Training, racing and time on the feet: why slower marathons are as challenging as faster ones.

In the last two weeks, I have run two marathons. That makes it three marathons since 21 April, i.e. five weeks ago. And I have learned from all of them. But the lessons have been very different, certainly between the first marathon and the last two.

The first marathon this spring was the London marathon and you can read my race report here. The second was the Copenhagen marathon which I ran with Charlie Dark from the RunDemCrew. Then yesterday I ran a trail race with my wife in Devon, part of the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series.

Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series Race report

Trail running at its best!
Trail running at its best!

The Coastal Trail Series races have featured a few times in our racing calendars since a friend, Alex from my running club, introduced Julie and I to them with a half marathon race on Chesil Beach a couple of years ago.

These races are the antithesis of the big city marathon: friendly people, stunning wild scenery, off-road trails and – as far as I have experienced them – very, very un-flat!

Yesterday’s race was no exception.

With all the wonderful activity that had been keeping us super-busy at freestak recently, Julie and I were not as organised as we should have been and we ended up deciding that we would drive to the race on the morning of it. That meant getting up at 3am to drive for four hours towards Plymouth. Seeing the moon ahead of us, as big as a plate in the sky while the most amazing sunrise lit up the hills and bathed Stone Henge, shrouded in morning mist, with golden light as we drove past, was worth the effort of getting up alone and set the tone for the day.

We arrived at the venue – a large field on the Flete Estate – and parked up. Immediately the Endurance Life team were friendly, welcoming and full of life. I was full of coffee!

After a typically easy-going race briefing, at 8:50am we were off: a big gaggle of chatting, laughing, encouraging runners making their way down a country lane to the beach and on to the coastal path for a two-loop race of around 28 miles.

The scenery and the weather were stunning all day (I have a few patches of sun burn to prove it) and the banter with the other runners – particular shout out here to Rory Coleman and his amazing up-hill technique – meant that we were just moving fast along the paths without a care in the world, taking photos and chatting all the way.Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 09.06.27

The finish was great – the field was full of people who had run the half marathon and 10km options as well as the 33 marathon finishers in front of us – and we were soon munching on a delicious locally produced burger and enjoying an equally delicious, albeit much less locally produced lager.

Job done: race completed at a decent pace, no stroppy incidents, perfect weather, no injuries and massive, massive grins on our faces.

Lessons learned from two marathons

I have taken two important things from these two recent races.

Self-ee with wife-e
Self-ee with wife-e

The first is about sharing. Both the Copenhagen marathon and the CTS race – whilst very different from one another – involved running with someone else. My London marathon experience was all about the ego. There is not much to share and indeed the training as well as the racing, was pretty selfish. But Copenhagen and yesterday’s races were about taking on a challenge with people I love and care about and enjoying being part of an amazing experience with them.

I think there is a place for single-minded, oblivious focus and striving to achieve something yourself for yourself. But balancing that with the opportunity to share laughter, pain, struggle and victory with someone else is, in my opinion, an unbeatable experience. Long live the team!

The other thing I have learned is that being able to run a 2:37 marathon does not really prepare you for running a 3:48 marathon or a 5 hour, 28 mile trail race. I think that I went into both thinking that physically I ‘had got this’ and whilst I feel fine, I have relearned the respect that you need to show to long, slow races and ultra-distance races.

I have not been training for three+ hours runs. My longest training runs in the lead up to the London marathon were two and a half hours. Yesterday I ran for more than double that. Sure, from a cardio-vascular point of view, I had no problem handling the pace. But my 60kg frame was putting pressure on hips, knees, ankles and feet for much, much longer than I have been used to and let me tell you – I can feel that today!

So, thank you to the ever-beautiful Julie for yesterday’s amazing run. And thank you to Charlie Dark for last weekend’s similarly epic run. I have learned a lot from both of you and from both events, mainly that you train for what you intend to race and if that is for a three, seven or 24 hours race, you had better be prepared… you cannot blag a marathon, no way!

How to get your preparation on track

For many runners, training on a track is something other runners – more talented, more dedicated, more serious runners – do. There is a perception that training on the track is for the elite or for athletes training for track distances. But that should not be the case. We have a few athletics tracks still open in this country (despite the apathy of the powers that be and the insatiable appetites of sport-centre managers for all-weather fiva-a-side football pitches) so we should all be using them, if for no other reason than to keep them open for other runners.

