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.
On the last day of the month, I spotted someone on Strava mentioning they’d slogged out a six mile run to keep their streak of 100-mile months going. I’ve got my own experience of streaks, after all I’ve been running every day for over eighteen months now. But I never set out to create a run streak, it just evolved due to Coronavirus and lockdowns.
I learned from parkrunning that a streak can become an albatross around the neck. For the first eighteen months or so of my parkrun life, I attended one wherever I was. It got to the point where the expectations of others to see me, my own desire to be there, plus getting up early on a Saturday morning began to weigh me down. Even the streak itself began to become a relentless pressure. When I picked up an injury in the depths of winter I finally had a reason to break the streak. As soon as I broke the streak all the pressure released and I was no worse off.
I still remained an enthusiastic parkrunner, turning up almost every week, so that by 2015 I’d only missed six parkruns in four years. Among other things I was focused on reaching my 250-club t-shirt and had calculated I’d reach it the following February. Then I changed my mind. Or rather I got my head out of the ego-driven, limitations of my mind that were pushing me on towards the t-shirt as well as the routine that Saturday morning parkrun had become.
What I realised is I’d stopped enjoying parkrun. It was a combination of small things. The journey there and back through heavy traffic. Getting out of bed early for a 6am breakfast. Going to Kings Park in Bournemouth, where an icy wind whips across the fields, and the crowds gather in the shadow of the grandstand while the sun rises behind it. Standing around until the 9am start time to be allowed to go run and then having to weave my way through masses of people who’d gone off too fast. I was no longer running all-out every week but using it as a training session. My love of parkrun had died because it no longer fitted with my needs or what I liked. I wasn’t getting out of it what I had four years earlier.
So I stopped and only attended occasionally.
I began to enjoy my Saturday mornings again. Doing things on my own time and schedule. Getting out of bed when I wanted. Having breakfast when I wanted. Going for the type of run and distance I wanted. Often it was an hour’s easy run closer to midday.
After six months I felt replenished and with a couple of 10K races coming up, I went back knowing some fast parkruns would help my training. Since then this has been the pattern. I go to parkrun when it’s helping me with my training or because I want to see friends or be involved in some way. Streaks should support your training and goals, not be the point of them.
People often notice when a streak is causing them physical issues. They try to run through tightness or tiredness to keep the streak going until their body sends them undeniable signals forcing them to stop.
But streaks can also be detrimental to our mental health. Usually the mental side flags up much earlier as a loss of motivation, bad mood or grumpiness long before any physical problems. We become so focused on how it looks out there to keep our streak going that we don’t take the time to look in here to see how it’s affecting us.
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.
Today I continue my in-depth review of MAF training with a look back at how it went for me in the summer of 2014. In part 1 of this series, I explained most people promote the Maffetone Method as low heart-training, but it’s actually a holistic system including re-evaluating your diet by taking a two week break from refined carbohydrates. I too was in the heretic camp and went with the low heart-rate training only. I didn’t change my diet or try any of the other things Dr Phil Maffetone recommends, partly because if I gave up carbs I wouldn’t have anything left to eat. I read a copy of his book while I was doing the training and was trying to make sense of it as I was going along.
This wasn’t my first experience of low heart-rate training, that occurred over twenty-five years ago as I recounted in this post about John Douillard’s Body, Mind and Sport book. Using “Darth Vader” diaphragmatic nose-breathing, while running to a sub-130 heart-rate, I saw no success at getting faster or achieving the effortless flow state he promised but I kept trying. It was only when I got good at running through pace-based training that I began to see the low heart-rates promised by Douillard. But the idea of low heart-rate training stuck with me and somehow I read about Maffetone training and when the opportunity arose I decided to give it a dedicated shot.
My first two years of committed running (2011-13) saw me recording personal bests at all distances raced but something was missing which was stopping me from hitting the heights I hoped for. I didn’t quite know what it was but the combination of The Redgrave Paradox, a return from a winter virus and wanting to try new things led me to give MAF training a try.
The winter virus knocked my training back for two months and while, I’d missed the half marathon I was aiming for, I was still running capable of running twenty-one minutes at parkrun. With the virus over I began to bulk up training with four mile runs in the morning and another thirty minutes of barefoot running in the evening.
