Take the coach to market

I’ve written elsewhere that I started using one of the Garmin coaches to help me train for my upcoming 10k race. After reviewing the two available coaches’ intro videos, I decided to work with Coach Greg as I liked the cut of his stride repeats, goal pace repeats, and progression runs. In the early weeks it got me into the discipline of training, which I’m pleased has so far stuck with me.

Coach Greg showed me how confident he was that I would hit my ambitious target by moving a dot on a coloured circle at the top of my phone screen. He was confident in me, so I became confident; with Greg in my corner, I couldn’t fail. Some days Greg took me out on ten minute runs. He always gave me the option to go on for another ten minute, but why would I? Greg didn’t mind I always skipped the extra bit, and he showed it through his little colourful circle of confidence.

Ultimately, I had to give up on Greg as I couldn’t commit to so many runs each week. Going out four times a week felt a lot as I wanted to balance my running with some different cross-training. I was worried about over-training and injury, and the amount of washing I was going through was getting ridiculous. A ten minute run might not seem much, but it is more than enough to turn a clean running top into a soggy mess. 

But Greg had taught me the merit of setting goal paces on my runs. I found I could programme my own target pace ranges against individual steps in individual workouts, which I could monitor second by second on my watch. I could measure my stride sessions in twenty second bursts, followed by a 45 second cool-down; even having something counting off the number of reps for me was enormous progress (it turns out I can only be proficient at running or counting, never both at the same time). It works brilliantly, and I can create my own plans as I like, and importantly, amend them to reflect how I feel on any given day.

I’m not affiliated to Garmin in any way, so absolutely not plugging their products. I’m sure other devices offer similar features, and perhaps some have better features for runners, however there’s a massive difference between my Garmin Venu and, say, an Apple Watch that makes it infinitely better – it’s the word “my”: I don’t own an Apple Watch, so Garmin have a big headstart with me.

I love the Garmin Connect IQ marketplace and the apps that are available on there and have started writing my own. So if there is something missing that Garmin could offer, maybe there’s an opportunity to build it for the good of the community. And perhaps even teach Coach Greg a thing or two!

Better in the long run

There comes a time in our meticulously detailed training plans where up looms the “extra long run with a big hill in the middle”. The one you do on a Sunday and haven’t properly recovered from it halfway through the following week.

So here I am, today is the day. Or rather, Sunday was the day. The Big Hill awaits. It’s another early start and another tiptoe out of the front door. I imagine most of the sensible people in the street are still fast asleep, a well-earned hangover patiently waiting for them when they wake up. And years of practice have taught me that is generally the correct approach to weekend mornings.

But not for me, not today. I set out at a reasonable pace before reminding myself how far I was going to go. The route I was taking was a familiar one for the locals – it’s an out and back with a big loop at the furthest point and a high bridge over the main road to constitute the Big Hill. This would need tackling twice, once in each direction. 

As the sun began to warm the world, I left the familiar river behind and ran into the countryside, past fields, hedges, rabbits, and the occasional other runner. This was a different, braver route, and we knew it – a knowing nod between runners that we had taken on a bigger challenge this morning. 

I wasn’t sure how long the loop was at the end and had wondered whether I’d need to do it twice to get my distance up, however once was more than enough and I trotted home, back over the Big Hill with some slight grief, to a total distance of 13km.

By far my furthest run this year, but more importantly was how consistent my km splits were. Getting much better than earlier weeks, I had a variance today of 15 seconds between my fastest and slowest laps. 

So the question now is, how far should I be going on these long runs? That was probably about right for me with my goal I discussed last week. No doubt I’ll have a complete change of heart in a week or two and set out to go even further with even more hills – I must be careful though. Better to have a hangover on a Sunday morning than an injury!

Goals just wanna have fun

An important part of a running blog is carefully explaining the running goals the author may have in an attempt to either a) muster some moral support in the comments, or b) give themselves a moral and mental boost, as once it’s published there’s clearly no going back. 

So here I am, taking the time to articulate a goal that is as personal a thing as it can get – I’m not aiming to beat someone else in a barefoot race up Ben MacDui, not planning on coming in the top 100 of the 2023 Brighton Marathon, and I’m certainly not attempting to beat Sally Gunnel’s 1992 gold medal winning time in the 400m hurdles. 

Of course I’m not, these are clearly out of my reach. I’m doing something much more straightforward. I’m going head to head with the toughest opponent in the world. Me. 

Specifically me from twelve years ago. Twelve long years. Twelve years of age pressing against me and whittling my self backwards. 

The detail behind this is that I run the same hilly 10k race every Autumn and every year I fail to beat my inaugural time. After setting that benchmark, I’ve never had a pb. Well this year it’s going to be different.

