Short sprint – Streaking on

Somehow, I’ve created a run streak that goes back into the 2010s. Admittedly it’s only just a decade ago as my last rest day was December 7th 2019 but it’s still a streak of over eighteen months. It’s been 5K every day often more.

It sounds impressive to anyone who isn’t a runner.

It sounds impressive to people who are runners.

No-one has asked me about it but I imagine the sort of question I’d get is “How do you motivate yourself to keep getting out there?”. Well, motivation has rarely been something I had to think about. I have running goals and to reach those goals, I have to get out and do the training, but equally I make it manageable so it never becomes a strain.

My seven day week splits into three workouts and four recovery runs. The workouts are the exciting part of the week where I get to do something that’s different, that’s exciting and which I know will progress me towards my goals. How can I not be motivated to go do those?

The recovery runs are more mundane but they’re usually only around forty minutes long. Once you’ve been running consistently for a while it’s the sort of run that seems to be over before it’s started. If I were a less experienced runner, I’d probably only do twenty or thirty minutes until the fitness expanded to make them feel achievable.

But it’s the pace of the recovery runs that makes them, and therefore the streak, achievable. I always keep them very easy. Some of them have been closer to ten minute miles even though I can run much, much quicker. I focus on my breathing from the beginning and never put in any undue effort on the hills. I never try to speed up, I just let my body take me along at the pace it wants to go. Sometimes there are days when I have to stumble through the run because the legs are feeling hollow but, more often than not, it’s a chance to get out, look around and think about life.

It wasn’t always like this. When I trained a decade ago, I pushed myself harder on every run but that then lowered my motivation for getting out there frequently. Your body is good at telling your mind when it’s had enough but, while people hear it, invariably they don’t act compassionately towards themselves. Some days I turned round after a mile because I knew my legs couldn’t handle the run. It’s just not possible for a poorly trained runner to run hard every day and not need the occasional break. I haven’t been taking rest days but that doesn’t mean I have been taking a break.

Short sprint – Tappity-tap

A while ago I wrote about how noisy I am as a runner – it’s been a lifelong trait. So you can imagine my surprise when a few weeks ago on my long run I suddenly noticed an absence of heavy plodding.

It was 5:30am on a Sunday and being so early in the day there was an absence of traffic. I’ve come to love getting out early in the summer at the crack of dawn. I actually woke up an hour earlier because my curtains are thin, but I elected to have something of a lie-in. Eventually I recognised I should get out there while it was quiet, before it got hot, so I could be home by 7am and still have the whole day ahead of me.

Running this early is so peaceful and quiet. Sometimes the sun is just rising, there can still be a slight chill in the air but you barely notice it once you’re off down the road. The birds may be singing their dawn chorus and there can be fog in the fields or, as you cross over the bridge into Wimborne and look up the river.

But I digress. I was about twenty minutes into my run and began to go up the hill at the back of Merley and suddenly realised all I could hear from my feet was a tappity-tap. Each footfall was noticeably quieter than usual. I continued on and didn’t think too much more about it. My focus was on keeping the run genuinely easy and not kicking up into a higher gear.

I ran up Lower Blandford Road into Broadstone and, with the final few metres hitting a steeper incline, I found my legs go a little wobbly from the surge of lactate it manifested. On into The Broadway I went but now my feet were noisier. It was highlighted by two guys outside the papershop noticing me before I reached them.

I thought nothing more of it until I reached home. After uploading my run to Garmin I noticed the cadence graph had many blue dots in the first half of the run. They turned to green as I reached Darbys Corner and began to run up into Broadstone. Blue dots indicate a cadence of 174, green indicate it’s lower.

While I’m not someone who gets tied up about running at certain cadences, I have been working on improving my form over the past decade. Ten years ago my cadence was usually 150-155, maybe topping out at 160. This morning it was heading for the mid-170s when I was light on my feet and barely make a noise.

The latest form work I’ve been doing has been to use some sprint drills to improve knee lift and get my glutes working better. It would seem these may now be beginning to have an effect.

Short sprint – Natural talent

I met Rob at Bournemouth parkrun where he was always up the front threatening to break 18-minutes. He did it a few months later and started doing longer races the following year. He broke three hours in his second marathon.