In early May I clocked forty-three minutes at Lymington 10K. A week later I jogged round Bournemouth parkrun in 25:43 with heart-rate averaging 141bpm but hitting a max of 155bpm. I’m not sure why but, that evening I decided to try MAF training. I was 42-years-old, the formula gave me 138bpm and in the past I’d always found my running felt very comfortable at this level. When I was building my first aerobic base three years earlier it was where my heart-rate naturally seemed to fall on easy runs.
Beginnings – May and June
I followed the MAF low HR regime religiously. The first Sunday long run was hellish because I picked a hilly route. I must have stopped and walked thirty times to keep my heart-rate down on the hills but I managed the twelve miles without going over the limit. It was slow at 10:24/mile with the fastest mile being 9:40 and the long uphill into Broadstone taking over eleven minutes. The following week was even slower but I stuck with it. Like all spiritual adepts there were times where I unintentionally fell off the pew and I did have one deliberation exception; at the end of some runs I would do a 150m sprint back to my house. It sent my heart-rate soaring and those moments are not included in any of the stats that follow.
In the first six weeks of training I ran, on average, for eight hours and fifteen minutes covering fifty-five miles yet only spending 1min35 above my MAF-HR of 138. I’m doubtful it’s possible to do any better than this. By the end of June I’d accumulated fifty hours of training but less than ten minutes of it exceeded MAF-HR.
Most days I was running morning and evening yet what’s incredible is, while I was accumulating all this, I still took Fridays off as a rest day. I’m sure that helped parkrun to feel good on a Saturday morning. Monday to Thursday mornings were a shoed run with a barefoot run round a local field in the evening. At weekends, the evening run was shoed. Here’s a sample week from this period.
Time above MAF-HR
9:22 / mile
8:31 / mile
9:14 / mile
8:38 / mile
9:21 / mile
8:27 / mile
9:42 / mile
8:34 / mile
9:42 / mile
9:36 / mile
Morning long run
10:16 / mile
9:50 / mile
Going further – July into August
In July I decided to change tack. I was still going to train to MAF-HR but the arrangement of my week would be different. The barefoot running had to come to an end. It was a long, hot summer and through June the ground began to harden up. It eventually became like running on concrete and my body simply couldn’t handle it. One thing I’ve haven’t yet been able to sort out in my running is not being a loud and noisy runner who hammers their feet into the ground. I know one guy who can run half marathons comfortably in a pair of Vibram Five Fingers on tarmac but I can’t do it for more than a few yards.
Part of my experimental mindset also wanted to see what would happen if I ran longer distances so rather than splitting my training day into two runs, I usually only ran once but much further.
Below is a training week which totalled 67+ miles and 10+ hours while only exceeding my MAF-HR for nine minutes. This particular week, my Bournemouth parkrun time scraped under twenty-seven minutes compared to the thirty-one minutes when I started. This was as fast as it ever got during MAF-HR training and it stabilised in the twenty-seven minute range in the following weeks.
Time above MAF-HR
9:18 / mile
9:30 / mile
9:07 / mile
9:37 / mile
9:09 / mile
8:39 / mile
8:35 / mile
9:22 / mile
Many people who try low-HR training say they can’t run slowly. Part of it is they go off too fast but sometimes it’s their ego complaining. I never cared if people saw me running slowly. If anyone asked why I was jogging round at the back of parkrun I’d patiently explain the MAF training system with its focus on improving fat-burning over sugar-burning and then get on with doing my thing.
One of the reasons I stayed motivated was I knew the general approach of the elites is to do a block of ten weeks building their base. Sometimes they do this for longer but either way, the idea of replicating this helped me to overcome any doubt I was feeling when results weren’t showing up plus I had a reward in store to delay the gratification. When I’d completed three months of MAF training, I’d go to Poole parkrun and run all-out.
Even though I was completing Bournemouth parkrun 3-4 minutes faster, over those three months there was barely any improvement to my average weekly pace – it was always a few seconds faster or slower than 9:15/mile. The graph below shows this and the one notably slow week was when I totalled 77+ miles!
The reading I’d done suggested it would take three months for the aerobic base to be built. Not knowing better and not seeing any gradual improvement, I took it to be a timeframe where new speed or pace would appear at the end of it.
It therefore came as vindication when I ran Poole parkrun in 19:52 and I was very pleased to break twenty minutes. I’d been running twenty-one minutes before I started and I’d knocked a minute off with training. I now had the encouragement to continue on and see where this system could take me.
