With 2020 now done and dusted, it’s an understatement to say it was a difficult year for everybody. From a running perspective, the lack of races, parkruns and even club sessions left many runners questioning why they run. Personally I run because I enjoy it, the races and parkruns are side attractions where I like to test my mettle. While my year started with a rebuild of my fitness, it ended with me having run every day, failing to get faster over 5K and heading in a new direction with 800m training.
The rebuild of fitness began after I suffered a four day illness in late November 2019. It was probably a standard winter flu virus although it’s tempting to claim it was an early version of Covid-19 but realistically the timing is wrong even though some of the symptoms, like loss of taste, were the same. Anyway whatever it was, this all took place the week before the Christchurch 10K and with my aerobic fitness wiped out, I struggled round to receive the annual reward of a Christmas pudding! After that I focused on the rebuild which I knew would take about six weeks and got out running every day. I attended Christmas Day parkrun at Poole with its record attendance of over 1,300 then went to visit friends and ran Rushmoor and Frimley Lodge parkruns on New Year’s Day. By February, the legs were perking up; I was running ten miles on a Sunday at a good clip and ready to up my training.
It was my intention to run Bournemouth Bay 1/2M at the start of April and take a few days rest going into it. But with the onset of Covid-19, I delayed my entry and we ended up entering lockdown in the last week of March. As leaving the house was limited, I continued to run every day and it was a fantastic time to be out running. The roads were traffic free, almost deserted and I remember running at 10am one morning barely seeing anyone for the first mile. It was eerie and quiet like a scene from “28 Days Later”, the 2002 film where the protagonist awakes from a coma to find London deserted. But then, if you’ve seen “28 Days Later”, you’ll know 2020 wasn’t far off a real life version of it.
By the end of March I’d been running for 115 days straight and there was no sign of stopping. I decided that with lockdown in place, no races in sight and uncertainty about when the world would be back to normal, this would be my chance to create the longest run streak of my lifetime. And I mean lifetime. All being well, I’ve got a few decades ahead but I always take rest days before and often after races. If I’m still running in my 70s and 80s, I’ll still be entering races. I don’t usually go more than three months without a race.
Streakwise I’d already surpassed my previous best of 76 days so the question was how long could this one go? I figured if I reached September I’d try to see out the whole of 2020. But that was still a long way off so I focused on now.
My standard running year is to build stamina in the winter then work on speed for 5K and 10K races in the summer. There weren’t going to be any of those coming up but I pressed on with the plan hoping, as we all did, that racing and parkrun would be back in a few months. I’d also noticed my vertical jump had dropped over the years. When I played basketball I was able to touch the ring and my jump was about 70cms, now it was 42cms at best and I felt little spring in my legs. This shouldn’t have been a surprise because I hadn’t done any dedicated running speedwork in over three years and it was over a decade since I’d been playing the sports that had built big thigh muscles for jumping. So while everybody else was following Joe Wicks’ classes on Youtube, I started my own fitness regime of hill sprints, skipping, side jumps, step-ups and depth jumps. I also started bounding, like a triple jumper, which was great fun and began to highlight some changes I needed to make to my running action.
I continued to run daily and began 5K training with a time trial at Poole Park benchmarking in at 22:05. I was twenty-five seconds slower than I’d been on New Year’s Day. My fastest kilometre had only been 4:14 and I found myself struggling to even hit 4:30 towards the end. But a benchmark is there to find out where you’re starting from and over the next six weeks I ran kilometre intervals twice per week and saw my speed pick up to reach a best time of 3:50. A second time trial at the beginning of July came in at 21:32. A 30+ second improvement isn’t to be sneezed at, but I’d also expected better from six weeks of training so there was something missing. What I didn’t immediately realise was that another rebuild was looming.
The day after the second time trial, it was obvious my body had switched over to speed mode rather than the endurance mode needed for distance running. I could feel it in my long runs where I felt like I was running fast, yet each week’s run came in within seconds of the previous weeks’. Nonetheless I thought I could train myself out of it with a more restrained approach to my interval work but I was wrong. By mid-August I had to admit defeat and think about another rebuild. There was another problem. I was struggling with many aches and pains in my ankles and feet, as well as my lower back. This is always a sign I’ve done too much fast running and need to do recovery work.
On top of all this I started a core stability programme in mid-August. I’d always thought my core was reasonably strong. Certainly whenever I planked against other people they’d struggle to hold it for as long as me and I could hold for 1-2 minutes. But I was wondering how on earth the guy who holds the record at over five hours for a plank could manage that. The longest I’d ever managed was three minutes which is a long way off. Researching I came across a statement that once you go over a minute there’s no benefit to planking for longer, and then I discovered the Big3 programme of Stuart McGill which he’d developed from working with spinal rehab patients.
