What would it take?

The last few weeks have been really interesting. For a whole host of reasons I have managed to get out either cycling or running almost every day. This is a return of mojo like I have never experienced before. I must confess that for the last couple of years I have really been pretty pathetic, always finding an excuse for why I can’t spare the time or make the effort to get out for a run. In less than a month I have rediscovered a love of running that I thought had slipped away permanently.

How I lost my running mojo

I think that the slide started as soon as I ran my marathon PB in the London marathon in 2013. That was a glorious day. I ran 2:37:07, knocking nearly a minute and a half off my previous personal best. That year I was the 164th fastest male marathon runner in the UK. Even out of the 36,000 people who ran the London marathon that year, I would have been happy with 164th – but this is out of every result by a British runner that year. In that race I was just outside of the top 100.

The problem is that as soon as I finished I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to get back to that kind of performance again. Mrs. Freeman and I had just launched Freestak and we were already contemplating Like the Wind magazine. I felt that the inherently selfish pursuit of a faster marathon time could not be justified. We had work to do.

Immediately after the 2013 London marathon, I took off the two weeks that my coach always prescribed. I was always advised by him to do that – physically and mentally it was the right thing to do. But rather than getting to day 10 of that two week period and feeling like I wanted to get back to training, I was immersed in work and really enjoying having the time that I would usually dedicate to training for Freestak and other projects that I had put on hold.

I remember getting to the end of the fortnight’s enforced rest and thinking that I’d give myself another week. Probably the week after that I went out for a few miles easy running. It was almost out of obligation.

After a while I got back into running regularly. But there was not plan. No target.

I would go out for a run because I knew it was good for body and mind, but I found myself just running for its own sake and not to any sort of programme. That carried on for month after month.

Running, but not as I knew it

A month after I ran my PB in London, I went to Copenhagen and paced a good friend – Charlie – to his PB. Then in the summer I ran a couple of ultras – the main one being the UTMB CCC (100+km around Mont Blanc, this is the little brother race of the main UTMB). I set off with Mrs. Freeman and the intention was to run the whole thing together (she didn’t finish, which is another story for another time). It was a slog-fest (you can read about it here). I took over 24 hours. No sleep.

The following year I ran the London again – my PB from the year before had guaranteed me a place in the Championship start. But I felt like a fraud because I really hadn’t trained. My idea was to ‘run for fun’ and it was only after about 10 miles that I thought I really should try to finish under 3 hours (which I did, just). It was fun, but I didn’t get a massive thrill from running that day in 2014. And the result was totally ‘meh’.

Later in 2014, my wife and I went back to run the UTMB CCC again. It didn’t go well once again. I finished, but I wasn’t happy.

After that, I just sort of fell out of love with running.

The wilderness years

All through 2014, 2015 and last year I was feeling a nagging sense of loss: the marathon had been my obsession since my first one in 2006. Of all the running I had done, the marathon was the distance I had enjoyed the most. The challenge that I embraced the most.

I lost the training group who had been such a huge part of my life as I trained for my marathon. Some people – including my coach – moved away from London. Other seemed to give up on marathons or went to other coaches and I didn’t want to follow them.

I just sort of drifted along. Running felt pretty pointless. I have put on weight. Struggled with diet. Tried to start going to the gym (it is just not for me). I have started enjoying rock climbing and hiking and road cycling (actually that is really becoming a new obsession) but nothing has hooked me like the marathon …

Coming in from the cold

In the past few weeks – with my renewed excitement about training – I have realised that 11 years after my first 26.2 mile race, I am still in love with the marathon. I still feel the emotional tug to race again.

I have started looking at paces on the runs I am doing and equating them to the pace I would have to run in a marathon if I wanted to run a time worthy of training for. I have started thinking about how I could make the time to run if I really want to, considering that apart from work, there is not much that I would rather be doing than running. I guess my new-found love of cycling is something that could get in the way, but already I’m wondering how much cycling could become part of my training for a marathon rather than a distraction from it.

I think the improvement in the weather and the longer daylight hours is helping. I think about how I trained through winter after winter for spring marathons and I really can’t fathom how I did it with no loss of enthusiasm.

Ready for a new challenge …

So all of these thoughts have been swirling around my head for a while. I haven’t actually considered the logistics at all. Or wether my 42 years old body could handle training properly. But then again I know quite a few people who are posting really impressive training volumes and interesting results and I know they are not super-human. They are mainly just dedicated.