As I got to know him he explained he’d watched the London Olympics and been inspired by Mo Farah’s 5,000 and 10,000m gold medal double and decided to take up running. I’m sure he was always fit and trim just not a committed runner. His first parkrun in late 2013 came in at 18:55 which is only a couple of seconds slower than my Personal Best set on the flats of Poole parkrun.

He’s a perfect example of natural talent.

We lost touch for a few years and I imagine he was working hard through the Covid crisis in his job as a GP. Six weeks ago he began running regularly again. Most of his runs have been somewhere around 8 minute miling, five times per week usually totalling 4-5 hours of training and covering 35-40 miles, last week was a big one of 45 miles. Once a week there’s usually some kind of workout. One week it was a fast-finishing long run, another was a 5-mile tempo at 6:50 pace, another mile repeats at 6:40 pace and another 200s at 6:00-6:20/mile. It’s a good mix of training but not been especially fast.

Yesterday his latest session popped up on my Strava – 5x1km with 3-mins rest. The splits were 3:41, 3:36, 3:37, 3:39, 3:33 – all around 5:50/mile. I hadn’t seen him go near that pace in any of the previous weeks. This is natural talent for distance running in action. Those splits are quicker than I could run one 800m all-out after training daily for four months, let alone run for five back-to-back 1K efforts.

I don’t say this out of envy, more amazement at how easy running is for people with natural talent at it. It’s taken me a long time to realise, I’m much better suited to the shorter distances which is why I decided to head back to middle-distance and the 800m. Even so I also know you have to build aerobically to improve at all distances. Runners like Rob have naturally high aerobic capacities.

The 5x1km with 3-mins rest used to be my go-to workout. When I was running my best at parkrun, I was beginning to get down to the numbers Rob is achieving there. That’s what happens when you train effectively, you can begin to challenge and maybe even surpass those with natural talent.

UPDATE: A couple of weeks after this post appeared, I logged on to Strava on the Sunday afternoon to find Rob had run a local 10K in 38-mins off nine weeks of training. He’d averaged 35 miles per week and 4-5 hours training. This only goes to underlines how natural talent can help you reach quick times when you start running.

Short sprint – Sleep

I noticed in recent years I was beginning to sleep less. There were some nights where I found myself waking at 3-4am and having to use the toilet. Occasionally I’d be awake for an hour or two only dropping back off at 5am. Shortened sleep is something older people often find happening and apparently comes with ageing. At least that’s the received wisdom but since I recommenced training hard with more sprints and workouts, yet doing no more mileage, I’ve started sleeping very deeply again.

Growing up I was always a deep sleeper. Some of that was because I wanted to stay up late as a teenager; I was often up until gone midnight, then struggling to get out of bed the next morning. Waking me up for school was a nightmare for my parents and I would often go in still half asleep. When I began working, I still stayed up late and slept deeply but always got up to be on time for work. I’d make up for lack of sleep at the weekends, often sleeping in until almost midday, sometimes a nap in the evenings.

For a short period I kept a sleep diary. Or rather compiled a list of how much sleep I got. There’s probably an app you can get to do this automatically on your phone now. But, back in the late 1990s, I was bored in my job so one small way I passed the time was to log an estimate of how much sleep I’d got the previous night.

What fascinated me was that after collecting three months’ data (yes I really was bored enough to do it for three months) my average sleep for the first month came in at 7hr45, the second month it was 7hr50 and the third it was 7hr40. My body knew what it needed and that was just under eight hours sleep each night. In the week I was working 8-6; so long sleep-ins at the weekend were the adjustment to get me back on track.

It’s apparent to me that the body is doing a lot of rebuilding and healing work between training sessions. I was all-out when I played sport in my twenties. I pushed every session to the limit to the point where it would actually leave me very moody and antisocial and on the verge of depression. The body’s chemistry is in fine balance and sleep is one of the ways it resets itself. The long hours of sleep were a necessity rather than a luxury.

I remained a deep sleeper until a few years ago. I reckon I started sleeping lighter when I figured out how to train aerobically. Even now, despite sleeping deeply because of the 800m training, when I run back-to-back recovery days on Friday and Saturday, I need less sleep on the second night. Somewhere within this is a lesson about the interaction of hard training, speed, miles and sleep. It seems logical to me that if you’re not sleeping deeply the body hasn’t got much to repair in which case you’re not training to get faster.

