The Beauty of VDOT

Jack Daniels is a famous running coach with an infamous moniker. Mention him to anyone outside the world of running (as well as quite often within it) and you get a remark about drinking whisky. He has been called “the world’s best running coach” by Runner’s World and has coaching experience dating back to the 1960s. He himself won medals in the modern pentathlon at the Melbourne and Rome Olympics. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know I used his 800m training plan last year for my training.

He took a scientific approach by examining the relationship between how fast runners race and the big three measurables: V̇O2max (properly stated as “V-dot-O2max”), Lactate Threshold and Running Economy. Historically it was believed the runners who could process the most oxygen (V̇O2max) were the fastest. But when Jack compared himself to Jimmy Gilbert, a teammate with a significantly higher score, it didn’t make sense because Jack could often beat him in their 4,000m pentathlon races.

Realising the picture was incomplete Jack and Jimmy began measuring elite runners and from this were able to publish tables of data relating race times to training paces. Online calculators doing this are more commonplace now but even twenty years ago this was revolutionary.

My 2nd and 3rd editions

The 4th edition of Jack’s book Daniels’ Running Formula was published in 2021 but I have yet to lay eyes on it. I bought a copy of the 2nd edition ten years ago and it revamped my ideas about how to train. It laid out step by step how you create your own training plan, what paces to run at and so on. It’s packed with information, pictures and profiles of elite runners and all laid out in a highly readable font and format. By comparison the 3rd edition seems to be full of standard plans rather than teaching you how to coach yourself and I think this likely reflects the increased participation and how much less modern people like to think for themselves.

In each book it’s the VDOT tables which I prize most. There’s two obvious uses, firstly the tables provide the times you should be able to run for different race distances for your current ability. Secondly they tell you what pace to train at to make progress to the next level.

VDOT training paces in the 2nd edition – pages falling out through heavy use

If you run parkrun in 25-minutes then the book suggests running Easy runs at 10:35/mile (which is a lot slower than most people realise). To run marathon pace at 9:08/mile and to run fast intervals at 54-secs / 200m (again this would seem slow to most).

The race times converter suggests to be able to run a 3hr marathon you need to be able to run a 1hr25 half, 39-min 10K and 18:45 5K. In the old days, people estimated that a doubling of distance resulted in a time that was double plus 5-10% (which agrees with these) but they had to work it out every time.

The benefit of knowing race times is huge. Most runners either go out tentatively and therefore can never hit their best possible time; or go out hard and blow up. For example, If you have run a 25-minute 5K then you’ll be able to scrape in for a four hour marathon with good training. But while the average pace of a 25-min 5K runner is about 8 min / mile their marathon pace is 9 min / mile at best. They can go out and practice this pace in training to get used to what it feels like.

The Real Prize

The VDOT tables aren’t perfect and when you’re trained more towards speed or endurance, they can push you down the wrong path a little. That’s not to say they’re terrible, they’re not and a good general guide to follow.

The tables stretch from VDOT 30 all the way up to the elite standard of VDOT 85 which line up with the men’s world records. When you consider the average parkrun time is 28:57 (a VDOT of 32) then it suggests there is much untapped potential among runners. This VDOT is close to the bottom of Jack’s table and while not everybody is genetically capable or motivated enough to train, this begins to suggest why there is something of an obesity and health crisis these days.

Even times which are considered quite exceptional by average runners e.g. 20-min parkrun (VDOT 51), 45-min 10K (VDOT 45), 1hr45 half marathon (VDOT 40) and sub-4 marathon (VDOT 38) are actually much closer to those of a beginner than they are to the elites.

It’s not just the context I prize, I can see how quickly progress may or may not be made. Let’s say I start coaching someone who runs parkrun in 25-minutes. To get them under 23-mins – which sounds massive to them – requires four levels of progress. Yet for a 17-min parkrunner the same four levels of progress won’t even get them under sixteen. Of course we intuitively know progress is smaller at the faster levels but it’s good to have it quantified and be able to manage expectations.

Although Jack doesn’t say it, I believe you might expect to see a VDOT improvement of one level every six weeks, two per quarter and eight per year. This is probably a little optimistic and depends on commitment to training but again highlights why it may take the better part of a decade to reach your peak:

YearStarting VDOTparkrunEasy pace per mile/km

While the VDOT numbers and paces are accurate, the rate of progress is an example. Experienced or talented runners would start higher up the scale; and how quickly anyone develops depends on how training is structured. Nonetheless, I find the VDOT tables extremely useful for gauging what we could hope to achieve over the coming year, as well as a reminder of where I might get to with repeated years of building on past training.

