More or less – what is the key to being a better runner?

Is running a matter of more or less?

For many runners, certainly many I know, the usual response to the desire to get better at running is to do more running. But I have recently been thinking about running in terms of balance. Whether more is always better. Or in fact whether sometime less is optimal. I have decided that it is ultimately always down to the individual – I know runners who can manage 140 miles a week running. If I was to try to do that, I would certainly not last into week two. For me, less mileage but more quality seems to have been the key (although that might be about to change with all the ultras I have coming up this summer…)

So here are a few thoughts, based on my personal experience, of where more is better and where less is better.

More

Focus on the mental side: I spent quite a lot of time thinking about the London marathon in the run up to the 2013 race (where I ran my PB). I would imagine scenarios where I was feeling bad and think about what I would do to over come those moments. I thought about what it would feel like from mile 20, when I would see Nick Anderson, then the RunDemCrew and then the Mornington Chasers all within a couple of miles. I imagined what it would feel like to round the corner in front of Buckingham Palace and see the clock with two-thirty-something on it… In the end I think all of that mental preparation was essential and meant that I felt relaxed and ready on the start line

Quality training: I was short on time by the time of the London marathon 2013 – Freestak was growing and I was struggling to find the motivation to get out for 9 runs per week. So instead I tried to focus on quality – harder and longer hill sessions, better track sessions, longer threshold runs and more marathon pace efforts in long runs.

Rest: linked to the above, I made sure that I was able to rest more. The quality sessions were going to fall on stony ground if I was not allowing myself to recover so I tried as much as possible to limit the times when I would not get enough sleep.

(Good) food: I started running to try to lose weight and that nagging feeling that I might be eating too much has never gone away. I have even dabbled in calorie restriction from time to time, even as a sub-2:40 marathon runner. But for the London 2013, I ate well. I made sure we always had enough food in and I made sure I ate soon after sessions. I tried to avoid processed food and junk, but not at the expense of being hungry.

Group runs: I tried as far as possible to get runs done with other, like-minded and similar pace runners. Not just long runs, but track, hills and threshold sessions. Even recovery runs. Meeting people for a run is part of the attraction for me of running and I indulged myself as much as possible.

Listening to my body: I am not getting any younger (vet. 40 next year!) and the aches and pains seem to come on and stay on a little more. So I listened to my body and if I needed a break, I took one. I think that allowed me to be more consistent than if I had hammered myself and then needed weeks off at a time.

Less

Stress: I tried to remember that running is supposed to be fun. I didn’t worry if I missed a session or if my weekly mileage was measly. I just redoubled my efforts and got on with it.

Booze: I do like a drink and I will usually be topping my glass up if I’m drinking wine at home at a rate of 2 glasses for me to 1 for my wife. Or if we are in the pub, I will always be happy to have a second (or even third pint). But in the run up to the marathon 2013, I was much more reasonable. Not only did my waistline thank me (I think) but I was also more clear-headed and therefore likely to run in the morning the next day.

Water: I ran all of my runs without water. I couldn’t be bothered to carry it and I know how hard it is to stay rehydrated in a race – even one with bottles – at 6 min/mile. So I went without and I didn’t once have a problem on a training run.

Germs: I did everything I could to minimise germs, so I washed my hands a lot, carried a hand-sanitising gel and avoided people with colds. I think that in marathon training the immune system is suppressed and I really didn’t want a cold!

So there is a list. It’s not definitive I’m sure and it is specific to me. You’ll have to work out what works for you. And if you do, please let me know – what have you done more or less of (or are planning to do more or less of) to improve your running. Perhaps together we can find perfect balance…

The London marathon: finishers, fans and their stories

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Me trying to find out what I am capable of, 2013.

What is the London marathon, really? Is it a test of physical preparedness? Or a chance for people to show that they are mentally tough enough to deal with the training required to run 26.2 miles? Maybe it is a great way to honour a relative that has passed away and perhaps raise some money for charity at the same time. Or is it a last gasp attempt to show the world – to show each other – that there are still people who are not steering a course to becoming obese couch potatoes with an incurable addiction to TV and takeaways?

Actually I think that the London marathon – and indeed all races like it (and most of the ones unlike it) – is all of the things I have mentioned and more. It is, in fact, a collection of 38,000 motivations and reasons, flowing like a river of determination and good intentions and pride, through the capital. My reasons for running the London this year include wanting to run with a friend, give my training for a summer of ultras a kick up the backside and prove to myself that I have not yet passed the point of no return fitness-wise. Last year I was out to prove what an ex-fat smoker can do and to see – really see – what I can capable of.

But like the sweat on the runners’ brows and the puddles of energy drink on the roads, all of the reasons and motivations evaporate after the race has been done and leave no trace, other than in the hearts of the people who ran the miles and those they told about ‘why’ and ‘how’.

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Extra Mile – all about stories

Now, however, the Virgin Money London Marathon has created a space where runners can tell their stories and leave a slightly more permanent, albeit online, record. Extra Mile is the official runner’s website of the London and is encouraging runners to record their race through a couple of competitions. Ultimately extramile.co.uk is looking to create a record of the stories behind the £50m raised every year by the London marathon.

