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 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.

 

Nifty fifty? Sub 3.30 or bust at Brighton marathon

I’ve got a big birthday coming up this year. I’ve set myself a challenge to attempt before it arrives – a sub-3.30 marathon. I last achieved the heady heights of a sub-3.30 ten years ago, and thought I’d packed away my PB-chasing shoes over the distance (my only two marathons since then have been as a London Marathon sub-4.30 pacer and a windswept hilly affair in Orkney). But I’ve surprised myself with a hankering to know where I stand against the 26.2-mile beast as I approach my half-century. So, on April 14th I’ll be toeing the line of the Brighton Marathon.

I’m excited rather than scared. OK, I’m a little scared (any goal that’s worthy of your pursuit should send at least a tiny shiver down your spine) – but unlike in my younger years, the fear isn’t of failure, it’s a healthy dread of the hard work and discipline I’ll be putting in over the coming weeks.

Being the wise elder that I now am (!) and with ten more years’ experience of coaching runners, I’m fully aware that there’s a lot more to attaining a goal than picking one off the shelf and doing what it says on the tin in order to achieve it. When runners approach me about coaching, they often say ‘I’d like to go for the sub-4 [or sub-3 or sub-whatever] please,’ as if they were picking something off a menu. The assumption is that providing they do everything the programme says, they’ll get there. But it’s not that simple. You and I could follow the exact same training plan and run the same race but get totally different results because we’re bringing two completely different bodies, sets of genes, experiences, mindsets, strengths and weakness to the table. There is no set formula – for example, 40 miles a week, or three 20-milers – that everyone gunning for sub-3.30 must follow. Some will do far less and still get there – others could tick all the right boxes but fall short, or end up injured and not even make the start line. The truth is that coaching doesn’t start with the programme, it starts with the person. And if there’s any runner’s strengths and weaknesses I know inside out, it’s surely my own.

“Coaching doesn’t start with the programme, it starts with the person.”

I view putting a training programme together the same way I do cooking. At first, you follow a recipe to create the desired dish. But over the years, you become more like the Swedish Chef in The Muppets – omitting certain ingredients while adding a sprinkling of this and a dash of that to tailor it to your own requirements and preferences.

Given what I’ve said about individuality, it would be foolish to share my marathon plan with you, even if you, too, are 49½ years old and looking to relive your glory days. But I will tell you that it is built around a fortnightly cycle, rather than a weekly one, in order to fit in a range of different training intensities without overloading myself or omitting those all-important easy runs. And that I’ll be hitting my peak weekly mileage earlier – and staying there for longer – than I used to, allowing me to focus on increasing pace and leaving space for cutback weeks before a taper.

There are no guarantees, of course. It’s an experiment – an educated guess based on what I’ve learned about myself as a runner over three decades but especially the most recent one, in which I’ve come to accept that you can’t simply bend the body to fit the mind’s will. But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned thus far is that while having goals adds purpose, structure and excitement to your life, it’s the pursuit that provides these, not the attainment. And on that, there is no age limit.

Sam VLM hi res
Pacing VLM – a fun and rewarding day out!
This article appears in my Murphy’s Lore column in Runner’s World magazine’s March 2019 issue.

 

 

 

Surface tension

One of the reasons the anti-road brigade say that trail running is ‘better’, is that it puts less stress on the body. Intuitively, it makes sense (softer surface equals a softer landing, right?) but there has been surprisingly little research to back up the claim…

Are you a road runner or a trail runner? It’s not a question that I could answer definitively – I run where the day’s route takes me, be it through a leaf-carpeted woodland (this morning), along a city street (last week) or across a muddy field (yesterday). Each has its own pleasures and challenges.

But some runners can be very snobby about surface. A trail aficionado recently commented on Twitter that ‘people who do road marathons hate themselves.’  You’ll find similar disparaging remarks about tarmac enthusiasts if you look at trail running forums and specialist publications. The gist of it is that road running is deathly dull/bad for you/a poor substitute and that running off-road is in all ways more fun, healthier and generally superior. I think it’s an unfounded and unwelcome division – like vegans dissing vegetarians – we’re all runners, aren’t we?

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The tweet came to mind at the weekend, when I was toiling along a public footpath bordering a field that the farmer had decided to plough to the very edge of the barbed-wire fence. Each time my foot landed, the clump of earth underneath it would either crumble or roll, creating angles at my ankle and knee joints that would have a biomechanist brandishing their goniometer with alarm. Any views to be appreciated went unnoticed, since I had to keep my eyes firmly on the treacherous trail.

There was little relief to be had when I reached the stile, which was so overgrown with nettles that getting over it could have passed as a ‘I’m a celebrity…get me out of here’-style challenge. ‘Fun, this is not,’ I thought to myself. Fifteen minutes later, the nettle stings fading (the secret is to avoid touching them) I was floating along a blissfully smooth tarmac lane. The ironed-flat surface rendered me surefooted enough to appreciate my surroundings – ripe blackberries in the hedgerow, leaves just turning in the autumn sunshine. My good mood was restored.

Now, I’m not claiming that road running is more enjoyable than trail; nor ‘better’ in any way. I love the ever-changing demands of an off-road run – one minute, mud is sucking at your trainers, the next you’re bounding through knee-high grass, leaping over tangled tree roots or skipping from rock to rock. But it’s hard to find any kind of rhythm – which is why I also relish the clean, rhythmic clip of feet on tarmac and the space that that metronomic movement seems to create in my head.

One of the reasons the anti-road brigade say that trail running is ‘better’, is that it puts less stress on the body. Intuitively, it makes sense (softer surface equals a softer landing, right?) but there has been surprisingly little research to back up the claim. In fact, studies seems to suggest that there’s a complex and entirely subconscious interplay between our limbs and the surfaces we run on: the ‘stiffer’ the surface, the ‘softer’ we make the limbs, and vice versa. It’s known as ‘muscle tuning’. This continual adjustment of limb stiffness to match the surface the brain expects us to land on means that the resultant force is pretty much unchanged regardless of surface.

More recently, researchers have posited the theory that trail running may be healthier (though there is not data to prove that trail runners sustain fewer injuries as yet) because of the variety offered by the mixed terrain and undulations. Each footstep is slightly different from the last one and the next one, so the forces exerted on the body are applied in slightly different ways, reducing the risk of overuse. This makes perfect sense and is probably also why varying your running shoes, rather than wearing the same pair all the time, has been linked to a lower incidence of injury.

Variety is almost always better than doing the same thing all the time – but when it comes to running surfaces there’s no reason why a brightly-lit town pavement or a country B-road should not form part of that variety.

This article previously appeared in my Murphy’s Lore column in Runner’s World magazine