A change is as good as a rest

Every year I promise myself that this will be the year that my holiday will truly live up to its name. I will relax and do nothing for a whole week. I’ll pack a bikini, a vat of sun cream and a stack of novels and start each day with an epic lie-in, before bagging a sun lounger by the pool.

Then summer arrives, and once again I find myself cramming an extensive range of running kit into my suitcase, along with my wetsuit, bike shoes and pedals (that’s if I’m not taking the bike itself) and a selection of portable exercise tools. Last year in Greece, I was up by 7am every day in a bid to beat the full force of the sun. I ran 27 miles, cycled 113 miles, swam 3 miles, went kayaking, waterskiing and paddleboarding, oh, and did core exercises every day. Not everyone’s idea of a holiday (including me, at times) but though I came home bodily tired, I was mentally rejuvenated.

It’s easy to underestimate how energising newness can be when you’re feeling fatigued and jaded. You’re convinced bed rest is what you need, when maybe it’s simply a new routine – or a new route.

When we are on terra incognita – be it Skiathos or Skegness – our senses awaken. The air smells different. The light looks different. The ground feels different under our feet.

In Thailand, on an early morning run to a temple at the top of a hill, I met a local runner and ended up having breakfast with him and his family. That was over 20 years ago and I can still recall the morning mist shrouding the temple’s gilted tower – and the fiery rice porridge we ate. I don’t recall our average pace or how far the run was, though – which brings me to another good reason to step away from the familiar. Comparisons become meaningless. You can’t berate yourself for running your staple 5-miler slower than usual when the terrain, altitude, temperature and elevation are all different.

It’s precisely because they are different that holiday runs imprint themselves so vividly in our memories. New environments keep our minds and bodies guessing. You can’t slip into autopilot like you do on the well-trodden routes near home; you’ve got to step out your comfort zone and experience something new. Where does that road lead to? Will I come face to face with a wild dog/snake/grumpy goat if I go along that track? (Unlikely in Skegness, I’ll admit.) I wonder if there’s a path to the top of that hill?

All of this, quite possibly, will lead to getting lost. If I had a euro for every holiday run on which I’ve got lost, I could afford to upgrade to Strava Summit, and sit tight in the knowledge that Jeff will always be able to locate and rescue me. But losing your way can have its benefits.

Once I got lost among redwood groves on the return leg of a run up Mount Tam, north of San Francisco, and ended up bearing witness to the most incredible blaze of sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge. Another time, I found myself on the wrong side of a tall metal fence bordering sea cliffs in Portugal and had to summon up every ounce of courage to overcome my fear of heights and make my way along the narrow and vertiginous path.

Holidays force us to change our habits. And although habits can be useful (they allow us to get things done without too much conscious thought) they can also dig us into ruts that don’t allow us to challenge our boundaries, mental or physical.

Your fortnight in Florida or weekend in Wales provides the perfect opportunity to push back against the walls of routine. It doesn’t necessarily mean packing your running shoes – as I found in Greece last year, there are many other ways to work up a sweat and recharge your motivation. But then again, those trusty shoes don’t take up much space. And who knows what holiday memories you’ll create together?

This blog first appeared in Murphy’s Lore, my column in Runner’s World magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

Do as I do: why listening to your own advice isn’t always easy

Being injured always sucks. But I can’t help feeling it’s even harder when you’re a coach, because you feel as though you should be immune. Surely, if you know so much about running, you never make training errors or run with anything other than textbook-perfect form? Ha ha. We’re only human, of course. Our bodies are no more machines than are those of our clients. But it does shake your confidence when you can’t do the very thing that you’re teaching and supporting others to do.

When I recommenced running after a week’s recovery post-Brighton marathon, my right knee started to niggle, getting progressively worse over the course of the week to the point where even walking was painful. It was frustrating – I’d been seized by that ‘just let off the leash’ feeling after the discipline of marathon training, and was looking forward to pottering through the woods and tearing up the track in equal measure.  But there I was, grounded.

One thing I could do as a coach, however, was be a good role model and act how I would advise others to in my situation. OK, I’ll admit it took me a week to get my head around this, but after a flurry of ‘panic’ activities (including a course of anti-inflammatories, a knee brace, regular applications of ice) I stopped running completely, endeavoured to avoid anything that irritated it (which turned out to include both cycling or swimming) and waited for my body to do its healing thing. Oh, and I went to see a physio.

While logic suggested that my knee was ‘a bit angry’ after the rigours of the marathon and wasn’t ready to get back to the day job yet, the less-rational side of my brain was conjuring up serious issues like worn cartilage, ligament damage or tendinopathy that would put me out of action for months or even spell the end of my running career. With such a powerful psychological component to pain (and studies showing that stressing about pain actually makes it feel worse), it was really important to me to have a professional assessment. Being able to rule out these more sinister possibilities was enough to put my mind at rest and allow me to focus on building strength in my quads and glutes while it settled.

