parkrun’s Annual Points Competition

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting PSH – parkrun founder

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

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

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

Running with Paul Sinton-Hewitt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When endurance training works

I’ve written at length about MAF training, or more specifically, the ineffectiveness of low heart-rate training especially when linked to age. It seems to me that most people don’t understand what is meant when it’s said building endurance will help them get faster. I hope this post will be useful by giving an example of when it works and how it affects your runs.

In September 2017 I ran the Solent half marathon in 1hr36. I set off way too quickly – running the first quarter mile at about 6:20/mile pace and the first mile coming in at 6:41. After that it was a slide as my endurance failed me and I got slower by the mile. Around mile 9 the course turned up hill which made the slowdown even more pronounced until I managed a final effort to the finish line. Here’s a graph clearly showing the decline!

After a week of recovery running, I embarked on building my endurance using my own method which doesn’t involve having my watch beep at me to stay under a certain heart-rate. Following a simple schedule of one hour Steady endurance runs on Tuesday and Fridays with a long run on a Sunday, I slotted in recovery runs lasting up to an hour on the other days. This gave me a total of around eight weeks where I was hitting around 60 miles – with a peak of 69 in mid-November.

Over these eight weeks, I took only one rest day and yet my legs were always ready to run the key Steady and Long runs. Each run I marvelled at how well it went and doubted that I would be able to repeat it a few days later. Yet each run came up and I never felt too tired or got injured. I could barely believe how my legs kept churning out the miles.

I ran the half marathon on September 24th where the pace began at 6:41 and just got slower. Two months later, on November 29th, I ran along the seafront for nine miles and here’s what the splits looked like:

After a first mile at 7:14 where my body was still warming up, each subsequent mile came in at 7:01 or faster. Mile 4 was the fastest at 6:51 but I barely slowed down. The time for these nine miles was 1:02:48 (avg. pace 6:59/mile).

Compare that to the first nine miles of my half marathon which were 1:03:57 (avg. pace 7:06/mile). You might think there isn’t much of a difference but remember this was a training run, not a race. I was doing this sort of run every three days, not taking a recovery week after it.

Remember that by the ninth mile of the race I was down to 7:39; here I was still at 7:01. The gap would only have got wider – it’s very clear to see here.

I ran a hard parkrun three days later on December 2nd. My last one had been in mid-August when I clocked 20:29; this time it was 19:37 – almost a minute faster. On my Steady runs I was only hitting a fastest mile at around 6:50/mile, on parkrunday I was able to push harder and run at 6:15/mile even though I’d done no training at that level in months.

Mile 1Mile 2Mile 3Last 0.11
19 August06:1606:4306:4906:1020:29
02 December06:1306:1106:2305:3619:37
(Apologies for using mile splits on a 5k but it’s easier for reference against the other data)

At both parkruns I set off with a fast first mile of around 6:15 but, before the endurance training I slowed significantly in the second and third miles just like when I ran the half marathon. On the latter parkrun, the endurance training came to the fore and while I still set off quickly the decline by the 3rd mile was much less. I remember running that day and it feeling like I had a booster on top of the endurance runs I’d been doing – an extra 30-40secs/mile dug out for when I raced.

It’s clear I was able to get faster through endurance training.

While I never trained to heart-rate I will highlight that on Solent 1/2M I averaged 163bpm; while on my Steady run of Nov 29th I averaged 149bpm with a max of 158bpm. I certainly wasn’t pushing as hard in training as I did during the race.

On the Steady run, which was typical during this training block, I spent over fifty mins at heart-rates over 150bpm which demolishes the age-related MAF formula’s calculation that as a 46-year-old man I should have been training to a heart-rate below 134. I certainly felt no strain and there were no health consequences incurred from doing so.

The other thing to note is the benefit of the endurance work was only possible because I already had the speed. At parkrun in August my fastest mile was 6:16 and, at the half marathon it was 6:41. All the endurance training did was train the body to hold onto that existing speed for longer. This is the nature of the endurance training – faster times occur because you are more consistent in your mile splits; not because it digs out more speed. Throughout this period, I never went to the track or did any interval work; I just worked on endurance.

