Brooks Ravenna 3 – a trainer to rave about?

I was recently offered the opportunity to try out a pair of Brooks’ new Ravennas – the third incarnation. I took the opportunity to ask a friend and training partner if he’d like to try them out and this is what he had to say…

Once in a while you find a shoe you really get on with, a happy match of features, fit, and performance.  For me, the original Brooks Ravenna was just that: an everyday trainer with enough cushioning to absorb plenty of miles, a touch of support to protect against mild over-pronation, yet a responsive, fast feel.

And then the manufacturer updates it.  Sometimes the new version is an improvement.  Sometimes it’s…different.  I didn’t like the Ravenna 2.  No doubt it was a good shoe, with plenty of glowing reviews and magazine awards – but extra cushioning and new materials, while adding little weight, made it feel too much shoe for my tastes.

The ‘new’ Ravennas

So I was looking forward to trying out the Ravenna 3.  Would Brooks have come up with another great do-it-all shoe?
Brooks pitches the Ravenna as a ‘guidance’ trainer.  It’s the sort of shoe to look at if you can’t quite get away with training in neutral or more minimalist offerings (for me, miles plus neutral shoes equals shinsplints), but don’t need a full-on support or motion control shoe.  The guidance comes from a modest medial post (denser material on the inner side of the midsole), and Brooks’ “Diagonal Roll Bar”, a piece of plastic that adds rigidity to the arch and midfoot of the shoe.  Cushioning comes from Brooks’ BioMogo midsole, and their new “DNA” gel material.  According to Brooks, the way DNA responds to the different forces applied by different runners’ size and stride provides “soft comfort when you want it, firm support when you need it”.

First impressions count

You can't say he didn't really test them!

First impressions were… a pair of running shoes.  They look good, if unspectacular, and have a quality feel about them.  They felt comfortable from the off, and the fit should suit a lot of people: fairly supportive through the midfoot, and generous in the toebox.  (It is a slightly different fit from earlier Ravennas, which had a slightly curved last and a snug wrap around the midfoot).
So far, so good: these look and feel a decent pair of trainers.  My concern was that they seem bulkier than the original Ravennas.  There is nothing in it for weight (10.9oz vs 10.8oz according to Brooks – par for a light-to-moderate trainer).  However, the new shoe has a thicker midsole in both the heel and forefoot (keeping for a 9-10mm heel-toe drop).  This is not bad per se – the Ravennas are still at the lighter end of the market for a shoe with a bit of support – there just feels a bit more shoe here than the original I’d got on so well with.

First run, and – to be blunt – I wasn’t overly impressed.

They felt on the bulky side underfoot, especially in the heel.  The DNA cushioning also had an odd feel to it: footstrike felt a bit like landing on a rubber ball, with a bit of give to it but quite an aggressive return.

Fortunately, I wore the Ravenna 3s for more than one run.  And I came to quite like them.

Second impressions count more!

Perhaps it was all imagination to start off with; by the third time out in them the bounciness had calmed down, and the cushioning felt really good, without feeling unduly mushy.  I’ve now worn them a lot as a day-to-day trainer for easy and steady runs.  They are comfortable, and the touch of guidance does its job.  They are also wearing well, with little wear on the outsole after a couple of hundred miles (past personal experience is that the MoGo midsole stands up to 5-600 miles before it starts to feel tired).

They don’t immediately feel a fast shoe – so I was pleasantly surprised that picking up the pace wasn’t an issue, and they proved up to the task of some tempo blocks in longer runs without feeling too clunky.  Perhaps that is the DNA living up to the promise of being more responsive when needed?  That said, they wouldn’t be my first choice for tempo running or sessions – I just prefer something less bulky.  By comparison, I felt the Ravenna 1s had nailed a sweetspot here.

Final thoughts

And that, for me, is the only issue with these shoes: they aren’t quite the same as the original.  Not many shoes fall in between an out-and-out performance trainer (something like the Asics DS Trainer) and more run-of-the-mill training shoes – for me at least, Brooks were onto something with the original shoe in this line, which the later versions haven’t quite carried forward.

Still, the Ravenna 3s are very good day-to-day trainers.  If you’re looking for a touch of pronation control in a shoe that isn’t unduly heavy, they’re well worth checking out.

