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Going slower to go faster

I went for a run this week. That doesn’t sound too surprising given the majority shareholder subject matter of my site, even given the name of my site, however this run was special as it was marred by a preceding period of systematically undoing my fitness – a holiday, if you will.

It felt odd to pull on the old running shoes again after a break,  but I was keen to understand if I really was back to square one with my running potential. 

I’d set myself a goal of running 5km in 26:40 – the thinking behind this was that to get to my target of 21:40 it would be a straightforward task of knocking a minute off each kilometre. I could achieve this by simply running a bit faster. I wonder if the professional running coaches have picked up on this amazing insight!

The run went well. It was hard in places, but overall it went well, and I went round in my target time with reasonably consistent splits.

The biggest benefit of the run was a reminder of how important it is to do something for positive mental health. After a couple of weeks away from work I’ve felt relaxed and completely de-stressed. This stress has gradually re-emerged this week as I’ve been back in the cut and thrust of my job. Getting a break from it, even to go red-faced and wheezing around the park a few times had a massive benefit on my outlook.

While it’s important (for me at least) to have goals and set targets and to aim at continually improving fitness levels, it’s even more important to take the time out for some self-care, and a step back from a reality that never stops. 

So take that break, let the reality trundle along without you for a while; after all, there’s one thing that us runners are good at – catching up!

And the results are in…

The race is run, the results are in. The months of training, improvement, learning, bodily abuse (forcing myself to eat healthily and cut down on alcohol are bodily abuse, right?) are at an end. The goal was to beat a personal best time for an organised 10km race I run every year, a pb that has stood since the first time I ran it twelve years ago. And today was the day of the race.

So what happened? Did I manage it? Well, yes, yes I did. And not only by a second or two, I managed to chop off a full minute and fifteen seconds! My finish time was a shade under 45:30, far beyond my expectations at the outset. The ghost of twelve years is no more, here’s to the future ghost of 2022!

Obviously I was pleased with my performance, and lucky that everything came right on the day. Indulge me as I take us through some of the highlights.

The journey there was uneventful, parking no problem, registration took seconds. The weather was perfect: cool but sunny, breezy but not windy. No immediate concerns from the off.

All my thinking leading up to this had been around ensuring my pacing was correct. A few weeks ago I ran a 10km race but I went off too quickly and suffered in the second half, so didn’t want to repeat that. I’d already worked out my target splits based on last years race – it’s a hilly course so some kilometres are naturally slower than others. 

Before I headed out to the start, I sat in my car and jotted the target times on the back of my hand. This is something I hadn’t practised in my training, how hard could it be? Very hard, apparently. My pen was a bit rubbish and it ended up taking me ages. Next time, get a decent pen and maybe write the times on my hand before leaving the house!

At the start of the race I lined up somewhere between the 40 and 50 minute markers; these were a bit close together for my liking and I felt a bit contained with the other runners. When we set off I ran within the pack but found some space for my stride, it wasn’t long before we naturally stretched out and I had a good amount of personal space for the majority of the race. I managed to keep the right pace I’d planned and as the pack thinned I could focus on the times I wanted to run. The third km was a slower target pace, and I felt good dropping down and letting people overtake me, maybe I’d get them at the end!

Through all ten kilometres I kept to my pacing strategy, feeling relaxed and comfortable as I went. Sticking to a target pace isn’t that straightforward and I came in a few seconds under target each kilometre. By the time I came to the 8km marker I knew I was well under my target time, I just needed to keep the consistency to the end. The ninth kilometre was hilly, but I dug deep and hit that target too, and as I came through the final half kilometre the course levelled and dropped down the other side, leading to a fast finish in front of a reasonable sized and kindly vocal crowd. 

It was exhausting but felt extremely good. Once I caught my breath I saw and spoke to a few of the runners I’d been running alongside throughout the race. One of them told me he was running twenty miles today, the 10k run we’d just completed was just a short part of that. And he beat me. I decided not to talk to him any more!

