Short term loss for long term gain

Growing up I drank my tea with sugar. It was a lovely sweet taste. Someone asked if I wanted a cuppa, I said “Yes” (being a teenager there was rarely any sign of a Please although there was usually a Thank-you when it was delivered) and it got drank quickly.

When I left education and started work in computing, we had tea and coffee rounds where seemingly every hour someone in the department would be wandering off to the vending machine to get them in for the team. I eventually dropped out of the rounds because I wanted to drink on my own schedule not someone else’s. I got a sense it was frowned upon because it was a rejection of their generosity and I was setting myself up as a non-team player but on reflection, I don’t care. I realise I was listening to my body. I was drinking tea when I felt thirsty not because someone was forcing it on me.

About eighteen months into this I realised I was drinking seven or eight cups per day. They were only small vending cups yet I knew that with each cup I was putting unnecessary sugar into my body. Multiply those eight cups per day across the week, across the year and on through a lifetime and it was probably mounting up for tooth rot and unnecessary calories. These were the days long before anyone worried about an obesity crisis or dangers of too much sugar. I suppose I was ahead of the curve!

I made a rational decision – I would stop drinking tea with sugar to save myself from all those extra lifetime calories. And so I went cold turkey and it was horrible. The tea became tasteless, like chewing on cardboard or paper. And being cheap, 7p per plastic cup tea, it was probably low quality anyway but I persevered. For months, drinking tea became a joyless experience. Then one day, either by accident or on purpose I had a cup with sugar. Ugh. It tasted horrible too. Far too sweet.  So I was now between a rock and a hard place – tea without sugar tasted horrible, tea with it tasted horrible. Either way forward or backward was going through pain. In the end, it was about a year before I started to enjoy drinking tea again but now, looking back from thirty-odd years in the future it was a good decision given how many cups of tea I still drink each day.

Recently I’ve been working on building my shoulder muscles. I noticed last year my left pectoral muscle is beautifully square whereas the right pec has a slight curve to it. A little wiggling of my right shoulder forward and backward identified the underlying root cause of the aesthetic displeasure. There is a slouching, slumping of the right shoulder which when forward causes the pec to sag slightly.

While this is not devastatingly obvious or problematic, like the tea in sugar, I feel it’s worth correcting for when I’m older. Old people often become round shouldered and then hunched which then causes further issues. I already notice sometimes when I am sat typing or driving in the car that the right shoulder is slumping forward and it feels ungainly and may even ache a little. Getting my pec square is a goal not for the aesthetic but because it will indicate the shoulder muscles are working correctly to keep it in position. Of course, unlike the tea drinking, lifting some weights twice per week is hardly painful or something I couldn’t stop.

My training philosophy is that, while everybody is subtly different, each muscle in the body works in a certain way and for a certain purpose. If the shoulder muscles have got used to sagging then, if I can easily correct them with a bit of strength work and conscious repositioning then going to be worth it. In time they will start to hold the joint correctly and strengthen themselves.

It’s easy for muscles to weaken and stop working and the body to compensate with other muscles which aren’t best for the job. A simple example is lifting a heavy object, the best way to do it is by bending the knees and using the leg muscles whereas poor lifting technique has people bending over at the waist and straining their back muscles.

It’s the same with running. We have an array of muscles in our lower bodies which contribute to movement. Some runners power their runs predominantly using their glutes, others use the thighs while some tap into their hamstrings or calves. While my training approach is not interesting in changing form to look good, I do believe it’s worth spending a little time each week to try and improve form through drills and strength work.

My belief is twofold. By using the right muscles for the right job, you get maximum power applied when you are running. If the wrong muscles are doing the job, they aren’t going to be as powerful at it. Secondly, they may already be fatigued when they are asked to do the things they are good at which means you get less out of them and it might even lead to injury. At best using the wrong muscles is a power leak. At worst, you’re unnecessarily fatiguing muscles that aren’t then able to handle what you want them to do. You’re not getting the best out of yourself. Bear in mind, I’m not prescriptive about what is good or bad form, only that we need to get the right muscles firing in the right sequence to maximise our own physiology.

