Twenty-five years in the making

I realised on finishing the “How to Improve” series that I’ve spent the past twenty-five years trying to understand the principles of endurance. It was November 1995 when I bought a copy of John Douillard’s “Body, Mind and Sport” which made grandiose claims of being able to play sports effortlessly, run fast while barely getting out of breath and get ‘in the zone’ by retraining the body with nose-breathing and a heart-rate monitor. But it wasn’t purely a book about playing sports easily, it detailed a whole system for health based on your body-type and the ancient system of Ayurvedic medicine. The idea of getting ‘into the zone’ appealed because I wanted to settle my mind while playing volleyball and for a while I got strange glances from volleyball teammates as I warmed up with yoga Sun Salutes and nose-breathing.

I spent the following summer running half marathons as well as my first marathon, and in training used his method of nose-breathing and keeping my heart-rate low for some months. But all I did was tiptoe up and down the beach promenade at slow paces. The book had promised results of improvement in a matter of months with examples of Catherine Oxenberg running 8min/miles at 130HR after three months of retraining and Warren Wechsler running 6 min/miles averaging 124HR after 18-months of training. My reality is that even when I was capable of running sub-19 at parkrun, I’ve barely been quicker than nine minute miles at these heart-rates; I don’t have the physiology to allow me to do this easily. But back then it was a mystery to be solved and I was intrigued enough for many years afterwards to periodically return to the book’s wisdom and unsuccessfully try to get its methods to work for me. I didn’t realise it then, but this book was promoting the secrets of endurance training and the aerobic base.

John Douillard’s 1995 book

I had run before this. I’d run cross-country in PE lessons at school – I was terrible – I used to finish second to last, but I was also at the back of the sprints. I was the proverbial big slow kid.  As a teenager I went orienteering with my friend Malcolm and his parents. The 5K courses took me 45-mins to complete albeit I was trying to navigate myself around difficult forest and moorland terrain. I dreaded the idea of running the longer courses that came with older age-groups and the thought of the 10Ks that the senior men ran terrified me. Eventually I stopped going when I got a job working Sundays at Broadstone sports centre, now The Junction, so the issue of going past 5K never reared its head.

But I always played sports and my bicycle was my main mode of transport so I had a reasonable level of fitness. Once I started fulltime work, I began to play sports with my colleagues and squash, basketball, 5-a-side football all gave me incidental running skills and fitness.

I entered my first 10K race in October 1992, ran 48 minutes and was into running for six months before shin splints were too painful to even walk across the beach. My training system was non-existent. Jump on the treadmill and run at 9.5mph for ten minutes gasping for breath. Run round the streets near home to complete a twenty-minute route as quickly as possible. No warmup, just hammer off down the road from the moment I started the stopwatch. Enter a 10K – train for it by going out and plodding the distance to make sure I could complete it. That was all there was. My highlight of those days was running 3 miles on the treadmill at its maximum speed of 10mph – 18min10 – it took the extra ten seconds to get up to full speed. I remember being awed by the fastest runners at work who could run 35-36 minutes for 10K. My 10K of 48-minutes put me two-thirds of the way down the results lists of races. Nothing about my life experience up to this point said I was any good at running. Even when I put some effort in, I finished in the lower half of the field far behind the best runners I knew, and far behind the winners.

Let’s break down the training for my early attempts to train for races. My training had three components – building speed, stamina-building runs and over-distance runs.

  • I built speed from playing sports which involved many shorts sprints. In a game of squash the court measures 9.75m from front to back, 6.4m across its width so you only take a maximum of five or six steps in one direction before pausing. Volleyball is movements of a few steps, but repeated powerful exertion when jumping to hit or block. The court where we played 5-a-side football and basketball was around twenty-five metres in length. That’s all I did lots of maximal paced sprints over short distances usually for 30 to 60 minutes at a time..
  • Stamina came from the runs of up to twenty minutes either on the treadmill (which was forcing the pace), or round the local streets where I’d start fast and hang on. These street runs also threw in hills and corners so it was never one-paced.
  • For over-distance runs, I jogged easily to ensure I could cover the race distance. My first block of running in 1992-93, I only entered 10Ks so I over-distanced to around eight miles. I remember getting from my standard four mile run up to eight was difficult. When I later did half marathons and even full marathons, it never felt as hard to increase the distance of runs past eight miles.