How can you get involved?

There are two opportunities for runners to get involved in Extra Mile:

Selfies:

On race day, extramile.co.uk is inviting marathon runners to take a photo of themselves at the end of the race with their medal. All photos shared on twitter or Instagram with the #finisher and #extramile hashtags will be entered into a competition to win a UK weekend break where sore legs will be rejuvinated… hopefully it won’t be a walking trip to the Lake District!

Super Fans:

The #superfan campaign is a chance for supporters to show how they go the #extramile. Come Sunday, anyone on the sidelines has the opportunity to share their race day photographs via Twitter or Instagram and potentially earn £1,000 for a chosen charity OR a place in the 2015 Virgin Money London Marathon – so they can experience the race for themselves. All you or your supporters have to do is upload pics to twitter or Instagram and tag them with #extramile and #superfan, so that they appear on the extramile twitter timeline. If you want to know if you have won, @VirginMoney will have the winners. You have until Monday 21st April at 23.59pm to get your photos into the draw.

As I am sure everyone who reads this realises, I love stories. After all that is why Julie and I launched Like the Wind magazine. This is another great outlet for people to tell their VMLM story and hopefully inspire others to get involved and create their own running tales.

Race report: The Kingston Breakfast Run 2013

I am really sick and tired of the winter weather this year. I realise that it is stupid to complain about the weather – it certainly is not going to change anything. But I have never known a winter of training like it. It has just been relentlessly cold and either raining of snowing almost every week. But the London marathon is on 21 April and nothing will change that, so the training needs to continue irrespective of the weather. This weekend I was due to run 35km with 10km steady, 10km just slower than target marathon pace, 10km at target marathon pace, 2km fast and then a 3km cool-down.

I realised I was highly unlikely to nail a session like that on my own around the streets of north London in the snow.

Kingston Breakfast Run to the rescue

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Runners in Kingston this morning – it really was that cold!

I suddenly remembered that today was the Kingston Breakfast Run – a race that I have done a few times in the past and I realised that I could use this race as the basis for the session. So along with my training partner Carl, I set off at 6am this morning for south west London.

We arrived in Kingston and parked an hour before the race was due to start (or so we thought!) heading off out of the town centre for just over 5 miles at a steady pace. I was cold despite wearing three tops – I knew this was going to be a tough morning!

At 8:25am we dropped off tights and tops in the car and jogged to the start area… to find that the race had already started. We thought the race started at 8:35am… but we were wrong by 10 minutes.

Starting from the back

Without hesitation Carl and I crossed the start-line and we were off – three and a half minutes behind the pack. The aim now was to run 7 miles at just slower than marathon pace, followed by seven miles at marathon pace, then the last two miles faster than marathon pace.

The race leaves Kingston town centre pretty quickly and heads on to the Thames towpath. The recent bad weather meant that it was wet under foot – Carl and I were trying to make our way through the back of the pack at 6:15 min/mile while also dodging puddles. But the course is reasonably wide and we managed to hit the pace fairly easily.

The Kingston Breakfast Run offers two opportunities – an 8.2 mile race or a 16 mile race, which equates to one or two laps of the same course. So I reached 7 miles, the point at which I needed to up the pace to marathon pace and within a mile all the ‘one-lappers’ were peeling off to the finish line, which meant there was even more space for Carl and me.

The conditions on the last lap deteriorated a little, especially in the last two miles when we ran into a headwind with horizontal snow stinging my eyes. But the marshalls all remained friendly and encouraging and the helpers and army cadets at the water stations stayed put handing out cups as we went past.

And then suddenly the finish line was a mile away. I was really looking forward to stopping – the 15th and 16th miles were really tough from the point of view of the cold wind and the snow. But I was also chuffed to have completed 16 miles at a good pace.

A really enjoyable race, but…

One slight downside to the race is that apart from the section on the riverside walk, which was very muddy underfoot and covered in puddles, the race is very much on open roads. This means that the runners are constantly being requested to run on the pavements. But with so many runners, this will inevitably lead to congestion. Whilst I realise that starting three minutes behind everyone else meant that I had made it impossible to not have to work my way through the pack, we also lapped quite a few runners in the later stages and this meant that everyone, including the front runners who got away on time, would have had to deal with slower runners on the pavement: like me, I suspect that many of them resorted to running on the road to get a clear path. It would be really wonderful if Human Race, the organisers of the Breakfast Run, could convince the powers that be to close all the roads that the race uses for one morning, so I hope they are asking for that.

All in all, though, I would say that despite arriving late and having to deal with appalling weather, the Kingston Breakfast Run was a great success for me:

• I started last and finished 14th out of 1,176 runners.
• According to my chip-to-chip time was the 8th fastest runner.
• I managed 22.5 miles today and averaged 6:15 min/mile for the 7 mile section of running just slower than marathon pace and 5:58 min/mile for the seven miles at target marathon pace.

That feels like a good workout and hopefully bodes well for London in four weeks, so thanks to Human Race and the good people of Kingston for putting on the race. I can only hope that the London marathon team have orgainsed for the the snow to be gone by the time of their race…

Running around Hyde Park with Liz, yelling.