But change takes time and with a complicated action like running, where there are many moving parts, adopting new form doesn’t necessarily come quickly. Small improvements in one area can lead to a change in another area that may or may not be desirable. If change was easy, top class runners would all have amazing form but they don’t.

When we start getting the right muscles to fire correctly they may be too weak to carry the training load we’d previously reached. We may have to run slower or train a little less until they strengthen up enough. It takes conscious effort and a willingness to accept a short-term loss for a long term gain that will hopefully last a lifetime. Just like when I gave up drinking tea with sugar.

Update on my 800m training – Oct 2021

The time had come to run another 800m time trial and find out whether JackD’s plan was working. 

A quick recap – last December I ran 2:58 to set a baseline. In April, after following Jack’s plan for a cycle, it reduced by only five seconds to 2:55. I then did six weeks of endurance training and it reduced a little more to 2:53 in early June. This was where I started my second cycle of Jack’s training from. The summer was then spent following the plan as best possible allowing for hamstring strain in July and a fast parkrun in August. I did all but three of the scheduled sessions.

So here I was back at Poole Park and having gone through my usual pre-run routines, this time I ran 2:50, maybe 2:49. Still no significant improvement. This was highly disappointing given I thought I was capable of breaking 2:40. Back in early September I ran 1:58 for 600 in training – that’s 2:40 pace so I should have been faster on the time trial. But it wasn’t to be. Realistically when I got to the October time trial I’d already passed my peak and was on the way downwards hence the poor showing on the day.

There’s no doubt I’ve generally got faster and fitter from the training but it’s not resulting in faster times over 800. If anything all I’ve done is brought the average of training up. I’ve not got significantly faster in the top-end speed – I ran 37-38secs for the first 200m of this time trial, back in December it was 39-40 secs. That two second per 200m improvement simply reflects what’s happened in the time trials.

World class 800m runners are easily capable of running twenty-five seconds for 200m – even the women. I’m nowhere close to that, maybe thirty-five seconds at best. So I’ve got to find a way to improve top-end speed because if you start running 200 quicker then the subsequent sections all get quicker. Even with a drop-off 400 is covered in under a minute and so on.

Endurance rebuild

Following the time trial, I knew I needed to let my legs recover. I spent a week doing very easy jogging. And that’s all it was – jogging. I’ve come to realise that when I’m past my peak it’s because my body has begun switching Intermediate fast-twitch fibres over to anaerobic mechanism and these can only be rebuilt through endurance training – lots of easy running, no speedwork.

My first Sunday run of the rebuild saw my heart-rate barely going over 130bpm during the entire run. Yet it still felt effortful in its own way which always highlights a drop in endurance. In the following days the pace picked up but I was still only barely running 8-min/mile until my legs came back. Yet by end of month I was beginning to see some miles closer to seven minutes and even putting in a couple of 6:50s on Steady runs. My final Sunday long run of the month was close to where I’d been in late August. Theoretically I could have picked up the 800 training again but I want to spend the winter on endurance as all world-class runners have a large aerobic base.

Form drills

Recognising my top-end speed isn’t good enough, I started looking at how to improve my general sprint speed without resorting to hillwork which usually overpowers my endurance. As I detailed in Stride Length, I’ve been thinking about how to improve this and started doing more drillwork – marching, A-skips, B-skips and straight leg bounding – to try and improve my running form. And boy, did it improve.

From the first day of drills I could feel my left glute hasn’t been working, my knees haven’t been lifting enough and my lower legs (the calf) have been inhibited in extending the stride. That inhibition has come from previous attempts to improve form where I looked to get rid of heel striking. There is so much conflicting information out there, most of it by people who are interested in very, long distance running rather than speed.