Efficiency and my postman

I often say “Hello” to my postman, if he doesn’t look too busy I’ll engage him in conversation or give him a wave as I zoom by in the car. Before Christmas there were a couple of days where I received post at around 4pm. This being later than usual, I chased after him with a couple of mince pies and commiserated about the long hours he was doing and asked what time he’d started and finished. He said he was arriving at the sorting office just after 6am; doing a couple of trips back there pushing his trolley up the hill and on the longest day had delivered his last letter at 4:45pm, arriving back in the office at 5:07pm. He delivers six days per week.

I once did a spot of leaflet delivering to local houses and was tired after two hours of it. On paper, it doesn’t seem much, walking around, occasionally climbing two or three steps to a door, and sometimes bending down to a low letterbox. By the time I finished I was tired and hungry and I’d only done my local roads. I’d estimate my postman’s route is three times bigger than what I’d done.

So you’d think he’s superfit from all that walking and to an extent, he is. You rarely see an overweight postman or woman. It’s an active job. Yet when I looking at that fitness from a running perspective, he’s not going to go out and run a sub-3 marathon without some other training. What’s he’s got is functional fitness for a specific task – walking at low speeds, pushing a trolley with letters and parcels and the ability to do some step-ups. He could probably go out and do a charity walk or ultra with ease.

This is the mistake many people make as they get older. They think that if they do lots of walking or playing golf, it’s keeping them fit but it’s really not doing that much because there’s very little exertion taking place. Same with people cycling bikes along the promenade or cycle paths. If you don’t push yourself, the body becomes efficient at what it does.

We can begin to get an idea of how efficiency works by looking at things through a biological / chemical perspective. For muscles to contract they need to be fuelled by a substance called ATP which the body sources or creates from its fuel stores using one of four energy pathways. I’ll give an overview of the four here but if you want to jump past the details, the info relevant to the remainder of this post is in the summary lower down.

ATP-PC or Alactic Anaerobic energy system

A small amount of ATP is stored and readily available for fuelling high intensity activity. Energy is created very fast, so the muscles are able to work fast. But there’s a limited quantity of the substances used in the ATP breakdown and rebuilding process so it’s exhausted after around ten seconds. This is why it’s sometimes referred to as the sprinter’s system. Those guys and gals are quick but they can’t last even one lap of the track. For distance runners, this energy pathway isn’t very useful other than for a quick start off the line, or a kick at the end of a race.

Anaerobic Glycolysis or Fast Glycolysis

Carbohydrates stored (as glycogen) in the muscles and liver can be broken down to release glucose. Each molecule of glucose, when broken down by Anaerobic or Fast Glycolysis, creates 2 ATP. When we talk of anaerobic exercise, it’s usually this system we’re talking about (although the ATP-PC system is also covered, but as I wrote it’s mostly irrelevant to distance runners).

Aerobic Glycolysis or Slow Glycolysis

Usually referred to as the aerobic system, this takes a molecule of glucose and breaks it down to create 36-38 ATP. To create this quantity (much higher than the Anaerobic version) it uses oxygen in the breakdown and goes through more steps hence it powers muscles slightly slower. This is why a marathon, which is run almost purely using this pathway, is never going to be as fast as the runner’s 5K.

Lipolysis or fat-burning

The other part of the aerobic system is fat-burning. Depending on the type of fat and how long its molecular chain is, a molecule of fat breaks down to produce 120-140 ATP. Again it needs oxygen but the reason why it produces so much ATP is because it goes through even more steps and chemical reactions to achieve it. This is why ultra-running is even slow than marathon running!


