Signs of overtraining, overreaching and being past your peak

No wonder I’ve been on the decline for the past month. I went for my long run at 6:25am this morning, in the dark, determined to keep it easy. Remember easy is a feeling, not a pace. It took me thirteen minutes longer than last week to do the same ten mile run. My heart-rate barely got out of the 120s yet my body didn’t want to run any faster. I’m sure I could have run faster but that wasn’t the aim, I was listening to my body and letting it decide. Truth is, I’ve spent most of the past month training faster than this and it explains why I’ve slowly been spiralling towards decrepitude.

I can’t call this overtraining because that’s a serious condition that can take months to recover from. Usually the term for having pushed the body past its best while not having become overtrained is known as overreaching. Overreaching is something most athletes actually want to do just prior to competition because it gives them a higher level of performance yet because they taper they get to freshen up. Generally speaking overreaching can be recovered from quickly whereas overtaining takes months.

Whatever I should call it, my training and running isn’t going forwards like it was a few weeks ago. I sensed the signs of a couple of weeks ago, but I wanted to finish out JackD’s 800m training plan so I could say I followed it to the letter.

These are the signs I spotted

Loss of motivation

A couple of weeks ago I found myself no longer caring about the next 800m time trial. After almost four months training I should have been excited that it was only a couple of weeks away but I wasn’t. My mind didn’t care and I was actually looking past it to the next phase of training I’ve got planned.

For someone as dedicated as I am, the loss of motivation was a huge red flag that my body wanted to back off. I’ve had it before and it’s always the same – simply wishing that I could get past the remainder of training, start tapering (which is of course reduced training) and get to the race. Often I never made it to the race as an injury or illness would kick in – those were probably the result of doing too much.

As an aside, I believe many first time marathoners experience this sort of thing. They start off their training excited and motivated, then as the long runs pile up and they trudge through four hour Sunday runs, they start to wish it all over.

High resting heart-rate

Before I start a run I have to wait for my GPS watch to lock in the satellites. This usually takes at least a minute of standing around on my driveway or by the car before I can start running. When I’m fit and healthy my heart-rate will drop to somewhere around 40bpm, quite possibly in the high 30s. When I’ve trained harder the day before it may be mid-40s. When I’ve trained very hard the day before it’ll be in the 50s. It might even do this for a day or two extra.  Over the past two weeks I’ve barely seen my heart-rate barely dip into the 40s, moreover it’s been low 50s. That’s a red flag.

Sometimes, while HR will still drop down it takes a while to occur. It seems to be stuck in the 50s for thirty seconds before dropping rapidly to the low 40s. That’s an amber flag that things may be becoming problematic.

I don’t think there’s an issue per se with the occasional high resting heart-rate but, as I say, I’ve been seeing these without fail for the past couple of weeks.

Tightness, aches and pains

I previously wrote about how tightness, aches and pains are a sign of overdoing things in this post. They’re probably the earliest physical sign that crops up but also isn’t actually debilitating unless you continue to push hard. Usually though when any aches or pains ease off during running as joints and muscles get warm and loosen up. It’s later in the day or first thing in the morning when they’re a problem.  I’ve been struggling with stiff ankles and hip pains regularly recently.

Other signs

These first three things are the most reliable, obvious indicators that things aren’t right. Any one of these three would usually be enough for me to begin reconsidering my training plan and slot in recovery sessions until the issue is gone.

What follows are less noticeable or isolated. The following signs usually need to be seen as one part of the jigsaw. Individually I don’t think they’re enough because they’re also somewhat vague and harder to measure accurately. Diagnosing yourself as overcooked is no easy thing to spot with certainty.

Affected sleep

If you overtrain and rev up your central nervous system it can affect your sleep patterns. These past couple of weeks I’ve found myself waking multiple times during the night and dropping straight back to sleep. But on a couple of occasions, I found myself sleeping solidly for nine hours on back-to-back nights.

When I seriously overreached a few years ago, I found I’d wake in the night to use the toilet. Then struggle to drop back to sleep and just lie there for 2+ hours thinking of absolutely nothing. No stress or anxious thinking, simply unable to drop off to sleep. This is another way the over-revved CNS can affect sleep.

