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.
I reached December after three months of training to boost lactate threshold and began tapering for Christchurch 10K on Dec 11th. My performance at Boscombe 10K on Nov 27th was less than desirable but I knew I was still early in my taper. As I reported in November’s update, I ran easy all the following week and my legs began to freshen up nicely. It was quite a change to be simply going out and not doing any thing extra where usually there’s some kind of workout or longer steady effort each week. Each run was limited to forty mins and in the week before raceday I began to reduce this further. On the preceding Tuesday I found myself running five miles in under 36mins which is better than my last five mile race in 2019!
Anyone living in the UK this month knows how bitterly cold it got. Reading the forecast I had doubts whether the race would be on and come raceday I drove there with the car’s external temperature gauge reading -3C while slushy rain, or maybe it was snow, hit the windscreen. Walking to get my number presented a hazard in itself with the pavements very icy. I sat in my car shivering despite being wrapped up and, in a rare display of negativity, hoped the race would be called off. It was. Ice is my one major concern when it comes to running and I felt sure with the temperature still around freezing that it wouldn’t get warm enough to melt any on the course. The organisers came to the same decision.
I went for a run later in the day, taking it carefully around local roads then next day went to the beach to do some interval work. I figured the one place that wouldn’t be icy was somewhere with lots of salt water and sand!
That same day I received an email from the organisers saying they were hoping to reorganise the race in early 2023. While this was great news it also left me in limbo not knowing when it might be or how to train so I just continued with the easy / steady runs. On the following Saturday with the intervals out of my legs, my early morning run just flew. My forty-one minute run covered 5.8 miles and I barely got out of breath. The last mile and a half was on the roads by my house and I was hitting 6:35/mile. It felt great.
A week later, with Christmas Day falling on Sunday, my usual long run day, I ran down to Poole parkrun. My legs felt good but seemed to lack another gear. When the parkrun began my glutes fired in a way I’ve never known and I was propelled forward yet I didn’t seem to have the pace to break twenty minutes. I managed to put in some surges to overtake runners but could never up the pace for long and finished in 20:25. Slightly disappointing from the perspective of being fifteen seconds slower than last year yet a feeling that the run was a breakthrough as I’d jetted along. The run home felt comfortable and I found myself able to run closer to seven minute miles as I approached home despite having already put in 10+ miles. When I analysed my parkrun I found that while the kilometre splits reflected the small up and down gradients in the park, my mile splits came in at 6:31, 6:32, 6:33. A consistency suggesting I’d hit my lactate threshold but had nothing more to give. It identified the direction I now need to take training.
Looking back it’s almost six months since I did any dedicated speedwork. At the beginning of July I was passing my peak and finding my aerobic endurance starting to decline. All my training since then has been focused on rebuilding stamina and raising threshold. It seems I’ve been very successful at this but my fast-twitch have been deactivated in the process. This is very much expected and part of the periodisation process Arthur Lydiard coached his runners with back in the sixties.
The aim now is to start doing faster efforts lasting around a minute to rebuild anaerobic capacity and give me the speed to push harder at parkrun next time. The session I’ve picked is three sets of 4x300m with 45secs rest and three minutes between sets. I’ve done two sessions of this workout and the results have been good. I’m aiming for around 66-67secs per effort and on the first session, only two days after parkrun, I averaged 66½. The course I’ve picked is straight but does have an up / down nature to it and it’s been windy this past week. I’m finding the downs are closer to 61-62 whereas the ups are barely hitting target. The second time I did the workout my legs were fresher and I averaged under 65s and was able to hold back on the privileged efforts.
The news has come through that Christchurch 10K has been rescheduled for Jan 22nd so that’s what I’m now working towards with these. I think I should manage two more full weeks of them and then take it easier in the week preceding the race. After that I’ll look to go back to winter endurance training and prepare for an April half marathon. I’d also like to get to parkrun and run a quick one at some stage.
I’m meeting up soon with an old friend who I haven’t seen since 2013. It was then he lent me his copy of Stu Mittleman’s book Slow Burn – Slow Down, Burn Fat and Unlock the Energy Within and I’ve realise it’s now time to return it! Having taken it off the shelf in readiness for our meet up, I was reminded of its content which credits Phil Maffetone for helping Mittleman’s training.
When I first read the book almost ten years ago, the ideas within it weren’t entirely new but they were still a puzzle as to how they fitted into the picture of my training to improve it. Just like John Douillard’s book Body, Mind and Sportand Maffetone’s Big Book of Endurance Training the ideas of unlimited energy and running slower to get faster seemed so promising. It was the following summer when I tried MAF training with gusto and saw that it simply didn’t work as I hoped.
Stu Mittleman is not a household name but fortunately he gives us his credentials early on. The first marathon he ran was Boston in 1977. In those days you needed a sub-3 time to qualify so he trained for a couple of weeks then ran a 2hr46 marathon (6:20/mile)! Instantly he’s cluing us into his endurance capabilities. The book later tells us about how we was a champion ultrarunner who set a world record by running 1,000 miles in 11 days, 20 hours, 36min and 50 seconds. About how he ran almost 600 miles in six days but also how this was preceded by a struggle with injuries. It was Phil Maffetone who fixed him and taught him how to train using his age-related heart-rate formula. It’s fair to say some of what Mittleman wrote in this book, published in 2001, is based on Maffetone’s wisdom.
It’s a very readable book divided into three sections – how to THINK, TRAIN and EAT for the distance. Each section has short chapters giving you time to digest what they have to say before you move on. There’s a lot of good information to think about.
How to THINK for the distance
Mittleman explains shifting from a goal-oriented approach to a process-oriented one. He gives the example of a group of twenty-six first time marathoners he had to train for the New York marathon in only nine weeks. Instead of focusing on finishing, he got them to experience (and therefore enjoy) the day by focusing on the twenty six aid stations positioned at each mile. He also explains how he approaches training day-by-day and how to enjoy runs.