ATP-PCInstant energy for 10 seconds
Anaerobic / fast glycolysis2 ATP
Aerobic / slow glycolysis36 – 38 ATP
Lipolysis / fat-burning120 – 140 ATP

Enough jargon, let’s get back to postal deliveries …

What I’m about to describe is more of an analogy than physically possible. Firstly the numbers are wrong in magnitude – there are billions of ATP being processed in each muscle cell to keep the body alive. Secondly the body doesn’t use one energy system exclusively at any one moment, it’s often a mixture of them all. Putting the technicalities aside, let’s use those ATP numbers to begin to get an idea about efficiency.

When I went delivering leaflets as an untrained delivery worker, let’s say I was only using the Anaerobic / Fast glycolysis system. After two minutes I’d used up the fuel I’d created and was having to break down more. It’s no wonder then that, after two hours of delivering leaflets, I arrived home feeling tired and hungry – I’d used up my fuel stores and exhausted the muscles sixty times over. Such a big effort probably triggered a stimulus to adapt to a more efficient, aerobic pathway.

If I’d stuck at the delivering for a few weeks, my body would have adapted aerobically and I’d have found myself able to last over thirty-five minutes, almost forty minutes, using the same quantity of fuel I’d previously used anaerobically in two minutes. So now if I was out for two hours – what had previously required sixty refills would only need three to fourr. The job would feel much easier and I’d likely arrive home feeling less hungry.

If like my postman, I was doing this job six times per week for months on end my body would go a step further and begin to get efficient at fat-burning. Suddenly all the energy which had been used up in two minutes on my first day out would now be more than enough to last for over two hours (120 – 140 minutes). Or to put it the other way around. When my postman was delivering for over ten hours at Christmas time, he was able to fuel it with the same level of food that I would use up in ten minutes of delivering leaflets.

And in a nutshell that is efficiency and why, as runners we get faster at running if we train effectively. We go from sweating, gasping and wanting to stop while running at ten minute mile pace to being able to jog aerobically at that pace.  We arrive home feeling fresher, less tired and without so much hunger. Suddenly on our runs we have more energy available to run further and push harder. But if, like my postman, all you ever do is go at one speed then you won’t get any faster, only more efficient. It’s why once the body has adapted from running anaerobically at one pace to running it aerobically, doing some speedwork recruits the next level and begins the process all over again.

Positive and wishful thinking

At Christmas Day parkrun in Poole, I arrived unsure of what to expect. I’d run 20:26 at The Great Field a month before and 21:01 at Upton House more recently. With Poole being notably faster there was a glimmer of hope I might squeeze under twenty minutes. But I knew I’d run 5x1K intervals earlier in the week so my legs could still be tired. I was happy when I recorded 20:11.

What’s always intrigued me are the runners who can’t be happy with the time they get. My 20:11 on Christmas Day was my fastest parkrun in four years. Yet I know some runners who wouldn’t be happy with that. In response to a time of 20:11 they’d say something like “I wish I could have got under twenty minutes”. Instead of being happy with their fastest time in years they manage to diminish the achievement.

This is wishful thinking in all its glory. Their minds are off somewhere else wishing for what they want, not what’s actually happened. If they could live in the moment they’d savour that time.

– If they ran hard from start to end, giving their absolute best, then there is nothing more they could have done. So what’s to be unhappy about?

– If for some reason, they know didn’t put in full effort then they got the result they deserved. They can’t be unhappy with the time, they need to be unhappy with themselves and their approach. They need to hold themselves accountable, learn the lesson and adjust in the future. With running times, you get out whatever you put in.

People often talk about needing to develop positive thinking or optimism, this is different to wishful thinking. When I run a time of 20:11, it gives me confidence that I will be able to break twenty minutes. I think of all the things I haven’t yet worked on in training. All the sessions of speedwork, tempo running, base-building and pace development that are there to be worked on. On top of that there’s all the potential supplemental stuff like shoes, nutrition, compression socks that might shave seconds off. That’s my version of positive thinking. The only time I ever got downhearted and lost my optimism was a period when I couldn’t see any new openings to try. Even when I’m running badly – it is what it is. Having a plan for how I’m going to work my way out of the slump keeps me positive.