This was a massive personal achievement that has been in the making since I finished the same race twelve months ago. I knew it was possible with the right levels of training, and have come out with (let’s face it) a new target to beat next year. And how do I feel about that?

Bring it on! 

Notes to myself (part 4)

The final part of a four-part series of my top ten training tips I’ve picked up this year. 

Part one can be found here. Part two here. Part three here.

Lesson 9: Workout/life balance

The balance of training and everything else in life is more important than anything. And the key word there is balance. Running is great for having a positive effect on mental health, but that can’t be at the expense of neglecting other areas of life. 

This year one of my friends got married after a two year covid induced delay to the proceedings. I went on his stag do and the wedding was a wonderful few days stay away. Both of these events created rich memories for me, but the training plan was completely shot for a while after both.

So the training plan has to reflect that. I’ve said my training focus is always around a specific race. The learning here is not to programme hard up to it, but put flexibility for things like this to happen. Accept that an overall two week period could be lost, so build that in. What does recovery look like? How do I rebuild after a break? Adaptability is the key.

Lesson 10: Write about it!

The worst part of running outside of running is washing your training gear. Running kit stinks! The best part of running outside of running has been writing about it. 

Community is so important and I count myself lucky to have a wonderful local community. Running communities, particularly free ones like Parkrun, are great institutions that couldn’t operate without the network of dedicated volunteers to help organise and mange them. This year I’ve also now taken  the opportunity to be part of an online community and I’ve enjoyed every minute of that engagement.

The process of writing is mentally stimulating and cathartic; the process of publishing is exciting: I generally schedule my posts and forget about them when the scheduled time passes and then scramble to do a last second final final final proof before it’s committed to the vast internet vault. I find that this approach injects a delightful adrenaline boost into the publishing cycle.

I’ve enjoyed reading other people’s experiences and some amazing efforts far beyond what I could ever do. I’ve offered my personal advice to the community and taken advice back, everything is about learning and sharing, and there’s something wonderful about that. 

To everyone who has given this blog their time and thought, I thank you. In the grand scheme of the world these musings are of minor importance, but your interaction with me has kept me going and given me positivity where I might previously have given up some time ago.  

Thanks again for reading. My next post will be Sunday and the day of the big race where we’ll find out how far I’ve really come on my training journey. Wish me luck!

Notes to myself (part 3)

Part three of a four-part series of my top ten training tips I’ve picked up this year. 

Part one can be found here. Part two here.

Lesson 6: Active recovery 

The least said about this the better. I’ve never done a recovery run – I’ve written about doing a recovery run, but if you’ve read the post we can all agree I still haven’t done one. 

This is a gap in my training. Perhaps it’s not a big gap, I don’t know. Maybe it’s an important part of training. At the moment I am not confident in running more than three times a week. This is all about avoiding injury through over-training. I should explore how active recovery can help me with this, both through increasing my training levels and building that confidence back up.

Lesson 7: Focus on the basics

Running form is vital for efficiency and the avoidance of injures. Running form is the first thing out of the window when the going gets tough. 

Mentally focussing on form isn’t easy, but is part of the basics to get right. Similar to breathing (lesson 2), we all need to breath, but do we breath correctly?

This year I’ve looked at foot strike pattern and ground reaction force, vertical oscillation, stride patterns, posture, and my overall running cycle and it has all helped me to focus on what I want to do. Every detail is part of the goal to beat my previous best time around a specific 10km course. Every detail is making me a better runner.

It’s also over-thinking things, and I’ve said I want to get back to the free-spirited running with music playing, tuning out to the world once the race is done. But let’s focus on that race first…! Details, details, details!

Lesson 8: Go long or go home

Long runs are a staple of training plans. They build up time on your feet and are a great marker of progress as watch the additional miles build up over the weeks. 