Sure there are a million excuses for why I can’t or shouldn’t think about trying to start training for a marathon. But why should I listen to that voice inside my (or indeed anyone else’s voice) that doubts I can or should give in to the temptation to run another marathon. Surely not being reasonable is the reason I got myself in a position to achieve one of the proudest moments of my life.

So I am going to take a bit of time. Have a think about what I would need to do to run another marathon and whether that is reasonable. I am going to research whether cycling can fit in to a marathon training schedule. And I am going to think slightly longer term than I have in the past. I probably need 6 months to reverse the loss of fitness and strength from the last 2 years.

Then who knows. I might give it one more go. I’d love to know what you think …

Back to the start

As I get older I have a growing sense that life loops back on itself over and over again. I suspect that this is because of deeply ingrained habits that mean that no matter how hard we try, we often end up doing the same things over and over again. I also think that if you can recognise this circularity, it is possible to adapt and manage our behaviour – even make a virtue out of the process.

Going back to my running roots

So here I am, almost back to where I was 10 years ago when I first started running: trying to find the love and the habit of running. In fact the circle almost returned on itself completely on Sunday. I went to Bristol to run the half marathon there with my best friend Rob. It was a decade since Rob and I ran our first proper race – the Great North Run. I struggled – and I mean really struggled – to a 1:57 finish, delighted to have dipped under 2 hours. Rob was there all the way and in fact it was he who encouraged me in the last mile or so when I was whimpering and trying to find excuses to stop. He wouldn’t let me give in.

Fast forward 10 years and I had the honour of returning the favour and supporting Rob as he ran a very pleasing 1:44 as preparation for an assault on a sub-4 hour marathon in a few weeks.

To get the reward one needs to do the work

Florence MarathonThe weekend in Bristol really made me realise how much I love road running. The Bristol course has a 6 mile out-and-back section along the gorge under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. This means that as most runners are heading out at mile 3 or 4, the lead runners are returning on the other side of the road at mile five and six. It is a great opportunity to see fast runners doing what they do so well. I was captivated to see the elite men and women fly past. And even more so I loved seeing friends such as Jamie Smalley from Runderwear and Andrew Levison, hammer past at sub-6 minute/mile pace. I thought:

That is where I want to be

I love running fast and free. I love racing others. I love chasing times.

I also know that in order to get to a point where I can race at the level I want to be, I need to put in the training. I am not getting any younger, but I have a feeling that the last 12 months of relative inactivity might have done me the world of good. My body has rested and my mind has had a chance to focus on other things. The downside is that I have got out of the training habits that I think I need. But I can get back to habitually running. I did it before, 10 years ago, and I was coming from a much lower base then. This time I am older (but not too old), wiser (but still suitably naive) and definitely determined. Plus I still have this blog, which was set up as a way of recording my journey to try to become the best runner I can be.

I guess I haven’t quite answered the question I started with yet: how good can I be? Here’s to continuing to find out.

Why focussing on the marathon might be the wrong thing to do

I was recently at a really cool event called Write This Run – a get-together for running bloggers in Bushey Park. There were 12 speakers at the event, from inspirational characters like Mimi Anderson and Kevin Betts to a running form coach, a personal trainer, some blogging experts and Scott Overall. This post is all about Scott and one of the things he said during his talk.

A potted history of Scott Overall

Scott Overall in Berlin 2011
Scott Overall in Berlin 2011

Scott Overall is an international athlete and Olympian, having pulled on a Team GB vest to represent the country a number of times, initially over 5,000m and then, in 2012 in the marathon. You can find out more about Scott on his website: www.scottoverall.com.

But it was probably Scott’s marathon debut in Berlin in 2011 that catapulted him into the limelight and certainly meant that he was the male winner of the inaugural RESPY awards. He ran 2:10:55 and finished in 5th place overall.

Possibly the most impressive thing about Scott’s debut marathon was that at the end he said that it felt easy!

Easy! 5 min/mile pace… But the reality is that if you are used to training for and racing over 5,000m on the track, marathon pace does feel easy. This is why we all do track training. If you train part of the time much faster than marathon speed and can manage the fuelling issues around the marathon, then the pace won’t be a challenge.

Since Berlin

Since Berlin, things have not gone so well for Overall. He decided to pace other British athletes in the London marathon to try to help them get the qualifying time. They didn’t follow him and he stopped before he had said he would.

