René Borg is one of Ireland’s most innovative running coaches known from TodayFM and Athletics Illustrated.
You can learn more about René, his teachings and projects on this page. To hire René click the ‘work with me’ link.
René Borg is one of Ireland’s most innovative running coaches known from TodayFM and Athletics Illustrated.
You can learn more about René, his teachings and projects on this page. To hire René click the ‘work with me’ link.
Today, interval training has become synonymous with hard training for the majority of runners. It is no wonder this type of training causes a bit of confusion as even the name is a misnomer. Often we will say ‘we’re doing intervals’ and we will think about the hard sections but the ‘interval’ in ‘interval training’ originally referred to the ‘rest interval’ (also the meaning of the word itself).
Leaving the name aside, it’s a bigger mistake to think of intervals merely as ‘hard’ training because they can be run at any intensity. Truly there are only two basic types of workouts: steady effort runs and varied effort runs. An interval session is varied effort because intervals of easier running or recovery break up faster sections. This basic format has spawned countless specific session types such as alternations, lactate shuttlers, cut-downs, Fartlek, cruise-intervals, tempo-intervals, and many more. Steady effort runs are the opposite – runs with the intention of maintaining even pace or effort throughout. In reality even steady effort runs do not truly exist because you can never hold the EXACT same pace all the time – there’ll always be some variation. But it’s the intention that counts here.
Igloi intervals are an example of intervals that are not necessarily hard but that can serve a different purpose than traditional intervals. First a bit of back story:
In the recent year I have – with some success – tried to break what I call my ‘pace rut’ which is basically finding it difficult to do the hero workouts of my glorious 2012 season where I seemed I never trained as well as that year neither before nor since. The challenge is that recreating the circumstances as they were do not work because we are always operating on shifting sands – our bodies change and it takes more and more to make them respond with a training reaction. A beginner can be coached by just about anyone or do just about any training plan and they will improve. The seasoned runner often hits a point where nothing seems to make them truly better. There is so much paint on the canvas that nothing new seems to stick.
You can attack these problems from many angles and you don’t have any option but to simply try – you cannot intellectualise yourself to the root of the problem. All we can know for sure is that because human beings are complex dynamic systems, then we also know that they operate within constraining forces and bottlenecks. A limitation in one key system may be preventing all other systems from moving on. The best example is injury or illness: once present it is often impossible to get the body to adapt beyond a certain point because the injury restrains the adaptations. But it could be anything: the strength of your breathing muscles, your running technique, the way you eat, the stress level in your life or the more classical culprits – the aerobic and anaerobic systems.
I tried first to repair the aerobic system to see if this would bring paces back up. I noticed eventually that extending distance was easy enough but it only had a small effect on average pace. I could easily go out and run all day (as I did during a trail running holiday) without feeling one bit tired at the end as long as it was slow. So I threw strides and power training at the problem again with some positive effect – race performances were slightly better this year than previous ones and my 100m times began to drop again. But average training pace did not yet improve much which is what you’d expect because there needs to be some kind of transfer mechanism between very general work (long and slow or very short and very fast) towards the middle (medium work, medium speed). It does not magically ‘just happen’, in most cases. Enter Igloi intervals.
Mihaloy Igloi utilised a format of interval training with many short repetitions interspersed with very short rest intervals done at various paces which were described through subjective statements such as ‘easy’, ‘fresh’ and ‘fast good’. Without going further into details about his method (others have done this far better elsewhere), you can make it work for you by selecting a very short interval (I opted for 150 metres) which you aim to run at the pace you’d like to restore as your ‘default’ – in my cause the 4:40-4:50 min/km pace I used to be able to hold for 90-120 minutes no problem even over undulating courses (that’s a 42 second 150 m). The recovery is a 50 metres float, very easy. Since Monday is my recovery day and I had decided I really needed it I confined myself to a very short 4 km run (20 x 150m, 50m float). So the session was:
I wanted to keep this aerobic (recovery run after all) so put my heart rate warning on to ‘beep me’ at 143 bpm or higher. The way I imagined the run I would be able to run longer total time at ‘better paces’ without pushing my heart rate into the ‘steady’ zone (which would have made the run a short easy tempo). Keeping in mind that the road outside my house is very hilly, I knew some reps would be a bit slower and to go by feel in those cases. So how did it pan out? The graph below show it:
Basically of the 20 minutes run only 4 minutes were slower than 5:19 min/km pace and I also got about 2.5 minutes at paces from 3:37 to 4:35 min/km. The heart rate did not run away on me doing this: the average was 142 beats per minute with the highest 153 bpm.
