Better in the Long Run?

Sunday 16th January 2011

The key component of a marathon training schedule is the weekly long run. As far as I am concerned I can move other sessions around or even skip certain runs but the 18+ miler at the weekend is non-negotiable.

Heathens that we are, most runners choose to do theirs on a Sunday morning. This isn’t a deliberate affront to religious traditions, or isn’t intended to be at least – though the similiarities between running and religion are interesting. A post for another time perhaps. Personally, it is the most convenient day and doesn’t clash with work. I would find it very difficult to run for two and half hours having spent the day at work, or at least would struggle to put in a quality run. Sunday morning runs allow you to spend the rest of the day taking it easy, perhaps following the run with a gentle stroll in the afternoon, something I find helps my recovery.

Since joining my athletics club, I usually do the long run with a group of other runners, with all of us adjusting for the varying degrees of ability or fatigue by running off and coming back to the group or letting the others do the same to us. However, I am starting to question the merits of this approach. As I see it the long run serves two key purposes: to build and allow you to maintain a good level of endurance, and to train your mind to cope with the challenge of running a long distance. Unquestionably, the group long run serves the first of these purposes but what about the second? Are you training the mind enough in a group situation or should you be trying to develop the kind of toughness it takes to run 22 miles completely on your own on a dark January morning? Does an assisted effort prepare you sufficiently for when you get dropped at 19 miles and your calf muscles start knotting like a climber’s rope? At risk of sounding like Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, what is better in the long run?

As a conversation starter this morning I asked one of my training partners whether we should try running separately as a means of toughening up. He told me that as long as you’re pacing yourself right, you’ll end up in a group anyway – provided you’re in a large enough field, so you will be able to share the work. His point is a good one. Surely the idea should be to get your pacing strategy sorted rather than worry about how well prepared you are for running solo. On top of this you are still running those miles, be it on your own or not, and being in a group can undoubtedly help you maintain a good pace and level of intensity. Often when I run on my own I take my eye off the ball and lose focus. Maybe this is a fault that is unique to me or maybe it is an inherent human trait but whatever the cause, a mile run in 6 minutes is better than a mile run in 9.

I can see the merits in both. I like the idea of training the mind to cope with the rigours of a marathon race, and am equally convinced by the notion that you simply train better in a group. Whichever is right I can’t see myself changing my training too much. A good run with my mates is more enjoyable, which is really the point to all this running anyway.

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Monday 10th January 2011

I don’t run the mile, but if I did I’d want to run it like this. Absolutely stunning athleticism from Hicham El Guerrouj and Noah Ngeny, both of whom break the former world record. Just like the commentator says, it is so refreshing to see two men racing each other for a record in an era when world records are so often run as solo time trials. I could watch this all day.

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Run Forrest Run

Saturday 8th January 2011

This post is about the people you encounter when out running. Perhaps my experience is different to that of other people but I’m sure most of the experiences are common to runners everywhere!

I have never been chased, heckled, spat at, riduculed or wolf-whistled when walking down the street in my suit or home clothes, so what is it about sporting running attire that causes people to assume you are fair game? Well, for one, it isn’t exactly normal is it? Most people look forward to getting home from work, putting the kettle on and having a nice evening in front of the telly. Not our kind. We relish the idea of pounding 10 miles of pavement in the cold and the dark after a hard day’s work. In fact we spend the most part of our 9-5 thinking about the run that has been or the run that will be. So by doing something that most people just do not understand we are already putting ourselves up for ridicule, such is the nature of Mr British Public.

It doesn’t help that we frequently undertake this activity wearing either lycra, short-shorts or flourescent clothing – but usually a combination of all three. I am fortunate enough to live in the gay district of Birmingham and am often subject to wolf-whistling and lewd comments. The most severe of these was when I was running south away from my appartment block early in the morning and saw a group of 20-ish men (though I didn’t hang around to count the exact number) who had clearly just come out of one of the local rainbow-flagged night clubs. I saw the danger ahead of me and immediately felt like a contestant on the last round of one of those game shows like Takeshi’s Castle or Gladiators – “I’ll just be glad if I come out of this in one piece.” They set upon me like a pack of starved wolves. Not literally, you must understand. They were far too drunk and uncoordinated for that. I kept running and after a few shouts of “get your knees up beautiful,” a few cries of “lovely legs gorgeous” and enough whistling to raise a dead sheepdog I had survived.

Further afield I have heard the cry that all runners will have heard several times in their running career and will hear hundreds of times again, which is of course the exceptionally witty and insightful cry of “Run Forrest Run.” Now, I love the film Forrest Gump. I love Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the misfit Gump; I love his depiction of the growth of a boy into a man; I love the depiction of the Vietnam War; I love that thing they do with the feather in the opening sequence. But seriously. Is it really true that no one can come up with anything funnier than a quote from a film that is nearly 20 years old? Come on Mr British Public, use your imagination a bit. Even “Run Fatboy Run” would be an improvement on your current choice of heckle.

Mr British Public also seems to forget that Hanks’ Forrest was not knocking out a hard tempo run, a recovery run or a steady 22 miler when his girlfriend gave her immortal plea. Oh no. He was running away from danger, from bullies, from the threat of violence, and the young Forrest Gump is not the only person to have encountered this whilst running.

Roughly a year ago I was running home from the track in the bleary-eyed and barely conscious state that usually follows a 5x2k track session and whilst running past a gang of teenagers heard the usual calls to run faster. But these weren’t friendly shouts at all. One of them spat at me. Perhaps stupidly on my part, I looked at the turd of a being who had just launched his saliva in my direction and gave him no more than a contemptful look of disgust. This was all they needed. They started throwing bottles at me and chasing me down the road. Still shattered from my session I tried to up the pace and managed to shake off all but two of them. These two both flung themselves at me in turn and both managed to kick me in the back of the legs. I only really suffered from a bit of bruising and sore hamstring muscles for the next few days but the frustration of it lasted a lot longer than that.

On the Thursday before fireworks night I was running with my good friend and training partner Mr G. Race and we passed a similarly suspicious looking group of hooded teens. Aware of what had happened to me previously on the same road we picked up the pace and were relieved to pass the group without incident. Not so. We were no more than 10 metres ahead of them when a lit firework flew within inches of us. Having never been hit by a flaming projectile I don’t know what would have happened had it hit one of us, but I imagine a hospital trip and some third degree burns would have featured in this story too. Bastards.

This friend of mine is also the source of one of the best and most profound things any of our group has heard on a run. He was running in the rain on a cold day and stepped out onto the pavement near a slow moving car. The female passenger took one look at him, wound her window down and shouted to him one of the greatest philosophical questions a runner can ever be asked: “Why are you doing this?”

I hope to have an answer one day.

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Tim Noakes

Wednesday 29th December 2010

Since listening to a fascinating interview with Tim Noakes on the Marathon Talk Podcast a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about the extent to which athletic performance is controlled and limited by the athlete’s brain. I am no psychologist but am keen to know more about how to train your brain (or more specifically the Central Governor, as Noakes calls it) to produce better performances. I will write about this in more detail soon, but am going to read Noakes’ ‘Lore of Running’ first – a fat textbook on sports psychology and exercise science. It may take some time.

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