Peak experience – August into September
In the week following the parkrun my average pace improved to 8:51/mile – almost thirty seconds quicker. And it stayed there for the next three weeks. I thought I was finally beginning to see the promised gains and even put in occasional barefoot runs around the field again. These were proving quite efficient and I could run nine minutes with heart-rate averaging 115bpm. At my best I ran a sub-25 5K barefoot round the field without exceeding MAF-HR.
My Sunday long runs to Pamphill and back, which had originally been over ten minute miles, were now breaking nine minutes and I was even seeing a sub-8 mile on the downhill into Wimborne. The MAF training all seemed like it was going in the right direction.
Part of my year’s plan had been to do my UK Athletics coaching courses and I’d become a Leader in Running Fitness in May. The next level up, the Coach in Running Fitness course began with a full weekend in Exeter and meant I wasn’t going to be able to do my usual MAF training runs but I wasn’t too concerned as I figured a short rest would help. Over the two days we did many short practical sessions, both coaching and being coached by our partners but nothing extensive. We weren’t sent on one hour runs or anything, just technical drills, jogs and sprints and while my heart-rate was higher on the Sunday morning I thought nothing of it. I couldn’t get out of doing the practicals but I thought it would also be a test of MAF training’s effectiveness, no runner should have to be so perfect in their training if a system works.
Collapse – September into October
On the Monday morning I woke up … eventually. I’d slept for twelve hours, 10pm – 10am, and still felt exhausted. I played it safe and took the day off from running and resumed the next day. While the first couple of miles were ok, by the end of the run I was slowing my pace drastically to avoid breaking the MAF-HR.
Over a weekend I’d gone from being able to run over eight miles in 1hr10 to barely more than seven. In pace terms it had dropped by a minute per mile (8:38 to 9:40/mile pace). It clawed back slightly over the next four weeks but never back to where it had been. It was still an improvement over where it had been in June and July but not at the late August peak. I was still putting in the effort with weeks of 65, 63, 59 and 58 miles but the pace was often the wrong side of 9min/miles.
Enough – October into November and December
I was beginning to lose faith and needed to know where I was at, so in mid-October I went back to Poole parkrun. I’d run 19:52 nine weeks earlier but now I could only achieve 20:39. It had all fallen apart with one weekend of non-MAF training. I felt disheartened and ready to give up. I’d never truly seen the improvement that seems to be promised by low heart-rate training and I couldn’t see myself shuffling through months of my watch beeping at me.
I was scrabbling around for explanations and diving back into the Maffetone book I began to wonder if the increased heart-rates I was seeing were due to overtraining. It can be one of the signs and MAF’s recommendation for overtraining is to cut your training volume back. So this is what I did. All that happened was it became increasingly harder to run to MAF-HR off less and less training.
I was left wondering whether the previous winter’s virus had flared up again even though I otherwise felt fine. I took more and more rest days logging only 55-60 miles in each of November and December; mileages which had once been my weekly exercise had now become monthly. I was done with MAF training. I’d started it in May, shuffled around for months and not got anywhere closer to the best running I’d done in the preceding years. I felt like I was always waiting for it to come to fruition and it never did.
Within this post, I’ve tried to sum up my training for people to understand what I experienced while avoiding getting bogged down in the details. Even now I feel it’s quite stat-heavy. Every run I did that summer is recorded in Garmin and on spreadsheets. So many of the runs are virtually identical in their splits, heart-rates and times that there’s little to be gained from reproducing them, a summation seems enough.
I’m split between saying MAF-training worked and saying it didn’t. Unfortunately I didn’t have an outright benchmark to compare between when I started training and the all-out August parkrun that clocked in at 19:52. I think it was an improvement but I’d been capable of running this sort of time in February before I got hit by a virus.
The first question mark is when you look at my average weekly pace over those first three months it doesn’t change. It’s always somewhere around 9:15/mile. It’s hard to make a perfect comparison because I changed routes from the beginning of July but whenever the opening miles were along the same paths, the splits were very similar. It suggests I wasn’t getting any improvement from the MAF training.
It was after the 19:52 Poole parkrun that things picked up. The pace of my Sunday runs were notably quicker than they’d been in May when I was trudging up hills taking over eleven minutes for a mile.
