Usain Bolt recently ran his first 800m race. As I’m training for this distance, my interest was piqued to see what he achieved. Bolt, of course, is generally seen as the best sprinter of all time winning multiple gold medals in the 100m and 200m at consecutive Olympics and the World Championships from 2008 to 2016. As a junior his coach had wanted him to become a 400m runner, his best time was 45.28s, but he didn’t enjoy the longer training sessions and it became apparent he could be a champion at the short sprints. Running his first 800 race would be a big step up.
Out of athletics for the past four years, he said he’d been training for this race but it turned out to be part of an advert for a used car dealership. Its premise was that you can get an online valuation for your car quicker than Usain Bolt can run 800m. Bolt in lane 1 versus the customer in lane 6 sat in a comfy chair typing her car’s details into her phone. I’ll embed the video at the bottom, if you want to watch it, but Bolt appears to be jogging round on his way to a 2:40 time for 800 metres. The commentary is overlaid and there’s no sound from the track so I’m tempted to believe it’s masking the director telling him to speed up or slow down to ensure he finishes just slower than the customer. After all it wouldn’t be much of an advert if Bolt wins easily. Actually it’s not much of an advert anyway because I thought they were providing insurance quotes, not a price for your used car.
What I could glean from the footage is Bolt is running at a cadence of around 160 steps per minute which equates to a stride length of 1.88m per step. That’s not unbelievable given he’s 6’5” and when he’s in full sprint mode he’s averaging closer to 2.50 metre per step (and his cadence also up at 250 per minute). It’s deceptive watching the video because it really doesn’t seem like he’s covering much ground until you see his strides around the start-finish line. The slow cadence really does make it look like he’s taking it casually.
Even allowing for some play-acting, I doubt Bolt could currently run it that much faster – bear in mind his pace is 5:20/mile, it’s not that slow. He’s not overweight or unfit but of course he has detrained from his peak athleticism. As the best sprinter in the world, his genetics are geared towards speed. He stated in a 2013 interview that he could run the 800m in 2min05 so that gives us a reference for his ability when he was a trained sprinter. There’s also a segment from Superstars in 1986 on Youtube of Carl Lewis, who was the Olympic champion in the same events as Bolt – the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, where he ran 2min15 for the half mile. So I’m inclined to think a detrained Bolt couldn’t have run 800m much quicker than he did in the advert.
A short postrace interview with Bolt shows him lying on the ground having his legs massaged and breathing hard. His splits for this 800 were 35s and 39s for a 1:14 first lap followed by 44s and 42s for a second lap 1:26. That final 200m being faster suggests he did try to pick up the pace. These splits are fairly consistent with what I experienced in my 800m time trials – when I ran 2:53, my splits were 39 / 43 / 45 / 46 secs and I tried to sprint at the end but my legs were tying up with lactate. It’s a fast start and then struggle to hang on.
One difference is that Bolt can run a significantly faster 200m than I can – his world record is 19.19s – yet at 35sec his opening 200 isn’t much quicker than when I time trialled at 39s. His controlled start may have avoided building up the oxygen debt that leads to heavy breathing.
What I’ve found with all my distance races is that it doesn’t matter how hard you train for speed and to handle oxygen debt, there comes a limit to how fast you can go because the by-products seize the muscles up. When your body is trained for speed lactate and waste products are being produced from start to finish. It’s why for in distance running you need to build a good aerobic system to delay their production so they are only produced at higher speeds.
I can remember finishing parkruns when I was speed-trained, saying there was more to come because my legs never felt tired, yet it was only when I did more easy running that my times got quicker. I had to build aerobically through daily easy, steady and long runs to improve at parkrun and longer distances.
Some people are naturally full of slow-twitch muscle and therefore find it easier to build their aerobic capacity – they’ll start with a bigger base. For those with more fast-twitch, either you stick to the sprints as Bolt did or commit to doing the miles that will develop them aerobically.
I’m now six weeks into the second time round with my 800m training. My first go-round, following a Jack Daniel’s plan, lasted from December to May and didn’t provide great results as my 800 time only improved from 2min58 to 2min53. But I knew I was running faster, felt fitter and hoped a second go-around would show better results.
This training block is full of intervals ranging from 200-600m in length. As you’ll see in the stats the vast majority are short with just four 600s planned. Last time I was aiming to run at 48sec/200m but later realised I should have been using 48½ which I could only just scrape on the 400s and 600s.