To a coach or anyone who has worked in project management the idea of breaking a big goal into a series of intermediate steps of milestones is second nature. Of course twenty-plus years ago, when the book was written, fewer people were clued up to this approach; and performance, times, goals and Personal Bests still dominated their thoughts. Today the culture of marathons has changed and it is now common to have complete novices running marathons in 5-6 hours and not worrying about times.
How to TRAIN for the distance
How to TRAIN is the section that most interested me to read. I glossed over the initial chapters which focus on listening to your body by muscle testing / applied kinesiology, use of acupressure or reflex points and buying the right shoes for your feet. I rarely getting injuries and since the book was written much more information has become available about which shoes to buy as well as instore gait analysis etc.
Where How to Train gets interesting is in its explanations on learning to breathe deeper and giving you metaphors for good running form. I already knew how to breathe deep from Body, Mind and Sport and while the metaphors themselves are nothing I’ve ever applied apart; the idea of them is great. The best metaphor is the idea of “rollercoastering the hills” i.e. slow down as you run up them and speed up again on the down.
Discussion then moves into an explanation of fat-burning vs sugar-burning and its effects on the body. This is much the same ideas Phil Maffetone puts forward about how fat-burning is the way to stay healthy while sugar-burning leads to stress, illness and injuries. As I explained in the MAF Training Review series the general principle is right but it has been oversimplified into inaccuracy. Mittleman is a little more moderated stating on page 120 “You’ll lose the point if you reduce [it] to sugar is bad and fat is good”. As we’ll see in his heart-rate training system learning to burn fat dominates his training system but he does allow you to do faster work each week.
Mittleman HR Training system
Like Maffetone, Mittleman’s system begins by subtracting your age from 180. As I stated in my MAF series there is no scientific connection between age and how the body burns fat or sugar so this system is off to a negative start from the beginning.
Nonetheless it breaks training into three zones termed Mostly Aerobic Pace (MAP), Mostly Efficient Pace (MEP), Speedy Anaerobic Pace (SAP). The top of the MEP is 180-age, the bottom is 10 beats lower. The MAP zone is the 20 beats below the MEP zone. The SAP zone is the 20 beats above it. Like the Maffetone formula, you are then allowed some adjustments depending on your experience and health. Finally Mittleman says to fine tune the zones based on how you feel in them. This final step seems to undo the point of using the formula.
Let’s work through for me as a 50-year-old runner:
180 – 50 = 130 MEP upper limit, so MEP lower limit is 10 lower at 120bpm.
I can raise it by 10 beats because I’m an experienced endurance athlete:
MEP range becomes 130-140bpm
MAP is there 110-130
SAP is 140-160
On paper these sound okay and Mittleman then details three levels of training for casual, recreational runners through to the more competitive. In his top level programme you run 3 MAPs, 2 MEPs, 1 SAP each week. This doesn’t seem like a bad mix.
The SAP training sessions are quite light volume (in my opinion) involving intervals lasting from one-to-five minutes. On the first week you total only seven minutes in the SAP zone and in week twelve it maxes out at four intervals of five minutes – twenty minutes worth. Then he strongly recommends taking a prolonged break of three months from SAP workouts; so only doing two blocks per year.
My training compared
The setup of my sessions for a week looks similar – I typically do three harder session each week and four recovery runs. One of my harder sessions is a long run which is not highly intense and would be the equivalent of an upper MEP / lower SAP session. The other two workout days would more likely involve entering the SAP and even going above it if I’m in a phase of shorter intervals. On recovery runs, when my legs are very depleted I struggle to get out of the MAP (sub-130) zone but more usually I’m hitting 130-140 thereby including some MAP work.
In “When You Need MAF” I analysed a typical training week for myself and looking at it again with these zones I find I’m nowhere close to what Mittleman is advocating. On the week in question I spent only 40mins in MAP, 2hr47 in MEP, 2hr55 in SAP and 22mins above SAP. When I look closer at his SAP programme I find I do more in one week than the whole twelve week’s programme (2hr27!)
The most significant line in the book is on page 195 “While running in my MEP target zone of 145-155, I reached the point where I could maintain a steady 5:45 per mile. I wasn’t straining or uncomfortable.” This is the sort of heart-rate I use on my twice-weekly Steady runs and sometimes approach on my long runs. While I don’t have the endurance ability of Stu Mittleman, I can run 7:00 per mile at heart-rates in this range with the same effortless feel.
I’ve been following my regime for months and continue to use it while making progress and seeing my pace vs heart-rate improve. I’ve yet to pick up any of the injuries or illness that seem to be put forward as a reason to use age-related heartrate training. It’s hard to see what benefit I would derive from running slower more often and barely doing any training at threshold or faster.
How to EAT for the distance
I have to admit I didn’t make it far into this section. I read a book on nutrition many years ago which I tried to follow but any running books pushing me towards a diet that cuts out sugar doesn’t appeal to me. My diet is dominated by carbohydrates and the suggestion that I cut these out leaves me wondering what I’d eat as I don’t like cooking and I don’t eat a lot of fruit and vegetables. That said, I don’t eat sweets or crisps although there’s usually room for a slice of fruitcake or a flapjack!
I have always eaten to my hunger and while this is not a perfect strategy, I’m fit and healthy. What I have noticed is once I finally figured out how to do endurance training, I stopped getting hungry, I even stopped wanting cake. While my diet is still dominated by carbs – cereal, bagels, bananas, rice, pasta, bread and potatoes – I only eat when I feel hungry. Often I don’t feel hungry even after coming back from a long run.
