The Runners At The Sharp-end (or the RATS!)

Like any athlete at the absolute pinnacle of their sport, elite marathon runners are amazing. As a massive fan of athletics and in particular running and especially marathon running, I love reading about the greatest runners in the world – past and present – or seeing and listening to interviews with them. But I almost always feel very slightly unsatisfied with what I learn. Being utterly narcissistic about it, I’m left feeling that there is little that I can learn from men who are running 2:04 or 2:03 for a marathon – their approach to training and life and nutrition and rest is so utterly alien to me, that there is very little, if anything, that I can adapt to use for my own success. So I decided that I would use this blog as an opportunity to do something about it.

The running community

I sometimes view the running community as a huge pyramid. There are very large numbers of slower runners who treat running as a hobby and as something that is far from central to their life. They form the base of the pyramid. As you get further up the pyramid the runners get faster, more dedicated to their running and less numerous. Until you reach the very top and there are the elite few. The pyramid is not static – runners move up and down the pyramid as their times improve or they slow down. And the analogy is not perfect because I realise that there will naturally be a bulge in the middle rather then a tapering from bottom to top (so maybe a better visual would be two pyramids base-to-base…) but I hope you get the image I am trying to create.

Runners At The Sharp End

My idea then is to interview people near the top of the pyramid, but not those at the very top. I am calling these individuals Runners At The Sharp-end (or R.A.T.S). Necessarily this is going to require some subjective judgement on my part, so please bear with me, but I think what I am proposing is that I try to interview people who have full time jobs, who started their marathon career with a modest debut (sorry Scott Overall, you’re out!), who know what it is like to not ‘be a runner’, but who have progressed to a point where they win smaller races or place in the top 50 or top 100 of big city marathons. They qualify for the roomy start-pens that you see at the front of some race fields. The idea I have is that these types of runners are more accessible than the elite men and women, they are normal (well, normal’ish) people and their training, whilst almost certainly further and faster than most, is something that we can aspire to moving our training towards.

I really hope that through a series of interviews with the R.A.T.S I will be able to gain an insight into what it takes to become a really good, in fact some might say great, runner and extract some tips from them that we can all use in our training to help us be the best runners we can be.

When more is definitely more

This week two things combined to make me think about the benefits of racing in a group, so I thought I’d write a quick post about that very thing.

My coach, Nick, often asks me to think about the best runs and/or races I have ever had as part of the process of visualisation that I think all serious runners should go through. I now have a little database of such events that I can think back on and they pretty much all have one thing in common – I was not alone!

Working with another runner

One in particular race, that I am very proud of, was the first time I broke 75 minutes for a half marathon. It was in the Birmingham half marathon in October 2010 and the race had near perfect conditions: cold and dry with very light breeze. I had had a hard, consistent training period up to the race and felt in great shape for the Florence marathon a few weeks later. And I was in a pen at the front of the field reserved for those with a quick time under their belt already.

The best bit about this race, however, was that after about three miles I was in a little group of three – a runner from Bourneville Harriers and another chap who didn’t wear a club vest. After running together in silence for a mile or so, the Bourneville Harrier mentioned that we were on sub-75 minute pace and asked whether me and the other chap with him were aiming for that target – we confirmed that we were. From that point on (I’d say about 5 miles into the race) we worked together taking turns at the front of our mini-peloton to push the pace along and give the trailing pair a break from any headwind we encountered. As we rounded the bend and saw the finish line the group broke apart as Mr. Bourneville drew away and I in turn dropped Mr. No Club. I had finished in 74:20 with no doubt in my mind that had it not been for the psychological and wind-breaking benefit of working with the other two runners, I would not have broken the 75 minute barrier.

Recent experiences

Then last weekend I was at another half marathon with a few club mates. One in particular, Mr. A, was intending to try to break the same 75 minute barrier, thereby earning a 3As Championship Start at the 2012 London marathon. The day was similarly cool and dry as it had been in Birmingham just over 12 months earlier. But this time there was a strong wind that would at times aid us and at other hinder us as we ran round a circular, and it must be said rather hilly course.

I watched Mr. A. pull away in the first few miles and before long I found myself alongside a runner from Ely Runners. Without any discussion we started working together taking turns on the front to give the other a rest from the really fairly strong wind. As I said the course was really quite hilly so there weren’t many opportunities early on to see far ahead, but after a while the course flattened out and suddenly I could see Mr. A ahead. All on his own. Ploughing into the headwind. Needless to say, Mr. Ely and I caught Mr. A. after a while by which time I think he had spent so much energy trying to maintain 5:40 min/mile that he was knackered and lost more and more time as the race went on.