I’ve been working to 47sec/200m which is the training for a 2:52 800m. Trouble is, I’ve been averaging 43s for 200m, 1:31 for 400m and 2:15 for 600m. It seems like this reflects the discrepancy between my time trials and how I actually felt my fitness had been progressing.
Last time I tried to be accurate with my interval efforts – not going fast than necessary but always hitting target. This time I’ve thrown caution to the wind and allowed myself to run without holding back. That’s not to say I’ve gone all-out, I haven’t; just not held back.
Some interval stats for those who love them!
I’ve also introduced 8 strides of 10secs after my Friday morning recovery run. Ideally Jack would have me doing these on two of my recovery days but I didn’t want to undermine my aerobic base too much. Last time around, I didn’t do any; this time I’m doing one set. Next time around, if everything is going well, I’ll introduce the other day.
I suspect it’s (a lack of) this faster running that was holding my 800m time back in the past. I’m beginning to see my fastest pace come down from 5min/miling to 4:30/mile during strides and this may partly be down to the limitations of how quickly my GPS watch can produce an accurate pace.
The bigger danger is pushing too hard may lead to injury and it happened. I suffered a minor hamstring issue in week 5. It was the final 200 of a session that had already totalled 2,800m, and when I’m feeling good as I was, I tend to like to finish strongly; so I pumped my legs as hard as I could but felt a tightening in the right hamstring and it began to knot. I eased off, finished out the effort and jogged home.
I was fortunate to have this happen on the Thursday as it gave me five days to recover before my next set of intervals. I still ran on the days in between and by the Tuesday my legs were feeling great during the warm-up. I eased into the efforts but by the 4th 200 I was getting a sense I might not last. The next 400m I felt some tightening and on the next it was even more notable so I backed out and jogged home. That was last week and I missed the final day of intervals opting to keep runs easy and never push them along. I did a couple of strides on my Sunday long run and that seem to confirm the hammy is ok so I’ll resume training to the plan.
Long runs and mileage
The switch from a block of pure endurance work to repicking up speed work left the legs struggling on the general runs but it didn’t last past the first couple of weeks. But the introduction of the strides also sapped the legs going into the Sunday and so I haven’t seen much progress on their pace, they’re still around the same pace as last time around.
The six weeks of training I’ve done so far have resulted in 41.3, 45.1, 44.7, 45.7, 42.0, 43.8 miles.
Since April, I’ve been looking at how sprinters run and trying to apply some of their techniques and drills to my own running. The strides have been useful for this and I’ve particularly been focused on minimising hip rotation through better knee lift. I seem to be getting higher cadences on many runs and that’s going to be an important part of getting faster. The higher cadence corresponds with a concomitant rise in my glutes doing the work.
Once again I’ve really enjoyed this block of training. Getting out and running fast is fun especially as I’ve been finding it so easy to hit target. The hamstring injury is frustrating but I’m hoping that with the next phase of training being longer intervals at a slower pace that it’ll survive. I can run on it as long as I don’t overdo the forces going through it.
In the next phase, I’m meant to up my paces for fast efforts by a 1-sec/200m but, given I’ve been finding it so easy, I’m going to compromise by adding 2-secs so that I’ll actually be aiming for 45s per 200 which is what I’ve usually been running them at. This isn’t recommended as you should train at paces that relate to proven times and I haven’t actually run a 2:48 800 that would justify it.
Parkrun is also due to restart at the end of July and I’d like to attend. I’m not going to run hard every week but I’d like to see where I’m after all this training. I feel like I’m close to sub-20 form. It’ll mean dropping a workout, which isn’t ideal when you’re following a plan, but a fast parkrun will still have benefits.
But the priority is keeping the hamstring healthy.
It’s been a long time since I ran a parkrun. Some countries and areas have been reopening sooner than others but finally England is ready to allow them again. Just one week to go and I’m wondering what the response will be.
Parkrun HQ have spent the past year figuring out the logistics to make parkrun Covid safe. Start speeches will be kept brief to avoid people gathering together for too long. A new app has been developed to allow volunteers to do the barcode scanning and timing from their phones rather than using shared equipment. The finish position tokens are to be washed or quarantined every week. Academic research supports the idea that gathering on a start line within close proximity of other runners is safe.
I’m guessing it will all work out as parkrun has been going ahead around the world with (I assume) the same changes in place and things haven’t collapsed there or needed a rethink. But different cultures have different attitudes and that’s the thing I’m wondering about. How will Englanders respond to the return of parkrun? Will we accept the changes? Will we believe the science? Do we care enough to get back out running on a Saturday morning?
