Gone to seed or laying fallow?

Marathon training: laying fallow or going to seed?
Marathon training: laying fallow or going to seed?

I was recently talking to my friend and fellow Chaser, Tom Craggs, a coach and personal trainer who is quickly developing a reputation as one of the top running coaches in the UK. Tom and I ran the Berlin marathon together, literally in stride, back when a sub-3 hour marathon was something that I dreamed of running. Since that day, we have become firm friends and we often talk about what we are trying to do with our running.

The last conversation was about the fact that I really have not been training well for the upcoming London marathon and I am coming to the realisation that I am no where near in shape to run a decent time. Freestak is growing fast and that is proving to be too much of a distraction for me to maintain the levels of training that I should be.

Not always ‘on’

There have been other times when I have thought that I might need a break – when Julie and I were buying a house. When we were contemplating setting up Freestak. When my Nan passed away.

But now I look back on those periods, I realise that every time I have felt that I need to take time away from running, it has been under duress and I haven’t really done it. I have maybe dropped a few runs for a week or so. But I have continued to plot and plan and try to negotiate with myself about what I can do.

However recently my training has really nose-dived and perhaps my feelings about that have changed as well. My training plan has been suggesting 8 or 9 runs a week – three of them being sessions or long-runs with good hard efforts in them. I have actually been managing to get out 5 or 6 times a week… sometime even less. I have only been to the track three times in the last 8 weeks. Threshold sessions have been ditched in favour of a steady run. The rain has been all the excuse I have needed to not go out at all. You get the picture.

Guilt about marathon training, or not

The problem is that when I am not training as I know I should, I feel guilty. I worry and negotiate with myself. I try to convince myself that there is still time. That it will all be OK.

But the honest truth is that I have not trained hard enough for the London this year. I know that it is very unlikely that I will be able to get anywhere near my PB. In fact I am not sure I am going to run at all. I know that I don’t have to make a decision yet so we will see, but with 7 weeks to go I can’t expect a miracle.

Something Tom said to me has stuck in my head. I don’t need to worry that I have gone to seed and that my days of running a decent marathon is over. Instead I am looking at this as a fallow period – a chance to focus on other things and allow my mind and body to recover from 7 or 8 years of marathons.

The number of marathons I have run each year has reduced since the third year after I discovered running. But the intensity and effort to run them has definitely gone up. Last year I only ran one marathon hard – the London (I also ran the Copenhagen marathon, but it was with a friend and I was not hammering myself). But the effort of that one race – 16 weeks of hard training, with a 75+ mile average to finish in 2:37:07 – was massive and I finished feeling relieved, rather than excited about the next one.

So I will have to see what I am going to do in 7 weeks. I am off to Portugal for a warm weather training camp with 2:09 Events and Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs and it may be that I find that I am not as far off decent shape as I fear I am. But then maybe I need to decide that I am going to avoid ploughing the same marathon furrow. What say you?

Seven things I believe have transformed my running

Like many people I have met through running, when I started I really had very little idea what I was doing: all I knew was that I needed to take back control of my life. A friend of mine had made the same lifestyle changes that I needed to – stopping smoking, getting fitter, eating more healthily – a year before me and he had some advice for how I should start running. But my progress was all a bit hit-and-miss to be honest. I remember buying Runners World and trying to decipher the best advice for me and I bought a couple of books – the most useful of the first few books I bought was probably The Competitive Runner’s Handbook by Bob Glover.

But in general I made up my training as I went and hoped for the best. The more I ran, though, the more I was able to discard the useless things I was doing and refine the good stuff. Once I met my coach, Nick from RunningWithUs, I had a real boost in terms of things that made me a better runner. And now I am training for my next London marathon and tilt at a PB, I feel that I have uncovered a few things that have really made a difference for me. Obviously there are other small things that have also contributed and there are certainly things that I should be doing that I am not doing. But here’s the list as it stands:

Threshold

Without a doubt this was the one thing that Nick introduced that made the biggest difference for me. I am still not 100% sure that I get the pace right every time, but I go by feel: I aim for a pace where I can manage to blurt out a three or four word phrase, that I think I can probably sustain for 10 miles and where there is the faintest feeling of a build-up of lactic acid in my legs after maybe 10 minutes. I usually describe it to myself as running hard and sustainably. Nick describes it as controlled discomfort, which I think is a very useful way to consider it.

I don’t really have a deep understanding of the physiology behind threshold runs, but for me it feels like I am driving the engine hard for reasonably extended periods of time, which makes the goal pace for the marathon feel much, much more manageable. It is like tuning a car engine so that it runs like a sports car and then driving at 70mph – it makes marathon pace feel like cruising.

Probably my favourite threshold sessions are longer runs with sections of threshold in them, a good example would be 75 minutes with 3 x 10 minutes at threshold with 2 minutes jogged recovery in between. But there are many, many variations. The key, I think, is just pushing your body up to the limit (the threshold) and holding it there for a period of time.

Results? Well once Nick incorporated threshold in my training, I went from a 2:43 marathon PB in Paris to a 2:40 in Florence five months later. That could have been due to a number of factors, but the biggest change I could see were the threshold sessions I was doing.

