The intention entering July had been to get the final six weeks of 800m training done, using JackD’s schedule as a basis, then run a 800m time trial. It didn’t work out like that.
I did the first week and was a bit sluggish on a 3-mile tempo – aiming for 6:40/mile, I ended up averaging 6:54. Not great given I was running 6:48/mile average on similar session in mid-June but I had done sprints two days before so figured that might have left some fatigue in the legs. Two days on, I did 3x600m and only ran 2:05, 2:05, 2:12 where I’d been hitting as fast as 1:58 in training last year and was expecting to go faster – closer to 1:50.
The following Tuesday I did some 200s that came in around 5:20/mile whereas I’d been hitting as quick as 4:50 in April and then immediately went into a couple of individual miles. It was one of the hottest days of the year but I didn’t feel bothered by it. The first mile came in at 7:02 then a 2-minute standing recovery and my legs were like lead and I could only hit 7:28 in the second mile. I’d overcooked it. Peaked too soon this summer.
So that’s it, since mid-July I’ve gone back to recovery work and hour-long tempo runs to rebuild my endurance. The first run I did I covered 7½ miles at 7:46/mile pace. The fastest individual mile was 7:18 even though that was predominantly downhill. This really highlighted how much aerobic fitness I’ve lost. At the end of March, just before my half marathon, I was running 9 miles at 7min/mile, now I couldn’t even run one mile at that pace.
This has been the focus for the rest of July and will be through August – rebuild endurance. By month end, I’d reached the stage where I could average 7:25/mile and my legs were begin to run better but I’m still finding it a struggle to run faster aerobically.
But the focus of the last few months has been to recruit more running muscle and build my speed, I think I achieved and now I have to train some of that muscle to be more enduring. It’s somewhat frustrating to see myself go backwards like this but it’s what all elites go through. It’s difficult to build and maintain a peak for any longer than twelve weeks, I’d say I got 8-10 weeks.
The other thing I’ve been working on is strengthening with various exercises, including one legged chair squats, and my glutes seem to be firing and my core stabilising better during runs. I feel like I’m gliding over the ground more than I used to. In the short term this may also be a source of my problems – using muscles that have never been used before and needing to train them more aerobically. Hopefully as the body adapts to their introduction I will speed back up. Whatever it is, I’ve learned that the only way through this is to up the aerobic work.
I woke up on Wednesday morning to discover Jake Wightman had won the 1,500m final. Quite a surprise given middle-distance racing has been dominated by Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans for the past two decades or more. It’s only the last couple of years that we have seen the rise of Norway’s Jakob Ingebrigtsen challenging them, which led to him entering this race as the Olympic champion. It’s great to see the African dominance being shaken up as the world catches up on them.
Like Eilish McColgan, Jake has the genetics and support around him to help get the best out of himself. His father, Geoff, was a 2:13 marathoner and ran at the 1990 Commonwealth Games. His mother Susan, nee Tooby, and her twin sister Angela both ran at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. But, even with the family background, you have to have the motivation. Jake himself is a twin, and while brother Sam is still runs as a member of Edinburgh AC, he apparently didn’t continue to take it as seriously after he turned eighteen.
In seeing Jake winning the race in 3:29.23 – a personal best – I wondered how he had ascended to be the champion. He’s just turned 28 and his climb has been slow. Going back only eight years ago to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, he was knocked out in the heats in a time of 3:43.87, almost fifteen seconds slower than in Oregon.
It’s instructive to look at his UK Athletics Power of 10 record which lists the majority of his official races and times since he competed in the Scottish Schools championships in 2007 just before he turned 13 years old. At that time he was running 4:45 for 1,500 and it only improved to 4:33 a year later. It took the better part of a decade to knock a minute off that and get down to his current ability. As the graph below shows, he was running close to these times in 2014 and since then has been working to eke out the last improvements from 3:35 to sub-3:30. Even so, it’s a steady progression over the first seven years.
It’s the same story with the 800m. He began as a 2:18 runner in 2008 at age 14 and finally broke two minutes at 17. From there it was another two years to break 1:50 and then it wasn’t until he was ten years into his running career that he became the first British man since Peter Elliott in 1991 to break 1:45 for 800m and 3:35 for 1,500m. That is a lot of running, training and development to get near to his best.
Of course what we don’t know is what his training aims were during these periods. For example, from 2012 – 2016 he ran in some 400m races seeing his times improve from 52.7 to 48.3sec. Again this highlights how it took four years to make a decent improvement from already good times to even better ones – an average of one second per year.
This idea of long term development is one that the average runner doesn’t understand. It takes years to become the best runner you can be. For many runners training consistently for 3-6 months is considered long-term and they’re happy to knock a minute or two off their half marathon time. But as Jake’s record shows with consistent training and a long term approach, you can go much further than you ever expect.
Two days, seven events, sixteen women battling it out for the Heptathlon gold. The favourite was Nafi Thiam, the back-to-back Olympic champion who also won the World Championship in 2017. Britain’s Katarina Johnson-Thompson interrupted Nafi’s dynasty by taking the gold in 2019 and therefore arrived in Oregon as the reigning World champion.