I have a psychological barrier around the maximum distance I’ll go. I mainly run 10km and half marathon races, so my training plans are in accordance. I’ve run long distances running up to a half marathon, but leading up to the 10km this month, I’ve only managed to run for an hour – getting up to around 12.5km.

It would be good to focus on longer incremental distances at a slower consistent pace, whilst using other runs to build up different parts of my training programme. I think my problem is that I get impatient with slower speeds, so this combines well with lesson 3 – be consistent before being fast. 

Not something I’ve managed this year, but something to consider as part of my training arsenal in the future.

Notes to myself (part 2)

Part two of a four-part series of my top ten training tips I’ve picked up this year. Part one can be found here.

Lesson 3: Be consistent before being fast

I’ve found pacing has played a big part in my training. This came about through trialing the Garmin coach on my watch and while the training plan didn’t work out for me for a number of reasons, the way effort was controlled through pace stuck with me.

The learning around pace is to set a target for a run and stick to that. Increment up slowly over the weeks, don’t try to go quickly quickly. I have a tendency to set out at a chosen pace, but then feel good on the day and go a lot faster, quickly wearing myself out. My advice to future me is if this happens, recognise how I feel, complete the run as planned, register how I feel at the end and amend the training plan accordingly. 

Stick to the plan and adjust based on reflection, not on a whim halfway round the park!  

Lesson 4: Cross training

Cross training is great to include in the training plan, but I found I was struggling to see how it was improving my running. My focus was on form and the different running patterns I was eager to progress. 

My bike was always promised a service but never got one when we had the perfect summer for regular bike rides. Fixing this up to a roadworthy condition should’ve been a no-brainer.

I started strength exercises early on in my training and would have liked to keep this up. I focussed on specific muscle areas, particularly in my legs and core. This is certainly beneficial to the overall training, but only through perseverance. 

Lesson 5: Combination runs

This is summarised in my connection perfection post; something completely new to me and ultimately something I wasn’t able to explore fully. If there’s one thing to take away from this year, it’s to be more liberal when designing a training plan. 

Never again should I mark off the runs in a week with such definite labels as ‘long run’, ‘tempo run’, ‘hills’, ‘strides’; from now on it’s all about the combo. A tempo will not be a tempo unless it is preceded by a hill repeat. A long run is no longer a long run without a fartlek section.  

Whatever the combinations, the goal is variety. Variety for better fitness. Variety for more enjoyment. 

The road to recovery

Every race I’ve ever entered and run has meant the end of a period of training. At that point I get crisps back in my life. The race is a means to an end. Until next time, I’m done.

In my previous post this week I talked about the 10km race I entered last minute at the weekend. How spontaneous! However, this wasn’t a finish point but an interim thing – a race before the big race in a couple of weeks time.

Mentally this became a bit of a challenge – after the race I had a few beers and a big chicken kebab. A couple of days later I met up with some friends after work, and again had a few well earned beers in the pub. Beer gets you three times – once with the extra calories while drinking it; once with unavoidable salty snacks; and thirdly the next day – porridge is out, bacon sandwiches are in!

I’ve never done a recovery run. Every run I’ve ever done is designed to get me towards the cliff edge of my goal – always, always a race. This time round, given the nature of my recent race, I set out to do a recovery run. Something different, something new; keeping it fresh.

It became immediately clear that I don’t know what a recovery run is. 

First of all, four days had already passed before I went out on my recovery run (this is the beers fault again, that’s the fourth time it got me!), so not much of a leg shaker, more a run after a few days rest. 

I also didn’t understand the sort of pace I should be running. My 10k result was a little over 46 minutes, which puts my pace at around 4:38/km. My recover run was 7kms at 5 min/km pace. Is that right? In hindsight it felt too quick, too much strain on recently strained muscles. 

That pace/distance had been my plan before I set off, and once I was out and running I couldn’t hold back so just kept going with it. I had a big protein shake when I got home and a bath to relax the muscles, so think I got away with it. 