The interesting thing about the wishful thinkers is they call themselves realists yet they don’t live in reality. The truth is they’re pessimists – they can’t even be honest with themselves about what to call themselves. They never dare to dream big or set challenging goals, trying everything they can in pursuit of achieving them. They don’t take responsibility for their training, they don’t try new things or different approaches they keep it as safe as possible. When they run out of their limited array of options, all they can do is wish they could have been faster.

The Learning Process

As a coach I’m fascinated by the learning process. Having coached and participated for years, it’s very easy to forget how difficult learning new skills is. When I started doing sprint drills back in October, I got a reminder of what it’s like to be a clumsy beginner. Three months after regular repetition and careful attention, I’ve got them looking competent and am now finding nuances of technique to work on.

This is not the first thing I’ve learned recently. Just before Christmas I finally acquired another skill which I’ve been struggling with for over thirty years. I started doing The Times Quick Cryptic crossword online. Cryptic crosswords aren’t new to me, a friend first explained them circa 1990. Occasionally, whenever I’ve been sat in a waiting room or there’s a newspaper on the table, I’ve attempted the cryptic with varying levels of success. The ones in the broadsheets have always been beyond me, but I could usually do a few clues in the lesser papers.

My resurgence of interest in cryptics came from a video on Youtube and then I was helped by a daily blog which breaks down each day’s crossword. I was able to look at the answers and see how the clues had been constructed. That’s like getting a coach to help you with your running and point you in the right direction. It’s a shortcut to eliminate doubt and confusion which is a huge issue for beginners of cryptic crosswords and equally problematic when you’re a self-coached runner. When you encounter a problem in your run training, you may find ten different explanations for it online, a good coach will immediately narrow it down to two or three and hopefully pick the correct solution.

What I’d never understood is there’s a language to cryptic crosswords. Certainly I understood the mechanics of hidden words, anagrams and wordplay which is why I could solve the simpler examples. What I didn’t realise is there are many initialisms and abbreviations that crop up time and time again and you can only really learn by regular participation and repetition. To give you concrete examples from today’s; we had the letters ER representing the Queen (Elizabeth Regina), RM for Royal Marine but less obviously a letter D for the word daughter in a clue. On other days you might get MP for politicians, DE for German or EL for the Spanish word and so many more.

Like any language, it takes time to learn. Running has its own language words like aerobic, anaerobic, pace, effort, lactate threshold, fast-twitch muscle all have meanings which are a mystery to the uninitiated.

There is also the language of sessions  – does a runner know what a fartlek is? How to do an A-skip drill? What being asked to run 4 sets of 4x200m with 200m jog recovery and 5-mins between sets means.

All languages take time to learn. It becomes more familiar, the more often you engage with it. Repetition and regular participation help you get accustomed to the language so you barely need to think about what you’re being told. Regular and frequent training get your body used to the physical language of actual movement.

When I began the cryptics it was taking two hours or more to complete one crossword. As you might guess, I had a lot of free time over the Christmas period! But I didn’t sit and stare at the crossword for two hours, I did it in 20-40 minutes stints. I’d do as much as I could, ponder the clues for another ten minutes then give up and come back later. Over the course of a day I’d get most of the crossword done in these stints and that approach is like how runners start to get faster. They do little manageable stints that total up to something approaching success. They start off running every other day for a short time. Then they lengthen the time and add in extra days. Eventually they try an interval session to break the fast efforts down into something more manageable.

Initially I couldn’t complete a cryptic without using an anagram solver, needing the online reveal to get a particular answer, or making wild guesses and checking the answer to narrow down correct letters. My first decent effort took a good 2hr30 to complete and I was super proud of myself to get it done, even if I did finish it with a little help on the last 2-3 clues. Perhaps the most significant part was what came next, it gave me confidence that I could do these damn cryptics and so I persevered.

As the week wore on, I found myself getting more familiar with the language of clues. I began to look at them as a set of words and be able to parse what answer the crossword setter was looking for me to provide. That familiarity is rather like what happens with your body as you get used to running. The first occasion you go out and run, you probably go off too quick and feel uncomfortable. Subsequent sessions you begin to know your limitations and your body begins to feel less wonky than it did. This feeling is familiar to almost any runner, even the dedicated coming back from injury.