The seven events of heptathlon are split into sprints (100m hurdles and 200m), throws (shot putt and javelin) and jumps (long and high) with a final 800m race providing a test of speed and endurance. Typically the best heptathletes tend to be good sprinters because their speed helps out in the jumps and 800m leaving only the throws to be developed.
As a running coach, I often feel it’s hard to fit in all the sessions I would like to do in preparation for a race. There’s speed work, lactate clearance and tolerance to be developed and there’s general work on the aerobic base; and there’s limited time and energy to do it all.
So how do heptathletes manage to conquer seven different events? The technicalities of hurdling, long jumping, high jumping, shot putting and throwing a javelin are things that rarely come naturally. Of course most multi-eventers begin when they are ten or eleven years old so the basic techniques are ingrained by the time they get to their late teens and begin competing in championships. But even so, trying to fit in training for seven different events each week must be difficult and I guess all you can do is periodise your training to allow for it. There’s probably a decision to be made whether to try and improve your strongest events vs. eliminating any weakness. These are difficult decisions for any coach and athlete.
I tuned in over the two days to snippets of the events but it was the final 800m race which I watched with most interest given it’s my event. While trained world-class 800m runners are running under 1:45 for men and 1:55 for women, watching the heptathletes provides a different look.
These women are very good athletes there’s no doubt about that but they are second echelon or they’d be 800m specialists. The nature of the heptathlon disciplines pushes them to develop speed and power over endurance and the limitations of training mean they can’t be running 40 miles or more per week as the specialists do.
After six events, the Netherlands’ Anouk Vetter had edged ahead of Nafi Thiam through a massive 58+ metre throw in the javelin leaving only the two of them contending for the gold and silver. Meanwhile the 21-year-old American sensation, Anna Hall, who had been setting personal bests in each event and bouncing around excitedly after each great throw, jump or sprint was favoured to be first across the line. She recently ran 2:03 for 800m and while she wouldn’t be able to reach Thiam or Vetter in the overall standings it was likely she’d take bronze.
The race set off and Hall sprinted into the lead opening up a gap over the others. There wasn’t much drama but down the back straight of the second lap, about 1min20 into the run, you could see Hall beginning to suffer, breathing hard, looking a little less smiley as she dug in. Rounding the last bend, Sulek the Pole and Vidts from Belgium moved up onto her shoulder and challenged. Over the last 50m, Hall found a final burst to sprint away and cross the line in 2:06.67
The others trailed in over the next fifteen seconds and then after walking a few steps, with the competition over, they all collapsed to the floor gasping for breath. I remember the feeling on my first 800m time trial – lungs busting to the very end then hyperventilating to try and get the breath back. For me, it lasted a good few minutes and the unpleasant effects of lactic build-up were still causing me to cough an hour later. On my later time trials these effects were diminished as my endurance had improved.
Breaking down Anna Hall’s race, it’s instructive to note she ran 23.08s in the 200m event at the end of the hep’s first day. The next best time was Johnson-Thompson’s 23.62s which is a significant drop off. Generally speaking the fastest runners over short distances become the fastest over long distances with the right training.
In running 2:06.67, Hall recorded 200m splits of 28.77, 31.98, 33.45 and 32.47. There’s no doubt she went out a little quick even though she was almost six seconds slower than she’s capable for 200m. The lap splits came in at 1:01.75 and 1:05.92 where a specialist aims to have a 2-second difference between the two. Let’s put those numbers into context the 800m was run at 4:15/mile, the fastest split at 3:51/mile, the slowest at 4:29! All very impressive stuff to us mere mortals.
Anouk Vetter trailed in at 2:20 to take silver behind the champion Thiam (2:13). The commentary team suggested that Vetter’s 7-second deficit, with her throws being better than everyone else, indicated she had spent more time in the weights room than the track. Of course that may have been a little tongue-in-cheek without a more detailed analysis of Vetter’s past abilities or knowing what her coaching were aiming to achieve, but likely there’s some truth in it.
Even so, the race highlights how much speed is an important factor in racing fast but also the need to balance training to build the endurance to support it. Hall may be able to run 200m at 3:05/mile pace but it quickly drops to only being able to run at 4:30/mile when another 600m is added. It really highlights the endurance work that runners need to do if they’re going to be competitive at longer distances like parkrun, 10K or even the marathon.
The World Athletics championship opened on Friday 15 July 2022 in Oregon, USA. As I’m based in the UK, I’m not going to see much of it live as, while some events start in the evening in my time-zone, the majority take place after midnight.
What I caught on Day 1 began with the field events of hammer and high jump along with a couple of track events, the Mixed 4x400M relay and preliminary heats of the Men’s 100M. But the real highlight was away from the stadium where we were treated to the Women’s 20KM walk!
Race walking is a sport which is somewhat derided and I am being slightly sarcastic when I say it’s a highlight. Yet, I have a fascination with all things sporty and what I can learn from them and I’ve actually watched race walking at some of the past Olympics. Given it’s similarity to running it’s interesting to dig into the details and analyse.
Race walking at the elite level is surprisingly fast and there are two event distances – 20 and 50km. A little bit shorter than half marathon (21.1km) and longer than a marathon (42.2km). It’s only in the past decade the women have been allowed to compete in the longer walking distance.