I began doing the Big3 programme nightly but after a week it was too much, too soon so I backed off and let things settle down. A week later, after my Sunday long run, I bent down to untie my shoelace and felt an ache in my side that took two hours to subside. It wasn’t a bad pain just one that indicated I’d been working the core throughout my two hour run. I realised that while I may always have had a strong core, it had never been integrated into my running and was allowing me to twist and turn my shoulders and hips too much. I continued with the core stability and found an additional benefit was my golf swing became more connected.
Going into September the aches and pains in ankles and feet were becoming too much to bear. My streak was intact but I knew I wouldn’t get through four more months of daily running. I had to be honest with myself about this. It was tempting to think I could take it one day at a time but deep down I knew realistically it would be too many days. If this had been mid-November, with a month or so to go, it would have been different but not four months. I didn’t want to give up without trying to fix things before I took a rest day, so I made a deal with myself – I’d give it until October and if there was no respite from the pain by then, I’d end the streak.
Knowing the pains were a sign I was doing too much, I scaled back my daily one hour runs to forty minutes and shortened my Sunday long run to give less training to recover from. Over the first couple of weeks, the pain eased and I found myself sleeping up to nine hours each night. But despite running at over 9min/mile I returned from each run sweating. I knew from the sweat I was overcooked on the speed side. If I was to get out of this hole, I had to drop back and run even slower.
The week beginning September 21st, I dropped back to running at ten minutes per mile. The average pace of that week’s runs were 10:02/mile, 10:05, 9:48, 9:11, 9:27, 9:53, 9:25. It was a big step back when you consider my kilometre intervals had been easily faster than seven minute per mile. The following week wasn’t much faster but I was arriving home barely sweating and the aches and pains soon eased up. It was beginning to feel relaxing.
After three weeks I began to throw in a faster mid-week run at 8:30/mile and then a couple of strides into my Sunday long runs. By mid-November the midweek run was sub-8 pace and the aches and pains that had plagued me just a few months before were forgotten. Easing up the pace had allowed the muscles to recover, switch to building endurance and the pace to pick up. There was still a variance between the pace of all my runs – days of faster running needed to be followed by a day or two of slower but I was sleeping less and the general pace was improving. All the while I continued the core stability programme on Mondays and Thursdays and found my running form was transforming. Less rotation of the shoulders and hips, more glutes driving me forward.
Finally December of this difficult year rolled around. The streak was still on. I’d always had in mind to get to the 8th to achieve a year’s worth of running and that would then leave a few weeks to complete the whole calendar year. With the quiet of lockdown, I’d had time to think about my own running and why I’d struggled to run the sort of times that my training should have brought. Some years ago I half-joked that I would have been better suited to middle-distance running, or even the sprints, and now I decided to test this by trying my hand at 800-metre training.
To start off December I ran a 800m time trial in 2min58. Considering the world record is under 1min42, that’s a long way from being decent but considering I’d done no dedicated speedwork in years I figured this wasn’t terrible. The following week I began running two intervals sessions each week geared towards building speed over shorter distances. Now as we begin 2021, four weeks have been done and so far so good. My general runs are getting faster and I’m loving the interval work. I like the daily jogs but interval work has always been something I enjoyed much more than any distance run. Often what you enjoy doing is an indicator to what you’re best suited.
So that was the rollercoaster of my 2020 running. Three months spent rebuilding fitness. The following months working on strength and speed. Then back to rebuilding. The underlying positive has been one of a gradual improvement in running form through sprints, bounding and core stability work. I’ve wondered whether the need for the second rebuild was down to the revised form, the body discovering a need to rewrite all its motor programmes as lesser-used muscles began to take precedence over those that have turned out to be inefficient and overdeveloped. Could it be I’m like a beginner starting out and building up for the first time?
In the background there’s been the aim to complete a year of running every day. It never started off that way but became a goal as our circumstances change. The streak itself was never there to be a social media boast, it was a bucket list tick off so one day I’d be able to say I did it. But I also wanted to experience it and pass on what I learnt. While the early days of my streak never felt difficult, as the year wore on I began to feel jaded. Even when I reset things in September and lowered both the pace and volume of my running I began to lose my enjoyment of running. Completing the streak began to hang over me like a dark mist. With December’s nights drawing in, shorter days, colder and wetter weather I began to struggle to feel enthusiasm to get out on my runs. The introduction of 800m training added an extra stimulus to recover from and most likely contributed to that mood.
Yet as soon as I had streaked the year, the mist lifted and I felt happier in the knowledge that I didn’t have to run if I didn’t want to. Where before I’d been thinking ahead, planning each day’s run with an eye on the run that followed, now I’m able to run in the moment. If I overdo things at any time, having a rest day is back on the table as an option. I realise run streaks are a good thing when they support your training but not when they stop you from listening to your body.