This week, whilst idly waiting for the clock to tell me to leave for my latest cross country race I listened to Steve Magness’ latest podcast. This episode, entitled ‘Everything You Need to Know About the 5k’ was a fascinating conversation about preparing athletes to race 12.5 laps of the track. One of the most interesting comments made was to do with athletes’ tendency to want to have a great session a few days before a race as a confidence booster. However more often than not, they argue, the confidence boosting effect is negated by the damage, both physical and mental, that such sessions can do. The two coaches discussed some of their athletes’ best races and how the training that immediately preceded them was often unimpressive on paper. The real work came not days but weeks and months before the target race. The ‘going to the well’ sessions designed to create large adaptations were planned to take place at least 10 days before the race, with everything between then and race day a matter of maintaining fitness rather than trying to increase it.
I found this interesting as it echoes my own experience as an athlete, albeit one at a lower level than those described in the podcast. Maybe I need to stop looking for clues that I am going to race well in the days leading up to a race and trust that all the work done prior to that will pay dividends.
Yesterday I finished 13th in a Birmingham League race, my highest ever finishing position. It feels like the training I did a few weeks ago is starting to take effect!
I decided to adopt a new strategy yesterday at the Warwickshire Cross Country Championships. With no team points at stake and with the race solely about individual performance I decided to just go for it. I won the race to the first corner, I won the race up the first hill, I even won the first lap. It’s just a shame the finish line was at the end of lap four.
As it turns out, the top three would have beaten me whichever way I had chosen to race. I probably would have hung on to fourth had I raced slightly more conservatively and sat in the pack for the first two laps, but sometimes you just need to get out there and go for it to really know what your limit is. Mine seems to be 5th in Warwickshire at the moment.
Next week we’re back at the same course for the third Birmingham League of the season. I might try this strategy again; I might revert to type and try and pick people off in the second half of the race, such is my normal cross country strategy. Either way, I am looking forward to it.
When I’m not at work I can pretend I’m a professional athlete. Getting enough rest and recovery between sessions really enables me to get higher quality training in. This week I was pleased with Thursday’s session of 8 reps of 1km with a minute recovery. We did the reps out and back on a straight stretch of road as the track was closed due to snow and ice, with the ‘out’ reps slightly downhill and the ‘back’ reps slightly uphill. I was particularly happy to average 3:09 for the uphill efforts with such short recoveries and in sub-zero conditions.
The week ahead should just involve one hard track session on Tuesday then a few days of easing down ahead of the county champs.
No sooner had I won the county cross country championships than I achieved my best ever placing at a Birmingham League race, finishing in the top 5 for the first time ever. Who’d have thought I could be such a good cross country runner?
The spring road racing season wasn’t packed with races but was fruitful nevertheless. Winning the Midland 12 Stage was expected but the medal from the National wasn’t. And I took a whole minute off my best ever time! Just imagine what I could have done if I hadn’t taken a wrong turning near the end…
This, however, was just the start. I was determined to improve all my track PBs over the summer and to build on a good 2017 season. I warmed up with a couple of 1500s to shock my body into summer action. Although the first one was a slight disappointment, I was pleased to finally get under 4 minutes in the second. A greater focus on hurdle technique over the winter is what I put my string of good steeplechase results down to. Although I didn’t finish the year undefeated in the event like Manchester City did in the Premier League, I did break my PB four times including, memorably, my final race of the season where I ran 9:07, clearing the water jump Kenyan-style on each of the 7 attempts without touching the barrier at all. Sub 9 must be on the cards for next season, surely. Oh, and I finally got under 15 minutes for 5000m. After years of knocking on the door I kicked it down with a 14:41 clocking at the BMC Grand Prix. I now feel I can show my face in public, which is a relief to be honest as wearing a balaklava in public spaces is bad enough in winter let alone summer.
I was delighted to stay injury-free all year. This is such an important part of achieving long term success as an athlete. Aside from the wounded pride I suffered when falling in the canal whilst celebrating the end of the US-North Korea war as well as the enforced rest days after having my stomach pumped of water-borne diseases, I barely missed a day’s training due to injury all year. Who knows what damage I might have done to myself if England hadn’t lost the World Cup final on penalties!
The end of the year was quieter on the racing front, though I did finally get under 31 minutes for 10k in September, but I was still pleased with everything I managed to achieve as a runner in 2018. I’m definitely a better athlete than I was a year ago and am looking forward to seeing what 2019 will bring!
2017 has been a successful year for me as a runner and has shown me that even though I’ve been taking part in this sport for a good decade now, there is still plenty that I can learn. This year I have learned several valuable lessons, and so that I don’t forget them I am going to write them down.
Lesson 1: Speed Kills
This two-word phrase is thrown around so much in coaching and training literature that it has earned itself cliché status, but like all good clichés it conveys a large amount of truth. To be a good distance runner it is essential to possess good speed. I am not an athlete whose legs are packed with fast twitch fibres but that doesn’t mean I can’t improve my ability to run fast. Reflecting on my running goals this morning it occured to me that in order to get my steeplechase time down in the low 9 minute bracket, I need to be in 8:30 3k shape at worst. I am not going to achieve this by improving my endurance; that bit is sorted. I’ll need to be in 4 minute 1500 shape. Which means I’ll need to be in 2 minute 800 shape. Which means…
I have improved this year by doing more speed work on the track. Not so I can unleash a devastating kick on anyone who dares to be in the same postcode as me with 250 to go (nice though that would be) but so that I can handle faster paces over all distances.
Lesson 2: Strength and Conditioning is Vital
Distance running is a brutal sport. It pushes and punishes the body, creates wear and tear (more on tear later) and stress-tests the notion that our species was born to run. Measuring your weekly kilometres with 3 digits is not something normal human beings do. Nor for that matter is measuring your weekly volume at all, but I digress. To cope with such a large volume of training, runners’ bodies need to be robust and strong. This year I have really been trying to focus on strengthening my body at home and in the gym so that I have a strong core and muscles that are up to the task I assign them almost every day. In addition to this, gym work, hill sprints, weights, strides and plyometric exercises all contribute to your ability to run at higher speeds. See lesson 1.
In October I was unfortunate enough to tear my left calf whilst racing for my club. The time that elapsed between the injury and my next race was only five weeks, the time between the injury and my next run a mere two and a half. In part this was because I followed my physio’s advice to the letter and did not try and run too soon, but I also believe that lightly loading and stressing the muscle when it was ready, as well as focusing on all the other muscle groups in the body, was what allowed me to return so quickly and what stopped the injury from returning once I was back to a full training load.
Lesson 3: I can handle more training than I thought
Since moving clubs I have increased the density of hard sessions. I am not running bigger mileage than I was before, but a greater proportion of it is at pace. Some weeks I will do three hard sessions, usually on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Sometimes one of these is a dud and my legs succumb to the workload I am demanding of them and refuse to cooperate, but most of the time I can handle this amount of training. As long as I keep listening to my body and holding back when I need to, I will continue with this.
Lesson 4: 30 is just the start
This year I celebrated my 30th full orbit of the sun. Whilst common sense would dictate that the difference between 29 and 30 is minimal in terms of what your body can and cannot do, the presence of the digit ‘3’ makes you worry about physical decline. At least in a relative sense of course. I’m not talking about getting myself a stairlift and a zimmerframe here, just a worry that I won’t be able to match the times I ran in my twenties.
And then I broke my 1500 PB. And then my 5000. And then my steeplechase. Three times.
I know I can keep improving. 30 is just the start.