My last parkrun was in early January 2020. I stopped going two months before the pandemic put them on pause. This wasn’t some prescient act of foreboding, it was my choice.
With New Year’s weight-loss and fitness resolutions kicking in, attendances swelled. In the weeks leading up to Christmas the average attendance at Upton House parkrun had been about 300; in the New Year it was closer to 500. It’s great to see all those new participants but I was getting trapped among them. I was running heavy mileage on Fridays and could only manage a recovery run on Saturdays. The narrow paths of Upton Country Park allow little room for manoeuvre past runners who’ve started off too quick and who then stop or walk to avoid stepping in the winter puddles. I found it hard to enjoy myself when my rhythm and flow were constantly being broken up.
New Year resolutions never last for everybody but parkrun was always a gamechanger and a high percentage of the newbies continued to come back. But more than a year on, will they? The not-parkrun stopgap that Headquarters tried to promote never took off. For whatever reason, people are only interested in going for a free, timed 5K when it’s part of something bigger. Their own volition and fitness weren’t enough for many people. Maybe it was really the coffee and cake afterwards.
In deciding whether to attend, will people accept the science that says standing on a parkrun startline is safe? My initial instinct, knowing how close we stand to each other, is that they could become super-spreader events. Parkrun’s academic research says it’ll be safe but I have some reservations because it’s modelled on an attendance of 263 participants and March Covid levels that were much lower than they are now. Our parkruns are much bigger than that.
The reality of the situation is with about 2,000 runners attending our local parkruns, the current case rate of 250 per 100,000 suggests five infected people will turn up. My odds on actually standing next to one of the five seem little worse than I could achieve in the aisles of the supermarket.
The parkrun Covid Code asks runners not to attend if they’ve got any signs of it present e.g. positive test, high temperature etc. Generally speaking the parkrun community is good at looking after one another so there’s a good chance they’ll comply. Most people wouldn’t want to run if they’re feeling under the weather anyway.
I know the local parkruns have been doing trial events to familiarise with new processes and these events have been well-attended by members of local running clubs. That’s no surprise, they were invited and they are regular runners but what about the ‘ordinary’ runners who were parkrunning as something to do once a week? My guess is it’ll be a tentative return to action by those who aren’t regular runners.
While about 95% of England’s parkruns are set to return, Moors Valley and Brockenhurst are among those without permission – yet. That will probably push some of their regulars to Bournemouth and maybe further afield to places like Salisbury, Blandford or wherever.
As the restart coincides with the beginnings of the school holidays they may not be the only visitors to other areas. In the past, we usually saw an influx of visitors to our local parkruns either on their way to or from a holiday in the South-west. I assume that will still be the case as more families are choosing to holiday in Britain this year but of course some of our local families will also be going off to visit elsewhere so the net effect is likely the same. Nonetheless with family routines broken up and school out, I don’t think numbers will settle down to their regular levels until September. By then, we’ll know the new processes and have a true picture of whether parkrunning is viable in the new normal.
Ultimately I’m a believer in trusting that life will all work out in the end. Committed parkrunners will be back quickly, the more tentative will take time to return. It will be a while before it settles down but we’ll get there and adapt to whatever challenges come up. It’s quite possible there’ll be more hiatuses along the way.
Finally to say, if you’re not in England or your parkrun hasn’t been given permission to return, then stay strong, it’ll be back eventually. We’ve been through the worst of this and life is gradually returning to old activities.
I was woken early by the tap, tap, tapping of a bird outside my bedroom window. With it being nesting season, the birds have built a nest up in the eaves and are flying in and out of it frequently. Trying to locate exactly what part of the house the bird was tapping, I looked out from behind the curtains and noticed my neighbour working out in his back yard. It was 6:15am. Most of it was stretching and limbering up as he prepared to do pull-ups on a frame he’s bought. I was impressed as I watched him machining up and down, one, two, three; nice square angles at the shoulders and elbows, four, five, six; barely pausing or fatiguing as he went on all the way up to fifteen. A little rest then another set before pulling the tarp over the frame and going in.
I’d love to be good at pull-ups but I’ve always struggled with them. I claim that with my long arms, I’m mechanically disadvantaged. There may be some truth to this. Most people have a reach (measured from fingertip to fingertip across the chest) that is the same as their height. This is one of those anatomical novelties* you can easily test. Lie on the floor feet against the wall and put a marker against your height. Then lie the other way and stretch your arms from the wall to the marker and you should find you can just touch it. Except when I do this I stretch out four inches wider than I’m tall! Of course doing pull-ups isn’t simply about arms, they’re also about lats, shoulders and other body muscles which I’ve never been dedicated to working out. My days of going to the gym didn’t last long, it always seemed so soulless.