There are two basic rules that differentiate it from running.
You must always have one foot in contact with the ground as judged by the naked eye. This “naked eye” caveat was instituted in recent years because with the advent of high definition television pictures, it became clear everyone was lifting off and travelling through the air!
When the front foot lands the leg must stay straight until the body passes over it. The knee cannot bend.
Breaking either of these rules results in a warning red card and if three are received, the walker has to take a penalty stop of 1-minute per 10K of race distance. If they break the rules a fourth time they are disqualified. However, there’s a twist as in the last 100 metres, a walker may be disqualified even if they haven’t had any previous cards which avoids them gaming the system and breaking into a sprint at the line! The drama of the race begins to occur as competitors accumulate penalties or risk everything to go that bit faster.
The commentators made the point that tactically there’s not much you can do in race-walking. Its limitations, as I shall explain, means there is an inherent top speed. It’s not like distance running where you might decide to conserve your energy by sitting behind an opponent and then sprinting for the line!
By always having one foot in contact with the ground, a walker’s stride length is limited by the length of their legs. As one foot leaves the ground, the other must already be touching it.
This begins to highlight a big difference with running where runners can push off with each step and travel through the air. They get a longer stride length by doing this – as much as 2.70m for world class male sprinters and almost 2m for distance runners. The average man walking along the street usually has a stride of around 90cm and when I measured my biggest possible step it was a highly uncomfortable, full stretch 1.35m.
In his book Mathletics, John D. Barrow a professor at Cambridge University analyses how race walkers achieve their speeds and concludes that to achieve the world record pace, it requires the walker to have a leg length of 2.3m. Basically they have to be leaving the ground to go as fast as they do! What the walkers are good at is eliminating any up and down motion. Their centre of gravity always remains level and all effort goes into propelling themselves horizontally forwards.
This means their cadence – the number of steps taken per minute – is a big factor in how fast they walk. The best in the race I watched were hitting a cadence of around 200 steps per minute but again this has limitations. Sprinters achieve very high cadences of around 250 steps per minute but they can only hold onto this for a minute. Middle distance runners tend to be over 200-220 steps and are closer to the race walkers in this respect.
But it’s a key difference between running and race-walking that middle distance runners achieve high cadence by ‘shortening the lever”. When their back foot leaves the ground it comes up to almost kick their backside. This shortening allows the rear leg to travel under the body quicker than if it were staying straight. This is basic mechanics that occurs with the pendulum of a clock speeding up or slowing down depending on its length and which you can easily test by swinging a weight on a piece of string.
What a tall walker gains in stride length, they lose in cadence because their long levers move slower.
Watching a racewalker, you immediately notice they all employ a distinctive wiggling method with the arms notably swinging. The hands stay low to keep the centre of gravity low and help avoid losing contact with the ground.
The reason for the wiggle is that it maximises the length of each stride. It involves rotation of the hips which is counterbalanced by the shoulders rotating. Unfortunately, if you go watch any amateur distance race you will seem many runners at the slower end of the field using a similar technique. This isn’t entirely a surprise as many amateur runners are going at paces slower than race walkers.
Together these factors begin to explain why many amateur runners aren’t achieving better times. Firstly they do too much ‘wiggling’ – their hips and shoulders rotate around the body. While this creates a longer stride, it often causes a heel strike which at best creates braking forces to slow them, but at worst may cause injury. Neither is desirable.
A secondary consequence of hip rotation is that it doesn’t cause the trail leg to swing up which would make their running more efficient. All they’re doing is penduluming their legs back and forth.
Now there are running methods which encourage runners to deliberately lift the trailing leg but I don’t advocate that, it should happen naturally with good mechanics. How far the trail leg swings up is dependent on how fast you’re running. But certainly if you’ve got excessive hip rotation going on, it will be harder to hit the top speeds that enable it to happen.
The most impressive part of race walking is the speed – they are not just ambling down to the shops to pick up a pint of milk. In Friday night’s, 20km walk the first kilometre was completed in 4:20 – the equivalent of a 21:40 parkrun! In Imperial terms it’s 6:58/mile and they went through five miles in under 35 minutes.
The Chinese women, Shijie Qieyang and Hong Liu started out quickly but were eventually caught and overtaken by Kimberly Garcia Leon and then Poland’s Katarzyna Zdzieblo. After 1:26:58 it was Garcia Leon who claimed the first gold medal of these World Championships and Peru’s first ever.
Later on the men’s race took place won by Japan’s Toshikazu Yamnishi in 1:19:07. I didn’t stay up to watch it!
Both of these times were within three minutes of the world records which are:
Britain finally seems to have found its summer and a heatwave is predicted over the next few days. This doesn’t bode well for any of us who can’t run early morning or in the evenings when it’s cooler.
There’s no doubt heat, or more importantly humidity can affect your running. While a hot day can be unpleasant, it’s the latter that’s the greater issue because it makes it harder to keep cool. High humidity means there’s high levels of water vapour already in the air and this means the sweat / water on your skin has nowhere to go – it can’t evaporate. So it just sits there and stops you from sweating further which is a key mechanism used by the body for cooling. The heart already works harder, as evidenced by a higher heart-rate, to get more blood flowing to the skin to take away the internal heat which occurs through sweating.