Short sprint – Ordinary speed

In True Speed I wrote about the high speeds at which elite runners run their races; speeds which ordinary runners can barely hit in a sprint. Today we’re going to look at what ordinary speed looks like. Outside of an elite race, most runners are running somewhere between six and ten miles per hour. Even the guys and gals up the front winning the prizes in your local race aren’t running much faster than this. Sometimes it’s even true for elites too, when Gwen Jorgensen was winning her Olympic Gold for triathlon, her 10K was ‘only’ around 11mph, so there’s no shame in not being super fast; only an attempt to better understand what’s going on.

Let’s begin with parkrun. In the table below I’ve listed the times between sixteen and thirty minutes as all but a few parkruns are run in that range. Of course quicker times are available, Andrew Baddeley holds the world record time of 13:48 while Lauren Reid ran 15:45 earlier this year to set a new women’s record.

Parkrun timeMphKm/hMin/mileMin/km

If you want to train to get faster, it’s a useful table for understanding what speeds and paces you’ll need to be running. Once any initial burst of training sees your times levelling off, you have to start training smart.

You do intervals at paces a little quicker than you’re currently running while keeping the majority of your running at paces for a parkrun that’s 2½ – 3½ minutes slower. That’s 2½ minutes for the runners near sixteen and 3½ for those at thirty  If you’re currently running 22-mins at 7min/mile, you’ll want to be training no faster than the pace of a 25-min parkrun (three minutes slower). Even more of your training should be at the pace of a parkrun that’s five minutes slower than you’re currently running.

But we’re not only parkrunners so let’s have a look at what speeds we’re running for different race distances. The vast majority of runners are barely hitting 8mph in any of their races; most are even slower. The top end are the elite values to give you an idea of where there’s capacity for improvement.

4 mph5678910111213

Of course reaching the highest speeds takes lots of dedicated training but certainly isn’t impossible if you understand what you need to do. Most people can run at 10mph (or 6min/mile pace) if only for twenty or thirty metres. If you can do this, then it’s probable with good endurance training you can improve to run times you wouldn’t have considered possible.

Most runners I see are good at unlocking their natural talent but then spend their training time reinforcing it without notable improvement. They seem happy if they’re knocking a minute or two off their marathon after months of hard training. My 10K went from 48 minutes to sub-40 when I got my training right. My early half marathons all came in at 1hr50 but when I took up running seriously I got them closer to 1hr30. I still believe there is significant room for improvement in all my races when I’m done with 800m training. I won’t settle for less, will you?

Short sprint – “Run as fast as I can”

Recently the BBC ran an article on Emer McKee, who’s set a 5,000m world record for a twelve year old with a time of 16min40. She’s quoted as saying “Normally I’m just running as fast as I can and just waiting for it to be over,” which is pretty much how any all-out 5K or parkrun should feel.

Emer McKee – world record holder in the 5000m for 12-year-olds

Emer started at parkrun when she was nine and joined a local running club, Willowfield in East Belfast, and has been improving ever since, competing in a range of events from 60 metres up to parkrun but also including long jump and cross-country.

Three points I want to highlight from her story:

  1. As a member of a running club, she is getting decent structured coaching and sessions that enable her to make progress. Although the headline from the article implies she “runs as fast as she can” this refers to her races. It doesn’t necessarily apply to her training. Just going out and running the fastest you can every day in training will bring short term results but eventually you’ll see the gains stop.
  2. It’s taken her three years to reach this stage. She began running parkrun in 2017 and quickly made good progress twenty-nine minutes down to twenty-one by year end. Since then it has taken three years of training to build on that and get down to a sub-17 time.
  3. Being part of a club limits the amount of racing she does and gives time for training to develop. While she’s a regular parkrunner, unlike typical adult runners, the rest of her year is not spent entering 10Ks, half marathons and marathons. The club events she does are all completed within twenty minutes (usually significantly less) and therefore don’t require much recovery. By contrast, adults regularly enter distance races that require more recovery and therefore cut into their ability to train to improve.

The great thing about being twelve years old is she’s got her whole running career ahead of her. She turns up to her club and the coach has already decided what the session is and how it will help her (along with her clubmates) to improve. For the most part, her running priorities are defined by the club’s season.

