Was it the hills? I entered the month feeling positive after some very quick short intervals in April but throughout May my legs have struggled. I started doing hills in April to build speed and they’re certainly feeling stronger but they also tend to take a few days to fully recover.
I’ve never been a decent sprinter but I think I probably should have been. Firstly because I find it easy to put on muscle, and secondly because I’ve never found it easy to be good at distance running. Once I got on Strava I began to see how often quicker runners are able to get better results despite training half as hard as I do. I seem to lack the natural aerobic capacity that many distance runners have.
This is all behind the reason why I decided to give 800m running a try. It’s an event that still needs decent sprint speed backing it up. But when I started following a plan by Jack Daniels eighteen months ago, it didn’t do much for speed recruitment and I made a deliberate decision not to overdo things as I found it easy to run quicker than expected. This again is another reason why I think I’m better suited to short distance racing.
Even so I felt my top-end speed was missing as I could barely get my peak speed below five minute mile. Last February, I started looking at how to improve cadence in the hope this would improve my form for sprinting and top end speed. Six months ago I started doing ten minutes of sprint drills twice per week to clean up my technique. It’s made a huge difference.
So here I am doing Summer Training to build speed and peak for my next 800m attempt. With my aerobic base enabling me to run seven minute miles for an hour in the winter, I decided it was time to introduce hill and flat sprints on a Monday to recruit more running muscle and get faster at the top end. It seems to be working.
Six years ago, I was doing the same set of workouts and my times then for 60m, 80m and 100m approx. were 10½ secs, 12 secs, 16½ secs. Admittedly I tended to do these after another session but this year I’ve recorded times of 8.75s (60m), 11.5s (80m), 14.6s (100m). A definite improvement and fairly good considering I’ve barely done anything like this in the past half-decade and I’m now in my fifties.
I also found on the most recent block of flat sprints I was hitting some high cadences with the two highest values coming in at 262 and 278 on different efforts. I’m slightly wary of whether the cadence monitor is wholly accurate but if it is these are genuine sprint numbers. Again this backs up the belief my form is improving.
The rest of May’s training was something of a slog to hit target paces. Quite often I missed my faster targets but the legs always seemed sluggish after the sprints. This resulted in a decision – I’ve decided though that working on speed over this summer is the priority so if other sessions are a little behind because of that, so be it. Overall my numbers are still an improvement over where they were a year ago.
On into June. This is the hardest block of training. I’ve felt tight and slow on recovery days but hopefully I’ll get through it!
Have you played Wordle – the word-guessing game that went viral at the start of this year?
If you haven’t, don’t worry; there IS a running-related point to this post. The aim of Wordle is to figure out a 5-letter word within six guesses. You enter a word and the app indicates if there are any letters correctly placed, or any correct letters placed wrongly.
Most people realise they can improve their chances by starting with a word which has commonly used letters. There’s no point in beginning with a words that has Zs, Xs, Js or Qs for example. While it’s obvious they won’t come up often – it’s perhaps not so obvious that letters like B or G are well down the list of those likely to be used. I learned the most frequent letters are E, T, O, A, N, I, R, S, H, D when I was at middle school, so I start off with words that consist of them.
People also know every word has a vowel (or “Y”) so they think a word like ADIEU is a good starter because it identifies the vowels, but there’s a downside to this. When you take your next guess, you’re reusing those vowels and have less room to figure out the consonants. For example if the A and E are correct in the first guess and you then use LATER on your second word, you’ve only used four of the twenty possible consonants on your first two guesses. You might have the A and E as you enter your third word but still not have found any of the consonants out.
I realised that if I used my first three guesses to get fifteen different letters out on the board, I’d definitely identify the vowels and almost certainly get some consonants while being able to rule out Z, X, Q, J. Worst case scenario, I’ve still got three guesses left for figuring out which of the other seven letters I need to use.
The result of this strategy has been very successful. I’ve only failed once on Wordle in 100+ attempts. That was back on March 11th when the word was WATCH. Why did I fail on WATCH? Because it has multiple possibilities – PATCH, CATCH, HATCH, MATCH, LATCH, BATCH. At least seven different words to slot into a maximum of six guess. And it’s made even harder because CATCH and HATCH involve a double letter. On reflection, I should have then entered a word like BLIMP to eliminate four of the options in one go. That’s good strategy for you.
Playing this way, I found I was able to get the word in under thirty seconds (quick typist), some days as quick as seventeen seconds (slow broadband) but there was a downside to this. You’re never going to get the word in fewer than four guesses (unless you luck in).