The London marathon 2012

As I stood on the start line of the London marathon this year, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of fear. Obviously there was the usual butterflies associated with the desire to do my best, the knowledge that pain was inevitable, the worry that maybe I should have done more or eaten less or worn different kit. But there was an added dimension this year. Twelve months ago, on a hot day, I had run the London in a disappointing 2:43. Disappointing because I had trained hard and thought I was in shape to improve on my 2:40 personal best. The heat and my inability to adjust to cope with that, along with a fairly quick first half, put paid to that. In the subsequent de-brief with my coach Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs we had agreed – me rather reluctantly – that I would not run an autumn marathon in 2011 and instead wait a year for my chance to redeem myself.

So here I was, on another sunny morning, after a year of training, hoping for the elusive personal best performance. Nervous only begins to describe it!

The race unfolds

© Enrique Casarrubios

The air temperature at the start was ideal: around 7˙C. However there was a breeze, blowing from the west and there wasn’t really a cloud in the sky. It was not going to be perfect so I knew I would have to deal with that, but I felt ready.

I edged closer to the front of the Championship start pen than I had the year before. No matter that the qualifying standards for the Championship start are pretty tough (sub-2:45 marathon or sub-75 minute half for the men), there were still people that I would have to pass, so I wanted the clearest run possible. We were walked up behind the elite men and after the elite field introductions, right on time at 9:45am, we were off!

I had been told by Nick that the first three miles were to be the warm-up. In fact, with a downhill start and a bucket-load of adrenaline, I passed each mile marker at target race pace – 6 min/mile. But it felt great – really easy and smooth and I soon feel in step with a group running at the same pace. The only downside to this is that I was shielded from the westerly wind which I would encounter in the last six or seven miles, so I wasn’t prepared for it when I faced it on my own. Still, I was loving racing and the feeling of gliding along.

By half way I was still feeling great. I had talked to Nick about pacing the race right and we had agreed that I would go through half way in 78-79 minutes. As I passed under the half way gantry the clock read 78:30. Perfect.

It’s getting hot in here…

The only issue at this stage was that it was warming up. I had consumed two of my four gels by that point and so I took out the two that were tucked in my arm-warmers and pulled my arm-warmers down to my wrists. But then I just had hot wrists. So the arm-warmers came off and down the front of my shorts. A mere 800m later and my new cod-piece was feeling very uncomfortable. So out they came and I tossed them to the side of the road about half a mile before we turned right into Wapping. I felt free again!

I had also decided that I needed to take on water. I think that one of the problems in 2011 was that I didn’t adjust my water intake sufficiently and so I was horribly dry by the time I was forced to stop and take a drink. This year I deliberately slowed through the water stations and made sure that when I took a bottle of water I drank three or four good mouthfuls. The rest went either over my head or more usually I squirted the back of my legs (ahhhh, bliss!)

Friends and crowds

I have heard it said that one runs the first half of a marathon with the head and the second half with the heart. I agree, that there is a switch where emotion becomes massively important. During the race I heard my name called out a few times. At mile 16 I saw my Mum and Dad. At mile 17 there was an advanced RunDemCrew party with Linda Byrne shouting encouragement. At that stage I still felt pretty good.

Just before the 21st mile, on a very sparsely populated section of the course, I saw Nick and his fianceé – and fellow coach – Phoebe. I was feeling good and just thinking about getting my head around the last 10km. Nick and I locked eyes and he repeated the instructions he’d given me before the race for this point. Relax, work hard and try to catch the vest in front. At that point I knew that I was going to succeed with my targets.

At mile 21 I passed the RunDemCrew‘s main cheering point. That was a massive boost as a huge group roared me on (you can read about what it felt like to see the ‘Crew here). Next stop, the Mornington Chasers.

The Chasers cheering…

My club, the Mornington Chasers, traditionally have a cheering point on the Highway, near mile 22 so they can see the runners just after half way and then again on the way back with 4 miles to go. On my route out to Canary Wharf I had, of course, seen the Chasers across the road and I noticed that the club flag was tied to a huge tree. I banked that bit of info for later.

On the way back I spotted the tree from quite a long way away, but this is a dead straight section of road and I know that Tom Craggs, who had his hawk-eye on times for the Chasers running, also saw me quite a way out. I must admit, and I’ll take this opportunity to apologise, that I didn’t really see anyone except Tom. But there was another rush of noise, much like at the RunDemCrew station, which sent the hairs on my neck into a frenzy!

In 2011 I had passed this point, and many of the same people, in a bad state and quite a way behind schedule. This time I had good form, I felt great, I was on track and I loved seeing the flash of smiles and hands and the noise. Four miles left and I was going to do it.

