Update on my 800m training – January 2022

January has been a revealing month for training. It has really ebbed and flowed, showing the typical pattern of ups and downs that every runner can expect. While the intricate details of my training may not be of interest to everybody, the pattern should be.

In mid-December, I concluded I was struggling for aerobic speed. While my top-end speed hasn’t been fantastic I have been able to run 200s at 5min/mile pace but, at all the parkruns I ran through Oct-Nov-Dec, I’d struggled to run any kilometre quicker than 3:55. Compare this to my past and I could run one in 3:45 in 2019 and much faster in the years before that.

I embarked on running kilometre intervals with three minutes standing recovery which had always been an old session favourite. The route I use is undulating with definite up and downhill legs. The recent sessions were slightly complicated by workmen creating a cycle path on the other side of the road and parking their vehicles along the verge. But only on one occasion did this impact me.

I began these efforts on Dec 23rd and did them once per week. The first three weeks showed little to no change but during this time I struggled with my general running. This probably wasn’t helped by running a Christmas Day parkrun (20:11) between the first two sessions and seemed to send me into a running spiral.

Intervals – 5x1K with 3-min standing recovery

Below are the results of the 5x1K with 3-min standing recovery, plus I’ve included Christmas Day parkrun to illustrate how my running looked without the recoveries and what I was trying to improve upon. It’s noticeable that my first intervals weren’t much faster than the parkrun.

 Effort 12 (uphill)34 (uphill)5
25-Dec (flat parkrun 20:11)4:014:014:014:084:00

You can see for the first three weeks, the first kilometre was still only capable of being run in around 3:55 and then on 11-Jan, I clocked 3:44 and went faster the following weeks. What’s noticeable is how slow the other intervals were on the 11th and I think this is because my legs had dug out more fast-twitch muscle which was producing more lactate and this then made it harder to run the following intervals especially the uphills. Over the next couple of weeks, the body began to adapt so either less lactate was produced or it was cleared / tolerated by the body allowing the later efforts to speed up.

The highlight of running a kilometre in 3:42 is it’s the same pace as my 800m a year ago. Not only did I run 200m further on this training effort but I was then able to do further efforts three minutes later. Remembering back to my original time trial, I did jog immediately after but my breathing was rasping away and my lungs burning for the next fifteen minutes and beyond.

Long runs – 11.7 miles every Sunday

I have a standard long run to Broadstone which I’ve been running fasted (no breakfast) at about 7am. In late November, I clocked my quickest ever time of 1:29:06 (7:38/mile) with an average heart-rate of 151.  The following weeks I prepared for Christchurch 10K so didn’t run it again until December 19. This came in at 1hr32 and set a baseline for where training was about to go. The start of January saw my body absolutely crash with heavy legs after Christmas Day parkrun and two sessions of intervals. Just too much and I needed recovery hence a 1hr45 run where heart-rate barely got out of the fat-burning zone. As the weeks passed, the long run quickened up until I ran a course PB on January 30. The variability of the long run highlights how when you move the body towards faster work, the endurance drops off.

 Run timePace per mileAvg HR
19-Dec (before ints)1:31:537:53149

Steady run – 7.4 miles

My second workout of the week has been a Steady run usually on a Thursday. I hadn’t run this route in a while but my previous best ever was 56:25 set years ago. Often it takes over an hour if I’m doing an easy run.

For the Steady I would head out and push up to an upper aerobic feel – what I feel is marathon pace intensity and just hang on, never pushing it. It’s a route with a long uphill at mile 3, heads back down for faster miles at 4 & 5 before a gradual uphill to home.

I was pleased when I ran a course PB two days after the first set of intervals but when I overloaded in the next few days, I took it easy the following week. Once my legs were back, I began to see the same improvement and benefits that I’ve experienced on my long runs.

Run TimePace per mileFastest mile
6-JanNo steady run

The run on January 27 was done with an extra day of recovery, on the Friday rather than the usual Thursday. I’m sure it helped and I was really pleased to achieve three sub-7 miles during the run – admittedly on downhill miles! It’s a long time, if ever, that I’ve run those sorts of splits on a local route outside of a race or workout.

Drills and strides

These have continued twice weekly and, as I’ve said before, they seem to have made a massive improvement to my running form. I feel I’m beginning to skim over the ground with all my effort applying horizontally rather than a bouncy, up and down stride which you see in many runners.

I added in a C-skip at the start of January as the B-skips had become coordinated and I was no longer having to break them down into smaller parts. C-skips are what most people would think of as “butt kicks” (heel flicking up to kick the backside) and they unlocked some of the tightness in the quads. But there was a small downside as the increased efficiency began to put a strain on previously unused muscles and I’ve been struggling with a painful left glute which then began to extend down into the left ankle area. Nothing terrible and never a problem when I’ve been running but flaring up during long periods of sitting.