Even now when I analyse these, they’re effectively the three core types of training you get recommended to do. Although runners may talk about hill sessions or track speedwork they still fall into the first category of speed building. We might go out to do threshold or tempo runs but they categorise as stamina-building and finally long runs are categorised as over-distance runs. It’s very hard to discern what’s wrong with this training.

Yet I wasn’t able to go faster at any of my races. My 10K each came in around 48-mins while a quarter marathon (10.5K) came in at a similarly paced 50-mins. My half marathons came in 30-seconds either side of 1hr51. The most notable thing was breaking 1hr50 (1hr49min55) a couple of years later yet this is still in the same vicinity as the others. I always believed this would be as good as I got at running.

What I never tried to understand was why this wasn’t enough. I thought that to run fast, you had to train fast. That to get faster you had to keep going at top speed and hang on. It was only when I read Douillard that I began to learn there was a different way to train. But I tried it and it didn’t work for me because of how endurance is created. I continued to play other sports while trying to be a runner and those sports kept pushing down my endurance and taking me back to the speed that would be more appropriate to a sprinter. I now know it takes a couple of months for endurance to start showing up and even then you have to keep working at it and avoid overdoing the speed side too much. While my “train hard, play hard” mentality was great for playing team sports, it didn’t help my running.

I tried Douillard’s nose-breathing and low heart-rate method one more time in 2009 but again I found myself ambling along. Eventually I took off the shackles and began running regularly however I liked. Long distance running still wasn’t easy but I was getting out three to four times each week. I still had the stamina runs two or three times each week with 6K at lunchtime but – and this is the critical component – I no longer played team sports and thus did much less speed-building. Early in 2010, I ran a 10-mile race and surprised myself with a fast-finishing time of 1hr16. Three weeks later, I set a half marathon PB of 1hr38min30 – over ten minutes quicker than any I’d ever done before. Six months later I ran a 3hr41 marathon despite having missed a month of training due to a calf injury. I still hadn’t conquered endurance but I now realise less speed-building and more regular running were critical to the improvement.

The truth is, I still didn’t understand what endurance or aerobic bases were but I was running faster. When I got involved with parkrun and began running almost daily, it didn’t take much to see my times get even better. Sub-19 for parkrun, 41-mins for 10K, 1hr09 for 10-miles and 1hr31 for half-marathon in the first year. Eventually I began to see the low heart-rates Douillard had promised and my runs felt easy. But it took until 2017 for me to finally understand how to really create endurance and be running how Douillard had promised. The details are however, another story waiting to be told.

What I learned from the rower

Today I’m going to tell you about my short-lived indoor rowing career. I used to spend my lunchtimes at the gym, warming up on the Concept2 rowing machine before I lifted weights. One day someone pointed out there was a leaderboard for how fast people could row 2,000m and, being my typical competitive self, I decided to give it a try and clocked something like 7min11 (the exact time is lost in the dusty corners of my memory).

I was informed by a friend, Gary, who happened to be a member of a rowing club, that getting under seven minutes is considered a good time. I don’t know whether that’s true because the world record is 5min35 and there was a tall, thin guy called Pete at the top of the leaderboard who’d rowed 6min30ish, but I was motivated to see if I could knock those eleven seconds off.

Now given this occurred around the turn of the millennium and the internet was still a new thing, I was very lucky to have access at my desk to the World Wide Web (as we called it then) and was able to research rowing training. After all it was more compelling than doing actual work!

The Concept2 Model C ergometer – an indoor rowinng mahine

I came across a website called Masters Athlete Physiology and Performance (MAPP) created by Dr Stephen Seiler which was fantastic in its detail on the effects of exercise on human anatomy and how rowers trained. Seiler was a Masters rower and a university academic who studied endurance sports. Although he had sections on cross-country skiing, running, cycling and swimming it was the Human Physiology and Rowing sections that I was most interested by. In particular he put forward a theory called “The Waves of Change” where he proposed how to develop as an endurance athlete.