And there are other, better reasons for why all distance runners should run on the track. Here are a few that I believe are important:

  1. it is the best place to run as fast as you can – nothing to navigate, nothing to trip on, no one to crash into
  2. it is a great way to make sure you are measuring your effort/pace/distance
  3. track is a great place to get competitive in sessions
  4. a good track is easier on the legs than the equivalent session on concrete or tarmac
  5. track sessions make you feel like a real runner*

Run fast or go home

I think that the approach to track sessions should be slightly reckless. No one wants to go off in any run at a pace that is so unsustainable that it is impossible to finish the session. But unlike on the road, if you do find that it is impossible to continue with a session, you are never more than 200m (provided it is a 400m track – the standard distance of an oval in the UK) from your bag. So I believe that people who run conservatively on the track are wasting their time…

© Tom Hull
© Tom Hull

I think that the real value in running on the track for an endurance athlete is pushing yourself harder, much harder, than you would in a race, so that your body – conditioned to deal with that higher level of discomfort – will feel much more comfortable at, for example, marathon pace.

I am sure there are biomechanical and physiological explanations for why track training is good for you. But I prefer to keep it simple.

If you train by pushing your body to run at a pace that, at times and for relatively short intervals, is much faster than the pace you want to run your 5km, 10km, half marathon or marathon at, then when you do run at your target pace for those longer distances, your legs will cope better allowing you to go further at a faster pace

Ultimately successful endurance training is about bringing speed and endurance together at the right time for your target race. So you need to do the speed work to go along with the endurance stuff.

What can be measured can be managed

One of the other great things about the track is that it is an exact distance around the oval. A 400m track will be measured around the inside lane and that means that 2.5 laps is a kilometer. Four laps is a near to a mile as you need to be (a mile is actually 1609.344m and the extra 2.33m is usually marked on the track so you can be super-exact if you want to).

This means that you can be really accurate with your running:

  • If you are doing a session at 10km pace and you have run a 45 minute 10km race (or you want to) then each lap should take you 1min 48 seconds.
  • If you want to run a 3 hour 30 minute marathon then your pace will be 8 min/mile pretty much. That is 2 minutes per lap.

So no GPS required. Just tick off the laps at the required pace with a glance at your stopwatch every 400m or listen out if you have someone at the track calling out splits.

The legs and lungs are all well and good, but what about the brain?

You laughin' at me?
You laughin’ at me?

Track training is not just good for the body. It is also great for the mind. Track training will make you feel like a real runner (*) and that is important. If you are confident and you believe in yourself when you toe the start line of your next race, then you are much more likely to succeed at whatever target you have set yourself.

I also think that the competition that comes from track training is also useful. Usually reps in a session will have the same start point and this means that at the start of each rep, the group that you are running with, will all be together. You will naturally respond to the runners in your group and as people push the pace, you will respond, probably surprising yourself with what you are capable of – bottle that feeling, it will serve you well in due course.

All of this is great for your race-day head. If you know you are capable of monster sessions on the track, then you know that you have the mental resilience to hit your target pace in the marathon and stick to it. You might even find yourself racing the person in front, just like in those track sessions.

All for track and track for all

Track training, despite the fact that is should be tough, is really inclusive. The pain of track training is universal and anyone who thinks that fast runners are not working as hard as everyone else is deluded. And therein lies the beauty of the track. You can run your session at your paces and there is no fear of getting abandoned miles from home as there would be if you were out on a long run. Simply set your own targets and work hard according to your paces.

Convinced?

As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of track training. It certainly made a big difference to my training when I started. However I do have a word of caution. In my opinion there is absolutely no point going to the track to run around at your steady, or even threshold, pace.

Track is where you run your heart out. Track is where you ensure that there is a big differential between your fast runs and your slow runs. Track is where you earn the right to collapse in a heap after the session. Track is where you will make a difference to your running, that come race-day will pay off the biggest dividends. Good luck!