This was great while I was playing on my own and my objective was simply to get the word that day. But then I started playing against other people. Always being ‘guaranteed’ a 4th guess was good on the days while others were learning the game but eventually there would always be someone who came up a 3 or better. Now I never won. I had to rethink strategy and go boom-or-bust to try and get it in few than four. Or wait for them to play and see whether a 4 would be good enough!
My original objective when I started playing was to get the Wordle in six tries. Once I realised I could always do this, my objective became to get it done as fast as possible and get on with my day. When I started playing against others I changed strategy again. This is a lesson in life it’s taken me many years to realise. The strategy changes depending on the objective. There is no single perfect strategy or method that will enable you to always meet a variety of objectives.
I once spoke to a runner who found running hills brought her parkrun time down quickly and then, having entered a marathon, continued doing them. It was only when I pointed out over coffee that trying to improve her speed beyond 7:30/mile was fairly pointless as she was hoping to run a sub-4hr marathon at no faster than 9min/mile. Trying to improve speed was the wrong training for her objective.
This isn’t unusual. Runners have a collection of standard workouts and try to apply them to everything – the proverbial “to a man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. That said, most runners recognise that if they’re going to train for a marathon they’re going to do more mileage and some longer runs but that’s conventional wisdom tilting their training, not understanding the requirements of their objective.
There are certain underlying principles to training that work across all events – training daily is more effective than training a couple of times per week. You’ll always do better at Wordle with a starting guess of CLEAR than you will with VIVID. The high frequency letters enable you to build on later guesses, the low probability ones usually leave you with five guesses and probably no closer to a solve.
Just as high frequency letters like E, T, S are clearly better guesses in Wordle than X, J, Z; it’s obvious that sprinters train differently to marathon runners. But the difference in training between a parkrun, 10K and half marathon is not so obvious to the lay person, just as most Wordlers are unsure whether C, P or G is more prevalent.
It is possible to be good at different events at different times in a career. After all, Eliud Kipchoge was the 5,000m world champion back in 2003 and then when he changed his objective he became the best marathoner in the world. The change of objective necessitated a change in training plan.
You could look back to the 1950s and find Emil Zatopek winning the gold medal in the 5000, 10000 and marathon at the Helsinki Olympics and Lasse Viren trying to replicate the feat in 1976 where he won golds on the track but could only place 5th in the marathon. Training had moved on by then and people had begun to realise you specialise and train for the event rather than simply trying to be a good all-round runner. You certainly won’t find anyone attempting it these days. A local club runner might be able to do it against a sub-elite field just as getting Wordle in four guesses was successful until my competitors figured out how to play better.
It’s been a revealing yet simple reminder from playing Wordle this year that the strategy you use depends on your objective. Likewise with running there is no single way to train for every event and you cannot be world champion at them all on the same day. It’s always a choice between speed or endurance, or finding some combination of them. How you train depends on your objective.
The idea of progression is not new yet it’s rarely understood or utilised by runners. If they’re following a plan then it incorporates progression but if they’re doing their own training, they’re likely just hoping they will get faster by running runs quicker.
That said, anyone who has ever trained for a marathon has an inkling of what a progression looks like. They know can go out and run five to ten miles at the moment, but the idea of reaching 26.2 is enough of a gamechanger that they resort to some sort of plan to get there. How do you get from ten miles to twenty? You do it by progression – simply adding 1-2 miles each week … ten, twelve, fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty.
Usually there’s a timeframe attached to training which forces the numbers. My last marathon, should have gone smoothly as I’d completed the twenty-mile run three months before the race but then I suffered an injury. Suddenly I only had eight weeks to go and I squeezed the progression to into six weeks – 9, 11, 14, 17, 18, 20½, dropped to 9 miles and then ran the marathon the following week.
So that’s the first thing you do. You look at how much time you have available and where you want to get to and then create an evenly stepped progression up to it. But it’s not only increasing distance that we can create progression for.
Most runners have a set interval session they like doing. It might be 12x400m equal jog recovery, or it might be my old favourite 5x1K with 3-min recovery. Runners usually aim to get faster at the efforts in the hope this will help them race quicker.
This is what Roger Bannister did back in the day on his way to the first four-minute mile. In the preceding October he was running 10x440yd in 1min06 with 440yd jog recovery in two minutes. Each month he would run the laps one second quicker so when he attempted the record in May he was running some laps as quick as 56 seconds.