If the body temperature rises too much it can be dangerous. The body usually functions at a temperature of 37-38C but add a couple of degrees to that and it begins to impair muscle function. Get to over 40-41C and you’re in danger of heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion is problematic and if left untreated it can turn into heaststroke which can be deadly.
I think I suffered heat exhaustion once. I was running at the beach, in the middle of summer, and it was a hot sunny day. The day before I’d done the same route – a ten mile run, five miles out, five miles back and even though it had been hot, I had no issues.
On the second day, I felt fine on the outwards stretch and I seem to recall I had a slight wind in my face which helped me feel cool. Then I turned around and it was hot. Any breeze was now on my back, so I got no benefit and I was running with the sun shining on my front. Where I’d run at 8min/mile on the way out, my 6th mile slowed to 8:30 and I was beginning to feel bad. The 7th slowed further to 9:10 and I took a couple of minutes break, standing in the shade shivering behind a beach hut. My heart-rate wouldn’t drop below 115 even though I was just standing there. I resumed at an easy jog, as I still had three miles to cover to get back to the car, but when the 8th mile came in at a shuffling 9:45 I decided it would be best to walk the rest. I had no further effects that afternoon and the following day I felt fine and was back out running okay.
I’m not quite sure what happened. I’m sure I was a little fatigued from doing the ten mile run the day before although longer sessions were quite common at the time. I may not have eaten or drunk enough before setting out. I find in the hot weather, I am constantly drinking fluids and still underhydrated. One other thing may have been an issue, at one stage of the run I sped up to get past the land train that runs along the prom. This pushed my heart-rate up into the 150s and may have set off a chain of events that I would otherwise have avoided had I just been jogging casually. Whatever caused it, I believe I took the right action by cancelling the session and walking back. Fortunately I’ve never encountered it since.
I’ve always been a big believer in drinking to thirst. Most of the day I have a cup of tea to hand but I don’t force it. When I was more endurance trained and sweated less, I found cups of tea would be half finished. At the moment, with the heat I’m drinking lots of tea and I’m still seeing that I’m underhydrated when I go to the toilet. The colour of your urine is a good indicator – when it’s clear you’re hydrated, when it’s golden or even darker you need to drink more. Even though I don’t noticeably sweat during the day, I’m still losing fluid from the body – water particles will be exhaled in your breathing.
The advice used to be to drink lots before a marathon and to keep drinking throughout. But this became a risk with runners drinking over a litre per hour for 3-4 hours. It could lead to a condition called hyponatremia which can almost ‘drown’ the body’s cells and wash the important minerals out of them. The advice now is to drink to thirst.
Of course if you can do your runs in the early morning or late evening, they’re much more enjoyable. Last Sunday, I did my long run at 5:07am and was home well before 7am. It was cool from start to finish and I still had the rest of the day to enjoy the sunshine.
On other days, I’ve been running in the heat of the day but I don’t mind it. Most of the runs have been for recovery purposes which are deliberately kept slow enough that they don’t cause me to break sweat too much. There is a little but it doesn’t get too uncomfortable. I’ve actually found it’s worse when I arrive home and stop moving. The lack of air circulation causes any sweat to start building up.
The couple of workouts I’ve done in the heat I don’t mind. It’s probably because the intervals aren’t that long and you get a rest afterwards. I believe the real danger of running in the heat comes when you try to hold onto a decent pace for a long time.
If we’re lucky enough to have good weather for the rest of the summer months then it’s worth understanding that it takes around two weeks for the body to get used to the heat. There’s always going to be some degradation in performance because of it until that occurs.
Best advice I can give you is to get out and get used to it. Keep yourself hydrated by drinking to thirst and don’t try to force yourself through anything that feels untoward or out of the ordinary.
With my speed improving over the past month, I took another read of Pete Magill’s Speedrunner book to see what extra I could learn. One of the things I’ve found with learning is that rereading stuff is helpful. The first time you read something it may seem to go in and be understood. If you then begin to apply what you’ve read and grow, a reread brings a different perspective on the same material.
Among the exercises listed in the book are one-legged squats. These are nothing new to me and last November I started doing exercises as I wanted to be able to do a pistol squat which is a full one-legged squat to the ground and back up. I did exercises for about six weeks which were beneficial but when combined with the faster running I was doing, my left glute got sore and I decided to put them on hold rather than get injured.
Reading Speedrunner as I sat in my garden last Monday, it was one of the rare sunny days we’ve enjoyed this summer. The front half of the book is an explanation of the concepts of maximum velocity, acceleration and sprint mechanics while the second half details exercises that will help to improve these.
A variation to the one-legged squat was also detailed. Begin sitting in a chair (as I happened to be doing at that point) and raise yourself up out of it on only one leg. This allows you to go with a smaller range of motion plus the security of not falling backwards or collapsing on the floor. I gave it a try.
My right leg was just about strong enough to do five reps, it was a struggle but I got them done. The left leg was not so easy. Almost immediately on trying the hamstring muscles in the back of my thigh were crying out in pain with the difficulty. I could do it but it was on the edge of a strain. Fortunately I know my body well enough to know when to keep going and when to back off. I did the five reps and that was it.