Affected appetite

When I’m training too hard I find I tend to start wanting more sugary foods – crisps, cakes, beer. Basically my body is craving anything that will give me more calories and quickly. This isn’t always an issue as for many years I used to eat a lot more calories in response to playing sports hard. Similarly, I have found myself drinking more cups of tea or fluid in general.

While I haven’t experienced it, I’m sure overdoing things could also result in loss of appetite.

Failing to hit target times in workouts

Missing workout targets happens from time to time so you need to see it becoming a pattern. Throughout the earlier periods of my 800 training there were days where I struggled to hit targets but would come back refreshed a few days later and be on time. One session isn’t a problem, two should be noted, three in a row becomes a concern.

General runs are slightly slower

Looking back my Sunday long runs peaked a month ago and I’ve struggled to run them as quick since. Likewise when parkrun returned in July, I was running them at the limits of comfort in 23-24 minutes; this has slipped closer to 25-minutes. It’s been a small difference that I’d attributed to my legs being tired from the fastest speedwork being done in this phase of training.

But sometimes heavy legs or slower general runs can be a symptom of the initial response to an increase in training.

Loss of strength

I do strength training once per week. Two Wednesdays ago I found myself barely able to flex my biceps and lift the weight. The struggle was there again this week. I wasn’t sure if it was the “introducing new stuff” drop off that I mention above so I gave it another week.

Steve Magness lists examples of CNS fatigue as including reduced grip strength, worse ground reaction times during depth jumps or hops, and slower reaction times.

Summary

I’ve listed some of the key things I’ve noticed in the past two weeks that were suggesting I’d overcooked it. As I said, the main reason I didn’t back off was because I wanted to see JackD’s plan through to completion but it was also because I was so close to finishing that I was trying to hang on – that becomes a dilemma.

Many elite runners say they notice their moods before any physical signs show up. Apart from aches and pains, I’d certainly say my change in motivation was the most noticeable harbinger for me this time around.

And in case you’re wondering, the solution if you do decide you’re overcooked is to back off your training. Ensure easy runs are easy – as I did this morning. Cut some or all of the intensity out and give the body less training to recover from. It often only needs a few days to two weeks get back on track, and I don’t think it’s been more than three weeks at the most.

The Ageing Runner – Part 5 The Facts

If you missed part 1 you can find it here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, part 4 is here.

There’s no doubt that some decline occurs as we age but, in the past, it was thought to be purely a genetic thing. To still be racing well beyond fifty, if not forty, was something only those who were blessed and lucky could do. This myth has lasted well into the 21st century and is only beginning to be broken down in recent years. Often it’s used as an excuse or rationalisation by runners who either don’t know how to train, can’t be bothered to train or simply fear not being up the front.

The reality is decline, as experienced in the past, was more often a circumstantial thing. The people who went running usually competed for clubs. They started when they were young, had a high level of commitment and/or natural talent and continued on for some years. As their lives took on family responsibilities, they often found themselves racing slower and beginning to turn to the longer distance events.

Even twenty years ago training knowledge was less sophisticated. Plans, advice and methods were simpler than today’s but also often consisted of runners exhorting each other to “run hard” and “train hard” if they wanted to be fast. That’s a surefire recipe to having creaky knees and injuries.

Players of other sports went through the same process and once reaching their forties, some genetic loss began to kick in and once-committed sportsmen (and women) would hang up their football boots or running vests for a quieter life.  As I grew up men and women in their fifties and sixties rarely looked as fit and healthy as many do today. Some of it is better preening but, there is often, also a better focus on staying fit through alternative means like cycling or going to the gym. Playing something like golf may keep you active but it won’t keep you fit because of the Primary Rule.

Primary Rule – Use it or lose it

The primary rule for the Aged Runner to remember is if you stop using it, you lose it. This is fundamentally the issue that causes most people to age poorly, put on weight, lose strength and stiffen up. They stop exercising as regularly or intensely as they once did. A sport like golf does little to push the muscles to their limitations, most of the time is spent walking which is easily achieved without too much extra exertion. Walking miles every day isn’t going to help you when your body is already efficient at it.

The more muscle your body has, the higher the “running costs” of living. Your body burns more calories simply by needing to keep that muscle alive. An athlete burns more calories sat on the sofa watching TV than the habitual couch potato who hasn’t toned their muscles up.