But running laps faster isn’t the only way to make improvement. Notice we have four factors in Bannister’s session:
No of reps – 10
Lap distance – 440yds
Recovery time – 2mins
Pace – 1min06 initially
NB The combination of reps and effort distance gives a total distance of work – 4,400yds.
We can vary any of these factors to try and help us improve. The overall aim of the progression is to take us from a low point of fitness to a higher point in a safe and achievable way. Just like marathon runners try to go from ten to twenty miles over a number of weeks in training.
Usually we only change one of the variables at a time and keep everything else the same. For example we might start out doing 8x200m then 10x200m on to 12×200 to increase the overall volume from 1,600m to 2,000m to 2,400m.
We might then change to longer intervals 6x400m, which involves also adjusting the reps down from 12 to 6, to keep the overall volume the same at 2,400m. What we rarely do is go from 12×200 to 8×400 which increases both length (200 to 400) and overall volume at the same time (2,400 to 3,200).
For these examples we’d look to keep the pace and recoveries the same as before. Actually the recovery for longer intervals might also increase but it would still be in the same ratio as the previous efforts (e.g. both 8x200m with 200m jog recovery and 6x400m with 400m jog recovery have equal jog recovery).
Once we’ve increased the volume of work being done by varying the reps and interval lengths, we might reduce the recovery between them which makes the runner attempt the next effort in a more fatigued state. The challenge become whether they can continue to run all their efforts at the required pace despite the building fatigue.
For a progression to be effective, it needs to take place over a number of weeks. There’s no point doing one thing this week and something completely different the next. If you think about Bannister’s training, he was giving his body a month to adapt before moving onto the next step of the progression by improving the pace – he was doing the same session for six months!
April has been a month of weeks! Following on from Bournemouth Bay 1/2M on the 3rd, I took a few days break. That was the first week. Then I started training and it was a heavy-legged slog culminating with a not-too-great parkrun. That was the second week. It was followed by three workouts in a week and the legs finally beginning to lighten up. That was the third week. And finally, last week I’ve begun to feel back to where I was in March aerobically.
I’ve been wondering how to approach this block of training. While I liked the structure of JackD’s 800m training plan which I followed for two cycles last year, I didn’t feel I improved enough off of it. Having worked on my endurance all winter, I felt I would be safe to begin working on speed and wanted to use some of the concepts which Steve Magness talks about in his book – The Science of Running. Most notably this would involve hills and breaking the interval work into sets of 800m.
Mondays has become hill sprint day. These are the tool espoused by Magness for improving speed and recruiting more muscle. It’s all about short, all-out efforts lasting only 8-10 seconds followed by long recoveries. By working as hard as possible on each effort, you maximise the speed and recruitment without having the legs tie up with fatigue. The long recoveries then allow the energy systems to recharge for the next effort.
My legs have lost a lot of muscle and size over the past ten years. When I was in my early twenties, the gym report states my quads were around 26”; these days they’re 23” at most. It’s no surprise my legs were so strong because every sport I played I went at full-force. Playing squash was lunging two or three steps in each direction. Running round a football pitch or basketball court was accelerations of 5-10 metres to close down an opponent. Playing volleyball gave my legs a good workout with constant jumping at the net or squatting down in the back court. When I went for a run, I started off at a sprint and held on to puff my way round. All of that is the antithesis to how I’ve been training for the past five years.
I followed Magness’ plan back in early 2016 but they were usually done on tired legs, after an hour effort run along the beach promenade. My training progressed during those months but I was doing other good effort sessions at the same time so I can’t quantify how effective they were.
I’ve certainly felt good on this year’s efforts and they have combined well with improved running form from the sprint drills I’ve done since October. The following day is always a little slow but that’s to be expected with the muscle fibres recovering.
My intention was to do my own version of speedwork on Wednesday and Fridays. For the first two weeks I decided to follow Jack’s plan of 200s and 400s until I was ready to implement my own ideas.
The reality is when I started doing these sessions, I found my pace was off-the-charts compared to last year. Having not run a recent 800 time trial, I had nothing to base my training on so I estimated, based on my half marathon training, that I was likely in around 2:36 form and therefore should be running efforts at 43secs per 200m. The first session of 200s all came in at 39-41secs despite having tired legs. The following week I was aiming for 1:26 for 400s and found myself running a couple at 1:17 and a couple at 1:22. This was a huge improvement over the same session in training last year when I was hanging on for 1:30-32. The previous cycle it was 1:35-36 hanging on.
