In the last eight weeks I have done so many new things. I have worked from home, I have walked through empty streets in the city centre, I have heard birdsong in the morning, I have washed my hands ten times a day, I have breathed clean air on the balcony of my apartment, I have bought a turbo trainer, I have crossed the road to maintain a two metre distance from other pedestrians, I have experienced irrationally high levels of excitement at finding flour on supermarket shelves, I have made and delivered face shields for care homes and doctor’s surgeries, I have read books, I have learned songs. And I have been running. A lot.
Granted, the last activity on the list doesn’t really qualify as ‘new,’ but the way I have been doing it is. I haven’t raced since the first day of March and haven’t done a group training session since just after that. Instead I have filled my time with a sustained period of high mileage, aided by the fact that I have more time to train and to rest and that there are no races to taper for or recover from.
About a week or two ago, I was really starting to notice the fitness gains that were resulting from this block of heavy training. Frustrated not to have any races to put this fitness to good use in, I asked my coach if he could include some kind of time trial or race simulation effort in the next two week plan. He agreed it was a good idea, not just as a means of testing fitness in the absence of races but as a way of adding some variety and novelty to the training. When I saw the plan I immediately regretted asking, though, as he had included not one time trial but two in the next week’s schedule. The first was a 3 mile flat out effort and the second an hour test to establish how far I could go in that period of time.
Doing something new can be equal parts daunting and exciting and I experienced both feelings on Wednesday afternoon before doing the 3 mile test. The fact that it is not a common race distance is a clever way of making sure I have no PB for the distance and am therefore unencumbered by expectation. The main worry I had was that I would not be able to raise my level of effort to anything like the level I would in a race, given the lack of competition and the fact that the result carries no weight or significance beyond being a loose indicator of fitness. I was pleased to hit 3 minutes for the first km but was also very worried I would blow up completely.
One advantage of running purely against the clock is that you have no external stimuli to respond to and can run a very even pace if you are able to judge it correctly. I slowed slightly in the next couple of kilometres but still felt I was running smoothly and in a controlled way; I glanced at my watch just after 3km and was just outside 9 minutes. Pretty good on my own on grass. I tried to visualise what a proper race would feel like to give some motivation and help me push as hard as I could. Every time I looked at my watch I tried to picture how many laps of the track remained. The last few minutes were very tough, a situation that was not helped by the wind, which was starting to pick up. I threw everything I could at the last few hundred metres and stopped my watch as soon as I saw 4.83km. 14:42. I’d have been happy with anything under 15 minutes, so was pleased with the effort I was able to put in. Further evidence that I had managed to get a lot out of myself came the following day; my legs were completely wrecked.
Although any self-timed result must be taken with a pinch of salt, not least because GPS watches are known for measuring inconsistently and unreliably at times, it’s a good indicator that I haven’t lost any fitness. In fact, I’m feeling as strong as I ever have so it feels like a shame that there are no real races for me to take part in any time soon. In the mean time I will just have to make do with running as far as I can in sixty minutes on Sunday. Pain awaits…
Here are some of my reflections from the past year as a runner. At the end of the post is a video in which I talk about my year.
I am a better runner than I was a year ago
This is beyond dispute. I have improved in every discipline – on the track, on the road and in cross country. I am stronger in sessions, tougher mentally in races, faster over shorter distances and have better endurance. Statistically speaking, my six best performances ever on road and on track all happened this year. My coach has motivated me, stretched me and challenged me to be better than I was before and continues to do so.
I am better at training than I was a year ago
This year I feel as though I have improved the quality of my training. By this I don’t mean that I have churned out more miles and worked harder in the sessions; I’ve never had a problem with that. I feel I have become more disciplined with regard to all of the other elements that contribute to athletic success: sleep, gym work, stretching, rest. I am better at listening to what my body is telling me; at taking a rest day when I am ill or when the signs of injury are rearing their heads, at skipping the morning run if I am heavily fatigued, at sometimes choosing to do less when it is better than doing more.
Having a proper break at the end of a season is a great idea
I love running. I want to do it all year round. But sometimes a full and proper break from running can do wonders for your ability to recover, unwind and regain motivation. It is now part of my routine to take a break at the end of the track season in late August. This is now part of the rhythm of the year; just as the spring and autumn are about road relays and as winter is about cross country, the end of summer is about resetting and rebuilding.
I take a full week of rest then a week or two of easy running. I eat what I want, do as much or as little physical activity as I want, sleep plenty and go on holiday. This allows my body to recover fully from the demands placed on it by a heavy training load, and allows my mind to switch off. This almost always leaves me feeling unfit and sluggish initially, but before long I feel fresher and more able to handle the training. It also renews my motivation.