Discipline

I believe this is a cornerstone when it comes to being a better runner. Life is busy, undoubtedly, and there are myriad distractions. But without sticking to the training, results will not come. I do think that a fit person can blag a result at distances up to a half marathon. But the marathon is different.

Without consistent training (which I mention below) I don’t think that a runner can expect to perform well and the key to consistency is discipline. Make a choice about what you want to achieve and then work out what it is going to take to get there. Then do everything you can to stick to the plan – discipline is about controlling all the things you can control. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked at my training plan for the day and thought “oh no, I don’t want to do that”, but without sticking to the plan, without being disciplined, I would never had been able to see what I am capable of. And finding that out is why I run.

Self belief

Two really obvious phrases: If you want to run a particular time in a race then you need to start at, or very close to, the pace required to finish in that time. And: if you want to improve your PB at a distance, you have to be prepared to run faster, over that distance, than you ever have before (borrowed from Nick and Phoebe at RunningWithUs).

The thing is, if you are going to choose a target time that is faster than you have ever run before and set off at a pace that is quicker than you have ever run before, you have to believe that you can do it. If you don’t, you will almost certainly fail. Because in every marathon I have run for a time, there has come a point where I thought I would not be able to keep going at the pace I was running. Every time. And if one gives in to the voice that says “you can’t keep this up” you will slow down and you will fail. So you need to believe – you need to start the race knowing that you can do it. Then when the pain builds and the road seems to go on forever and things start to look like they might be going wrong, you can dig into you belief and say “No! I know I can do this. Head down, think about form. Get on with it”

Where does the belief come from? The discipline that you have shown to train consistently. You should know that you have put in the work. You have made the effort. You have got what it takes to do this, because you have earned it.

Trail running

By trail running, I mean off-road running, wherever that is possible. I think that getting away from the pavements is great for the body and soul. Physically my Achilles heel, is my right ankle. I broke my fibula playing rugby in my first year of university and needed an operation where the surgeon screwed a plate to the outside of the bone. Due to the injury and probably also the surgery, it feels as though there was quite a bit of damage to the tendons and ligaments around my ankle and as a result I always have some pain in my ankle, varying from a dull ache to real tightness and soreness. By getting off-road, I believe that my ankle is both protected and strengthened. The soft surfaces seem to reduce the pain that I get post-run and the unevenness of trails means the muscles supporting my ankles work harder and get stronger.

I live in north London and face the typical challenges of anyone training for a marathon whilst living in a built-up urban area. But I am lucky to live within a few miles of some great off-road running in Highgate Woods, Hampstead Heath, Trent Park and even Waltham Forest, so I can run on the trails regularly.

I also think that getting off the pavements is great for the soul. Many of my favourite runs have been those where I have found myself alone, on a trail in a quiet wood, just running without a care in the world. Moments like that are a huge boost psychologically and remind me of why I am a runner.

Training in a group

When I started running, I only ran on my own. None of my friends were runners and I wasn’t confident enough to join a club. That has changed over time and I have increasingly come to the conclusion, that I am more motivated and I enjoy my running more when I train as part of a group. I even like racing in a group. For me, running is a team sport and the more people I can find to train with, the better I train and the closer I come to finding what I am really capable of.

I have really thought about this and studied the idea of a group being greater than the sum of the parts and I have found so many examples that I am now 100% convinced that if anyone wants to be the best runner they can be, then a group of runners at an equal level, with similar goals and the desire and commitment to make the effort to train together, is invaluable. Go make friends!

Consistency

This is the sibling of discipline. It is about training all the time, utilising periodisation to make sure that mind and body stay fresh and motivated. It is about building on last week’s efforts, last month’s efforts and last year’s efforts to get better and better.

I met an elderly gentleman at a race a few years after I had started running and he asked me what I was trying to achieve. I told him about wanting to find out how good I could be. He simply said to me

You need seven years! If you train and race consistently for seven years, your body will have adapted to the rigours of the marathon. Then you will be in shape to see what you are capable of.

My marathon PB of 2:37:07 at the 2013 VLM came seven years after I started training and racing consistently. So I believe that you need to keep your foot on the pedal all the time. I certainly do not think that you should keep the pedal to the floor, red-lining it 52 weeks a year: that is not sustainable. But by making sure that running is a constant factor in my life, punctuated a few times a year by a build-up to a key race, I think I now have reached a point where I can increase the training load and push my limits to see what I am really capable of.

Enjoyment

The last point is really the most obvious. Running is for everyone – I think that we really have evolved to run and because it is such a primary activity our bodies respond well to it. However I know that the type of running I do does not appeal to everyone. So if you feel like you have to train and that it is a chore and you don’t enjoy racing, find something else to do. Because I really believe that the thing that has played the biggest part for me, is that I really love running. I certainly love it a lot more than I loved my old, unhealthy lifestyle. I love the finish line feeling in a marathon, I love the training, I love long distance trail races with my wife. I love the friends I have found through running. If you can find that sort of enjoyment from running, then, my friends, I believe you will become the best runner you can be.

I hope this list is helpful. Or at least interesting. And I would love to know what you think has made the biggest difference to your running, in the comments below. There might be something that I have overlooked and that I can do to bring me one step closer to that PB on 13 April this year!