As I said before, I picked up Jack’s book ten years ago and it still sits on my coffee table. While it’s not the typical read for a coffee table book, I doubt a week has gone by in that decade when I haven’t picked it up and looked at the VDOT tables.

parkrun’s Annual Points Competition

When I first went to parkrun there was an Annual Points Competition which awarded points by placing. The fastest finisher got 100 points, second got ninety-nine, all the way down to one point for finishing hundredth with everybody behind them also getting a point for attending. At the larger parkruns, the points began at 250 and went down from there. Of course with the front of the field being dominated by male runners, there was a separate set of points given out to the women thereby creating competitions for both male and female runners. To avoid deterring people from volunteering, you received maximum points on the first three occasions you volunteered so you weren’t disadvantaged. All this happened automatically and I met people who didn’t even know the competition existed.

At Poole we gave out small prizes to the top three men and women when it completed on our parkrun’s birthday in the April. I heard other parkruns simply gave the winners a round of applause. Initially there was a hidden competitiveness between those of us on the core team and in with a chance of winning it. No-one talked about winning the APC but it was occasionally mentioned or the people at the top of the leaderboard referred to. There were times when my volunteering job also allowed me to run (e.g. token sorting or course setup) and I’d ask not to be listed as a volunteer as it would use up one of my three freebies. Tactically I wanted to save those in case of injury or as an end of season points booster.

It took a year or two but, as I looked around the various parkruns, I came to realise there were only two or three people who were ever going to win the competitions. It didn’t matter which parkrun I looked at, Bushy Park, Cambridge, Basingstoke, Leeds there were only two or three people in with a chance. Firstly you needed to be turning up regularly, but if you weren’t finishing in the top five or ten places, you weren’t accumulating enough points even over the infrequent speedster. The winner was going to be someone turning up at least 45 times and it was going to be a case of outlasting the opposition.

I was thinking about all this when I wrote my article about how I made myself ill from competing in gym challenges. The essence of any good competition is that everybody competing in it must feel they have a chance of winning. I’ve been to pub quizzes where the same team wins every week and slowly you see the numbers dwindle as everybody else realises they’re never going to win. In athletic competition, it’s slightly different as physical skills diminish or injuries occur which open up the chance for someone else to come through. It’s hard to construct a good challenge for people of wide-ranging abilities.

Eventually, in about 2015-16, Parkrun HQ decided to remove the Annual Points Competition. I heard there were regular, almost weekly, discussions about whether to keep or remove it because it had been an integral part since the start of parkrun. Like the Strava and gym challenges it was originally there to motivate people to turn up and reward those who did. But once parkrun began to flourish and they had the 50, 100, 250 club t-shirts to recognise regular participation it became redundant. Realistically with only two or three people in the running to win it, it was always something of a non-competition for the hundreds of other people turning up.

Meeting PSH – parkrun founder

Last Saturday morning I arrived at Upton House parkrun a little earlier than usual and, given I was only doing a recovery run, I wasn’t too interested in doing too much of a warm-up beyond running from the car to the start line. For some reason, it was one of those Saturdays where I couldn’t help but bump into friends (Helen, Jason, Andy, Greg, Michelle, Rob and Phil but not Rory).

On hearing the Run Director’s speech begin, I wandered through the pack towards the start line and then noticed a familiar face. It was Paul Sinton-Hewitt – the founder of parkrun. I tapped him on the shoulder, said “Hello” and he then called to his wife, Jo; but with the announcements continuing it didn’t seem right to encourage the founder to talk through the speeches!

At the Start sign, I observed the Britishness of the other runners standing two metres behind it, and then we were off. About a kilometre in, I caught up with Greg and babbled on at him about how to run distance, being competitive and all manner of other things. With half a kilometre left, I became aware we were hogging the path and a faster runner was stuck behind us. I half-turned and signalled for them to come through and the familiar accent of PSH replied “It’s okay I’m happy to let you take the wind”.

Running with Paul Sinton-Hewitt

I first met Paul and Jo when I was part of the core team setting up Poole parkrun in 2011. He came down to show us the ropes and look over the course. I’ve since met him a few more times at various parkruns and he’s always very friendly.