“Try not to ‘helicopter parent’ your injured part too much”

It now has, and I’m gradually building up my running again. For anyone else returning from injury, I’d recommend trying not to ‘helicopter parent’ your injured part too much. After having suffered some pain there, you are going to be super-sensitive for a while and even the tiniest twinge can be magnified in your mind. Sure, don’t ignore pain, but ask yourself how you’d score it on a scale of 1 to 5. If it’s a 1 or 2, you’re probably fine to carry on.  I’ve found that smiling – and looking at the scenery – helps keep me distracted from worrying about it too much.

During my ‘off’ time, I took the opportunity to read up and refresh my knowledge on strength and conditioning and gait retraining and I’ve learned some useful new stuff, which I’ll be weaving into my Run Better workshop. You could call that a silver lining, but I’m far too cautious for that!

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Brighton rocked

Thanks, Brighton Marathon. I came, I’m sore and I conquered!

Well thanks, Brighton Marathon. I came, I’m sore and I sort-of conquered. Not the time I was hoping to run when I mounted my marathon comeback in December, but given the lost month of training, I think that my finish time – 3.45.17 – was pretty much what I was capable of on the day. It places me comfortably inside the Good for Age category for London, should I consider putting myself through all this again, for marathon number 19!

So, Brighton, what did you have for us? A glorious morning of blue sky with air lightly chilled. A well-organised start. An interesting, lively course with enough runners to make it feel like a big race without congestion and bottlenecks. You had friendly marshals and fantastic crowds, with high fives, jelly babies and orange segments at the ready. Oh, and some great race signs! (Is that a gel in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?) You had rousing drumming bands and storming DJs. And you didn’t have plastic bottles – all credit to you.

But, oh, you also gave us a stiff breeze along that seafront! Manageable on the initial eastward stretch, but by the time it came to those last four miles, I was practically weeping. And, I have to say, you dished out quite a few hills, too. I logged 665 feet of ascent! Barely worth mentioning in a gnarly trail race, but you certainly feel them in a marathon.

The overall verdict? You did yourself proud. I almost – but not quite – did the same.

 

The marathon taper caper

Doing next-to-nothing is harder than it looks…

It’s less than 72 hours until race morning! The trepidation has been building steadily, in the face of the great unknown that awaits on Sunday. Will I be able to sustain my goal pace? Will the wind on the Brighton seafront scupper my plans? Will my stomach behave? Will an old injury rear its ugly head, or a new one emerge? Will I hit the wall? The weird thing about the marathon is that these questions are no more answerable on your 5th or 15th marathon than they were ahead of your first. When you’re out there for three hours or more, elements of chance and luck come into play…

Following a race build-up with more ups and downs than a Garmin heart rate profile, I’ve adjusted my finish time goal by 10 minutes – and shortened my taper to two weeks. (The less you’ve done, the less you need to recover from.)  But it’s harder than it looks, this taper caper. As a coach, I know that it takes around 14 days for the adaptations resulting from a specific workout to assimilate. Therefore, there’s little point doing anything beyond then to try to ‘get fitter’ for marathon day. But that doesn’t stop many runners trying (to the detriment of their race-day performance).

The aim is to hold on to what you’ve got – not just in terms of aerobic fitness but ‘neuromuscular’ fitness too: this refers to the efficiency of the communication pathways between the nervous system and the muscles, which plays a role in important things like running economy, muscle recruitment and sense of effort. Most experts recommend that you drop volume significantly during the taper, but maintain a degree of intensity. For example, if you were doing a speed session, you wouldn’t skip it altogether, but you might only do a half or a quarter of what you were doing pre-taper.

Less volume means more time on your hands. More time to stress over whether you’ve done enough mileage, whether that’s a cold you’ve got coming, or whether your knee is feeling slightly niggly… No wonder so many of us fall into the trap of doing things we don’t normally do to fill in the spare hours. Take Tuesday. I was having a rest day, but I found myself thinking ‘I know, I’ll do half an hour of drills, to keep my neuromuscular pathways firing.’ I almost did, but remembered the golden rule of marathon week just in time. DON’T TRY ANYTHING NEW OR UNFAMILIAR! That goes for shoes, stretches, gels, massage tools and yes, drills. And then today, when wheeling the just-emptied garden bin round to the back garden, I almost got to work chopping up the pile of branches we cut down the other weekend. Step inside, Sam Murphy, I ordered myself.