What I now understand is how I used to train depleted my muscles of their glycogen and set me up to crave carbs to replenish the stores. As you improve at endurance training two things happen; firstly you improve the aerobic quality of the intermediate fast-twitch so that they still use glycogen but much more efficiently and secondly you tend to stop doing sessions that use the fast-twitch muscles which are fuelled by glycogen.
Let’s return to the biography I gave in the beginning. Mittleman was already endurance-trained and capable of running a 2hr46 marathon when his journey began. He could run 6:20/mile off little training and later states he can run 5:45 at 145-155HR in his MEP zone. Mostly Efficient relates to what I see as aerobic glycolysis. It still uses sugar but efficiently as the zone name suggests.
He states on page 189 that he’s happy running at 12min/mile pace for his MAP run three days per week and that he was once asked by Runners World why he ran twenty miles per day to which he answered it’s all he had time for! That’s the sort of thing you expect from ultrarunners who are interested in running for five hours or more but it’s no route to success over shorter distances. Ultra training for long distances requires many hours and miles of training and it can only be done at slow paces or the body will break down.
So we see he’s recommending eating strategies that are appropriate to his event. What we have to remember is the context of Mittleman’s running career. He is a champion ultrarunner. He is out for hours on his races and no doubt trains for hours each week. The average pace of his 100-mile world record is 7:44/mile and while that might sound fast to some runners, it’s not in the context of shorter races. I’d expect that to be a heart-rate of around 115bpm. There’s no doubt fat-burning adaptions are very important for races lasting over an hour particularly marathons and ultras. Any runner interested in middle distance or parkrun will benefit from improving their aerobic base but will need to encourage both fuel sources and this is true for the 10K and half-marathon as well.
This is a book filled with information that can help people build a greater understanding of how to approaching training. What I particularly love is the chapter where Stu Mittleman describes the different sensations you will feel as you move up the training intensity scale. When you’re on a slow, low heart-rate jog you can be in tune with the sights and sounds of the world barely breathing; when you’re doing anaerobic intervals your attention will narrow and everything thing will be focused on trying to catch your breath and get to the end of the effort. I believe running by feel is one of the most important skills all runners could learn.
I don’t agree with using heart-rate monitors to train and applying an age-related formula even less so. I agree though with mixing up the week to have slower paced runs dominating the schedule and this fits with the 80:20 rule. The idea of improving the aerobic system by improving mitochondria is important to all distance runners but this doesn’t necessarily mean fat-burning.
The areas of the book I skip are the sections on muscle testing and what to eat. The latter is more down to my own preferences and the area of applied kinesiology is considered a pseudo-science. Linking say knee pain to stressed out adrenal glands affecting the Sartorius muscle seems tenuous to me and doesn’t fit with anything I’ve experienced but then I rarely get injured or ill.
I hope I don’t sound overly negative about the book. When I read it, I found there was much I already knew but I’m a voracious reader when I get interested in a subject. I think for many people there’s much they could learn but they then need to put it into context of what it is for. This is a book about how to run marathons and ultras if you’re not too worried about your time or getting fast quickly. It doesn’t make any claims that it will help you over shorter distances because I don’t think it can.
Winter training continues with building the aerobic base. In October’s recap I detailed the nine weeks of solid aerobic and threshold work I’d done since late August. Now my thoughts turned to faster anaerobic training at 5K and 10K paces in preparation for two 10K races.
Each week I ran kilometre repeats twice. On Tuesday’s it was 5x1K with 3-min standing recovery aiming for 3:48; Thursday was 6x1K with 200m jog recovery aiming for 4:00. I returned to an undulating course which runs alongside a main road. In one direction it is net downhill which are the 1st/3rd/5th efforts while the uphill occurs on the way back. Despite November being full of high winds and rain, I couldn’t have had more perfect weather when I ran. Somehow every session was still, blue skies and sunny.
The sessions came in as follows:
Alongside this I started doing some body weight squat work on Tuesdays and Fridays to try and strengthen up my quads and glutes. When I tried these last year I discovered my left glute was particularly weak; this time it was strong from the first session and I decided to build up my volume slowly. I even started doing a couple of minute’s worth of balance work on each foot to try and improve balance as well as taxing the kinetic chain up the leg.
The net result of all this was, as you can see from the sessions, my legs couldn’t cope with what I was doing and I started going backwards. “No matter” I thought as I’d deliberately planned a three week taper into Christchurch 10K on December 11th.
The taper started on Sunday 20th November when I ran a shorter (10-mile) long run on a flatter course than usual. It was the best time I’ve ever recorded on the route – under 1hr14 on a fasted run straight out of bed. It was a real confidence builder but in retrospect perhaps it was too much only a week out from my first 10K at Boscombe.
The first week’s taper included the final 5K session which, coming two days after the best ever long run, was a little disappointing. But I still had five days for the legs to recover before running the 10K on the Sunday. It turned out to a somewhat disappointing race as I clocked 42:49. I thought my legs were beginning to perk up when I ran in warm-up (I was amazed to see myself running 8:20 pace at 122 heart-rate) but the first kilometre of the race was only 4:07 and I never cracked four minutes. When I compare that to my training intervals I’d expected to have some sub-4s and be holding back in the beginning.
The question is why did I not run well? The conclusion I came to is my legs were carrying too much fatigue and muscle damage. Now that isn’t necessarily a problem as the whole point of tapering is to let the legs freshen up. The first kilometre of the race not being able to get close to what I’ve done in training really highlights the legs were under recovered.
Looking back over the past few years of running this has been something of a perpetual theme. Trying to run races or parkruns without a decent taper. Or to put it the other way round, doing too much training during the week which I’ve been unable to recover from. I’m always a lot more careful with runners I coach but my legs more often than not haven’t felt painful or tired by the time a race comes around so it hasn’t seemed like that’s the reason I’ve underperformed.