In the following days, I continued to do five reps each leg, each day. The left leg still strained at the effort but subjectively I knew the pain was reducing, so the muscle must be getting stronger. Plus the exercise itself is also an improver for balance and coordination. It’s worth noting that for all the technology we have, there is nothing that could tell me I was improving beyond a subjective assessment.
By Saturday, after five days of this, I was feeling strong enough to do ten reps on each leg. The left leg was still a little grumbly about this, the right leg strong but actually not quite as good at balancing when up out of the chair.
On Sunday I went for my long run and with the combination of miles and a decent pace (rather than recovery) it’s the sort of run where any new form can begin to be ingrained. I didn’t particularly notice anything different with the left leg starting to strengthen up but in the last mile or so, I found my right shoulder dropped and began to swing a little easier. They may not seem connect but the arms and legs working in opposite pairings, so the right leg / left arm swing together in time as do the left leg / right arm.
Fixing form issues is quite often a case of looking at the whole body as a system, not simply focusing on the body part you thing is an issue. A good example of this is when you have a runner who heel strikes. The instinct is to get them to run on their toes more but quite often I find it is happening because their hips or glutes aren’t working properly. And I reckon this is what happened to me this past week. I got the left glute-hamstring area stronger, it worked better and consequently that led to the counterbalance from the right shoulder correcting itself.
I’ve continued with the one-legged chair squats this week and they are getting easier and easier. The reps of standing up onto the right leg are now beginning to feel as easy as it does when standing up as normal onto two feet. The left leg is still a tad weak but it will strengthen up. I’ve noticed the right shoulder seems to be dropping into place more often when running and during sprints my form felt great.
One of the surprises is that I need to do this strengthening work. While I do press-ups, corework and dumbbell curls to keep my upper body in shape, I had always considered running was enough for my lower body, particularly in recent months where I’ve been doing hills. Apparently it wasn’t and while it is difficult, if not impossible, to find a set of tests to identify any weakness; it certainly highlights the benefit of doing a range of activities outside of pure running.
Last update I mentioned improving top-end speed is the priority this summer even if it comes at the expense of other parts of training. I’ve been doing weekly sprint sessions which alternate between hills and on the flat. The general process has been one of starting with a small amount of sprint work and gradually increasing it. Back in April my first session was 6x8secs – a total of 48 seconds effort. The next week it went to 8x8s (64s), then 10x8s (80s) followed. This morphed into some 60m flat sprints which came in at just under 9-10secs each but only four of them to avoid overloading the body with the new type of effort.
The hills then lengthened to 10secs (x8 reps) that still totalled the same 1min20s of volume before pushing up again to 10x10secs (1min40s). On the alternate weeks, 80m flat sprints were taking around 12s and then a 100m in 15s. Back on the hills, a single 20s effort replaced the final two efforts of the previous 10x10sec and oh my, that was hilariously tough. I was good for the first 15secs but as I entered the new territory of the final 2-3 seconds, my legs became jelly and could barely propel myself. That set the stage for adding a 150m sprint (22+ secs) on the flats and then hills went all-in with 2x25sec. This was my biggest session to date at 2min10 of hills and they won’t get bigger. On the flat, the volume is topping out at 700-800m which fits nicely with trying to be 800m runner.
The latest session was 2x60m, 2x80m, 1x100m, 1x150m, 1x200m as it begins to tip towards speed endurance. The shorter efforts now barely tax me but the 150 and 200 were tough. Ideally I would have taken longer recovery times. A sprinter would usually be taking fifteen minutes recovery before attempting the 200m, I took six minutes. Woefully inadequate and I began to pay for it at the 80m mark as the legs tied up and co-ordination went. My hopes of a first recorded sub-30 sec were dashed.
The setting for these efforts are my local roads. There’s a couple of hills nearby, in fact it’s hard to find a decent straight flat stretch off the main roads. There is one round the corner from where I live which has a slight gradient in the middle so I’ve used that. Unfortunately because it gets busier later in the morning, I’ve been out at 7am doing the sprints which isn’t the best time to go with all-out efforts. With it being mid-June and the longest days, I was up at 5am for breakfast a couple of times to get something in before my sessions. I should add I followed the sprints with some other fast threshold-paced type running.
The results from the speedwork seem to be bleeding through and I certainly feel I’m getting more push in the first steps and technique is improving. While the GPS isn’t accurate on the shorter efforts – it takes around 15-16s to get down to the faster paces – it has recorded me running at 3:35-3:40/mile on a couple of occasions which is scarily only as fast as the world record pace for the mile! But go back a year and I was struggling to run much quicker than 4:45/mile pace, so there is improvement.
The only downside of these sprint sessions is they take 3-5 days to recover from. Quite often my Wednesday sessions were a letdown and off target pace; eventually I ditched the Friday interval session in favour of a Steady run.
Nominally I’m following JackD’s plan and I finished off the 3rd phase of training with one of my favourite sessions … 600m effort in 2:03, 30s standing recovery, 200m in 37secs … three times over with a 7-min jog recovery in between.
When I did this session six weeks ago near the end of May my legs were simply too tired and I couldn’t get below 2:10 / 39s for the 600 / 200 split, I totalled 8min39 for the 2,400m.
