BECOME A MORE COMPLETE RUNNER THIS WINTER
Amateur runners all have strengths and weaknesses. Some are fast, some have endurance to last any distance, and others have technique that the pros would be proud of. But the reality is that we can all get better. We all have floors in our performance. Some may be embarking on a cross country and trail running season. If, like me, you are nursing an injury, the racing season is over, it is time to recover (hopefully for not too long), reassess and then get working hard towards the best running season ever in 2018!
So now for the question…how much thought do you give to becoming an all-round performer? Do you just run? It is time to plan for success.
The pros work amazingly hard to pick up small fractions that may take them to the next level. We might fall into the trap of thinking they have all day every day to commit to running, but, we must acknowledge that it is not always glamorous. The rewards may be significant, but endless hours of torturing the body and spending time away from loved ones are often an overlooked part of the professional athlete’s performance jigsaw.
In contrast, we as amateurs have normal jobs and busy family lives to work around. It isn’t easy to find time to fit in the training required. But, if we think about all of the different aspects that encapsulate the perfect performance we may give ourselves a helping hand towards the next great race time.
We are distance runners. Whether specialising in 5k races or marathons, you need to develop the ability to last the distance. The weekly long run plays the most important part of building the ability to last the duration. Add a second midweek longer run, around other shorter sessions, and endurance will jump forward. It seems so obvious to say, but so many runners avoid the really long run and never go deep into their stores until race day. For a long time I have been one of the those runners. I love the marathon, I normally cruise through the first 20 miles, and then I start to find out exactly how effective my training has been. A risky position to be in!
If you want a PB you must learn to run faster. This means speed work. There are so many different ways of training speed, short reps of 400m, pyramid sessions, all the way to mile repeats and the list goes on. The aim is to increase the speed that you can run at while maintaining good form. By training at speeds significantly faster than your intended race pace, you will give yourself a chance of racing quickly. If you learn to deal with high levels of lactate, and gradually raise your lactate threshold, you will be able to keep the foot on the gas for longer periods. I love these sessions and I can honestly say I do not neglect them, although more variety and longer reps will be part of my next programme.
A lot of amateurs never visit the gym. We can access info about the benefit of weight training for injury prevention and yet most of us do not do it. But the simple facts are that the pros do and it is crucial. Not only does strength training help you avoid injury, it will also help you maintain form for longer, meaning better running efficiency and speed later in the race. I am a very big believer that it also makes you faster. A stronger lower body and core, the ability to generate more power with each foot strike is a vital part of running quickly! My best times in both the marathon, half marathon and 10K have all incorporated two weekly visits to the gym for deadlifting and squats.
Endurance is often developed with slower long runs. Speed is developed with shorter faster sections usually in the form of interval training or fartleks. Speed endurance looks at how long you can maintain a certain speed without fatigue setting in and forcing you to slow down. For this, longer periods of fast running are required and here are three ideas for you (all done after thorough warm ups):
1. TEMPO RUNS – a weekly 10k at race pace will you require to sustain a difficult pace.
2. 3 x 5K REPEATS – as part of a longer run (20-25k) you should include three 5K sections run at half marathon race pace. Not easy at the end of a tough training week on tired legs, but a superb way to learn to deal with pain of fast running as the miles tick by.
3. SECOND HALF FAST – I have heard elite coaches talk about the Kenyan runners “chatting in the first half and then racing each other back.” So, when you go for 18 to 20 miles, take the first half easy and then run the second half at race pace. Prepare for a tough run. But reap the rewards when the body adapts, learns to cope with higher levels of lactic acid, and watch your confidence sore as the big day approaches.
The other great thing about these runs are that they breed mental toughness and the confidence that you are locked, loaded and ready to race!
A little-known quality for most amateurs. All of the above will be of little surprise even though we may neglect some of them. Strength endurance refers to the ability of the muscles to keep functioning when they are tired – picture the last 6 miles of a marathon. Speed work, multiple reps, longer hill runs all work, but in my opinion and experience, it is none running training that I have found most useful here. Circuit training!!! The mistake I have made in the past has been including perhaps too much upper body work. A lower body focus and CORE is where I believe the biggest gains are made. I love circuits with 60s intervals, performing as many reps as possible of a designated exercise. Body weight (BW) squats, BW calf raises, planks, crunches, BW straight leg deadlifts, glute bridges, jumping lunges, lateral speed skaters, press ups etc. are all options to be included. The result in time is a runners body that can keep working when the body gets tired, when the going gets tough and when the miles tick on.
