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There’s no race like home

This weekend I had an improvised addition to my training programme. I have my “official” 10k race upcoming in a few weeks, the one I’ve been training for over the past few months. Training has been going fairly well to plan – the occasional deviation here and there due to other life events and occasion, but largely on track.

This week there was a local 10k race starting and finishing close to my house. I’d seen the hospitality tents, barriers, and finish line all being set up but didn’t think too much about it. It was only when I was chatting to a friend who had entered the 10k for the following day that I was tempted to look it up. And to some surprise, there were places left. 

After an hour or two or internal debate, I registered for the race, and the next morning I was picking up my number, ready for the off. 

This was not part of the plan. Not sure what the plan was now, but it wasn’t run my target distance as fast as I could.

Part of my thinking for running this race was that it’d give me a good idea of my fitness levels, with the advantage that it was a relatively flat course. My pb for the 10k is the hilly race I have upcoming so was confident I could get my fastest time.

In the end, I went round quickly, comfortably beating my previous best by nearly a minute – around 46 minutes. It was hard work though, and I’d clearly gone off too quickly as my splits showed a dramatic slowing of my pace around the halfway point. I managed to recover, and the final 1km was my fastest, as it should be running to the finish in front of a small crowd of well-wishers. 

Overall it was a good experience, but I’m not convinced how much it gave me in my overall training, aside from a reality check. I’m not going to smash my course pb in a few weeks time as I’d secretly hoped, but I think I’m in the right ball park to shave something off it. Two and a half weeks to go…!   

Don’t get X, get X

There was a glorious moment several years ago in my running career when I realised that to maintain my fitness I didn’t have to exclusively go out running. And better than that, doing different activities means different muscles are exercised which is generally a positive thing for running too. A welcome to the world of cross-training.

The problem I’ve found with cross-training is that I run out of calendar time. My goals over the years have always been directly linked to a particular race, and usually a targeted finish time for that race. As it gets closer to the race date I tend to reign in the cross-training and focus on running only, as if every final mile of tarmac run will shave seconds off my final time.

This is a shame as different activities keep things interesting. I’ve done several different activities for cross-training but have most consistently come back to cycling. To be clear, not lycra-clad, ultra-light road bike cycling, no triple figure distances sought out on a damp Saturday morning; I prefer to take my bike out and go exploring through the wilderness. Handily, there’s a good amount of countryside and overgrown footpaths nearby, and I count myself lucky to have such an amount of rich ground to traverse.

My bike is a heavy mountain bike I’ve had for over ten years. I’ve barely had to do anything with it, apart from the odd spray of WD40, so probably needs a bit of a service. No matter through, it has kept going, and kept me going through the years, and between us we have uncovered much undiscovered local territory.

The bike will handle anything, but I prefer the fair weather – I don’t mind a bit of rain, but would rather be out in the sunshine, hacking through some backwoods and overgrown trails, half unsure of my legal grounds for being on that particular piece of land. Any problems I can always feign ignorance – ‘is this the footpath that goes to Sprattlingborough?’. 

This type of exploratory cycling has additional benefits for running: it gives a great insight into potential new running routes and is ideal for scouting out the best hills for bolting up and down. Running will be my main goto fitness routine, hopefully for many years to come, but there is something about running that means there is never an option to stop, once you’re off you’re off. Maybe it’s the way I set out to achieve a target time in the first place, maybe it’s a concern about cramping up if I stop. And this is where cycling wins out – what better thing to emerge from an uncharted piece of woodland into a village, complete with a welcoming pub. Even in the height of training season it would seem churlish not to stop in for a quick pint!

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!

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!

When you’ve got to go…

There’s some sort of local festival happening this weekend which means the smell of burgers wherever you go, the collective public inability to throw rubbish in a bin, and a lot of people roaming aimlessly around the neighbourhood. There’s also a few stages with live music on – these are mostly local bands that no one has ever heard of, but live music is almost always good, always worth supporting, and great for a party atmosphere.

Overall, the festival is a good thing to have on the doorstep, and as long as there’s no trouble (there usually isn’t to be honest), then there’s something for everyone to enjoy. 

I went for a run one morning this week when they were starting to set everything up. The first thing to be installed were the portaloos. Not a few cubicles in the corner of a field, no designated toilet only area, no! The streets were lined with the things. 

As I ran past, it occurred to me that these cubicles were the cleanest they would ever be over the next few days. What a confidence boost for anyone on a long run with the potential for being caught short. Fortunately, I didn’t feel the need to pop in one as I jogged past, but if I had… what a time to be alive! Throughout the run I was never more than a hundred meters or so from a vacant toilet, right in my path. Two days later and I wouldn’t want to be within 20 feet of those overflowing stalls.

Overall the run went well, putting a few more miles into the legs has also boosted my confidence – more so than the recently improved availability of the public conveniences. And because I’m now more active again, I feel like I’ve really earned a beer or two – if you need me I’ll be at the front of the main stage dancing to one of the bands – I think tonight it’s Salad Bike Scuffle followed by Torch Fluster. Awesome!

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!

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!

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