This sport needs to drag itself into the modern era
It is ridiculous that at the start of 2020, men and women are not equal in athletics. The two most recent world cross country championships were the first times that men and women have raced over the same distance. However, at the levels below this that I compete at, nothing has changed. At national level, men run 12km and women run 8km. At regional level, the same disparity exists. At county and league level men do 10km and women do 6km.
In track leagues the situation is no better. Women often run 3000m whilst their male counterparts run 5000m, a throwback to the days when 3000m was the longest event on the Olympic programme for women. In our regional league, men do steeplechase and women do not. In our road relays women run a shorter leg than men do. There is no scientific or moral justification for any of this. Athletics rules and traditions hark back to a less enlightened and less equal era. They need to change.
I have met some wonderful people through this sport
Some of the best people I know, I know because of running. The fact that I could have met other great people by doing something else with my life does not alter the truth of this. I have met Dave, my coach, who is one of the most kind and generous people I have had the privilege of meeting. He turns up when it is freezing cold, when it is baking hot, when we are racing a hundred miles away, when it is Saturday morning and he could be spending time with his grandchildren, all so he can offer us encouragement and see us develop. I have met Tim, who I rarely see these days but keep in regular contact with and who always shows such a keen interest in how I am doing. Running is what unites us. I have met Dan, the only person crazy enough to want to join me for runs at 6am or earlier on weekdays. Sometimes we even talk about matters unrelated to running on these morning jogs around Edgbaston. I have met Mark, one of the first people I ran with when I moved to Birmingham over a decade ago, and whose continued improvement motivates me to make myself better. I have met Kadar and Omar, my friends and clubmates from Ethiopia, both of whom have endured unimaginibly difficult lives at a very young age and who have taken huge risks and made significant sacrifices just to get to the UK. Their work ethic inspires me. Their positivity inspires me. Their confidence to assimilate and integrate into a culture completely different to the one they once knew inspires me. They also kick my arse every session and make me realise how much better I need to get.
At the moment I am in a virtuous cycle of good performances giving me belief, and this belief leading to good performances. Yesterday, I ran 51:11 for ten miles, a personal best by nearly two minutes. In my last road race a few weeks ago, I took nearly a minute off my best 10k time. In the last two months I have achieved my two best cross country results ever. In between I have trained well, spurred on by the confidence that these good results have given me. I know that this eventually I will escape the orbit and that this cycle will end, but for now I’m just going to enjoy it whilst it lasts.
This recent upturn in form has prompted me to think about the interplay between belief and performance and the extent to which one influcences the other. I will try and share some of these thoughts…
Performance Creating Belief
Whilst this seems like an obvious idea, I have given some consideration to why this happens. When results are going your way a number of things happen. One is that your prejudices are challenged and that your notion of where your ‘limit’ lies is altered. You start to view yourself differently and place yourself a rung up on your perceived performance ladder. When I broke 31 minutes for 10k, I was now, unarguably, a 30-something athlete rather than a 31-something athlete. This objective assessment of where you are can carry much more weight than merely being told you are performing well.
Another consequence of a breakthrough performance is that you begin to believe you are capable of more in training; sessions that may have seemed daunting appear less so, and paces that once instilled fear can seem achievable. Crucially, though, the main way in which I believe training can be influenced by performance is in one’s ability to put bad days into context. On Wednesday I went down to the Christmas day parkrun in the hope to get some faster running in the legs ahead of Sunday’s race but just never got going. I felt heavy and laboured and at what should have been a fairly comfortable pace, felt as though I was working far too hard. Afterwards, though, I was able to be rational about it. I was very quick to just write it off as a bad day and move on. No overthinking the matter. At least it was a good hard tempo run. Four days later I managed a quicker average pace in a ten mile race than I did for just the 5k!
Lastly, I feel that your expectations begin to align with those of others the better you perform in races. I am certainly guilty of telling other athletes what I think they are capable of doing but not believing them when they do the same to me. Before my first Birmingham League cross country race after I started training with Dave, he said to me “top 5 today Ed.” I was nowhere near, and remember feeling that his expectations were unreasonably high, but now feel like this is completely achievable. This was less than three years ago.
Belief Influencing Performance
This can happen in two ways, in training and in racing. As I have stated already, your ability to train well can be influenced by recent results in races. I have also noticed from my own experience and from observing others that self-belief can be extremely important in ensuring you do not overdo it in training. Belief creates confidence, and with confidence comes the ability to stop when necessary, to take a rest day when you feel you need one, and not to run each session at 100%. It is easy to stay sensible when recent performances provide evidence that it is OK to. Conversely, I have seen athletes for whom races are not going as expected make poor decisions, over-train and under-rest, seeking the validation that comes from an impressive looking training log.