The coaching of juniors is usually very good because the focus is on developing them, through a structured approach to training, for when they are adults. This approach is one I try to replicate for adults attending my Big Red Running sessions. Sessions build on previous weeks to enable progress in the long-term. If you would like to come to my session then please do. Check the homepage for details and if you have any questions by all means contact me for further info.

Short sprint – True Speed

In Being Fast, I talked about the vagaries of language and mentioned some of the speeds elite runners run at. I thought it would be useful to look at the speed and paces for all the major world records. It only becomes clear when you see these, how fast the best in world are running, and begin to realise how much the rest of us neglect speed.

MenPerf. Mi/hKm/h Per milePer km Athlete
Top speed  27.844.7 2min101min21 Usain Bolt
100 m9.58 23.437.6 2min341min36 Usain Bolt
200 m19.19 23.337.5 2min341min36 Usain Bolt
400 m43.03 20.833.5 2min531min48 Wayde van Niekerk
800 m1:40.9 17.728.5 3min222min06 David Rudisha
1000 m2:12.0 17.027.3 3min322min12 Noah Ngeny
1500 m3:26.0 16.326.2 3min412min17 Hicham El Guerrouj
Mile3:43.1 16.126.0 3min432min19 Hicham El Guerrouj
3000 m7:20.7 15.224.5 3min562min27 Daniel Komen
5000 m12:35 14.823.8 4min032min31 Joshua Cheptegei
10,000 m26:11 14.222.9 4min132min37 Joshua Cheptegei
Half marathon57:32 13.722.0 4min232min44 Kibiwott Kandie
Marathon1:59:40 13.121.2 4min342min50 Eliud Kipchoge
100 km6:09:14 10.116.2 5min573min42 Nao Kazami
100 m10.49 21.334.3 2min491min45 Florence Griffith Joyner
200 m21.34 21.033.7 2min521min47 Florence Griffith Joyner
400 m47.6 18.830.3 3min121min59 Marita Koch
800 m1:53.3 15.825.4 3min482min22 Jarmila Kratochvílová
1000 m2:29.0 15.024.2 4min002min29 Svetlana Masterkova
1500 m3:50.1 14.623.5 4min072min34 Genzebe Dibaba
Mile4:12.3 14.323.0 4min122min37 Sifan Hassan
3000 m8:06.1 13.822.2 4min212min42 Wang Junxia
5000 m14:06 13.221.3 4min332min49 Letesenbet Gidey
10,000 m29:17 12.720.5 4min432min56 Almaz Ayana
Half marathon1:04:31 12.219.6 4min553min03 Ababel Yeshaneh
Marathon2:14:04 11.718.9 5min073min11 Brigid Kosgei
100 km6:33:11 9.515.3 6min203min56 Tomoe Abe
World record times for the major distance events (correct at 26-Apr-2021)

When you compare the men’s and women’s records side by side you see there’s consistently a difference of around 11-12% between them. This is believed to be down to the physical differences between the sexes, that men’s higher levels of testosterone allow them to have bigger muscles which in turn propel them quicker.

EventMen WRWomen WR% diff.
100 m9.5810.499.5
200 m19.1921.3411.2
400 m43.0347.610.6
800 m01:40.901:53.312.3
1000 m02:12.002:29.012.9
1500 m03:26.003:50.111.7
3000 m07:20.708:06.110.3
5000 m12:35.414:06.612.1
10,000 m26:11.029:17.411.9
Half marathon57:32.01:04:3112.1
100 km06:09:1406:33:116.5

The two most notable anomalies are at the ends of the spectrum. Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 100m world record was set in 1988 but the video evidence shows there was a strong wind that day, yet the wind gauge recorded 0.0m/s assistance. It’s thought to be a faulty gauge. If, however, you add 11% to Usain Bolt’s 9.58s then then the women’s time should be 9.63s which is close to the 10.61s FloJo recorded the next day and the 10.62s she recorded in winning Olympic gold two months later.

At the other end there is the 100km where the difference is 6.5%. At this distance, the best runners are genetically determined towards endurance and lack the fast-twitch muscle necessary for top speed. Their slow-twitch muscle is naturally resilient and the testosterone difference between the sexes is much less of a factor.