The story of how he came to start parkrun is well documented and begins when he was in a “dark place” in his life: “I got fired from my job, I lost my girlfriend, I got injured running.”  The knock-on of the injury was he was missing his running friends so he decided to start a weekly time trial on Saturday mornings with coffee afterwards. This became known as Bushy Park Time Trial for which he built his own database and published the results. Having started with thirteen runners it grew slowly over the next year to almost a hundred. It continued to grow by word of mouth with extra events opening slowly over the next five years and they eventually rebranded to parkrun and went worldwide.

What intrigues me is where this idea came from? Paul has always said his dream is for everybody to have a parkrun at the end of their road if they want one. Interviewed in 2016 he said “”Parkrun’s simple concept should – and really can – exist in every town in the world. No-one should ever have to pay to go running in their community regularly, safely and for fun”.

When I’ve talked to Paul, I can’t help but notice he speaks with a distinct accent which I think is South African. I may be wrong about this, it may be from one of the neighbouring countries or somewhere completely different. If he is from South Africa then it would tie up with something I read some years ago about their running culture.

When I first explored the science of training to go quicker, I spent hours poring over Stephen Seiler’s now-defunct MAPP website. Under the Running section he had filed a series of articles by Steve Couper of the Dead Runners Society. I can’t find anything of Couper now so I can give no more credit than was provided on Seiler’s website. Couper wrote:

Mention “time trial” to a South African runner and he/she will immediately think of a low-key weekly race organized by a running club. These are held on weekday evenings starting between 5:30 and 6:30, depending on the city (to compensate for the country not having time zones). There is no entry fee and anyone is welcome – not just members of the organizing club. There is no formal sign-up procedure. One just shows up and runs. I’ve run time trials where just one other person has turned up and I’ve run others which draw well over 100 runners each week. The depth of the competition is also highly variable.

Doesn’t that just sound like parkrun as we know it. He continues:

At some time trials the results of all finishers are recorded and the first few places even reported in the mainstream daily newspapers. At others times may just be called out as each runner crosses the finish line.

Twenty years ago time trials were all 8K or 5 miles in length. Now there is much more variation. Many offer a choice of two distances, typically 4K and 8K. Because the time trials are run in the dark (at least in winter), during the tail end of the evening rush “hour” and without marshals or police assistance, laying out a course can be quite challenging. Most 8K courses will be over two laps and will cross a few quiet residential streets but no major intersections. The course will usually be measured very accurately.

Living in Cape Town in the late 1970s, I used to run time trials regularly – often doing 2 per week. This was the only regular speedwork I was doing but it was sufficient to enable me to race often and relatively well. When I first moved to Pretoria in 1980 there was just one regular time trial – over a hilly 6.6K route. In order to do tempo runs at a standard distance I eventually laid out and organized an 8K time trial. When we returned to Pretoria for 8 months in 1993/4 there were at least 5 weekly time trials within an easy warmup jog of our house.

The bold parts are my emphasis but I’m pretty sure this is where the inspiration for parkrun came from. In running there are few new ideas just a reinvention or updating of existing ones. Sometimes the time is right to bring an old idea back into the foreground as it was in October 2004 when Paul started Bushy Park Time Trial.

Review of the year – 2021

I’m not sure what to make of 2021 as a running year. My goal at the start of the year was to train for the 800m and improve on the 2:58 time I recorded in December 2020. I’m under no illusions that this is not a particularly good time even for a fifty year old. I religiously followed Jack Daniels’ training plan and when I next time trialled in April, I’d only improved to 2:55. Another time trial in early June was 2:53 and after another round of following the training plan I was only down to 2:49 in October. It really hasn’t been very satisfying progress from a results perspective.

Final sprint to the line at Christchurch 10K in 2021

From a process perspective, much seems to have happened. I’ve generally got fitter. At start of year I was running some of my recovery miles as slow as ten minutes; by year end I was feeling comfortable at eight minute miles. My general training speed has improved and there was a notable difference in how I felt on my 800 time trial. Last December I was absolutely gasping by the end of it with the lactate build-up leaving me coughing for the next hour. Each of this year’s time trials has felt progressively better, less hard breathing, even if I’ve not been significantly faster. All of this summarises to having built a better aerobic system.

Over the year, I’ve lost a stone in weight. I started the year at 188lbs (13st 6lbs) and am now below 175lbs. I’ve never been this light or chiselled in my life. Half the weight loss happened in the early months when I geared up and did the tough interval training; the other half when I started doing a low volume of press-ups and bicep curls daily. On that front, I’ve at least doubled my capacity for doing press-ups in six months.