Expert advice

Then last night while I was out on my run, I was listening to episode 97 of the Marathon Talk podcast when the hosts, Tom Williams and Martin Yelling started talking about racing tactics in their regular Training Talk feature (at around 46 minutes into the show). One of the things that they talked about was racing in a group and ‘tucking in’. They made the very good point that getting into a group does not exempt you of your responsibility to keep an eye on your pace and make sure that you do not slow down as the group slows down (which is common in the latter stages of most races) but they also talked passionately and with great experience about the benefits of working in a group, whether that is to break two and a half hours for the marathon or two hours for the half marathon.

My thoughts and tips

So this all prompted me to write a little about the benefits of working with other runners to achieve a goal. Here are a few tips;

  1. try to pick races where there will be people aiming for the same time as you – I recently compared two half marathons within a week of each other where the smaller of the two was won this year in 72:07, there were only 4 men under 75 minutes (and no-one at all between 73:20 and 76:23). In the larger half marathon, there were 11 runners who finished between 74:55 and 73:59, meaning that finding a group to run with to a sub-75 minute time would be much easier in the bigger race.
  2. make sure that you start your race in the right pen, thereby increasing the chances that you will find others with a similar target pace to yours.
  3. remember to keep an eye on the pace and if the group slows down don’t be afraid to push on, hopefully to another, faster group up ahead.
  4. communicate! Runners will often be happy to work together but it is worth saying a word or two so they know you’re prepared to work together (see point 5 below).
  5. as far as possible make sure you take a fair turn on the front. If you really can’t manage your turn at the front, especially towards the end of a race, let the others know so that they don’t think you are just taking a ride.
  6. if you have to choose between a group slightly faster or slightly slower than your target pace, pick the slightly faster group.
  7. watch where you spit…
  8. check with others about whether they want water as you approach an aid station to avoid crossing one another and potentially tripping someone up.
  9. if you have taken a ride for the last few miles of a race it is rather bad form to suddenly pop out and try to out-sprint the people who have dragged you along for the last half an hour.

I hope that helps and please, if you have thoughts on this or experiences to share please comment below… in a group if possible!

 

Is The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time the single greatest book about marathoning of all time?

I am a self-confessed marathon addict. Sure I have dabbled with shorter distances and indeed I am a big fan of the half marathon distance. I have even tried cycling and triathlons (please forgive me, for I knew not what I was doing). But at the core of my being, sits a love of the marathon that is unshakable. And it is everything about the marathon that I love: I love training for them. I love running them. I love reading about the training and racing and mental approach required for a marathon. And I love the history of the marathon.

A book worm

On my bookshelf at home I have started to build up a collection of dog-eared books that I have read and re-read and annotated and lent (and thankfully always recovered!). From coaching books like Advanced Marathoning by Pfitzinger and Douglas and Road Racing for Serious Runners by Rogers, Pfitzinger and Douglas to autobiographies like From Last to First (Charlie Spedding) and Gold Rush (Michael Johnson) or Running With Joy (Ryan Hall) and biographies like The Greatest (about Haile Gebrselassie). But possibly my favourite types of books, because they appeal to the inner-geek in me, are those about the history of running such as The London Marathon by John Bryant or Running With The Legends by Michael Sandrock.

These books about the history of marathoning are a window into the world of running, which have the benefit of hindsight. There is no doubt that an interview with a current super-star of running or a recent review of a great race can be interesting, but it is not until a runner’s career has ended or a race’s epoch has passed that all the pieces in the puzzle can be seen and arranged and their contribution to the universe of running can be celebrated.

The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time

And then I discovered William Cockerill’s massive and wonderful tome The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time. Actually I read about the book. I discovered second-hand what a brilliantly well researched book it is. How in-depth and well written each race report is. How every true fanatic of the marathon should have a copy. And how difficult it is to get a copy.

But as we all know, the marathon is at least in part about persistence and I was not going to be defeated. I considered second hand copies, or a new copy sent all the way from the US for an extortionate cost, but in the end the simplest solution proved to be Amazon, where the author himself was selling copies which, if you are lucky, will be signed and even dedicated. You can get your copy here (pick the copy available from William Cockerell).