I had managed to peak at 54 VDOT performances for my three target races this year: the Wicklow Road Championship, the Wicklow Way Relay and The Relay. But most of the year I had hovered around 48-51 with my best level in 2012 being 58-60 (despite bizarelly having been measured with a VO2max of 78 in a laboratory – an engine whose potential has never shown itself in an actual race likely due to other constraints). After the recent race I had dropped to 49, recovering to 51 by this weekend’s session. This run immediately jumped it up to 52. Did I suddenly get fitter? Unlikely, but rather it shows that this workout type gave me a better relative pace for the average heart rate – so overall a better workout than had I just gone out and run 142 bpm average for the whole stretch (although I should really do that now to prove my words!).
A few weeks ago I covered an Out and Back over 6.1 km (so 50% longer) at a pace of 5:14 min/km with an average heart rate of 151 and higher maximum heart rate (today’s pace was 5:00 on average at a heart rate of 142). So I was 14 seconds faster per kilometer for 9 beats of my heart less per minute. The 6 km course is a bit hillier than the 4 km but Grade Adjusted Pace was also better at 4:59 min/km versus 5:09 min/km (so 10 seconds faster per kilometer adjusting for hill differential). Interestingly in the longer run I never got down to paces as fast as 3:37 min/km. So what does all that mean?
Essentially, it is a way to extract ‘more time’ at certain paces at lesser cost by using small recoveries to extend the time you can maintain these paces. So how do you give it a try?
Here are the steps:
As our club organised the Brockagh Burst Winter/Spring League race today, we had a good field of juniors partaking. The ‘short course’ was right on the limit of the distance and climb allowed by WMRA (World Mountain Running Association) for the under-15 age groups and included some features may have a coach unaccustomed to hill running raise an eye brow or two: a very steep grassy bank, some exposure to cold winds and sleet and a steep descent on grass, bit of rock and lots of fast fire-road.
Our junior coaching team had done a superb job preparing the squad by taking them out over the course on Friday so they had familiarised themselves with what lay ahead. One of our senior runners also ran with the pack and a special marshal manned the junior turn-off. So basic safety was not an issue.
What really impressed me was the reviews after: I was told that the juniors enjoyed this type of experience much more than training on the track (not to say they don’t enjoy that) because it’s ‘more of an adventure’. Thinking back to my own childhood I can understand why – I was brought up with radio orienteering (meaning running by torchlight through pathless forests and scrubs never knowing what you’ll step on next). So coming into mountain running I had no concerns about the terrain. These juniors going up a steep grassy bank will hopefully be more like Kilian Jornet in the way their minds scale challenges: they’ll see a hill in a road race or cross-country and think ‘that’s not a hill’. They’ll run over muddy cross-country course and think ‘bit slippy but nothing like that hill race’.
As coaches and parents, we set the parametres for what children see as normal and what they see as extreme. Hill running really is under-rated in what it can do for the physical and athletic development of children. Psychologically children are generally adventurous and open to the outdoors and physically they are at a stage where motor skill development is rapid. So do we want a generation who see even a trail as extreme because it’s ‘uneven’ or a generation who have no fear of any terrain or any gradient. They can still grow up to be road, cross-country or track runners if they so wish or if their obvious talent is so great that they have to move off the hills to fully match their achievements to their talents. But it seems to me – not just on today’s evidence – that the trails and hills should be a core part of children’s running experience in the formative years of their athletic career because it is more natural, more physically challenging, more diverse and varied and simply more fun. The strict ‘against the clock and no variables’ type of running of track and road is very much a sport modelled on an adult mindset. There’s time enough for juniors to make the shift to this once they pass into our ranks.
In most sports a strong distinction exists between the competitive season and the pre-season. Take the English Premiership where the club squads spent the summer months preparing the bodies for a long and grueling season. They need this period in order to create the fitness necessary to sustain the rigours of the long season full of matches and to create a new level of performance by having time to develop new physical, mental, technical and tactical skills, something which cannot easily be done in the midst of a hectic match schedule.
