Paula’s kids

In my article about marathon speed, I wrote about how the best marathoners of the Sixties could all run 400 metres in under a minute. They started out at clubs where they developed their speed and only later worked on endurance. This idea has been something rolling around in my mind for a while now and I wanted to provide another example

Back in the November 2019 issue, Runner’s World ran an interview with Paula Radcliffe on getting more kids into running. One question and answer stood out to me:

RW: With parents like you and your husband Gary [Lough, coach to Sir Mo Farah] your children must be pretty active?

PR: Absolutely. Both of them [Isla, 12 and Raphael, 8] will sometimes do kilometre events in Monaco where we live. Isla recently ran 3:25 and Raph can do 3:43. We also recently dropped Raph into a one-mile race with a bunch of men and he actually finished third in a time of 6:26! He absolutely loved it. I’m not sure that the men did though …

Imagine that! An 8-year-old boy running 3:43 for a kilometre and a 12-year-old girl running 3:25. Now go out and see how quick you are. When I ran my 800m time trial at start of December 2020 I clocked 2:58 which is the same pace as Raphael but I have no doubt I’d have lagged behind him had I run another 200m. That quickness over the kilometre enables him to run a fast mile – it’s not like he’d stop at 1,001 metres and have to walk the rest. I’m guessing he’d have been hitting 22-23 minutes for a parkrun if they dropped him into one.

Now I could make excuses about small children having a good weight-to-power ratio, lower centres of gravity and no idea about pacing. But whatever the reason, these kids are QUICK and I’m doubtful it’s down to the genetics of their parents. It will be the excuse those men beaten over the mile give “He’s Paula Radcliffe’s son so he’s born to be good”. But I suspect the truth is more down to how Paula and Gary are coaching their children to run quickly first before they step up the distance.

I suspect if you could find a snapshot of Raphael against all those other mile racers, he would have been up the front from beginning to end. He would be one of the fastest over quarter mile, half mile and so on. The speed he carried through the distance with him gradually slowing as he went into the uncharted territory of the mile.

I genuinely believe 90% of people can run significantly faster if they train for it. I got sucked into working exclusively on endurance for the past four years and while my times remained decent I was struggling to hit the heights I’d once reached so easily. I used to have oodles of speed available because I pushed hard on every run and gasped my way up every hill; but I always felt something was missing when I raced. As I began to understand endurance it turned me into a more efficient runner who recorded faster race times. The only trouble was I lost touch with my speed. You have to keep going back to speed to maintain it. If you’re constantly racing and training at 6-10 min/mile, you lose the ability to finish at sub-4 paces. People think all the slow training kills their speed, it doesn’t. It only goes when they stop working on it.

Now ask yourself, if you raced Raphael or Isla, who would win? If the answer isn’t to your liking then it’s time to do something about it!

Eleven Bay Run Half Marathons – a retrospective

This year was apparently the 39th running of the Bournemouth Bay runs. I did my first in 1996 but it was almost a decade before I got back to it. My sporting time back then was dominated by playing and coaching volleyball; as well as going to circuit training and just about any other sport that I could find to fill my time with.

In 1996, like the majority of runners in yesterday’s race, I did a couple of months’ worth of basic training registering 10-20 miles per week at most in my preparation. I’d run my first half marathon at Portsmouth a month before and, in the lead-up to that, my only training aim was to do the distance in training albeit at a slow pace. I recall running on the February 29 (leap year) from Bournemouth pier to Boscombe pier and back (I reckoned it was 3-miles – not bad given it’s actually 2.85!). Then from Bournemouth pier to Shore Road and back (6-miles estimate, actually 5.6) and then another run to and from Boscombe pier to take it out to twelve miles which with a bit of distance to and from the car parked up on the East Cliff gave me confidence I would manage the distance. Then I went to Poole Sports Centre and played a volleyball match. That’s how I rolled in those days, cram in as much sport and activity as possible. No thought or understanding for recovery or the impact of doing too much.

I didn’t worry about how fast I was running, it was all about completing it. It was a time when my legs were big and strong from all the volleyball jumping and on race day I felt I couldn’t run any faster. I now I understand I simply didn’t have the aerobic training required for a fast half marathon and that reflects in my average heart-rate being in the 170s during the 1996 race. I distinctly recall running along, feeling comfortable, chatting to the chap near me and saying my heart-rate was at 177bpm and him replying “That sounds a bit high”. I’d tend to agree with him now!!

YearTime (HH:MM:SS)RankPace (min/mile)Avg. HR

By the time I ran in 2010, I’d given up the volleyball and while my legs were still big I was running more regularly yet rarely more than twenty miles per week. I’d run a 1hr16 ten mile race three weeks before and most of my lunchtime 6K training runs were all-out efforts with a long run on the weekend. That was a game changing race as I set off fast from the beginning where previously I’d always lagged back then enjoyed working my way through the field. When I ran 1hr38 I was somewhat elated to take over ten minutes off my previous best.

