Running not working its usual magic? Me neither…

So here I am, with all the time in the world… and I’m trying to figure out why my beloved running feels so bloody hard.

Imagine someone offering you the chance to train without interruption. You can run daily, if you choose, on near-traffic-free roads, through parks swaying with blossom, woods carpeted in bluebells. And you’ll still have time for that daily core workout or strength session, too. Nutrition-wise, there’ll be no dinners out, no takeaways or boozy evenings fuelled by crisps and peanuts. All your usual commitments and routines – work, travelling, errands, family visits, nights out – will be temporarily put on hold while you focus entirely on your running. It sounds like something I might have wished for in the past. But now? Well, here I am, with all the time in the world… and I’m trying to figure out why running feels so bloody hard.

Maybe it’s all the energy I’m expending on worrying. When will this be over? What if I get it? What if I give it to someone else? Will a hug ever feel safe? What will become of my business? Will my teeth decay? Should I try to dye my own roots? Am I drinking too much? Am I thinking too much? Will life ever be the same? Should I want it to be?

Or perhaps it’s just that running’s lost some of its purpose. When we say we ‘love running’, is it truly the act of running – the process of putting one foot in front of the other – that we mean? Or is it the end goal that drives us? The shiny medal, the time on the clock… Or the opportunity to connect with others in a shared experience? Or the need for some respite from all the things that normally crowd our days and overfill our diaries? With all these ‘drivers’ absent, some of my reasons for running have just melted away.

In the lockdown world, I find myself setting out for runs and simply conking out halfway through. I slow to a walk while my body and mind squabble over the question ‘what’s the point?’ It’s not a happy place to be – so I’ve been looking for solutions. I’ve found it’s better when I run with a purpose – doing what you might call a ‘session’ – rather than just a run. Having to concern myself with hitting or maintaining a specific pace, or running for a set distance or duration, makes it feel less futile and more engaging.

Other distraction tactics have also helped me stay the course, which I’ve outlined below. Regarding number 5: At the end of yesterday’s run, utterly spent and walking, two magpies landed in the field next to me. I cursed, and wearily executed 10 squat jumps before carrying on. For some reason, I felt better afterwards.

  1. Count your cadence (the number of steps you take) for 1 minute. Then see if you can up the number by 5-10% over a subsequent minute, by thinking ‘fast and light.’
  2. See how many different types of birdsong you can hear, or even identify (although birds are bastards and hide/fly off so you can’t identify them!)
  3. At the end of each km you run, speed up for 20 seconds before returning to your previous pace. This is called surging and a) teaches you to recover on the move and b) prevents you getting into a plod.
  4. Pick up a pebble or stick. Run fast for a short time – such as 30-60 seconds, put your item down and jog back to where you started. Now run fast again, aiming to get at least as far as your pebble/stick. If you get further, move it before jogging back. Repeat as desired. Works on hills, too!
  5. Play running roulette: you pick a random scenario – eg. you see a cat/postbox/magpie on your run. A red car (or any car, if you’re in the sticks!)/horse/bus passes you. Any and every time this scenario happens, you stop running and do 10 jump squats (or pick your own poison!!) before continuing.
  6. Run for a view. The bluebells are out in force at the moment. Blossom trees are in bloom. The fields are awash with sunshine yellow rapeseed. Go and look at something beautiful.

Marathon training starts here!

It’s one month since thousands of lucky runners found out they’d landed a place in the London marathon. I’d wager that most of them haven’t started training yet. Too early? Well, it depends where you are to begin with. I believe a lot of runners make the mistake of waiting until January to start their official training. If you’re a seasoned runner, with a relatively high weekly mileage and, perhaps, other marathons under your belt, you may be fine delaying your official ‘build-up’ because you’ll be able to hit the ground running (pun intended). But if you’re less experienced, or not running much at the moment, or haven’t done a long race in a while, what are you waiting for?! I have had recent enquiries from potential coaching clients who despite knowing they are running London/Brighton/Paris, are currently only running 8-12 miles PER WEEK!

As a coach, I like people to be comfortable running 13 miles for their long run in week 1 of their plan (assuming we’re starting 16 weeks out from race day). If you can only start at, say 10 miles, you will waste valuable weeks building up to the point where you can run 13 miles – and that makes it a race against time to achieve a decent peak mileage and longest long run. The last thing you want is to run your longest-ever run (say, the holy grail of 20 miles) just once, three weeks before your longest-ever run (the marathon). It’s all too bunched up towards the end of the plan and it doesn’t give you sufficient time to recover from the peak long run. Having to squash in weekly consecutive long runs, just to ensure you can make it to a 20-miler also risks injury. There are far better ways to plan your training!

If you are doing a spring marathon, and you haven’t run 13 miles recently (or ever) – start working towards that now and you’ll be in a much stronger position come December or January when you embark on your ‘official’ plan.

One of the reasons I use 13 miles as a base measure is because it’s half the distance you’ll be racing (psychologically, you’re halfway there straight from the off). It’s also because I believe that anyone who has signed up to run  a marathon in the spring should be able to cover the marathon distance over the course of a week right from the off. Think about it: you’re going to be doing this distance in a DAY, so it seems reasonable to be able to accumulate it over a week.! And I don’t like the ‘long run’ to comprise more than 50% of a runner’s total weekly mileage. Say you start with a weekly mileage of 26 miles – that allows you to include three shorter runs (one at faster-than-marathon-pace, such as a speed or tempo session of some kind, I’d advise) along with a long run. Then, as your weekly mileage gradually increases, so does your long-run distance.

Our Master Your Marathon workshop takes place in January 2020 and offers the perfect opportunity to get some expert insights into how to set a realistic marathon goal, how to train effectively and how to prepare for the big day. It includes a guided, supported long run tailored to the needs of every participant. Find out more or book a place here.

 

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.