Many of the aches and pains older people suffer from are because the few muscles they do have are straining to do the simple tasks. A regime of getting stronger quickly gets rid of many minor aches and pains.

Your ageing body tempts you to stop doing difficult things and if you stop doing them, you decline quicker. Then it becomes a downward spiral as your body tempts you to do even less. You either “use it or lose it”.

Fit, healthy and running strong at fifty

Distance runners suffer a loss of top end speed because they rarely practice sprints or fast finishes. This is true of both young and old runners but becomes more noticeable with ageing. To access the faster speeds requires a dedicated programme of strides, hill sprints and short intervals to recruit and build the muscle. The occasional session is not enough to build up, it takes weeks of building session on session to maximise the gains.

Running is an activity which is very good at propelling the body forwards. While this keeps the lower body toned, what it doesn’t do is very much for the upper body (e.g. chest / shoulders / arms) unless you are a sprinter. The core muscles are worked if you have good running form. But with running being a straight ahead activity there’s also potential loss of strength for lateral movements (e.g. the types of movements that tennis, badminton or football players use regularly to sidestep or go left and right). These are all areas which will fall prey to the “use it or lose it” rule.

If your only sport is running, it is advisable to take up circuit, weight training or cross train to keep these other muscles active.

Secondary Rule – Recovery takes longer

The second rule for the Aged Runner is to understand that recovery takes longer.  When you are young and full of hormones, you can train hard at least three times per week and recover from it. Sometimes more.

In middle and older age, you have to be sure the body has recovered enough before taking on the next workout. You’ll know you’re not getting enough recovery if you start feeling tired or getting aches or tightness setting in. The consequence of slower recovery is older runners cannot do as many workouts in a three month training period as younger ones. So the older runners have less speed or endurance when it comes to race day.

Another consequence of slower recovery is that injuries take longer to repair. If forced to take a break it can mean the athlete is no longer “using it” so potentially they are “losing it”. Once healthy, the temptation becomes to cram in training to try and rebuild quickly which is more likely to prolong the injury cycle. With a spiralling level of fitness, it’s easy to believe it’s purely an age-dictated decline rather than one which is in large part caused by impatience and bad habits.

Staying fast

Some decline is inevitable but it will be very gradual if you maintain good training habits. We saw in the Ageing Sprinter, there are men like Steve Peters or Charles Allie who at seventy years old are capable of running times that runners half their age do not achieve. The basis of all running events is strength which produces high cadences and long stride length which combine to produce high speeds. The people who are fastest over the shortest distances tend to be the fastest over longer distances.

  • Good training becomes about ensuring you do regular bouts of high intensity work like strides, hill sprints or short intervals to keep the fast-twitch muscle recruited. Having this muscle toned and active will also keep the fat off.
  • Ageing requires you to be patient and listen to your body, to understand how long it takes to recover. It is better to do one or two key workouts each week from a well-rested state than to do them badly in an under-recovered state.

You can’t be in denial about ageing taking some toll but, equally, simply throwing up your hands and accepting a big decline as inevitable is a mistake. Other people will be all too quick to tell you it’s age and encourage you to accept it but hopefully you now know better. If you’re to continue being fit, healthy and fast into older age, you have to find a realistic, common sense position somewhere between these extremes.

For the runners who’ve been to the pinnacle of the sport, of course the only direction is down. But for many runners who never achieved their potential at a younger age there is no reason to discount the possibility of improving as they get older. Even if they don’t improve, any decline can be minimised to allow them to keep running well into their seventies and beyond.

Muscles need recovery

The week I tweaked my hamstring I did two big workouts. It was all interval work and I was pushing hard, breathing hard and hitting paces I haven’t seen in a while. It was on the final effort of the second session, that I pumped my legs as hard as possible, hoping to end with a quick time, when the hamstring tightened and knotted.

The following day I ran a careful recovery run; the same again on the day after. The hamstring was already feeling 95% healed and offered no issues on the third day – a long Sunday run. I expected to run quicker than usual after two easy days but, while my legs didn’t feel tired, it wasn’t faster. My heart-rate barely went over 145bpm and although I had the energy, my legs just didn’t have the bounce or verve to go fast.

