Monday, August 26, 2013

New Beginnings

On the 17th July 2012 I did an interval session (5x1km at 10km pace) that was the first step an ill advised and premature quest to train for my first marathon. The folly of youth is not the topic of this post but rather the outcome (the bruised ego aside) of the 16 weeks of pain, torture and ultimately fulfillment that followed that first session. Two weeks after the marathon on the 4th November, I lined up at a 10km race, with no plan in mind, just happy to be in a familiar setting. Despite being affected by a very poorly planned start that had runners merging with walkers within the first 50 metres of the race, and 'only' getting to the first kilometre mark in ~4:30, I finished the race 12 seconds outside my 10km PB, 39:16 versus 39:04. In essence, I had covered the remaining 9km at around 38:40 10km pace, a guaranteed PB without the shenanigans at the start.

What was interesting though was how my body felt during the race. I really couldn't have any faster than ~3:50/km pace on the day, the leg speed really wasn't there, but at the end of the 10km I reckon I could have gone round again at that pace possibly up to 16km before needing to slow. When I had run the 39:04 at Wanderers at the end of August I was beat and had no more to give. At the time I was baffled and all my dad when I quizzed him amounted to, "obvious is obvious"!

My training at the time gave me no clue to explain that performance. I had done interval work for 5 weeks at the start of my marathon training before feeling burnt out and I switched then training and removed the high end work which I had understood was not needed for a first timer and with a goal of 4:30/km. The remaining 11 weeks were anchored around two core session the first being the obligatory long run that peaked at 33km. The second was marathon  pace running that first started as 4x2km at marathon pace to eventually a 16km continuous run with ~14km at  marathon pace. Every second week for added variety I would do a time trial, the route ~5.25km and by the end of the program I was close to breaking 20 minutes for the course (it was typically done at 17:15 with temperature around 25 degrees Celsius).

That's it.

The key difference between that 16 week block though was that my average mileage was 55.9km/week. Not a lot in the grander scheme of things but for me a 57% increase from last training plan! That was when I had trained for Wally Hayward half marathon from February to May earlier in the year. Prior to that I had never put in more than four weeks of continuous and consistent training. That plan was 10 weeks where I averaged 35.4km/week. Again not a lot but to put into perspective, up to the start of the plan, my highest monthly mileage total was 88km.

What followed both those focused training phases (the Wally Hayward plan was a success, I had aimed for a 1:40 half marathon and I ran 1:35:01) was first an unexpected comfort level at shorter races as well as a dramatic improvement in race times at those distances. Prior to Wally Hayward, I had never broken 45 minutes for a 10km and running at 4:00/km for anything more than a couple of laps around the track was torture. Indeed I had done a session that was paltry 2x800m and I had run 3:53 and 3:56 for those splits. Yet four days after Wally Hayward I ran 42:38 for 10km, over 3 minutes off my PB. Two weeks later I ran a 19:25 5km. Five weeks later I ran 61:40 for 15km and then after another two weeks ran a 17:49 5km. A week after that, I ran a 10.5km race in 42:24, half a kilometer further and still 14 seconds under my two month old 10km PB. Then my performances started to decline, I ran another 15km two later and ran 65:40 and though it was hilly I had expected to go faster.

Fast forward five months later and after that surprisingly comfortable 39:16 10km (you see I just don't pay attention though the evidence is there), I put in three weeks of solid training with an interval session on Tuesday, a threshold run on the Thursday and a 15km long run on Sunday. That 5.25km time trial, on  a day where it was pushing 30 degrees Celsius, after doing a 7km run in the morning with 5km at 3:45/km pace, is completed in 19:21. I line up for a 10km two days later and the end result: 90s quicker and a new PB of 37:46 (or 37:34 on the official results on!

The rest as the say is history.

The one problem was that after the euphoria of that huge PB I got sucked into intervals. I had yet to put the connection that my work capacity was a result of all the endurance work I had done before and that the intervals were the cherry on top. As I moved into 2013 I noticed (but ignored) a reduction in my work capacity. Whereas I was able to do 5 x 1mile at 5:45/mi pace after the marathon, in the new year I found 4x800 more than enough. I became a repetition junkie, churning out at a stage 65s 400m off 3 minutes recovery. Great if I was in a 400m repetition contest but useless for preparing for a fast 10km!

With plenty of time to reflect and prepare during my injury layoff, I have been putting together the final touches to a training guideline to push me to the next level. I have also been  running. For four weeks at that...and most importantly pain free. I have been holding off this post, waiting to see how my body would respond to moving again after beginning the early process of rebuilding my running toolkit.

Yesterday I ran a 5km fun run, mostly just to break free off the shackles a bit but also confidence that 5km was far enough to push myself but not too far too cause any damage. I won't do a detailed report except to say that I started fast and for the most part stayed fast. It wasn't my fastest 5km ever, in fact I have run many faster 5km splits in 10km races. In my current situation though it represented a very good effort, 18:22 on a good course, after 4 weeks of no running followed by 4 weeks of minimal mileage (17km, 21.5km, 22.5km and 30km including the fun run) and a far bit of walking. The run definitely represents the best I could have done on the day but I feel confident that I can get a lot faster very quickly actually.

My official 5km PB is 17:49 but I have run a 17:34 5km split in a 10km race, as well as 16:09 for a ~4.6km race which extrapolates to a sub 17:30 5km. I can get back there. The road to those times, and the associated 10km times in the 36's started at just under 40 minutes for 10km. Punching that 18:22 into any online calculator puts me at around 38:05-38:15 10km shape, which again is not bad considering the circumstances. I basically haven't run a lot since 1 May, 150km in June is deceptive as a lot of it was poor mileage, run while nursing rapidly worsening ITB syndrome. That seems to be past me now and my knee is getting stronger with every run, as opposed to worse in June.

With the confidence I've gained from 4 weeks of solid running, I have decided to start officially training again. Instead of adding more fast stuff at the end, the extra two weeks will be base training. That extends my base from 12 to 14 weeks. I was hoping to be at around ~40km/week in two weeks times and I'm going to use these two weeks to run easy, no hard running, and establish a routine. This means getting my warm up and cool down sorted to complement the run as well as supplementary strength work three times a week.

The basic overview is to use weeks one to four to escalate my weekly volume to my base level. Typically I can knock off 45-50km which translates to about four to four and a half hours on my feet depending on the workout composition. I can do that for weeks on end with no obvious signs of fatigue. And though I've run in the 70-80km/week range when training for the marathon I feel that my natural maximum right now is around 65km/week. Any more than that and it's hard work. So the goal of weeks five to ten will be be to sensibly build up to and exceed this volume and get into 70-80 km weeks or about 6 hours of running. In weeks 11-14 the goal will be maintenance of that volume. There are low mileage weeks planned for week 8 and week 12.

14 week base training guideline
It's not dissimilar to what I had planned before but is probably a bit better balanced. The first 4 weeks don't have any workouts in the strictest sense of the word. In weeks five to ten, I alternate a fartlek and a marathon pace tempo. In week 11 to 14 the fartlek and tempo are done in the same week but volume is held steady. Throughout there'll be neuromuscular work in the form of first hill sprints, then adding proper speed work, ie short fast sprints, nothing longer than 30 seconds. I'm using a speed development progression devised by Coach Jay Johnson. There are two races in there, the first in week eight is tentative while I'm very keen for the one in week 12, which is a known variable and it very late into the base phase and I'm sure it will be safe to race. It's time based because I know that if set a distance I am more likely to try and get through the distance quicker. It's also not set in stone. The weekly totals there are going to be variable and I just guesstimates based on my 5km race and the sort of pace I would expect to manage. I have thought about using a heart rate monitor but honestly find it uncomfortable for more than 30 minutes. I will use it on my recovery runs to conscientiously keep my heart rate down; 150 corresponds to ~5:00/km which feels slow to me and is fully conversational.

So that's the plan until the end of November. I saw some great results last year with a similar if unplanned progression. Basically I'm going to training for a marathon that unlike last year I have no intention to run, which also removes the need for 2 weeks recovery post marathon! I'm confident in this plan, I've been there before but I've used my training history to inform the detail of this new plan. But as they say, the proof is in the pudding, so time to lace up those shoes!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Rebuilding the running toolkit

The overriding theme of my winter of discontent has been a flip-flopping between various training systems and plans. Being injured it seemed a futile exercise. It has been firstly a very good learning process for me. With no running to come I've been able to educate myself on the ways of the world from a training perspective. Every book I've read, every website, every research article and twitter dialogue with coaches and fellow runners has been instrumental in giving me a clearer picture both of what I want to achieve as a runner and how I'm going to get it. The secondly I have been forced to examine my habits as a runner and critically look at my past training. It's easy to finish a training cycle and look forward to the next goal. Far more difficult is to look back with a critical eye, first celebrating the positives but then combing through the embers for clues on how to improve, driven in part by failures and those extra tough sessions. This is a lesson that I picked up from each of the many wonderful running books I have read over the winter. The past determines the present and informs the future.