Getting hold of my copy

When my copy arrived, I had just moved into a new flat and emptying boxes and shifting furniture was the order of the day. The book taunted me. I would snatch a few pages during those moments when I knew I was allowed – over breakfast or before my weary eyes slid shut in bed at night. Every page was filled with wonderful details of the 50 races that Will has chosen as well as back stories, descriptions of the protagonists and evocative pictures. There is everything in there.

In the foreword, by David Bedford, former 10,000m world record holder and race director of the London marathon, he writes that when it comes to the marathon “what I really crave when I assemble my elite field is a battle, a saga, and a mystery” and that is what Will manages to get across in every one of the races he has written about. Bedford goes on to say of the author and the book

“What William has done in this remarkable and fascinating book is to comb through 109 years of marathon races and skillfully select the races that have captured the imagination of the public, provided thrilling entertainment, and yes, sometimes a healthy dose of controversy”

I couldn’t agree more with David Bedford’s analysis of the way in which the book details 50 amazing races. As William himself wrote to me

“I’m a freelance sportswriter by trade, and had studied the history of the marathon very closely for many years. It struck me that something like this [his book] hadn’t been done before. There were books on the marathon, but they were either crude summaries, or in “The Olympic Marathon” or “Boston Marathon” incredibly in depth analysis on just very specific races. My book attempted to fall somewhere in between.”

A great amongst marathon books

Well I think that Will has done far, far more than ‘fall somewhere in between’ – in marathoning terms, I believe that The 50 Greatest Marathon Races Of All Time has, through sheer strength and determination, hours of dedication and no small amount of raw talent honed over many years, ripped the field to pieces and emerged as one of the greatest books ever written about the marathon. As The Times wrote,

“At last the marathon has found a book worthy of its long and epic journey”

And as William himself wrote in the book when he dedicated it to me “I hope you find some snippets of motivation in here” – undoubtedly, Will, undoubtedly!

The Spider and the Fly

The famous poem, The Spider and the Fly, was written by Mary Howitt (1799-1888) and published in 1829. It is the story of a spider using flattery to capture and eat a fly, which has become blinded to the dangers the spider posed, by its own vanity. It is a tale that a designer I used to work for would have liked, because he was obsessed with the phrase ‘form follows function’ which was coined by the American architect Louis Sullivan in 1896 to describe his approach to architecture. Sullivan and my ex-boss were not people who would be blinded by vanity – it was all about function for them.

Form follows function

I think that the same should apply to running shoes and apparel; form should be secondary to function. It is all well and good looking cool, but that is less useful than feeling good and having the right kit for the conditions. That said, heaven for me would be kit that is functionally excellent which also looks great and I know that all the major brands intend to produce great looking functional kit, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in my experience, the stuff that is the best to run and race in, is the stuff that I am least likely to want to wear in the rest of my life. However sometimes form and function seem to come close to being aligned in perfect harmony and I might have discovered something like that in Nike’s Gyakusou range for end-2011/start-2012.

I have been excited about some news that I heard at a recent Nike event about the launch in the UK of a new racing shoe – the LunarSpider. What I didn’t know was that I would get my hands on them in the form of a Gyakusou shoe. This could be the perfect combination of function (the LunarSpider) and form (from UNDERCOVER LAB which heads up the Gyakusou International Running Association).

Nike LunarSpider

My initial trial of the shoe is really positive. I was worried that the shoes are quite narrow but the flywire technology does seem to allow a bit of ‘give’ to the upper although the sole is not going to feel any wider. Overall this gives the shoe a real race-y feel. The shoes are very light indeed – 201g according to my scales – and they are very low profile. There is a really good amount of grip, but if you are looking for support or cushioning, this is probably not the shoe for you. These shoes compare favourably with all the racers I have tried recently – the ASICS Tarther, Mizuno Wave Ronin and the Brooks ST5 Racer – although I think that whilst they probably have a little more under the foot than the Mizunos and therefore might not offer enough cushioning for the marathon, they are a perfect shoe for everything up to the half marathon.

I was also lucky enough to get my hands on a very lightweight running jacket with a zip-off hood and sleeve unit which leaves a gilet for those cool autumn days that we are enjoying now. The jacket is not water- or even shower-proof and I must admit that I have only very, very rarely worn a hood whilst running, but I think that very lightweight jackets are great especially for long runs when the weather might be changable. And again, thanks to the UNDERCOVER LAB input, I think the jacket looks great.

The Gyakusou range

The whole range will soon be available and the video at the bottom showcases quite a few of the pieces whilst firmly positioning the brand in its cultural homeland; it is worth checking out.