Some of the outliers between men’s and women’s records are down to lack of drug-testing or detectability when the records were set, how often the distances are raced and over the past year we’ve seen distance records being broken with championships cancelled due to Covid and runners taking advantage of energy-efficient shoes.

I’ll return to the point I was trying to make in the Being Fast article, most runners don’t have true speed and that’s because they often fail to train for it. It’s not the only requirement for being a distance runner but it is an important part of it.

My coached sessions are focused on getting you quicker while building the endurance to support it. Everybody’s welcome. In the meantime, enjoy the following video of runners trying to keep pace with Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2hr marathon pace.

Short sprint – “Being fast”

I find the limitations of language frustrating. I often meet runners who say they want to “be fast” but that’s not exactly what they want. They might currently be running a twenty-five minute parkrun and think “being fast” is running twenty-three minutes. Other times when they drop back to twenty-six minutes they say they’re “losing their speed”. But “speed” and “fast”, even “slow” are all relative terms.

Currently I’m reading Chris MacDougall’s latest book, “Running with Sherman” where he talks about his experiences living in Amish country while training a donkey for an ultra race. In one chapter he details running on the Full Moon with the Amish people deciding to only do five miles as they’re running under starry skies without lighting. Meanwhile Ame, one of the first Amish runners, runs the ten mile run “fast” arriving back shortly after MacDougall has finished. That sounds incredible but then MacDougall mentions Ame can run a 2hr54 marathon which suggests he’s running ten miles in about an hour in which case MacDougall must be plodding along at something like ten minutes per mile. Neither of those paces sounds as fast as they come across in his description.

In his more famous book “Born to Run” he writes about how a group of Tarahumara Indians from Mexico competed in the Leadville 100 (mile ultramarathon) easily beating the rest of the field because they capable of running big distances at incredible paces. Except they were running one hundred miles in twenty hours so 12min/mile. While it is incredible to be able to cover that distance, it’s not incredibly fast which is the implication when you read it. Of course, as a writer, he’s trying to make his story appeal rather than go into the details whereas I’m always been interested in the details as much as the story. The danger of reading this vague language is you come away believing you can run incredibly fast at parkrun through ultra training.

The top sprinters in the world have genuine speed and are incredibly fast. Usain Bolt reaches a peak speed of over 27mph running the 100m, averaging 23mph. Meanwhile Eliud Kipchoge runs the marathon at 13mph which is half of Usain Bolt’s top speed. It’s also the equivalent of a fourteen minute parkrun. From there the rest of us are getting slower. Ten mph is scraping under nineteen minutes while that twenty-five minute parkrunner is barely running 7½ mph. When you get down to thirty minutes you’re barely running at a quarter of the speed, Usain Bolt averages.

The point here is not to rag on about people’s levels of ability, it’s about the use of language. Watch out when people say someone else is “fast”, or claim they’re “losing their speed”, are too “slow” or “not fast enough”. They could probably improve all those things easily with a few sessions of sprinting but whether it would do their race times any good is debateable. Specific language like “running at 9min/mile pace” can ensure everybody is on the same page about expectations. From a coaching perspective being specific provides decent insight into what needs to be done to improve.

Short sprint – No-one’s racing anymore

A few years back, I was going through the preliminaries of ascertaining whether I would be the right coach for a potential client. One of his questions to me was whether I could help him with racing. My reply was that it was something I had no experience of, but fortunately despite this, he still went ahead and took me on as his coach.

It later transpired we’d had different definitions of racing. He’d wanted to know if I could help with what to do on the day of his mass participation marathon race (which I absolutely could) whereas I’d been defining racing as what happens when you’re trying to finish ahead of your fellow competitors. For most people, when they talk about attending a race they’re really talking about a time trial – how quick can they run the distance?

Parkrun is not a race. For starters its insurance doesn’t cover it which is one reason why there are no race numbers or race clocks. Parkrun doesn’t even have a winner, it has a First Finisher, although when I first attended it did, until the nomenclature changed. If you look back to its beginnings, parkrun started as Bushy Park Time Trial then, as other events opened, it became UK Time Trials before rebranding as the friendlier sounding parkrun.