Last year I would feel tired after sessions; this time I’ve been running far quicker than expected but not feeling torn down afterwards. Given I was so far ahead of my intended pace I’ve decided too stick with Jack’s plan and not change anything around in terms of the efforts and splitting it into sets. The only change I have made is not to adhere so stringently to the warm-up and cooldown durations.
The final session of April was two sets of 6x200m with 10-min jog recovery between. The first effort of the second set came in at 35.2 secs which is the fastest I’ve done. Compare this to the 48-secs I was running when I began 800m training in December 2020. It wasn’t just one fast effort, all but one effort was sub-40 and the average came in at 38.16sec.
Despite my success, I’m slightly concerned I may be overdoing these. At parkrun after the successful 200s session, my left Achilles ached and then popped on the Sunday long run. My first thought was “oh no” but I could run without pain and have just seen it as a warning sign. I’ve probably been doing these efforts closer to 800m pace than the intended mile pace and during May, I’m going to focus on pacing these at around 41½ sec per 200 (5:30 per mile).
Actual disaster (minor)
On arriving at Poole parkrun in mid-April, I cinched on my watch and the strap broke. I had to carry it all the way round. That evening I went away to a birthday party and danced until midnight. Next morning, waking early at 5:40am in a strange bed I went for my long run up the Basingstoke Canal. I intended to do my standard 10-12 mile run lasting 1hr20-40 and popped the watch in my back pocket. I didn’t mind running without the numbers but I had no indication of how fast or how far I was going. My legs were so tired from the all-out parkrun and a night of dancing that it was a trudge. The final miles back I gutted through, working mentally hard to avoid the urge to stop and walk. When I arrived back and pulled the watch out of my short’s back pocket, I was stunned to see I’d run for 2hr05 and 14+ miles. No wonder it was tough – that’s my longest run in time and duration in almost two years.
I carried my watch around in my hand for the next two weeks. It’s impossible to know when to start or stop efforts in an interval session if you’re carrying it in your back pocket. What I noticed is the outsides of my shoulder aching towards the end of runs. I’m not sure if it’s down to carrying the (very light) watch with arms/hands locked in position or whether it’s just the effort of the sessions. I have had shoulder aches at other times when I’ve run fast. Nonetheless it got me wondering about those people who carry bottles which are much heavier.
It’s been a great month of running. I’m not sure whether it’s the hills or the winter training but something has improved about my running since the last cycle. I’m sure it’s down to improving my aerobic system over the winter and closing the gap between the fast paces and my general runs. Where last year the gap was the better part of 3-mins (9-min mile vs 6-min mile) now it’s closer to 2-mins (7:30 to 5:30).
I’m certainly finding it easier to recover between intervals and be ready for the next effort. But I also wonder if that’s partly because they’re being run quicker! Running an effort in 1:17 compared to 1:30 a year ago may not seem much but it’s 15% less time. Friday’s intervals, for example totalled around seven and a half minutes, a minute less than last June and ninety-seconds less than six months before that. While the individual efforts may be using as much concentration and energy, overall there’s less to recover from. This is why elite runners end up doing bigger workouts, they can do more as they get fitter. I could theoretically add a couple of more efforts to be doing the same volume of work as last year.
I’m looking forward to May’s training. My focus is on getting the pace right and ensuring I get enough recovery to avoid any injury.
I’ve only completed four marathons in my life. All of them were back in the days when I wasn’t a committed runner. It seems I was following, what is now, a familiar box-ticking approach to running. My first distance race was a 10K as parkrun didn’t exist then and 5K races were rare. But the sequence is standard – run a few races at a short distance then move on up to eventually do a full marathon. Now I realise training for, and successfully running, a full marathon is a big commitment if you want to do it well. Although I knew then you should do six months of training beforehand, I was only focused on getting the long run done. Again this is a familiar story of modern runners.
My last marathon was way back in 2010 and, for the first time in my life, I was beginning to train more regularly. I began the year by entering a twenty mile race which, when the train had demoralised me enough, I downgraded to ten miles. I followed it up a few weeks later with the Bournemouth Bay 1/2M in 1hr38+ at the beginning of April. To that date, it was the best race I’d ever done and knocked 12-13 minutes off my old Personal Best.