In a race situation, belief in one’s ability creates a positive mentality. Races are always going to hurt. This is beyond dispute. In my opinion though, the extent to which the physical discomfort of competition can be overcome is influenced by your self-belief. When on a bad run of results the standard response to difficuly and discomfort is acceptance. The pain is here, as expected. Now it’s just a grind and a slog to the finish. When on a good run, the pain is embraced and turned on its head. Good, it hurts. That means I’m running quickly. Just imagine how others are feeling if this is hurting me!
Whilst I won’t continue my upward trajectory forever, I know that I need to keep reminding myself of these ideas when results take a downward turn or when I am injured or ill. It is very easy to talk about belief when you have it, much less so when you do not!
We did one of the hardest and longest sessions we have done for a while, 10 reps of 1km with 60-90 seconds recovery, with the last 30 seconds of each up a steep incline. I was hanging on to the back of the group from very early on, struggling to ever get my legs moving the way I wanted them to. After the session my body temperature dropped rapidly in the cold and I struggled to get to sleep that evening despite the fatigue. I didn’t dwell too much on it. Bad sessions happen sometimes. So do good ones. It doesn’t matter.
On Wednesday I dragged myself round the evening run, a run I almost certainly would have cut short had I not been with others. The following day I started to feel unusual aches in my legs as well as all the signs of a cold coming on. The plan was to run home from work where I needed to stay late. Instead I got the bus to the train station and abandoned the run altogether. In years gone by I would have pressed on anyway and stuck rigidly to the plan. I’d have banked the mileage and felt satisfied at having had the toughness to get the job done. And then got ill for a week.
So why do I act differently now? Why the sudden ability to put things in perpective and to make good decisions? Well, I don’t think this is anything to do with being older, wiser or more mature (of the three I am only the former). I think it’s easy to do the right thing when you are running well. With good results comes confidence, and with confidence comes the ability to err on the side of doing less rather than more. It is very easy to tell yourself you are already doing enough when the results are there for you to see. It is easy not to let a bad session affect you mentally when you know that you have done some of the best sessions of your life in recent weeks.
Today I ran 30:44 for 10km. I went in thinking I might sneak in the low 31s if everything fell into place, so was very surpised with how well I performed. Although the time owes a huge amount to the work I have been putting in over recent months, it also owes to better decision making and a tougher mind. Despite still feeling slightly under the weather yesterday I was able to convince myself that this would have no bearing on how I would perform today. I missed a couple of runs this week because I was more focused on what was important, which was the race this weekend rather than the weekly mileage total.
Things will not always be like this though. I will have times in the future when running is not going well and it is at these times that I need to have the confidence and strength of mind to keep doing what is right.
I’m a late convert to cross country, a born-again cross-tian if you will. I didn’t always love it but turned up and got it done in the knowledge that I was helping my team and with the awareness that it was probably doing me some good, if nothing else.
This started to change about three years ago and now cross country is my sole focus during the winter months. Rather than having goals centred around times in road races I strive to achieve certain positions in cross country races, where time is irrelevant and head to head racing is everything. For a few years now, my goal has been the same: top ten in a Birmingham League race. The Birmingham League is arguably the strongest and most competitive regional cross country league in the UK as, despite what the name suggests, it encompasses a wide geographical area including Birmingham and the surrounding counties. The strength of the league also owes to the fact that two of the top sporting universities, Birmingham and Loughborough, compete in it.
I remember my first top hundred placing ten years ago and shortly after, my first top fifty and then top thirty. Progress is not linear though; each ten gets progressively harder to crack, and for two years my PB (personal bests are places in cross country, not times) has been stuck at 12. Today I finally did it with a strong run on a very wet and muddy course in Coventry’s Coundon Park, a course I have raced on many times before.
It nearly didn’t happen. On Thursday afternoon I switched my phone on after work to find a series of messages about the cancellation of Saturday’s fixture, due to take place in Great Malvern. The land owner had withdrawn permission for the race to take place due to poor weather and the race, it seemed, was off. I was very disappointed, having worked towards being in good shape and well rested for this race for weeks. Fortunately, by the following day the league had managed to persuade one of the other divisions to host our race on the course they were using anyway, and the race was back on.
I ran the race the way I usually try an run a cross country race, starting way back and picking people off in the second half. By the end of the first of the three laps I could count the number of people ahead of me. Seventeen, then fourteen and then eleven. I knew I’d get in the top ten with a strong final lap. I made up ground on the firmer sections of the course and tried to hold my position on the muddier sections. In the final kilometre I was as high as eighth and had a good battle with two other athletes, one of whom held me off in the final hundred to claim the ‘last guy with single digit position’ prize. Nonetheless I was absolutely delighted. This was the best performance I have had in cross country and only serves to motivate me further. This should give me belief and confidence going into the next race, safe in the knowledge that the higher places are something I can achieve.