While endurance has improved. I’ve been wondering about my top-end speed. At year start, I knew I was struggling there as I couldn’t even hit a peak speed of five minute per mile pace running flat out. Now, I will say this is to be treated with a little scepticism because the accuracy of my GPS watch is not quick to lock in. It takes fifteen seconds but even so, by year end I’ve seen myself hit 4:13/mile on it. Again I’m aware this is not a great top end speed, given that Olympic distance runners do whole races at this pace.

Digging back through my records, I found myself hitting 3:38/mile when I was younger at the end of parkruns. Again I treat this with some scepticism as GPS can be wonky but I also suspect it’s relatively accurate. Ultimately the best 800m runners in the world are averaging a 3:20/mile pace for the men and 3:50/mile for the women. They can run fast over short distances – I can’t even hit these paces yet.

Throughout 2021 I’ve been exploring ways to improve my top end speed. This has ranged from looking at cadence and trying step-over drills; thinking about form generally; to doing twice-weekly sessions of sprint drills which really seem to be making a difference. As I exited 2021, my running form had begun to feel different in a positive way. I finally feel like I’ve got a back kick and the trail leg is shortening when I try to run quickly. I’m becoming glute-powered rather than quad-powered.

What I haven’t done to improve my speed, for deliberate reasons, is any hill work. I tried that in 2020 and within two weeks, I’d blown my aerobic base as the fast-twitch muscle began to overpower it. While it would be useful to get the fast-twitch speed back, I need to do it in a controlled manner, waiting until base is bigger and capable of handling high levels of anaerobic work.

From a racing perspective there hasn’t been much. The big positive was the return of parkrun in July. At my fiftieth birthday, I managed a 21:20 Upton House Personal Best. Then over the last few months I’ve been reducing that with runs of 20:55 there again, 20:26 at The Great Field parkrun and a touching distance of sub-twenty – 20:11 at Poole on Christmas Day.

The great thing about running 20:11 on Christmas Day is it’s not notably worse than ten years ago when I was forty and running 20:00 on Christmas Eve 2011. This is also true of my 10K.  At Christchurch in 2011 I ran 42:23; this year I was one second slower at 42:24 !!

Ten years ago, I was on my way up with my run training and I didn’t have any understanding of the interaction of speed, endurance and recovery; and how to bring them together to perform at your best. I had much more speed then because it’s all I tried to do, whereas now I’m coming at running from the endurance end. I’m hopeful I’ll be adding aerobic speed this winter that will see me surpassing all previous bests. I don’t like to rely on luck or hope but … fingers crossed!

This reflects the negative about Jack’s plan. I don’t feel it’s helped me improve at the top-end speed as there’s nothing in the schedule dedicated to building it in the first place. The best 800m runners are often coming to the event capable of running 400m in less than fifty seconds (as young adults) and then building the endurance to hang on. For this reason, I’m going to reintroduce my own ideas about the things that helped me to get fast when I was young – which mostly involve more standing recoveries and interval work done in sets to allow lactate to clear. I just need to make sure I don’t undermine the aerobic base by doing too much.

So that’s been my 2021. I’ve enjoyed the year’s running – there’s no way I could have got out every day if I didn’t. I covered about 100 miles more than in 2020 and that has been down to a consistent schedule. I usually run around six hours per week training and that’s led to more miles as I’ve speeded up. Of course the schedule flexed through the year depending on where I was at with Jack’s plan but generally speaking it’s been a consistent outlay of six to six-and-a-half hours each week resulting in 40-50 miles.

What to do when Storm Arwen hit

Storm Arwen, the first storm of this winter hit the British Isles on Friday night. While the North was battered by 100mph winds, the South coast got off lighter with winds of only 30mph and gusts of 44mph. I wasn’t surprised to hear that three of the local parkruns cancelled including Upton House. Poole parkrun went ahead and the turnout was down on recent weeks. Again no surprises there.

It had been my intention to do one more fast parkrun in the lead-up to Christchurch 10K (two weeks away) but I didn’t fancy dragging to Poole on a cold, windy day, just like many others didn’t. So I ran from home and did an interval session – 6x1km with 200m jog recovery aiming for 10K intensity. This is one of my favourite sessions for preparing for a 10K so I’d had it in mind to do this week.