My “I’d love to be good at pull-ups” never translated into action. I may say it when I see a parkour runner effortlessly pulling themselves over a wall, or when I try them at the gym but I’ve never really committed to getting good at pull-ups. It’s the same with playing the keyboard, playing the harmonica, being able to do handstand press-ups, dunk a basketball or win the lottery. They’re all things I believe would be cool or, great to be able to do, but I’ve never taken committed action long enough to be able to do them.
This isn’t uncommon. I’ve heard the words “I’d love to break …” followed by a time for parkrun or a marathon leave the mouth of numerous runners who then take very little action to achieve that goal.
I felt somewhat in awe of my neighbour’s commitment at being out there, working out at such an early hour until I realised I was doing the same thing with my own plyometric and hill sprint workouts last summer, my 800m training this past winter and my current Sunday long runs at 5am.
It takes a dedicated, longterm approach to get good at a sport or complex activity, few people are naturals. Before the 800m training, I know there were other things I took action to get good at. I began playing volleyball as an adult and scraped up to playing National League 2nd division. I took golf lessons for three years to be able to break 80 and score a hole-in-one. My running took three months of dedicated training to build a base that took me sub-20 at parkrun and onto other running glories.
I’m not sure why some activities find the power of inspiration to invoke perspiration while others fall by the wayside after a week of trying. But if you ever find yourself saying “I’d love to break 20 minutes for parkrun” or “I’d love to run a marathon in under four hours” ask yourself what’s stopping you. Would you really love to do it or are you in love with the idea of doing it?
If it turns out you do want to improve as a runner (or even just think you do) my weekly sessions can help you improve your speed and fitness, along with oodles of free training advice. If you’re interested in personal coaching to help you reach goals you’d love to achieve then I can help you out with that too. Just drop me a line from the Contact page.
* Another anatomical novelty is your foot should measure the same as the inside of your elbow to the crease of your wrist!
The runner always had an excuse for why he’d struggled or failed. It was the heat, it was the new shoes, people getting in his way, asthma, a summer cold, anything but the way he trained or his attitude to racing. He never improved and year on year the excuses would keep coming eventually evolving into a simplistic one of getting older and more complicated, but unbreakable, ones like rheumatism or arthritis.
I’ve struggled for years to discern what the semantic difference between an excuse and an explanation is. When a runner tells you why they didn’t do well in the race or training session, an explanation can sound like an excuse, an excuse can sound like an explanation.
I believe the difference is in what you do with that information. By definition, an explanation explains what went wrong. It doesn’t necessarily place the blame here or there, it just observes events and tries to find reasons for poor performance. But an explanation can also provide reasons for a good performance. There’s a detached observation going on which can be used to improve performance next time around. It can take the explanations behind good performance and make them a regular, routine part of training. It can take the explanations behind poor performance and look for countermeasures, interventions and ways to address them so they won’t be problematic in the future.
Excuses though only ever relate to poor performance as a deflection of blame. They’re not there to find reasonable explanations which can be addressed, they’re there to protect ego. At their simplest they’re a denial of the facts and reality. It’s said with alcoholics and other addicts that the first step is admitting there’s a problem. If you’ve ever been around one of these types of people you’ll know how difficult, even impossible, it is to get them to accept the reality of the situation. Until they stop denying there’s a problem they can’t begin to look for ways to address it.
From all this you might think denial is a bad thing. For the most part it is. Yet when you play sport or race, being able to deny the circumstances can be a route to success. Charlie Spedding recounts in his autobiography how, prior to the Seoul Olympic he’d been injured and was struggling in training, but went on to finish 6th through sheer willpower. On the day, he denied his recent form and overachieved. But, it’s important to note, he didn’t use excuses during his training as a reason to give up; he kept training as best he could never making excuses. It was only on the day, he used denial as a short-term strategy to get the absolute best out of himself.
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.
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.
On the last day of the month, I spotted someone on Strava mentioning they’d slogged out a six mile run to keep their streak of 100-mile months going. I’ve got my own experience of streaks, after all I’ve been running every day for over eighteen months now. But I never set out to create a run streak, it just evolved due to Coronavirus and lockdowns.