Three is the magic number – interviewing Kipsang, Mutai and Makau at the 2013 London marathon

Mutai, Makau, Kipsang
Mutai, Makau, Kipsang

It seems as though every year, the organisers of the London marathon bring together “the greatest field ever assembled” for their race – London is one of the six major marathons and is an iconic race on the bucket list of runners from the very elite all the way to the back of the pack. So the job of getting the best runners in the world to London, whilst obviously not easy, is something that the London marathon organisers pride themselves on. But perhaps this year more than any other, in the afterglow of the Olympics, Hugh Brasher, the London Marathon race director, has outdone himself by bringing together a really incredible men’s field. And today, thanks to the marathon’s sponsors adidas, I got to meet three of them: Patrick Makau, Wilson Kipsang and Geoffrey Mutai – the fastest three men over 26.2 miles ever.

Patrick Makau

Serious business
Serious business

Patrick Makau is the marathon world record holder, having run a time of 2:03:38 in Berlin in 2011. Sadly he pulled out of the London marathon last year with an injury and subsequently was not selected for the Kenyan marathon squad for the Olympics.

I started by asking Patrick whether he knew, in Berlin, that the world record was in his sights. He said “From the average spilts that I got during the race, I knew that the world record was possible” and he confirmed that he went in to the race knowing what the record was and what splits would be required to break it.

I asked Patrick what he thinks will be required for his current record to be broken and he told me that it will require

someone to train very hard and be in good condition on the day of the race

This idea that hard training is the key was repeated again and again when I talked to the athletes. I wondered if there are other requirements when it comes to running fast and Makau told me that racing along with a fast group, like the one assembled for Sunday, really helps and that whilst he doesn’t train with Kipsang and Mutai, he knows them and they meet at races, so they will be familiar with each other on the day.

Terrible photo. Great athlete!
Terrible photo. Great athlete!

When it comes to training, Patrick told me that he doesn’t have a coach and that he trains himself. He said that he has been running for so long that he “know what I need to do and how to do my speed sessions” which for me, reinforces the theory that all the fundamentals required to create a world-class training programme could be written in a single side of A4!

So I asked Patrick what he thinks is the best advice for someone looking to improve their running.

Quite simple – you need to be good and consistent in training. Be disciplined and follow your training programme. And don’t forget to train twice a day

See, I told you it was simple!

 

Geoffrey Mutai

The fastest man over 26.2 miles!
The fastest man over 26.2 miles!

Geoffrey Mutai is the fastest man over 26.2 miles having run the 2011 Boston marathon in a blistering 2:03:02 – which is 4’42” pace! However this is not recognised as the world record because the course layout and profile of Boston is not within the regulations the IAAF stipulates for marathon record courses. Nevertheless, 2:03:02…! And if you need more convincing that Mutai is an incredible runner, his (legal) 58:55 half marathon PB should suffice. That an a victory in the New York marathon, again in 2011, in 2:05:05.

I started by asking Geoffrey whether he goes into races with a plan. He told me:

I cannot ever say how I will race and I never start with a plan. The plans only come during the race and I have to adapt and make decisions as the race develops. Instinct plays a big part

Like Makau, Mutai said that having a fast group like the one we will see in London this year is a good thing. He said that he enjoys the challenge of a race and that having fast runners with him will provide an added boost.

Keep. It. Simple.
Keep. It. Simple.

Unlike Patrick Makau, Geoffrey does train with Wilson Kipsang and they know each other well. He said that when it comes to race day he knows that sometimes he will beat his rivals and sometimes he won’t. But whichever way it goes, he is ready to race again as soon as the opportunity arises.

Mutai also said to me that he knows that running is a solo pursuit. He said that being the fastest in the field is not important and that all he worries about is himself. I asked him what he does if he feels that a race is not going well and the simplicity that seems to be a theme for all three runners I met, came through again:

Reacting to problems is all physical. If I can respond it is physical – if I have the energy to push I will. If not, then I don’t

For Geoffrey, this London marathon is a race that he has been looking forward to for a long time. He seems genuinely excited and happy to be here and said to me that racing is one of the best things about being an athlete. His philosophy is just that:

one of the best things about being an athlete is having discipline and enjoying your career. You must be happy when you run. You must be happy when you win and when you lose

I had to ask Geoffrey what he would advise any runner who wants to improve, aside from enjoying running. He told me that “through focus you can get the most from your training and if you sacrifice yourself in training you will succeed”

I finished by asking Mutai whether he thinks that he will win on Sunday. He said that he has done the training and feels prepared. He said that

God willing, I will win

I loved meeting the fastest marathon runner ever – he is a truly lovely man and I for one really hope he does have a great race in London.