The next day was totally different. I went for my usual recovery run and my legs were full of power. Now I couldn’t slow down, it was the run I’d hoped to do the day before.

That’s the point of this opening: it had taken 4-6 days to recover from the workouts of the previous week. The hamstring tightening had been a sign I’d already done enough and once that recovered, it still took until the Monday for my legs to be ready to run like I’d hoped they would on the Sunday.

This is where many runners training falls apart – they push too hard, too often – they don’t let their bodies dictate the pace, particularly on their recovery or easy days. I know many runners who would have pushed hard on the Sunday and it would have delayed the recovery further.


A few years ago I became enamoured with doing 8-mile threshold runs. Start off with 15-mins of warm-up then push the pace up to the point where my breathing was on the edge of threshold and force it along for the better part of an hour. Warmdown, recover for two days then repeat the same session again later in the week. On paper, I was doing everything right. I was following the 80-20 rule, I was getting lots of recovery and so on.

For a couple of weeks, it went really well. My pace improved and I began to get faster. Then, on weeks 3 and 4 I saw no improvement. Around the same time my lower back began to tighten up. I went another week with the runs but the aches were increasing. It reached the point where they affected my day-to-day living and reluctantly I concluded I was going to have to back off the running until it subsided. So I went back to easy running and let my body dictate the pace rather than try to force things. Within two weeks everything eased up and I raced a decent 10K.


My experience is not uncommon among runners. At least in the sense that when they overdo things they start to tighten up and get aches and pains. This is the body’s reaction to trying to use muscles that haven’t recovered. It might be felt in the Achilles, it might be in the plantar, I’ve even had it in my shoulders! The only uncommon thing about my experience is that I didn’t whine and complain or put it down to bad luck or old age; I looked at my running and changed my training plan so I was able to train without pain.

This is why keeping recovery days genuinely easy is important, it gives muscles time to recover without putting extra stress in. Most runners are used to their legs aching the day after a run, they might even get some DOMS on the second and, after half and full marathons I’ve still been struggling on days three and four. They understand the need for recovery at those times because it’s obvious. But they rarely understand aches and pains in day-to-day living are general signs of needing recovery. It’s the aggregation of unrecovered muscles being called back into action too soon. Any time I have aches, pains or tightness, I know I’m going to have to back off my training. That doesn’t mean a rest day although it could. It may just be changing a workout to an easy run; it may be delaying it by a day, it may be cutting the workout down.

The moral of the story is muscles need recovery. The more effort you put in, combined with how much you do, dictates how long it’ll take to recover. It can take ten days to recover from a good speed workout. Old runner wisdom says it takes a month to recover from a marathon. While you don’t have to be perfectly fresh to train harder, you do need to listen to your body. Aches, pains and tightness that come from nowhere are always a sign that you’re pushing hard. If you continue to push hard they’ll get worse to the point where you’re forced to let them recover one way or another.

Learning from Tour cyclists

Here we are in July with an array of sports to choose from. Football’s European Championships, Wimbledon, the Olympics starting on the 23rd and three weeks of the Tour de France. It’s only in recent years I’ve got into watching the Tour which is mostly a procession through beautiful French countryside until a final sprint for the line in the last kilometre of a 150-250km race. Occasionally they throw in a short time trial of 30km and of course there are the gruelling climbs of the mountain stages in the Pyrenees and Alps.

With ITV having over four hours live coverage to get through, the adverts are frequently interrupted by some excellent commentary by Ned Boulting and David Millar. They’re joined from time to time by Chris Boardman, who won gold at the Barcelona Olympics at a time when British cycling wasn’t that good. Nicknamed “The Professor” because he’s studied the details, Boardman brings great technical analysis to any broadcast discussing the build of bikes, aerodynamics, streamlined skinsuits, nutrition and tactics among other things. While I’m never going to be a cyclist, I enjoy listening and learning what I can from watching the Tour.

Notice the beauty of of the logo creating a cyclist riding in a tucked position

One of the things I picked up last year was that “fat burns in the light of a carbohydrate flame”. This is a saying which relates to needing some carbohydrates ingested to kickstart the process of fat-burning. Specifically Boardman stated riders will eat 20g of carbohydrate before going out on an early morning ride otherwise they’re burning through their glycogen stores. Certainly I’ve always found my heart-rate is lower (which suggests better fat-burning) after I’ve had breakfast.