On the week of 6-Jan when I didn’t do the Steady run, it was because I ran the intervals on the Wednesday to give myself extra recovery. The following day, after doing drills, I ran one 200m to get an idea of where I was at and it came in at 35.81secs. The fastest since I began 800m training and close to my best recorded ever. The cadence was consistent, starting up at 206 before dropping slightly to 204 then 202 – but it was very smooth. I was pleased with it considering I’d run hard intervals the day before.

January over, looking forward to February

So that’s how January’s training has gone. The only negative is I only attempted one fast parkrun on 22 January and that came in at a disappointing 21:19 at Upton House, over twenty seconds slower than my PB there. But I know I’d been training hard and my legs were recovering from it. The fastest kilometre was only 4:05 which is notably slower than the sub 3:45 I was running in training.

While I’d like to have continued with the 5x1K to see how they evolve, I’ve decided to take training in a slightly different direction for February and March as I’m intending to run the Bournemouth Bay Half marathon on April 3. So I’m going to fill in the gaps with some 10K-paced work on the next 2-3 Tuesdays then switch those workouts to half-marathon paced work and looking to build the endurance to support it for the longer distance race. That will round off my winter training and set me up for getting back to 800m work in the spring.

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.

The Redgrave paradox

Running 10Ks, half marathons and marathons in the 1990s my attempts to race faster were limited. I’d enter a race at one or two months’ notice believing all I had to do was get fit enough to cover the distance and rely on the speed I’d built up from playing other sports and some shorter runs. I never thought about it any more deeply than that. There was no connection or systematic way to string together training sessions, and the biggest downfall was that I never trained regularly for longer than a few months. Other sports or interests would drop into my life, running would stop until the next lull gave me the impetus to enter another race and start training again.

My first systematic attempt to race faster wasn’t in running, it came on the Indoor Rower, which I wrote about in detail here, when I tried to improve my 2,000m time. I suppose because rowing isn’t something you do naturally like running, I felt I needed to research how to improve at it. My research was done, after a lunchtime at the gym, over sandwiches on my return to the office, accessing the infant “World Wide Web”. It was so young, Google wasn’t even the search engine of choice then; I used Yahoo!, Alta Vista, Ask Jeeves and a meta-engine called Dogpile.  I was lucky, working in an IT department, to have a fast internet connection and a management that didn’t mind how long our lunch hours were, because they were usually off playing football, squash or at the pub on a Friday!

Another stroke of luck was to stumble across Stephen Seiler’s MAPP website. He was a university researcher with a Masters thesis about rats running on treadmills and their response to exercise. But he was also a rower interested in applying his knowledge of exercise physiology to his sport. I lapped up the information on his website and began to follow his “Waves of Change” system of building fitness by rowing hard intervals to push my body to get faster. Although this post is going to refer to rowing often, stick with it because it’s very relevant to running as you’ll come to see.

Another of my internet searches turned up an interview with Sir Steve Redgrave which left me puzzled for years afterwards. Unfortunately I’ve never been able to relocate this piece and would love to reread it, to view it with fresh eyes.

To the younger generations, I suspect Redgrave is now unknown or simply a footnote in history. But growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, watching the Olympics, he was one of Britain’s few reliable gold medal prospects.  Golds were rare in those days, nowhere near the twenty-seven won in Rio. In fact, twenty-seven is how many golds Great Britain totalled in the five Olympics Redgrave participated in, and he won 18% of them! Five consecutive Olympic gold medals that began in Los Angeles (1984) in the men’s coxed fours then continued in the coxless pairs in Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992). In Atlanta (1996) he and Matthew Pinsent claimed Britain’s solitary gold medal and then it was onto Sydney where at age thirty-eight, Redgrave claimed his final gold as part of the coxless fours. Over a similar period, Redgrave won another nine World Championship gold medals as well as silvers and bronzes. He was undoubtedly our premier Olympian to that moment and, as the pre-eminent British rower, you can understand why I felt any advice I could glean from an interview with him would be worthwhile knowledge.

The interview appeared after he won his 5th Olympic gold medal and Redgrave talked about how, after meeting Jürgen Gröbler for the first time in 1991-92, his training changed because of it. Gröbler had moved to England when his native East Germany disintegrated with the fall of Communism and, with him, he brought knowledge from the nation’s coaching programmes. The East Germans were so dominant that, even now, thirty years after ceasing to exist, they still lead the rowing World Championship medal table with ninety-four golds to second place Italy’s eighty-five. While some of that success is explained by a state doping programme, the methods the East Germans used were also significantly different to how Redgrave was training.

From what I can glean a typical season’s training for Redgrave in the 1980s was rowing 20-40 min fast efforts two or three times each week, along with hard intervals every spring and summer throughout the racing season. Everything was geared to pushing to get faster, the runner’s equivalent of Tempo runs and Speedwork. But Gröbler had Redgrave rowing the majority of his training at very low stroke rates which felt like he was barely putting in any effort. This was as low as 14-18 strokes per minute which is significantly less than the 40-50 he might be reaching during a race. There are many runners who baulk at a similar concept of easy running because they believe you have to train fast to race fast.