It was late 2011 when I started taking running seriously and building my aerobic base. So at this stage, I still had the strong legs and while I didn’t fully understand how to train, I was beginning to learn. It led to my fastest half marathon ever and two-plus minutes ahead of this year.

What strikes me about most of the intervening half marathons is they’re all grouped around the 1hr39 mark. This could be a coincidence but I don’t think so. I’m sure it’s some kind of indicator of my natural level when I’ve done some training but not too much. The halfs in 2013, 2016, 2018 were all coming back from injury during the month or so before.

The one recent outlier is 2017 (my 3rd fastest) when I had deliberately done lots of jogging in the two months preceding it (400+ miles) and less than fifteen total miles at race pace. The result was good but I paid for it in the following days with soreness lasting until Thursday. Even so when I’d recovered three weeks later, I found myself running a 2½-mile effort run at 6:30/mile – significantly faster than the 7min/mile pace I had been running it in the weeks before the half.

Comparing 2012 vs 2022

In 2012, the average heart-rate was 160bpm and I spent fifty-nine minutes above it, maxing at 170bpm! Compare that to yesterday where my max only touched 160 a couple of times. It’s clear my aerobic base is improving yet that isn’t the only part of the story even for a half marathon. I was able to run a faster half marathon in 2012 with a worse base but the faster speed wasn’t there. I’m fairly sure my legs didn’t have enough taper from all the training but had I done so, I might have been in record-breaking form.

The flipside to the heart-rates is when I look back at my early Bay runs, I didn’t have enough of an aerobic base to run these sort of times. The high heart-rates in the 170s demonstrate that. There’s some kind of balance to be found.

Mileage isn’t everything

Another point of interest when comparing my 2012 and 2022 runs are my training logs for the preceding weeks. In 2012, my average weekly mileage was 33½ – 39, 26, 30, 36, 39 and 32; which is about 50% less than what I did this year when I was averaging 50.

I seem to run much better off lower mileage – perhaps in part because it leaves less to recover from. In those days I would take at least one day – Friday – off each week; this year I’d been running every day for over two years until I rested the two days before the half marathon.

I’m increasingly conscious that while some bang on about doing high mileage – it is not the be-all and end-all of running success. And certainly not critical if all you’re interested in is a parkrun or 10K race. Get quick over the shorter distances and the mileage will naturally increase.

I‘m hopeful once my legs recover I will be in a position to surpass everything I did in 2012. Back then I spent the year running sub-20 every Saturday at parkrun and training hard to break nineteen minutes but it never quite happened until the end of the year – after I’d done a block of endurance training. I always knew endurance training was important but could never quite understand how, ten years on I do.

Short sprint – Ordinary speed

In True Speed I wrote about the high speeds at which elite runners run their races; speeds which ordinary runners can barely hit in a sprint. Today we’re going to look at what ordinary speed looks like. Outside of an elite race, most runners are running somewhere between six and ten miles per hour. Even the guys and gals up the front winning the prizes in your local race aren’t running much faster than this. Sometimes it’s even true for elites too, when Gwen Jorgensen was winning her Olympic Gold for triathlon, her 10K was ‘only’ around 11mph, so there’s no shame in not being super fast; only an attempt to better understand what’s going on.

Let’s begin with parkrun. In the table below I’ve listed the times between sixteen and thirty minutes as all but a few parkruns are run in that range. Of course quicker times are available, Andrew Baddeley holds the world record time of 13:48 while Lauren Reid ran 15:45 earlier this year to set a new women’s record.

Parkrun timeMphKm/hMin/mileMin/km

If you want to train to get faster, it’s a useful table for understanding what speeds and paces you’ll need to be running. Once any initial burst of training sees your times levelling off, you have to start training smart.

You do intervals at paces a little quicker than you’re currently running while keeping the majority of your running at paces for a parkrun that’s 2½ – 3½ minutes slower. That’s 2½ minutes for the runners near sixteen and 3½ for those at thirty  If you’re currently running 22-mins at 7min/mile, you’ll want to be training no faster than the pace of a 25-min parkrun (three minutes slower). Even more of your training should be at the pace of a parkrun that’s five minutes slower than you’re currently running.

But we’re not only parkrunners so let’s have a look at what speeds we’re running for different race distances. The vast majority of runners are barely hitting 8mph in any of their races; most are even slower. The top end are the elite values to give you an idea of where there’s capacity for improvement.

4 mph5678910111213

Of course reaching the highest speeds takes lots of dedicated training but certainly isn’t impossible if you understand what you need to do. Most people can run at 10mph (or 6min/mile pace) if only for twenty or thirty metres. If you can do this, then it’s probable with good endurance training you can improve to run times you wouldn’t have considered possible.