Seasons without end
Both competitive and fun runners now find themselves in a season superficially without any real end and no real beginning. Almost any kind of race can be raced at any time of the year and even the disciplines that are not available year-round – such as cross-country and track – can stretch over 5 or 6 months. This creates a culture of perpetual racing and constant need to step-up and be ‘on duty’ for the loyal club runner or a source of ever-present temptation for the fun runner.
Because coaches are under a certain amount of pressure to create interesting sessions and often do not feel they can justify their position by saying ‘well, tonight we’re going to do 60 minutes easy to steady together’, we lose even more of the traditional focus of a pre-season. We have hard sessions and races of all types available – or even pushed at us – year-round, often by well-meaning coaches who are pushing these sessions on athletes because they themselves feel under pressure by the perceived expectations of their athletes. Coaches become part of the entertainment industry, rather than educators and mentors.
This does not create an environment for realising the full potential of each athlete. Without a long dedicated period of mainly easy to moderate training without any distractions or set-backs caused by hard racing or prematurely intense workouts, runners never get a chance to really develop especially the basic abilities. When injury rears its head it becomes particularly troublesome because the physical and mental preparedness of the athlete will be lower than ever when he or she returns to running. More often than not they will feel the temptation – or duty towards club or coach – to resume racing action well before it is advisable.
Moving back in time to 1950ies and 1960ies New Zealand when master coach Arthur Lydiard laid out the foundations for much of today’s training practices, a very distinct season existed:
The period of cross-country and road-racing was not considered too seriously and as a form of preparation for the pre-season which Lydiard labelled ‘marathon conditioning’. This consisted of 10 weeks although in his later books he recommended spending as much as 3 to 6 months preparing the body for harder training and racing. In this he mirrored the earlier advice of Percy Cerutty who dedicated 6 months of every year to ‘General conditioning’ and focusing on simply ‘getting stronger’ with 3 months of race practice and 3 months competition.
As a club coach, I advise that coaches clearly bulk out a sizeable part of the year – or even two parts (one in Summer, one in Winter) as dedicated ‘pre-season’ where racing should take a complete backseat and no high intensity workouts are done. The focus is purely on creating a new performance level, clearing up old injuries and moving past them and work on the areas holding the runner back. This could be done by not insisting every member of the club, for instance, be ready and available for the entire cross-country season or to train straight through most of the races (as Percy Cerutty’s athletes used to do) not paying them too much respect but merely treating them as a hard steady workout in the middle of the winter season. This means sometimes putting the needs of the individual higher than the needs of the club. A difficult but necessary balancing act for coaches to take upon themselves as we tend to be the main catalysts of the environment that exists around our athletes.
This way many athletes would be able to dedicate the dark and wet months from November to February mainly to training or, for athletes with a longer season, perhaps the period January to March or April. The mid-summer can also serve as a good period for pre-season if Autumn objectives are very important for the runner or the club. But this means avoiding the temptation of the many summer races and the club putting on workouts of a steadier more endurance-focused nature during that period. Smaller clubs struggle to accommodate this but there are solutions – such as providing your runners with heart rate or pace ceilings so that the person doing ‘pre-season’ is running ‘easy to steady’ in a workout where a runner further along the peaking curve is doing ‘steady to hard’.
Happy festive season and I hope the seasonal spirit of this post was of use to you going into 2017.
‘Everyone knows the ingredients, few know the recipe.’ – Arthur Lydiard
My main desire as a running coach is to simplify the training system, we put in front of runners. Running as a sport is superficially simple but at the same time endlessly complex because it deals with complex organisms. The word ‘complex’ does not mean ‘complicated’ but it appreciates that when you deal with human beings you enter the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’ – when you start out training or coaching you simply cannot know everything that will become important.
The more rigid the structure of training plan and system we put in place the more we risk forcing these complex variations through a funnel that doesn’t suit them. We need to step back to universal principles that are demonstrably true equally for all individuals (such as the force of Gravity which affects us all in the same manner) and focus training on how to apply the effects of these laws to the ever-evolving unique situations of each individual.
Arthur Lydiard said about running training that ‘everyone knows the ingredients, very few know the recipe’. This metaphor is as helpful as it is true – as coaches and runners none of us are truly inventing anything ‘new’ anymore – all the ingredients are pretty much discovered and several well-known recipes exist. We have reached a stage instead where the communicating the necessary steps of how to apply proven recipes is the task that will distinguish mediocre coaches from great ones, the successful from the not so successful.