I think the biggest culprit has been pushing the Sunday long runs along rather than allowing the pace to come to me. It becomes a third workout for the week. When I was racing well a few years back; I never pushed the long runs just did them easy. Yet I’ve been arriving home and not feeling tired or hungry which suggested I hadn’t overdone things. I’m not some of the weekday sessions haven’t been too big either – I’ve been chalking up fifty miles per week and following the 80-20 rule and that’s where the limitations of using heart-rate monitors and formulaic training appears – there is no easy way to identify how much muscular damage you’re suffering other than by results.
But I also didn’t recover enough after the half marathon. The rule of thumb is to recover for a day per mile of racing yet a week later I was beginning my next block of training and doing hills for the first time in a couple of years, so I accrued more damage on other damage. It’s hard to look back and know when I last had a block of training where I wasn’t on fatigued legs. Maybe it was late October 2021 after an 800m time trial or the May before that. Whenever it was, it was a long time ago. If I go back to 2020 I did some very easy running when I started all of my 800m training.
As I said before, the point of tapering is to give the legs time to freshen up. Since last Sunday’s race, I’ve gone out and run easy for forty minutes each day. Genuinely easy or effortless runs as I like to call them. It’s felt lovely to arrive home from every run and feel like I could go round again. The avg. pace has gradually improved over the week – Monday 8:24, Tuesday 8:11, Wednesday 8:03, Thursday 7:47, Friday 7:31, Saturday 7:27. None of this has been forced, it’s just what happens as the legs freshen up. Yet I can still feel a little bit of missing oomph and spring from my legs, there’s still more damage to repair.
With the improvement I’ve seen over this past week the temptation is to believe the legs are ready to run and squeeze in one last training session. That’s the mistake I’ve been making in the past. My legs function best when I let the fast-twitch freshen up. I’d really wanted to go to parkrun and see where I’m at but I only get one shot at my 10K; whereas I can go to parkrun on any other week after the race so I’m just going to keep taking it easy next week and see how it goes at Christchurch. If nothing else I’ll learn a little more about the effects of my taper and how I can best peak for a race.
Today America celebrates Thanksgiving Day. This annual tradition always falls on the fourth Thursday of November having begun in olden times as a celebration of having gathered the harvest in. Other countries Canada, Grenada, St Lucia and Liberia have their own Thanksgiving Days but it is not a widespread phenomenon.
As a Brit, I’ve only seen the romanticised version of Thanksgiving Day shown in films where it is portrayed as family coming together and feasting on roast turkey dinner and pumpkin pie. While that aspect is very much like our Christmas Day, I like the idea of taking time to sit quietly (although I’m not sure Americans ever sit quietly!) to count your blessings.
A few years back Gratitude Diaries were all the rage. People were encouraged to make a list each day of ten things they had to be grateful for. People who tried this reported that a month later they were happier with their lives. While this all sounds very New Age there is a simple reason why it works.
Writing a list of things to be thankful for gets you to think about your actual life. It gets you to look at what you actually have and what those things bring to you. Looking at it another way, it gets you away from wishing and dreaming about how you’d like your life to be. The blight of modern life is thinking happiness is out there.
While there’s nothing wrong with setting goals and dreaming big; for many people their emotional happiness is invested in believing that if they could only “have this” / “have that”, “be this” / “be that”, “achieve this” / “achieve that” then they would be happy. Except when they finally achieve their goal or dream, they discover it doesn’t make them happy.
There are many tales of Olympic gold medallists who have spent years training hard, sacrificing until they finally stand atop the podium singing their National Anthem and watching the flag be raised. It brings them immediate happiness but in the weeks which follow they feel an emptiness and uncertainty about what to do next. Why has the thing they focused so hard on, which was meant to bring happiness and fulfil them, failed to do so? Some athletes reorient themselves and set new goals; others wander aimlessly.
Giving thanks or writing a gratitude diary is one way of slowly changing your mindset to a more positive one. By doing it regularly it becomes a habit. The way you look at life is simply a lens. You can always choose whether to see the good or the bad. What you see leads to how you feel about your life.
Being thankful or writing gratitude diaries focuses us on the life we are actually living and with that comes the opportunity to make changes appropriately. If we’re unhappy with what we’ve got, chasing a goal is unlikely to make us happier. It simply distracts from the root cause of the unhappiness and helps us continue to avoid tackling it. Equally by focusing on what we do have, we begin to realise what is already good and matters to us. By knowing what makes us happy we can chase hopes and dreams that we know will be worthwhile.
Offseason training continues. I’ve just put in nine weeks of solid aerobic and threshold work and it went both well and badly. The aim had been to improve my threshold from where I estimated it currently to be at 6:50 to 6:30 – so the plan was to do three weeks at 6:50/mile, three at 6:40, three at 6:30. Each three week block would be a progression of 6×1 mile, 4×1½ mile, 3×2 miles with a jog recovery.
The results came in as follows:
While there were ups and downs in there, I rated the first 8 weeks as having gone decently and there was an overall improvement from where I began to where I’d reached. Not perfect but a definite improvement. You can see the average pace improving over the weeks in line with what I was hoping to achieve.
Then came week 9, it was atrocious – overall worse than week 1. There was a good reason for this. It didn’t simply come down to having screwed things up, I caught something and spent the week blowing my nose hundreds of times each day and waking up through the night. Whatever it was, it raised its head on the previous Friday where I was inexplicably thirty seconds per mile slower than the previous week over my nine mile course.
It lasted for 4-5 days and knocked my fitness backwards. I’m hoping this loss is temporary as the body recovers and returns all its hormones and red/white blood cell counts back to normal. I seem to be okay now.