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

In my very humble opinion, I think that Liz Yelling has all the attributes of a top coach – she has ‘been-there-done-that-and-got-the-t-shirt’, she has a really friendly way with us normal runners and none of the unnecessary airs and graces that could come with being an elite athlete, she has bags of enthusiasm, she can still really run and… she has a great voice for barking out instructions. All this I know, because I met her tonight for a little training session along with some tips and advice in advance of the London marathon, in five week’s time.

Hyde Park, but no where to hide

We – that is Liz and the two other runners who were invited for the session – met at Marble Arch in central London, just as the sun was starting to set on a rather grey day. There were some quick introductions and then we were off, jogging through Hyde Park towards a spot on the side of the Serpentine that Liz is clearly all too familiar with.

After a short warm-up, Liz took the three of us through some drills, which she explained are better for activating the muscles before a session then static stretching. Since meeting my coach, I have started doing these sorts of drills, but it was nice to see a couple of different ones that Liz uses and she helpfully pointed out that the ones she showed us could be done standing still or moving forward, depending on whether there is space to move around.

The session and some clear instructions

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Me and Liz Yelling

After the warm-up and the drill, came the session. This was a mixed pace session, involving running on a set loop on the paths in the park. We set off at marathon pace for a set period and then, after a short standing recovery, turned and ran back the way we had come at threshold pace, aiming to get back to the start point faster than we had run the out-leg. Then we repeated the exercise with the out-leg at threshold and the return-leg at faster than that. The final set was – for me at least – a return to the first set.

Almost as we started the session a big group from British Military Fitness took up residence on the patch of grass that we were running around. There were at least 20 trainees and three military instructors and as they grunted and puffed and growled their way through the session the army instructors barked out instructions and orders and motivation. They were noisy in fact.

But Liz took this completely in her stride and covered the ground between where we started and finished to call out the end of each rep and the recovery times. I was worried that I might not hear Liz and I would need to time myself. I needn’t have worried – as clear as a bell, over the racket of the soldiers and their mini-squaddies, Liz’s voice rang out. A great attribute for a coach, to be heard like that!

I thought the session is a great way to get in some faster running with a clear focus on what needs to be done – measuring your effort on the way out and then upping it for the way back. It also means that a group of mixed abilities can train together starting and finishing in the same spot.

We finished off with some strides (I can confirm that retirement from international marathon running has done nothing to dent Yelling’s speed!) and a short cool-down as the darkness descended in the park, ending a really good – albeit short – session.

Tips from a seasoned pro.

While we were running, Liz shared some of her tips for the final few weeks of the marathon and I thought I’d pass them on:

  1. Liz said that on race-day she has a very light breakfast: three slices of white toast with butter and jam, maybe a slice of cake (cake featured quite prominently in the conversation throughout our time with Liz!) and a cup of tea or coffee. She said that anything heavy and fibrous like porridge can be hard to digest and went on to suggest that race-day breakfast should be practiced before the big day
  2. Gels form an important part of Liz’s race nutrition and she said that in a marathon she would take six of them. In her case the gels would be taped to bottles that were laid out for the elite athletes, whereas the rest of us have to carry them. But they are obviously useful and worth getting right in training
  3. We talked about pacing and Liz said that knowing your pace is crucial. I was pleased to hear that Liz used the same tactic I do in races – a stopwatch and target split times written on the wrist. She admitted using a GPS in a race once and said that due the inaccuracy that is standard with all GPSs, it was one of the biggest mistakes she ever made
  4. Liz has never needed to use the loo in a race. She told us that it is crucial that runners plan their race-morning preparation to make sure they are completely comfortable when they set off and remain so throughout a race like the marathon
  5. During the taper, Liz would maintain the frequency of her runs, i.e. if she ran every day, she would continue to do that all the way up to the race, but reduce the duration and intensity of the runs to the point where the run the day before the race would be a 30 minute jog. She didn’t like not running because it left her feeling stiff and tight

The future?

I asked Liz about her future plans and whilst she said that for now she is enjoying not putting herself through the rigours of hard training, which she has done from the age of 9 years old, she does love the mountains and thinks that one day she might have a crack at the North Face Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, just for the experience. But it is clear that the plans are far from firm yet: it is just something Liz thinks she’d like to do one day.

One thing that is clear though, is that Liz is still driven and competitive. She admitted that she cares about where she comes when she enters a Park Run (first woman usually and overall winner in at least one race recently) and she is also focused on the athletes she is training. And one thing is for sure, Liz will make sure anyone she works with hear her and know exactly what is expected of them!

 

 

 

A note about the kit – I ran the session tonight in a pair of adiZero Boston. There will be a more in-depth review, but they have immediately become one of my favourite shoes. Light, firm and roomy in the toe-box, I think I’ll be using these for hilly races and lots of faster tempo-style training runs. The tights and t-shirt were old ones I had at home. The jacket is from the new London Marathon 2013 range, but I actually ended up with a women’s jacket, so the less said about that the better! Nice jacket though.