This time around my times were 2:02 / 39 … 2:05 / 37 … 2:07 / 36 – 8:06 total time. Unfortunately the scheduled day saw me running into a hefty headwind for over half of the 600m efforts. I think they would have been on target on a calmer day, but it did give me an advantage on the 200s although I think I’d have been hitting those numbers anyway.
All in all, it’s been a good month with fitness improving and the goal of improving speed beginning to take place. I can’t believe I’m already down to the last six weeks of training before I attempt another 800m. It’ll be almost a year since the last one by the time I get around to it. I’m not expecting miracles but I am looking for a decent improvement over last year’s 2:49.
I was in my early twenties when I made, what I now realise was, a very insightful observation. Where I worked the majority of people were older than me. (That’s not the insight). Of course when you’re young you have no judgement of how old other people are. Thirty seems wise and mature when you’re twenty and anyone over forty is ancient like your parents!
Now while I didn’t go around asking people their age you get a feel based on their seniority. There were the people who did the actual work, like myself, and we were all under thirty. The people who were middle management were usually in their thirties and the senior managers were over forty. Of course there were some workers in their forties who only made it to supervisor or team leader level or not even that far.
I’d get an idea of their age based on their family circumstances or how long they’d been working and the stories they told about when they were growing up. Whether it was supporting a football team that had success in the Sixties, their drinking stories from the Seventies or being single in the Eighties.
Despite this inability to accurately age people, what I noticed about the men who were under forty was they generally looked similar to people in their twenties. Yet the men who were over forty-five were overweight, grey or bald and wearing spectacles. Something happened to men between the age of forty and forty-five and it wasn’t flattering. This was the big insight!
This forty to forty-five change isn’t quite as prevalent today as it was thirty years ago. There’s certainly some artificial manipulation going on with hair dye, shaving the head completely bald rather than a combover and eye surgery or contact lenses instead of spectacles. But generally people look after themselves a little better and fifty has become the new forty! There are even people looking amazing in their sixties – think Tom Cruise.
I decided then I didn’t want this rapid ageing disaster to befall me and I would stay fit and healthy as best I could. The prevailing wisdom was that you can’t stop the ageing process but I’ve never been one for believing that and you did occasionally see people who looked much better than their years.
As I exited my thirties I found the occasional grey hair and a very gradually receding hairline, but it wasn’t until I turned forty-five that I saw a photo where my hair looked notably greyer. Even then I looked good for my age yet my reaction was to start learning what I could do to slow the decline. I bought a copy of Joe Friel’s “Fast After 50” as I wanted a headstart on what I should be doing when I hit them. That’s all summed up in my “The Ageing Runner” series of posts.
I’ve continued to decline a little more over the past five years. My eyesight is declining but I’m holding off on the specs and have tried various exercises to strengthen them. My hair is beginning to grey up on top where before it was just the temples. I still have a decent head of hair but my male pattern baldness is following the same trend as my uncle who is now seventy-two and looks exactly like I recall my grandad looking.
Now at fifty, I’m thinking ahead again. I don’t want to be one of those people who reaches their eighties and stoops, shuffles, struggles to get up and downstairs and has a variety of illnesses that keep flaring up. I’ve seen my parents, relatives and neighbours hitting this age and it’s saddening to see the decline kick in more strongly because they haven’t done any exercise beyond the housework, gardening and walking around town.
It doesn’t have to be the end, I keep telling them they could build more fitness. Over the past few years the BBC has aired programmes taking groups of sedentary seventy-somethings and improving their health and fitness by having them doing appropriate weightlifting and fitness exercises. This is good news for those who’ve left it until later but it’s much harder to build up when you’re faced with a big reclamation project rather than an ongoing maintenance task. If you get too far overweight or unfit, you may struggle to be able to get an exercise programme started plus you’ll have lived your fifties and sixties with many of the effects of ill-health – aches, pains, getting out of breath on stairs, fatigued and possibly feeling unhappy when you look in the mirror.
It might seem strange to be thinking thirty years into the future but doing so gives you a chance to identify and build good habits and if you take a month off, it really isn’t going to cause too much decline. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for sedentary adults to put on 1-2 pounds of fat each year (and that’s a conservative amount for people who don’t exercise) which will leave them two to four stone heavier in thirty years’ time with all the problems that brings.
This is why I’ve been training for the 800m. I think it’s the best blend of aerobic exercise and speed you can do. To support it, I do press-ups, bicep curls and corework to keep my upper body toned and strong. The trick to slowing the ageing decline is to make sure you maximise using what you have got. The reason others get slow is they stop doing hard all-out exercise at all, get comfy and think going for a jog or walk is enough. It really isn’t.
This all began the better part of thirty years ago for me when I spotted the rapid decline between forty and forty-five. Reaching fifty, I’m pleased to consider myself about as fit and healthy as I can be at this age. It’s worth pointing that I haven’t been obsessive about this over that span. There have been periods where I didn’t exercise or ate badly but it was never too difficult to get back into shape because I was never too far away from my best!