Then Scott went to the Olympic Games marathon and ran a disappointing 2:22:37. He followed this up with 2:14:15 in the Fukuoka marathon later in the Olympic year. And then in the London marathon this year he didn’t finish, dropping out just after half way.

Too much focus

Listening to Scott talk at the bloggers meet-up at the weekend, I was really struck by his plan for how to rectify the few poor marathons he has run since the amazing race in Berlin: he is going to focus on track work and training for 5km and 10km races.

The lesson we can all learn

Scott’s comments made me think that perhaps the problem has been that he had been focussing too much on the marathon, both mentally and physically? And I suspect that for many of us the same might be true. It is all too easy to get overly obsessive about marathon training and that can have a negative effect on both body and mind.

In Overall’s case, leaving the marathon to one side while he trains for shorter distances will allow him to get some mental perspective on the 26.2 mile race and also allow him to train in a way that his body is more used to: still likely to be very high mileage, but fewer of the really damaging long runs.

In my case, I think that the launch of the business I run with my wife, meant that I had less of an obsessive focus on the marathon. I missed sessions because of work and possibly through that avoided over-training. I also did other things like a little bit of swimming and cycling. And I felt more relaxed: suddenly my self-esteem and confidence was not precariously reliant on the time that I could run a marathon in. The result for me, was that I went into the London marathon this year relaxed and ready to do my best come what may… and I loved every step of the way to my new PB!

I hope that for Scott the same is true. He is undoubtedly a hardworking athlete and I really hope that he has a great race when he returns, refreshed mentally and trained perfectly, to the streets of Berlin later this year.

And maybe if you have been training consistently hard for marathons for a while now and worry that you are hitting a plateau, a change will be as good as a rest. Try training for 5kms or 10kms or even for a bike race or a triathlon. Mix it up and let me know how that works for you…

Having a clear out

In a recent piece that I wrote for Running Fitness magazine’s October issue, I interviewed Mike McLeod – the last British man, before Mo Farah, to win a medal of any colour in an Olympic 10,000m race.

I hope that you will have an opportunity to read the piece and enjoy the things that Mike told me about his training. There is a huge amount that he told me that I think could relate to everyone’s training.

Double days

One of the things that he talked about, which I think is a great addition to anyone’s training, is the concept of two runs a day – whether that is an easy run in preparation for a session in the evening or a recovery run in the afternoon after a hard run in the morning. The idea in either case, is to flush out the legs after a hard effort.

Get rid of the junk... in your legs!My experience of double-days

This morning I did one of my favourite sessions: hills. I will admit that during the session I was cursing myself for agreeing to join a training mate at Alexandra Palace for 3 x 10 minutes continuous hills up and down the front of the ‘Palace on the grass. It was a really tough run, but I loved it! Typically after a session like that, I would opt to go for an easy 45 minute run to ease out my legs and reduce the stiffness.

At other times, I would try to go for an easy run in the morning when I know I have a session in the evening. Again the purpose here is to flush out my legs and loosen them up before the real running in the evening.

Mike McLeod said much the same thing. He would regularly run 120 miles per week, but much of that would be going for runs before or after sessions to limber up.

Should you do double-days?

I know for many people the idea of two runs as day is difficult to contemplate. But if you are serious about your running and determined to be the best runner you can be, I would urge you to try it. You might want to start easy by going for a brisk walk in the evening when you have done a hard run in the morning or maybe walking some of the way to work the morning after a tough session. Do that for a few weeks and allow it to become part of your routine. From that point, it is not difficult to turn the walk into a jog and then suddenly you are running twice a day and will be taking your running to the next level.

As far as the specifics are concerned, my tips for adding a second run to your day are as follows:

  1. Take it easy! This is most definitely a run that should leave you feeling better afterwards than when you started
  2. Don’t wear a heart rate monitor or a speed/distance device – this is to support point #1 above. Don’t worry about time or speed or distance – just go out and run for a while to let your legs recover
  3. Maybe find a reason to go. I think that sometimes these runs work best if you have an ulterior reason for going, like running to a friend’s house or home from work
  4. Wear your easy run shoes. These recovery runs are no place for racing flats. You can, of course, wear minimalist shoes, but don’t be tempted to race. This is all about the recovery
  5. Stretch afterwards: a nice easy run after a tough session earlier in the day, warms up the muscles and is the perfect thing to do before you stretch out the tension in your legs
  6. If you are new to this, then try combining running and walking – find an out-and-back route and walk for 15 minutes, run for seven and a half, then turn and keep running back the way you came for seven and a half minutes, then walk 15 minutes. Voila, you’re home and feeling great!
  7. If you are a more experienced runner, remember to keep it very easy and use these runs to focus on relaxing and good form