If you’ve read my other posts you’ll see I’ve recently been focussed on technical aspects of running. I’m also looking to train more often, run further, take on more cross-training between runs, and target strength training to build muscle and (please) prevent injury. 

And the main thing is… I’m enjoying it. The first half of this year I focussed on weight loss, dropping off nearly a stone. That took a lot of discipline and I’ve since put a fair bit back on (I couldn’t resist the biscuits any longer), but I think I’ve reached a balance of healthy living, maintaining a reaonable weight and getting outside for exercise multiple times every week. 

You may be interested in the targets. The one to beat is 46:50. If I can get below that it’s a win. If I can near to 45 mins that’s amazing. And if I can get down as far as 44, well, that’s something else entirely. 

So there we are, goal written down and shared, moral and mental boost in place, that makes me fully committed now. There’s clearly no going back!

Stride and tested

Another running day, another early start this week, and once again it was time to take on my old friend stride repeats. I set my alarm to wake me up early, but because of the heat, I woke up well before this and then when my alarm went off I fell back to sleep for another half an hour – the exact opposite of how I’d planned to start my day. 

Anyway, a banana and a bottle of water as I changed into my running gear and I was soon in the mood to head out.

The trouble with waking up late is that the length of time you have for training becomes squeezed and that means something has to give. And it’s always the warm up/cool down that gets rushed in favour of the real training part of the run. It’s a bit like an overrunning software project where the testing time gets squashed into the time remaining – there’s an assumption that things will be ok, and I guess there’s always a chance they may be, there’s also a chance of massive systems failure, or in my case, injury.

Fortunately for me it’s about a 15 minute jog to my strides path so I felt I’d done enough by the time I got there. Warming up correctly is clearly a necessity, but today I also wanted to focus on my form.

I recently wrote that I set out to do some strides but I could only go flat out sprinting, there was no “strides mode” on that day. I was looking to address that today. 

I’d researched what strides are and a general consensus online is that it’s about 85-90% effort, where as a sprint is full on, 100%. With this in mind, I strided the length of the path, working my way to what I thought was about the right amount of effort. I then tried an all out sprint.

I felt the difference in my vertical oscillation, how uppy-and-downy my body moved during the run. I felt sprinting felt my legs were coming higher, my body rising and falling every step. With strides, the motion felt much more fluid, much more lateral, parallel to the ground. If this is the case (and I guess I could only find out by filming myself), then it is likely my sprinting is comparatively less efficient. Following up on this, I read some advice that to curb vertical oscillation you have to imagine you’re running under a low ceiling. Not sure about this, one to remember for next time.

Based on that one run, I believe that (for me at least) strides are more in tune to race conditions, or rather the form I need in a race. I did 13 reps that morning, I’d set out to do 12 but ended up doing one for luck, perhaps a mild celebration for some new found knowledge around my running form.

Trees: a jolly good fellow

Trees are good aren’t they. There’s something inspiring about planting a tree; there’s something majestic about a giant tree that’s been rooted to the same spot for years. Even after life a tree has a presence: a hollowed out trunk can be hidden in, a stump will be climbed on. 

When storm Eunice hit earlier this year, many trees were blown over, trunks snapped and splintered. There was one in the park near us that was completely uprooted and lay on the ground for months afterwards with its branches reaching across the grass, as if stretching for the one thing that could rescue it. This tree’s life was sadly over, but far from being of no use, it became a destination point for families to take our kids to play in. It was often requested on a Saturday – come on we’re going out; can we go to the fallen down tree? Of course we can. You never get to explore the tangled branches of such a large tree so safely, so near to the ground. A perfect natural climbing frame. 

As a runner, and particularly in the current heatwave, trees offer vital shade across our paths. They also pump out oxygen, a substance I can never seem to get enough of when I’m out on the run. I consider myself lucky enough to have routes through these tree-lined paths, trees that have stood there since Victorian times, guiding me through the countryside. 

However, trees also have a habit of blocking my gps. This doesn’t feel like the highest priority whinge in a world full of challenges, but I find it… inconvenient… that when I’m trying to run at a consistent pace, the trees block the one thing that helps me track it. My watch often tells me I’m running a minute or so slower than my actual pace, and all because it can’t work out where I am so thinks I must’ve stopped half a mile back.

I’m not saying we should chop down trees – I’m not that much of a spoiled brat. But a gap here and there would be useful. Maybe a genetic modification to trees that made their leaves transparent would help. Maybe I should consider holding my watch on a stick so I could poke it out of the shade and into a more favourable gps zone?