Gröbler and Redgrave

Redgrave, himself, was sceptical about this method, but he was also intelligent enough to realise he needed to commit to the training if he was going to make a fair judgement of its effectiveness. The following March, after a winter of low stroke rate steady rowing, he attended the Thames “Head of the River” race which, by his own admission, he’d never done well in. Gröbler told him to start easy before turning on the power. Long story short, Redgrave won and was sold on the training. He stated that he and his crewmates followed Gröbler’s methods from then on.

So to recap, up to this point, Redgrave’s training in the 1980s, when he won Olympic golds and World Championships, had been training hard intervals each year to reach top form then dropping back over the following winter before building up again the following year. With Gröbler he did hours of slow training and gradually improved year-on-year and still won Olympic golds in the 1990s.

This was the itch I couldn’t scratch for years – how could rowing hard intervals in the 1980s lead to success but a gradual build in the 1990s also lead to gold medals? Surely there’s only one true method to success with coaches/athletes using variations on it. How could two significantly different methods be effective at winning gold medals throughout Redgrave’s career?

In subsequent years I would come across articles on running which talked about building endurance through slower training to get faster. Yet whenever I tried it, I could never get the huge benefits being promised. But the literature on endurance training was so prevalent, I felt I was missing something. I understood it was important but at the back of my mind there was always the paradox of Redgrave winning through two seemingly opposite methods.

Stephen Seiler’s MAPP website even made reference to this question on a page called “Understanding Intervals” where he posed the question “Which is better, Interval training or Steady-state training?” In it he firstly explains how doing interval work is effective at getting more work done. For example, you’ll be able to run 8x200m in a faster time than you can run a single mile.  But having established interval training allows you to do more work at faster paces, he tells the story of how East German rowers were training with slow, steady rowing throughout the 1980s and winning championships. He tells of how Kenyan distance runners do vast amounts of their training at slower paces. So once again, everything pointed to the best endurance athletes doing massive amounts of steady state training to be fast. And yet whenever I tried training slow, I couldn’t get it to work for me even though all the books and articles seemed to suggest it was the route to success. Meanwhile there are numerous articles telling you of the benefits of running hills and speedwork. Very confusing to try and figure out how the two things fit together.

In the last few years, I’ve finally been able to resolve this paradox of how Redgrave was able to win two Olympics with one method and then three more with another. It turns out I wasn’t looking or thinking about what his event entailed. The typical 2,000m rowing race lasts under six minutes for an elite man, it’s the equivalent of a middle-distance running race, somewhere between the mile and 3,000m. When Roger Bannister became the first man to break four minutes for the mile he did it with twice weekly interval sessions where he ran ten laps of the athletic track during his lunch break and only totalled fifteen miles each week. Basically this is the nature of events that last under eight minutes, it’s possible to reach very good times off a relatively low volume of training and Bannister’s training is how Redgrave trained in the 1980s.

But this training is outdated, I doubt it would be possible to be a world class miler today off the low volume Bannister ran. The decade after he broke the four minute mile in 1953, Arthur Lydiard’s runners began to win the Olympics in the 800m and mile by running a hundred miles per week. This was where the East German rowers learned about the benefits of Steady State training and why Jürgen Gröbler converted Redgrave to this type of training in the 1990s.

The change in method also explains Redgrave’s success in the Head of the River race. This race lasts between 15-20 minutes and is much closer to the demands of a parkrun for faster runners. Redgrave’s previous lack of success in this race is because hard intervals are only one piece of the training required for longer events. He needed to build a base of training to support his speed, so he converted some of his speed into endurance to be able to last three times longer in the Head of the River race. That’s what Gröbler’s Steady State training gave him, more endurance.

But this still doesn’t fully answer the question of how you can win off both types of training. What I missed (or more likely wasn’t explained) about the gradual build-up method is that, as Redgrave got nearer to the championships, he would still go back to rowing hard intervals to ensure he peaked at medal time. He was essentially still winning with hard intervals but there was now no dropping back the following winter because he was building an endurance base. The big advantage of this base is it allows you to recover quicker between interval sessions and train harder during them. If Redgrave had to row through rounds of qualifying and repechages then he was better able to withstand their stresses and strains.

The middle distance events are such that they’re about finding a balance between sprint speed and longer distance endurance. You can come at it from either direction. Bannister came at the mile from the speed end and relied on his endurance to develop over the course of his running career and tempo runs. The Lydiard approach was to come at it from the endurance end and then perk things up with intervals to get enough speed into the legs for competitive racing. As I say, it’s the middle ground of events – you’d never train for sprints through endurance, you never train for the marathon through pure speedwork. You have to train at both ends of the spectrum for middle distance.

BONUS FACTS – One final bonus from my rowing reading. Redgrave mentioned he occasionally did runs along the river towpath. He stated he’d run ten miles in an hour and a half-marathon in 1hr30! Even more impressively his Sydney foursome partner James Cracknell, who is 6’4” and 15 stone, ran the 2017 London Marathon in 2hr43 at age 45. Nothing is impossible if you know how to train properly.

James Cracknell – 2hr43 marathoner