The end is nigh

From Tower Hill the race did become a matter of battling the wind and trying as hard as possible to catch the person in front. I pushed as hard as I could, but the lack of a group to shelter from the wind with meant that I was working hard to keep 6 minute miles. Some of the people I passed looked crushed and I flew past them. Others, who were holding it together, proved impossible to catch. So I simply locked in the pace (thanks to Alex Kitromilides for that phrase), repeated my mantras and concentrated on not allowing the nausea I was feeling to develop into anything that would slow me down.

Past Westminster and along Bird Cage Walk, I just counted and counted. I saw Catherine Wilding on the right and flicked her a wave. But really all I could do was keep pushing. As I came onto the Mall I could see the clock and raced for every second I could get. Nothing registered in that final 300m. I crossed the line in 2:38:30, in 138th place, with a new personal best and bloody sore feet.

And that is really the story of my race. I was a little disappointed to run a positive split and ‘lose’ 90 seconds in the second half (78:30 1st half vs 80 minutes for the second half) but PB are rare as hens’ teeth and so I’m delighted that all the work paid off on the day and I managed to hang on into the wind in the last few miles. What I do know is that it was most definitely worth the training and I’ll be back for more!

The runners guide to making the marathon feel easy

I believe that one of the keys to unlocking success in the marathon, is training in a way that makes running at target marathon pace feel easy. Obviously there is a requirement to train for endurance, but the more that we can make marathon pace feel ‘easy’ the more likely we are to avoid crashing and burning! So that begs the question, how to make marathon pace feel easy? Well most of the runners I know believe that training at a pace that is quicker than marathon pace is the answer. Indeed on RunnersLife Ben Moreau wrote about the importance of ‘shorter stuff’

it’s good to add in some 5k/10k pace running just to stress different energy systems and also to reset your pace governance so that marathon pace ‘feels’ slow compared to the faster work

Some of the key aspects of my training now are sessions that involve running faster than marathon pace. This can take the form of threshold or tempo running (my coach Nick Anderson doesn’t really differentiate between the two for the vast majority of sessions) or faster stuff either on the track or in shorter races. Below I have outlined some examples based on my target marathon pace of 6 min/mile*

Example sessions

Threshold session – 75 minute run including 3 x 12 minutes at threshold pace with 3 minute jog recovery between (i.e. 15 minutes easy running to warm up then 3 sets of 12 minutes at threshold and 3 minutes jog recovery followed by 15 minutes easy running).

Hill session – Warm-up and drills then 10 minutes at threshold effort then 3 x 12 minutes continuous hills (90 seconds up, 90 seconds down) then 5 x 2 minutes hard on the flat

New River stadium where I do most of my track sessions

Track session – Warm-up and drills followed by 6 minutes at threshold pace then 2 x (6 x 400m) off reducing recovery with 2 minutes between sets. Then 20 minutes at marathon pace.

5km time-trial – Warm-up followed by 5km road or trail race (typically a Parkrun) followed by 3 x 10 minutes at threshold then cool-down

It is not revolutionary of course to build speed work into a marathon training programme, but it is not something that I used focus on particularly or if I did I had no idea why I was doing the faster stuff and what training benefit I was looking for. I recall doing hill sprints involving 20 seconds sprints up a hill followed by as much recovery jogging down as we wanted to take. Or sets of 200m sprints on the track. As coach Roy Benson says there is a “principle of specificity” which means that “if you want to develop a skill, you need to practice it exclusively” so when it comes to training for a marathon, the speed sessions should reflect the nature of the race distance.

This week’s track session

I still don’t pretend to understand all the science behind speed work (although I’m working on it!) but what I do know is that by doing sessions which develop a greater lactate threshold and increase VO2 max, we increase our capacity to operate comfortably at slower paces like marathon race pace. The proof of this was made starkly clear to me last night at the track.

After a pretty taxing session of 6 minutes’ threshold running and then 400m reps at faster than 5km pace off a reducing recovery, I set off for 20 minutes at marathon pace (6 min/mile for me) and I felt great! Despite actually going faster than target marathon pace (I was running at closer to 5:50 min/mile) I felt easy, light, in control and holding good form. I really felt that I could have kept going for much, much longer (although I was definitely in a depleted fuel state from not eating all that well during the day and the hard track session, so a gel or two would have been required to keep me going).

Suddenly I could visualise race day. I could tell how my body will feel after a taper period and with good fuel from the days before the race and the morning of the race. Add to that the excitement of race day and I can start to feel that my predicted pace will feel great. Well at least for the first 20 minutes!