I learned from parkrunning that a streak can become an albatross around the neck. For the first eighteen months or so of my parkrun life, I attended one wherever I was. It got to the point where the expectations of others to see me, my own desire to be there, plus getting up early on a Saturday morning began to weigh me down. Even the streak itself began to become a relentless pressure. When I picked up an injury in the depths of winter I finally had a reason to break the streak. As soon as I broke the streak all the pressure released and I was no worse off.
I still remained an enthusiastic parkrunner, turning up almost every week, so that by 2015 I’d only missed six parkruns in four years. Among other things I was focused on reaching my 250-club t-shirt and had calculated I’d reach it the following February. Then I changed my mind. Or rather I got my head out of the ego-driven, limitations of my mind that were pushing me on towards the t-shirt as well as the routine that Saturday morning parkrun had become.
What I realised is I’d stopped enjoying parkrun. It was a combination of small things. The journey there and back through heavy traffic. Getting out of bed early for a 6am breakfast. Going to Kings Park in Bournemouth, where an icy wind whips across the fields, and the crowds gather in the shadow of the grandstand while the sun rises behind it. Standing around until the 9am start time to be allowed to go run and then having to weave my way through masses of people who’d gone off too fast. I was no longer running all-out every week but using it as a training session. My love of parkrun had died because it no longer fitted with my needs or what I liked. I wasn’t getting out of it what I had four years earlier.
So I stopped and only attended occasionally.
I began to enjoy my Saturday mornings again. Doing things on my own time and schedule. Getting out of bed when I wanted. Having breakfast when I wanted. Going for the type of run and distance I wanted. Often it was an hour’s easy run closer to midday.
After six months I felt replenished and with a couple of 10K races coming up, I went back knowing some fast parkruns would help my training. Since then this has been the pattern. I go to parkrun when it’s helping me with my training or because I want to see friends or be involved in some way. Streaks should support your training and goals, not be the point of them.
People often notice when a streak is causing them physical issues. They try to run through tightness or tiredness to keep the streak going until their body sends them undeniable signals forcing them to stop.
But streaks can also be detrimental to our mental health. Usually the mental side flags up much earlier as a loss of motivation, bad mood or grumpiness long before any physical problems. We become so focused on how it looks out there to keep our streak going that we don’t take the time to look in here to see how it’s affecting us.
I never thought of myself as a decent runner. I may have mentioned this previously. I certainly never felt I had any natural talent for running. This wasn’t simply a case of low self-esteem or high personal expectations, life fed this back to me in clear, unambiguous terms. When I was at school I was at the back of cross-country. When we did sprints, I was at the back. When I ran around in the playground with friends they were always faster than me. When I went orienteering I was always one of the slowest in my age-category races.
The only time I ever got a hint I might have some ability was when I inter-railed to Greece with my friend, Steve, and we had a sprint race in the original Athens Olympic stadium.
Admittedly I false-started to get a couple of steps lead on him but as the race went on he wasn’t overtaking me and I was holding him off. It might not sound like much except he’d broken our school record for 400m on sports day when we were in Sixth Form, I believe a time of 56 seconds. Our race took place a few years after leaving school and a couple of months before my first ever 10K race.
October 1992 and if I could remember anything about my first 10K, I’d lovingly regale you with its story. I know it was in Totton, near Southampton, but I’m not even sure where it started or where the course went, only that I took 48-minutes. The race was full of club runners with a few outsiders like myself testing our mettle.
I know these bits because in those simpler, pre-digital times, races used to send out results booklets about a month after the race (as long as you gave them a self-addressed envelope). It contained a list of everyone’s times – often split into male and female races along with team races, course records, past results and it was all very nice laid out. I poured over it to find my name and time, and somewhere past the middle page staples I found, from clear unambiguous feedback, that I wasn’t that good. The fastest people in the field were close to thirty minutes, the slowest just over an hour, so my forty-eight minutes was closer to the back than the front reinforcing the idea I was below average.
It was no different when I ran my first half marathons four years later. I did three in a couple of months and they all came in around 1hr51 – give or take thirty seconds. Wading through the results, I was somewhere down around the 60th percentile. The fastest runners were closing in on 1hr05, the slowest taking 2hr15. Once again I was closer to the back of the field than the front.
My first marathon followed on soon after the halfs and at 4hr23 it was the same back-of-the-pack story. Among my small group of running friends, the talk was always of being good if you could break four hours so clearly I wasn’t. Obviously the sub-3 was vaunted and only for seriously good runners, I remember looking at the London Marathon results of the time printed, over the next five days, in one of the broadsheet newspapers and seeing that only a thousand of the 40,000 strong field had broken three hours. It seemed like a benchmark which only the talented could achieve. It was a pipe dream for a below-average runner like me. I was a long way off the decent times.