So one needs to look at their current toolkit. I am a 36:13 (at the coast!) 10km runner. I have come from far, as recently as May last year my 10km PB was what now seems an unlikely, 42:38, a time I do as a training run. As I have said on these pages my future goals is to be a consistent sun 35:00 runner up here on the highveld, a goal which forms part of my desire to run fast marathons in 3-5 years time. I have spent so much time sifting through workouts, both the empirical data as well my descriptions for clues as to the next step forward. What are my strengths, what are my weaknesses? A track session I did tells me that speed is not my weakness as do my kilometre splits in some races. Strength is perhaps a problem. I was in great shape when I did the Kudus 15km back in January. I felt great for 6km but even while trying to even out the effort in the second half I was defeated by the hills. And of course my stamina is a problem as is evident by my constant inability to run close to even splits even on a flat flat course down at the coast in perfect running conditions. Endurance in itself is not terrible having running some great half marathons and done long runs up to 32km.

So in my 10km toolkit, I have the basic endurance for the distance and for my goals actually have more than enough speed. Where I fall short is in strength and stamina or specific endurance. The latter is easily explained by my lack of experience, the former something I have neglected.

In The Art of Running Faster, former 13:15 and 27:34 5000m and 10000m British runner Julian Goater talks about the 5 Ss that are the cornerstone of a good runner: speed, stamina, strength, skill, suppleness. Now I'm not sure about skill but of the remaining four, the only quality that I am confident stands up to scrutiny in the context is the first of those, speed. And skill too is debatable, so 1 1/2 out of 4.

That is the past that brought me to the present that I have used to inform both my short term planning and long term skeleton outline.

But in the meantime my thoughts are not really with running but rather getting strong again. I have committed myself to a minimum of 4 weeks off up to as long as I need to be able to run pain free. My injury has been focused on staying off my feet where possible and doing my strengthening exercises for the muscles supporting the knee. Returning to the 5 Ss, I'm using this time away from running to work on strength. The knee rehab exercises are working my lower body but I've also started to build up a strength routine that will also work my upper body.

When I do start running the first six weeks will deal with skill. I have signed for the Six Week Kinetic Revolution Running Technique course. The great thing about the course is that even though it incorporates some running, because one really needs to concentrate on doing the drills correctly, there won't be a temptation to overdo. Even with rest periods, the first week includes no more than 20 minutes a session and my careful calculations show that the volume progression will be 10km to 22km over 6 weeks. Coupled with this I'm going to start to incorporate Coach Jay Johnson's Eight Week General Strength and Mobility progression. These workouts are designed to be done after running, teaching one to make strength and mobility part of the whole running routine not an afterthought. Along with dynamic stretching I hope this will begin to address suppleness.

After the six week course, I'm going to give myself a minimum of four weeks to build up to running about 80% of my average  mileage. I worked that in the 12 months previously from when I decided to take a break, I was averaging 46km/week. I'll be looking to get to about 40km week of easy mileage before beginning formal training. I know how I want to structure my training from then on. I've really looked at how I respond to sessions, and where I'm strong and weak. My focus will be on aerobic endurance and stamina without neglecting other parts of the running toolkit, just modulating frequency, intensity and volume, and  of course getting recovery right. I'll leave it at that for now and will detail out the less strict, but honest plan in a future post.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Coping with injury and plotting the way forward

Bullet Proof, I Am

I think I had actually gotten to the stage at the end of last year and through the beginning of the year when I genuinely believed I would be lucky and not get injured. I felt at one with my body. I had survived an ill advised foray into marathon running, with a ridiculous target time to boot, with the race day falling just 16 months from when I started running properly. I late November I had done the Tom Jenkins 10km and in pursuit of a sub 40 minute finish (I fell well short by some 52 seconds) I had shredded my legs on the last 2km of downhill and my achilles told me as much. But being one with my body I had simply taken a step back, stopped training and returned as strong as before.

The first sign I was wrong was that day in Cape Town when I had to change a tempo run into an exercise in the run/walk method. Being a newbie I had no idea what was wrong, it was my knee but I would be damned  if I could pinpoint the exact spot it hurt, it was abrupt, it hurt a lot and then it stopped. Three days later I ran a 29:01 8km and a week later ran a 36:14 10km, just 1 second shy of the time I had run at the coast on a flat course, despite this being at altitude in Pretoria some 1500m higher up.

This reinforced the idea that I was strong. I could feel that I was reaching the end of this bout of improvement but having entered a half marathon, I was determined to do it. I did it. I ran 1:22.49 despite averaging 39.2km/week for the year to that point but the niggles returned. I walked more than I wanted, some cramps and some knee issues, not too dissimilar to the incident in Cape Town. I ran a time trial four days later and by all accounts it was rubbish, another clue I missed, the 3km blow out putting paid to a fast time. The following week up to Saturday I had an amazing week but on the Sunday long run my luck came to an end. I run/walked 10km of a 15km run. It was agony. A midweek run, again with a 3km blow out, confirmed that I was done.

I took two weeks off and when I returned, rested, fresh and hungry, the comeback run was ended, again after 3km. Now anyone who knows me well knows that I am obsessive about stuff I'm passionate about. And running is something that I live and breath and as such I have read so much on the subject. Yet through all of that, denialism perhaps, I somehow neglected to put together the sharp lateral pain on my left knee with that foe of many a runner, illiotibial band syndrome. I've recounted this before but now I do so with a lot more clarity and awareness of what was going down.

At the end of May I was actually running and running well after targeted rehab exercises. I was running comfortably at 4:30-4:40/km, building up my mileage and starting on a 24 week 10km program that I hoped would culminate in a sub 35:00 clocking. Novice tendencies were eating at me however. Despite evidence to the contrary, I was convinced I had lost my speed. Never mind that I had been smart and given myself plenty of time to build back and add to my speed. What did it matter if I was 2 or 3 minutes off the standard I had set in the Autumn.

So I ran a 10km and I've paid for it.

The most frustrating part of it was how easy it was and how comfortably I managed to run 37:15 and the Silver Oaks Crossing 10km, just 62 seconds of my PB or 3% slower, and good enough for 5th place with Comrades having been the weekend before. I ran close to negative splits, 18:35 and 18:40 and was just banging out consistent 3:40-3:45 splits in the middle without working hard. My body was simply compensating for my insane desire to run this race and on my recovery run the following day, I could barely crack 5:00/km and worryingly my right knee was now screaming. Unlike the ITBS issues on the left sides this pain didn't subside following the run. But believing I had a handle on dealing with it I simply increased my knee rehab exercises and reduced my volume and carried on running.

By the last week of June though, with no improvement in sight, I switched my runs off the road and onto  grass. This brought temporary reprieve before I broke down on the last day of the month and instead decided to take a more aggressive approach, targeted rehab couple with prolonged rest, at least 4-6 weeks off but ultimately mentally readying myself for an even longer lay off if needs be. By the end of June I was running no more than 30-40 minutes before experiencing discomfort. And there was cumulative loading at play, the first run of the week was great but by the weekend my indicator point was down to 20 minutes. Two days off would let me begin the vicious cycle again. I love running too much to be that constrained. I might be going short and fast for the foreseeable future, to the end of 2015 at least but don't tell me I can't run 20km should I wish to.

Self diagnosis is not enough of course but my symptoms are obvious. Day to day functioning is not affected for the most part. Walking stairs is uncomfortable particularly going up, hills not so much though. The delayed onset following the beginning of a run and the brevity of pain following the event. No particularly sensitive spots. I can actually push on my kneecap fine. Bending the knee occasionally results in a painless clicking sound but something I noticed, sitting at my desk for over 30 minutes results in the most agonizing pain when I stand up. But some hamstring stretches result in the pain going away. I'm calling it now, it's Runners Knee surely. I will however get a professional diagnosis.

In the meantime along with swearing off running and any unnecessary impact, I've started on a 10 week knee rehab program from Kinetic Revolutions, a super excellent resource. I'm also going to use this time to work on both my anterior and posterior chain, starting off with basic core and strength work and some flexibility work, basic because I don't want to do anything that aggravates the knee. Over the course of the 10 weeks I hope t get really strong and more flexible than I am now. it's embarrassing that I have never been able to touch my toes and I still only get about 10cm below my knees I'll be doing some elliptical training three times a week to keep my cardio fine, but as I learnt with the 37:15 10km, I'm not going to be losing much over the next while. If anything I probably want my cardio to be behind my physical developed so that I'm not tempted to go out for a 15km run when I come back or hit the track. I don't think my lungs holding me back for 3-4 weeks will be a bad thing when I eventually get back into running. I also want to work on my eating. I have a basic approach to food but I really want to go as fresh as possible and have my nutrition fully complement my activity.

Most of all I'm scratching any immediate performance related goals. My broad plan now is:

  1. Rehabilitation and building of functional total body strength and flexibility
  2. Return to Running
  3. Return to Race
The first two will take 12 weeks at least to get to the point of running 80% of my pre-injury base volume ad routine. And as for returning race, probably the Old Year's Race on New Year's Eve. And crucially no time goal. I want to get around that course in one piece. Project 35 is not scrapped, just put on hold. The roughly 27 weeks from now till the Old Year's race will allow me to do things I never thought to do. Get strong and build a base. Then 2014 will see re-implementation of my racing life plan.

"Everything matters" - Brad Hudson

Training systems are everywhere, and for the most part are very similar to one another. As training has yo-yoed in the past two months or so, I've been geeking out on a whole of books and online resources. Part of that was about charting the way forward but I'm also just a nerd that likes to know everything about a topic. A big part of what I wanted to do with Project 35 was to at any point aware of immediate objectives, both training and performance wise but to also be in tune with what my long term ambition is. Thus my obsession with training systems. I'm well versed on sessions, weekly components of training but the trick is obviously to  start from a baseline level of fitness and design a progression of workouts to illicit the necessary adaptation to achieve a goal. Equally goal to goal progression has to be part of the picture. Typically a few weeks before I have raced I'm already setting out two or three new targets that might entice me. Just as any training cycle has a beginning and an end, my plan has a long term end goal and thus a myriad of possibilities as stepping stones.