I wasn’t sure how it would go with the conditions. I ummed and ahhed about routes but went for the one where I usually do this session to give me consistency for comparing where I’m at with my training and also I know all my waypoints for the interval lengths. The only doubt I had was whether there’d be trees down on route as there have been in the past. As it turned out there weren’t any other than a few small branches / twigs that I was able to high step over without issue.

The wind, on the other hand, was quite brutal. I resorted to leggings, long sleeve top, gloves and hat for the first time this year. It kept me warm and because I wasn’t aiming for top speed, only 10K intensity, the headwind was rarely problematic.

A good session and I jogged home at a decent warmdown pace to complete an hour’s running. No parkrun this week but so what? There are multiple ways to achieve your running goals and there’s no rule which says you can’t do an interval or speedwork session on a Saturday morning.

The Great Field parkrun

With Upton House parkrun cancelled last Saturday, I took the opportunity to go on a parkrun road trip. I wanted to go somewhere fast and local where I’d not been before. The Great Field parkrun in Dorchester held its inaugural run at the end of October and so it became my parkrun of choice.

The Great Field is located in the Poundbury part of Dorchester, which is famously linked to Prince Charles as it is built on his Duchy of Cornwall land and supports his architectural vision for building better towns.

The journey was a simple trip along dual carriageways and A-roads taking forty minutes and given its simplicity I was able to memorise the trip from a quick look at Google maps. So, as I drove through Dorchester and admired its historic qualities, without Satnav assistance I unexpectedly arrived at The Great Field and, well, it really is just a great, big field.

Parking was easy with a line of bays facing the field. Getting out of the car I unexpectedly bumped into SteveD, who’d parked a few spaces down, which is ironic because every week at Upton we park only a metres apart and run in together. So we jogged and chatted for a warm-up lap of the parkrun and neither of us was sure about the quality of the three lap course.

Warming up with Steve

It certainly wasn’t flat but it didn’t seem that hilly either. But these things can be deceptive as Strava asserts my last parkrun at Upton House had 121ft of ascent, while TGF turned out to be 123ft. The difference is at Upton most of the uphill is done in four noticeable short climbs; in Dorchester it was a longer, more gradual 300m long climb and with some other undulations thrown in.

Having warmed up we then began to bump into other familiar faces. With Upton closed, others had come here as a replacement but there were also some from Poole. We attended a Visitor briefing and then I elected to go off and do some strides for extra warm-up before returning for the main pre-run speeches.

The masses walking to the start line. Poundbury homes and business in the background, along with a play park.

It was always my intention to go all-out so I made my way to the front of the pack and discovered a very British thing. No-one wanted to stand on the actual Start line, standing instead a few feet behind it. It’s a peculiar reticence of us Brits that no-one wants to appear too keen. Imagine that happening at the Olympics! But I’m less reticence than most and I don’t see any point in losing a second running the extra so I stood plumb on the start line. The Run Director counted us down and, on the G of the GO, I was gone. First off the line and leading all the way to the photographer who was situated about 100m up the path.

First to the photographer and still looking happy

As we reached the first corner a flock of six better trained distance runners flew past me and I dug in for the long haul. I had one or two other runners go past and by the 400m mark I counted eight or so ahead of me. It was then I was passed by a young girl who was barely five foot tall and with a big, high back kick. I wasn’t having that so put in an effort to get past her and kicked on to catch a younger, bearded chap. I stayed with him for half a lap, aided by a long downward stretch, before having to admit I wouldn’t be able to hang with him. After that I was on my own.

Around 1km into the run

Early on the second lap, I was overtaken by another runner but from there onwards, I didn’t pass anyone and no-one passed me. At least I didn’t pass anyone ahead of me but, on the third lap, I caught the backmarkers just beginning their second. Fortunately the paths were wide enough for all and I got by.

2nd or 3rd lap and toughing it out.

By now, I was physically beginning to feel the strain. Breathing hard, legs filling with lactate and the body sending all sorts of fatigue signals to the brain to try and entice me to slow down. The temptation was there but I managed to resist.

Due to the separated nature of the start and finish you get to begin a fourth lap which gives you the extra joy of a fourth run up the long gradient. As I began it, I sensed a runner close behind me and was determined to stop him from passing. It’s always good to have these sort of distractions to give you a reason not to give in to the fatigue. I was aided by having all the back markers on the left side of the path to make it harder to pass.