Wilson Kipsang

VLM defending champion.
VLM defending champion.

Wilson Kipsang won the bronze medal in the London Olympic marathon and returns to the street of the capital as the defending champion, having won in 2012 in 2:04:44. This made him only the second man, after the great Haile Gebrselassie to finish three marathons in under 2hrs 5mins.

His 2:03:42 in Frankfurt in 2011 makes him the second fastest marathon runner ever, behind fellow Kenyan Patrick Makau and he has a pretty handy half marathon PB too – 58:59.

However by the time I sat down in front of Wilson Kipsang, he was ready to leave. The interviews were taking their toll and he was hungry. I had just given Geoffrey Mutai a couple of TORQ bars that I had in my bag after he told his agent that he was hungry. Wilson said something in Swahili and the second, unopened bar that Mutai had was handed over. Then he looked at me, smiled and said

Hi, I am Kipsang!

I only had a couple of minutes so I ploughed straight in with a question about tactic for the race on Sunday. Like both Mutai and Makau, Wilson said that whilst he had a rough idea of what he would like to do, the plan would be developed at the race went on.

I asked what he would do in the couple of days left before the race and he said that he would keep it simple: go for a gentle run, relax, drink water and eat well. He said that he also wanted to make sure he stayed focussed.

When it comes to the race, Kipsang said that he will constantly think about how he is feeling as they motor along. He said it is essential that you “feel the pace” and think about how far you have left to go in the race. And this translates into the advice that he gave me for the marathon itself:

Make sure you train so you feel comfortable running at a faster tempo. Be sure in the race to listen to your body and try, as hard as you can, to increase the tempo at the end of the race

My time with Wilson was up. But he finished by telling me, once again, that simplicity is the key – train hard, focus in training and racing, enjoy what you are doing and be dedicated.

Three really is the lucky number

It was an amazing experience to meet Patrick Makau, Geoffrey Mutai and Wilson Kipsang. I think that I was expecting – or is that actually hoping for – demi-Gods or people who are somehow other-worldly. After all, what they are doing seems super-human. But the reality is that they are just lovely, easy going, friendly and enthusiastic runners who keep their approach simple, dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to their sport, train hard from an early age and race to win every time they go out. It is those qualities that I think make them the best runners alive and the knowledge that miles ahead of me on Sunday they will be duelling it out on the streets of London, will certainly spur me on to do my best.

As for whether one of them will win… well I asked them all the same question. They were all too shy to really answer, but you know that they will make sure they give it their best on the day. If you’re running, I hope you do too.

The truth about being the best runner I can be

As some readers of this blog will be aware, I recently managed to make the leap from my passion for all things running, into the way that I make my living: my wife and I have set up a social media and marketing business for running and endurance sports brands. The business is called freestak and you can check it out at www.freestak.com.

I love my work. I have a legitimate reason to spend time reading, thinking and talking about two of my favourite things – social media and endurance sports. At freestak we have a wonderful group of clients all of whom have exciting products that we really believe in. My job involves creating and delivering campaigns which I really love doing… but (you knew there would be a ‘but’) it is not easy. We are very, very busy and the amount of sleep I get seems to be inversely proportionate to the amount that I care about what we are doing. And I really, really care! So sleep is a rare commodity.

At the same time, I have been striving to get myself in the right shape to run a PB in the upcoming London marathon. But I am discovering that the two things – the growth of freestak and the desire to run a faster marathon – aren’t entirely compatible. Training has been patchy – a couple of really good 80+ miles weeks, then a crash and a 40 mile week, applying ice to various injuries and being a moody bastard.

Me being the best I can be.
Me being the best I can be.

So I have been wondering what on earth I am doing, questioning what I am trying to prove and what my priorities are? Listening to too many people and starting to feel really negative about my running. Then in the space of three days I read two things which have really resonated with me and I’d like to share them with you (and perhaps give myself a well-deserved kick in the backside!)

The first thing that I have been reading is James Cracknell and Beverley Turner’s new book, Touching Distance. In case you have not heard about this book, it recounts the period of their lives when James and his wife, Beverley, were dealing with a near-fatal accident that James suffered whilst cycling across the USA as part of a challenge he was taking on. He suffered a very severe head injury which led to changes in his personality that both James and Bev recount in the book. You can read about the accident here.