 

 

 

* please note that these sessions are built into a plan from my coach and are in the context of the other training I am doing, so they shouldn’t necessarily be copied directly because your training is likely to differ from mine.

Fuel for thought

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

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

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

Hitting the wall

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

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

Research into dehydration

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

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

Effects of dehydration

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

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

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.

The benefits of running with the pack

Don’t tell my wife, but I harbour a dream of going to Kenya for a fortnight to go running. I realise that financial considerations make the chances that I will rather remote. But I will keep that dream in my heart. It might surprise you to know that the reason I want to go to Kenya is not for the benefits of training at altitude. I have previously spent many weeks at a time at altitude in the Alps, Pyrenees and the Andes in Peru. But a fortnight at two and half thousand metres does not a champion marathoner make. No, the reason I want to go to Kenya, is to experience the early morning group runs.

The Kenyan way

Personally I really love the social aspect of training, whether chatting whilst on a long slow run or encouraging others on the track whilst completing a hard session. In Kenya, the runners seem to make a virtue of running in a group, as described by Toby Tanser in his book “More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way”:

The chilly pitch-black darkness that spreads around the high-altitude training center like a watchman’s cloak will soon disappear; the sun rises with the speed of a jugglers hand on the equator. There are no street lights in Kamariny, and there is little noise to be heard save one noisy rooster cleaning his throat. Although it is barely 6:00am, a group of well-trained athletes, with hardly an ounce of fat apiece, silently mill around the camp…

No words are spoken, as some athletes are still sleeping in the camp. There is a group of visiting European runners, and they will wait until after breakfast for their run. Another group of runners who usually leave at 7:00am will still be sleeping now. The Kenyans, however, typically all run together on non-specific training days. The leave in a group and then the tempo and distance are worked out literally on the run.

And during his time in east Africa, Adharanand Finn ‘enjoyed’ many group runs, often with elite level athletes. In one of his first despatches in the Guardian he writes about the first time he joined a group on an early morning run in Iten, Kenya

runners suddenly start appearing from everywhere, materialising out of the darkness. Within a few minutes there are around 60 crack Kenyan athletes standing around. Some of them are talking quietly and stretching. They are mostly men, their long, skinny legs wrapped in tights, some wearing woolly hats. I suddenly feel out of my depth. What am I doing?

Without any announcement, they all start running, heading off down the dirt track. The pace is quick without being terrifying, so I tuck myself into the middle of the group. Up ahead the full moon lights the way, while behind us the dawn is creeping across the sky, making it easier to see. The last few stars go out as we hurtle along out of the town and into the African countryside.

You can read more here.

Running groups around the world

All over the world, groups of fantastic runners congregate for training. Nike and the US Olympic team utilise Alberto Salazar’s Oregon Project where Mo Farah has recently stated that he and Galen Rupp do nearly all of their training together.  Liz Yelling has written and spoken about training with a group of top runners in Bournemouth, and I could cite instances all over the world where runners train together to push each others performances to better and higher levels.

As well as knowing the benefits of training in a group anecdotally, I want to know if there is any actual evidence that training in a group is better. Almost every book, article or blog I have read has stated that the majority of the greatest elite distance runners in the world do most if not all of their training in groups.

The coach’s perspective

From a coaching perspective, Nick Anderson, who coaches runners of all levels of ability with RunningWithUs [www.runningwithus.com] says:

The group brings competition, support and fun when athletes are working hard. At the highest level of running, competition as found in group sessions is crucial.

Similarly, in last weeks Marathon Talk podcast, the new superstar of British marathon running, Scott Overall, talked about the importance of training with a partner. Of course at his speed it is difficult to find enough people fast enough to keep up with him to make up a ‘group’!

Given the ubiquity of training in groups and the perceived benefit, I wondered if there was any scientific evidence to accompany everything I intuitively know? Well, Stuart Holliday, from The Focused Mind, gave me valuable information for this piece, starting with some background on Norman Triplett, the psychologist who in 1892 researched what eventually became known as Social Facilitation (you can read more about that here).

Psychology and Social Facilitation

 

Triplett found that cyclists had faster race times in the presence of other cyclists. Triplett theorized that the faster times were due to the effect of the members of the group increasing each other’s level of competition. Further research in other sporting situations confirmed to Triplett that the presence of others increased individuals’ performance levels. Findings across a number of different sports suggested that when individuals perform a familiar task, the presence of others leads to a performance enhancement. When individuals perform an unfamiliar task in a group, the opposite has been shown to be true.