I tried experimenting with eating two digestive biscuits before setting out on my long runs. I’d put two on my bedside table ready for the morning then, on waking I’d immediately eat them before getting up, getting my kit on and going straight out for my run. I never saw any notable difference when I did this so I’ve returned to running fasted but having a decent breakfast definitely helps on my workout or race days.

If you want to try it the information about grams of carbohydrates is usually there on the side of the box or packet so take a look. A couple of Weetabix is my go-to breakfast. Not too heavy and the milk helps with hydration.

The other thing I learned is that even when the Tour schedules a rest day, which are the two Mondays in this year’s three week schedule, the riders still go out on it for a two-hour ride. I could barely believe this when I first heard it. After all when you consider the riders are riding hard for the better part of 3,500km (2,200 miles), you’d think they’d jump at the chance of a day off. But, without it, I suppose they’d be almost forty-eight hours without riding.

A little closer inspection of riders’ data shows their rest day ‘recovery rides’ tend to be closer to an hour, maybe stretching out towards ninety minutes. On tour days they’re riding at an average of 40km/h with an average power of over 300W (with the ability to sprint at over 1000W); whereas a recovery day is closer to 25km/h with only 90-130W of effort being put in. It really is an exercise in keeping the legs turning over, flushing out any waste products and providing stimulus for hormonal and nutrient delivery. Unlike runners where the body’s muscular-skeletal system takes a pounding with each step, it’s much easier to cycle for over an hour without any detrimental effect. Nonetheless runners can still use recovery runs as a way to trigger recovery as well as maintain lower aerobic fitness.

Short sprint – Sleep

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

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


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

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

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


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

How to Improve series – part 6

In this final part, we’re looking at how to bring everything altogether for a running system geared towards long-term improvement and getting FITteR.


A quick recap. Back in the parts on Frequency and Duration I recognised you can make quick gains off relatively little training. But once this stalls, you have to get more sophisticated and increase frequency and duration. My suggestion is to aim to run five times each week for 4-5 hours.

Once you up your frequency, there’s no way you can do all your runs at higher intensities and be able to stick to the schedule for more than a month or two. Eventually you wear yourself down and start taking days off or even getting injured. Some of the runs have to be done at very easy, comfortable paces to allow you to get back out the next day.

Research has shown elite runners do 80% of their running at easier paces with only 20% of their time spent on hard intervals or effort sessions. This is often referred to as 80-20 running or polarised training. Unfortunately the majority of amateurs are closer to 30-70 running with the vast majority of their runs being harder efforts and if you’re only interested in shorter events like the 1,500m or mile you may be able to get away with this. Modern training methods have shown that the longer the event, the more mileage you need to do to reach your best.

Simply calculated the 80-20 rule suggests if you’re going to run five days per week then four of them should be easy runs. In the article on intensity I discussed different ways to identify your easy-paced runs and whichever method you use, they have to feel genuinely easy, produce very little sweat, never get hard on breathing and your heart-rate should remain low if measured.

Most runners think training for speed is the way to get faster at distance running, but I suggest it’s about building your endurance to hang onto your speed. By this I mean, most runners could quickly train up to run at 5-minute mile pace for thirty seconds but few train to be able to hold onto that speed for a two hour marathon like Eliud Kipchoge. Building speed can be done quickly, endurance training takes years.

Steve Way is a local phenomenon who took up running in 2006 in his thirties and ran a 3hr07 marathon off a few weeks of training as an overweight 16-stone smoker! There’s no doubt he was naturally talented for endurance running. A year later he decided to train properly for the 2008 London Marathon and proceeded to clock 2hr35. When I first met him in 2011-12, he was coming to Poole parkrun as our course record holder (15min13) and was about to run his third consecutive 2hr19 marathon in London. Most runners would have been very happy with that but after starting to train for 100km races, he ran 2hr15 in London and qualified to represent England at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. He’d taken seven years of committed training to go from a 2hr35 marathon to 2hr15.