The start of the book is mainly the story of James’ life as an Olympian and elite athlete and it really tells a warts-and-all account of the ups and downs of trying to be the best in the world. At one point, having won Olympic gold, James writes that:

I believe there’s a gulf mentally between ‘not carrying on’ and ‘giving up’, even if, practically, it amounts to the same thing

This was at the point at which James was married, starting a family, getting older and wondering whether he had the drive to train for another four years to try to get to the Beijing Olympic Games.

In my own little way, I can really relate to that. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am on the same level as someone like Cracknell, but if I commit to lowering my marathon PB, that will involve running eight, nine or even ten times per week. That means spending somewhere in the region of 9 hours a week running, which is only the half of it, because I believe that for every minute actually running, it takes at least one more minute to get ready, wash kit, eat, stretch, travel to training sessions, lay on the sofa eating malt-loaf, etc. That means that it could easily take 20+ hours a week to train for a marathon. That is a big commitment at the best of times, let alone when I am trying to build freestak and do the best possible job for our clients.

I realise that this might sound as though I’m wimping out. And that is part of the problem. For me now, training has started to become something that I don’t really enjoy. I am not sure I really want a PB enough to put myself through what I know it will take to achieve it. That is not to say that I have made a decision one way or another, but I am not sure I have the drive to do all the training.

This is where the other thing that I read comes in. One of my training partners, Steve Tranter (@tranter_ on Twitter) sent me a link to an article in Running Times magazine written by an American runner and journalist called David Aim, who had the opportunity to spend a few days with a group of elite level athletes, during which time he discovers that, to some extent, the different between elite runners and recreational runners is their attitude.

One of the passages that really struck me in the article, was about how, in the desire to record ever better times, we can lose sight of why we run in the first place:

who of us hasn’t considered how our peers will react to our performance in a given race, whether good or bad? And in those moments, whom are we ultimately running for? The sport is difficult enough as it is; doing it for anyone but ourselves makes it unsustainable (David Aim)

I started running to improve my self-esteem, to lose weight, to take control of my life and undo the physical damage that I had been doing to myself since my late-teens with cigarettes, alcohol and general bad-living. I soon discovered that I wanted to see how good I could be. But what I seem to have lost sight of, is that I live in a set of circumstances and what I need to remember is that I am trying to be the best runner I can be in those circumstances.

There is no point comparing myself to anyone else: I have no idea what their circumstances or motivations are. And moreover there is no point in comparing ‘me now’ to ‘me then’ – my circumstances have changed and I should be striving to be the best runner I can be in today’s circumstances.

Now I come to think of it, every time I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to elite athletes they have been the same as those described in the Running Times article – kind, encouraging, helpful, modest. None of them has belittled me or the results I have achieved. I recently met Haile Gebrselassie and he said that my marathon PB was great, for goodness sake! The same cannot be said for many of the non-elite athletes that I train with and associate with.

So I am going to try to develop a mind-set closer to that described by David Aim in his Running Times piece – I am going to try to develop an elite attitude and see where that takes my running. Here are my new rules, courtesy of David and his elite friends:

4 Keys to An Elite Attitude

1 – Don’t treat training runs or race times as indications of your self-worth

2 – Value every runner’s efforts, success and potential

3 – Don’t beat yourself up in training or in evaluating your workouts and racing

4 – Recognize that your running ability is a result of many factors, not just how serious you are or how hard you push

 

Hard to start, harder to stop

It is that time in my training cycle when getting out for a run feels like quite a big effort…

But once I am out, running feels like the most wonderful, natural, life-affirming thing in the world and I really, really don’t want to stop. Like this morning – an hour before breakfast as the sun rose over the city and I had to stop myself from running further and further.

Anyone else get that?

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 08.51.58

Motivation for the Nation

Screen Shot 2013-03-02 at 16.37.19

 

It might be the weather. Or the fact that marathon training is starting to take it’s toll. It could be an avalanche of work. Or maybe niggles are starting to creep in. Whatever the reason, there are times when it simply feels like too much effort to go for a run. So what do you do to make sure you get your running kit on and get out of the door?

