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.
The National Cross Country Relays is usually the main curtain-raiser for the English cross country season. A relay consisting of four legs of 5km each, it takes place in the first weekend of November every year and is always a good opportunity to brush down your spikes and remind yourself what pain feels like. Fortunately, with the legs being just half the distance that would be covered at league or county level, it is over quickly but it is long enough to give you a chance to test yourself on the mud. The relay format also adds a team element to the racing and means that you are rarely running in a group or with anyone running the same pace as you.
I took part today, as I did on the same weekend last year, and was faced with a very different course. Last year I wore my 6mm spikes on a hard and fast course that was essentially a series of dirt tracks and firm grassy sections. Today I wore my 12s on a course that was boggy and loose underfoot and sapped energy from you with every stride. My time from last year would have been one of the quickest of the day today, such was the difference in times. I was about 55 seconds down on last year despite running what felt like a good leg. I started in 26th and, reeling people in one by one, I passed nine runners whilst only getting caught by two, giving us a net gain of seven places. I didn’t know this, of course, as in reality I was passing significantly more runners than this. The two-lap nature of each leg means that you are often lapping people, particularly on your second lap. It felt good to be the chaser rather than the one being chased.
Next week the season starts properly with the first league fixture of the season. We won the league last year and I want to play my part in helping the team repeat the feat this winter.
My ninth consecutive Warwickshire Cross Country Championships ends with a fifth place finish, and I finish 13th in the following week’s Birmingham League. Both of these positions equal my personal bests. A good start to the year.
Despite overestimating the course length and not starting my finishing kick early enough because I thought we had an extra lap to run, I still manage 12th in the final league race of the season. After four races, we miss out on second in the final standings by just two points. Naturally, I blame myself.
Dubbed ‘the Beast from the East,’ an unseasonably heavy dumping of snow at the start of the month causes me to spend a week running on the white stuff and trying to avoid slipping on ice. The Beast’s little brother arrives two weeks later to provide a snowstorm backdrop to the Midland 12 Stage. This is literally the coldest I have ever been during a race.
My newfound inability to keep my left calf uninjured rules me out of the National 12 Stage. Having just run a parkrun PB I was hoping to put in a strong performance. Two weeks of jogging and strength and conditioning work put me back on track.
I race four times on the track in May but only remember one of those. My 14:59.96 at Watford allows me to tick off a significant life goal. And then promptly revise the goal downwards.
It’s turning into a year of firsts. A week after breaking 15 minutes for 5000m for the first time. I have my first ‘Steeplechase Fail,’ to borrow a phrase from the many Youtube videos I have watched in which people mistake the water jump barrier for a diving board. Yes, the summer heat wave gets the better of me and I go for a mid-race swim in the steeplechase pit. I resolve to work on my water jump technique when I get back to Birmingham. Oh, and I do my first ever 400 hurdles, with predictably terrible consequences.
After last month’s resounding success, I comprehensively fail to fall at any of the seven water jumps. Instead I run 9:31, a personal best by three seconds. I end the month by running 8:42 for 3000m at Stretford. A good month.
After one more steeplechase and 5000m I take an end of season break and reflect on a successful and enjoyable track season. Stephanie encourages me to take my trainers on holiday so she can kick me out for a run when the lack of running renders me unbearable to be around. As with most things she is right. My runs along the Atlantic coast of France are stunning and memorable.
I get my first ever taste of B team running at the Midland 6 Stage. My club win the race but there are 6 athletes better than me, leaving me in the B team. I need to get better.
Winter training starts after the National 6 Stage. The regime consists of regular doses of what Dave calls ’10 and weights,’ which is exactly what the name suggests and leaves you walking funny the following day.
I’m not really a fan of this time of year, but the start of another cross country season is just enough to make the darkness and poor weather bearable. I compete at the National Cross Country Relays and help my team make a good start to the Birmingham League season
The final month of the year has the usual highs and lows, the high being a strong cross country performance that helps the team move up to first position in the league, the lows being a DNF at Telford and a laughably bad case of poor race organisation at the Gloucester 10 mile race.