Of course few runners have the natural talent of Steve to be close to a three hour marathon on their first attempt but his story shows if you’re interested in becoming the best runner you can, there are many years of training and success ahead of you.

Steve was lucky in the respect that because his body is so geared towards endurance, he never considered trying to be a speedster. That’s where many runners fall down because they keep working at speed rather than endurance to get faster. They peak after a year or two of pushing runs hard, progress no further and believe they’ve reached their limit. Remember the majority of amateurs only do 30% of their training at easy paces.

How YOU can train to improve

Begin by getting yourself running five times per week. Make one of those runs last 1½ hours – you might need to build up to this by adding five to ten minutes each week.  If you’re doing all these runs at genuinely easy paces, I think you’ll be amazed by how easy it is to accumulate 4-5 hours’ worth of running. That it seems so easy may have you questioning what you’re getting out of these sessions and is a reason most people don’t stay with this training.

The first month is the hardest as the body gets used to doing more. It takes six weeks for the body to build each layer of fitness so it might take a while to start feeling comfortable. But within two months you should expect to feel better even if your times aren’t yet improving. What you’re doing in this period is preparing your body to go faster later.

I’ve often found within three to four weeks of starting this programme, my legs begin to perk up and are ready to run faster. Remember the 80-20 rule – you can afford to do one of your sessions faster. You could start to run a quicker parkrun or throw some speedwork in. Even just adding strides – picking up your pace for 10-20secs at 80-90% sprint – helps.

Progression isn’t always a straight line upwards. Day to day runs will fluctuate in pace and sometimes you might have a few days where the legs feel tired. I’ve often found this happens just before a notable improvement. Month on month you should see improvement in your general pace. If you don’t see progress, it’s almost certainly because you’re running your easy runs too fast, or more specifically not running them easy enough. When I struggle for progress going back to slower paces always solves all manner of ills.

There is a temptation once you get into this groove and things are progressing to do more speedwork or harder intensity sessions than one dose per week. Initially this will bring gains and you can quickly push the speed down by a minute per mile from two or three months of dedicated sessions and reduced easy running. There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as you acknowledge it’s for a limited time. But the experience of elite runners is they ‘go off the cliff’ with too much speedwork. Even if you don’t, you’ll find your progress stalls and maxes out at some point. And likely, because you’ve slipped into getting quick gains from speedwork, you’ll forget that it was the 80-20 running that got you there.

The bigger the gap between your race pace and initial easy pace, the longer you’re going to have to stay with this training before you see improvements in your race times. You’ve got to close that gap to create the headspace to run faster.

How I trained to get faster

When I first began working towards sub-20 parkrun; I’d been running sporadically from January through September. I’d accumulated less than 500 miles of training – roughly 10-15 miles per week – on the way to a parkrun PB of 20min42 and running a 5min55 mile. This was classic low frequency, low duration, high intensity running getting me to decent times and putting me up the front of Poole parkrun in its early days.

From October to December I started training regularly with only a fast parkrun every fortnight and keeping all my other runs easy. I logged 400 miles and within two months I was running forty-three minute 10Ks where I’d never broken forty-five minutes before and my parkrun was on the cusp of twenty minutes.

I then started to run hard three times each week and while I initially knocked another minute off my parkrun PB to get close to nineteen minutes; I spent the rest of the year running fast, feeling great but never quite improving. It was only when I went back to a block of endurance almost a year later that I turned up to parkrun one day and unexpectedly banged out a sub-19 with ease.


Let’s recap for the final time. All elite runners train daily – that’s frequency. The duration and amount of running they do increases as the race distance increases. Elite 800m runners do at least forty miles per week but as much as eighty if they’re also racing in the 1,500m. The best 5,000m runners in the world are closer to 100mpw while those doing the marathon can peak at 150mpw.

Extremely high mileages aren’t necessary for ordinary runners but they do need to get out and build their endurance through easy running. Using time to measure your runs is a way of seeing the mileage naturally increase as you improve. When the body gets fitter, you’ll automatically know when you can do more.

The training pattern of elite runners, who do 80% of their training at easy levels of effort, is the route to improving in the long term. When you run genuinely easy four times out of five times every week, you begin to enjoy your running not dread it. It starts getting easier to get out for every run and motivate yourself to do so. You might even begin to look forward to the faster sessions each week that are key to reaching your top speeds eventually.