  • First Wave is spent building VO2max – the ability of the heart to supply oxygen to the working muscles. VO2max can be fully developed in a year and is achieved through hard intervals and speedwork.
  • Second Wave is spent building Lactate Threshold – the ability of the muscles and surrounding tissues to extract and utilise the oxygen. This takes three to four years to completely develop and is achieved by running at a pace just below the LT to push it up.
  • Third Wave is spent improving Efficiency (aka Economy) and can carry on for years. Unfortunately no-one knew what training did this other than it appears to happen through repeated high volumes of training.

Having just completed my degree in Sports and Exercise Science this was fascinating stuff to me. I’d heard of VO2max before and even measured mine on a treadmill test during my second year studies but at that time, I wasn’t at all interested in the physiology. I was more interested in knowing my numbers.

With a concrete goal of breaking seven minutes, I lapped up the pages of Seiler’s website and I’d say it was the first time I ever tried to train systematically. I set myself up with a weekly programme of two hard interval sessions, two days where I rowed easy for recovery and then on a Friday evening an hour’s row at a significantly slower pace. I can tell you all the sitting led to a very numb bum!

It’s worth explaining at this point that 2,000m is the typical race distance for rowing at the Olympics and World Championships. Where runners tend to think in terms of 400m laps of the track, rowers work in 500m efforts and the Concept2 rowing machine displays paces and lap times against this distance. I calculated that if I wanted to break seven minutes for 2,000m then I needed to row 1:45/500m and this is what I set out to do on my intervals.

I began my hard intervals with eight efforts of 500m with 1-min recovery aiming for 1min45. I don’t know why I decided to do eight but the distance, recovery and pacing are all fairly explanatory. The other joy of the Concept2 was being able to programme this workout into it and having it show heart-rates alongside all the time, distance, pace, stroke-rate type information. I got into a habit of taking a pre-printed form with me to each session where, during the recovery, I would scrabble to pick up my pen and note down how long the effort had taken me and the starting and ending heart-rates. Looking back it was all rather nerdy and yet, these days a good GPS watch will do this for you and upload the data straight to Strava.

To begin with, I found my heart-rate would gradually creep higher and higher with each successive effort ending up somewhere in the high 180s. Meanwhile during the one minute recovery phase it would drop back to the 120-130s. So I’d row my 500m gasping for breath, watching heart-rate quickly ratchet up from 120 to 180 and then drop back to say 125 during the recovery. The next effort and recovery would see the same pattern. After seven intervals I’d be gasping for breath but go all-out on the last effort to simulate a final surge to the finishing line.

After a few weeks of this I began to find it getting easier so of course, I did what any competitive person would do and turned the screw. I changed from eight at 1:45 to four at 1:45 followed by 1:44, 1:43, 1:42 finishing all-out. A few weeks later I started doing four at 1:45, three at 1:40 then all-out. Next I started to reduce the recovery period as a minute seemed too long so I brought it down to 45 seconds and then, a few weeks later to 35-seconds.

I was certainly getting fitter. My stats showed I was covering the entire session in a shorter time both during the efforts and when you added in recovery time. I watched as the numbers on my spreadsheet gradually reduced.

Sample of my rowing spreadsheet from 2003.
Not the original one from my sub-7 training schedule but equally nerdy!

But there was also a peculiarity I noticed. Where in the early days I’d been getting heart-rates up into the high 180s, by the final weeks it was impossible to reach this and I was only peaking in the high 170s. This occurred even though I was rowing faster with less time to recover. Even though I’d dropped the recovery time to only thirty-five seconds and my heart-rate only dipped below 160bpm, even on the hardest efforts it wouldn’t go up by much more than 15-20 beats. I was finding I could no longer work hard enough to get my heart-rate up to its max.

After two or three months of training I decided to have another go at the 2,000m time. I rested for a day or two and then went to the gym on a quiet evening intending to settle in for rowing at 1:45 with a fast finish to break the seven-minute barrier. The moment of truth had arrived. I began rowing. Immediately the pace was down to 1:40 and it felt easy. Far too easy but I couldn’t find a way to slow myself. I just hung in there as my breathing began to ratchet up while watching the distance count down. With about six hundred metres to go disaster struck. My right leg began to shake violently. I could barely push off for each stroke but I continued. The pace slowed and where I’d been on for a time of around 6min40, I limped through the final metres to a time of 6min51 and my goal achieved.