Once we reached the highest point, I knew we had perhaps 100m to go and I kicked. At least, I tried to kick although I’m not sure my legs had much left. I was already breathing hard but at least it was a short downhill tarmac stretch which enabled me to hold him off by a second to finish in 12th place in an official time of 20:26. Fantastic. An improvement of twenty-nine seconds over two weeks ago at Upton and almost a minute over four weeks back. The First Finisher clocked 17:18 and it was a field of 325 runners on only The Great Field’s fourth event..

As usual, I went for a warmdown lap against the flow of runners. It might sound a little crazy but it’s a nice way to get to see and encourage other runners.

Once completed I stood outside the Pavilion, drank coffee and chatted to my fellow Upton runners on what was a lovely, mild November day. I can imagine, come the summertime, it will be great to sit out on the grass and enjoy the ambience. Looking around I realised the original blandness I’d perceived in The Great Field is more a lack of maturity and cold weather. In ten years’ time, all the trees lining the paths and around the cricket pitch will have grown up. It’ll still be a large open space but much more scenic with beautiful, leafy trees providing an aesthetic backdrop.

Starting intervals

A recent Thursday workout was a combination of fast intervals – 600, 400s, 200s. The first came in at 2min05. The 400s both pleasingly scraped under 1min20 while the 200s were a final gasping all-out effort to get on target. Arriving home the 400s and 600 were what stuck out in my mind because they were close to the times I used to clock when running round Poole Park cricket pitch. In fact, when I looked them up I discovered the workouts I did were exactly a decade ago. How times move on.

In September 2011, I wasn’t the committed runner I am now. My first six months of the year had only seen me bank less than two hundred miles but I could run a 21:30 parkrun. In July I started doing a proper warm-up which knocked over thirty seconds off taking me sub-21. I then entered New Forest half marathon for late September and this triggered my “train harder” instinct.

My belief about getting faster at running then was based around the same idea as most people – run faster in training. But, as a sports and exercise science graduate, I’d also read up on the ideas of increasing VO2max through hard interval training and Lactate Threshold through tempo runs and through Stephen Seiler’s MAPP website thought this was the way to train. It was unsophisticated stuff but to the untrained runner it has initial benefits.

I decided hard intervals, aiming for a 19-min parkrun pace, were the way forward. After all, if I wanted to run nineteen minutes I needed to train at the pace. It didn’t seem insurmountable as I’d run a 5:55 mile in the summer which is a similar pace.

I didn’t own a GPS watch but had a sportswatch to time my runs and used a heart-rate monitor. The watch could store some basic info with the lap button but I’d often simply commit numbers to memory and write them down when I got back to the office! I have many spreadsheets filled with this sort of data.

I found a website (Gmap-pedometer) which allowed me to measure distances and found a lap of the cricket pitch to be a third of a mile. Starting from a particular blue bin and running to the pavilion is 400m. I still use these measurements to this day.What I did next is some maths. I calculated with the cricket being about 530m, I’d need to run nine or ten laps to cover the 5,000m distance of a parkrun. Nine laps would fall short at 4,770m; ten would come in at 5,300m and ensure I had a little extra in the tank. With a 19-min parkrun being about six minutes per mile, each of these lap would need to be covered in two minutes, 400m in 1min30. I’d give myself one minute’s recovery between laps and push hard on the efforts. After all, if I could run them faster it must be better and lead to improvement?

This was my plan for improving and it had worked for me on the rowing machine many years before.  But there were two immediate flaws with what I did.

  1. With my then-parkrun pace at around 6:40/mile, I was asking a lot to jump down to running 6min/mile with nothing to bridge the gap. Certainly I was capable of the pace but to do ten intervals with only sixty seconds’ recovery was asking too much of myself. When I succeeded on the rower I’d been aiming a few seconds faster than my existing times. It’s why when I became a successful parkrunner six months later, and got my time down to nineteen minutes, it was because I only ran intervals at a few seconds faster than my existing parkrun pace.
  2. I tried to cover the distance rather than do enough work to stimulate improvement. These days I’d wouldn’t do more than 3,200m worth of work at mile pace and around 1,600 – 2,400m is more usual. A full 5,000m is simply too much stress on the body to recover from. Think about it, when you train for a marathon, you only do a long run of 20-22 miles maximum. If you’re doing 10K training then the elites will only do 6-8K at race pace. It’s a mistake to believe just because the race distance is relatively short, you need to cover it in training.