At any time you can throw in more workouts but only for a period of up to three months. The experience of elite athletes shows this is the maximum amount of time they can peak before going off the cliff and having to rebuild their base. It’s good to come back to periods of easy running which might not entail any effortful runs.

Recovery is paramount to making progress. The easy sessions should allow you to both train yet paradoxically to recover from the harder sessions. One of the reasons training hard multiple times in a week doesn’t work is because there’s too much to recover from. This often begins to show up as aches and pains, or even injuries. Most runners interpret this as a sign of ageing or their body not being strong enough but really it’s a sign they’ve been doing too much, too soon, too hard. Easing up usually resolves aches and pains in a matter of weeks without the expense of going to a physio or other specialist.

It all seems too simple but it works. Most runners are too impatient believing in the old mantras of “you have to train fast to race fast” and “no pain, no gain”. Undoubtedly there are times when you should push yourself but following a good diet of easy-paced daily runs will make a world of difference for many runners without taking up huge levels of time or commitment.

What’s stopping you from starting?

How to Improve series – part 5

In part 5, we’re looking at Recovery – why it’s important between workouts.


There’s a certain breed of runner who believes the harder they work, the faster they’ll become. They see their body as a machine to be pushed to its limits in pursuit of their goals yet they can’t understand why their race times aren’t getting faster. What they don’t understand is the value of recovery – you only improve when the body adapts to the training. Do too much and the body can’t recover enough to get you through your next workout. String together months of depletion and you eventually end up in the pit of despair known as overtraining.

“You only improve when the body adapts to the training”

You might think only the truly committed, who run and exercise every day for hours, would be prone to this but my view is it can happen to anyone, even those who aren’t running much. Take the average first-time marathoner who follows a training plan which has two or three runs in the week, maybe includes intervals or hills, and has distance runs on Sunday beginning at ten miles and gradually getting longer. Being a slower runner they begin to spend 3-4 hours out every Sunday to achieve these long training runs and gradually their enthusiasm wanes. Many is the runner I’ve heard bemoaning that they’ve “got to go out and do an eighteen mile long run this coming weekend” and how they’ve “still got the twenty mile run to come” and how they “can’t wait for their marathon training to be over”. That loss of enthusiasm and tiredness is a clear sign they’re suffering with under-recovery. They even begin to drop the other runs in the week to make sure they can do the long runs – which is a way of giving themselves extra recovery. It can happen to anyone who doesn’t value the importance of recovery and balance their training.

Elite distance runners train for up to fourteen hours per week yet professional cyclists and swimmers train for thirty to forty. This difference is down to how the training affects them. With running, each step results in forces of up to 2½x body-weight hammering the muscular-skeletal system.  Cycling and swimmers don’t have these forces tearing them down because the weight is born by the bike or water. While training for longer is key to endurance success, if an elite runner tried to do thirty hours every week they’d quickly become worn out and injured.

Yet there are ultrarunners training for many hours each week, but only because the majority is done at slow paces. Their goal is not speed, it’s huge distances. The faster you train, the more pounding your body is taking. While it’s not the only reason, sprinters barely cover any ground in training. Their sessions comprise less than five minutes’ worth of running yet take the better part of an hour to complete when warming up, warming down and breaks between exertions are included. Sprinters recognise the value of fully recovering to be able to give maximum effort on their next repetition. With distance running you’re not looking to be able to attain your top speed but you still have to respect the recovery process.


It’s said that training harder is no longer the limitation in endurance sports, it’s how to recover quicker. Growing up in the 1980s all the doping scandals of the day were athletes taking anabolic steroids. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was the first big name to fall but not the last. I always thought steroids were something that directly made the muscles bigger and stronger but after watching a documentary I discovered they aren’t. What they did was speed up the recovery process to allow him to train harder and this led to his muscles getting bigger, faster and more powerful.

Tyler Hamilton, the disgraced Tour de France cyclist who was part of Lance Armstrong’s team, stated in his biography that they used steroids for the same benefit. Although as a Tour rider he wasn’t interested in getting bigger muscles, he found himself struggling on the multi-day tours as the effects of riding day after day ground him down. Eventually the team doctor offered him a pill and having taken it, Hamilton found himself feeling fresh the next day and riding strongly again. His recovery had been speeded up.