The trouble is the fast parkrun seems to have been the trigger for this improvement and that isn’t part of the MAF training. The whole theory of MAF training is that you will get quicker simply by running below MAF-HR. [It should be pointed out the book allows you to add in some Anaerobic Intervals from time to time, but if you follow what the Youtubers say it’s simply about low HR training. Once you start mixing aerobic and anaerobic work you’re heading back towards conventional training methods.]
The second big question mark about my MAF training is what happened after my run coaching course. I went backwards and never reached the same heights of the 19:52 parkrun again. If you look at it over the whole five months of training there was no improvement – I was capable of running 21-mins at parkrun before, I ran 20:39 after.
I believe I adhered to MAF training as well as anyone could or should be expected to. I logged hundreds of miles in over 200 hours of training at slow paces. In almost six months I only totalled 4½ hours above a heart-rate of 138bpm and that includes two 20-minute parkruns where it was averaging high 160s. The graph below shows the time running with the yellow blocks representing the small percentage of time spent in excess of my MAF-HR. You can barely see any yellow in the first six weeks which reflects how well I was following the system.
What my stats don’t include are the occasional 30-second sprints I did at the end of training runs two or three times each week, or what occurred on my run coaching course. If this were a true scientific experiment they would be question marks against the validity of what I did, but with over 98% of my training as MAF expects I don’t believe they should be the difference maker to its effectiveness.
The biggest disappointment of having followed the MAF training system for all those months is that any gains I did make, didn’t last. I ran 1,345 miles to try and build the fat-burning system as Phil Maffetone suggests. By the time I ran parkrun on Christmas Day I was only able to achieve 21:45 with notably higher heart-rates than they’d been in August. Where I’d averaged 165 then, now I averaged 169. Where the maximum had been 174, now it was 181. In a matter of months, I’d gotten slower and my fat-burning had got worse. While I trained less in November and December, I’d have hoped the conditioning would last for longer.
But perhaps more importantly, whether I think my experiment proved MAF training works or not, here’s how I felt about it.
My overriding memory is of how much I grew to hate it,
I grew to dread the watch beeping at me to slow down.
Many hours were spent each week trudging along at paces close to 10min/mile. There was never any chance to break out and run fast, I was always trudging along barely lifting my knees or opening my stride. I was always waiting for the watch to beep. Not just a single tone but an irritating diddle-iddle-eee like a demented doorbell from the Seventies.
I enjoyed the evening runs much more but that was more down to the novelty of running barefoot laps round a field and feeling the ground fly beneath my feet. The lack of footwear reduced the energy-cost of running and my heart-rate stayed lower so I got to run faster.
But too many hours were spent trudging along in the mornings; automatically slowing down to trudge up hills; forever aware and vigilant for the beep of the watch ordering me to slow down.
While I was highly motivated to give MAF training a good shot, grasping for any sign of improvement, the slow pace meant my legs barely got out of first gear and I was repeatedly trashing the same muscles day after day. Running so many miles left them feeling hollow and lacking spring, and the lack of variety just made it unenjoyable. The only redeeming factor was that this all took place in the warm of the summer months. I’m doubtful I could have stuck with it through a cold, windy, rainy winter.
The one bright spot was the 19:52 parkrun at Poole and that was it. I believe you need more intrinsic feedback and enjoyment when you’re training hard to stay motivated through the tough times. If, for some reason, you aren’t getting that feedback then this is where having a good coach helps out. They will reassure you that you’re on track to achieve what you’re aiming for. They find ways to say “Don’t worry, it’s going to work out”, to point out any successes you haven’t noticed, or explain why the slump you’re experiencing is normal. In this respect, my years of coaching enabled me to self-coach and keep giving positive messages and reinforcement.
Knowing how my running improved in the years after, I realise I’d never use MAF training again. Its monotony and the age-related MAF-HR meant it didn’t work for me. Becoming a slave to the beep of a watch and heart-rate monitor sucked the enthusiasm out of me.
I know, as I can show to anyone I coach, there are better ways to train. Endurance miles are an important part of the equation but not the only one. It’s possible to mix up bouts of fast and slow running in ways that allow you to get the best out of yourself and see intermediate improvement while the training comes together.
In part 3, I’ll talk further about what I believe the pros and cons of the MAF training system are. When it can work, what you can learn from it and what the issues are.