As I had posted earlier I was drawn naturally to the classic system of linear periodization. That additive effect makes a lot of sense. But as I started reading more, two books in particular stood out for me both sharing a common author, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel by Matt Fitzgerald and Run Faster coauthored by Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald. Yet more systems of course but even those run faster has running plans at the end, both books are less prescriptive than either Daniel's Running Formula or Running With Lydiard. At least to my mind. I've also just started reading The Art of Running Faster coauthored by Julian Goater and Don Melvin. While I was taken by the two classic books, the three most recent books I have read (and started) have resonated a lot more with me, and it's really  not a case of 'something new, must try'.

Let me explain my thought process.

A thread that links those books is feel. I think it was in RUN that Fitzgerald says that while there is no need to reinvent the wheel, the nature of workouts that work has long been known, it is the packaging that is crucial. And that packaging will not be found in a Runner's World style Run Your Fast xyz distance race plan, that by definition is a generic fit for many types of runners. For beginners they will probably work but long term a runner needs to define their own path. Run Faster has training plans in it but when reading the text was less prescriptive than either Daniels or Lydiard even if it never ends up as winging it like RUN advocates.

Reading especially RUN actually got me thinking about my past training, and there's a whole chapter in Run Faster that deals with looking back to go forward. When I was training for my marathon last year, I had set down with my father for advice, and we had taken a standard marathon program and tweaked a little here to accomodate for both my lack of experience but also for my rapid improvements in performance up to that point. And being a good student I went and hit each session as prescribed. After 5 weeks though I was getting weary and began to doubt myself. I was running well, and infact would run a 35 second 10km  PB but it was no longer thrilling. Week 6 of my training was an unplanned recovery week and thereafter I realized that if I carried on as planned I would not make it to the start line. I ripped apart my program which followed a basic linear periodization and instead focused on key workouts, a base run, a tempo run, a hill circuit, a time trial and a long run, and built a progressive plan that worked toward a peak week. I got to the start line, I finished the race though not according to my (unrealistic) target, and as my father likes to remind, I was not defeated by my plan but by the enormity of first marathon.

Looking even further back, if forced to pick a period of training where I was really in a groove, I would choose the May and June 2012. I had just finished my first block of planned training for a half marthon and it would be 10+ weeks before formal marathon training and I needed to do something in the interim. The first few weeks of May were tough as I experimented with volume and frequency. I had been running maximum 35km per week across four sessions and wanted to increase frequency and volume by the time marathon training rolled around. I found a race at the end of June and with no formal training plan decided to wing it to race day, the plan being just to run a 10km PB. After the first three weeks, I stumbled upon a formula that worked wonders. At it's base was weekly variation, but a progressive path towards my goal. And with no sessions set out I had to trust my body every time I went out. The sequence was Rest-Speed-Recovery-Threshold-Rest-Hilly Base-Long. That was five different sessions maintained week to week. In each successive week I trusted my self to add to my long run, increase rep distance, attack different hills and so on. It worked. Though the 10km race ended up being 10.5km, My finishing time was still 20 seconds inside my 10km PB, which working backward meant ~2:30 improvement in my time over 10 weeks with no formal plan, just the principle that my body needed varied but consistent and progressive stimuli.

It struck when reading RUN, Run Faster and The Art of Running Faster that all three books shared that: varied but consistent and progressive stimuli. And all three books have made a reference to enjoyment. It's no surprise that the months of May and June and also after I scrapped my marathon training plan and did something else, my enjoyment level of running was sky high. And then let me be honest and say that despite running some of my fastest races this year, despite being able to do intervals harder and at more volume, despite running comfortably easy at progressively faster speeds, despite the evidence of training that has extracted performance from me, my enjoyment level steadily has gone down from the high of the marathon and the 4 weeks afterwards.

The change? The training system.

An interview with Brad Hudson from Running Times had the repetition of the phrase "everything matters" littered through the text, and examining myself as a runner and where my source of enjoyment of the sport comes from, it's such a truism. It took what might come across as the most vague book in the world, RUN, to make me realize that the seeds of the mind-body connection were starting to bear fruit already last year. I was beginning to get familiar with what works. I could tell when I was running to much, too hard or not enough. Yeah mistakes happened, I hit 50km/week quick and got an overuse scare and had to step back but there's alwys an element of risk, even with a perfectly crafted plan. While I have gotten results this year, 90s improvement over 12 weeks of training, I have sacrificed a small amount of enjoyment for performance gains. And surely at the heart of recreational running, even with a dose of competitiveness is fun?

So yes once I'm back on my feet, there will be further refinement, recidivism even, to figure out what works me. Something I found so intriguing about RUN was the anecdotes on what some elite runners do (I'm a firm believer in learning from the best) and the main take home was that you couldn't really take the training of someone like Haile Gebrselassie and distill it into a 12-16 week training program. Some of his workouts are mental but they work because he has figured out what works out of the accepted methods out there for him. He and other elites might have started on a system and refined it or stuck with it. And also perhaps migrations of athletes to coaches or coaches recruiting athletes would be driven by shared philosophies that don't share wit current coaches/athletes. Sessions are universal but systems are not, and individuals are most certainly not universal.

I enjoy running the most, and get the best results when balancing performance and enjoyment, when I'm training with great variety most of the time but also have some consistency that allows me to measure progress. I also seem to run a lot less mileage per session than the average person but right now that works and I would rather allow myself to work up over time instead of forcing it. It's not very well refined, that will come with time but instead of jumping from system to system or trying to just ramp up my volume because it's the right thing to do perhaps it's wise to try and build from what served me well before. I understand sessions, I'm not going to go out and do a 32km long run thinking it will be a key session in getting me to run a sub 35:00 10km. But as I found the solution to a problem last May (get faster and stay happy), I think as my knowledge of the science behind training grows and my understanding of myself as a physical specimen develops I can refine my training. It will also help me seek out help since I would be bringing something to the table beyond just a goal when seeking advice from more experienced runners and coaches.

So maybe I should just trust myself, accept that trial and error is just part of the process, and enjoy my running as that is what drives me to seek improvement. Maybe I should just wing it for a bit.

I think I will!

Friday, May 31, 2013

A closer look at Project 35: Phase I (Conditioning Phase)

It's Comrades weekend coming up, which means Sunday will be a 12 hour (viewing) marathon watching one of the greatest road races on the planet. Comrades is also somewhat significant for me as a runner as it what during the race in 2011, down there as a supporter, that I made a commitment to return to the sport (I did a fair bit of running in high school but have only flirted with it since then). This wasn't half-hearted and by the time I landed back in Joburg that even I had sketched out a tentative three year plan: a half marathon by June 2012, a marathon by June 2013 and Comrades by 2014. That plan has long since been scrapped as the reality of what it takes to run the Big C has hit home, but in it's place is a more concrete, even more long term plan, Project 35, detailed for six months at a time, outlined to 2015 and tentative to 2020...something about some big ultra marathon!

Looking back over the past two years my development as a runner can be looked at in six month blocks. The first block June 2011 to December 2011 was just about running. I never had a plan and the haphazardness is immediately detectable on my training log. I got a lot out of this phase though just getting used to getting out and getting to know myself a bit as a runner. I ran a couple of races, even managing a sub 50:0010km and laid a decent foundation for the coming year.

January to June 2012 was about introducing structure. I got a half marathon training plan and now got acquainted with the routine of running and the progressiveness of preparing for a goal race. The plan was very loose, focusing on raising endurance but also introducing some faster running, alternating between short track sessions (these were so hard), fartleks (enjoyable) and tempo runs (still my favourite workout type). I managed to stick to the entire program, missing just one session I think and ended up running two half marathons as well finishing with a sub 45:00 10km and a sub 20:00 5km.

With adherence to plan achieved, July to December was about upping the ante and I moved on to a volume phase (with a bit of faster running) and committed to running a marathon. This was by far the most challenging thing I put myself through physically out of my own free will. The long runs, the midweek tempos, the fatigue and of course the marathon itself. At this stage I did not have an endurance base, and while I was bleak about missing my marathon target by almost 30 minutes, my coach assured me that what I had gained here was far bigger than even if I had managed to run 3:10 for Soweto Marathon. The long easy miles, peaking at 82km, interspersed with time trials and long steady state runs, would serve as great base training (ruined a bit by running a marathon at the end of it) and the key was to use the large engine I had developed. Ending the period with PBs of 17:49 for 5km, 37:46 for 10km and 1:25:28 was proof of a successful transition into a somewhat serious runner.

The past 5 months has seen the final pieces of the puzzle introduced as I went through pretty harsh four weeks cycles of speed and more speed and yet more speed. In January it was short repetitions and hill work, in February a mix of repetitions and some intervals, and March was focused on interval work leading to a peak race in April. Things didn't work out as planned, with over-racing being a problem and getting injured. What has happened though is that going from just running to training for a goal race, introducing volume and then tackling some faster running, I have over approximately two years exposed myself to all the elements that make up a complete training program.