And that was it. For one reason and another I never had the dedication to indoor rowing again. But there was a side benefit. A couple of months afterwards I took part in a local 10K run. As always I started slowly clocking 8min15 for the first mile (for some reason the organisers used mile markers) and every mile afterwards came in at 7min15. An all-out surge to the finish line, gasping as I had done on the rower, and I’d set a new 10K PB of 45min50. Two minutes faster than I’d ever run before. I suspect had I warmed up and gone out hard from the beginning I would have run sub-45.

After this brief flirtation with indoor rowing, I returned to playing and coaching volleyball, took up golf and occasionally entered running races. Stephen Seiler’s Waves of Change theory stuck with me for the decade and I’d occasionally jump on the Concept2 and row hard intervals as a way to build VO2max as per his First Wave of Change. Then I’d run on the treadmill using an estimated Lactate Threshold pace to try and effect the Second Wave. Looking back it was never very successful because I wasn’t committed enough to running, but it did get me thinking about how to train systematically.

I occasionally revisited Stephen Seiler’s website until it went offline but his academic studies have since gone in a new direction and become highly important in the world of endurance training. It is his work with Norwegian cross-country skiers and cyclists that uncovered they train to the 80-20 rule with a Polarised training method.

How to Improve series – part 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How YOU can train to improve

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I trained to get faster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s stopping you from starting?

How to Improve series – part 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ensure you get a good night’s sleep”

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

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

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

How to Improve series – part 4

In part 4, we’re looking at Intensity otherwise known as “how fast to run”.

My running used to have two speeds – all-out for twenty minutes, or go very slow for ten miles. Under my system of either run all-out or run slow my race progress was limited. There was no middle ground – it was either short and fast or long and slow. The problem is when I ran all-out on a Monday and Tuesday, I wouldn’t feel like training again until Thursday and then at the weekend I’d slog through a long run.

Once in a while I looked at training plans in Runners World and they labelled their training runs as Easy runs or Hard runs or Fast runs which didn’t make any sense to me. They were just words which I couldn’t associate to what I actually needed to do on a run. Or maybe I couldn’t be bothered to think too hard about it.

I don’t think any of this is unusual among runners. If you send someone out for a thirty minute run, they subconsciously know they can handle it so they go off quickly, run fairly hard until they start to pant, ease off enough to stop panting and then hold on until they arrive home. Many of the club runners I know have a different version of this where, because they’re in a large group, they go off quickly but stop every mile or so to wait for the slower runners (thereby giving themselves regular recovery breaks). Then when they restart they put the hammer down for the next section until they pause again. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional faster session, if it happens every time you run, you eventually stop improving.

My first attempt to train at different intensities began with a heart-rate monitor bought in the early 1990s. It came with an instruction manual stating training at 60% of maximum heart-rate would burn fat, at 80% would build aerobic fitness and over 90% would be intense, maximal exercise. If I’m honest I don’t ever recall training to those values. Any run I did, my heart-rate immediately shot up into the 160s or 170s and as my mentality was to run as hard as I could last on the treadmill, my heart-rate usually ended up somewhere around a max of 190+. If anything, I was more fascinated in seeing how high I could push my heart-rate – or how low it would go at rest.

I’ve continued to own heart-rate monitors ever since yet still rarely train by percentage. I have however often used the numbers it spews out to see whether I’m getting fitter. I doubt there’s an elite runner who trains by heart-rate other than to ensure their recovery runs are slow enough. But like myself, many do wear them to get numbers for post-run analysis.

One thing I’ve gleaned from looking at the stats of faster runners is their easy runs are done at low heart-rates. I recently ran with a 2hr35 marathoner at his sedate pace of 8:40/mile pace and his average heart-rate was 110bpm, only reaching a maximum of 129bpm when we ran up a set of steps! These sort of heart-rates don’t come naturally but as a result of many hours of training.

While I’d rarely be without mine, it’s worth remembering heart-rate monitors only became commercially available in the 1970s and runners before that were running far better times than most of us can achieve today. They’re not as useful as the manufacturers would lead you to believe.

When I eventually decided to get serious at running my first improvement came from running more often. The next improvement came from running longer on those regular runs. But to be able to do this i.e. run regularly for longer periods of time, I couldn’t just charge off down the road and hope to hang on, I had to begin with lots of easy runs.