Given it’s ten minutes after an easy run twice per week, I’ve really enjoyed doing the drill work. I think it’s a new challenge and I can feel it’s going to help. The disappointment of the time trial has quickly gone.

Pistol squats

When I was researching exactly how to do sprint drills I came across heptathete Chari Hawkins doing a pistol squat.

Trying one I couldn’t get anywhere close even hanging onto my kitchen counter! It occurs to me that at the bottom of the pistol squat is very much the sort of position sprinters push out of from the start blocks. Developing it must be useful for getting faster especially as Chari Hawkins can run a 24.4sec 200m.

So I’ve begun doing daily squat work and discovered my left leg is weaker than my right. Much of that is related to muscles around the left hip which has impacted my running stride in the past. Doing the squat work has begun to strengthen this.

Combined with the drill work, my running form has changed massively in a couple of weeks. I’m feeling stronger and more balanced in my running. I’m sure my stride length is increasing simply because I have a stronger push off.

Coming up

The next block of dedicated 800m training is a long way off. I’m going to use this winter to build endurance. I feel that’s also holding me back. The best 800m runners in the world all have big aerobic systems which reflects in their easy runs being in the 6-7min/mile range – currently that’s top end aerobic running for me; not easy. I need to build mine up while maintaining contact with my speed.

I’m hoping to maintain speed through a fortnightly fast parkrun (as well as drills and strides). It’s a long time since I went to parkrun and ran fast regularly. I feel sometimes I’ve got so focused on training that I don’t get the reward of actually racing fast. My first fast parkrun on Oct 23rd came in at 21:20 at Upton House. While it was a four second PB over August, I know there’s much more to come as the legs were fatigued from a big week of running.

The other thing I’m looking forward to is Christchurch 10K in mid-December. While I’m not intending to do any specific 10K training for it, I am focusing on it and will taper for it. After that I will probably look to run a decent half-marathon next spring before resuming 800m training again. It’s all a long way off and yet it’ll fly by!

Streaking into 2021

With 2020 now done and dusted, it’s an understatement to say it was a difficult year for everybody. From a running perspective, the lack of races, parkruns and even club sessions left many runners questioning why they run. Personally I run because I enjoy it, the races and parkruns are side attractions where I like to test my mettle. While my year started with a rebuild of my fitness, it ended with me having run every day, failing to get faster over 5K and heading in a new direction with 800m training.

The rebuild of fitness began after I suffered a four day illness in late November 2019. It was probably a standard winter flu virus although it’s tempting to claim it was an early version of Covid-19 but realistically the timing is wrong even though some of the symptoms, like loss of taste, were the same. Anyway whatever it was, this all took place the week before the Christchurch 10K and with my aerobic fitness wiped out, I struggled round to receive the annual reward of a Christmas pudding! After that I focused on the rebuild which I knew would take about six weeks and got out running every day. I attended Christmas Day parkrun at Poole with its record attendance of over 1,300 then went to visit friends and ran Rushmoor and Frimley Lodge parkruns on New Year’s Day. By February, the legs were perking up; I was running ten miles on a Sunday at a good clip and ready to up my training.

It was my intention to run Bournemouth Bay 1/2M at the start of April and take a few days rest going into it. But with the onset of Covid-19, I delayed my entry and we ended up entering lockdown in the last week of March. As leaving the house was limited, I continued to run every day and it was a fantastic time to be out running. The roads were traffic free, almost deserted and I remember running at 10am one morning barely seeing anyone for the first mile. It was eerie and quiet like a scene from “28 Days Later”, the 2002 film where the protagonist awakes from a coma to find London deserted. But then, if you’ve seen “28 Days Later”, you’ll know 2020 wasn’t far off a real life version of it.