And this is how Project 35 has come about.

As I said in a previous post, Project 35 is from a running perspective, a life plan. It's how ultimately when I am at my competitive best, will look to define myself as a runner. It's not about one race or one training cycle or one season. My coach and I believe that the work that I can do in the next two to three years, based on what I have managed to achieve or relatively modest training will help me become the best marathoner I can be, one of my big goals, and also when I take the step up to ultra marathons. So in terms of it's composition all the elements are there. As a certified (detail and numbers obsessed) geek, I've read a lot in that past six months, books and websites, spoken to a lot of people and analyzed where available the training of some of my favourite athletes out there, trying to understand what makes a good athlete. Running is one area when there seems to be an us and them idea when looking at recreational runners and elites. I know when ever I read something cool and mentioned it to people the response is usually something like, "but you can't compare US to an elite athlete". But surely it makes sense to use the principles of the best in the business and apply them in a scalable manner?

But I do digress. I'm currently rotating my reading between Running With Lydirad and Daniel's Running Formula. I had some ideas earlier and had even drawn up an annual plan that seemed to tie in with elements of what those two coaches prescribe. My plan now is a mixture of both and as such is neither Lydiard or Daniels but probably leans more towards the former. In fact reading through Running With Lydiard, it was interesting to me how he calls the base phase marathon conditioning as I had done my best (not necessarily time but definitely in the manner that I ran) and most consistent fast running post-Soweto, as my father had also said I would.

In it's basic element Project 35 is a 24-26 week periodized program template arranged in five phases: base, speed/hills, stamina, sharpening and then a peaking phase. The base phase and speed/strength phase are basically scaled down Lydiard, while the remaining phase Lydiard and Daniels concepts together. Then to complete the picture, there is a supplementary strength element that gets progressively more intense alongside the running component. This tandem approaching of complementary work to aid my running is something that has been missing.

I hope to go through this tempelate every six months, incorporating 1-2 weeks downtime in between, as I attempt to improve my 10km times and maximise whatever ability I may or may not have. And as both Lydiard and Daniels advise, I always have a peak race in mind, in this cycle it's the Kollonade Retail Park 10km on 16 November. I've done the race before and I know that the structure of this program will have me ready for the route which is really fast and mostly flat with only one challenging stretch from 8k to 9km. I've worked backward from that race, allocating time to each phase as required and leaving the remainder for the conditioning phase

That phase of my training looks like this:

Phase I: Conditioning Phase
The first point is that I will try as best as I can, logistics permitting, to run to time and not distance. I've read a lot about the difference between training load and training volume and conceptually it makes sense to me. For example, Abel Kirui on his was to becoming the marathon world champion in 2011 had a longest run of 2:15 but that covered a mind-blowing 40km. At my current training paces 40km would take me at least 3:00, so equal volume but different load. A 2:15 run on the other hand would be 30km which is far more realistic for my ability. 

The key sessions then are a long run that will peak at 90 minutes, a steady state run at predicted marathon pace (from my current 10km PB) and an easy fartlek session over rolling hill (not very difficult in my neighbourhood, in face a given). The rest of the runs will be easy paced runs of 45-60 minutes. The races marked out won't be all out efforts. Even though I'm running to time I have guesstimated what the weekly volumes might be to see if they would be realistic. Those volumes are similar to what I hit during Soweto Marathon training. Back then that volume was really stressful but I think this time that won't be a problem, especially since there are no 2 hours/25km+ runs in there, which is where most of the stress came from. The first four weeks (the program started last week) are very gentle as I had to tweak the sessions since I was compromised by the IT band issue that I only became fully aware off when I started the program. As such I managed just 17km last week over 3 runs. Thankfully a week of taking appropriate measures has meant that my condition is improving rapidly and will hit ~32km this week. In effect then my training will start in earnest next week as I should be able to run the volumes I was doing,  ~45-50km, before taking a break at the start of May.

The road ahead is a long one, 26 weeks, but I'm hoping that even though I'm works towards a race, the variation in my training, which will be end when I post the coming phases, will keep the training interesting. And of course with some build up races coming up from September once Phase II is complete it will be great to work back into the racing scene.

I'm really keen to see how 1) my body responds to such a formalized training approach as well as b) if my ambitions are realistic. If the last two years are anything to go by, going from from a 51:19 10km to 36:13 from August 2011 to March 2013, 15 minutes in 19 months, an average of 47 seconds improvement every month, I definitely feel it's something I have to give a good go. Even looking at post-Soweto improvements, 38:22 in November (the Kollonade race last year, that's the official time but I stopped my watch at 39:16 so I'm still baffled by that) to 36:13 is still an average of 32 seconds every month, at a time when I was approaching a definite plateau. Sports science and observation tells us that continuous improvement is not a pipe dream as long training is logical and allows from adequate recovery, so I hope that this Plan takes me to higher highs than I've experienced up to the point.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Project 35

After a bit of any injury scare, slowly but surely I've started to refocus my body and mind back onto the goals I set for myself at the start of the year.

At the start of the month I identified that I had without a doubt peaked. Not only when my performances not getting better with training sessions getting more and more difficult to get through, my body was taking strain, creaking in all the wrong places. I took some time off with running off my brain, and  splurged in a big(ish) way. While I have been pretty restrictive over the sort of food I eat and partying and that sort of thing, for the first time in over a year I wasn't concerned about being fresh for a quality session or optimally prepared for a race.

After two weeks I laced my shoes again and went for a run. It was horrible. After two weeks off I managed a run that was many times worse that the previous run. The complications of the previous two runs were more than just fatigue and overuse...I was injured. During those five horrible kilometres, under the gaze of moon, with the suburbs barely awake, I thought really hard about what I feeling and trying to think of a way forward. And when I got home and doing a bit more reading on the net, it was pretty clear that I was afflicted with illiotibial band syndrome.

Each of the last three runs had started the same. I use the gentle drop that leads away from our complex into the valley as a warm-up, 500m and then the next 500m rise again before hitting some level ground. That part always feels a little bit challenging but once on the flatter part I usually start to work into a rhythm. And then the run gets better and better. These last few efforts however started to get progressively uncomfortacble until at 2-5km, the throbbing pain on the outside of my left knee would start. Within 5 minutes it was sharp and vicious, another 5 minutes unbearable. And each time I tried to run through it but was always reduced to a run/walk strategy to get home.

This injury was in fact not new at all but such has been my desire to keep on running that I had completely ignored a similar experience that happened in Cape Town that I mentioned briefly as a niggle. If only I had been more aware then of what the sharp pain 3km into my tempo run had meant. Then a little rest had helped as three days later I was able to put down a 29:01 8km PB.

So the next step was to begin to rehabilitate it. To cut a long story, in the last 12 days I started off with some stretches, literally just doing the first thing I found and have now progressed to some strength work focusing on the glutes and quads, and hip focused mobility work. I often read that if you want to be a better runner you have to run, simple as that. This year I have foolishly cut the fluff from my exercise and focused all my energy on running. The image below illustrates exactly my approach this year. I endeavoured to rein in control of my diet and get enough sleep to allow me to run at  my best.

The pieces of the puzzle
Interestingly from the second half of last year, my rise in mileage and frequency of running was associated with an increase in supplementary training. It was basic at best but I was doing this simple routine from Runner's World that addressed flexibility and a core workout with five simple moves. As I said, basic, but in retrospect there was no doubt that this contributed to the fact despite running over 200km/month for most of the second half of the year from a very low base I experienced very few niggles. I've never been flexible (I can't touch my toes reaching ~10cm below my knee) or particular strong so I think just doing those two sessions after my runs improved my whole condition a whole lot. This experience with my IT band issues has given me a fresh perspective on the importance on doing a bit more, and importantly not to replace running workout but as a complement. So now my new outlook looks something like this:
Now with a base!
To help deal with the IT band, I stumbled upon a great website run by running coach Jason Fitzgerald called Strength Running and found the ITBS rehab routine that he developed for himself. I initially found the exercises very challenging and still struggle with the pistol squats, again a sure sign of where my weakness lies. Through information from his site I have a plan. I need to rehabilitate my IT band so I can run comfortably, the do the preventative work by getting my core strong, stronger than it was last year and get my flexibility and mobility up. To do that I have started doing some of the routines that another coach I follow on twitter Jay Johnson. Specifically there is an eight week general strength progression that was featured in Running Times. I've already started doing the Myrtl routine and the Lunge Matrix. I'm going to start the 8 week program from the first week of June, which will tie in nicely with my running program. Six of the eight weeks will run concurrently with my base phase and I'll finish the progression two weeks into my speed development phase right when all that work will come in handy. Of course I won't stop and will continue to use the routines through out my training. The great thing about all the routines I've found is that they form a fully complementary warm-up and post run exercise routine.

Back to the running. I went for a 5km  run this morning and was able to run with freedom for the first time this month. I know I'm not 100% and for the rest of May and the first week of June, 25 minute runs every other day, adding a little bit will be the order of the day. Thankfully this is the start of the base phase and I can afford and should start to build slowly again, as my best running is hopefully ahead.