Even ten years ago races were still generally organised by clubs. There were more charity runners and non-club runners than before but it was all relatively niche and those latter categories tended to be bucket listers rather than regulars. The majority still belonged to clubs.
By then I’d improved to have run a 1hr38 half and a 3hr41 marathon, both of which began to give me the idea I was better than I realised but I still wasn’t sure of myself. Unfortunately I was mixing with friends who could run sub-3 marathons and break 1hr20 in a half. Nonetheless I began to find myself running paces I’d never thought myself capable of while training with runners who I saw as much better.
My early parkruns were usually placing somewhere in the top 30-40 in a field of 150-200. That’s not bad but it’s not outstanding. But when I got my training together and started going sub-20 each week, I found myself up towards the front and enjoying the open space of few runners around me. There was no longer a need to navigate through the runner traffic and it felt good to be ahead of the pack.
I also discovered RunBritain with its custom handicap system and ranking of your times against the rest of the running population. I began to see my times over 5K, 10K, half marathon were all good enough to rank in the top 10% that year. While I was miles off the times of the elites, it’s obvious top 10% is decent and it gave me a measure of satisfaction, or rather an accurate measure of where I ranked within the running community.
The growth of running during the 2010s took me by surprise. Professional events companies began to organise more of the mass participation races while an influx of Couch25K and parkrunners gve them a market to sell medals to. The composition of modern results looks very different now when compared to what I saw in the nineties.
Half marathons that once had a 2hr30 cut-off now happily extend those numbers out to three hours and beyond. The consequence of this became clear when one of my friends ran the Liverpool Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon a few years ago. In a field of 7,000 runners she finished in the top half. In fact closer to the 40th percentile. Now, remembering that I used to be down at the 60th percentile with my 1hr51 times, you’d expect she must have been significantly faster than me, wouldn’t you? Except she wasn’t – her time was 2hr07. When I looked deeper into the results of that race, my 1hr51 times of twenty years ago would have put me in the top 15%.
There’s no doubt I improved over the years. But my move up the field was as much about the other people in the field as it was about me. Where my 20-min parkrun in 2011 gave me a RunBritain ranking of 11.4%, when I ran 19:39 six years later it now put me at 4.2%. My time hadn’t improved but the attendance at parkrun had.
Your perception is shaped by reality.
What reality looks like depends on, how much of it ,and how clearly, you can see it.
When only committed runners took part in races, I perceived myself as a poor runner.
When races opened up to the general population, I began to perceive myself as a decent runner.
When parkrun began in Poole the majority were committed runners and my stock dropped again.
When parkrun grew, I once again began to see how far I’d come. Sometimes the evidence of your eyes and senses can fool or mislead you.
Half a lifetime ago I ran my first half marathon. I was still young, in my twenties, with a lot of growing up to do. I had many psychological issues that I hadn’t even begun to start unravelling. That day was a landmark in my life, firstly because it was the first half marathon I ever did and secondly because I had a psychological breakthrough while running it.
The route took me around Portsmouth and Southsea, near where the Great South Run is held these days. Somewhere around the 8-9 mile mark I noticed an older woman ahead of me. I estimated she was probably somewhere around fifty but she may have been forties or sixties for all I knew; when you’re young anybody over thirty looks old and you’ve got no concept of age. However old she was, she was ahead of me. There were only ten to twenty metres between us and for the next couple of miles I set my mind to catching up with her. Except I couldn’t. I never got any closer but she never got further away. I just trailed round in her wake as the miles ticked by in the back streets of Southsea.
My anger and indignation at being beaten by this woman was summed in a question – “How can this old, weak woman be ahead of tall, fit, athletic twenty-something me?”. Her being ahead made no sense to how I conceived the world, my place in it or what is right and just.
Then I had the landmark thought.
“I don’t know anything about this woman. For all I know she may have been Olympic champion twenty years ago and been training hard throughout her life. She may be on the downside of her running career and have a pedigree that far outstrips my own.”
The more I thought about it, and this is the great thing about distance running – you’ve got plenty of time for thinking, the more I realised I knew nothing about who she was, where she’d been and therefore why she should, or shouldn’t, be ahead of me. Simply put, I had no justification for believing I should be faster other than my own arrogance and prejudices of what older people, maybe specifically women, are capable of. I was judging on appearances.
