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?