The plan for the rest of the year is simple really as I just hope to keep running faster times over 10km. While I was delighted with the times I clocked, running more 36s (4) than 37s (2) and 38s (1) combined this year, I'm hopefully that I can drop into the 35s once I start racing seriously in September or so. Even better would be to get that one magical sub 35:00 performance, hence the title of this post, which is my goal. I have redefined that goal a bit. Project 35 is not a once off goal but a mission statement. My ultimate goal is to become a regular 35 minute and better 10km run in the way that a hypothetical Project 40 has been achieved. When I broke 40:00 for the first time at Zwartkops last year in July (incidentally that race is on my calendar again this year), my father did stress that the key now would be to make running under that milestone a habit. And indeed in 13 10km races since Zwartkops, 11 have been under 40:00 and I haven't run slower 38:32 (Kosmos) since Tom Jenkins on 24 November 2012, a string of nine consecutive sub 39:00 runs.

So Project 35 is a long term affair looking at two to three years, into 2015 and beyond, cementing my 10km running before moving on to half marathons and then returning to marathon running. I don't know how fast I can and will go but it's why I've started looking at all the other details, the strength work etc, and logically arranging my training with periods and built in rest, to give myself a shot at being the best and fastest runner I can be. No more fluff, and now I mean no half marathons, 2 hour runs that don't fit the picture.

I'm as excited as I've ever been about where my running is going!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Rest and Recovery

It has been a long run. It began all the way back on 17 February 2012 and nearly 15 months later my body has had enough.

I've read a lot about the dreaded plateau and posted  about it. I have been looking at it as a global plateau. It's inevitable all runners slow down at some point. I remember when my father was at his peak between 1995 and 1998. It was a golden period that took in about three years of solid and often improvements (2:56 to 2:45 to 2:30 over 3 consecutive marathons!). Preceding that was about three or four years of consistent if unspectacular performance. I always saw this period for his as a gradual period of improvement from ~1991-1995 and then the astonishing ramp that saw him go from a consistent ~39 min 10 km runner to a 31:58, and even more spectacularly a 3:05 marathon to that 2:30:40 at the 1997 Flora London Marathon.

Of course the reality was that it was all carefully managed, with periodized training that revolved around a spring and autumn marathon and the build up that took in winter/summer base followed by almost obsessive speed development and a transition of that speed into half marathon and then the marathon. My father was incredibly focused and systematic with his approach to training as well as racing, and that comes through with his coaching as well.

He likes to remind that I'm still a rookie of sorts despite the great results I have had and a reasonably brief block of running. It will be two years in June, not a lot of time really in the context of a lifetime worth of running that seasoned runners accumulate. The transition has been from an every other day runner to a consistent runner, to a competitive (with the self) runners, and I am now able to tolerate varied but specific training, and a commitment to delivering the goods on race day. And a few strategic mishaps aside, I'm glad to be at this statge with a 36:13 10 km PB, aware of the fact that almost exactly 18 months ago on 16 November 2011 I had run a 48:00 at the Rowlin National Brokers 10 km night race, breaking 50:00 for the first time.

As this graph illustrates, from the preceding race the Vodacom Country Challenge where I recorded 51:19 three months earlier there has been a pleasing downward trajectory in my 10km times.

Progression of 10km times: 19 August 2011 to 6 April 2013
As I broke 37:00 for the first time late in February I had dreams of heading into the 35s before winter. As I neared the milestone however something happened. My robust immune system fell apart. I got ill as I felt myself reaching my peak. Then while down in Cape Town, in between the 36:13 (sub-par) performance and a 29:01 8km, my injury free body started to creak. I took a couple of days off, and once back on the highveld I managed a solid 10km, just one second short of that coastal PB at what should have been my peak race. On the day however I felt short of something, despite the great performance on paper. Having paced myself for a negative split race, the wheel just wouldn't turn from 7km onward. While most wouldn't quibble over a 12s positive split it was the first warning signs.

I had stupidly entered the Slow Mag half marathon, a silly decision if I had remained healthy and niggle free but after the March I had I should have been smarter and switched to a 10km on the day. The PB duly came but a cost. Cramps and a return of the niggles from Cape Town. The following Wednesday my club held a time trial challenge and the awkward experience of falling apart at 3km in a 5km race should have been the final warning.

I had peaked and was now on a mini plateau. I had spent so much time focussed on that far away global plateau that I forgot the principles of periodized training, that the body cannot respond indefinitely to a stimulus and the stress will take it's toll. At this point the stress will overwhelm the body and the stimulus must change, mostly by reducing it. Once stress is reduced below a certain point the body can be introduced to more stimuli that produces stress and adaptation and improvement. It's basic exercise physiology!

But runners are stubborn and I soldiered on, with a one final push for a glory run penciled in. I had a stellar training week after the poor time trial. On the Sunday long run however all the stress finally culminated in a truly horrid run that had me taking a walk break almost every kilometer  It was the final stanza of Soweto all over again. I had hoped to do Wally Hayward as a training run, then Colgate 15km and the Jakaranda Centre 10km to finish off the season but alas it was not to be. I stayed away from Wally and the horror show of the Sunday long run was repeated as I attempted an easy run. And despite a slim desire to continue with Colgate and Jakaranda, I feel like I'm one run from breaking point and so have decided to do something I should have done at the conclusion of the Mazda race.


Articles like this Peak Performance (an excellent resource) one on the importance of scheduled recovery for athletes are bread and butter for me. I know this stuff, I understand the theory and how to implement it. I've spoken about this with my father and other runners, and will volunteer this kind of valuable information to new runners who ask me for advice. I somehow forgot to implement it in my own training.

This year I really wanted to focus on specific periods in my training, stressing the right system and ultimately coordinating the training to culminate into a briefly sustainable but high impact period of peak performance. I got greedy though but at least have arrested this before I succumbed to injury. My greed escalated to the point where I was chasing PBs in 15km and half marathons despite barely averaging 40km per week. The volume itself is not important but the components contributing to that volume were not appropriate for racing those distances. And then I plateaued and simply believed training harder would get me further!

Lesson learnt!

The plan now is simple. After Soweto I barely rested. I was off my feet for 3 days before doing some running albeit very gently at 5:45-6:00/km. Two weekends after the marathon I was racing again and immediately went into high intensity training. Save for a couple of weeks of reduced volume and unplanned breaks due to illness and niggles, essentially after a 26 week marathon program (base+ marathon specific phase), I trained for a further six months without barely skipping a beat. Those 6-8 weeks were some of my best I put in but in hindsight a break would have been a better choice.

So I'm giving my body a break, fully 18 days of absolutely no running whatsoever (backdated to my Wednesday run). The last time I did that was back in December 2011, curiously also after a block of hard training that left me exhausted. Though that break ended up being two months, this time I am motivated and with an annual plan in place over and above the micro goals, I am still as motivated as ever. The plan is to return on 20 May to begin some light running before embarking on a formal base training program from 3 June. The block of training, health and fitness aside is scheduled to last until 16 November, for the Kollonade Retail Park 10km, 26 weeks of a four phase periodized plan.

In the meantime though, whatever will I do with myself?

Friday, April 19, 2013

Slow Mag Half Marathon: A score for low mileage?

Kind of.

Sort of.

But not really.

The result was on paper an excellent one, as all PBs should be celebrated. The process however was anything but smooth.

In reality, Slow Mag on 14th April should not have been part of my racing plans. Or I should have found someone to run with and let them dictate the pace. My brother was due to run his first half marathon there but unfortunately got injured. It might have been a good time to see if I could pace him to his target sub 1:40. Instead I lined up on my own, and when at the start of a race, my inner competitor always emerges!

You see I was rather under cooked. My speed is great, the 10km times tell their own story, pretty much where the coach wanted me at this point in the year heading into winter. Such has been the focus on speed though, that while I have been doing a Sunday long run, in general, time on feet has been minimal. I'm typically running less than 3 hours a week on 5 sessions and year to date had averaged 38km per week. My peak week of 52km was an accident, with an unscheduled 15km midweek run inflating that number. And also looking at 10km programs circulating the web and in magazine, my weekly mileage is below what is typically recommended for the times I'm trying to run. I have to run this mileage by design. In  running terms my legs are young and upwards of 50km week in week out will leave me tired and injury prone. My goal is to do, as Tim Noakes is credited with saying, I must find the quote, as much as I can and only expose myself to higher mileage when I stop improving.

So with that in mind, I was conflicted as to how to approach the race. Looking at my 10km times, somewhere in the region of 1:20-1:21:30 was predicted, and a conservative estimated would push that upper boundary to 1:22:00. The plan was to go out at around 3:50 pace and just see what happens. With the second a bit hillier, I would expect to hit 10km in 38ish, drop a gear and do the next 10km in 39ish and then see what happens. What I actually expected to happen was a bigger fall in pace from about 15km and then hanging on for dear life for the last kilometer or song.

The first 10km was remarkably uneventful. I ran at a surprisingly consistent pace, no surges or drops, and went through 5km in 19:05 and then through 10km in 38:05. I had my usual rhythm and compared to usually trying hit 3:36/km in a 10km this was comfortable.

So far so good.

Unfortunately at 10km we are well into Ebotse and hit the golf cart trail and I think I took more out of myself here than I would have wanted. I did Slow Mag last year, but was further back in the pack. I had traffic to deal with and I think I saved a bit of energy since it's difficult to overtake anyone here. This year being further up in the field I was able to stride out properly, and the combination of the turns and the hard concrete really took it's toll. When we emerged onto the road I was feeling okay but no longer comfortably maintaining pace. My pace was now onto about 4min/km and at 13km my right calf tightened and I had to stop to stretch it out.