Running doesn’t have any true time trial events like say, cycling where riders go off at intervals of a minute or more and the winner is the one covering the distance in the quickest time. Admittedly when I orienteered it was done against the clock with runners having their own start times. This is a logistical necessity to ensure they don’t all reach the check points at the same time and have to wait to punch their card. But orienteering isn’t a pure running sport, it’s also a test of your ability to navigate, runners go off at intervals to avoid being able to follow someone else.

Typically elite runners do time trials to find out what form they’re in. When it comes to races the goal is simply to finish ahead of the person behind you. Often championship medals are won in times slower than heats especially at longer distances.

Of course there are some (many?) who turn up to parkrun and think they’re racing against others but true racing is a tactical art. It’s about letting your opponents take the breeze, it’s about knowing your strengths, their weaknesses and how to gain an advantage. It’s knowing when to go with the pack and when to let leaders go it alone hoping they’ll burn themselves out. This is the tactical stuff I’ve not got any experience of because I’ve never been good enough to need to learn it. I understand some basic theories as I’ve outlined but I’ve never experienced them. Like almost everybody else, I just run as fast as possible trying to get the best time I can.

Short Sprint – Beginner’s mind

Beginner’s mind is a Zen concept about approaching situations with a non-judgemental, open-minded attitude. There’s a couple of stories which begin to explain it and both involve cups of tea!

In the first teaching, a university professor who has been studying Zen teachings goes to see the Master. On arrival, he states he wishes to learn about Zen and begins to tell the Master all that he already knows. The Master listens and, after a while, suggests they drink tea.

While the professor talks, the Master begins to pour. The cup begins to fill with tea and the Master continues to pour. The professor continues to explain what he has learned about Zen and soon the cup is nearly full. The Master continues to pour as the professor continues on. The tea reaches the brim of the cup and then begins to overflow. The professor’s voice falters as the Master continues to pour and the tea spills out of the saucer onto the table. The professor stops, thinking perhaps his explanations have distracted the Master, but the pouring continues. As the tea runs off the table onto the floor, the professor is unable to stand it any longer and says “Stop, stop, can you not see the cup is full and no more will go in?”

The Master stops, looks up and replies “Like the cup, your mind is already full of what you know and there is no room left until you empty it of your ideas and preconceptions.

What I often see among my running friends is a propensity to struggle because they have become set in their routines. Often when they return from a running break they restart with a schedule that is not much smaller than when they stopped. Or if they’re struggling to make progress, they make only small changes to the training in the hope it will create some kind of large change. Or the same injury flairs up repeatedly. All of it is not that far off Einstein’s “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. None of them seem able to take stock of the fact that what they’re doing isn’t working for them and go back to humble beginnings to build from the ground up.

In the second Zen teaching there is more tea to be drunk. Or rather, more tea to be poured into four different cups.

  • The first cup is upside down. When the teacher attempts to pour tea, it cannot, of course, go in the cup but instead splashes off the upturned china. This is like the student who is so blocked they cannot receive any wisdom.
  • The second cup is the right way up but has a hole in its base. When the tea is poured in, it immediately drains away. This is the student who says they want to learn, who listens to advice but then walks away but doesn’t implement or think any further on it. The advice has gone in one ear, out the other.
  • The third cup is normal but it contains a fine layer of dirt. When the tea is poured in it becomes muddy and undrinkable. This is the student who is already full of thoughts and ideas – the one who lacks beginner’s mind. They’re not receptive to new ideas, but only willing to listen to those which confirms their own preconceived beliefs and ideas.
  • The fourth cup represents the perfect student. It is clean, there are no cracks or holes and it is the right way up. When tea is poured in, it is retained and perfect to drink.

While experienced runners are not new students coming to a teacher to learn how to run; when they are struggling the situation they find themselves in is unfamiliar. If it were familiar, they would know how to run themselves to fitness and there would be no struggle.

Unbeknownst to them they are students approaching the master. They need to open their eyes and take stock of their situation. They need to consider all options before taking action, not just the ones they’ve become accustomed to. Just like the clean, upturned, perfectly formed cup they need an openness to learning anew and to rebuild using methods they may have forgotten from when they were younger or beginners.

Every day of your life is the first day of the rest of your life. The universe is gradual decay and entropy. You have to keep looking at it with fresh eyes and beginner’s mind to remain ahead of it.

(While these stories are often told by Zen practitioners, I have relied on Dr Joseph Parent’s versions in “Zen Golf”)