In my own search to try to take the many successful historical system and communicate their key principles in a simpler manner for today’s audience, I have begun to settle on the following ways to represent the three core ingredients of running: consistency, endurance and power:
Before I go on keep in mind the truth about models: all models are wrong, but some are useful*. A useful model for guiding our running training decisions needs to be simple and succinct so that a runner can infer the correct decisions about what to do day to day and week on week intuitively.
* True because models are always simplified abstractions of a certain perspective of reality – they cannot capture the full complexity of reality itself. So no model can ever be 100% true. We need to take care not to live our lives as if it was any different
There are many layers of traditional training plans that while not completely useless, have bothered me because they add layers of complication that we may or may not need. A good example is phases and periods. On the one hand this can be useful to guide runners about what the focus of a particular period is (such as a ‘general period’ or a ‘base phase’). On the other hand, it adds extra words that we all need to think about he meaning off. Let’s play with the idea of removing phases and training periods and replacing them with the three elements of running: consistency, endurance and power. At any given time we are working on one of these three:
* This is not the generally accepted definition but rather one proposed by Ivan Rivera Bours which I decided to make the standard definition for our coaching system at ChampionsEverywhere. In my view it is more useful and accurate than previous definitions – in running we need to be able to create roughly 180 repetitions (strides) per minute to gain the greatest efficiency through elastic return and minimising muscle action.
Over the years I have come to realise that a lot of the seeming inconsistencies in certain training methods can easily be explained once you understand the balance between these three factors – a relationship that really came together for me through the writings of Ivan Bours from Running in Systems. Advocates of one method tend to establish an ‘out of context’ strawman of other systems to ‘beat up’ – it’s the usual ‘us versus them’ habit playing out in our minds to defend our favourite systems from others.
A lot of opponents of Lydiard’s period of ‘long slow or steady distance’, for instance, are both wrong and right when pointing out that it ‘doesn’t work’. This period works in the right context: most of his athletes had a very high power output (young strong men) when they initially went into the program and came from a physical culture (1950ies new Zealand) so their endurance could be perfectly expressed. Throw a runner today who is often criminally deficient in power directly into high volume and you risk getting a pure plodder. Similarly, when you read Lydiard’s early books carefully it is clear that the first step is to achieve consistency and his approach takes a very gradual approach to building new runners into a regular routine. These beginners often start with ‘Out and Backs’ where incidentally you will generally express a healthy level of power for the duration of the run because you run well within your limits. Similarly, he would often create the right level of base strength, where missing, through introducing the runners gradually to cross-country BEFORE any kind of ‘marathon-conditioning’ phase. Today’s common view on these methods is more stereotypical and adopted by many simply as ‘go out there and complete time on your feet at any cost and keep increasing it’. He also built in what was essentially a POWER focused phase with his famous ‘hill conditioning’ which featured plyometric (explosive low-contact jumping) exercises performed uphill. Lydiard very early on understood the true meaning of ‘running-specific strength’ but I won’t elaborate on that tangent here.
Consistency get’s the central place in the triad for this reason: it does not matter whether you currently need to focus more on endurance or on power if you do not first have consistency. Consistency means you have a routine with regular enough stimulus to continuously improve in sustainable steps and this again largely rests on being able to stay healthy and injury-free. ‘Consistency’ training therefore is about creating a runner who runs in a way that does not wreck their body and who has a life situation and habits that allows for recovery. It is about creating healthy training habits such as ‘train, don’t strain’ rather than ‘no pain, no gain’ which can never breed consistency – only a stop-go system of ‘breakdown’ and ‘restart’ – probably the most common way people’s training end up today as the 80% injury rate (unmoved since the 70ies) confirms.
‘Consistency’ training therefore is about creating a runner who runs in a way that does not wreck their body and who has a life situation and habits that allows for recovery.