I know the area well and I knew that from 15km the course is gentler to the finish so I eased off the pedal a bit hoping to put in a late burst. I got tot the 15km mark in 58:50, a 15km PB I must add, so about 4:09/km for the 10-15km stretch.

I was in a bit of a crowd at this stage and was using the runners to pace myself. At 17km the calf tightened again and more stretching ensued. I progressed regularly trouble free from that point, just concentrating on hitting the 4min/km mark. It was hard work but I just concentrated on knocking off each kilometre until I got onto the grass at Benoni Northerns. There would no kick, and I coasted in and stopped the clock at 1:22:46, a solid PB of almost 3 minutes. This was good enough for 25th place on the day. Last year I finished in 124th place and in 1:38:42, so a good 15:56 quicker. Progress, lots of it!

This wasn't my strongest race of the year. And I think it took a bit the more out of me than I had hoped. On Wednesday we had a time trial challenge hosted by us Kudus against Old Eds, Pirates and a few other clubs. It was only 5km but at about 3km my legs were jelly and I laboured to an 18:47 run, which I reckon would be my slowest 5km of the year (the 4th km split was in 4:27!). I've recorded faster 5km splits in pretty much all my 10km races except the 2nd half of McCarthy (hilly) and Kosmos 3-in-1 (hot). And in training I've been able to hit out controlled 18:45 5km paced runs.

The flipside of course is that on proper training for the distance I would expect to do significantly better and that's what I hope to see when I do a trained for half marathon in November.

For now I'll be nursing myself back into shape for my May races, Colgate 15km and Jakaranda Centre Race of Hope 10km on the 5th and 11th respectively. The aim there is too bring my 15km time in line with my other PBs and to have one last go at a 35 minute clocking for the 10km before easing off into winter base training.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Race Report: Mazda Athletic Club 10km

I fell short, but I went for it, that 35 minute 10km.

Leading into the Mazda 10km, I really had no idea what kind of condition I was in with respect to 10km racing. I did a ~7km run on Wednesday at 4:02/km, so steady but not fast and felt okay. On Thursday I did 10x200m at 10km pace with 60 seconds recovery. For such a short distance, I found it difficult to get into race pace and found myself doing the reps at closer to what I guess would be 5km pace for me, 3:27-3:31/km with two outliers, one at 3:15/km and one nailed on at 3:36/km or 36:00 10km pace. I felt okay but just didn't have the rhythm of old. If anything, I felt creaky, spending a lot of time trying to figure out how far out to reach, how quickly to turn my legs, things that I had been taking for granted throughout the year.

Nerves and more nerves

So when I headed out to the Ford Sports and Recreation Centre I was nervous, not from expectation which is what usually happens, and is good nerves, but because I was actually riddled with doubt, something that I haven't experienced probably since that painful 35-41km stretch during Soweto Marathon. Once I dropped down to my preferred distance, I have had the confidence to take on any race, and even if I failed my objective, I would look forward to the next attempt. This time as I went through my warm up, which I aborted quicker than usual, I was almost longing for the the end of the race to be done.

Then at 6:30 the referee announced that there would be a 5 minute delay. Last year this race seemed small to me compared to other races I did. It was mid May, right in Comrades taper so I guess a lot of runners were putting their feet up. Indeed there were just 1600 finishers combined for the 10km and half marathon, smaller than individual distances at most races. I had done the 5km that day and come 2nd despite running, for podium places anyway, a pedestrian 19:25. Now despite leaving home at 5:10 am, with the race venue in suburban terms a stone throw away, I was only parked 40 minutes later. There was a ridiculous queue for the toilets and after the race I even found myself parked in!

A sensible start

Once the start gun was fired it was a mad rush to the first corner and for once I backed off and let the crowd stream past and got into my natural pace. Despite these good intentions it was still a fast opening salvo. I made a point of noting my splits at each of the markers and I passed the first km board in 3:24, identical to the Bonitas 10km Challenge, which didn't quite go according to plan. At least this was a slight downhill. I got to the 2km mark in 6:54, a 3:30 split and then a long stretch of gradual uphill was on hand and my pace drifted into the 3:40s, going through in 10:36, 14:18, 18:02 (3:42, 3:42, 3:44 splits). At least now I could attribute my slowing down to the elevation but I was equally being timid. This was Deloitte-esque, gentle enough. I had hoped to get through 5km in 18:10 so 18:02 was not too bad.

Close but no cigar

From 5km the course got a bit more pleasent as the route leveled off and then we had some nice downhill. I got to 6km in 21:31 with a 3:29 split that was all gravity! At this point though I stopped enjoying the race as we hit the crowd coming up as well sharing the road with some vehicles. It was a bit unsettling as I was pushing myself of cars and trying to to avoid running into people running in the opposite direction The route started climbing again and my splits slowed. I missed the 7km board but hit 8km in 29:01, so 7:30 at 3:45 pace for that stretch. Another 3:45 split followed, going through 9km in 32:46 then I tried to put the hammer down. I didn't feel quite so strong but when I hit the grass again the clock had just ticked over into the 35s and I tried to turn my legs but alas there was nothing like the finish I managed at Deloitte, but a 3:28 last km brought me home in 36:14. The second half was actually less challenging but I was unable to get through it quicker but can't really complain with an 18:12 second half. And truth be told, if you had told me 6 months ago I could string together back to back sub 18:30 5km I would have literally laughed in your face!

Mazda Athletic Club 10km Route Profile
To put the run into perspective, I was only 5 seconds short of the 36:13 I ran at the Bonitas 10km Challenge. While that race was compromised slightly, it was on the coast and ridiculously flat! So to be 1400m higher and contend with 45m elevation gain and get close to a PB is a positive.

That positive vibes aside, I did feel a tinge of disappointment. I'm not inherently competitive, in that I know that this is a work in progress, and so I tend to focus on what I'm doing. I do however notice who finishes in front and behind, and a runner that I have finished ahead of every time we've shared the road since the Great Run race in December, streaked ahead and try as I might I could not bridge the gap. Looking at the gap as they hit the grass I would guess they ran at least 35:55, and that's where I was hoping to be. Having said that I also haven't had the best conditioning in the last three weeks. I felt like I was competing on borrowed time, with training gains from February.

One last positive. I mentioned in that last post that I believe I'm now a 37 min 10km runner. To explain, that means even if I got a call on Friday night to hit a run on the Saturday I think I would back myself to nail a 37 min time and time again, unless the route resembled something like the Mini Monster. What is interesting though is that out of the seven 10km races I have run this year four  have been quicker than 37:00.
  1. McCarthy Toyota 37:27
  2. Tuks Bestmed 37:01
  3. Deloitte Pretoria 36:50
  4. Kosmos 3-in-1 38:32
  5. Om Die Dam 36:36
  6. Bonitas 10km Challenge 36:13
  7. Mazda 10km 36:14
And adding the post Soweto 10km races from last year:
  1. Kollonade Retail Park 38:22
  2. Tom Jenkins 42:13 (something fishy with this one as I clocked 40:53 on my watch, and there's a 40:53 in the results, but there was a huge storm and some 5km runners had infiltrated the 10km finished queue)
  3. Great Run 37:34 (my clock time was 37:46)
  4. Old Year's 38:25
So in 11 10km races since Soweto, 1x 40:xx, 3x 38:xx, 3x 37:xx and 4x 36:xx

With just one more 10km penciled in before a short winter break that will lead into base training through the bulk of the cold season, I'm hoping for a solid 5 weeks of training that will allow me to add a 35:xx to that list of times, and begin the shift towards targeting that sub 35:00 10km in the Spring/Summer that is the ultimate prize for me in 2013! 

Before that I have a half marathon to worry about. Yikes!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Optimal Pacing?: Lessons From The Best

Lately I've been thinking about heading out to a race and leaving my watch behind. I know some people that have the confidence to do so. My wife has been running without a watch all year, preferring to trust her judgement and also not being pressured into chasing splits. She is an ultramarathon runner and in some ways, certainly outside the level of elite runners, as one heads into longer distances the margins are less fine. I'm focusing my peak performances on 5km and 10km races, using 15km and a few half marathon races for stamina and endurance training. For me the margins are fine. If you lose 30 seconds on a kilometre in a 50km race, one can strategize on the fly to get that time back. For me 30s in a 5km and even a 10km race will take a serious effort to claw back, with these races lasting ~18:00 and ~38:00 for me.

Pacing is such an integral part of racing. There are many ways to run a given time for a distance, but one way will often be a bit more comfortable than another. I've been spectating at a lot of races, supporting my wife and my club mates from Varsity Kudus, and I'll often seen two athletes finishing side by side, yet in contrasting condition. When one peruses running resources, the advise is very clear that for middle, long and ultra distances, an even pace, where conditions will allow, is most ideal. It suggests increasing effort as a race progresses but if the effort has been distributed properly one should be able to maintaining pace at the end of a race and even have a bit in the tank for a little kick!