Most runners I see are good at unlocking their natural talent but then spend their training time reinforcing it without notable improvement. They seem happy if they’re knocking a minute or two off their marathon after months of hard training. My 10K went from 48 minutes to sub-40 when I got my training right. My early half marathons all came in at 1hr50 but when I took up running seriously I got them closer to 1hr30. I still believe there is significant room for improvement in all my races when I’m done with 800m training. I won’t settle for less, will you?

Short sprint – True Speed

In Being Fast, I talked about the vagaries of language and mentioned some of the speeds elite runners run at. I thought it would be useful to look at the speed and paces for all the major world records. It only becomes clear when you see these, how fast the best in world are running, and begin to realise how much the rest of us neglect speed.

MenPerf. Mi/hKm/h Per milePer km Athlete
Top speed  27.844.7 2min101min21 Usain Bolt
100 m9.58 23.437.6 2min341min36 Usain Bolt
200 m19.19 23.337.5 2min341min36 Usain Bolt
400 m43.03 20.833.5 2min531min48 Wayde van Niekerk
800 m1:40.9 17.728.5 3min222min06 David Rudisha
1000 m2:12.0 17.027.3 3min322min12 Noah Ngeny
1500 m3:26.0 16.326.2 3min412min17 Hicham El Guerrouj
Mile3:43.1 16.126.0 3min432min19 Hicham El Guerrouj
3000 m7:20.7 15.224.5 3min562min27 Daniel Komen
5000 m12:35 14.823.8 4min032min31 Joshua Cheptegei
10,000 m26:11 14.222.9 4min132min37 Joshua Cheptegei
Half marathon57:32 13.722.0 4min232min44 Kibiwott Kandie
Marathon1:59:40 13.121.2 4min342min50 Eliud Kipchoge
100 km6:09:14 10.116.2 5min573min42 Nao Kazami
100 m10.49 21.334.3 2min491min45 Florence Griffith Joyner
200 m21.34 21.033.7 2min521min47 Florence Griffith Joyner
400 m47.6 18.830.3 3min121min59 Marita Koch
800 m1:53.3 15.825.4 3min482min22 Jarmila Kratochvílová
1000 m2:29.0 15.024.2 4min002min29 Svetlana Masterkova
1500 m3:50.1 14.623.5 4min072min34 Genzebe Dibaba
Mile4:12.3 14.323.0 4min122min37 Sifan Hassan
3000 m8:06.1 13.822.2 4min212min42 Wang Junxia
5000 m14:06 13.221.3 4min332min49 Letesenbet Gidey
10,000 m29:17 12.720.5 4min432min56 Almaz Ayana
Half marathon1:04:31 12.219.6 4min553min03 Ababel Yeshaneh
Marathon2:14:04 11.718.9 5min073min11 Brigid Kosgei
100 km6:33:11 9.515.3 6min203min56 Tomoe Abe
World record times for the major distance events (correct at 26-Apr-2021)

When you compare the men’s and women’s records side by side you see there’s consistently a difference of around 11-12% between them. This is believed to be down to the physical differences between the sexes, that men’s higher levels of testosterone allow them to have bigger muscles which in turn propel them quicker.

EventMen WRWomen WR% diff.
100 m9.5810.499.5
200 m19.1921.3411.2
400 m43.0347.610.6
800 m01:40.901:53.312.3
1000 m02:12.002:29.012.9
1500 m03:26.003:50.111.7
3000 m07:20.708:06.110.3
5000 m12:35.414:06.612.1
10,000 m26:11.029:17.411.9
Half marathon57:32.01:04:3112.1
100 km06:09:1406:33:116.5

The two most notable anomalies are at the ends of the spectrum. Florence Griffith-Joyner’s 100m world record was set in 1988 but the video evidence shows there was a strong wind that day, yet the wind gauge recorded 0.0m/s assistance. It’s thought to be a faulty gauge. If, however, you add 11% to Usain Bolt’s 9.58s then then the women’s time should be 9.63s which is close to the 10.61s FloJo recorded the next day and the 10.62s she recorded in winning Olympic gold two months later.

At the other end there is the 100km where the difference is 6.5%. At this distance, the best runners are genetically determined towards endurance and lack the fast-twitch muscle necessary for top speed. Their slow-twitch muscle is naturally resilient and the testosterone difference between the sexes is much less of a factor.

Some of the outliers between men’s and women’s records are down to lack of drug-testing or detectability when the records were set, how often the distances are raced and over the past year we’ve seen distance records being broken with championships cancelled due to Covid and runners taking advantage of energy-efficient shoes.

I’ll return to the point I was trying to make in the Being Fast article, most runners don’t have true speed and that’s because they often fail to train for it. It’s not the only requirement for being a distance runner but it is an important part of it.

My coached sessions are focused on getting you quicker while building the endurance to support it. Everybody’s welcome. In the meantime, enjoy the following video of runners trying to keep pace with Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-2hr marathon pace.