To be clear, none of this is to suggest you should be looking to acquire illegal PEDs as you train for running, only to explain the importance of recovery and how it impacts training and performance.

The best legal method of aiding recovery is to do nothing. Kenyan runners, who train twice each day, sit around between sessions doing as little as possible. They’ll just sit or lie down during the day to pass the time. Of course few ordinary runners have this approach available to them amidst their busy lives. A more achievable method is to ensure you get a good night’s sleep. Paula Radcliffe said when she was at the peak of her marathon training she needed ten hours of sleep. Early nights and getting a lie-in at the weekend are a big part of this. When I’m training hard I find the occasional afternoon or evening nap is unavoidable especially when I’ve run early in the morning!

“Ensure you get a good night’s sleep”

The conclusion you might draw when told about the importance of recovery is that it means taking days off from running and resting completely. But in this series I’ve been talking about the need to get out frequently so, as runners, we need to think about active recovery. Those days where we go out for an easy jog to get blood flowing to the muscles and provide them with nutrients for rebuilding. Sometimes people cross-train for active recovery and that’s fine, it’s not quite as effective as running because it’s hitting different muscle groups but it’s better than nothing. The closer cross-training activity mirrors running the better.

Of course the occasional rest day is fine, even necessary, to give the body extra time to adapt and refuel. If you’re training effectively and hard, taking a day off isn’t something to worry about. It’s better to be slight undertrained than under-recovered when you reach your next race.

In the final part of the “How to Improve” series I’ll show you how to bring together the four factors together for training plans.

How to Improve series – part 1

I wrote this series of posts while parkrun was cancelled due to Covid19 on what you can do to improve your running and set yourself up for a PB. It begins by looking at the four factors to consider when constructing a training plan.

I only became a serious runner as I was approaching forty, but there were a few times before that when I focused on running. When I was eighteen, my sister wanted to go out running so I went with her.  She promptly gave up and moved to London while I stuck with it for the next six weeks.

I didn’t have a training plan or a goal, all I did was run to the bottom of our road and back. I’d stand at the back door, start the timer on my Casio digital watch and sprint off as fast as I could. We lived on a hill so I got an extra boost with running downhill and, while it eased off, it was downhill all the way to the bottom of the road. Once there I’d turned right and come back up another road that seemed fairly flat. Of course by now I was huffing and puffing away, gasping for breath but the worst was yet to come. The final section was two steep uphills with a short flat section inbetween. The flat gave enough time to slightly recover from the first uphill, push up the second and arrive home gasping for breath at our backdoor. Plotting the route now I find it was 2.6km with 30-metres of fall and rise. I kept no logs but I recall running this route in seventeen minutes. That seems a bit slow as it’s six minutes per km but given that I wasn’t that fit at the time I can believe it may be correct.  The only thing I had going for me was a will to push myself to the limit and give it my all.

I decided I was going to try and run every night of the week but I also gave myself an out – I’d accept running six days out of seven. That’s a pretty smart way to train because while you’re setting yourself a standard, you’re also accepting you don’t have to be perfect and it’s ok to miss the odd session here and there. I trained like this for six weeks and then I got invited to do a charity swimming event so I started going swimming regularly and forgot about the running.

This first foray into running certainly wasn’t the best way to train but it ticks the box on two of the factors that go into making a training plan.  

  • I was running regularly – six days per week.
  • I was accumulating mileage as a result of running regularly. It may only have been about ten miles per week and totalled 1 ½ hours but it was a beginning.

Where it failed was on the third factor – intensity. Had I slowed some of these runs down I would have been able to run further and longer and I would have been able to build up.

The fourth factor is recovery. You only get faster if you recover from the training you’ve done. Being eighteen years old I was still young enough to cope with running all-out for fifteen minute, six times per week. The day off each week was likely enough to get me through but I could certainly have been smarter in the balance of my training.

It’s the interaction of these four factors that get you FITteR

  • Frequency – how often you run
  • Intensity – how fast you run
  • Time – how long you run
  • Recovery – allowing your body to recover and adapt

In part two, I’ll talk in more detail about Frequency of training and how often you should aim to run.