Or maybe I should embrace the beauty of nature and just be happy that when I emerge from cover and reconnect with a satellite, my watch works out where I am and records a personal best for my fastest ever mile at Mo Farah pace.

A night at the races

With the weather heating up to uncomfortable levels in the mid-late thirties, running in the day is no longer a good option. It got to about 10:20 in the evening earlier this week when I decided it was time to put on the old running shoes and head out.

First things first, safety is more of an issue at night, so no running round the river. Instead I stuck to the streets, following the streetlights like some heavily sweating lost moth. It made for an interesting route, lapping up and down the better lit pavements, crossing halfway and then back again, cutting squarely across roads I’d just run up in the other direction. 

It was very quiet, only a few people about. I’d expected to see people outside the pubs at closing time, but I jogged passed three on my travels and saw no one. The lack of cars meant I could happily trot down the middle of more gloomy streets without fear of getting mowed down. Apart from a few local cats who eyed me curiously as I weaved past, the only other creature around was a bat, who flapped hopelessly past like an old tennis ball with its fluff hanging off.

It was an enjoyable run. The only problem was that it was still warm, and when I got back home after around 6.5km I was pouring with sweat. I had a tactic in place to help me out that evening; I left a bottle of water outside of my front door and headed past at around the 4km mark for a top up. Glugging down a load of water and then starting off again only really helped to give me a stitch for the rest of the way. 

This lonely jaunt out into the late evening was enjoyable, but only really as a one-off. I’ll try to stick to the early mornings to get away from the strong heat of the summer days. Going out running at this time of day, and without any music to listen to weirdly meant I got the knightrider theme tune stuck in my head as I went round; if you don’t recall it then well worth a listen. 

You may recall the intro: “Knight Rider, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of man who does not exist”. Well, this night runner existed all right that evening, it was everyone else who wasn’t there.

An uphill struggle

Generally speaking, rivers are flat. They’re not of course, they flow downwards so must have some slight gradient to them, but for my purposes, the one I run round is flat. The only hilly parts are the bridges, and even they’re not that long, steep, or particularly frequent. 

So while I count myself extremely lucky to live so close to a great and (mostly) peaceful river, nestled in parkland and lined with venerable trees, I don’t get that much hill training in my weekly running activities. 

This isn’t a problem, is it? Hills are horrible at the best of times and should be avoided where possible, right?! Well, yes and no. I have a 10k race later in the year I’m training for and that is a particularly hilly thing. In fact there is very little in the way of flat at all on the course. 

So I need to bring hill-work into my training. But where to find a hill? There is one nearby. It’s a short steep path leading up a large mound not far from the river. It’s probably not even 10 meters tall, but perfect for some fast paced repeats up and down it, an activity guaranteed to raise the heart rate to the top of the scale. 

I set out this week for the hill, around a 15 minute jog away – unlike the strides the other day, this time I went first thing in the morning to avoid other people. It’s not that I mind other people, it’s seeing people when I’m absolutely exhausted, bright red-faced and gasping for oxygen, repeating the activity that’s putting me in that state over and over again.   

I once tried this hill repeat training on afternoon of the first day of the school summer holidays and the top of the mound was packed full of newly liberated school children who cheered me on every time I reached the top. I went three rounds of that and gave up as more and more people were joining in. 

This morning there was a chap mowing the grass at the top, looking very disappointed at the amount of litter lying around. He cleared away a couple of glass bottles and then I assume he shredded the rest of it with his mower. 

I managed 10 fast reps before jogging back home. It was tough but I felt good, and ultimately I could have done a couple more. I decided not to overdo it and will return in a couple of weeks to build on todays effort. In the meantime I’ll be back running in the comfort of the flat (very slightly sloping) river and the occasional hump backed bridge reminding me the importance of running hills as part of the training.

The wind and the hill-ows

Running in the rain can be a good thing. As long as you can pluck up the motivation to get out of the front door in the first place, then it can be refreshing. It’s perfect if you can time it to start raining a short way into your run. 

Wind, on the other hand, can be a challenge. The worst wind I ever had… ahem, I’ll rephrase that. The worst windy conditions I ever went running in was in Bournemouth several years ago. There is a path that runs alongside the beach below the cliffs from the pier all the way westwards to Sandbanks. It stretches further again eastwards as well, following the curve of the magnificent southern coast bay, but I didn’t run the full length of it that day. 

I was staying in Bournemouth on holiday and got up early to head out for a run before the sun became too hot. Running out towards the west was horrific. The wind whipped forth directly towards me, picking up sand from the beach, hurling it straight towards my eyes and stinging my exposed arms and legs. The long path to Sandbanks was hard, hard graft. 

