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!