 

 

Here are my top tips (in no particular order):

  1. Find a training partner – whether you are meeting them for a run or simply reading about the training they have been doing, finding someone of a similar level to you is a great way to keep your enthusiasm high.
  2. Write down the whole of your training – it is especially important, if you get your training weekly, to have a wall planner or something that allows you to see the weeks ticking by. That way, you will know how long you have before your key race and how much training needs to be done by then.
  3. Keep a training diary – if you write down all the running you do, not only will you have a record of how well you have done, you will have to admit, to yourself at least, when you have skipped a run.
  4. Get inspired – there are some great films, videos, books and magazine articles that should have you bouncing around and ready to run. One of my favourites is the classic battle between Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley over 26.2 miles in the 1982 Boston race, which is known as the  Duel in the Sun: http://youtu.be/FmzljrUrwKE
  5. Don’t think too much – training is tough. If it wasn’t there wouldn’t be much point doing it. And for many people the thought of a hard session can be enough to have them roll over and go back to sleep or find an excuse to not go out. So one tactic is to simply look at your training plan and GO! Don’t give yourself time to worry about what you are supposed to be doing. Just get on with it.
  6. Bribe yourself – if you are struggling to get out of the door, promise yourself a treat if you get the run or session done. You may well find that a more instant reward will be more likely to get you going.
  7. Visualise – think about what you are doing all this for. Sit quietly for a few minutes and imagine the finish line of the race you are targetting. Imagine looking up at the clock on the gantry over the finish line and seeing the time you have been striving for shown there. Then remember that if you want that, you need to work for it now.
  8. Compromise… to start with – if you are thinking that your 2 hour long run is a bit much or all you want to do is go for an easy run rather than a hard session, decide to just go out of the door and see how you get on. You might find that after 10 minutes you’re actually getting into it and before you know it, you’ll have done the long run or the session anyway.
  9. Run a race – it is sometimes a good idea to incorporate a race into your long run or do a Parkrun instead of the threshold session you had planned for Saturday. Simply toeing the start line of a race can be enough to reignite the desire to get on with the rest of your training
  10. Remember why you run – if you’re lacking motivation, get back to the reasons that you run in the first place. Sometimes, especially when training for a marathon or an ultra, it is easy to lose sight of why one actually runs. Think about that and get back to your running roots. Then simply get up, and go for a run!

So what are your top tips for getting motivated? How do you get yourself going when you would rather stay on the sofa or pop down to the pub? Share your thoughts in the comments and I’ll pick my favourites and send out some thanks you prizes!

Do as he says, not as I do

Last night I had the pleasure of attending a talk given by my coach Nick Anderson, to a group of runners from my club, the Mornington Chasers. The subject of the talk was rather wide-ranging and essentially boiled down to…

Ways to be the best runner you can be

As usual, Nick got stuck in to some pretty specific advice. And I took absolutely none of it on board. It was almost comical.

Amongst other things and in no particular order, Nick gave the following advice:

  • Hydrate well – I had probably drunk a pint of water all day and that evening drank almost exclusively fruit juice!
  • Eat properly – the Chasers had organised a some lovely food, but I actually ate some chips, some pizza and a couple of handfuls of peanuts. Nick told us clearly in that what we had eaten was not enough – that it was a snack and not dinner – but by the time I had cycled home it was nearly 11pm and I was tired. So I had two small bread rolls with feta cheese and a chocolate mousse. Brilliant!
  • Eat within 5 minutes of finishing your run/session – I had been for a pre-breakfast run at 7am but when I got back it was at least an hour before I managed to eat anything. Then the first thing to pass my lips was a cup of tea.
  • Sleep well – Nick talked about the fact that our bodies enter the phase where we are really repairing the damage from training after four hours sleep. I got to bed around midnight and was up at 5am… so that would be one solitary hour in the recovery sleep phase then.
pizza chips
A runners dinner? It is if you’re an idiot.

To top all that off, I went out today to meet a trail race organiser to learn about how to put on a good off-road event (it was a brilliant day and there will be a report on here very soon). By 2pm I was freezing cold – having spent almost 3 hours walking and running around the course with the organiser and a photographer, leaping in and out of puddles to get the perfect shot – and I had not eaten anything since 8am when I had feasted on just 2 slices of toast.

Life gets in the way of perfect training for most of us. But that is no excuse for being an idiot.

Like many people, I suspect, I allow the pressure of life and work to take over. But that is a choice I make. I can always make different choices if I want.