I originally wrote this back in 2015 for someone I was coaching for a half marathon. It’s my account of a race I ran three weeks before theirs. I wanted to give them an idea of how, whatever your fitness level, if you’re pushing to your limits, you will experience voices / self talk trying to get you to ease up or even give up. But I also wanted to provide some of the phrases and ways I use to counter that voice. It’s a skill I learned while coaching volleyball to try and keep a team playing hard to the end of match even if all seems lost.
My race was the New Forest half marathon which took place in mid-September. I’d entered it when I was fit and healthy. I’d written a training plan aiming to get under 1hr30, but then July’s training didn’t go well and I picked up a calf problem in early August. Two weeks before the race I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to run it as I was exhausted at the end of my Sunday ‘long’ runs on Sundays and these were only covering 7½ miles at paces close to 9min/mile. Nothing like the 13+ miles I’d need to cover in the half.
Nonetheless in the last week my fitness seemed to return and I went from thinking 1hr45 was a possibility to turning up on race day and deciding to target sub-1hr40 (which is 7min36/mile pace). Basically I hadn’t run longer than 10-miles since July 19th and almost all my recent miles have been up around 9min/mile so nothing close to where I was actually intending to run. I really didn’t know how it would go.
About 20 mins before the start – I had a 5-min jog at 10min/mile pace [2½ mins slower than race pace] and then finished off with a couple of strides at 8min/mile pace [engaging race pace muscles]. That was my warmup.
In the start funnel I was in the wrong place for 1hr40 due to the way they organised it so I knew I had a few people to get past but just took it nice and easy and told myself “It’s extra warmup“. With the early bunching of runners and wanting to get past them, I told myself “Wait until the gaps appeared then move through them”. The first mile came in at 7min40. The next at 7min30. Everything was feeling comfortable and I was on target.
I continued running at around this pace and it felt ok. Much of the course was on gravel paths at this stage and I felt pretty strong over the next four miles (7min29, 33, 37, 25). So now I’d reached at mile six with things still feeling manageable, but I was also slightly questioninghow long will I be able to keep this up given my lack of training?
The watch was beginning to consistently read around 7min25, and I was a little concernedI might be overdoing things given my original 1hr40 intention, . But I decided to just stick with it and take whatever comes. The seventh mile came in at 7min27 and mile 8 at 7min16, but things were beginning to feel tough within my body. We’d also hit a little bit of light headwind out in the open and there were some gradients to go up, but gradients also go down which explains the quicker mile 8.
By this point my accumulated time was putting me in for 1hr37 and I was averaging about 7min25/mile. With only five miles to go, I told myself “Just hang on as best I can and get whatever time that brings me“. Even if I ran a minute per mile slower from here onwards, I’d only be adding five minutes to 1hr37 and finishing in 1hr42. But realistically you aren’t going to slow by that much if you keep putting one foot in front of the other as best you can. So most likely it would be 20secs/mile over the next 2-3 (+1min) and then maybe 1-min/mile over the last two (+2mins) which would still be 1hr40.
When the Mile 9 marker rolled around, I felt like giving up and downgrading to a jog as the legs were really beginning to feel it. But the mile itself clocked in at 7min25 – so no time added to the new 1hr37 goal. I told myself “Just keep running hard and see how far you can get“.
Mile 10 was 7min26 – I told myself “3.1 miles to go. Just a parkrun – I do those all the time“.
Mile 11 was 7min25. I was basically running on my physical limit rather than really good pacing. This pace was the leftover from when my training was good in July.
But now with only two miles to go, I DEFINITELY wanted to give up. Told myself “It’s only 15mins running left.“. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice was saying “You’re going to crash and have to walk these last two miles and end up running 1hr50“. I ignored that voice.
I was really beginning to struggle mentally. Then the tail end of the 10K race merged in with us, they were significantly slower and spread out across the path because of where the organisers had placed the drinks station. Mentally it was distracting and frustrating, especially when you’re tired; I wanted to shout at them to “MOVE” but it would be wasting energy. I got past safely after a few hundred yards.
At 11½ miles I glimpsed the finish area through the trees and told myself “Not far to go now. It’s only 1.6 miles, I can see the finish. I do 1.6 miles in warmup all the time.“
At mile 12 I felt I was running like a zombie. My legs had slowed, it felt awful. I would have guessed my split time was 8min25 … actually it was 7min40 … within 15 seconds of my other miles. All that had happened is I’d dropped to my marathon pace. So now my predicted time had become 1hr37 and 15 seconds due to the slightly slower mile.
The final mile felt so slowwwww in my legs and it felt like I was jogging. The path became gravelly again, runners around me were starting to leave me behind thereby highlighting my perceived slowness, and although the finish was in sight the course took us on a mile lap around the outside of it. On top of that, one side of the field had a strong headwind to run into. It was all I could do to keep putting one foot in front of the other but that’s what I did and eventually I reached the final finish straight and tried to pick up the pace for a ‘sprint’ finish. I could only top out at 6min25 pace which is my 10K pace! The final mile had felt so slow – yet it came in at 7min30 pace.
So that was my half marathon finishing in 1hr37min07. Well above my expectations of a week before and above what I’d set out to do. On the day I had to give everything to achieve that time. Obviously fully fit I’d have been a much more capable runner but the lack of training put me on my limits.