By the end of March I’d been running for 115 days straight and there was no sign of stopping. I decided that with lockdown in place, no races in sight and uncertainty about when the world would be back to normal, this would be my chance to create the longest run streak of my lifetime. And I mean lifetime. All being well, I’ve got a few decades ahead but I always take rest days before and often after races. If I’m still running in my 70s and 80s, I’ll still be entering races. I don’t usually go more than three months without a race.

Streakwise I’d already surpassed my previous best of 76 days so the question was how long could this one go?  I figured if I reached September I’d try to see out the whole of 2020. But that was still a long way off so I focused on now.

My standard running year is to build stamina in the winter then work on speed for 5K and 10K races in the summer. There weren’t going to be any of those coming up but I pressed on with the plan hoping, as we all did, that racing and parkrun would be back in a few months. I’d also noticed my vertical jump had dropped over the years. When I played basketball I was able to touch the ring and my jump was about 70cms, now it was 42cms at best and I felt little spring in my legs. This shouldn’t have been a surprise because I hadn’t done any dedicated running speedwork in over three years and it was over a decade since I’d been playing the sports that had built big thigh muscles for jumping. So while everybody else was following Joe Wicks’ classes on Youtube, I started my own fitness regime of hill sprints, skipping, side jumps, step-ups and depth jumps. I also started bounding, like a triple jumper, which was great fun and began to highlight some changes I needed to make to my running action.

I continued to run daily and began 5K training with a time trial at Poole Park benchmarking in at 22:05. I was twenty-five seconds slower than I’d been on New Year’s Day. My fastest kilometre had only been 4:14 and I found myself struggling to even hit 4:30 towards the end. But a benchmark is there to find out where you’re starting from and over the next six weeks I ran kilometre intervals twice per week and saw my speed pick up to reach a best time of 3:50. A second time trial at the beginning of July came in at 21:32. A 30+ second improvement isn’t to be sneezed at, but I’d also expected better from six weeks of training so there was something missing. What I didn’t immediately realise was that another rebuild was looming.

The day after the second time trial, it was obvious my body had switched over to speed mode rather than the endurance mode needed for distance running. I could feel it in my long runs where I felt like I was running fast, yet each week’s run came in within seconds of the previous weeks’. Nonetheless I thought I could train myself out of it with a more restrained approach to my interval work but I was wrong. By mid-August I had to admit defeat and think about another rebuild. There was another problem. I was struggling with many aches and pains in my ankles and feet, as well as my lower back. This is always a sign I’ve done too much fast running and need to do recovery work.

On top of all this I started a core stability programme in mid-August. I’d always thought my core was reasonably strong. Certainly whenever I planked against other people they’d struggle to hold it for as long as me and I could hold for 1-2 minutes. But I was wondering how on earth the guy who holds the record at over five hours for a plank could manage that. The longest I’d ever managed was three minutes which is a long way off. Researching I came across a statement that once you go over a minute there’s no benefit to planking for longer, and then I discovered the Big3 programme of Stuart McGill which he’d developed from working with spinal rehab patients.

I began doing the Big3 programme nightly but after a week it was too much, too soon so I backed off and let things settle down. A week later, after my Sunday long run, I bent down to untie my shoelace and felt an ache in my side that took two hours to subside. It wasn’t a bad pain just one that indicated I’d been working the core throughout my two hour run. I realised that while I may always have had a strong core, it had never been integrated into my running and was allowing me to twist and turn my shoulders and hips too much. I continued with the core stability and found an additional benefit was my golf swing became more connected.

Going into September the aches and pains in ankles and feet were becoming too much to bear. My streak was intact but I knew I wouldn’t get through four more months of daily running. I had to be honest with myself about this. It was tempting to think I could take it one day at a time but deep down I knew realistically it would be too many days. If this had been mid-November, with a month or so to go, it would have been different but not four months. I didn’t want to give up without trying to fix things before I took a rest day, so I made a deal with myself – I’d give it until October and if there was no respite from the pain by then, I’d end the streak.