I could have taken a Tupperware box with a homemade pasta salad to the talk last night and done the same for the day out today. I could have ordered two pints of tapwater at the bar last night instead of orange juice. I could have made a sensible decision about not trying to go for a run before leaving to catch my train to meet the trail race director, which might have afforded me an extra couple of hours’ sleep.

What I think happened is that I did not follow my new mantra:

Run the day. Don’t allow the day to run you.

So please, do me a favour. Do not do as I do. Do as Nick says. If you really care about your running and you really genuinely want to be the best runner you can be, plan ahead and make sure you do the right stuff to allow you to eat, drink, recover and sleep well. That way the training will take care of itself and you will arrive at the start line of your race in the best possible shape. Oh and if you remember, can you drop me an email to remind me to do the same? The address is idiot@simonfreeman.co.uk. Thanks!

To train or not to train… that is the question?

For many runners, once they are bitten by the running bug, there are suddenly a whole host of complex reasons why they run, in some cases twice a day and in many cases every day of the week. The forces that drive people to miss out on social engagements, pretend that they really like salad and wholemeal pasta dishes, go for orange juice and soda water in the pub, are powerful indeed. And sometimes the drive to improve and to succeed can become too powerful. Sometimes we are driven to train when it is certainly not the best thing to be doing.

sick-runnerSo the question is, how do you know when you should most definitely not be training and when you can safely push on through?

Actually I don’t know that there are any hard and fast rules. For me, as with so many things in running, it comes down to experience and intuition.

Listen to your body?

Runners often advise each other (and probably themselves) to ‘listen to the body’ but I think that this is too simplistic. Sometimes the body is sending messages that should be heeded, whilst at other times it should be completely – and I would suggest – aggressively ignored.

But how do you know which is which?

There are times when all runners, indeed all athletes, feel pretty low. Fatigue, over-training, a slight cold, a niggle here or there. But in many cases, the problem is not significant enough to warrant stopping training altogether. But other times a cold can become a chest infection or a pain in the knee can develop into serious tendonitis that takes months to heal.

My experience is that the longer I have been a runner, the tougher I have got. Whereas when I first started running I would heed every cough and sniffle or twinge, now I tend to get myself out to do something, even if that is not the session that I had planned. So far, touch wood, I have not had a twinge turn into anything more serious and colds have abated without morphing into pneumonia.

What advice can I offer?

I know that intuition and experience is not very useful, so here are my top tips for working out if you should HTFU and get out there, or take a rest day or two and get better first:

Illnesses
  • If you check your heart rate and it is hammering, then your body is fighting some bad-dude germs and you should give it a chance to win. My resting heart rate (that is measured as I wake up before getting out of bed) is around 42-44 BPM. I measure it once every couple of weeks. If I wake up feeling rough and my heart rate is in the 50s I give it a break.
  • If your illness is affecting your respiratory system, i.e. you’re really coughing or your lungs are sore, don’t go for a run. Breathing hard in those circumstances is a bad idea.
  • If you have diarrhea or vomiting, especially if you are dehydrated as a result, take some rest and drink electrolytes to replenish the fluids and minerals lost.
  • If you have a tickly throat or a bunged-up nose, wrap up warm and get out there, even if you only go for 20 minutes easy, you’ll often find that the run clears the symptoms of the cold.
  • Hungover? No sympathy. Get out for a run and stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Injuries – this can be a more difficult area and these are only my rules of thumb. I’m no medical expert!
  • If you have a sore spot that eases up once you’re running, it is probably tightness rather than an injury, so get your run done and remember to stretch well when you finish
  • In my opinion if you have an injury that persists or even gets worst when you’re running, stop running. If you can’t at least be pain free after 10-15 minutes running then your injury is chronic and needs to be dealt with
  • Upper limbs don’t count. I ran races – including the New York marathon – two weeks after an operation to pin a broken bone in my wrist. Provided you’re not off your head on pain-killers you will be fine. Just don’t fall over.
  • If you don’t know what your injury is, figure it out. There are some things that cannot and shouldn’t be run-through. Check out the Running Injury Oracle or a physio for diagnosis
  • Accupuncture works… fast! Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as Ibuprofen work… but they don’t fix the problem so don’t abuse that route
  • Change your shoes if you have knee/ankle problems and see how you get on before you confine yourself to your bed for a week

Timing

There is something to be said about timing – if you are two or three weeks out from a key race and you pick up an injury or an illness, the most important thing of all is getting well as fast as possible. I promise you that any fitness you loose by not training in the last 14-21 days before a key race will pale into total insignificance in comparision to how you will feel and perform if you try to train through and allow whatever it is to get it’s teeth into you. Stop training, rest and rehabilitate in the most appropriate way so that you have a chance of getting to the start line in decent shape.