If we don’t have consistency because – let us say – we move terribly and our running style predisposes us to injury, then its pointless to train for endurance OR power as the brain will pick up on this danger and restrict performance (often through manifesting pain or keeping your paces down). Abilities that are generally presented as ‘fundamentals’ in training or physical therapy literature such as mobility, stability, strength, skill, technique, motor control and range of motion (note some are different names for the same thing) falls into this box. Consistency requires a natural range of motion for instance and it requires a certain baseline of technique (optimal ‘biomechanics’) to be present and a certain type of strength. Sometimes a runner achieves consistency because they have a few of these but not the others – so a runner with tremendous strength can achieve consistency even in the face of poor motor skill. It is not optimal – but sufficient.
Coach and athlete must decide the risks and benefits of diving deep into these areas (i.e. ‘you’re very strong but move rather poorly, what can we risk changing now without negatively affecting you for a long time to gain long-term benefits in return’). Generally the answer comes through a process of stochastic tinkering – applying small gradual changes and using the feedback of each change to guide the next (‘well give you a simple postural drill for 6 weeks and otherwise continue as normal – let us see if we see a positive motor response without drop in performance’).
In this system, the runner and coach must together assess the current priority based on asking the question ‘what do we have and what do we need the most’. We may have consistency (let us say a runner walks through my door who has been training 5-6 days per week for three years with little issue). I’d be happy to tick the ‘consistency’ box (for now) and would then assess, based on historical race results, training records and physical testing, whether the runner has an endurance or a power deficit (finding the bottle-neck – the critical constraint stopping long-term development). We want to walk Lydiard’s ‘Path to Full Potential‘ and we cannot do so if we ignore a glaring weakness.
At the outset of this article I mentioned the desire to strip training theory down to the bare bones and the example of ‘removing’ possibly unnecessary layers of information such as training periods and phases. Instead of having a ‘general period’ followed by a ‘specific period’ and so on, we can instead simply say that ‘this week we focus on power’ or ‘the next four weeks are all about consistency’. We also move away from another pet peeve of mine: the proliferation of physiological terms in book for laymen. Scientists and science are there to tells us why the world is the way it is. But coaching is about ‘how to do it’ and this does not require an understanding of the underlying physiology (which is still in its infancy anyway and ever-developing) – you only need to know what works and what doesn’t. So we do not need to worry about various thresholds and what they are doing inside the body. Instead we can fall back on analysis by feel the way Lydiard did it: for instance he knew that high volume required staying at efforts that allowed recovery within 24 hours. He called such efforts 1/4 effort and 1/2 effort and described them subjectively.
This does not mean we have to stop using heart rate monitors – they are still useful feedback tools and ‘lie detectors’ and can help you understand your response to training better. Let us say you have 12 weeks to your next target race. You’ve been off running for a while due to other commitments. You and your coach know from experience that you are strong and powerful but lose endurance quickly and you currently feel unfit. You make a loose decision to spend the first 4 weeks getting back into a consistent habit and ensuring you can go back to training 5 or 6 times per week without issue. You and your coach work out the details. Since power is not a big priority for you, the next 6 weeks are ear-marked for ‘endurance’ with the final two weeks some race pace specific coordination (I did not touch on that in this article – in short: it’s the final piece you put in and what Lydiard fittingly called ‘Coordination’ which means ‘coordinating your endurance power at a race specific pace).
Finally, even within systems with periods or phases you never train only one thing – its only the emphasis that varies. A Lydiard base phase included ‘power’ work in the form of Fartleks, some steady runs and strides whereas endurance was still present in later weeks – only less so. Going back to the ingredient and recipe metaphor: you may add most of the spices up front but you still add a few later as the dish settles and you get an idea of the flavour.
To be successful in running we must have the factors in place creating consistency in our training and then we build a foundation of tirelessness (endurance) and explosiveness (or ‘reactive strength’ and ‘power’ the specific strength necessary for running) with the emphasis guided by the strengths and weaknesses of the individual athlete. Once these basics are firmly in place a brief period of specific training to coordinate our abilities brings us to a peak.
I will elaborate further on how to implement this as part of my work to complete the ChampionsEverywhere training system 3.0 – like previous iterations the goal is to simplify the message while staying true to the same unchanging universal natural principles.
Strength and Coordination and Integrative Approach. Frans Bosch.
Running to the Top. Arthur Lydiard.
Running in Systems. Ivan Rivera Bours.
Thinking in Systems. Donatella Meadows.
Arthur Lydiard, perhaps my primary coaching influence (although many vie for the title), first led me to the workout he called ‘windsprints’ or simply ‘sprint until winded, then float and repeat’.