Knowing the pains were a sign I was doing too much, I scaled back my daily one hour runs to forty minutes and shortened my Sunday long run to give less training to recover from. Over the first couple of weeks, the pain eased and I found myself sleeping up to nine hours each night. But despite running at over 9min/mile I returned from each run sweating. I knew from the sweat I was overcooked on the speed side. If I was to get out of this hole, I had to drop back and run even slower.

The week beginning September 21st, I dropped back to running at ten minutes per mile. The average pace of that week’s runs were 10:02/mile, 10:05, 9:48, 9:11, 9:27, 9:53, 9:25. It was a big step back when you consider my kilometre intervals had been easily faster than seven minute per mile. The following week wasn’t much faster but I was arriving home barely sweating and the aches and pains soon eased up. It was beginning to feel relaxing.

After three weeks I began to throw in a faster mid-week run at 8:30/mile and then a couple of strides into my Sunday long runs. By mid-November the midweek run was sub-8 pace and the aches and pains that had plagued me just a few months before were forgotten. Easing up the pace had allowed the muscles to recover, switch to building endurance and the pace to pick up. There was still a variance between the pace of all my runs – days of faster running needed to be followed by a day or two of slower but I was sleeping less and the general pace was improving. All the while I continued the core stability programme on Mondays and Thursdays and found my running form was transforming. Less rotation of the shoulders and hips, more glutes driving me forward.

Finally December of this difficult year rolled around. The streak was still on. I’d always had in mind to get to the 8th to achieve a year’s worth of running and that would then leave a few weeks to complete the whole calendar year. With the quiet of lockdown, I’d had time to think about my own running and why I’d struggled to run the sort of times that my training should have brought. Some years ago I half-joked that I would have been better suited to middle-distance running, or even the sprints, and now I decided to test this by trying my hand at 800-metre training.

To start off December I ran a 800m time trial in 2min58. Considering the world record is under 1min42, that’s a long way from being decent but considering I’d done no dedicated speedwork in years I figured this wasn’t terrible. The following week I began running two intervals sessions each week geared towards building speed over shorter distances. Now as we begin 2021, four weeks have been done and so far so good. My general runs are getting faster and I’m loving the interval work. I like the daily jogs but interval work has always been something I enjoyed much more than any distance run. Often what you enjoy doing is an indicator to what you’re best suited.

So that was the rollercoaster of my 2020 running. Three months spent rebuilding fitness. The following months working on strength and speed. Then back to rebuilding. The underlying positive has been one of a gradual improvement in running form through sprints, bounding and core stability work. I’ve wondered whether the need for the second rebuild was down to the revised form, the body discovering a need to rewrite all its motor programmes as lesser-used muscles began to take precedence over those that have turned out to be inefficient and overdeveloped. Could it be I’m like a beginner starting out and building up for the first time?

In the background there’s been the aim to complete a year of running every day. It never started off that way but became a goal as our circumstances change. The streak itself was never there to be a social media boast, it was a bucket list tick off so one day I’d be able to say I did it.  But I also wanted to experience it and pass on what I learnt. While the early days of my streak never felt difficult, as the year wore on I began to feel jaded. Even when I reset things in September and lowered both the pace and volume of my running I began to lose my enjoyment of running. Completing the streak began to hang over me like a dark mist. With December’s nights drawing in, shorter days, colder and wetter weather I began to struggle to feel enthusiasm to get out on my runs. The introduction of 800m training added an extra stimulus to recover from and most likely contributed to that mood.

Yet as soon as I had streaked the year, the mist lifted and I felt happier in the knowledge that I didn’t have to run if I didn’t want to. Where before I’d been thinking ahead, planning each day’s run with an eye on the run that followed, now I’m able to run in the moment. If I overdo things at any time, having a rest day is back on the table as an option. I realise run streaks are a good thing when they support your training but not when they stop you from listening to your body.

A year of running – 365 days with bonus Feb 29th for free