Sleeping beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoe review – Mizuno Wave Rider 14

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

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

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

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

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

Running Shoes London – more than a shop

This is an unabashed plug. I will take just a moment to say that this is unsolicited and in no way have I been financially incentivised to write this. But whether you believe that or not is up to you and I don’t really care – I had a really wonderful experience in a shop (which almost never happens to me and you’ll see why if you keep reading) and I want to ‘big up’ the people behind Running Shoes London.

The first time I went to Running Shoes London was their first or second day of trading and I had been given a flyer or seen an advert or something offering a free pair of socks or a free t-shirt or something like that with every pair of shoes. Unfortunately when I arrived, I got there before the ASICS rep had been in so the shoes I was after were not available. And indeed aside from the lack of ASICS, the shop was pretty sparsely stocked. I left without the shoes (or the free gift). I haven’t been back since and that is probably 3 years or more.

The reason I haven’t been back is that in general I hate shopping. That was not always the case – in the days before I discovered running, I treated shopping like a social event, hanging out in Selfridges G&T bar after a busy afternoon destroying my credit rating.

Since those dark and depressing days I have completed many u-turns in my life and my old love of shopping is one of the things I now regret having done and vow to never get into again. This is partly due to my distaste for wasting money in general and also partly because I hate having limited choice, offered by mindless assistants in hot, noisy and crowded shops.

However a couple of weeks ago two converging factors saw me making my way, once again, to Paddington Basin to Running Shoes London – I wanted to buy a sportswear specific detergent to battle the ever present permastink that so many of my t-shirts suffer from and I was going away to the Forest of Dean on a training weekend where I would need gels and recovery drinks that I didn’t have time to order online.

The two chaps at Running Shoes London were super-friendly, helpful and informative to everyone I saw them deal with. The owner knew me and my recent time from Florence (I still don’t know how on earth he knew that – it’s not anywhere near the sort of time I would expect people to know) and knew my coach, Nick at Running With Us. We talked about the surge in interest in running that came about thanks to the economic crisis, the state of specialist retailing and innovations in running footwear and how to achieve the right balance of nutrition whilst training and working. Indeed I spent one of the most pleasant lunch hours I can remember in there as well as getting all the stuff I wanted.

Indeed the whole experience was so positive that I want to share my thoughts; there are very few good, independent retailers left – especially since the recent acquisition of Runners Need by Snow and Rock – and the big chains are simply transactional places I go to when there is a sale on to try to pick up a bargain, not somewhere I go to get interesting gossip from the running scene. There are very few shop owners and assistants who have the sort of experience, qualifications and enthusiasm that the guys I met in Running Shoes London have. There are very few places with the diversity of stock and range of shoes that they have in Paddington. And if we don’t support retailers like Running Shoes London, there will be even less of these places. So if you are in the area or indeed if you are curious and have the time to make a trip, go and see Running Shoes London and ask the staff there an interesting question – I assure you, you will leave with more than just a bag of new kit.

Brooks Racer ST5 – the future’s bright, the future’s orange.

Through my association with Ransacker I was recently invited to a party (erm, well it was called a party, which was unlike any party I’ve ever been to) to view the new products being launched to the running community by Brooks.

It was a really interesting evening and the Brooks team in the UK are really lovely people – knowledgeable and enthusiastic. And Brooks produce a very wide range of products to cater for all types of runner. However the thing that caught my eye was the Racer ST5.

Having long been a fan of the ASICS Tarther, I don’t really feel the need to try to find an out-and-out racing shoe, but what I was lacking was a middle ground between my workhorse Mizuno WaveRiders which I use for everything and the Tarthers, which I reserve exclusively for racing. I hoped the Brooks ST5 would fill the void.