With that realisation about the darkness of my inner thinking, I stopped jumping to conclusions about other people. I started to withhold judgement until I knew more. That became my default mode, refuse to make a judgement until I know more about situations or expectations. Always ask more questions, find out more information and when pushed for a conclusion, include a caveat along the lines of “to the best of my knowledge at this time”!
Now this “Don’t judge a book by its cover” approach may seem a little sanctimonious but there was a hidden benefit that I began to see in the following months.
When I stopped judging other people, I stopped judging myself.
By doing that, I opened up new vistas for living. No longer was I tied to my ill-conceived, ready-formed judgements about who I was. Now instead I was free to change and evolve whenever new ideas and information became available. I could incorporate better ways of living and being, without jeopardising my self-image because I no longer had one set in stone.
To borrow from Douglas Adams, my “MAF training review” is now a trilogy in four parts! Previously I looked at Maffetone’s methods and training (part 1), detailed my own experience (part 2) and then gave you my thoughts on it what’s good about it, what the issues are and whether it’s a good way to train for running (part 3).
If you haven’t yet read the links give them a go, but for now just know when I tried MAF training I ran for 5+ months, logged 200+ hours of training where only 4½ hours was spent above a heart-rate of 138bpm. This heart-rate was determined using Maffetone’s age-related formula that I can see no scientific basis to explain. I can’t say I got any notable benefit from the training as I could run a 21-min parkrun before I started and, at the end of it I was running 20:39. In the midst of it, I did run 19:52 but regressed after doing some sprints and drills on a coaching course.
The training itself was demoralizingly slow and I was always fearful of the heart-rate monitor beeping at me to slow down because I’d exceeded the maximum heart-rate. I said I’d never train with it again because it was so unenjoyable and because there are better ways to train.
Today I’m going to prove there are better ways to train to get the same benefits.
Six months of non-MAF training
Let’s roll back to November 29th at the end of last year when I ran my standard Sunday long run to Broadstone in 1:39:26. It’s an average pace of 8:31/mile and my heart was pumping away at an average of 148 beats per minute. Six months later, May 30th, I ran it again, a minute slower, but my heart-rate was now only 131bpm. That’s a drop of 17 beats and an indicator that I’ve improved my aerobic system.
Regular readers will know I’ve spent the intervening six months training for 800m following a plan from one of Jack Daniels’ books. Although I know much about coaching and how to train I’ve never tried middle distance before, so I decided to see how one of the world’s best coaches approaches it and see what I could learn.
As I’ve documented in monthly updates – January, February, March, April – I logged 40-45 miles per week with a mix of easy runs, long runs, intervals and threshold runs. The training got tough in the depths of winter but I got through it. I ran every day and while I got tight at times, I never got ill or injured. By April I was ready to test out my new found fitness and was highly surprised when I only achieved a 3-second improvement!
Nonetheless a few days after a second 800m time trial I ran my Broadstone route a minute faster (1:38:38) than in December and was now averaging a heart-rate of 140 – eight beats lower. So I’d done nothing like Maffetone training and improved by his measures.
I suspected the poor time trial results were due to a lack of endurance and embarked on six consecutive weeks of nearly fifty miles through April and May as I documented in my May 800m update. When I ran another 800m time trial it was still about the same at 2:53, a five second improvement over six months ago, but the rest of my running was feeling easier. My easy runs had sped up but more notably I broke 1hr30 on the Broadstone run in training. An improvement of ten minutes for a nearly twelve mile run.
What would MAF suggest?
Seven years ago at age forty-two, when I tried my MAF training experiment, I calculated a MAF-HR of 138. But actually, given I was coming off an illness, I possibly should have taken ten beats off and used 128bpm which would have made things even harder and certainly slower.
Being older, Maffetone would suggest I now train to a lower heart-rate than I did last time around. At forty-nine this gives an initial MAF-HR of 131 but I’ve been running daily since late 2019 without issue. According to MAF you need to have trained for two years without issue to be allowed to add a further five beats, but for this comparison I’m going to do it anyway and analyse my recent training against a MAF-HR at 136bpm. This may sound like a cheat but if I used the lower figure, the stats would skew even more against MAF training.
If you’re wondering why I’m calculating my current MAF-HR when I said I was never going to use MAF training again, it’s purely to analyse the recent training I did and show I improved despite not following any of the low heart-rate training that MAF recommends.