I’ve written a lot about Maffetone training and while I don’t rate low heart-rate training as a method, I agree with the idea of a strong aerobic system being important to health. It was certainly the case for me. While my running went backwards for a few days, I never stopped being able to do the things I need to do on a daily basis. Once I realised I was under the weather, I cancelled my supplemental training (core work, press-ups etc.) and avoided other unnecessary activities. Basically I took it as easy as possible while still running every day. It’s debateable whether it was worth doing that 9th workout? I wanted to give it a go and just decided to get the best out of it I could. I didn’t push to hit target once I saw how far off the pace I was.
The days of the training week have been building endurance to support this work. I’ve done an hour Steady run on Fridays and an 11.7 mile long run on Sundays straight out of bed. On week 4, I went to Sandhurst Memorial parkrun, where I ran a tired legged 20:48 in place of the Friday Steady run. The parkrun still came in around 6:40/mile which suggests my threshold is improving. Then my Sunday long run* was 12 miles up and down the Basingstoke canal towpath. The legs were naturally not up for a faster effort after an all-out parkrun.
What’s strange is my Fridays haven’t been quite as good as they were six months ago when I was doing a similar block of training yet the Sundays have been really pleasing. Almost every week has been a sub-8 avg. pace which is a level of consistency I’ve never seen before. It hints that I’m finally building the base endurance to a point where the body is recovering quicker.
All in all, it’s been a decent block of training through September and October and I achieved what I set out to do. I feel confident I can crack 40-mins in the 10K for the first time since 2015 and then later run a parkrun PB. I’ve got four weeks to the Boscombe 10K and then a further fortnight until Christchurch 10K which is the more likely course to break forty on. These first four weeks are going to see me running kilometres intervals with shorter rests to boost lactate tolerance and clearance and fire up the fast-twitch muscles enough to get me on pace. It’s time to go anaerobic!
My previous articles about the MAF Method discourage using the age-related formula for low heartrate training. But in this post I’m taking a more positive angle because there’s a reason people went to Phil Maffetone and he was able to help them. So while, I’m not a fan of the age-related formula, I am a fan of building good endurance which relates to what Maffetone refers to as MAF – Maximum Aerobic Function. While I’m not going to advocate using his formula, I am going to detail and explain the circumstances where a block of endurance training could be useful.
A parkrunner I know is a very capable runner yet, in a decade of running, his progress has been very limited. In fact, he’s barely knocked a minute off his parkrun time. When we first met he’d been running again for perhaps six months. He’d been a talented youngster, quit and now returned to running as he approached forty. It hadn’t taken much training to achieve a twenty minute parkrun yet in all the running since he has barely scraped under nineteen minutes. Despite training five days per week, six at one stage, he really hasn’t made much progress.
His years of running have been blighted by Achilles’ problems. Whenever he starts to train harder with speedwork his Achilles becomes sore and limits his running. He then backs off the pace until long after the Achilles has healed, only to restart the speedwork and go through the same issues. Until recently he was able to run a 19:30 parkrun at full effort but over the last year he’s developed a hamstring injury and is struggling to break twenty minutes. On the tougher local courses, he can’t even break twenty-one minutes!
If he could go to Phil Maffetone, I’m sure MAF would get him back to health and restructure his training to help him improve. I’d still argue against using the age-related MAF formula because he’s over fifty and training at 125 (further five beat reduction for recent injury) isn’t going to produce decent longterm results. Yet, as you’ll see in the next section, he’s clearly not getting the aerobic development Maffetone would encourage and is running around almost every day of the week at heart-rates which are too high.
A typical week’s training when you need MAF
He typically runs five days per week – three midweek, a parkrun on Saturday which is always a faster effort, a Sunday run which is his longest of the week while the Wednesday run tends to be slightly shorter. He gives himself two rest days which, being on Monday and Friday, space the week’s training out nicely. All in it’s not a bad training structure to follow. Here’s the heart-rate graphs from those five days of training.
I’ve put a yellow line to indicate where a heart-rate of 150 occurs and you can see that on every run he is reaching and surpassing it for a decent portion of the time. In fact, at parkrun the heart-rate reaches 170+ and most days he’ll be hitting the 160s at some stage of the running. He’s not just exceeding 150bpm but exceeding it significantly on almost every run.
I consider the overall amount of time spent running each week to be an issue. Totalling about 25 miles per week in 3hr 20mins it’s not enough for a distance runner. Of course everybody leads different lives and has different priorities so I can’t be too critical. Yet at less than an hour the Sunday run isn’t long enough and it should surely be possible to find more time for it. If he was an 800m runner, an hour might be long enough but he isn’t; he describes himself as a 5K / 10K runner. Apart from a couple of ten mile races and a half marathon; 10Ks have been the furthest distance raced in all these years. This overall lack of training volume is part of the problem.
The average pace for the week is 7:45/mile and the Wednesday run is the slowest at 8:11/mile. Given a parkrun time that is just breaking twenty minutes, Jack Daniels’ VDOT tables suggest Easy runs should be somewhere around 8:30/mile pace. So again, alongside the evidence of the high daily heart-rates, we’re getting an indication that there isn’t enough genuinely easy running taking place.
There’s two more problems these stats don’t reveal. On each of the training runs he stops to cross roads which give him one to three minutes recovery on any run. There’s over nine minutes of stops built into these runs. It may seem picky but anyone who has done distance training knows a break is refreshing. If you’re running anaerobically those breaks allow you to recharge the batteries and keep pushing (too) hard. Now you may argue it’s impossible not to stop but, with good timing and route choices it can be avoided. I often go weeks without needing to stop on any of my runs simply by running on roads with low levels of traffic, early in the morning and being flexible about when and where I cross roads. I will happily run an extra fifty paces up a road to let traffic die down before crossing it. But obviously do the safe thing.
The other unseen problem in these graphs is there’s some decent hills on the routes. He’s trying to maintain the same pace up and down them but that pushes the effort up which explain some of the higher heart-rates.
Graphing all those runs differently we can see the time spent in a MAF-HR zone of 130 or less; a middle zone of 131-150 which is usually safe for older runners to train at and a 150+ zone where the training effect is large but also takes time to recover from.