I came across an article posted in Sweat Science on the Runner's World site called The Disadvantages of Perfect Pacing which really got me thinking. Last year I inadvertently perfected pacing. I started off running very negative split races, like running the last 11.1km of a half marathon quicker than the first 10km to eventually running even splits on a course with some climbs. Part of it was that because I was in a rapid phase of improvement I could rarely take a similar strategy into races even a few weeks apart. So I tended to find a comfortable effort and hold on to it. But now while I'm still improving the gains are becoming comparatively marginal and I'm having to think about what I'm doing constantly. The Sweat Science article really stood out for me because it presents a scenario where very very good athletes are shown to eschew the sensibilities of even pacing and rather push the envelope. That is encapsulated by this rather excellent quote from the article:

According to conventional physiology, steady pacing is the most efficient way to ration your energy stores. Its logic has been taken for granted since Aesop and his tortoise. But it is inherently limiting: to run at an even pace, you have to decide on your final finishing time, and thus set a ceiling on your potential achievement, before the starting gun fires. As a result, even pacing may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers: jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.
That quote really speaks to me. My goals for the year and with my margins for error becoming finer as I get faster suggests that at some point I will HAVE to ditch sensibility and go for it. In fact when I ran 37:46 at the Great Run last year that's precisely what I did. At the start I found myself in a group of runners that at races have typically run around or just faster than my pace. On this day, I felt really good, so I surged ahead and chased another group with more runners I recognized who I only really see at the start and the finish of races! My goal was not to catch them, but to keep them in my sights. As the kilometres ticked by, this group was edging further away but next thing I was 8km into the race. My legs started to burn but I hung on and shattered my PB, producing by my standards an outlier performance. Nothing in my training had suggested I could run that fast. Had I raced as I had planned, I would have run 38:30. Sometimes it pays to be adventurous.

I suppose the question depends really on the ambition of the runner. I was watching the Lisbon Half Marathon just the other day, and the Kenyan Bernard Koech set out with a mission to to break Zersenay Tadese's astonishing 58:23 world record. He set out a blistering pace, going through 10km in 27:17, 57:34 pace! But as the race wore on he was still running quickly but by 16km was already outside world record pace, in 45:20 and by the finish over a minute outside the record in 59:54. His pace for the first 10km was a mind boggling 2:44 min/km but the for the remaining 11.1km 2:56 min/km. Contrast this with Tadese who went through 10km in 27:53, 2:47 min/km but covered the next 11.1km in 30:30 at a pace of 2:45 min/km. He just ramped his pace up and even his final 1.1km was under his average pace for the WR. And having seen both races he looked in a lot better shape at the end than Koech. And remarkably enough, Koech was 'only' 2s/km faster than the WR for that first 10km but thereafter 10s/km slower.

One might think that Elite running has nothing to do with us mere mortals but I'm a firm believer that if I'm going to be a better runner these are the people I want to be learning from. It's not about emulating them but taking the principles of their approaches and applying them appropriately to my situation. And on that pacing front I've certainlu been more Bernard Koech that Zersenay Tadese in all but two of my six 10km races this year. Possibly like Koech's approach, I always look to bank time by building myself a buffer but neglect to appreciate how quickly one can fall off the cliff even in a race as short as 10km. Have a look at these splits from my last 10km race:
  1. 3:24
  2. 3:26
  3. 3:30
  4. 3:35
  5. 3:39
  6. 3:44
  7. 3:45
  8. 3:44
  9. 3:42
  10. 3:45
These splits are from the Bonitas 10km Challenge from 23rd March in Cape Town. This was 1) the flattest race I have ever run and 2) at the coast. The final time was 36:13, a 23 second PB which is about the only real positive from the race. All things considered this was a real opportunity for me to real test myself and I ruined it by going through 3km in 10:20. That was excellent pacing for a 5km. Once I had hit 4km in 13:55 I would have had the confidence to put out a 3:20 final kilometre but alas I still had 6km to go. A 5km split of 17:34 would be as good as it got as I limped home in 18:39 for the remaining 5km. Consider that at Deloitte I finished with a 3:28 final kilometer on course with ~100m elevation gain.

My goal for the Bonitas race was simply to break 36:00. I fell 14 seconds short and in hindsight my fate was sealed at that 3km mark. Had I gone out at 3:36 min/km pace, I would have gone through in 10:48, and I am 100% certain  I wouldn't be running at 3:44 pace in the second half, outside my average pace for most races I have run this year. A 10:48 first 3km, which would been closer to 18:00 for 5km would have still been aggressive, but with flatness of the course would have been conservative enough in the circumstances given that I still finished with an average pace of 3:37 min/km. A 3:27 min/km pace for the first third, when aiming for 3:36 in average, was in running terms suicidal and in some ways I'm surprised I got that close to 36:00 in the end.

My take home message from the Sweat Science article, studying some elite performances and then looking at my own running is that a little bravery goes a long way but must be married to some sensibility. I'm certainly on the quest for that outlier performance. I believe that at this point in time, I am a regulation 37 minute 10km runner  and if I work a little bit harder I will drop into the 36 minute range. But with a little bit of sensible aggression that 35 minute 10km will surely come, even in the thin air of the highveld! Then I can shift my regulation performance to 36 minute and target that sub 35 minute dream.

This weekend I have the Mazda Athletic Club 10km. I did the 5km last year and broke 20 minutes for the first time. The 10km is described by Runner's World as 'flat, yet challenging', so standard fare for the highveld then! I never like to make excuses for my runs but I was ill before the Bonitas 10km Challenge then had an 18 hour drive to Cape Town two days before. And though I don't believe it affected my performance, it has meant that training has not gone according to plan. The 29:01 I did at the Two Oceans 8km Fun Run however suggests that my form is good, if a little rusty, and as I said a few lapses in concentration aside, I could have run around 28:50 on the day, not bad effort for a 15:00 race. However, the quality has evaporated from my training in the last three weeks. On Saturday though I still plan to be aggressive as I search for my outlier performance of the season but plan to be more Tadese than Koech, sensibly aggressive, looking for closer to 11:00 for the first 3km and staying away from the 10:30 level. I certainly believe in running close the edge and hopefully having enough in the tank for one finally kick. BUT, no more 5km PBs in 10km races!!!

Happy racing!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Quarterly Report: The End of a cycle.

This time next week after the completion of the Mazda 10km in Pretoria, I will have completed a full 12 week training cycle. Looking at what I managed to achieve, it's difficult sometimes to believe that I'm only on my second calendar year of training, and have yet to complete two full years since I laced my shoes against in June 2011. Moreover this is only my third complete training program following the 10 week Wally Hayward Half Marathon and 16 week Soweto Marathon programs last year. I squeezed in some (ill-advised) 6 weeks of Lydiard style anaerobic trainng post Soweto that was the stepping stone to the cycle coming to an end now.

In 2012 I had somewhat broad goals that would allowed me to focus on simply getting into the routine of being a runner, but in 2013 I set some very lofty and specific targets. I got a respiratory tract infection last week and then traveled down to Cape Town to support my wife doing her first Two Oceans Ultra Marathon, so weeks 10 and 11 have to put it mildly not gone according to plan. As such it is unlikely that I will meet my intermediate goal at this stage, to break 36:00 for the 10km (and 17:30 for 5km) which is part of a bigger, very stiff annual goal.

Despite being derailed slightly it is fair to say that I have taken huge steps forward as a runner. Coupled with that, I have learnt some of the virtues that will help me achieve that goal, mostly patience. Just because it's written in black and white (mostly digital actually), it doesn't simply follow that my step-by-step idealised progress will progress well idealistically! I've been brought down to earth once or twice both in racing and training, then unexpectedly made a breakthrough!

While I still have the Mazda race to come, I'm not expecting much out of it, so I think this is a good time to take stock of the first quarter of my year thus far.

Training for the most part went really well, barring s bit of ambition that had to be quelled at times, put it down to youthful exuberance! The focus has been on quality so much so that my coach has set no weekly mileage targets. I had to get in a speed session every week, a strength/hill session and an endurance run. The only session I didn't do with great regularity was the hill session and I felt it cost me at stages. My speed sessions and 15km long runs were nailed on mostly week after week. Speed was the focus. The logic was that through the marathon training I had done a fair amount of endurance and also my staple speed session before was tempo runs, but I had never really done any top end stuff. And certainly when I pulled a 64s 400m out of the bag once (before blowing up as the session progressed), and consistently ran 69s 400s to close off a set of 8x400m repeats, the speed had arrived.

How did it it translate into racing. Well I headed into the year having done 37:46 for 10km (official time was 37:34 but I'm sure the time keepers were generous), and from the McCarthy Toyota 10km race, it's been a case of whittling it down. Six 10km races thus far in 2013 have seen 5 PBs, taking my time down in sequence as follows: 37:27 (McCarthy), 37:01 (Tuks Bestmed), 36:50 (Deloitte Pretoria), 36:38 (Om Die Dam) and 36:13 (Bonitas 10km Challenge), so roughly 90s in 10 weeks. The Bonitas 10km Challenge was coastal but I can safely I have yet to feel this added benefit of low altitude  However it was the Saturday after I had got the respiratory tract infection, then co-driven 18 hours to Cape Town from Johannesburg on the Thursday, and then sampled a bit too much craft beer and wine on the Friday. All in all a job well done.

I didn't much of a go on the 5km front. I did two 5km fun runs and both were unfortunately well short of the 5km distance. I did Johnson Crane at the end of January and was actually on track to run under 17:30 having got to 3km at 10:35 and after consolidating to 4km was speeding up nicely to finish but the course was around 400m short. At the Sunrise Baby Monster, I was surprised to see I had run 17:23 on a hellish 5km course but while not as short as Johnson Crane, it was about 250m off. My only other 5km time was an 18:22 at the Ebotse Parkrun, a lovely course that I feel I can run at least 17:45 on, with 60% of the route on grass.