There is a bit of cross over here with both strength and strength endurance. But a strong core is so important it is worth labouring the point. While distance running may well generate a large percentage of power and movement from the key leg muscles, the upper body and specifically the arm swing should not be overlooked. The core muscles link the upper and lower body together, meaning no energy is wasted and can all be channelled to help you reach the finish line. A strong core links the upper and lower body, holds you in a good position, maintaining posture and allowing you to strike the ground effectively and efficiently. The value of this is hard to put a figure on, but it without doubt makes the final tired miles more manageable.
MOBILITY AND FLEXIBILITY
Relaxation is so important to run quickly. Tight muscles prevent this. They stop the body moving effectively and reduce speed. A reduced range of motion also makes you slower. So the message is to include regular mobility routines and stretch after every training session. I have been hit and miss with this in the past, but I am getting better at adding 5 minutes here and there on a daily basis, developing hip and upper thoracic mobility in particular. And how much better I feel as a result. It has not yet been legitimised by any PBs, but, in time…it will. No idea what to do? Yoga and pilates are definite options – YouTube is a great source of information if you can’t find time to go to an organised class.
I know very little about the science behind this side of things so please be understanding. However, upon visiting a top running and movement coach it quickly became evident that I was vastly more stable on my left leg, than my right. I was prescribed a range of different fast feet, balance, hopping and single leg drills to develop movement patterns. Over time I have definitely narrowed the gap between my left and right side which has to be a good thing moving towards a crack at the Paris Marathon in 2018.
Pros need to be versatile. Some may want a slower race, but if others have a different idea, they need to make a decision about what to do. In reality, they will have their preferred option, but the best will have planned for every eventuality. However, amateurs have it slightly easier. For the most part we run against the clock and things are not complicated by the prospect of medals. Other participants have limited impact on what we do. What we need is a plan for how we are going to go about achieving the time we want. I have a good friend and sub 2:50 marathon runner who quite literally goes for it from the bell, rolling the dice and holding on for dear life in the later miles. It may not be the way most would advise running good times, but there is no doubt that it can work. Others, myself included opt for a more even paced approach. However, after a successful taper I have been guilty on several occasions of getting carried away, feeling great early in the race and going faster than planned. Not once has this worked out in my favour. For me even paced is the way to go. What time do you want to run? What is the average pace per kilometre or mile needed? Then be disciplined no matter what! If you have the luxury of being able to put the foot down in the final few miles then feel free to go for it.
Back on to a subject that will be no surprise to anyone. Athletes need to put the right fuel in the body to get the best results. The idea of a chocolate bar, fast food or a few beers at the weekend are not on an elite runner’s radar. Not so easy for the amateur when we eat on the move, and may have some vices that professional athletes have been forced to eliminate. However, for the overwhelming majority it is an area that can be significantly improved. Basics are this, if you eat poorly you are likely to have some excess weight that from a performance point of view is not much use, and secondly you are probably not fuelling your training as effectively as you could be. Check out my old article on diet tweaks for some good ideas of how a small change can go a long way.
Certainly a word that has become more fashionable in recent years. Things don’t go well all the time and that is a fact of life. Runners are no different. I have had a fantastic training year in 2017, and yet I have not come away with a marathon, half marathon or a 10k PB. I could be gutted and moping around, or I could be going through the process of identifying what I could do better for a more successful attempt next time out. Endurance training is tough. There are extended periods between races and you need to train in some pretty awful conditions through the winter. Resilience will get you out the door. The final miles of an endurance race when you have been pushing your limits are not an easy place to be. It hurts and you always have the option to slow down. Not to give in requires resilience. Can it be developed and trained? Yes it can. Sacrifice things over a number of months, perform regular sessions that ask the most demanding questions of your physical performance, and you will develop an attitude where you can deal with anything. When the pain comes you will not be the one that chooses to slow down. You will embrace the challenge, safe in the knowledge that you are capable and the rewards in just a few miles time will be worth it!