I still do most of my running in terms of distance in nice, plush neutral shoes. The latest of which has been a pair of Mizuno Wave Rider 14s.

I actually decided to buy these shoes in part because I was struggling with the complexity of the ASICS range and what felt, to me, like an inexorable rise in prices – not just ASICS, but they did seem to have the steepest curve. The top of the range AISCS now are well in excess of £100 and for a runner like me, covering around 80 miles per week, that means quite a significant expense every 6 or 7 weeks, if you consider that a pair of shoes will last 500 miles or so.

So how did I come to Mizuno? Well, I was researching Andrew Lemoncello and he runs in Wave Riders. His comment, on a video that you can see here made me think that they were exactly what I was looking for – neutral, lightweight, well-cushioned and grippy (not sure if ‘grippy’ is a real word, but I’m sure you know what I mean). Andrew says, during what is, it must be said, a pretty cheesy film “… you just love to run as many miles as possible in them” and I agree on two counts – the Wave Rider 14s do inspire me to run further than I might if I was wearing a less cushioned pair of shoes and they are also the shoes that I reach for first when I am heading out the door for a run. Admittedly I will usually take much lighter shoes for hard, fast sessions, but when 6 of my 9 runs each week are recovery, easy or long runs, the Wave Rider 14s get plenty of outings.

Now it is time for a new pair of shoes – the current pair of Wave Riders have done at least 600 miles – and I am pretty sure I will go for another pair, they are that good. So if you are looking for a neutral, light-weight and comfortable shoes that will become your feet’s best friends, maybe you should check out the Mizuno Wave Rider. Oh and let me know how you get on, please.

Go hard, or go home – you decide.

Recently my friend and, dare I say it, sometime mentor Charlie Dark mentioned to me a motto he has adopted: ‘go hard, or go home’. Now I have been thinking about this quite a bit and I have come to realise that it means many things. But one thing in particular about this phrase has embedded itself in my mind. That is the implicit idea that we all have the opportunity to make a decision about our running within a framework – we decide to either go hard or go home. There is no option in this phrase for trying to go hard. Or going a bit hard. There is only ‘go hard’ or ‘go home’.

It has been well documented that the last 30 years have seen a rather spectacular decline in the standards of British male marathon running. In 1985, 102 British male runners ran under 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon, only 5 managed this same feat in 2005. In the same period there has been an incredible surge in the number of runners from east Africa, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia and more specifically from around the Iten Valley.

This is not the place that I am going to go into a long-winded discussion of why western runners have fallen so spectacularly from grace or why, almost at the same time, African runners have come to dominate the sport. But one thing is for certain – genetics do not play any part at all in either process. Quite simply the genetics of a population change over vastly long periods of time and it is absolutely certain that European runners are not now any less genetically capable of running fast marathons. So the only possible reason for the drop in standards I can see is that we have decided to get worse at running. We decided to ‘go home’.

Last night I was at a friend’s birthday party. It was a typically drunken affair but with my focus on my training and my goals, I elected to stick to fruit juice. Of course someone noticed and it soon started a conversation about running and marathons and inevitably about the people at the party who knew someone who had run a marathon and then – finally – to my times for the marathon. The response to me saying that my PB is 2:40 was verging on hysterical. One of the guests at the party turned to the girl opposite her and screeched “Oh my God, that is fucking amazing. That is like totally elite. I can’t believe it” and I felt angry.

Why did I feel angry? Because 2:40 is good – in fact I am very proud of it – but it is not “fucking amazing” or anywhere near “totally elite” and the overreaction is a damning comment on the state of running in this country. In today’s east Africa a similar time might get me a pat on the back, nothing more. In this country in the ‘70s and ‘80s I would be considered a reasonable club runner.

Today in the UK an ex-smoker and former junk-food eating, heavy drinker who has only been running for 5 years is considered to have done something extraordinary with a 2:40 PB. I think this state of affairs is wrong and I really want to find a way to correct it. I firmly believe that sports (or the lack thereof) in the school system is failing our children and has been for 20 years or more and that has contributed to the decline in middle and long distance running. I also think that the totally disproportionate rewards enjoyed by certain sport-people versus others is another crucial factor. But let me be clear here – the population of the United Kingdom today is genetically identical to that during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. There is no reason – save for opportunity and motivation – why we shouldn’t be producing runners at least as good, if not better, than in our golden period of marathoning. So this is my agenda and declaration – I want to understand why the decline has happened, what can be done to reverse it and then I want to do something about it. I want to contribute to returning to a situation where runners, quite simply decide that they are going to ‘go hard’. Simple, eh?