It’s clear he’s running hard five days per week with heart-rates hitting the 150+ mark. You would think the two rest days would be enough but they aren’t. What’s actually happening is the muscles are being trained anaerobically. The days after the rest days (Tuesday and Saturday) are faster runs because the muscles are refreshed but all that allows is for him to go out hard and reinforce the anaerobic training. There is no aerobic development. One of the benefits of day-in, day-out training is it leaves the legs somewhat fatigued to the point where they have to go slower and that helps the aerobic development.
The main consequences of this approach are that he’s getting injured and not improving.
What good training looks like
Injuries were the sort of thing Maffetone was happy to dive in and sort out. As I have stated repeatedly, I’m not a believer in the age-related formula but I am a believer in what Maffetone was trying to get his clients to do which is stay healthy and get faster by building an aerobic base through good endurance training.
My own training during this period saw me run nearly double the training our Needs MAF runner was managing. I was just shy of fifty miles taking 6hr 24mins yet we had the same average pace for the week at 7:45/mile. Despite all this extra mileage I’d been training every day for almost three years without illness or serious injury. While I picked up a couple of glute strains along the way (which came from trying too hard in speedwork) neither lasted more than a week and I was still able to run. While our parkrun times are similar, my base endurance is improving and I am positioning myself to go faster in the longterm.
You can see I run every day but only push harder on two days (Tuesday and Friday). There’s a few little glitches on my heart-rate monitor particularly Wednesday which highlights the problem of accuracy with heart-rate training but otherwise I’m comfortably well below 150HR on my recovery days. My Sunday long run sometimes scrapes into the red but the training effect I’m interested is in building endurance on those runs. Even a good ninety minute run is still only a hard, aerobic effort. Where the Needs MAF runner has to take two rest days every week, I’m getting out there and running on them too.
Another intriguing detail of our training weeks is that we accumulate the same amount of 150+ ‘red zone’ training time but my extra running accumulates time and fitness in the supporting zones while allowing the body to recover from the harder sessions. If I tried to run hard every day like he does, I’m sure I would be getting injured too.
We’re both fifty years old and Maffetone would like us to be doing all our training to a heart-rate of 130 or below. I don’t believe in that but I do total over an hour of my weekly running at this level and it’s usually in the first couple of miles of the runs while my body warms up. This is important – I’m listening to my body to get an indication of how it feels and whether I can push hard. Maffetone talks about doing warm-ups in his book but the people who think he’s only about low heart-rate training miss this.
On days following a harder effort I find my legs don’t want to do too much and it is a struggle to get the heart-rate up. My legs can be glycogen-depleted so I just jog along to aid recovery. If I tried, I could probably push to higher levels especially if I’d had a day off but I don’t try to push it every day and that was Maffetone’s message.
Much of Maffetone’s work occurred in the 80s and 90s when heart-rate monitors were still new. The science of exercise physiology has progressed a lot in recent years. What we now know, due to the work of Stephen Seiler, is that elite athletes tend to split their training into 80% below lactate threshold and 20% above it.
Throughout this post I’ve referenced a HR of 150bpm. Be careful – 150HR is not THE definitive value to use; it’s the data that was available to me. That the Needs MAF runner trains somewhere around this level most days shows it is probably somewhere around his own.
One hundred and fifty is close to where my lactate threshold heart-rate usually lies and I calculate I have a 76-24% split above and below it. That’s within the bounds of 80-20 training. On the other hand, the Needs MAF runner’s training split comes in at 54-46%. It begins to explain why he’s failing to make progress and getting injured when he starts to do even more intense work!
Arguably it may be wrong to use 150HR to split his training but it’s clear he’s training too hard every day because his body is letting him know through injuries and lack of progress. You can also see when he runs 30secs/mile slower on Wednesdays, he has lower heart-rate so it would be easy for him to include more genuinely easy-paced runs. Doing that, as Maffetone outlined is the key to staying healthy and injury-free.
Although I’ve been explaining all this using data you don’t need a heart-rate monitor to know whether your training is going well. Just a bit of common sense and listening to your body will tell you. When it creaks and groans it’s time to back off.
My six posts on MAF training are among the most detailed and honest articles about it on the internet and well worth reading. I’m trying to help runners get past the idea that training to a single number on a heart-rate monitor is the answer to all their problems. Good training involves scheduling the right mix of sessions at the right times. A block of endurance training like Maf suggests is just one part of what you need. My years of training and coaching allow me to know what to do and when to do it to help runners get fitter, faster and healthier. If you too would like me to help you then please contact me with details of your running and how you think I can help you.
Percy Cerutty is one of the forgotten coaches of the 20th century. His most notable protégé was Herb Elliott who won the 1,500m gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics and knocked six seconds off the world record for a mile, that’s pretty good to have on your resume. Cerutty’s methods were consider eccentric and bizarre yet I found some commonality between what he coached and the work of Wim Hof and Phil Maffetone. It’s useful to understand their common ground as, while Hof and Maf aren’t specifically coaching runners, the underlying principle is important to all distance runners and building health. Let’s begin by recapping Maf and Hof!
I’ve discussed Maffetone’s work at length previously. While he wasn’t a running coach, his work as a chiropractor helped many long distance athletes improve their times. His main concept is to build the aerobic system so exercise becomes fuelled by burning fat. Athletes do this by training to a heart-rate calculated using their age, muscle-testing for weakness and changing the diet to eat fewer processed foods, grains, dairy products and animal fats while eating more vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Coming up with a definition of health is an interesting conundrum, because when you when try, it ends up being defined by a negative. The negative being the absence of illness, injury or any other way the body may be malfunctioning. Just saying health is the perfect functioning of the body doesn’t say much.