And so I am left thinking about Nike’s Spider and how the new range might help you to ‘fly’ (sorry, I couldn’t resist!) I have only been able to try a couple of pieces – the LunarSpider shoes and the jacket. But I am impressed. These are both highly technical pieces and the LunarSpider shoes are a really great addition to the Nike racing shoe range and I will enjoy running in them, purely from the point of view that they are racing shoes. The fact that in my opinion they also look great is an added bonus. I would still say, however that we should still always choose our kit based on practicality first and foremost. But if you are not convinced, I’ll leave the last word to Mary Howitt;

And now dear little children, who may this story read,
To idle, silly flattering words, I pray you ne’er give heed:
Unto an evil counsellor, close heart and ear and eye,
And take a lesson from this tale, of the Spider and the Fly.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=–sJnZmvJis

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.

 

 

 

Looking for a needle in a haystack

Injuries can be funny things. By this I mean they can sometimes seem to come from nowhere and be resistant to all the common treatments whilst at other times their arrival can be well announced and then they respond perfectly to icing or stretching or massage or whatever else is prescribed.

However with trickier injuries it is often a lack of clear solution that results in the injury worsening and become a real season-interrupter. My first brush with a persistent injury that resisted treatment was also my first experience of acupuncture and I learned a lot from both the injury and the treatment.

The injury was diagnosed as patella tendonitis or what many runners refer to as runner’s knee or jumper’s knee. Basically this is inflammation of the patella tendon which is found at the front of the knee connecting the knee cap (or patella) to the top of the shin bone. It is a classic over-use injury which often comes on when the runner increases milage and/or intensity and possibly doesn’t increase stretching to compensate.

In my case I had stubbornly kept running even though I was acutely aware of the pain in the front of my right knee. The pain continued to worsen until it was continuous and especially painful when I was running. And then I hit my knee with a pallet-lifter…

It was the Wednesday before the Milton Keynes half marathon and I was having a particularly difficult conversation with a client on the telephone. I had decided to take my phone and continue the conversation with the client while I took a walk from my office to the factory on the ground floor (I worked for a commercial printer at the time). I was mindlessly pushing and pulling a heavy industrial pallet trolley around whilst listening to the client when WHAM! the handle came down on my right knee. I was in agony (although I managed to avoid yelping and scaring the crap out of the client). By the time I got home that night my knee had swollen up and the tendon was incredibly sore. In desperation to run the race four days later I went to see Gavin Burt at Backs and Beyond who had dealt with my previous injuries. He decided that acupuncture was the best course of action.

Despite being rather nervous, I trust Gavin and so I tried to relax on the treatment table and see what acupuncture could do for me.

According to Gavin – in his typically straightforward manner – the idea behind acupuncture is this:

“If you have a splinter in your finger your brain sees it as a foreign object which may be infected and dirty, and certainly shouldn’t be under the skin so it mounts an immune response and an inflammatory response against it, involving white blood cells and inflammatory substances to disinfect the area and to get rid of the offending splinter. exactly the same process occurs when you have an acupuncture needle in your skin, except this time it’s the damaged Achilles tendon or muscle tear that the needle is inserted into that gets all the good healing stuff that the brain sends down there. so the acupuncture needle is used as an antenna to direct the brain’s attention to damaged tissue to help it heal….. simples, no?”

My experience was that after the initial very, very mild discomfort of the needles being deployed (acupuncture needles are typically made of stainless steel wire and are very thin) there was a sensation not unlike warm water rushing down my leg and around my knee. Gavin and I then chatted for a while – it might have been 20 minutes – before he removed the needles, which was totally painless, and I hopped off the treatment table.

The result was remarkable. My knee felt instantly better and I walked out of Gavin’s practice rooms with significantly less pain than I arrived with. Gavin suggested I ice my knee and rest for a couple of days, which I did. And on the day of the race I was completely pain free – no bruising from the pallet-lifter incident and no patella tendon pain.

The cynical amongst you may well suggest that the ice and rest had the effect of reducing the swelling and resolving the patella tendonitis. I guess there could be some truth in that.

However I am absolutely sure that the acupuncture had a significant effect – not least reducing the pain immediately after the treatment in the way it did. I must admit that I can’t rationalise how acupuncture can help people stop smoking or cure baldness, but I am a convert to the type of acupuncture that Gavin uses at Backs and Beyond. I have been back to Gavin with a few injuries and on the occasions where he has used acupuncture it has worked brilliantly so I would recommend that for those of you suffering from an injury that is not responding to the treatments you are using, find a practitioner that you trust, lay back and see what a bit of ancient Chinese medicine can do for you.