Bob Dylan asked us how many times a man can turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see. Between the Bournemouth pier and the end of that path just as the spit extends out to sea, the answer was many times, and there was no pretending about not seeing either. The real answer, of course my friend, is blowing in the wind. And with all that sand flying about I wondered whether Bob himself had been for a similar early morning jog and returned home suitably inspired. 

The point of this Bournemouth story is that the journey west is long and tough and filled with danger. The journey east, or in my case on that day, back home, is, quite literally, a breeze. And you can see it in the other runners’ faces (it is a popular route at that time of day); going one way we were all close to tears, the other, full of smiles and nods of sympathy to our westwards travellers.

Back to the present, and I set out for a 5k, local and brisk. It was very blustery, and while the route I took was a bit of an out and back, the wind never got behind me, I felt I battled it the whole time. With the absence of the sand-blasting, this felt good training, good for the muscles. However, I’m clearly scarred from that early morning Bournemouth run a few years ago, as I cursed the wind all the way round. 

But it was a successful run, I felt good from it afterwards. I just hope the weather dies down a bit now and the next few runs will be still. 

So to finish, the only thing to say is best said by a clear expert on these matters, Bob Dylan, who appears to really get where I’m coming from. In his song Idiot Wind he muses:

“Idiot Wind blowing every time you move your mouth

Blowing down the back-roads headin’ south

Idiot wind blowing every time you move your teeth”

My feelings exactly, Bob. 

Right place, wrong time

There’s a parkrun course about a mile or so away from my house that loops round an old victorian park. A lovely route, apart from the hill in one corner, and usually very well turned out on a Saturday morning. I reckoned that a run to the park and a few laps round before returning home would be about 10k, so a good route and distance for my long/easy weekend run. 

I haven’t run as far this year, so quietly told myself I could walk at any point if I got into any problems. I knew very well that unless my legs near enough fell off, I was unlikely to take myself up on this offer, preferring to absolutely knacker every muscle I own ahead of slowing myself to andante (not to be confused with al dente), a walking pace.

I set off early, but it was already a glorious day with the sun beating down on one half of the road ahead, the other in shadow for now, perfect running conditions. I reached the park and ran three laps at a reasonable pace. The hill was still there to try to cause me problems, but nothing too stressful this morning. 

Running laps means you see the same people going the opposite way several times. I’m a smiler, if I see someone else running towards me I’ll smile, nod, say hi if they haven’t got their music on. There doesn’t seem to be many like me, perhaps other runners are more focussed on their training plans, perhaps smiling at other runners just isn’t the done thing. Perhaps all the smilers do their laps in one direction and the non-smilers go round the other way, so our paths never cross!

Aside from the lack of interaction, the run went well, I trotted back along the same increasingly sunny roads I’d run along earlier and completed the distance in just over 56 minutes. This was an adequate marker of my progress, and more importantly there was no need for the walking option at any point. The next 10k target will be some consistency in the splits and moving towards a milestone of 50 minutes on the clock.

The striding edge

I recently read in some advice on improving or maintaining good mental health that a healthy activity is to start taking notice of things around you. I guess being mindful of your surroundings. This is both practical and achievable, and a near perfect activity for an outdoor runner like me. With this in mind this week, I set out to run ten stride repeats after a short warm up jog. 

I noticed a couple of things almost immediately. The path I use for my repeats – a straight strip of tarmac around 80 meters long – isn’t flat, it’s a slight incline in the direction I was running it. I’d never noticed that before. I also noticed I don’t have a stride run setting for my legs, they only go straight to full flat-out sprint mode. I’m not sure I was noticing the right things.

I started out with a five minute walk/jog followed by a light run for about 15 minutes. Through the trees, across the park and along the river. Without worrying too much about pace, form, cadence, I could spend time observing the nature, soaking in the greenery and the creatures within (mainly birds and squirrels, but a few geese and swans along the river). 

On to the strides section of the run, I normally feel a little self conscious hurtling as fast as possible before turning round and wheezing slowly back to the starting point. This is an activity for the early hours, not the evening as it was then, prime time for dog walkers and pavement blockers. 

No bother though, there is adequate grassy spaces on both sides of my route so I weaved from path to grass and back again to the bemusement of all around. Noticing the beauty of the river flowing endlessly past and the contrast of this sweaty man, anything but beautiful, puffing alongside was all part of the outing.

I finished the run with a light jog back home, with the final couple of minutes as a walk, attempting more mindfulness as I listened and observed my body recover from the exercise. A few stretches and post-race nutrition and it was a successful run. So much so that my legs felt surprisingly fresh the next day after all my exertion – I barely even noticed them!

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