This week I agreed to help Dan with his research by volunteering to take part in a VO2max test in the lab at the Insitute of Sport and Human Sciences at the University of Wolverhampton’s Walsall campus. The test was essentially split into two parts, the first a fairly standard VO2max test and the second a test to examine the impact of a spoken ‘intervention’ on running economy.
Part 1, the VO2max test, was a challenging but controlled (at least for the first part) test to establish my VO2max as well as my lactate readings and perceived levels of effort at different paces. This actually felt much easier than the test I did 5 years ago because for the main section of the test I was not running to exhaustion. The test I had done previously involved increasing the pace of the treadmill every minute, starting at 9km/h. This meant that by the time I couldn’t run any further, which from memory was at 22 or 23, I had been running constantly with an increasing pace for the best part of 15 minutes, the last 5 of which were very hard indeed. This test was different in two respects, though. The first was that I had a break of 30 seconds between each 3 minute effort and the second was that the end point was clearly defined at 20km/h. During this 30 second recovery period a lactate reading was taken from a small sample of blood drawn from my right ear and I was asked for a perceived level of effort on a scale of 0-10 based on descriptions for each number on a chart in front of the treadmill. The next part of the VO2max test, described as the ‘ramp test,’ involved the treadmill being set at a fixed pace, in my case 17km/h based on the data from the previous part, and the gradient of the treadmill being increased incrementally each minute. I managed just over 6 minutes on this test before I couldn’t manage the pace any more! There was a crash mat behind the treadmill during the test in case I lost control but fortunately it was not required!
Part 2, the psychological intervention section, was nowhere near as difficult as it involved running 4 sets of 3 minutes at a reasonably comfortable pace (18km/h, roughly the pace I could mantain for an hour) with 90 second static recoveries. For the sake of fairness, the same music was playing in the lab as the music that had been playing during the VO2max test, the excellent The Colour and the Shape by the Foo Fighters! For the first two efforts I was largely left to my own devices save for the odd few words of encouragement from the lab staff who were taking readings. Immediately before the third a recording was played in which I was instructed to focus on form, to relax and stand tall and during the third effort a three-word mantra of “strong, controlled, relaxed” was played intermittantly. This instruction was withdrawn for the fourth effort but I was urged to repeat the words in my head whilst running. It is hard to say whether I felt any different as a result of focusing on my form. Whilst these efforts did not feel any easier, the data may end up showing that I was using less oxygen and producing less lactate. Or maybe not! Once Dan has performed this test on a larger sample of athletes he may be able to tell what the impact of such an ‘intervention’ is.
After the conclusion of the test Dan was talking to his supervisor about the relative merits of testing a small sample of athletes on several occasions and testing a large sample of athletes only once. If it is the former I may be doing this again some time in the near future!
Monday: AM 10km easy / PM 13km easy, drills and hurdles (23)
Tuesday: AM 9km easy / PM 16km progression run at 3:40/km (25)
Wednesday: 16km easy (16)
Thursday: AM 10km easy / PM 13km progression run at 3:49/km (27)
Friday: rest (0)
Saturday: 5km warm up, vo2max test 8*3:00 off 30s increasing from 13km/h-20km/h, ‘ramp test,’ 4*3:00 at 18km/hh (17)
This was a surprise. After only one week of proper training I was not expecting to run particularly well at the Birmingham League this weekend. Last week I couldn’t get under an hour for 10 miles; this week I made the top 20 in a very competitive fixture. It seems that the more time passes the higher my basic level of fitness becomes, and getting back to full fitness takes less time with every injury or setback. My floor is getting higher. Now it’s time to see how high my ceiling is!
Monday: AM 8km easy / PM 12km easy (20)
Tuesday: AM 8km easy / PM road session 5 sets of 90s,2:00 off 60s, 5*30s hill reps (23)
Wednesday: 16km easy (16)
Thursday: AM 8km easy / PM 9km with 3km tempo in the middle (17)
Friday: rest (0)
Saturday: AM 7km easy / PM Birmingham League XC, 20th (22)
This week was the first proper week of training after tearing my calf at the National 6 Stage four weeks ago. Since starting with some light jogging last week I have gradually built up the volume, whilst adding slightly more intensity towards the end of the week.
My calf is fine. I know this, not just because I managed to run 127km this week, something I am told is not possible with a calf tear, but because the scan last week showed that what once resembled a large hole was now a smooth meaty chunk of well formed muscle tissue. However, this doesn’t stop me worrying that it is suddenly going to go again. I find this amusing. As runners we train ourselves to be able to ignore pain; it is an incovenience that needs to be overcome at all costs, a sign of weakness and I’m not weak, thank you very much. But when you return from injury the opposite happens. You become aware of every little tightness or sensation of discomfort, convinced that it is a sign that the injury is returning. The kind of small niggle that would barely raise an eyebrow under normal circumstances now becomes a clear indication that the injury is back again, and probably worse than it was before.
This may well be down to the fact that in order to succeed in this sport you need to be all-or-nothing with it. You will not manage to put in all the hard, difficult training if you aren’t convinced that what you are doing is the most important thing in the world. Sadly the flipside of this belief in the importance of what you are doing is the sense of loss when you cannot do it. The fear of this triggers irrational reactions to pain and a heightened feeling of worry.