The Mo Farah interview

So here it is – my first video interview and I bagged a really good one. Mo Farah.

To give you some background, the interview was at an event organised by Nike and Sweatshop at the Trackside Cafe at St Mary’s University College in Twickenham, where Mo gave a talk to an invited group of athletes, primarily young athletes, and was later presented by the Nike team with a pair of one-off red and white track spikes in the Arsenal livery.

As you can tell from the start of the interview, I didn’t have much time with Mo, but it was really great to meet a hero of mine and I can confirm that he really is a lovely chap. I can also confirm that he is an incredibly hard-working individual and I hope that whilst he can do massive good for young people through his inspirational feats on the track, he also gets a chance to train effectively so that he gets the Olympic medal I and many others believe he deserves.

I hope you enjoy it.

The final question you must all be asking – did Mo get a PB. Well not quite. Before the editing job (excellently carried out by Sistak) the interview took 8min 20sec, which would be a massive PB for me but a light jog for Mo!

 

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.

The law of diminishing returns vs. the aggregation of marginal gains.

Today I ran a personal best at the Reading half marathon (hooray)… by 20 seconds (oh) which equates to just over a second a mile (erm…) and that has made me think about running, diminishing returns and what it takes to continue to improve.

A couple of weeks ago a compatriot and training partner ran his first race after months of injury and set a new personal best. However when he replied to my text asking how the race had gone, he did so without mentioning the new benchmark (which of course I knew, but I was hoping he’d mention it). And he said he was a bit disappointed. I must admit that I felt like sending an admonishing text back saying that he should be bloody pleased with a PB, but I think I knew, deep in my heart, what was going on. I will explain.

In really simple terms (‘cause I’m a simple guy) the law of diminishing returns states that if you continue to add more resources to a process there will be an initial increasing return that, as more resources is added, will start to tail off. That is not to say that the addition of resources will result in a fall in output (that is known as negative returns) but the rate of returns will start to flatten. A common example given is that of people building a car – add more people to the process and you’ll get more cars. But continue to add more people and you will still get more cars, but not at a proportional rate.

If you apply this to running, it means (to me anyway) that if you add more training you should continue to get faster but at a decreasing rate. Most novice runners – me included – take massive chunks of time off every time they race. This could due to be a number of factors:

  • fitness increases
  • experience increases
  • running economy increases
  • etc

However as the runner races more, each beneficial factor has a less magnificent impact until we are scrabbling around for seconds here and there.

Now I recognise that almost every factor in racing is non-linear – we are not machines after all – and that it is impossible to apply this type of model to human behaviour, the effect of the weather, the impact of illness, etc but I believe that every runner will acknowledge that running is like ‘bungee running’…

Bungee running? I hear you ask. Last year at a festival in central London, my fiancée and I saw a bungee running sideshow – an inflatable tunnel where people are tied to a bungee cord at the open end and try to run up the tunnel to snatch a prize at the other end. The initial few meters are easy (in a running analogy this is the first few races that a novice enters) with little resistance to forward momentum but as the bungee runner reaches the furthest extent of the cord, the effort needed to go further (in our running analogy to achieve a personal best) increases… until they are flung backwards to the open end of the tunnel, exhausted and defeated. Nice.

But there is something on our side. Something that started being discussed in the GB cycling squad and (surprise, surprise after their results in the Beijing Olympics) made it into the lexicon of the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown; the aggregation of marginal gains. It is beautifully described here and essentially is the process whereby everything that could possibly have an impact on an outcome is systematically questioned and improved, if only by 1%. This, my friends, is where we find out improvement.

So what do I think this means?

I think it means making sure every training session is a close to perfect as possible (note I do not mean as fast as possible, or as long as possible. I mean as perfect as possible).
It means getting a massage.
It means stretching for a minute more or one more muscle than before.
It means going to bed 30 minutes earlier and making sure there are no distractions in the bedroom (well, apart from that obviously).
It means laying out your breakfast stuff the morning before an early run or a race.
It means thinking about everything that one can do that might have an impact in your A-race.

And where does that leave me? Well, I’m quite a long way up the bungee tunnel and the rope is quite tight. But I am not quite ready to slip back, not yet. I know that to get a little further up the tunnel I will have to work harder. But I am also going to work smarter. And I am going to accept that my days of 15 minute PBs are over and that from now on – if I am improving, I am improving and that is all I want.