The biggest flaw though is that, when I began doing these intervals ten years ago, I didn’t lack speed. As I wrote in filling in the gaps, you have to figure out what’s missing. My issue was endurance and lack of aerobic capacity. My parkruns improved three months later after I’d logged many easy miles with just the occasional fast parkrun thrown in. I already had the top end speed, it was the endurance base that was missing.

Short sprint – Hitting top speed

The last three weeks at Upton House I’ve been taking the parkruns at a comfortable pace. It’s never felt too effortful as I run times in the mid-20s. About a mile into the run we have a steep downhill into the mini-loop and I just let my legs do whatever they want. I don’t go at it, I just take the brakes off and fly down the hill past those with more caution. I’ve seen myself hitting pace around 5:20-30 over the weeks. This interests me because a few years back I simply couldn’t go this fast even on downhills.

I was coming off a core muscle injury that forced me to take three months off. I’d tried to keep running but eventually I admitted defeat and took time off for it to heal. When I returned, I began to build up carefully. I deliberately didn’t do any speed sessions as I wanted to test whether I could build Endurance from the ground up – much like Maffetone suggests – long story short, you can’t but that’s for other days.

At the end of my second week I ran a tentative 33-min parkrun and the following week it was 29-minutes. I then went to visit friends and gave Chichester parkrun a try. It’s a surprisingly tough course, mostly on grass, around rugby pitches, with a gradual climb uphill before you run down a path back to the start-finish three times over. At the end of the third lap, I was sweating and came charging down into the finish trying to break twenty-seven minutes but couldn’t quite do it. What was surprising was my top end speed on this final downhill, going as fast as I could, trying to sprint, I could only hit 6:30/mile. Free energy yet I had nothing like the downhill speed I’m getting nowadays.

I’m not entirely sure what the reason behind this is other than it’s connected to being stronger and fitter than I was three years ago. I don’t think it’s that my legs are more resilient on the downhills but I do think they may be striding longer because of all the strides and speedwork I’ve been doing with my 800m training. I also have a much better aerobic base. My recent parkruns have felt comfortable while being faster than Chichester. At the latter, with all the hills and effort I was putting in I was working more anaerobically, which creates by-products that causes the legs to tie up. It may be this. Either way it’s nice to fly down the hills effortlessly.

Return to parkrun

Even overnight rain and thunderstorms couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm for the return of parkrun. I was up at 6:15am for breakfast and headed out to Upton House parkrun a couple of hours later. As I parked the car, just a warm-up jog away, I saw familiar faces who I’d parked by so long ago.

Since I was last at the country park it’s undergone some renovations with bushes around the tea rooms being cleared and the children’s play area refurbished. Consequently the parkrunners have been shoved out through the gate to a new start line and the course revised. I quite like the new route as it’s more open although the uphill finish is going to be taxing when I get up to speed.

The Run Director struggled through the opening speeches because the PA system’s battery wouldn’t recharge after not being used in eighteen months but unusually all the runners stayed quiet so that was good. New parkrun protocols instruct the pre-start speeches to be over quickly and a prompt start at 9am to avoid runners gathering together too long. I was pleased we still had time to clap the one new First Timer who’d turned up, as well as the four runners who were about to complete their 250th run. Imagine being stuck on two hundred and forty-nine all that time.  For me, it was number three hundred and twenty-five – but no t-shirts for that!

It’s like Where’s Wally – I’m somewhere in there with the red headband!

With runners expected to seed themselves according to time, I positioned myself just level with the 25-min marker and it didn’t seem like there were too many ahead of me. I ran with Rob for the first 2K and it was nice to run unhindered, able to pass others easily whenever we needed to. At the start of the mini-loop, I left Rob as I took the brakes off and went with the downhill. Despite a light rain, it was all rather enjoyable and I gradually eased past some of the fast starters; always keeping my breathing easy. First mile 7:56, second 7:40, third in 7:26 to finish 49th in a time of 23:57.

Collecting my finish token there was lots of space past the funnel to go and get my token scanned. I then returned to the finish line, chatted to a friend and cheered runners in. The tailwalker came round in just over an hour to complete the field of 295. Elsewhere Poole had 565 and Bournemouth 529 which were the 3rd and 5th biggest attendances in the country, then add in Blandford 133 for a total of over 1,500 local runners out at 9am on a Saturday morning. A successful return for parkrun and I even had my result before midday. Admittedly it was 11:58am but it’s still impressive.