The shoes arrived from Brooks this morning. I immediately pulled them on (breaking the tag at the heel with the first tug, but they were free so I’ve little cause to complain!) and stomped round the flat for an hour. I appreciated the wide toe-box, snug heel, flat profile and light weight. These, I thought, could be interesting…

So tonight I ran home from work in them. 45 minutes easy is what Nick, my coach from runningwithus, has suggested and that seemed like the perfect opportunity to try these ‘racer-trainers’ out. The run home was lovely. The shoes are as comfortable as any I have tried. They provided great grip on the slimy wet pavements through central London and the things I had liked when I tried them at home all remained – roomy forefoot, snug heel, low profile and super light weight for a trainer with quite a bit of cushioning. So you can tell, I am pretty delighted with the ST5s.

And then the story gets better.

What I haven’t mentioned yet is that the Brooks ST5 incorporates a propriatory material in the sole called BioMoGo – the world’s first biodegradable midsole (unless you count the sandals worn by the likes of the Tarahumara of course – they’re pretty biodegradable). The fact that some of the technology from Brooks Green Silence is filtering through to their other shoes is a reason to jump for joy. The fact that I seem to have found a shoe that fits between my super-light racers and my heavy protective every day shoes, that happens to give a shit about the planet is a reason to run and jump for joy. So thanks, Brooks, you’ve made a really lovely shoe and I reckon I’ll be giving them an outing at the Great Bentley half marathon in 10 days. I’ll report on how me and my new orange movers get on.

Why I might buy ASICS’ entry level shoe

I read today that my favourite brand of running shoe, ASICS, plans to launch a $60 dollar shoe in the US in the near future, as part of its programme to double sales by 2015. This story, which seems to have made more of an impact in the business pages than the running forums, interested me because the price point they have chosen has been described as: the price they can sell entry level shoes at. The implication being that once someone has shelled out $60 for an entry level shoe, they will start to work their way up ASICS evolutionary scale until they are evenually rocking a pair of Kayanos, which retails for around $140.

However I think that ASICS might shoot themselves in the foot with this idea, especially if some of the comments I read are true. Toshiyuki Sano, an executive in charge of finance at ASICS, said that they are pitching the shoe at $60 because that allows certain aspects of the higher priced shoes to be retained, but others will have to go to save costs. And it is exactly this stripping back that ASICS might live to regret.

The barefoot running movement is really starting to gather momentum especially in the US and the UK – only last night a girl arrived at the Mornington Chasers in a pair of Vivo Barefoot shoes – and caused quite a stir with certain older members of the club… but that is another story. And whilst I don’t know many people who I think are likely to go the whole hog and ditch their shoes, amongst my friends and peers there does seem to be a trend towards more minimalist shoes – racing flats if you like. I run in ASICS Tarthers. Others I know favour the Adidas Adios range or the Saucony Fast Twitch. Now please don’t misunderstand me – I know these are not barefoot running shoes in any sense of the word, but I do think that one of the residual effects of the popularity of barefoot running is that the rest of us are increasingly looking for shoes with less built into them.

I would certainly look at a cheap ASICS shoe if one were produced and sold in this country. Most of the time I want a really basic, light shoe and I accept that at the level I run at I will need to replace my shoes every few months, so no big deal. I am not a heavy runner and I don’t have any biomechanical issues that mean I need stability built into my shoe. So from a business perspective this could be a problem for ASICS if they find that it is not just first-timers who buy their stripped-back $60 shoe, but experienced runners who think that less is more and who don’t want to pay for technology with dubious benefits. And I think I might be one of them!

The long and the shorts of it

One of the most oft quoted reasons that running is so popular is that it requires very little equipment – a pair of shoes and you are off! Well as anyone who has been to one of the mass participation races in the UK or runs in an area popular with those out training will tell you, that is far from the truth. With the expansion in popularity of running has come a plethora of running kit innovations intended to make us faster and more comfortable. There are GPS devices, heart rate monitors, knee straps, ankle supports, MP3 players, hi-viz vests and every conceivable type of rucksack or waistpack. The list is seemingly endless.

And then there is clothing. The global sports apparel market is worth $122billion per year. It is a fiercely competitive market and as such there is a huge amount spent on marketing and innovating. So it is no wonder I have such an extensive collection of running clothing, the size and extent of which would make any fashionista blush with envy (and I am not alone in this – every runner and indeed sports person I know is the same). As runners we are encouraged, by every means available, to buy ever more kit.

