Top ten reasons to go on a training camp

I am just back from my second ever training camp and this one was a belter. My coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, spends three weeks in the Algarve, Portugal and for 10 days the athletes he coaches or knows through running, are invited to come out and ‘enjoy’ the benefits that a running camp can offer.

Last year was a novelty for me, but this year I have been able to survey the whole concept of a training camp with a more experienced eye and I think there are quite a few benefits to getting away to a training camp or even a running weekend. Here are my top ten;


1. the weather

The group that trains together eats together...

– there is always going to be the chance that the weather won’t play ball. Indeed on our camp there was one day when a storm blew in and we all went for a run in the rain while the UK basked in sunshine. However in general finding a spot where the weather is generally better than at home makes training more pleasurable and can even allow runners to acclimatise in case they have hot weather on the day of their key race.


2. a change from the old routine…

The reality is that for many of us, training – and especially marathon training – can become monotonous. So going away for a few days or a week or even more can provide new places to train, new people to train with and even new training sessions to ward off staleness


3. … a new routine!

There are few, if any, distractions, on a camp. No meetings being put into your diary. No need to travel for business. No family commitments. No issues with public transport. In short, not very much that requires a training schedule to be re-jigged. So if the plan is for a morning and evening run every day, that is what you end up doing.


4. company

Training in a group = harder, faster sessions

– the romantic notion of the loneliness of the long distance runner might be embedded in the minds of many runners, but the reality is that in Kenya and Ethiopia, running is a team sport. One of the benefits of a training camp is the opportunity it train in a group, to surround oneself with positive people with a similar focus and drive, to watch and learn from others and to get immediate feedback from others about how we are doing. The only problem is that solo pre-breakfast runs the day after you return from camp can tend to be very, very lonely affairs!


5. food

– one third of the training triangle is fuel and a training camp is the ideal opportunity to get nutrition and hydration right. All too often I find that I end up eating on the go on the way to a meeting, bolting lunch after a midday run or squeezing meals in around runs or sessions. On a camp, with no meetings to go to and the chance to run at the optimum time, rather than when work or other commitments allow, eating well and regularly is much more possible. Which results in feeling strong enough to run more or harder. Virtuous circle!


6. rest and relaxation

– as with nutrition, the lack of time pressures plays a crucial part in allowing more training but also more of the things that support more training: rest and relaxation. Anyone who has read about the way that the worlds most elite runners, from east Africa, train, will know that when they are not running, they take their rest very, very seriously, spending hours sitting or reclining out of the sun or taking long snoozes between sessions. A lack of stimulus and an appalling choice of TV channels, as well as the aforementioned good weather, means that all of us on the camp spent hours on sun-loungers or stretched out on sofas, recovering from one session whilst preparing for the next one.


7. hands-on coaching and advice

is a luxury that we all really benefited from on our training camp. It is rare for runners, except for the most elite, to have as much contact with their coaches as we had with Nick and Phoebe from RunningWithUs on this camp. The opportunity to ask those things that you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask over a coffee after a morning run, was priceless (well, not quite – there was just the cost of travel and accommodation…)


8. the opportunity to try something new

– for me the new-ness on this camp was running twice a day every day except the two days when we went for a long run. So 13 runs in 7 days, brought to you by the ability to spend the majority of the day eating, sleeping or resting.


9. positivity

– I have yet to meet someone who goes to the effort and expense of going on a training camp to moan or whinge. Sure, there were points where injuries flared up or sessions didn’t go to plan, but in general the mood was massively positive and the closest I came to an injury was a side strain from laughing so much.


10. the aftermath

– having returned I am pleased to report that all of the things that I think about my training camp have an effect after the fact – I am back in the UK and despite the terrible inconvenience of work and the worse weather, I feel fit, lean and positive. And ready for my marathon in three weeks.

So in conclusion, I can only say that I think that camps, whilst undoubtedly indulgent, are hugely useful and great fun, so if you have a chance to try one, I suggest you do. It might be the key to unlock a new level of running.

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…

Ice, ice baby!

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

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

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

The theory

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

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

The debate

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

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

To ice, or not to ice?

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

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

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

The wonders of warm weather and warm personalities

This week I ‘ave been mostly… running with a group of 30 people in the Algrave, in sunny Portugal. The trip was suggested by my coach, Nick Anderson, as an opportunity for a group of the runners he coaches to get together, have a week of running in the warmth of the Mediterranean and talk about running with Nick, Phoebe Thomas (the other half of RunningWithUs) and Bud Baldaro, a guru of endurance running and the man who introduced me to Nick Anderson.

I can now reveal that I was a little nervous about going. I feared, more than anything, that the week would turn into an adrenaline-fest with everyone trying to run the legs of everyone else and prove that they are ‘the man’! The reality is that I have never met such a wonderful bunch of open-minded, dedicated and thoughtful people in all my life. Apart from a couple of very minor blips the entire week was awash with support, humour, intelligence and a community spirit. And the running, while a little bit repetitive, was great.

The highlights for me were (in no particular order);

• recovery runs, run at 9 min/mile to start and which really genuinely ended with me feeling better than when I started
• two long runs where in the heat and on a hilly loop, I nailed 22 and 14 miles at sub-6 min/mile for extended sections
• two track sessions and a 6km time-trial (on the same cross country course where the recent euro-cross was run) in which I held my own and ran strongly
• running with people like Richard Gregory, Steve Scullion, Dionne Alan and Clayton Payne who are all superb runners and who gave me encourgement as well as a vest to chase
• having time to sit and talk to Nick and Bud about running and training in general and learning more about the sport I love
• discussing the next 12 months’ running with Nick (which was quite an interesting discussion – more on that soon!)
• taking the time to rest and relax between runs
• nailing 3 core and strength and conditioning sessions with Phoebe
• celebrating my birthday with my new found friends (but sadly not with Julie, which no amount of cake and “Happy Birthday To You” could make up for)

The list goes on and on. But the over-riding thing for me from the whole week, is the fact that I was surrounded almost entirely by positive people. The vibe was amazing and everyone was inspirational. I have really come home buzzing with excitement and really ready, both physically and psychologically, for the challenge ahead…. so here is to Portugal –