Maffetone’s method is about eliminating or reducing, to an allowable level, those things which cause ill-health. When many athletes train they often do so with too much intensity which causes the parasympathetic nervous system to rev up, create adrenaline and generally cause the body to become unhealthy due to the waste products caused by anaerobic metabolism. Maf focuses them on improving the aerobic system to delay the anaerobic system from kicking in and lower its overall use.
While he never specifically coached athletes, he helped them get healthy by improving their aerobic base. His best known success is Mark Allen, who went from runner-up in multiple Hawaii Ironman races to being a five-time winner.
I recently read and wrote about Hof’s book “The Wim Hof Method” and the three core tenets of his system. Improving the aerobic system by taking cold showers, breathing deeply and mentally focusing to achieve goals. Like any good system of improvement, his method starts off with small challenges and gradually increases so you can contend with more.
Hof is not a running coach either and while he has run a marathon barefoot up Mount Everest and swum 200m under sea ice; I consider his most impressive achievement to be the story of how researchers injected him with E-coli virus. In 16,000+ previous trials participants always developed mild flu-like symptoms from the injection – yet Hof didn’t. A subsequent experiment then saw him train twelve people in his method who also remained healthy despite the E-coli injection. The scientists were amazed yet it seemed natural to Hof.
Like Maffetone, Wim Hof explains the benefits of his method as coming from building the aerobic system up. He talks about how an improved aerobic system keeps the body functioning in its naturally alkaline state whereas anaerobic metabolism pushes it into an acidic state. He explains how deep breathing suppresses inflammation and cleans out waste products in the lymphatic system.
While their descriptions of the specifics may differ, the underlying principle is the same of improving the aerobic system to maintain health and create a strong immune system.
So that’s an outline of Phil Maffetone and Wim Hof’s methods and rationales towards keeping your body healthy. Now we look at Percy Cerutty and how through his own experiences he discovered similar principles and put them into action to turn Herb Elliott into the world record holder for the mile and 1,500m as well as remaining undefeated in thirty-six mile races.
In Beyond Winning, Gary M. Walton writes “Born in 1895, Cerutty grew up in a working-class suburb of Melbourne. He was a weak, sickly, and underprivileged child. When he was six years old, he contracted a case of double pneumonia that caused partial paralysis of his left lung. For years, heavy exercise and especially running caused sever discomfort. He suffered from chronic migraine headaches and was usually sick after races. [Cerutty entered mile races, winning ten – one in 4:32] When he quit running in his early twenties, his health continued to slide. By the time he was 43, he had suffered from a nervous and physical breakdown requiring a six-month leave from his job as a telephone technician.”
This is a man who was clearly struggling with his health but during his six-months off, Cerutty decided to challenge his mind and body. It was do-or-die. He rebuilt his confidence by building up to diving off the high tower at St Kilda Baths, took up weightlifting, hiking and swam in the icy Yarra River near his home. He was beginning to develop his back-to-basics, no comfort Stotan philosophy – a mixture of Spartanism and Stoicism.
He created a weekend training camp at Portsea where runners would come to live in bunkhouses, run up sand dunes and eat raw foods. Walton states breakfast was “rolled oats, nuts, dried fruits, bananas, raw cabbage, brown bread and cheese”. But it wasn’t just about physical exercise, in the evenings they would talk and read books of philosophy and poetry, a purification of the mind.
A typical day at the camp:
7am – 5 mile run before breakfast wherever they wanted to go
8am – breakfast (as detailed above)
9am – swimming, surfing or outdoor chores like chopping wooding, painting, carpentry
Noon – training and lectures followed by another swim
2pm – lunch – fish and fresh fruit
3pm – siesta
4pm – weight training (a new concept in the 1950s)
5pm – 10 mile run along dirt roads ending at the sea
7pm – tea and general discussion on a variety of topics led by Percy
11pm – lights out
One of the features of the Portsea half-acre training camp was a 60⁰ sand dune rising 80ft which the record to run up was 11 seconds and which Elliott had run up and down forty-two times on a another occasion. There was the Hall Circuit – 1mile 285yds – which Elliot had covered in 5min21 – as well as a ¼ mile Stewart Circuit which ended up a steep hill. Training wasn’t solely around the camp but also took in the local dirt roads, parks and golf course.
While Cerutty trained Elliot and other runners to world records, his aim was not specifically to win titles or run times. It was about getting the absolute maximum out of oneself. His Stotan creed was about removing the crutches and supports that people of the era were beginning to let creep into their lives. When he toured America, Cerutty was appalled at how Americans were flabby, drinking and smoking too much. While this may have been judgemental and critical we should remember he believed in what he preached and went from constant ill health in his younger years to being able to run a sub-3 marathon at age 50 which set the Victoria state record at a time when the world record was 2hr26.
All information on Cerutty taken from Walton’s “Beyond Winning” published in 1992.
It’s clear there is a similarity between Wim Hof Method and Cerutty’s training camp using nature to harden the mind and body. Swimming in cold water is used by both as a way to strengthen the will; but Cerutty probably never realised, unlike Hof, that it is strengthening the aerobic system as well. Even so, running on sand, up and down dunes would have had Cerutty’s runners breathing deeply just as Hof recommends. The overlap between their methods seems notable.
While there is less immediate commonality between Cerutty and Maffetone, both recommend a careful diet which involves natural foods and avoids processed ones. Cerutty’s diet though tended to be more carbohydrate-based whereas Maffetone’s doesn’t. But Cerutty was training runners like Herb Elliott for middle distance events where carbohydrates are the primary source of energy whereas the Ironman triathlons Mark Allen took part in need fat to be a key fuel source.
What Cerutty was discovering in his training camps was how to build the aerobic system through a combination of daily distance running at a time when these things were rarely understood. The daily regimen of running for half an hour in the morning, another hour in the evening as well as cross-training with sea swims or surfing would certainly have left athletes tired but improving their aerobic system. The overlap with Wim Hof’s Method is clear and Hof’s method has clear overlap with Phil Maffetone.