In the weeks following the half I began to lose interest in running and it was by entering the New Forest marathon, scheduled for late September, that I found motivation to get out and train again. I was in decent shape and with five months training, it should have been easy. In fact by early June I’d completed the twenty-mile run leapfrogging from fourteen to seventeen to twenty. I spoke with an experienced runner and he suggested there was no need to do the twenty miles every week and my records show I only did a fourteen mile run after that before disaster struck and I pulled a calf muscle. I lost the whole of July and it was early August when I could run again.
Suddenly I only had eight weeks until the marathon and I’d gone from having over three months to improve on my twenty mile long run to needing to rebuild entirely. Still believing in the necessity of the twenty mile long run but also recognising I couldn’t do it the week before the marathon I squeezed training into six weeks – 9, 11, 14, 17, 18, 20½, dropped to 9 miles and then ran the marathon the following week. I often say the reason it worked so well for me is because I didn’t have time to overtrain or under-recover!
On the day, two non-running moments stand out in my memory.
Firstly I arrived to collect my number which my racepack said was something like #1600. In the sportshall, I saw two collection desks one with a sign saying “Marathon 1-999” and “Half Marathon 1000-2000”. I was confused as my number suggested I was running the half but I knew this wasn’t the case. What most surprised me is how devastating this was to my psyche. I’d prepared for the longer distance, so if I had to run half the distance it would surely be no trouble. I could see it would be a problem if you’d only trained for a half and then found yourself expected to somehow do double the distance but, not when you knew you’d run over seven miles further in training. Somehow it was devastating.
I talked to the organiser adamant that I’d entered the full marathon while he said I couldn’t have; fortunately he was willing to move me into that race anyway. Once I’d got my sub-1000 number I felt calm about what was ahead.
The second issue was forgetting my new running shoes. Of course I knew you don’t run a marathon in a new pair of shoes, so I’d broken them in before the race. But I forgot to bring them along and ended up running the marathon in the old battered pair which had lasted me all through training. Oh well. I didn’t get any lasting injuries so no harm, no foul. Not good race day preparation though, yet not the first time it happened to me!
The race itself went well. Classic autumn day and decent conditions – sunny, warm and not too humid. I’d borrowed a Garmin from a work colleague and watched the miles tick by. I’m not sure whether I went into it with an intended time – I suspect I did as I’d begun to discover the online race calculators. Whether I did or not I found myself running around 8:15/mile and with the help of the Garmin I was able to keep on track. I don’t remember much of the run other than it was scenic and all around the New Forest. I’d bought five gels, which is the only race I’ve ever used them in and on advice took one every forty-five minutes thereby consuming the 4th at the 3-hour mark. It worked well and when I finished in 3hr40min59, I still had one left.
As with any marathon the running got tough in the final miles. I’d covered the first twenty in 2hr45 and the final 10K in 55mins. It was slippage that cost me perhaps five minutes and had I gone into it better trained maybe I’d have achieved a sub 3hr30 time but I was happy with what I’d achieved. I still am.
Most important to me was I’d done the whole run without stopping or walking – the only one of my four. I started running in the early 1990s when races were still predominantly filled by club runners. The sub-4 marathon was the benchmark for any aspiring runner and while it was accepted you might run out of steam and need to walk at some stage; running all the way was a badge of honour.
Incidentally when I arrived home and checked my emails, I found had entered the half marathon five months before, back in April. I’m not sure how I mixed it up but there’s no doubt from the training that I always intended to do the full 26.2 miles.
The result of my half marathon wasn’t quite what I hoped for. I’d gone into it with very decent training runs – the highlight of which was a session of 3x two miles which had been at 6:27, 6:32, 6:37 pace and consequently left me believing I might have a chance of breaking 1hr30 (6:52/mile). But it wasn’t to be and the run felt hard from start to finish as I ran 1hr33:43.
At eight miles I was just hanging onto 6:52 pace but there were hills to come and I faded badly. Reaching the 9th and 10th miles my quads began to ache and seize up. I struggled up the overcliff incline at about 7:40/mile with the added demoralisation of being overtaken by other runners. The steep descent down to Boscombe pier at mile 12 had the quads screaming as I hit close to 5min/mile and then there was the final run to the finish, again with runners overtaking me and barely able to summon a sprint at the end.
Going backwards isn’t a pleasant feeling but this was my 4th fastest half marathon ever and the 2nd fastest on this course – so it wasn’t a complete mess. And the other point of rationalisation is that six months ago, the aim of winter training was to improve my endurance base and I’m sure I’ve done that. My average heart-rate for the run came in at 153bpm which is notably lower than many of my past runs.
What went wrong?