If you get ill or injured with a month or more to go, the trick is to assess whether you do need to rest and rehabilitate or whether you can afford to take your foot off the pedal and simply train through whatever ails you, whilst keeping some training going. This is not, however, the time to give yourself a week off because you’re tired or have a little cold. If you are in the 16 weeks-to-go zone, you really need to be training as much as possible.

Final advice

The main thing to focus on is getting well again. Remember that for most of us (and I’ll assume everyone reading this) running is a fun activity. Sure, it is wrapped up in self-worth and how we define ourselves. But you’re not a contestant in The Running Man. So be smart – if you’re just feeling a bit tired, ill and daunted by the prospect of training, do something else, but DO get out and do something.

If you are unlucky enough to end up with a proper illness or injury, deal with that first and then get back to training. You won’t loose anywhere near the amount of fitness you fear you might and if you’re clever, you’ll be back and ready to regain your former fitness and more in no time at all.

 

The storm is coming

Think back if you will, to the point before your marathon preparation cycle started. Let’s take November last year for example. Whether or not you raced last autumn, it is highly likely that last November you were not training for anything specific. Wasn’t that a lovely time? Blissful in fact. You were running, sure, but it was base building stuff – more steady runs and less sessions. Maybe even skipping a run or two if life or work got in the way.

But now, if you listen carefully, you can hear the rumble of the approaching spring marathon. Coming like a train down the tracks, ever day it is getting closer and closer…

And the training is getting harder and harder.

Welcome to the Twiglet Zone.

As I look around me at my compatriots, my training partners and the people I have contact with through this blog or through social media, the incidences of injury and tiredness are becoming more and more common.

At the track last night, people were missing. Others didn’t manage to finish the session. The recoveries between reps stretched out from 60 seconds initially to 75 seconds.

I have heard from friends who are starting to get over stretched. Little injuries are appearing. General fatigue is setting in.

I’m suffering too. As I write this I am sat on the sofa with my feet up and a cup of tea, like an old man. I felt OK after my track session last night, but a combination of a hard session, a rather restless night and possibly not eating very sensibly after the track last night, left me feeling utterly drained as I went out for my run this morning. I managed the 60 minutes and kept to the pace that I usually manage for those runs, but I felt ragged and there were several very sore spots in my legs – right calf, back of the left knee and both quads. I was in a sorry state!

But I have now got to the point where I realise this is all part of the training. If you want to be the best runner you can be, you have to manage these difficult periods. Training for a marathon involves having injuries treated or resting them for a few days. It involved making sure there is enough food in the house. It requires making sure that you create the environment that will allow you to sleep properly. And most of all, training to run the best marathon you can (or excelling in any sporting endeavor for that matter) requires you to embrace the challenges that come with training hard and the build-up of fatigue that is part and parcel of training week in, week out.

Professional athletes suffer too!

It is tempting when you see the runners at the top of their field, floating along at super-human speeds, to thing that the pros have it easy all the time, but that is far from the truth. Check out Jessica Ennis in this BBC film, at about 4min 25sec talking about the struggle of getting out of bed when the weather is horrible and she feels broken from all the training. Or consider Julia Bleasdale, who I interviewed recently, who told me that

Sometimes when I am really tired and I have a second run to do and the weather is miserable – those runs are very difficult, but of course they can also be the most beneficial.

What the pros know is that when it comes to the day of the race or event, all the hard training will pay off and succeeding will look easy. That is what we have to focus on – the end goal.

So, there is no way to sugar-coat this. If running a marathon was easy, there would be NO POINT DOING IT. We do it because it is hard and because it is a challenge. But in reality the bulk of the challenge is now, not on the day. So get that injury fixed and make sure you have the right stuff and the right environment to train hard and recover. And visualise the moment when you achieve your aim… I promise you: the pain and fatigue you feel now will pale into insignificance on the day. You didn’t really think it would be easy, did you?