So there you have it – if you want to improve, maybe a second run a few times per week is the answer. Just remember to get into the routine slowly, run slowly and above all, enjoy it! (Oh and let me know what you think…)

The answer; run more

Recently I posted a question on Twitter; “I love reading about running and writing on my blog. Any suggestions for what I should write about? Reviews? Training?” and I got a fairly consistent response

I’d like to read about what it takes to go from simply finishing a marathon to consistently smashing them out in sub-3hrs. (@nickersan)

I’d like to read about how to get my legs as strong as my heart & head over 26 miles. (@alphabetbyrne)

Tips on how to bring your PB down from 3.30 to 3 & beyond! (@stuholliday)

So it is clear to me that what people really want to read about is practical advice for running faster. And that is fair enough. That is what I want and am constantly searching for, but I may have forgotten that a little bit when it come to writing on my own blog. Thank you to everyone on Twitter who reminded me. So let’s start with the best bit of advice I was ever given.

A breakthrough

By April 2010 I had run a few marathons under 3 hours. In fact I had done that enough times that I was confident that I could run the distance quicker than 6:52/mile (8:32/km) every time I toed the line at a marathon. But I wasn’t really sure how I had arrived at that point. I was also getting quicker more slowly and each PB was becoming harder to achieve. Nevertheless I was improving and went to Paris to run the marathon and had a breakthrough finishing in 2:43.

On returning to London I went to the London marathon expo with my wife so that she could collect her race pack and I could receive a prize I had won in a competition set by ASICS – the opportunity to meet the members of the ASICS Pro Team of advisers. Actually I was interested in meeting one person – Bud Baldaro. A legend in the world of endurance running, former national marathon coach and a man with more accolades and coaching successes than I could shake a foam-roller at.

Brilliant, if simple, advice

When I got my moment with Bud, I whipped out my note book and asked the burning question: “How do I get quicker at the marathon?” Bud fixed me with a very steely gaze and after quite a long pause said…

Run more

Bud Baldaro is not this cheesy normally

What?!?! That was it? Run more? I felt a bit deflated to be honest. Here I was, sitting opposite the man that I believed had all the answers and he had given me… well, nothing very scientific really. Just “run more”. But actually there was a lot more to this than first met the eye. I didn’t let it rest and I probed further: how much more? what sort of running should I do more of? when? at what intensity? And the answers to these questions revealed that the answer was to add a specific type of training in a controlled and well thought out way.

Bud asked me quite a few questions about what I had been doing up to the point that I had just run my breakthrough time in Paris a week before. From that he was able to give me quite a few pointers and strongly advised me to seek out Nick Anderson and talk to him about coaching. Which I did. But at the heart of what Bud told me, and what Nick has subsequently got me to do, has been the simple premise of running more.

What can you do?

The difference has been made by how I have added miles. And this is the advice I would like to pass on;

add slow miles to start with – there is a high likelihood that if you add more miles at threshold or tempo pace you will breakdown
recover runs are a great way to add miles – I have 2 runs on three days of the week and those runs are easy, recovery runs in the morning before a session in the evening
don’t set a mileage target – chasing a certain number of miles for the week is not sensible. Instead add a little to your current runs and then add in some easy time-based recovery runs (for example 30 minutes three times a week as an additional run on a day when you already have a session in the evening)

Then it is possible to ease up the training – increasing the recovery runs from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. Increasing the speed, intensity and duration of sessions. Increasing the length of long runs (although I don’t base long runs on distance now as I will explain in a future post). But all of this is done very slowly and with plenty of periods of reduced training volume to allow recovery. After all, it’s a marathon not a sprint, right?

I’ll leave the final words to Bud Baldaro. When asked for a piece of advice for advanced runners looking to go one step further, his suggestion was to:

Take yourself out of the comfort zone on a gradual and realistic basis.

I think that the way to do that is to add miles and intensity but in a very gradual way so that it is sustainable. Slowly add recovery runs if you have multiple rest days in a week, so that you are running six days a week. If you are already at that point, think about one or two recovery runs on the morning of a day when you have a session in the evening. If you already run more than six times per week, slowly increase the length of your easy runs. You’ll be amazed at what a difference a little more can make.