My initial method for running easy was to set out on my typical run and slow down to a pace that felt really slow. I had to swallow my ego, not care about what people would think and just trot along with a reduced stride. It’s a method I came back to as recently as 2017 and used with great success for rebuilding my aerobic fitness. Occasionally I slotted in a fast parkrun every couple of weeks and I stuck with the very easy runs for three months. This laid the base for my first sub-20 parkrun.

When I eventually decided I was ready to introduce workouts for a layer of speed, I discovered the Pace Calculators on Greg McMillan’s website. It was enormously satisfying to find out that if I was running a 19min20 parkrun, my easy run should be between 7:42-8:12 per mile while my speedwork should be between 1min23-27 for 400m. Suddenly I had something concrete to work with.

Working to pace is a system I used very successfully for my workouts and there’s really only one drawback. It assumes you’re running in good conditions. If you live in a hilly area or where it’s windy then you have to figure out how to adapt the pace. With easy runs the pace range is usually quite wide and you don’t have to hit the pace exactly, just be in the right neighbourhood.

When I first ran to pace I didn’t own a GPS watch but I knew roughly the distance of training runs, so I could calculate what pace I’d been running. Of course once I got a GPS watch it became even easier to assure myself of that. Over time though I began to get used to the feel of an easy run and barely needed to glance at my watch to know the pace. Not all runners can do this and it’s said the biggest mistake runners make is running their easy runs too fast.

The truth is easy running is more what you’d consider “too easy”.  On a genuinely easy run, you should arrive home feeling like you haven’t done anything. I usually get back from my forty minute easy runs with a t-shirt that’s as dry as it was when I left home. Barely a drop of sweat on it. I’m doubtful many runners experience too easy because culturally we believe in hard work and the myth of no pain, no gain. It seems to make sense that to improve you have to work harder, that to run fast you have to train fast; but you really don’t (at least not too much).

It took me some years before I discovered what an easy run needed to feel like. It was no longer about holding back on pace, but ensuring I didn’t put in extra effort. These days, my focus is on my breathing to ensure it never gets too fast, too forceful or uncomfortable. Sometimes I run while breathing through my nose, always adjusting my speed to keep it feeling easy. That’s the thing – easy is a feeling, not a pace. On easy runs I never put in a big effort to get up a hill, to catch someone or finish fast. I just focus on feeling good from start to end.

“Easy is a feeling – not a pace”

Another way to keep easy runs easy is “conversational running”. You need to be able to run while holding up your end of a conversation in full sentences and without strain. There’s an obvious downside to the idea of ‘conversational running’ – it implies you need to run with someone. Of course you don’t have to, but you will look silly if you’re talking out loud to yourself! Seriously though, there’s no reason you can’t test your ability to talk in sentences when you’re out of earshot of the general public. Whether you run with someone or talk to yourself, you shouldn’t feel like you have to hang on to keep up your end of the conversation.

To summarise – getting the intensity for your runs correct is important to be able to run frequently for longer. There’s three main ways to identify intensity.

  • Using a heart-rate monitor is effective for slower runs.
  • Using pace calculators such as the ones on Greg McMillan or Jack Daniels’ website is very effective except when conditions are imperfect. But working to pace will get you at the correct speed and give you an understanding of the different intensities required and what they feel like.
  • As time goes on you can begin to run easy runs by feel using your breathing or conversation as a guide. Learning how effortless your easy runs should feel is one of the things that will help you elevate your running and make continued progress.

Whatever method you use, you’ll need a mix of intensities over the course of your training as I’ll explain in a future post. But first we’ll look at Recovery – the importance of doing nothing!

How to Improve series – part 3

In part 3, we’re looking at Duration otherwise known as “how long to run for”.

Talk to any serious runner and the conversation eventually gets round to how many miles they’re doing out each week. One of the big misconceptions among ‘unserious’ runners is the idea you only need to run lots of miles if you’re doing a marathon. This is understandable because everybody knows a marathon is a long way. It’s the only event I see where general runners are following a training plan otherwise most are simply running a couple of times in the week and turning up to parkrun. Yet an elite 5K runner typically trains between 90-110mpw; and a low-key competitor should be aiming for at least 20-30mpw.