While in the Cape, I finally got in a 8km run and have a PB at this awkward far but not quite 10km distance. I entered the Two Oceans 8km Fun Run on 29th March and even though I still wasn't quite 100% managed a surprisingly quick 29:01, good enough for 7th place. Had I not had to ask for directions entering the UCT Rugby Fields and then mistaking the first banner as the finish line, a good sub 29 was on the cards! Since getting sick and then not running as much, my knee has been niggly and I even had to cut an attempted tempo run short on the tuesday. So with that in mind, I won't even berate myself for those two lapses in concentration that cost me a 28:5x for the distance.

So where to now? In some ways these last two weeks have left me a little bit deflated in that even though I ran two great times for 10km and 8km, I haven't been training or racing for that matter at close to peak performance. After Mazda, I have entered the Slow Mag Half Marathon, the anniversary of my first half so I just had to do it! I have done some 15km and one 18km run, and I'll probably squeeze in at least 15km this coming weekend. I'm not going to put pressure on myself for a time there but I would love to break my PB, 1:25:28. I think had these last two weeks gone as planned, I would have aimed to flirt with that 1:20 mark!

Thereafter, I'm going to go for one last push at the 10km. There is a lovely 10km race in Pretoria, the Jakaranda Centre 10km that I did last year and I remember it as a flat fast route though I did it as an easy recovery run. This year it's penciled in for 11th May, so after Slow Mag, I have 4 weeks to the race and will give it one final big push, with only the Colgate 15km on 5th May which I will use as a long speed endurance run. The Jakaranda will be the one where I gun for a 35:xx time.

Then I will probably do the RAC Sweat Shop/Asics 10km the following weekend and take the remainder of   May off, 2 weeks, before launching into some base training once we return from Durban where my wife will have completed her first Comrades!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Race Reports: Kosmos 3-in-1 and Om Die Dam, weekends of contrasting fortunes

These past two weekends have taught the value of respecting a course. The theme of the story is contrasting fortunes. I ran two races, the Kosmos 3-in-1 10km  (planned) and the Om Die Dam 10km (unplanned). One race was at 17:00, the other at 6:30. One race had an elevation of 100m, the other 52m. One race was hot and the other was run in perfect distance running conditions. The combination of those conditions that produced the better result is somewhat obvious but perhaps brings to mind how rigid we runners are sometimes both in training and particularly racing. We have to hit the splits in training, be it interval training, hill repeats tempos, or that long run at 30s/km slower than anticipated marathon day. On race day we have our strategies imprinted in our memories, and now our watches can beep when we go too fast and when we go to slow, or we have pace bands that gives up times of arrival at various splits. It can be very exhausting sometimes! I find myself doing some pretty nifty number crunching while turning my legs on race day.

Late last week, Runners World (US) posted a very interesting piece on how the Kenyans approach their training. These are by far the dominant athletes in the distance running world and by all accounts training and racing, while very serious is done in a less calculated manner that one would think. The article even suggested that finishing a work out (or a race for that matter) in a prescribed intensity is not always the attempted result. These runners push themselves to the brink. And it makes sense, within reason of course. If one is to push outside their boundaries, surely it stands to reason that the carefully constructed plan should be put aside occasionally? And sometimes, as I learned, one needs to hold by slightly and accept sometimes that some days aren't meant from ground breaking performances.

Kosmos 3-in-1

To go back to the list of conditions I put up earlier, this race was the 17:00, 52m elevation gain and HOT. Typically armed with that knowledge this was a race where I would have targeted a very strong performance but this was a day when the custodians of racing when on hand to dish out some valuable lessons. From the start it was probably not going to be a day for fast racing.

The Kosmos 3-in-1 event is unique in that it gives athletes the opportunity to really extend themselves in their quest to test out their abilities to endure. On the menu is a marathon for breakfast, served at 6:00. For lunch is a half portion and for a light dinner is a brisk 10km. All in all runners would take on the entire feast complete 73.3km. And for the many the breaks in between make the whole ordeal endeavour even more challenge; rhythm is something all runners value.

While 2013 is about specialisation for me, my wife is training for her first Comrades Ultramarathon this year, and the Kosmos 3-in-1 would a valuable indicator of her staying power. Thus it meant when she woke up at 3:00 to get ready for the marathon, awake I did too. Typically waking up at 3:00 before a race is no big deal for me but with 14 hours until the start of my race it was to be a long day, spent waiting and trying to keep fresh and ready.

That is not to suggest I was bored or troubled. Outside of that 30 odd minutes I was running, Kosmos was a reminder of all that I love about running. The were a number of fellow Kudus club members at the event, and spending time with club members and cheering them on was quite something. Supporting my wife as she took this big challenge was the most important part of the event, completing all three events with plenty to spare. As such I would not change any part of the day.

Except the weather!

The marathon had some amazing weather. Overcast for the most part, with a bit of drizzle early on. However about halfway through the marathon the sun peaked through the clouds and it got hot very quickly. By the time the half marathon got underway it was well over 30°C. Come the 10km things had not improved much from that point possibly down to around 28°C. I vaguely the announcer at the start saying something in that region, though with my poor Afrikaans skills I could be wrong.

I had hoped to run in the region of 36:30 having heard how flat the course could be. Indeed I started of briskly hitting the first kilometre board in 3:35 or so. But that was as good as it got. Thereafter fatigue hit my legs immediately and by the 3rd kilometre I felt like I was fighting to maintain pace despite the relative lack of steep climbing. There was really one steep climb, after 7km going through the 8km mark and just before 9km. I was surprised in the moment how much I was struggling. I would glance at the Garmin periodically and would never see the pace much faster than 3:45/km no matter how much I pushed.

I was so relieved to get to the end. The race finishes on the Lake Umuzi waterfront and it's a twisty ending. I had some experience of it already, having entered in and continued a fine club tradition of winning the 2km fun run! This time I crossed the line, a bit disappointed to have run 38:32. This time was slower than the Old Year's race in December, and was my slowest 10km since Tom Jenkins where I had run 40:52, and was over a minute slower than McCarthy Toyota despite a far nicer route. On the other hand I finised 12th in the race and was in the top 10 till almost 8km when I got passed by two runners.

As the week progressed and speaking to various people, I accepted to take the rough with the good. I had a race plan and stuck rigidly to it. It didn't cost me anything. That was my 6th consecutive sub 39 10km, crazy when I think I broke 45 minutes for 10km for the first time less than 12 months ago!

Om Die Dam

So the following week heading down to Haartbeespoort to run Om Die Dam, my confidence was a bit low. At least training had gone well, a session of 400m sprints aiming for 72s and doing, 72, 73, 71, 71, 69, then a tempo run with 5km aiming for 3:48/km and returning splits of 3:47, 3:49, 3:49, 3:46, 3:46. Those session were sandwiched by an easy run where I comfortably ran at ~4:35 pace. Still there was this nagging feeling from the weekend before that this period of improvement had run it's course. Since the two easy weeks that I had after Soweto, I have been at it for 17 weeks, with two further easy weeks over New Years to recharge. For a relative novice it's been a challenging and prolonged period and pretty soon it would be time to ease off and do something different. Had that time arrived already.

Once again we were at the Dam because my wife was doing the 50km event. It turned out to be one umarathon/ulltra too many for her but she got confirmation of her staying power, finishing a difficult sounding race, which bodes well for the Big C in June!

Conditions at 6:30 were just right for racing! Cool, overcast and no wind to speak off. The start was congested and I almost got into trouble with some big guys doing the half for being eager in my attempts to get round them but I got out of there safely and got into a nice rhythm. I got to the first kilometre in 3:32 on my watch but unlike Kosmos that biting feeling in my legs didn't come. We ran down to about 2km, the poor 50km ultra runners would climb up this furious hill to finish their race! As sadistic as finishes come. Our route flattened out to 4km and I was feeling as good as I have in any race. The kilometre marks, despite being similar with watch for the first 2km deviated a lot as I apparently put in some 4:00/km+ splits despite not feeling like I was slowing down.

At 4km I did feel my pace slow a bit. The pull didn't seem that hectic to me until I pulled out the route profile after the race, 75m elevation gain over ~3km.

Om Die Dam
My splits on the Garmin for that stretch, were 3:42, 3:51 and 4:03. The boards disappeared after 5km so I have no recollection of where I was in relation to official markings. I had at this stage given up on a PB but hoped to run well inside 38 and after the last water point, with 3km to go I started to pick up my pace.

Much of this period is a blur I vaguely remember seeing a 2km mark on the road (Om Die Dam distance markers show how much is left) and my time just under 30:00. I really went for it. There was one more climb as we went past the start again and climbed briefly before heading into the finish, the grass track at Haartbeespoort High School where we ran almost a full lap, my time was in the 35s at this stage and I ran as hard as I could and crossed the line in 36:38 on my watch, a new PB!

Numericaly speaking this was one of the tougher of the routes that I have run and a good PB shows that perhaps there is still a bit more to come. That during the run I didn't feel like it was challenging is a good sign too.

There's a few more races to come. It's Two Oceans in less than 2 weeks and while in Cape Town I will try to get a race in, and then the last planned 10km is the Mazda 10km race on 6 April. That race is one when I'm going to throw caution to the wind (within reason) and just try and thrash my legs as much as can.