Return of parkrun

It’s been a long time since I ran a parkrun. Some countries and areas have been reopening sooner than others but finally England is ready to allow them again. Just one week to go and I’m wondering what the response will be.

Parkrun HQ have spent the past year figuring out the logistics to make parkrun Covid safe. Start speeches will be kept brief to avoid people gathering together for too long. A new app has been developed to allow volunteers to do the barcode scanning and timing from their phones rather than using shared equipment. The finish position tokens are to be washed or quarantined every week. Academic research supports the idea that gathering on a start line within close proximity of other runners is safe.

I’m guessing it will all work out as parkrun has been going ahead around the world with (I assume) the same changes in place and things haven’t collapsed there or needed a rethink. But different cultures have different attitudes and that’s the thing I’m wondering about. How will Englanders respond to the return of parkrun? Will we accept the changes? Will we believe the science? Do we care enough to get back out running on a Saturday morning?

My last parkrun was in early January 2020. I stopped going two months before the pandemic put them on pause. This wasn’t some prescient act of foreboding, it was my choice.

With New Year’s weight-loss and fitness resolutions kicking in, attendances swelled. In the weeks leading up to Christmas the average attendance at Upton House parkrun had been about 300; in the New Year it was closer to 500. It’s great to see all those new participants but I was getting trapped among them. I was running heavy mileage on Fridays and could only manage a recovery run on Saturdays. The narrow paths of Upton Country Park allow little room for manoeuvre past runners who’ve started off too quick and who then stop or walk to avoid stepping in the winter puddles. I found it hard to enjoy myself when my rhythm and flow were constantly being broken up.

New Year resolutions never last for everybody but parkrun was always a gamechanger and a high percentage of the newbies continued to come back. But more than a year on, will they? The not-parkrun stopgap that Headquarters tried to promote never took off. For whatever reason, people are only interested in going for a free, timed 5K when it’s part of something bigger. Their own volition and fitness weren’t enough for many people. Maybe it was really the coffee and cake afterwards.

In deciding whether to attend, will people accept the science that says standing on a parkrun startline is safe?  My initial instinct, knowing how close we stand to each other, is that they could become super-spreader events. Parkrun’s academic research says it’ll be safe but I have some reservations because it’s modelled on an attendance of 263 participants and March Covid levels that were much lower than they are now. Our parkruns are much bigger than that.

The reality of the situation is with about 2,000 runners attending our local parkruns, the current case rate of 250 per 100,000 suggests five infected people will turn up. My odds on actually standing next to one of the five seem little worse than I could achieve in the aisles of the supermarket.

The parkrun Covid Code asks runners not to attend if they’ve got any signs of it present e.g. positive test, high temperature etc. Generally speaking the parkrun community is good at looking after one another so there’s a good chance they’ll comply. Most people wouldn’t want to run if they’re feeling under the weather anyway.

I know the local parkruns have been doing trial events to familiarise with new processes and these events have been well-attended by members of local running clubs. That’s no surprise, they were invited and they are regular runners but what about the ‘ordinary’ runners who were parkrunning as something to do once a week? My guess is it’ll be a tentative return to action by those who aren’t regular runners.

While about 95% of England’s parkruns are set to return, Moors Valley and Brockenhurst are among those without permission – yet. That will probably push some of their regulars to Bournemouth and maybe further afield to places like Salisbury, Blandford or wherever.

As the restart coincides with the beginnings of the school holidays they may not be the only visitors to other areas. In the past, we usually saw an influx of visitors to our local parkruns either on their way to or from a holiday in the South-west. I assume that will still be the case as more families are choosing to holiday in Britain this year but of course some of our local families will also be going off to visit elsewhere so the net effect is likely the same. Nonetheless with family routines broken up and school out, I don’t think numbers will settle down to their regular levels until September. By then, we’ll know the new processes and have a true picture of whether parkrunning is viable in the new normal.

Ultimately I’m a believer in trusting that life will all work out in the end. Committed parkrunners will be back quickly, the more tentative will take time to return. It will be a while before it settles down but we’ll get there and adapt to whatever challenges come up. It’s quite possible there’ll be more hiatuses along the way.

Finally to say, if you’re not in England or your parkrun hasn’t been given permission to return, then stay strong, it’ll be back eventually. We’ve been through the worst of this and life is gradually returning to old activities.