Reading up a little on active recovery I should’ve gone out for a much shorter distance, at a much slower pace, and a time much much closer to the race I’d run. Maybe I’ll try again after the main race in a few weeks, or maybe that will be the cliff edge it normally is. Either way, at least I can have crisps again!

Music of the moocher, music of the fast

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain

Bob Marley – Trenchtown Rock

Music and running go together like peaches and tin openers. Summer and wasps. Music can lift your feet, make them lighter, push you faster, further, or lost into another world. Music, like a certain carbonated caffeine drink, can give you wings.

I used to listen to music whenever I went out running, but always got confused by the heavy gasping sound that I could only hear between tracks. It turns out that I was quite vocal in my wheezing for breath throughout my run, I just couldn’t hear it over the music. So that explains the funny looks I was getting as I ran past other people out for a quiet walk.

While I needed to learn to run a bit quieter, there was no question of taking off the headphones (wired in those days), music was as essential as running shoes.

But just as some people run barefoot, I found that I wasn’t allowed to wear headphones in my first race, and there became the schism between wanting to run with music on, and wanting to run well in races.

I tend to listen to fast, loud music when I’m running – something that will put an oomph in my stride. I tried listening to podcasts but found I kept having to rewind them as I forgot to listen properly. This is a great part of running, when your mind can wander off and the whole thing becomes effortless. Something that music seems to magically induce.

But as I’ve written before, this mental wandering is not good for training, or more specifically, it is not conducive to following a strict training pattern. Tempo runs become tiptoe runs, strides become joyrides, the pace drops off unnoticed until the end and the lap times are in.

But that’s when running is most fun, lost in the moment, running for the love of running. And that’s where I’d like to get back to. Every run I’ve done this year has been without headphones, without music pumping me up, keeping me going. But as soon as the race is done in a few weeks then it’s back to the ear buds and back to running simply for the running…

… but only for a bit. There’s always another race, another training opportunity just round the corner, and I’ll surely be back in full force to take it on. In silence of course!

The ghost of fitness past

With the years piling on, it feels I’m more susceptible to injury. I have a 10k race in a few weeks and my goal is to get a personal best for it. My record is a little under 47 minutes which I set it the first time I ran it, twelve years ago. That race, that younger version of myself turned up in a pair of trainers and a football training top after only doing a handful of warm up runs in the previous few weeks.

Who would’ve thought that chipper, sprightly young chap, skipping up hills, smiling with the other runners, would turn into my arch-nemesis. The person I’ve set out to destroy! Well, not destroy per se, I don’t want to create an inescapable time loop and be forever trapped within the grandfather paradox, ripping apart the entirety of space time and obliterating our dimension forever. It’s just that me’s time I’d like to destroy.

Time paradoxes aside then, what did my former self have that I don’t? Relative youth brings relative resilience – I recall regularly heading out on a run after only a couple of quad stretches and be generally ok the next day or two.

Running now takes a bit more prep to get into. I’ve discovered dynamic stretching and have been doing that every run this year. I go through a couple of moves to progressively warm up the muscles in my legs and hips and then when I leave the house I walk for a bit before breaking into a run.

Walk! I can imagine the younger self laughing at that. Bit of a waste of time walking isn’t it? If you go out for a run for an hour it should take an hour. Not an hour and twenty minutes because you need a walk before and after.

But it helps. As does gradually building up the heart rate through some light jogging and different drills, after about 5-10 minutes I’m good to go.

At the end I stop where I’m finished and walk back home to cool down. My former being wouldn’t appreciate this either, runs start and finish at your front door, and not a centimetre before!

So far I’ve been injury free (apart from a couple of niggles along the way that cleared through rest and some lighter training) and without wanting to jinx anything I feel in good shape for the upcoming race. The real question is whether I’ve achieved the right levels of fitness to finally beat that sinister being, that evil genius, that ghost of races past, that… me!

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.

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