The first time I completed the crossword without any help at all, it took me just under an hour and I did it in one stint. The following week I managed one in thirty-one minutes. The improvement was exciting, I began to get the idea I’d cracked these and I’d always be doing them in half an hour. How wrong I was. The next day I was back to wrestling with it for over an hour and a quarter. I bet there’s not a runner alive who hasn’t thought “I’ve finally got training cracked” and then been surprised when it all goes backwards a month later!

Nonetheless the general trend was upwards and in New Year’s week I recorded a time of 24:04. Of course, I was excited. The excitement was slightly dampened when, reading the help blog, it became clear many people had recorded quick times on this one. It was an easy one! But then there’s many people who come to Poole parkrun in search of Personal Bests on its fast, flat course rather than tackle the hills of Upton House or further afield.

All of this summarises to the idea you don’t have to be perfect from the get go. Getting help can quicken up your journey. Repetition and frequent attempts are fundamental to progress. Doing small, manageable stints or efforts avoid overdoing things and getting demotivated. Feeling uncomfortable when you attempt something new is unavoidable. Persistence and a willingness to keep coming back through the tough times are a must. Running is quite literally a journey.

Review of the year – 2021

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

Final sprint to the line at Christchurch 10K in 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update on my 800m training – Nov-Dec 2021

Traditional winter training for middle-distance runners is a combination of building endurance and running cross-country. In my case, I’ve replaced cross-country with an all-out parkrun effort every couple of weeks.

After my last 800m time trial (2:49) in October, I took a recovery week and then began the endurance work. Using a fortnightly cycle the plan was to do two Steady runs (Tuesday and Friday) and a long run on Sunday on week one; a Steady run on the Tuesday and a faster-than-Recovery paced run on Thursday with the fast parkrun on Saturday. It worked quite well and my first three parkruns came in at 21:20 (Oct 23rd) and 20:55 (Nov 6th) at Upton House then a road trip to The Great Field parkrun (Nov 20th) where I ran 20:26.

With Christchurch 10K on December 12th I wasn’t planning to do specific training other than to taper and run on fresh legs. I’d planned to run one more fast parkrun between Dorchester and the race but Storm Arwen hit so I replaced it with some cruise intervals.

The 10K was a little disappointing as I went in expecting to be somewhere in the 41-42min range and ended up clocking 42:25. Not a terrible time by any means but my legs never felt good. I have a feeling I killed them in the preceding week by running a low volume of 200s and 400s. On the Friday (3x400m), Tuesday (2x400m) and Thursday (2x200m). That really is a low volume but perhaps I ran them too fast as I originally was aiming to hit 5-10K pace and the 200s came in at 37s which is faster than my 800 pace. That was a fun session as I ran it at the cricket pitch. Groups of college sixth formers on their lunch breaks were dotted around and they began heckling and cheering me on!

Since the 10K, I ran another 21:01 at Upton House and then on Christmas Day on the flats of Poole, I was among 798 runners as I ripped round to finish in 20:11. Touching distance of being back under twenty minutes.

After giving the legs a week to recover from the 10K, I decided I’m lacking decent aerobic capacity. On the parkruns and race I’ve barely been able to run quicker than 3:55 for a km. In 2020 I could run 3:48, two years ago I was hitting 3:45 and five years ago I was close to 3:30. The endurance training has been good but it’s been to the detriment of my aerobic speed. Even my top-end speed isn’t great and I believe this has contributed to the disappointing 800m time trials this year. I’ve noticed as my leg speed has disappeared so has the size of my quads – at least a couple of inches smaller than they were.

The consequence is I’ve begun running my old favourite session – 5x1K with 3-min recovery. It’s a great combination of distance, pushing the aerobic capacity and improving lactate clearance and tolerance.