This time last year I felt I had reached a plateau with running and that any further performance gains were unlikely. Whilst I wasn’t seriously considering quitting, I was starting to think, with my 30s approaching and 10 years on the running clock, that it had been fun while it lasted. Pretending to be an athlete was a laugh. Not going to get better but it doesn’t matter. At least I’m not fat. And then I made some changes.
In February I started training with a group from Birchfield and a few months later I moved club. Here are the races I have done since (yes, I am annoyed about the 5000 that broke the streak):
23rd May – 4:07.4 1500m (PB)
4th June – 9:46.09 3000mSC (PB)
20th June – 15:23.4 5000m
8th July – 15:05.6 5000m (PB)
15th July – 9:38.57 3000mSC (PB)
18th July – 4:27.3 Mile (PB)
25th July – 8:47.4 3000m (PB)
It would be foolish to attribute this improvement exclusively to a change of vest, and whilst I am under no illusions that this is just a honeymoon period, there are a few important changes that I feel have contributed.
For a start I am no longer doing my sessions on my own. I have never lacked motivation and have always been fortunate enough to have the mental toughness just to get out there, lace up the trainers and get it done. Shut up, don’t ask questions. Start the watch. As I have discovered, this stubbornness will get you a long way in running, but not always where you want to be. With a group to train with, most of whom are fitter than me, I am pushing myself harder than before in training. I am accountable to more than just myself. It is easy to convince yourself you are doing well because you are doing the training and logging the miles. What matters more though, is the quality of the training, not simply that it is happening.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, I have experienced a change in mentality. Surrounded by good athletes, your aspirations rise. When people you train with are running times that you would once have considered to be beyond you, you adjust your mindset. Why not break 4 minutes for 1500? Why not get under 15 minutes for 5k? Everyone else can. I realise now that the people who run fast times are just normal people like me, not genetic freaks who I have no chance of beating. They just happen to be a bit better than me at the moment. The other facet of this change in mentality relates to competing at a higher level. Aiming to be a decent steeplechaser at Midland level and to pick up a few points for the club is not enough any more. Winning the British League is a minimum requirement; the goals of my clubmates are far loftier than mine once were.
So with this in mind I hope to keep the streak going for as long as I can manage. I will continue to have troughs as well as peaks, but a reminder that I can keep improving and hold my own at a much higher level has been welcome.
Often a traumatic experience takes a long time to recover from and depending on the severity of the trauma this can be counted in days, weeks or even years. In my case it is 10 months.
Periodically I have a dream where I am competing in a race that I am well prepared for but when the gun goes I freeze, unable to move. My legs feel like they have concrete weights attached at the ankle and the track has turned to treacle. Incapable of running, I desparately flail around trying to find something to grab hold of as I fall to the floor, in the vain hope that I can pull myself forwards. My opponents laugh as they lap me, or even worse, give me a condescending pat on the back as they fly off into the distance. The torment is usually concluded, not by me finishing the imaginary race, but by my alarm clock sounding. I wake up, check that it was just a dream, and when I realise this, laugh it off and get out of bed.
But February 27th this year was, sadly for me, no dream. I entered the National Cross Country Championships as one final attempt to salvage what had been, by the standards I had set myself, a mediocre cross country season. I was in decent but not peak shape but thought that this would be at least sufficient for a finish somewhere in the 100-150 range. How wrong I was. Accompanied by Stephanie, who did not realise what she was letting herself in for, I made the short journey to Donnington Park, an uninspiring corner of the East Midlands better known for heavy metal and motor racing than for athletic excellence. The charcoal grey skies punctuated by low flying budget airliners on the descent to the nearby airport felt like a dark omen for the horror that was about to unfold over the next 49 minutes.
The details escape me so long after the fact, but the memories I do still have are similar to those of my recurring nightmare and appear in my mind in a hazy black and white; the mud seemed thicker for me than for everyone else, the hills steeper, the course longer. Every ascent heralded a loss of 10 places, every descent 5 more. Nothing was working. I was overtaken by people who I didn’t recognise from races and those I would normally be racing against were several minutes further up the course. At some point I saw a runner I knew step off the course, clearly having a similarly bad day. The voice in my head telling me to do the same was loud but silenced, perhaps misguidedly, by the fact that Stephanie had come to watch me race and would be disappointed if I were to record another DNF. At some point I entered the finishing straight. By this point all mental strength I did possess was gone and I didn’t even bother trying to muster a finishing sprint. I collapsed over a railing near the finish line and went home and sulked.
In fact, though it never got as bad for the rest of the year, 2016 was far from a vintage year for me from a running perspective. The summer and autumn were better but unspectacular, characterised mostly by performances in races that didn’t quite match up to how well I was training. Highlights included a steeplechase PB in August (finally under 10 minutes!) and a good position in a Birmingham League race at the end of the year, but others were few and far between. Whilst this all sounds very negative, I am actually as optimistic as ever about running. In every race I performed badly in there was a winner. In each of these races there was someone setting a personal best, someone beating a competitor they had never finished ahead of before, someone exceeding their expectations. There is always something good that can happen in a race; there is always a winner. On several occasions in the past that person has been me and it will be me again. And as long as the overall trend is upwards I’ll be working hard and sticking at it.