What can you learn from this? I want you to understand that when you really run a race to get a PB, it’s going to be as much about having the correct mental attitude as it is to being physically fit. I’ve tried to give you indications on what my self-talk was and what I had to do to hang on in there.
Mostly it’s a process of continuing to run as hard as your body will allow, counting down the miles and realising that with the fewer miles left there are, the smaller effect it can have on your overall time.
Understand that your mind will tell you anything to try and get you to slow down but you can hang in there and override it to a good extent.
When you feel like you’re running through treacle, but you know you’re trying your hardest, the reality is that you’ve probably only dropped by 15-20seconds/mile and ultimately that won’t destroy the time anywhere near as much as you thought it would.
Scotland’s Eilish McColgan is the current golden girl of British Athletics. This year she has set distance records, the first occurred in February when she broke Paula Radcliffe’s British half marathon record by 21 seconds in 1:06:26. Then in May, she ran 30:19 to take Radcliffe’s 10K road record and on Monday (June 6th), she ran this time again on the track in Hengelo, Netherlands to set a Scottish record.
The McColgan name is not unfamiliar to followers of running. Her mother, Liz, was the World Champion in 1991 at the 10,000m having already been Commonwealth Games champion in 1986 and 1990 and silver medal winner at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. When she moved up to the marathon distance she won New York (1991), Tokyo (1992) and London (1996) marathons. Eilish’s father, Peter McColgan, was also a talented distance runner who competed for Northern Ireland in the 3,000m steeplechase and 5,000m at the Edinburgh Commonwealth games as well as for Great Britain in the steeplechase at the 1991 World Championships. What a pedigree for Eilish to have!
Not only does she have the genetic advantage but Eilish is also part of a generation of successful female Scottish distance runners. Laura Muir has been the most successful gaining a silver medal at last year’s Tokyo Olympics where she set a British record for the 1,500m in a time of 3:54.50 In 2012, Lynsey Sharp was European champion and competed at the London Olympics in the 800m. She followed this up four years later setting a Scottish record of 1:57.69 while finishing 6th in the Rio Olympic final.
A recent BBC article detailed that this year’s success is down to Eilish undertaking a reduced training load that Liz had to be persuaded would be in Eilish’s best interest. Liz had been running as much as 140 miles per week in her marathon prime.
But this highlights the event differences. Liz was always a long distance runner doing 10,000m and marathons. Following in her dad’s footsteps, Eilish competed in the 3,000m steeplechase for Great Britain at the London Olympics and then the 5,000m in Rio. It wasn’t until 2018 (when she 28 years old) that she began racing longer distances winning the ten mile Great South Run in 54:43. Roll on three years to the Tokyo Olympics and Eilish competed in both the 5,000 and 10,000m. Looking back at her Personal Bests, her time for 800m is 2:07.8 – over ten seconds slower than Lynsey Sharp and her mile is 4:00.97 which is five seconds slower than Muir. It’s clear that although Eilish competes in middle distance races, she lacks the top-end speed to be winner against the best and like her parents is better suited to the longer distances.
So it’s surprising when she talks in the article about how her training increased from 20, 30, 40, 50 miles per week and has only been operating at 65-70 over the last year and a half to two years. It’s not unusual for a world class 800m runner to operate on as little as forty miles per week but Eilish isn’t one. Typically world class 5,000 – 10,00m runners train between 70-100mpw. Given the recent increase in training mileage, it’s no surprise that when Eilish returned to the Great South run last October she was four minutes quicker than three years ago.
There’s no doubt decent mileage is critical to distance running success and Eilish’s approach of starting on low mileage and building up is a good one to follow but far too many runners simply aren’t doing enough mileage to support longterm improvement. Getting the balance right is important and, as Eilish shows, great results can be achieved off moderate mileage.
While I don’t wish to take anything away from how hard I’m sure she’s working in training, it should be noted many road and track records have been broken over the past couple of years due to the innovation of carbon plates in shoes. I am slightly sceptical Eilish would have been breaking Radcliffe’s records without them (at least in the near future); but many past records have been broken due to now-forgotten reasons outside of better athletic prowess. And in the longer term, unless the IAAF backtracks on the use of carbon plates, these records will become the new standard. All power to her – she’s still the best we’ve seen in a long time.
Whatever the reason, I have no doubt Eilish McColgan is going to go on to greater things as she gets the benefit of higher mileages and moves up to the longer distances permanently. At 31 years old, she has potential for another Olympic cycle in her and maybe more. I’m sure she will be looking to emulate her mother by taking on the London Marathon and other Majors.
Bonus content – Eilish is listed in Wikipedia at 1.80m (5’11). In my article on stride length I observed her cadence averaging 172 steps per minute giving her a stride length of 1.97m. It’s easy to think this is because she is tall and to an extent it is. But, as I also pointed out, Eliud Kipchoge (1.67m – 5’6”) has a stride length of almost two metres – about 15% greater than his height.
A quick look back at Paula Radcliffe running mile 5 of her record-setting 2003 London Marathon shows her running with a stride length of 1.67m (186-88 cadence) when she is 1.73m tall (5’8”). It’s a decent stride but it’s shorter than she is!