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.

 

 

 

What’s the difference between a placebo and an ergogenic aid?

Whether it’s EPO, caffeine or compression socks, what we believe affects our performance probably does…

Oh sorry, were you expecting a punchline? I’m afraid it’s my reflections on the blurry line between something that science says improves performance (an ergogenic aid) and a placebo (something that shouldn’t, but does).

I’m one of those people who considers the fruits of scientific research to be the bedrock of improving athletic performance, so studies like this recent offering from the University of Sao Paulo University are a useful but disconcerting reminder that that how the body responds to any stimulus cannot be separated from how the mind responds.

The Brazilian study looked at the effects of caffeine ingestion on performance in two cycling tests, compared to a control condition without caffeine. But here’s the thing: unbeknown to the subjects, the caffeine in the second trial was bogus and therefore could not exert any ergogenic (performance-enhancing) effect. So what happened in the three trials? Time to exhaustion and rate of perceived exertion (how hard the cyclists felt they worked) in both the real caffeine trial and the sham caffeine trial were better than in the control trial and barely different from each other. In other words, just thinking they’d had caffeine enabled the subjects to cycle harder, whether they had or not.

It was only a small study, admittedly, but it did remind me of an evening when I drank a cup of coffee shortly before bedtime, having been assured it was decaf, and went on to sleep soundly – only to be told by my host the next morning that I’d been Java-powered. A sort of reverse placebo effect… And that, in turn, reminded me of the time I got rather tipsy at a party, only to discover that I had been supping non-alcoholic beer all evening.

It demonstrates how powerfully our beliefs effect our reality – and, when it comes to running, performance. In 2015, researchers at the University of Glasgow recruited a group of runners to test a new drug purporting to mimic the endurance-boosting effects of the banned drug EPO. The runners took part in a 3km race and then injected the substance daily for seven days before repeating the 3km race. Not only did their performance improve by 1.2 per cent – 9.7 seconds (the equivalent of around two minutes off a marathon time), their perception of effort was lower and they recovered faster. Impressive stuff: especially when you learn that the ‘drug’ was actually a harmless saline solution.

In other research, exercisers bounced back from an intense workout after bathing for 15 minutes in lukewarm water containing a special ‘recovery oil.’ Their recovery – gauged by pain levels, leg strength and readiness to exercise again – was significantly faster than a control group who bathed in plain warm water.

The fact that the mind can exert such a strong influence over the body through the courage of its convictions throws into question how much sway scientific research should hold over what we do, or don’t do, in our efforts to run and recover faster. It certainly suggests there is a Tinker Bell element to it – you have to believe in the pills, potions and practices you invest in to run better and consider ditching the ones that, deep down, you don’t think play any role in aiding performance.

And that brings me to one final study to share, regarding the thorny issue of whether stretching is important or not for runners. The researchers found that when half a group of committed stretchers were instructed not to stretch before their runs for 16 weeks, they suffered more injuries than their peers who continued to stretch. Conversely, half of a group of non-stretchers were asked to stretch pre-run for the same period while their fellow stretch shirkers carried on as usual. Once again, it was those who were asked to act in a way that did not fit with their beliefs that got the most injuries.

What was on trial in this study wasn’t stretching at all, but what we believe about it. And that leads me to conclude that perhaps the biggest ergogenic aid of all is the one we already have – sitting between our ears.

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3 ways to run a faster 5K – tomorrow!

OK, so there’s no way you can improve your running fitness in the next 24 hours. But that doesn’t mean you can’t upgrade your performance. Here are just three ideas – and they’re all legal!

Grin and bear it

Kipchoge was on to something when he flashed the odd smile on his way around the Monza race track during his sub-two-hour marathon attempt last year. A recent study at Ulster University found that smiling during hard exercise improves running economy (a measure of efficiency). Runners were instructed to either smile or frown while they performed four hard six-minute runs on a treadmill. The results showed that smiling improved their running economy by 2.8 per cent compared to frowning, and by 2.2 per cent compared to a ‘control’ condition, in which facial expression was neutral. Get that happy face ready…

Full of beans

You’ve heard it before (and there is research to suggest that not everyone benefits) but a study at the University of Ballarat in Australia found that a pre-run caffeine dose (5mg per kg of each athlete’s body weight) elicited a small but significant improvement in 5km run time while a review from the University of Georgia reported that the average improvement in ‘time to completion’ trials (which mimic real-life racing better than ‘time to exhaustion’ trials) was 3.1%, with doses ranging from ranging from 3-8mg/kg.

Unlike with nitrates (aka beetroot juice), the effect was seen in both recreational and well-trained runners. For best results, studies suggest that your caffeine hit needs to be taken around an hour before your workout (which, conveniently, means you’ll have time to visit the loo after the caffeine has exerted its effect on your bowels!).

Energy gels and caffeine pills – or coffee? It doesn’t much matter, though the former allow you to keep tabs on exactly how much caffeine you are consuming.

bulletproof coffee

Lighten up

Leave those trusty cushioned trainers at home and step into a lightweight racing flat. Shoe weight really does make a difference. In a clever study at the University of Colorado, subjects performed three 3000m trials wearing Nike racing flats; but unbeknownst to them, the 200g shoes had tiny lead beads sewn into them for two of the trials, adding 100g and 300g respectively. The results showed that each 100g of additional weight slowed the runners down by 0.78%. What does that mean in real terms? Well, for someone running the 3000m in 11 minutes 23 seconds (the time predicted for a runner who can do 5K in 20 minutes flat) this would equate to slowing by 5.3 seconds for each  100g of additional weight. This is an instance where less really is more…