But miles are not the only way to measure training. I like to measure mine by time. After all a thirty minute jog is thirty minutes regardless of whether you’re Mo Farah or someone at the back of the pack.  While Mo may run double the distance, both runners are going to take about the same number of footsteps with their hearts pumping and lungs bellowing for the same time and therefore achieve the same physiological workout.

When you start to measure by time, you find the 100-mile week of an elite runner is ten hours training. They have a standard routine of running in the morning for 30-60 minutes and training again in the evening which gives them a combined total of around 1½ -2 hours.  Of course ask your average parkrunner to train for ten hours in a week and they’ll only manage 50-60 miles – if they make it through the week. That’s why mileage is misleading because how far you run depends on how quickly you can do it.

But does an amateur need to train this much? Definitely not. At least not in the beginning. Think of the unfittest person you’ve ever met. They only need to run for 15 minutes to collapse exhausted and start triggering improvement. The reason elites run so much is because the fitter they get, the harder it is to find untapped fitness. It’s like having a fresh tube of toothpaste – you can squeeze it anywhere and toothpaste comes out. When it’s almost used up, you have to squeeze from the bottom to the top to get the last drop out.

The first step for any runner turning serious is being able to run regularly for 30-45 minutes. By definition, any parkrunner should be able to do this. With this level of fitness, you can start to apply some of the general guidelines below.

Rule 1 – Warm-up takes at least ten minutes

When I was at university our physiology lecturer, Ian Parker-Dodd, used to say it takes twelve minutes for the body to reach steady-state. I had no idea what he was talking about! But I remember at my first parkruns, when I ran without warming up, it took over a mile for my breathing to settle down. After I started running gentle fifteen minute warm-ups before parkrun, I found myself feeling comfortable from the beginning. That’s all the steady-state is, the point where the body’s fully warmed up and able to run at a decent pace without strain. Some people warm-up quicker than others. I find it takes closer to twenty minutes of a training run before my body is working at its best (but I’m towards the higher end). Everybody should expect the first ten minutes of a run to be about getting into the groove.

Rule 2 – Training runs should last at least thirty minutes

If the first 10-15 minutes are spent getting warm then you want to go at least another mile or two to start improving fitness. If your run only lasts twenty minutes total then it’s barely been worth the time spent changing clothes before the session, showering after and getting your kit washed. Get into the habit of making training runs last thirty minutes – it’s good practice on the days when your legs are tired as you get used to mentally pushing yourself through – and building your mental toughness will help at the end of races.

Exceptions – when you’re coming back from injury; recovering in the days after a race; or genuinely pushed for time (“it’s better to do something than nothing”).

Rule 3 – Aim for runs to last forty minutes

One of the reasons time is a better measure than miles is because certain physiological phenomena take place that are true for everybody. How long it takes to warm-up is the first of these while another is the production of human growth hormone (HGH) peaking at the forty-minute mark. HGH helps you to build back stronger and faster and, while after forty minutes the body continues to produce it, the rate slows as time passes. If you can, extend thirty minute runs out to forty minutes to get more bang for your buck.

Rule 4 – Limit training runs to an hour

The one hour mark is another physiological limit because runners can only race at the lactate turnpoint for this long. While you’d rarely, if ever, train for an hour at this intensity; there is another reason for not training longer. The longer you run, the more you deplete your body’s fuel stores. Do that too often and you find yourself crawling along on the following days.

It’s okay to run for slightly longer, many of my runs come in between 55 mins to 1hr10. But I found when I tried training for over 1hr20 on back-to-back days it got the better of me. Good training is about getting out regularly and consistently to build on previous sessions. Don’t push the upper limit too much.

Exception – the weekly long run where you’re deliberately running for 1½ – 2½ hours to recruit more muscle, build extra aerobic fitness and adapt the body to hold more glycogen (carbs).

Rule 5 – Listen to your body

In many ways this is the most important rule but you need to have been running for a while to understand the language it talks. For beginners every run can be challenging and they may have to push through what they perceive as painful but equally it may be time to scale back. Only experience can teach which is which. Generally it’s better to err on the side of caution and stay healthy to get out again the next day. Experienced runners face a different challenge – adapting their routines to their current fitness level. Once you have a good base of miles it’s easy to ignore aches or pains or look to a physio to resolve them. But sometimes the answer is to ease off. For example, at one time I was running every day for an hour. Eventually I realised it wasn’t helping me so I dropped all my recovery runs back to forty minutes and within a few weeks found I was sleeping better, had fewer aches and pains and more energy for my key workouts.