How to fill taper time, then? Well, there’s your feet to sort out. Cut toenails short and straight across, file away any hard ridges of skin and moisturise. Check – and recheck – your race instructions. Pack – and repack – your bag. (My book Marathon and Half Marathon From Start to Finish has a handy packing checklist.) Tell your supporters and spectators where you want them to be around the course and roughly what time to expect you. And, if you haven’t already done so, write your name on the front of your top in thick, black marker pen. Then it’s just a matter of putting your feet up and working your way through all those lovely carbs…

7661GE Marathon Course map 2019

 

A Beachy Head Trail Adventure

It’s when the Seven Sisters first appear that the wowing starts. The whiteness of the vertical cliffs, the jaggedy ins-and-outs of the headlands, as if great bites have been taken out of them… It’s breathtaking, literally and figuratively. You puff up each of the seven peaks, thinking bad thoughts about running and scolding yourself for not finding a more relaxing way of spending a day off – until you reach the top, gasp at the view and gallop gleefully down the other side.

We’re standing at the foot of the South Downs in Eastbourne, where a post marks the start of the 100-mile South Downs Way, which rollercoasters all the way to Winchester.

IMG_8431This hill will be familiar to anyone who’s taken part in or watched the infamous Beachy Head Marathon as it’s the first – and last – thing the runners encounter. Up it goes, at a merciless angle, sending your heart rate into the red before your Garmin’s barely locked on to satellites – and keeping it there for much of the punishingly precipitous race.

But on this particular crisp winter morning, we have something a lot more leisurely planned. A 20-mile loop taking in the villages of Jevington and Alfriston before swooping round to climb the Seven Sisters, pausing for tea and cake at Birling Gap, then scaling Beachy Head and careening back down the hill for home before dusk.

We set off at a jog-walk (aware of the need not to peak too soon) and when we reach the top, look back on Eastbourne laid out in miniature beside a sheet of grey-blue sea. The gorse-clad downs feel springy underfoot and it’s a minefield of shallow rabbit scrapes.

We follow the path inland taking the same northwesterly direction as the race route. With Jeff being a former winner of Beachy Head marathon, I’d assumed I couldn’t be in better company for today’s adventure, but it is soon apparent that my husband is suffering from route amnesia – ‘this next bit’s all flat,’ he says, just as the path takes yet another upward curve before finally descending to Jevington, home to the 300-year old Eight Bells pub and St Andrew’s Church, where the Saxon tower, built of flint and local sandstone, is over 1000 years old.

It’s a bit early for a drink so we press on, winding through Friston Forest to reach a well-groomed path on the roof of the downs, with 360-degree views. Below, the 235ft Long Man of Wilmington is etched on the hillside.

Three or so miles and one tricky descent later, we hit the road and cross the Cuckmere River, following it into the picture-postcard village of Alfriston. It’s definitely time for some sustenance now and we’re spoilt for choice – but the window display of freshly-baked scones in The Singing Kettle wins out. Rested and revived, we retrace our steps back across the bridge, this time heading south towards Litlington before the inevitable climb, which rewards us with views of Cuckmere Haven and the sea.

It’s when the Seven Sisters first appear that the wowing starts. The whiteness of the vertical cliffs, the jaggedy ins-and-outs of the headlands, as if great bites have been taken out of them… It’s breathtaking, literally and figuratively. You puff up each of the seven peaks, thinking bad thoughts about running and scolding yourself for not finding a more relaxing way of spending a day off – until you reach the top, gasp at the view and gallop gleefully down the other side.

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When the cottages, car park and decommissioned Belle Tout lighthouse at Birling Gap come into sight, we’re ready for more refuelling – and who can resist a National Trust café? The Gap is one of the few places along this part of the coast that you can actually get down to the beach – via a steep metal staircase. It’s not a day for a dip, but it’s worth the descent to see the chalky cliffs close up.

Now it’s ‘just’ Beachy Head to conquer before we fasten our seatbelts for the descent into Eastbourne. This is some climb, but the surface is good – the grass so short, it’s as if it has been trimmed with nail scissors. Below the vivid green downs, the sea swirls around the jaunty red and white striped Beachy Head lighthouse. It’s a wonder the cliff edge isn’t fenced off – at 531 feet, this is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain – but the views are all the more wondrous for this openness.

By now I’m weary, and as we reach the top of the hill we climbed out of Eastbourne this morning, I marvel at the breakneck speed Jeff – and other Beachy Head marathoners – manage once they get a whiff of the finish line at its foot. I’m quite seriously considering sliding down it on my bottom.

Jeff-Pyrah-winning-marathon

By the time we reach the trail post, we’ve clocked up a tad over 20 miles and the daylight is just beginning to fade. It’s definitely time for that drink now…

Want to come on our Beachy Head Trail Adventure? Our next trip is on Sunday, June 16th 2019, just a few places left.