The endurance training itself has begun to look great. I’m running twelve mile Sunday runs at sub-8 pace – close to 1hr30 most weeks. But also my recovery runs have got faster despite me keeping them easy wherever possible. This has really set me in position to build the speed side with the kilometre intervals and I’m hopeful this will have me close to nineteen minutes at parkrun by end of January.

Supplemental to the running, I’ve been finding sprint drills and strength work have been highly beneficial. The drills have been great in identifying inefficient running form and after two weekly sessions for two months, I’m finding the improved posture and muscle activation are beginning to bleed into my runs. Most significantly I’m start to get the feel for how to sprint and this can only be a good thing for my 800m time.

The squat work has strengthened up my legs but also the muscles in the hips and glutes. It highlighted a weakness in the left glute on the outside which was clearly not contributing to my running. As it strengthened up, it began to fire during runs and, in the long term, I’m expecting it to make a difference. On the negative side, I did too much squatting too soon and after about three weeks began to find my legs were getting sore so I stopped to let them recover for a week.

It’s been a useful two months, especially as I’ve taken over a minute off my parkrun time with my best time in four years at 20:11. I’m intending to stay with this plan through early 2022 and maybe run Bournemouth Bay half marathon in the spring. I’m sure a big part of improving my 800m time is going to be improving my aerobic capacity with the 5x1K intervals – I’ve really allowed my leg strength to drop in favour of efficiency the past few years.

Dealing with going anaerobic

In the last post I talked briefly about going anaerobic. The word anaerobic means to be without air and, at its simplest, it’s when the body cannot get enough oxygen for the work being done. More accurately, anaerobic metabolism occurs independently of oxygen – the distinction being there can be oxygen present but for whatever reason it’s not being used. I’ve experienced this on occasions when my heart-rate has been lower than 130 bpm but I can feel the signs of working anaerobically. If I were training by my heart-rate monitor I’d shoot on past this and for many years I never realised it was holding back my running.

Going anaerobic is quite normal. As I said in the last post we do it the moment we begin an exercise as simple as getting up off the sofa. The problem with going anaerobic is that we can only handle a limited amount of it. While that’s not an issue for daily tasks like going upstairs, it quite often turns out to be the limiter for runners exerting themselves for significant periods of time.

Going anaerobic produces all sorts of by-products that feel uncomfortable, as well as using up fuel stores much quicker than aerobic metabolism. While fuel isn’t an issue in shorter races, some of the by-products are. For example, carbon-dioxide is a by-product which results in you breathing heavier. The faster you run, the quicker by-products build up which is why you get out of breath very quickly when you sprint.

Not all by-products are bad. One which you may have heard of is lactate, also incorrectly referred to as “lactic acid”. Historically because it’s easy to measure it was originally thought to be the root of all the problems and most people still associate it with bad things e.g. runners saying “my legs were full of lactic acid”. So while it’s technically wrong to say it causes bad things, the real world uses it in this sense because it’s become the norm and coaches use it because it correlates to the waste products which are bad. I’m not going to buck the trend!

Three ways your body handles going anaerobic

Lactate Clearance – any time lactate is being produced, the body shuttles it out of the muscles to other areas of the body where it can be broken down or used as fuel. This is done by monocarboxylate transporters (MCTs). While you don’t need to remember the name of these, it is worth understanding the body can only build a finite number of them. This means only a certain amount of lactate can be cleared. Typically this is an hour’s worth while running at Threshold. In fact it’s the other way around in reality, your Threshold is defined by the MCTs. When you’re doing a run of less than an hour, you can run proportionately faster than your Threshold.

When the level of lactate production is equal to the level of lactate clearance, the body is referred to as being in a Steady State. The lactate neither increases nor decreases. Most people train here because the steady state doesn’t feel bad. It’s a combination of aerobic and anaerobic energy.

Lactate Tolerance – if the rate of lactate production exceeds the rate at which it can be cleared out then all the body can do is tolerate it by buffering the acids. Just as there is a limit to how many MCTs can be built, there is a limit to how much lactate tolerance can be built through training.