To summarise – let your body warm up gently from the beginning of runs. Aim for runs to last thirty minutes to make them worthwhile and ideally forty minutes. Depending on your time available and where your route takes you, it’s okay to push out to an hour of running and even go a little beyond. The beauty of running by time is that as you get faster, your total mileage automatically increases with no more time taken out of your day.

I found I could hit a sub-20 parkrun time on 4-5 hours of training so that’s a good benchmark to aim for initially. In the last part of this series, I suggested aiming to run five times per week. If you run three times for forty minutes in the week, thirty minutes on Saturday at parkrun and a long run on a Sunday of 1½ hours you’ll be hitting the four hour total. It’s easy to add five minutes here and there to get a little extra training done!

In the next part of this series I’ll tell you about Intensity – how much effort to put into runs.

How to Improve series – part 2

In part 2, we’re looking at Frequency otherwise known as “how often to run”. Part 1 is linked here.

Most runners are uncommitted to training unless there’s a marathon on the horizon. Many are able to achieve decent times by only running occasionally or sporadically. For years I was one of those runners. I’d enter races, train as much as possible in the month or two leading up to it and then clock a time many runners would be happy with. I’d run three or four times per week and quickly be running 5K in 21-22 mins even though some weeks I barely ran at all. There was no schedule or regularity to what I did and I ran when I felt like it. As I gave up playing other sports I began to earmark certain days to run but there was still no plan like I’m going to explain in this series. It was a hodgepodge of running when and how I wanted.

Parkrun gave me a reason to commit and over three months I built up to running six times per week. But my natural curiosity led me to explore different training systems – one of which is the FIRST system – an acronym for Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training. The marketing slogan is “Run Less, Run Faster” and promises runners they can run a marathon on only three runs per week. While this headline sounds great, what’s lost in the detail is you also do an hour’s cross-training on two other days each week. So the reality is you’re training five times in a week! Admittedly when I tried their mix of speedwork on Tuesday, tempo run on Thursday and a long run at marathon pace on Sunday; I didn’t follow it to the letter – I added in an easy parkrun on Saturday and didn’t do a fifth session. Even so I found, while I always felt fresh and able to train fast, my running didn’t make much progress until I went back to my old routines and added more easy runs back in.

Elite runners train seven days per week, sometimes twice in a day, which is the ultimate in frequency but it’s not necessary for anyone other than an elite. You only build up to running that often over years of training and when your legs can handle it.

When you begin running you can get away with running hard two or three times each week to make progress. Your body’s natural mix of speed and endurance is brought out with these training sessions. If you’re particularly talented for endurance, you’ll be a man who is ripping round parkrun in under twenty minutes or a woman in under twenty-three on barely any training.

Whether you’re naturally talented or not, the progress eventually comes to a halt. You might occasionally knock a few seconds off your PB but have no real understanding of how it’s been achieved. And because the gains are hard to come by, people begin to believe they’ve reached their limits. Often people turn to new challenges like 10K or the marathon believing it’ll be hard to get any faster at parkrun.

The reality is there’s still lots of gains to be made simply by running more frequently. One of the flaws of only running three times per week is your legs always feel fresh – that’s what I experienced with the FIRST training. While it’s great to run feeling energetic it often means you aren’t working to improve your basic cruising speed. But when you start running four, five or even six times every week there are days when you have to go out on tired legs. These slower runs build the microscopic structures in the muscles that process oxygen and help improve your endurance. Slowly but surely your basic cruising speed improves.

Obviously how often you run comes down to your lifestyle, your desire and your priorities. I think a good balance is to aim for five times – three during the week with parkrun on Saturday and another run on Sunday. That leaves two days for recovery. If you can organise them as a block of three runs and a block of two that’s perfect, but five-in-a-row works equally well.

If you’re now feeling enthused to up your frequency then it’s okay to run six times every week, but it’s the maximum I recommend until you’ve established your training. I believe a rest day every week is a good safeguard for giving the body a chance to heal up from minor stresses or strains and to refuel. It also ensures that while you’re committed, running doesn’t become too all-consuming to the detriment of the rest of your life!

In the part 3 of this series I’ll talk about how long to run for – time or duration.