At the start-line, I positioned myself near the front but my legs just never felt like they had any decent push. Usually if you’ve tapered well, when you get to a race you have to hold yourself back to avoid going off too fast. That simply didn’t happen and when I looked at the GPS data, I never went any faster than 6:40/mile apart from with the assistance of downhills. The mile down Alum Chine came in at 6:22!
Compare this to the training runs when I was doing back-to-back miles in training at 6:27/mile and there was something missing. I believe it was down to leaving my taper too late. Or more precisely that I barely did one. I’d been running fifty miles per week and then the week before the race was forty-five miles and then I only ran seventeen miles in the days preceding the race. It’s possible I dropped off too sharply but I’m inclined to think my legs never quite perked back up from some of the great training runs I did. I never felt the bounce of fresh legs going up and down the stairs at home.
Realistically legs being under recovered has always been a problem with my training and races. I tend to be a hard worker as I want to get the most out of myself. A few years ago, I used to know I was on the edge because the legs were sore, I got grumpy and couldn’t wait for the taper to begin. But these days it’s much subtler and I’ve gradually scaled back my efforts to account for this. But I simply didn’t scale back early enough this year. I felt I was flying in training and my legs were always feeling great. But the bounce disappeared about two weeks out which is when I started scaling back and I hoped it would return. It didn’t. On reflection, I should simply have gone out and jogged those last two weeks until the legs perked up. Even a three week taper wouldn’t be out of the question.
I don’t recall my quads ever hurting this much during or after a race. It may well have done but I don’t recall it happening recently – usually it’s my hips that hurt. I like to think this is a sign of how my running form is changing from the form drills I’ve been doing since October. It was the outsides of my legs that hurt all the way up to the glutes and I believe this is a sign I’m getting good hip extension. If I’ve got that right my stride should be lengthening as I push off more powerfully.
While I didn’t get the result I was hoping for I did come out of winter training with my primary goal met – improve endurance. I’m now ready to get back to training for speed as I hope (and expect) to improve my 800m time this summer. First I need a week or so to let the legs fully recover and then I’m going to start looking at hill sprints and other short interval work as a way to pick up the speed.
My training rebuild began a year and a half ago. Going into it I was running the same route every Sunday in 1hr41:15. I state this level of accuracy because there were three weeks were it came in with within ten seconds of this time! This was July-August 2020 and aligned to multiple aches and pains, and no improvement on my interval work it was clear I needed to rebuild.
So I embarked on the rebuild and after a couple of deliberate slow runs didn’t see much difference. Sometimes they were slightly slower, sometimes slightly faster but there was a small improvement and by the end of two months my fastest time was 1hr39.
Then I began 800m training and after another month I was scraping under 1hr35 so things were looking good. My pace had gone from around 8:40/mile to around 8:15/mile but that was where it stayed for the rest of the training cycle.
Come Spring 2021 I went back to a block of endurance work and now the times tumbled to the point where I ran the route in 1hr29 (7:38/mile). “Fantastic” I thought.
When I started my next cycle of 800m training I knew my legs would be tired some Sundays, so didn’t expect it to be this good every week but what surprised me is the long run times dropped back to around 1hr35 fairly permanently. There was the occasional glimpse of a good run but all too often the following week would go backwards.
Once again in October 2021, I picked up a block of endurance work and the long run edged to times around 1hr30 again until eventually I set a new course record by ten seconds (21-November). At last, I was going to see progress on my long run but once again I was proved wrong.
I moved on to doing fast kilometre intervals during the week. And my long run went backwards (terribly) as I suffered a VO2 lull – 1hr45 for the long run! Over the following five weeks it gradually quickened up until I set yet another all-time best with 1hr28min26 on (30-January-2022).
Then I changed training phase to Threshold Intervals and once again the long run went backwards (1hr42!) but it’s gradually been rebuilding week-by-week until last Sunday came in at 1hr31min54.
I’m not too bothered as it’s a good example of how training can be up and down week-to-week but overall the trend should be improvement. Invariably it depends on what else you’ve been doing during the training week but also quite noticeably on whether the focus is on building speed or endurance.
Here’s a graph of the runs week-by-week. You can see the general trend is towards faster times but even then it’s not clear cut. But what I know is that my parkrun times and steady runs have been improving and these will impact elsewhere in the week so that explains the variance on Sundays.
You have to have confidence in your training and never over-react to a bad run or two.
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.
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.
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:
Easy pace per mile
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.
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.
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”.
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.