Details at https://www.facebook.com/wearerunningforever under ‘Events’.

 

 

A race against time to get back to fitness

After being felled for nine days by a brutal virus, my marathon is hanging in the balance…

I’m facing the situation with equanimity and I’m not sure if this signifies a new maturity and perspective or suggests I don’t care as much as I used to about my running goals. As a dedicated over-analyser, the fact that I don’t have the energy for such navel gazing right now is a clear sign that I’m not fully recovered. For the moment, it simply feels good to be upright again.

The day before the virus struck, I ran 9 miles, 6 of them a tad faster than marathon pace. It felt unreasonably hard, and I should have suspected something was amiss. The next morning – Saturday – it was too late to cancel my coaching duties and I muddled through two hour-long sessions before heading home and climbing straight into bed, fully clothed and shivering. When I woke up, feverish, late in the night, I still had a stopwatch and whistle around my neck.

 

I didn’t get back out of bed again until the following Saturday and it took me a further two days to put on my running shoes to see if I had anything to give. Not much, it turned out. But two miles is better than being stationary and whatever panic my mind conjures up about how little time I have left and that 20-miler I missed on Sunday, my body knows that it needs to ease back in gently, deadline or no deadline.

Detraining

I’m thankful to my dear Garmin for notifying me at regular intervals that I am DETRAINING. No shit, Sherlock! But the scientific research makes for dispiriting reading. Studies suggest that fitness declines are sharpest in the first 12-14 days of inactivity, levelling off thereafter. One study of trained athletes found that levels of enzymes associated with endurance performance halved in 12 days, while VO2 max dropped by 7%. Another study showed a rapid reduction in blood volume, a lowering of lactate threshold and a greater reliance on carbohydrate metabolism (instead of fat). But on the brighter side, the research suggests it doesn’t take as long to regain recently-lost fitness attributes as it did to earn them in the first place.

I just have to hope I still have time to make the start line at Brighton.

 

 

Listening to your running body

If you listen to your body, what do you do when you hear a red flag flapping in the breeze between your ears?

‘Listen to your body.’ You’ve heard it a million times if you’re a runner, and you know that it means you have to pay attention to those warning signs of forthcoming doom in the guise of injury, pain, illness or temporary burnout.

But it’s not always that easy to tell exactly where these warning signs are coming from. Are they kosher? Have they been issued by the central governor in your brain (who I like to think of as my inbuilt hard-hat-wearing health and safety officer)? Or are they from a different place in your mind – perhaps a region of the brain concerned with motivation or emotions?

The reason it matters is that it might affect what you do when you ‘listen in’ and hear a red flag of some kind flapping in the breeze between your ears. Is it the rational, if somewhat over-zealous governor speaking? Or is the ancient reptilian part of your brain trying to protect you from attempting something that might cause you discomfort or that you might not succeed at – like an 18-mile long run with the last four miles at goal marathon pace?

Yesterday, my plan was exactly that run. But I woke up under a dark cloud and the idea of surmounting such a session felt almost impossible. My muscles ached as if I’d already done the bloody thing, and I was devoid of bounce. Aah, I thought. Better listen to my body. It’s definitely saying ‘no thanks.’

Decision made, my mood brightened and I got on with other things. Physical stuff, like digging in the garden and chopping wood. By late afternoon I was so energised I felt inclined to do the run – but knew there wasn’t enough daylight left to fit it in.  Tomorrow, then.

That is, today. It loomed large in my mind from the moment I woke up. My calf felt tight. My stomach felt a bit funny. My socks didn’t seem to fit right when I put them on, making me worry about chafing and blisters. But this time, I acknowledged the alerts and carried on with my run preparation regardless. This, I decided, is not physical, it’s mental.

The run started off feeling harder than it should. ‘WE FEEL TERRIBLE!’ my body told my central governor in a panic (it’s always shouting). ‘HOW WILL WE MANAGE 18 MILES? WE’VE ONLY DONE TWO AND WE’RE EXHAUSTED!’ ‘We’ll be OK,’ replied the guvnor. ‘We’ve got plenty of water and energy gels and it’s a beautiful day. Only seven more miles till we turn for home…’

I shaped my face into a smile (making sure to include my eyes in this forced expression of joy) and carried on. I took in the vivid blues of the sea, lakes and sky, and the yellows and greens of the fields. I listened to the birds singing, ate my energy gels, turned at 9 miles and sped up at 14. And I made it home without my calf (or indeed, anything else) hurting, my stomach exploding or my socks chafing.

Listening to your body is good advice, but knowing whether it’s got something worthwhile to say can be a tricky business.