Lydiard had a very simple – pre-physiology logic – for using this workout. He felt that longer hard sessions left the entire body very tired and needing many days recovery. On the other hand if you sprinted only briefly followed by short running recoveries, you could accumulate a lot of fatigue in the legs very rapidly without leaving a lot of residual fatigue.
“If you run 20×400 metres, you will be at it a long time and you will become very tired; but if you run five laps of the track by sprinting 50 metres in every 100m metres, floating the other 50, to give you 20 sharp sprints in all, you will be extremely tired in your running muscles, but will have taken only 7 minutes to do so. Sharpening puts the knife-edge on anaerobic training capacity without pulling down the good condition you have carefully built up.” – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard
Based on this he made this a customary exercise during the final weeks of training for races as a ‘sharpening exercise’ and I have been using the workout in this format ever since including our final preparations for the Wicklow Novice yesterday evening.
Interestingly, Lydiard did not refer to his workout with the word ‘wind-sprints’ in his original (and superior) book (Run the Top from 1962). I prefer this book because it was written in the middle of his halcyon years – it would be another 2 years until he celebrated Peter Snell’s double 800/1500m gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. In Run to the Top he mentions workouts such as ‘Run fifty yard dashes, alternating each with the customary sixty-yard float, for three miles’.The early book has an almost endless variety of ‘dash’ and ‘sprint’ sharpener whereas the later books settle on a more prescriptive formula for windsprints called 100/100 and 50/50 (or in ‘Running with Lydiard’ 45 metre windsprints every 100 metres and 100 metre windsprints every 200 metres).
Either way you choose to execute this workout (and I prefer using the varied rather than the standardised versions), you have shorter bursts of MAXIMUM speed followed by easier running. Normally, less experienced athletes will be unable to complete more than 6 to 10 minutes of this. I have seen some elite athletes I work with complete up to 20 minutes. Peter Snell, as a miler and half-miler, would have used 2 miles on the track as he describes in his autobiography ‘No bugles, no drums’ (called so because there are no bugles and no drums in the book!).
During the cross-country season we do our windsprints on heavy grass because attaining maximum speed is not our goal – rather it is tiring our legs quickly with an effort that feels similar to what will happen at the very end of the cross-country races.
For ease of execution I place four big cones on each corner of the GAA pitch we use for sessions and we use the long sides (roughly 110-120 metres) for the ‘sprint’ and the short side (90-100 metres) for the ‘float’.
My instructions to our team were, from memory, as follows:
Runners recently returned from injury were told to test their legs with relaxed strides rather than all out sprints but otherwise follow along with the format.
As the workout can be very testing, although brief, we do a very long warmup – 3 km of easy running minimum followed by 400 metres of ‘Indian/Brazilian run’ (running in a column formation with the back runner sprinting to the front – basically an exercise in acceleration and overtaking) and then some hurdling and jumping over low and high hurdles.
Because I did not want people over-cooked I explained that ‘most athletes have had plenty at 10 repeats’ which the group took to heart and everyone stopped at that number. Unfortunately, I had lost count myself and decided to continue running until 10 minutes – getting me 12 repeats. This was of no consequence as my quality (i.e. speed and running form) had not begun to drop very much. I refer here again to Lydiard’s principle to ‘train what you want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen’ or ‘train to failure, train to fail’.
The first one or two can feel deceptively easy but then it begins to catch up on you and the ‘float’ tends to begin to slow down noticeable (you can see this here in my workout).
However, if done well an experienced athlete can stay very steady. I began with a number of 22 second repeats followed by a few 21 second ones. I never went slower than 23 seconds. This fits with another principle I believe in ‘controlled aggression’ (to be violated during the late stage of races and the odd ‘come to Jesus’ workout but not habitually).
I noticed that towards the end of every sprint I felt exactly like I would do at the end of a race desperately fighting my way over the finish line. The little red cone became my whole world for a few brief seconds. Having this experience almost twelve times during a session helps up the capacity for what discomfort we believe we can accept.
The adrenaline boost from the workout is rather large so expect to be hyper the evening after doing it. Personally, I can still feel the adrenaline in the body as I write this 15 hours later!
For a more technical ‘blow by blow’ set of instructions on how to do wind-sprints refer to my earlier post on ChampionsEverywhere on the workout.