What follows is a look at my training for the six weeks after my mid-April time trial. There are one or two miles missing where I was coaching or giving a Personal Training session, as well as a couple of days where I didn’t wear my heart-rate monitor but the bulk of the training is shown.
The general format of each week:
Eight mile Steady runs on Tuesdays and Fridays with a ½-mile warm-up / cooldown aiming to run at my threshold.
On Sundays the Broadstone long run, usually at the crack of dawn, again pushing it along and throwing in some strides along the way.
The other four days of the week I aimed for a forty minute recovery run.
With six consecutive 50-mile weeks, this block of training totalled 300+ miles and 42 hours.
Yet when you break down all this running, twice as much time was spent running in excess of my MAF-HR (136) as below it. (Note: there is a small issue with the software I used to total the Above-Below durations because it double-counts heart-rates of 136-137 into both categories. The actual figures were 28 hours above MAF-HR, 14hr45 below it but only 41hr50 total run time).
You can see in the graph below the length of each run in time and the proportion of it spent above or below MAF-HR. The yellow is the time spent exceeding it and accounts for 65% of running time. Almost every day I was exceeding MAF-HR for some of the run – that can’t be good according to Maffetone.
Now take a look at the graph of 2014’s MAF training where I only exceeded the MAF-HR for 2% of the time. You can barely see any yellow in the early weeks and it doesn’t increase a whole lot. In the graph above, I often spent more time above MAF-HR in a single run than I did in a week then.
It’s not even close. It’s very clear I was constantly breaking the MAF-HR in my recent training and not just by one or two beats as happened back in 2014, but by large margins.
Here’s a graph of the time I spent in excess of 150 on those runs. You can see I was regularly running for over 45-mins with heart-rates on the Steady and Long runs that were nowhere close to MAF-HR. I was effectively training to the MAF-HR of someone over twenty years younger than me.
What’s amazing is I accumulated twelve hours of running at over 150HR which isn’t much less than the nearly fifteen hours I ran below my recommended MAF-HR of 136. Yet somehow I got exceedingly better results than when I trained to MAF-HR in 2014.
Not only was I seeing improved heart-rates, my effort runs were improving too.
The November run was my fastest time on the Broadstone course at 1:39:26 and with the 800m training this had reduced to 1:34:03 by March. On 2nd May I reduced it to 1:32:55 then on May 23rd took it down further to 1:29:15. The average heart-rate on this final run was 149 which is only one beat higher than when I was running it in late November. Then my fastest single mile was ripping along down Gravel Hill at 7:52, by late May I was sub-7 with a 6:58.
On the Steady runs I only have one comparator. Back on November. I ran a local 7 ½ mile course round Merley which took 58min52 at an average pace of 7:54/mile and the fastest mile was 7:33. In mid-May, during a spell of high winds I decided against going to the beach and opted to run the local route in 20mph winds. The run came in two minutes quicker at a pace of 7:38/mile with the fastest mile now at 7:08 along with a couple more showing in at 7:18 and 7:21. At the beach, I’ve begun to see miles in the 7:05-10 range. There’s no doubt I’m speeding up and if I were racing longer distances I’d certainly see better times.
Better ways to train
I’ve loved the past six months of training for all the reasons I hated the MAF training. I got to run fast, sometimes I even got to sprint as fast as I could. I rarely looked at my heart-rate while I was running and I certainly didn’t have the heart-rate monitor beeping at me to slow down. The variety of paces and training sessions kept me interested as well as nervously excited on occasions.
I haven’t cracked the 800m yet but I’m confident training is going in the right direction to get there. I’ve seen improvement and I’m running faster than six months ago with heart-rates at slower speeds being lower. That’s an indication the body is improving its fat-burning capability. I’ve been sleeping deeper, got leaner, faster and remained healthy and injury free which are the sorts of reasons Maffetone puts forward for following his method.
The premise of MAF training is that to improve fat-burning you have to run at low heart-rates and stop eating carbs. I did neither of those. Across six months I regularly hit higher heart-rates and I never restricted my diet or stopped eating carbs – if anything I’ve eaten more during the winter months with two bags of Doritos each week and regular cakes from the bakery. Yet I proved it’s possible to achieve the promised benefits of MAF training despite regularly breaking the heart-rate that it suggests a man of my age should use.
None of this was achieved by sticking to a heart-rate calculated from my age and is why I put no stock in MAF training as a system in itself. I believe there may be applications for it in certain circumstances but not general training.
I’d love to hear people’s comments and questions about this block of training and my MAF training review. All reasonable scepticism or thoughts are welcome!