I personally think that in the case of running, it would be extremely rare for a runner to find their competition performance deteriorating due to the presence of others – after all how many marathoners talk about the immense boost they receive from crowds by the sides of the roads in big city marathons? However, if a new runner does join an experienced group for a track session, it can be extremely daunting.

Stuart goes on to say that rather than worrying about how one performs in relation to others, the other runners in the group should be used as a gauge. Stuart advises runners to not feel too downhearted if on your first few sessions you feel like you’ve been left behind. Unless you use a watch, what you won’t have noticed is that your lap times get quicker week by week.

Holliday offered further advice when he told me “Stick with the weekly track sessions with others. You will find yourself getting faster and be able to sustain consistent speed for longer periods. But make sure you compare your performance against your previous efforts and not against others! As I’ve found training with some Kenyan and leading British runners, it can be a fruitless task training with certain individuals! Equally, on those long training runs, having a running buddy or two can keep the spirits up as the legs ache after 2 hours.”

Personal experience

Personally I’ve benefitted enormously by running with others on my personal running journey. I’ve been encouraged and supported and can feel and see the improvement in the training cycles leading up to big races, such as the London marathon this year or 2010’s Florence marathon. And a final word from Stuart Holliday really emphasises the value of running in a group: “Don’t forget its a two way street though. Even the fastest runners appreciate a word of encouragement and such help in training can mean the difference between getting or missing a PB in the race situation.”

I believe (and now have the evidence of well established research) that running in a group is really beneficial. I feel a definite performance boost from cruising along in a group on a long run or blasting round the track in a speed session with others. Running in a group provides an incentive and encouragement that plodding along on my own will never do. If you don’t believe me, when I’m back from Rift Valley I’ll tell you all about the benefits on a group run! Just don’t tell my wife…

The Saucony minimalist range; Kinvara2, Mirage and Hattori

In running terms minimalism is the new black. Everyone is talking about it and many, many runners are now trying out footwear with less and less… well, less everything really. From standard footwear that is being de-engineered to have fewer bells-and-whistles to the thinnest, lightest foot-coverings (I hesitate to call things like the Vibram FiveFinger a shoe) there is a noticeable trend towards less.

And where the athlete goes, the manufacturers and retailers follow (or is it the case that the consumer is led by the manufacturers? In this case I don’t think that the trend is manufacturer-led, after all minimalist shoes don’t cost as much as mainstream ones and that is counter-intuitive for the manufacturers and retailers, surely?) In the case of Saucony, in what appears to be a typically smooth transition, a small range of three shoes has been launched to appeal to the new market of runners looking for more minimalist shoes that are not just used for racing.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to see the range of shoes up-close (although one of the range has been on my feet for quite a few months – more on that in a minute), meet Spencer White, the director of the Saucony Human Performance & Innovation Lab in Boston and the brains behind the development of the range, and meet an exponent of minimalist or indeed no, footwear – Caballo Blanco, the star of Chris McDougall’s book Born to Run (which you can read about here).

The range that Saucony have produced covers a gamut of requirements. At one end there is the Mirage, with the Kinvara sitting in the middle and the Hattori at what we will call the extreme end of the scale.

The Mirage

In my opinion the Mirage is a great shoe. This is the shoe that I have been running in for a few months now, since Toby at Alton Sports suggested I try a pair. I must admit that my first reactions on seeing them were ‘Wow! They’re white!’ and then a concern about the splayed sole that looked very wide. However from slipping them on for the first time, I loved them. They are the shoe that I most often reach for because there is some cushioning but that is combined with a lightness (only 252g) that my other, more regular high-mileage trainers don’t offer. The ‘supportive midfoot arc’ has not interfered at all with my running style and indeed until the presentation by Spencer at the Saucony event, I didn’t know it was even there, which is great for a neutral runner like me, but might suggest that the shoes are not ideal for someone used to a large degree of stability in their shoes. As far as the rest of the shoe is concerned, I found the upper to be really comfortable and breathable. And from a durability perspective, so far, with probably around 200 miles of use, they are in great shape (albeit a little less white!)