All distance runners will improve their times and capabilities by building their aerobic capacity and endurance. While the Stotan approach of Percy Cerutty is no longer necessary, it is easily achieved with a committed approach to modern training methods. If you’d like to me to help you become a healthier, better runner – please contact me to discuss online coaching, training reviews and plans.
The autumn marathons are upon us and first we’ve seen Eliud Kipchoge set a world record time in Berlin and then Keninisa Bekele placing 5th in London in under 2hr06. What makes these runs so impressive is Kipchoge turns 38 next month and Bekele is already 40. These are not the sort of times or placings you expect men approaching their midlife crisis to achieve.
Both, of course have a long history as elite runners with both of them winning gold medals at the 2003 World Championship in Paris. Kipchoge won the 5,000m; Bekele the 10,000m. Since then Kipchoge has become the world’s premier marathoner and Bekele set a world record in the 5,000m. In 2019 he ran the second fastest marathon in history behind Kipchoge.
Both runners are naturally better suited to distance running than the rest of us and at around 3:50 their mile times are some way down on what the best can achieve but it doesn’t make them slow compared to the rest of us. Less than 2,000 men have managed a sub-4 minute mile and basic speed is the foundation of Kipchoge and Bekele’s distance running success.
The pace of their recent marathons comes in at 4:36/mile (or 2:52/km) for Kipchoge and 4:48/mile (2:59/km) for Bekele. Few of the runners I meet can even run 400m in a time under 1:12, let alone a mile.
This harks back to a point I often make about how people returning or taking up running at forty say they’re getting old and can’t expect to be as fast as they were when they were young. Technically they’re right, but realistically they’re just making excuses in case they aren’t.
There is no reason why a decently trained man or woman in their forties can’t be near the front of local races, winning their age category and running their best times. One of my good friends ran his first sub-3 marathon (2hr58) at age 38 then spent his forties training properly with a club and was running 2hr34 as he was about to hit fifty. Improvement is easily possible for almost all the runners I meet.
For the most part staying fast as you age is simply about dedication and getting the training right. If you’d like me to help you improve as a runner then do not hesitate to contact me.
In my last update I detailed that I had gone back to endurance training as all the hills and speedwork of the spring had toppled my aerobic base. It was somewhat disappointing but also necessary if I’m to sort out my 800m. I now realise I’m done for this year and it’s going to be a winter of building endurance and stamina. The introduction of hills and sprints was great fun but also introduced way too much naturally anaerobic fast-twitch muscle. As I haven’t been near these areas in years, things toppled quickly. Hopefully by next winter, my base will be bigger and I’ll be able to handle the anaerobic side better.
Having restarted endurance training in early July I found I wasn’t making much progress; then in early August I realised I was beginning to get aches and pains of the sort when you’re training too anaerobically. I had to reset AGAIN. My focus became to ensure I set off on runs at a slower pace and built up to my aerobic limits. That reset did the trick as the pains dissipated and the endurance began to build. Even so I was still a good 30+ secs/mile down on where I was back in March. It was a surprise to me how easy it is undo everything.
Mid-August I did an all-out parkrun at Poole and clocked 20:25. Quicker than running there at Easter (20:40) but slower than last Christmas (20:11). I cannot tell you how frustrated I am feeling at not being able to get back under twenty minutes. Another parkrun at Sandhurst Memorial parkrun in late September was even worse at 20:48 but it’s a tougher course and my legs were fatigued so that didn’t concern me.
I’ve entered a couple of 10Ks – Boscombe on Nov 27 and Christchurch two weeks later. I’ve gone back to using the training system I used on my only ever sub-40 run back in 2015. Controlled threshold work on a Tuesday, a Steady run on Fridays and a long run on Sunday. This is the same as I was doing in February and March this year.
My plan is to do intervals at Threshold pace (6:50/mile) for three weeks, then up the pace to 6:40 for three weeks and again to 6:30 which will take me through to the end of October. After that I’m going to do shorter intervals at 5K and 10K pace which will hopefully see me breaking forty minutes again. It’s an aggressive schedule but so far the body has been holding up.
Endurance-wise it took me until mid-September to get back to where I was in February. That said, my fasted Sunday morning long runs have all been coming in at a decent pace, usually sub-8 average for 12-miles, no stops. For whatever reason, I seem to be running these quicker than in February.
Possibly some of the drop off I’ve been experiencing is down to a change in running form. Since last October I’ve been working on my form using drills at least once per week and somewhere around late June, combined with the sprints I was doing, I began to feel I was running differently. Less hip rotation and more power from the glutes. Of course, using muscles that have never been involved in my running, meant they needed to be trained and quite possibly they had a lower lactate threshold due to this. Whatever it is, the form change is beginning to feel powerful at times and I just have to keep working at it.
Behind the scenes I’ve been wondering about whether I’m cut out for training like this. For all the miles and effort, I’ve put in over the years; my improvements have been sporadic. I’ve decided this winter will be the acid test. Hopefully when spring arrives next April, I will see a decent improvement in my half marathon time. If I don’t then I’m scrapping the endurance focus and putting my training time into working on speed and to see whether I can get my 200/400 times down, even if it’s at the expense of longer distances.
I’m going to give it a fair crack of the whip and train the best way I know how to. The one sticking point is I entered the London Marathon ballot yesterday not realising the race is in six months’ time (April). If this were to be the year I get a place then my training would have to look at lengthening my long run out to twenty miles. Even so I’d expect the training I’ve got planned, to fit in well with how I would need to train. We’ll see when the ballot results are announced at the end of October. I’m currently doing just shy of fifty miles per week and have been for the past two years so the base is there for whichever direction I need to go.