A lot of research has gone into the area of ‘priming’ which has shown that the best way to prepare for a race is not always to ease off completely. Neuromuscular strength gains from better coordination and training of the nervous system and brain can be attained very quickly – within a few days sometimes and thus be of benefit to the race whereas benefits to overall fitness happen much slower. Workouts like windsprints are a huge stimulus to the nervous system because the top speeds means the brain has to recruit pretty much ALL AVAILABLE MUSCLE FIBRES. There is much research and practical experience to suggest this can be very helpful on race day as long as it is not done too hard too close to the event.
Our club Glendalough AC gears up for the Irish Winter cross-country season starting with back to back weekend commitments on the 2nd and 9th of October. Since we view this essentially as a precursor to Winter training, we try to not overdo high intensity work in an attempt to not wear down too much of next year’s condition.
This Sunday some of us travel to the traditional ‘open’ cross-country race at Stamullen in County Meath (the Star of the Seas) and with a few others running at the Dublin Half-marathon on Saturday or the Rathfarnham 5k this Sunday, we had to keep things short enough to allow recovery.
A big challenge which turns many good track and road runners into poor cross-country runners is constant change in ‘resistance’ from the course. The softer and heavier the ground the more muscular work must compensate for the lack of elastic recoil. Slopes and obstacles provide additional resistance and so do the regular sharp turns and twisty bends that slow you down and force you to accelerate back up to race pace – an inefficient way to run but one we must all master. So cross-country doesn’t suit muscularly weaker metronome-pacing and one-dimensional runners so well and neither does it favour overstriders who get punished heavily for their longer ground contact time on such terrain. Great coaches like Lydiard and Cerutty recognised this and saw cross-country as the natural way to precondition athletes for the winter training and the season ahead because it exposes our weaknesses and helps us work on them.
With that in mind I designed a short session that looks like this:
The main session aimed to practice the constant breaking up off ones pace alternating stride (very fast efforts) with easy sections. Obstacles further brought in a challenge to express high power quickly. I used plastic hurdles of three different heights for runners to pick what suited them best. Some hurdles were placed on easy sections and some on stride sections. In addition a few very sharp bends were inserted to get us ready to accelerate in and out of it quickly.
It took roughly 9 minutes to complete a circuit of just under 2 km with the overall strain being medium although heart rates would hit over 180 bpm for brief periods. Pace varies enormously because most of the strides were as short as 6 to 8 seconds and often involved accelerations out of sharp turns. Even so we could see paces up below 3:30 min/km (keep in mind we are not world class runners here). Just how chaotic this looks you can see here as I hit the ‘lap’ button every time we passed a cone.
To balance this out we did 10 minutes very steady cross-country running after a short jogging intermezzo during which we covered about the same distance (this time with no obstacles).
You may well ask is this type of work bread and butter? No. General conditioning remains king. A fitter athlete will beat an athlete doing this type of workout without a base simply because they will not go so deep into oxygen debt. This type of workout only works as the polish on the chrome if we view the general endurance base as the chrome. So coaches and runners should see it as a sharpener and at the same time a practical way to do an interesting session, with a group, that does not fatigue runners too much for races in the upcoming days.
The steady section at the end helps return the body to equilibrium and serves as some light maintenance of the ‘back-up’ paces that we may have to fall back upon in cross-country once our fuse blows.
In recent years Frans Bosch – the great biomechanics researcher – has shown how variability is a key element of developing better motor skills because this allows the body enough exposure to different movements that it can sort ‘not useful’ from ‘useful’ and at the same time running is a heavily power-dependent sport – because we always have to absorb and create great forces even at relatively slow paces. This workout ticks both these boxes and would also make a fine alternative to Lydiard Hill Circuits as part of a transition from longer steadier running to faster track intervals.
Track athletes should regard cross-country season as a chance to build-up general condition, to race as often as advisable, always concentrating on a relaxed running action and getting to enjoy the environment in which they are exercising. Whether it is woods, parkland or rough pasture, it will make a surprising contribution to you development, physically, mentally and technically’ – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard
The year moves into cross-country season and speaking to the runners preparing for the battles ahead I sometimes get the feeling that no one truly likes the discipline. This is not the first time I have encountered this sentiment – I struggle to keep track of the people who curse cross-country or who find it intimidating, painful and just plain no fun at all. There are a few reasons for this and I want to touch on them in this article because I do not think they are unresolvable problems and neither do I believe cross-country quite deserves the poor reputation it has. Mainly we can ‘solve the problem of cross-country’ by becoming aware of the original context of this part of the racing season and what it is intended to achieve. We can learn to use cross-country rather than let cross-country use and abuse us.
