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Connection perfection

I’ve written about the speed work I’ve been running as part of my recent training – this has been repetitions of around twenty seconds of strides/sprints, either on the flat or up the single local steep hill.

I’ve enjoyed this aspect of training and the incremental nature of it, slowly improving over time. I’ve tried not to push myself, both at the outset of the session (gradually building up to the right pace over a few initial reps), and through not overdoing the number of reps; my concern is the fear of injury through short burst intensive, explosive effort.

This week I ran a series of strides on the flat straight section of path by the river. As I neared my goal I had an idea: instead of pushing myself a few reps further, why not move on to the hilly bit and sprint a few times up there too?

A ten minute jog later I was at the foot of the hill and I raced up it a handful of times before heading home. It was a brilliant workout, I felt stretched further than I had before, testing my leg muscles in slightly different ways.

As I trotted back home, I felt incredibly clever to have put these two sessions together in such an effective way. Congratulations to my big brain! But really, was it all that clever? Surely it was staring me in the face all this time anyway, if anything I was slow to realise it. 

It wasn’t clever, it was just creative. 

There’s a famous Steve Jobs quote about creativity, he said:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesise new things.

My training plan from the off was always to mix up the runs – long runs, speed work, hill climbs, tempo and goal pace runs. But always on different days, there was no room for cross-breeding any of these together. But training needs learning, it needs reflection, it needs to iterate towards a goal safely (to prevent injury) and reflectively (to avoid aggravating any oncoming injury).

And now I realise my plan lacks the creativity, adaptability, and learning that life needs. We are all creative people, and the connection between things is what we use to create. So let’s go, let’s explore these connections, put the prescriptive training plan in the blender and see what comes out. Big brains unite!

Breath in the mirror

Last week I wrote about the importance of breathing and my inability to draw breath as I run. This was one of the five challenges I felt I needed to tackle when faced with hardship on a run. For reference, I said:

If I am struggling during a run, I think it comes down to a split of:

  • 50% overcoming the challenge mentally 
  • 20% oxygen (or lack thereof)
  • 20% correct fuelling 
  • 10% the actual muscles doing the running

Having been out on a long run this weekend and felt comfortable with my fitness and consistency – and most of all the amount of air filling my lungs – I reflected on some other things that were missed off last weeks’ list. 

Firstly, there’s hydration. I’d sort of lumped this into fuelling, and while I could argue this point if I wanted I know I was really thinking about how hard it is to run when last nights dinner was a doner kebab and chips with plenty of chilli sauce. Not that I’ve had a kebab in a long time, but a healthy meal before training makes running a whole lot easier. 

Water needs adding on the list in its own right then. Dehydration is a killer, and while I’m lucky enough to be able to run reasonably far without taking on additional water – I’m like a brightly coloured, heavily sweating camel when I’m out – I pay a lot of attention to how much I’m drinking throughout the day and especially first thing when I wake up before a run.

Which links me to the next point – a good night’s sleep should also be on the list. A night of tossing and turning is a great way to knock the mental stability off kilter just enough to either give up on running for the day before even getting out of bed; or going off half-arsed, lacking any drive on a run that could barely be called exercise, less so a training session. 

Why would I suffer a restless night? The last post I wrote, I said I found it hard to concentrate on my breathing because my mind wanders to other things while running. This weekend, I found a new ability to concentrate on my breathing as I ran, pretty much throughout the entire duration. And while this was clearly something I’m currently forcing myself to work on, I think there’s another factor at play.

Stress. I’ve been on annual leave for a few days, and am off work all this week too. This means I’ve been able to switch off from all the things that bother me when I normally go out running – first thing in the morning before work. On this run I wasn’t trying to boost my mental health; I wasn’t mulling over a particular problem; I wasn’t thinking about what I needed to go through with my team that day. I was running for the sake of my running. And it felt good.

My list has got a bit longer (and in need of some remodelling of the percentages), but thinking this through has really started to highlight to me the importance of the things that lie under the surface. We all know that muscles need stretching and developing to run fast, but also we need sleep, correct oxygen intake, and a way to reduce or manage stress to achieve effective results. 

None of this is easy, in fact it’s probably harder than the running itself, but getting these things right is such an important part of a holistic approach to improving fitness and athletic ability.

Breath on the mile

It’s well documented there are many health benefits running brings, and among those there’s the all important mental health positives. There’s the space to clear your thoughts, think objectively about problems; there’s the buzz you get at the end of completing a run, and the sense of achievement you get when you drive a bit harder, breaking last week’s best. Even seeing other people running past and sharing a knowing nod or half wave is rewarded with a boost to your stride.

Overall, running is like no other activity I do. It’s certainly the most time I get to spend completely alone and in my own thoughts.

If mental benefits are included in running, then why do I find a mental barrier to getting going, going a bit further, or running a bit harder?

If I am struggling during a run, for me it generally comes down to a split of:

  • 50% overcoming the challenge mentally 
  • 20% oxygen (or lack thereof)
  • 20% correct fuelling 
  • 10% the actual muscles doing the running

(This is completely unscientific, an oversimplification and guess based on my recent runs.) And yet it’s the muscles I focus on in my training and preparation.

Fuelling is generally ok, I’m fully onboard with carb loading before a race. It’s the Saturday night beer and pizza the night before a long run that usually does me in!

So now I’m focussed on my breathing. My Garmin watch reckons my V02 Max gives me a fitness age of someone twenty years younger than I am. But it’s getting a good lungful in that I struggle with.

Left unchecked, my breathing through exercise is shallow, lung-driven gulps of air. I’m trying to change this by focussing on diaphragmatic breathing, and filling my lungs completely with every breath. However, with the space to clear my head and think objectively about my problems, I always unconsciously default to my former breathing style.

So now I need to break the habit. I’m doing more breathing exercises outside of running, which in itself is relaxing too. But I can’t seem to transfer this consistently to my runs. It may seem drastic, but I’m now considering tattooing my hands and arms with the word “Breathe” over and over again to help remind me when I’m out!

Back to life

After a short, mild, annoying illness and an intensive period at work, my other life of running, writing the blog, and making Garmin apps can finally pick up again. 

There’s two dangers at challenging times like this last period – the first is a refusal to drop anything and getting completely swamped (I’m typically not great at this); the second is finding the motivation to pick all those dropped activities up again when life calms down a bit (I’m generally awful at this).

But it appears the dangers have been successfully navigated as here we are. One run done, and now one post on the blog, good to see you all again!

The run was short, just half an hour around the park before work but good to get the legs working again. It felt all right: no issues, soreness, cramps, pulled muscles, sprained ankles; no tripping up, no falling in the river, and no treading in dog poo – overall a great run to build up confidence ahead of the race, just a few weeks away. 

One thing I’ve missed over the past couple of weeks is reading updates from all the blogs I follow –  I’ll try to catch up over the weekend, adding my “insightful” comments where I can. 

All that’s left to do is pick up on the app development side of things. I was close to releasing a new app a couple of weeks ago but will have to take some time to re-familiarise myself with where I was up to and what needed finishing before it goes live. Hopefully that will get going again quickly.

And finally, in the spirit of the blog, it must be about time to run another… run!

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.

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.

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.

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