One of the things that I see time and time again are runners wearing too much. I know that wearing exactly the right combination of layers can be a dark art (unless it is just a beautifully warm day – then it is simple), but one is far less likely to see someone wearing too little as one is to see someone wearing too much nowadays. The reality for many runners, I think, is that especially as the year turns darker and colder and greyer, there is a need to feel comforted by multiple layers to overcome the reluctance to get out of the front door. In the last few weeks – as we approached the weekend when the “clocks go back” – the over-dressed runner has become an ever more regular sight. Well that is fine with me. I for one am sticking with shorts for everything but the slowest run on the coldest day when I might pull on my well worn (but never holey) tights. And that brings me to the point of this post – shorts.

I think that for many shorts are a pretty big issue (although for some they can be a pretty small issue – more on that in a moment). OK, shoes are the most important bit of kit, but shorts are crucial to comfort, modesty and the image that a runner projects.

When I started, I ran in a pair of cut-off tracksuit trousers – the thick cotton sort. They were a disaster. Almost too hot in any weather, they absorbed all moisture like a sponge and after a rain shower they would feel like they weighed close to 10kg. And they were spectacularly unflattering for a red-faced, sweaty fatty like me plodding round my bi-weekly run. After a month or so I decided to upgrade to a pair of baggy, black Nike shorts that came to my knees. Massively more comfortable than the cut-offs they helped me take my running to a new level, although it is worth noting that at that stage – and probably for at least the first 6 months that I was running – one pair of shorts was enough as I was running so infrequently that I could wash and dry them after each run in time for the next one!

At this early stage the baggy black shorts were ideal for me. They covered a large proportion of my lower half thereby saving me from embarrassment and the general public from the need to hold down their lunch as I lumbered past. They were also made from wicking material and had a little pocket that was perfect for keys and a couple of coins.

However in time, as I started training for my second and third half marathon and I began to race in 10Ks and even contemplate a marathon I found that I needed more kit to keep up with the increased regularity with which I was running. Suddenly I was forced to make shopping decisions and I realised there are a lot of shorts out there.

I was still lacking the confidence to buy racing shorts so I stuck with the baggy ones but I did invest in a pair of tracksters (no tights for me at this stage). At the same time I started going to more races and I noticed that the fast chaps wore rather more racy looking shorts. It was inevitable that at some point – if I carried on running more and more – I would want to start to look more like a proper runner. And so I remember when I bought my first pair of ‘proper’ shorts. It was after the Brighton half marathon in February 2006. I finished in 1:40:37 in a monsoon. I think it had rained throughout the entire race. I was soaked and cold and tired and, worse of all, sore from the chaffing my big baggy shorts had administered. But I was a runner. And I knew that I wanted to upgrade my shorts.

I bought a pair of Nike drifit shorts that were racing cut but not too short. I felt like I now deserved to look like a runner and the shorts fitted the bill. After that there was no looking back. I have had some shopping failures – a pair of shorts so short that even now I feel too self conscious to wear them – although they are not as revealing as the shorts a friend of mine bought from eBay which were – oddly he thought – advertised in the ‘gay interest’ section… now they really were short!

Overall I think that investing in good kit is worth it. I don’t really have a brand affiliation although I tend to wear Nike most often as they seem to be the easiest to find in the sales or reduced online. I’d like to try Adidas after I saw quite a few elites and top club runners wearing them at recent races and I really like the matching shorts and vest combinations that Adidas seem to do so well, but shorts don’t wear out very often and so justifying buying new ones is difficult. I am also a big fan of Ronhill which seems to produce really good quality, comfortable kit at a reasonable price.

Overall then, I think that a few things are true for me when it comes to shorts; function first, fashion second; pockets are pretty much useless, so less is more; baggy shorts are less flexible and less comfortable; and unless it is really freezing, in the UK at least, shorts are the best for most conditions, especially in the wet.