Twenty-five years in the making

I realised on finishing the “How to Improve” series that I’ve spent the past twenty-five years trying to understand the principles of endurance. It was November 1995 when I bought a copy of John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Sport” which made grandiose claims of being able to play sports effortlessly, run fast while barely getting out of breath and get ‘in the zone’ by retraining the body with nose-breathing and a heart-rate monitor. But it wasn’t purely a book about playing sports easily, it detailed a whole system for health based on your body-type and the ancient system of Ayurvedic medicine. The idea of getting ‘into the zone’ appealed because I wanted to settle my mind while playing volleyball and for a while I got strange glances from volleyball teammates as I warmed up with yoga Sun Salutes and nose-breathing.

I spent the following summer running half marathons as well as my first marathon, and in training used his method of nose-breathing and keeping my heart-rate low for some months. But all I did was tiptoe up and down the beach promenade at slow paces. The book had promised results of improvement in a matter of months with examples of Catherine Oxenberg running 8min/miles at 130HR after three months of retraining and Warren Wechsler running 6 min/miles averaging 124HR after 18-months of training. My reality is that even when I was capable of running sub-19 at parkrun, I’ve barely been quicker than nine minute miles at these heart-rates; I don’t have the physiology to allow me to do this easily. But back then it was a mystery to be solved and I was intrigued enough for many years afterwards to periodically return to the book’s wisdom and unsuccessfully try to get its methods to work for me. I didn’t realise it then, but this book was promoting the secrets of endurance training and the aerobic base.

John Douillard’s 1995 book

I had run before this. I’d run cross-country in PE lessons at school – I was terrible – I used to finish second to last, but I was also at the back of the sprints. I was the proverbial big slow kid.  As a teenager I went orienteering with my friend Malcolm and his parents. The 5K courses took me 45-mins to complete albeit I was trying to navigate myself around difficult forest and moorland terrain. I dreaded the idea of running the longer courses that came with older age-groups and the thought of the 10Ks that the senior men ran terrified me. Eventually I stopped going when I got a job working Sundays at Broadstone sports centre, now The Junction, so the issue of going past 5K never reared its head.

But I always played sports and my bicycle was my main mode of transport so I had a reasonable level of fitness. Once I started fulltime work, I began to play sports with my colleagues and squash, basketball, 5-a-side football all gave me incidental running skills and fitness.

I entered my first 10K race in October 1992, ran 48 minutes and was into running for six months before shin splints were too painful to even walk across the beach. My training system was non-existent. Jump on the treadmill and run at 9.5mph for ten minutes gasping for breath. Run round the streets near home to complete a twenty-minute route as quickly as possible. No warmup, just hammer off down the road from the moment I started the stopwatch. Enter a 10K – train for it by going out and plodding the distance to make sure I could complete it. That was all there was. My highlight of those days was running 3 miles on the treadmill at its maximum speed of 10mph – 18min10 – it took the extra ten seconds to get up to full speed. I remember being awed by the fastest runners at work who could run 35-36 minutes for 10K. My 10K of 48-minutes put me two-thirds of the way down the results lists of races. Nothing about my life experience up to this point said I was any good at running. Even when I put some effort in, I finished in the lower half of the field far behind the best runners I knew, and far behind the winners.

Let’s break down the training for my early attempts to train for races. My training had three components – building speed, stamina-building runs and over-distance runs.

  • I built speed from playing sports which involved many shorts sprints. In a game of squash the court measures 9.75m from front to back, 6.4m across its width so you only take a maximum of five or six steps in one direction before pausing. Volleyball is movements of a few steps, but repeated powerful exertion when jumping to hit or block. The court where we played 5-a-side football and basketball was around twenty-five metres in length. That’s all I did lots of maximal paced sprints over short distances usually for 30 to 60 minutes at a time..
  • Stamina came from the runs of up to twenty minutes either on the treadmill (which was forcing the pace), or round the local streets where I’d start fast and hang on. These street runs also threw in hills and corners so it was never one-paced.
  • For over-distance runs, I jogged easily to ensure I could cover the race distance. My first block of running in 1992-93, I only entered 10Ks so I over-distanced to around eight miles. I remember getting from my standard four mile run up to eight was difficult. When I later did half marathons and even full marathons, it never felt as hard to increase the distance of runs past eight miles.

Even now when I analyse these, they’re effectively the three core types of training you get recommended to do. Although runners may talk about hill sessions or track speedwork they still fall into the first category of speed building. We might go out to do threshold or tempo runs but they categorise as stamina-building and finally long runs are categorised as over-distance runs. It’s very hard to discern what’s wrong with this training.

Yet I wasn’t able to go faster at any of my races. My 10K each came in around 48-mins while a quarter marathon (10.5K) came in at a similarly paced 50-mins. My half marathons came in 30-seconds either side of 1hr51. The most notable thing was breaking 1hr50 (1hr49min55) a couple of years later yet this is still in the same vicinity as the others. I always believed this would be as good as I got at running.

What I never tried to understand was why this wasn’t enough. I thought that to run fast, you had to train fast. That to get faster you had to keep going at top speed and hang on. It was only when I read Douillard that I began to learn there was a different way to train. But I tried it and it didn’t work for me because of how endurance is created. I continued to play other sports while trying to be a runner and those sports kept pushing down my endurance and taking me back to the speed that would be more appropriate to a sprinter. I now know it takes a couple of months for endurance to start showing up and even then you have to keep working at it and avoid overdoing the speed side too much. While my “train hard, play hard” mentality was great for playing team sports, it didn’t help my running.

I tried Douillard’s nose-breathing and low heart-rate method one more time in 2009 but again I found myself ambling along. Eventually I took off the shackles and began running regularly however I liked. Long distance running still wasn’t easy but I was getting out three to four times each week. I still had the stamina runs two or three times each week with 6K at lunchtime but – and this is the critical component – I no longer played team sports and thus did much less speed-building. Early in 2010, I ran a 10-mile race and surprised myself with a fast-finishing time of 1hr16. Three weeks later, I set a half marathon PB of 1hr38min30 – over ten minutes quicker than any I’d ever done before. Six months later I ran a 3hr41 marathon despite having missed a month of training due to a calf injury. I still hadn’t conquered endurance but I now realise less speed-building and more regular running were critical to the improvement.

The truth is, I still didn’t understand what endurance or aerobic bases were but I was running faster. When I got involved with parkrun and began running almost daily, it didn’t take much to see my times get even better. Sub-19 for parkrun, 41-mins for 10K, 1hr09 for 10-miles and 1hr31 for half-marathon in the first year. Eventually I began to see the low heart-rates Douillard had promised and my runs felt easy. But it took until 2017 for me to finally understand how to really create endurance and be running how Douillard had promised. The details are however, another story waiting to be told.

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