Slowing down – the third way the body responds to a build-up of lactate is the one most of us have experienced – it slows us down.

If we go out very fast, we use up lactate tolerance quickly and can then only run in a steady state at best. When the anaerobic energy production or MCTs run out, all we have left is aerobic energy to fuel us and drop down to the aerobic level. This is something most have experienced in half and full marathons.

The slow down can be voluntarily reset at any time by dropping back to aerobic mechanism. After a period of this, the lactate has cleared out and we’re able to pick up the speed again. Most runners unconsciously know this as they push themselves to the point of getting out of breath, slow down and then later find the energy to give it another effort.

Implications for training

Anaerobic training, such as speedwork and intervals, has its benefits but they are limited, less than 10% of your parkrun is anaerobic ! There is only so much clearance and tolerance that can be built by the body. Spending your time training anaerobically only provides so much benefit. All those rest periods keep resetting the anaerobic systems.

These limitations don’t change for the best runners, they are just as limited in the anaerobic department as the rest of us. The difference is they have better aerobic systems. Quite often they have a naturally large aerobic system but they’ve also improved it through training and that’s where all of us should be spending the majority of our training time.

This is best encapsulated in a picture from Keith Livingstone’s Healthy Intelligent Training book. The Anaerobic contribution is the same in both but, the bigger the aerobic contribution, the more that can be achieved i.e. running faster.

Going anaerobic

I remember when I was in my twenties, and I knew absolutely nothing about how to train for running. I just thought you ran as fast as you could for 10-20 mins and assumed you’d get faster. Compared to now, there was a dearth of information on how to train although there were books on it; but anyone who was decent learned how to run by the osmosis of running with others at a club.

These days there’s more information, jargon and approaches to getting better than ever before. Although it wasn’t running, I remember meeting some rowers – which as another endurance sport mirrors running – and one of them talking about “going anaerobic” and “oxygen debt”. These phrases were about as technical as people got in those days and while “anaerobic” still gets bandied around; the concept of oxygen debt is one that’s rarely mentioned these days.

My understanding of going anaerobic back then was based on the idea that sprinters use anaerobic energy while distance runners use the aerobic system. It was one-or-another in my head and anaerobic equalled the breathlessness of sprinting. The truth is more complicated as both groups use varying degrees of aerobic and anaerobic energy in their events. This post isn’t going to break that down but it’s taken me some years to get closer to the truth about when we go anaerobic. The fact is any breathlessness, which can happen for an untrained runner at paces as slow as nine or ten minute miles involves anaerobic metabolism. You don’t have to be running at high speeds to go anaerobic.

When you read running books that mention anaerobic training there is much confusion as different authors define it differently. Again, I’m not going to dive too far into that debate other than to say some authors see it as what happens when you exceed V̇O2max. Others believe it is what happens when you exceed Lactate Threshold / Anaerobic Threshold (or whatever term they use to name the point where you begin to exhale harder and faster). Whereas I believe it starts much earlier than that, back at what may be called the Aerobic Threshold, but is confusingly also called the Lactate Threshold by some groups, and consequently I refer to as the First Threshold to try and avoid confusion. Even then I’m not entirely correct about when it happens – it’s simply a nice approximation.

What I can say with confidence is that going anaerobic happens any time your aerobic system is overwhelmed. If you’ve been sitting quietly on the sofa and suddenly jump up and run upstairs; your heart doesn’t have time to speed up to supply more oxygen so you have to go anaerobic to meet the demand. For a while you go into “oxygen debt” until the body is able to handle the exertion – which is partly about getting to the top of the stairs and stop the high intensity work; and partly because the heart races and you breath hard in response. Another example is the start of a run, you’ll be using anaerobic energy until the body can meet the demand; once you’re settled in every thing steadies up but if you come to a hill and start to get out of breath going up it – yep, you’ve gone anaerobic again.

All of this is simply background information setting up my next post on how the body responds to going anaerobic. It’s very easy to get bogged down in the detail, I’m trying to keep it simple but if you have questions please do ask in the Comments.