The Kinvara2

The Kinvara2 is a much newer shoe for me; I only got my hands on a pair earlier this week. However my first impression is that I am going to like the Kinvara2 even more than the Mirage. From a looks perspective, the shoe is very similar to the Mirage (still very, very white!) but slipping the shoe on, there is a noticeable difference in the feel. The Kinvara2 and the Mirage are supposed to have the same 4mm heel drop, but the Kinavara2 feels more low-profile. The upper is even more flexible than the Mirage and feels really well made with very few irritating stitched areas or rough bits to worry my delicate little feet. At the back of the shoe there really isn’t a heel counter worth the name, which to my mind is a good thing. The shoe is very light – only 218g – with a very light, cushioned sole incorporating diamond-shaped rubber pads to aid traction and durability. I’ll update this review after a few hundred miles in the Kinvara2, but from my early impressions I think this will be one of my favourite shoes for a wide range of sessions; from short easy runs, quick threshold and tempo sessions to races from the half marathon distance upwards. As my coach Nick Anderson* said, the new Saucony range allows runners to use a lightweight shoe most of the time and without the pressure to run at full tilt, as used to be the case with racing flats.

The Hattori

Then finally there is the Hattori… which I haven’t tried. OK, sorry for getting you to read this far on false pretences but really – the Hattori is a crazily minimalist shoe. It is like a sock welded onto a thin, flat piece of rubber, almost with the profile of a piece of car tyre. Wait a minute – isn’t that what the Raramuri wear when they are running! And as for weight, a pair tips the scales at 125g, which is about the same as a Weetabix.

Spencer at Saucony was at pains to point out that while the Kinvara2 and Mirage have minimalist qualities they are intended for runners who want to run most of the time in a light-weight, low-profile shoe, the Hattori is a training tool. Intended as something that the runner learns to run in and limited to occasional use, over shorter distances and on forgiving surfaces (at least at first), the Hattori is not the shoe that Saucony envisage many runners will pull on for anything other than a few special occasions. For me, I think that the almost total lack of cushioning and the zero heel drop, means that I would have to spend quite a while getting used to the Hattori and that is time that I would rather dedicate to more running or strength and conditioning work. However the Hattori does finish off Saucony’s minimalist range nicely and I know from the reactions I have seen at the London marathon expo and other events where the Hattori has been on show, that there are a lot of people ready to make the leap to true minimalism.

My thoughts on Saucony’s minimalist range are pretty positive overall. I think they have created a small range of shoes that would allow someone to progress (or should that be regress – I don’t know) from ‘normal’ running shoes, to total minimalism step by step. However for me the real benefit in the range is that with the Kinvara2 and the Mirage there are now really light shoes that are a joy to run in and which afford a degree of comfort that racing flats don’t. I’m sure I’ll be enjoying these two for the foreseeable future.

 

*disclaimer: Nick’s company RunningWithUs provides training advice and consultation to Saucony. Personally I am not in any way linked to Saucony (indeed I rocked up to their event wearing Nike trainers and a Brooks t-shirt – that made me popular I can tell you!)

 

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.

Running With The Legends – a book for all runners

Last year I went away with a group of the athletes that are coached by my coach Nick Anderson and his colleagues at RunningWithUs, for a week’s warm weather training in Portugal. You can read about the week here.

The week was wonderful for a whole host of reasons – great weather, double days every day and plenty of opportunities to rest, a brilliant training group, good food – the list goes on. And in amongst all that, I enjoyed the opportunity to be a bit of a running geek. Quite a bit of time was spent with fellow runners sharing ideas and tips and experiences.

During one afternoon, as a group of us relaxed by the pool between sessions, the subject of favourite books came up and a few of the group mentioned a book called Running With The Legends. The consensus was that it was rather an inspiring tome.

So on my return I ordered a copy and eagerly started it on the train to work on the morning it arrived. It was not a disappointment.

The format is simple; 21 chapters, each one dedicated to a different runner. The book features… erm… legends of running such as Emil Zatopek, Rosa Mota, Robert de Castella, Steve Jones and Bill Rogers amongst others. And whilst it would appear that different chapters have come from different sources, based on the way the styles of the chapters varies, the basics are all the same – a short biography including how the featured athlete got started, an examination of their career and some discussion of their career highlights and a glimpse into the athlete’s training.

And yet despite the similarities of the chapters in terms of format and the obvious parallels between the runners of dedication and sacrifice necessary to become a legend of running, the thing that struck me reading this book was the diversity that the featured runners exhibit. The range of backgrounds and styles and even physical characteristics of the runners is remarkable and means that it is quite legitimate to question whether there is an ideal physical shape or ideal background for an endurance runner.

But most of all, I think that Running With The Legends is a great history of modern distance running seen through the lens of the people who were at the forefront of the sport. It is a really inspiring book and provides an easy to read insight into the lives of some of the greatest runners who have ever lived. For anyone interested in the history of long distance running and who are interested in developing a mindset that will allow them to get the most out of their running, I cannot recommend Running With The Legends enough.