In the last years I have seen people coming into cross-country for the first time the way I did in 2007. Some took to it with relish but more were pensive about repeating the experience. When brought to my attention I got curious because I knew this was not simply a matter of the events being quite competitive and thus perhaps dispiriting to slower runners whose position at the back of the field becomes much more exposed and visible in a small cross-country field run over several laps.
Exactly this element came up a good bit – a cross-country race makes you feel like you’re in an arena. Shouting and roaring from the side-lines (whether abuse or encouragement – often hard to distinguish) is part and parcel and if you are one of the people still able to take in what happens around you (I am usually not!) you can feel all eyes on you.
Because cross-country introduces a team element people can feel more pressure and more guilt about under-performing than they would running ‘just for themselves’ and thoughts such as ‘I’d feel terrible if I had a bad run costing my team-mates a medal’ are common and understandable. As some of us know from relay racing it is a double-edged sword: this same pressure can stir us on to greater performances than we believe ourselves capable of. Confidence, experience and your exact psychology dictates whether this is a negative or positive.
And the feeling of pressure seems to be the red dot connecting a lot of runners troubled relationship to cross-country. Pressure from coaches, pressure from team mates and pressure from on-lookers – all of this, of course, comes from within ourselves at the end of the day. Today’s ‘fun running culture’ does not prepare most runners very well for this challenge. Since the 1980ies a culture of ‘everyone is a winner’ was implemented likely to get more feet on the street as a means to improve the overall health and fitness of the population. The downside of this trend is that it can fail to inoculate us sufficiently on how to deal with failure – which is after all part of life and something children need to pick up early if they are to grow up as effective adults.
A different type of pressure also makes itself very known in the course of the race itself; the competitive is more incessant and the competitive level fiercer than in almost any road and mountain race most newcomers will have encountered before. Gerry Brady, then High Performance Officer at IMRA, told me in 2007 to ‘run cross-country if I wanted to improve my placings in the hills’. I understood from the very first race why he was right: I was in fact a very poor cross-country runner. It is the discipline that happens to be worst suited to my particular strengths as a runner. Like most I certainly disliked the experience ‘during’ the race (let’s face it: it’s very painful competition!) but I always enjoyed the thought of doing the race and savoured the achievement afterwards even on the many occasions where the result itself was a bit disappointing.
It did not bring me down or intimidate me for two reasons I hope everyone who has a negative relationship to cross-country can use:
A few may pause me here and say ‘what do you mean cross-country is not an end unto itself’. Here I talk about the history of the discipline: traditionally there are very few specialised cross-country runners and instead the discipline serves to prepare for next years track and road events.
Cross-country serves as a form of neutral ground where road, track and mountain specialists can all meet and test their mettle against each other. Two of history’s greatest coaches – Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerutty – were both adamant that cross-country should not be treated to seriously and merely was a tool to better winter training before the real target races on road and track in the coming year as the two quotes below demonstrate:
‘Cross-country running is of great benefit to track runners and other athletes as a general conditioner…Cross-country is a good disciplinarian. You will subconsciously control your effort to be more economical and this is probably its greatest asset as an initial general conditioning exercise…The times to run during cross-country racing and training should not be treated with too much importance. Courses and weather and ground condition vary so much from day to day and have such an effect on performance that to try and chart progressive times can only be confusing and misleading. …It is the tough rugged ground with everything underfoot from hard ground to swamps that gives you the benefits you need. * – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard
* Courses today have often become too fast under the mistaken impression that we are doing athlete’s a favour in making the courses easier. We are in fact allowing faster more sustained running which is detrimental to the type of training that should happen during this type of year not to speak of the softening effect this has on today’s runners.
‘During this period we may race occasionally across country for the sake of interest only, never as a sport in itself. Therefore, I insist that conditioning goes on on the morning of the race almost as normally, and it was the custom, after the cross country race and a short spell, to run over the course a second time for added effort, training or conditioning! We consider a whole day, as we have in Australia, too much time to be wasted on merely one race, and that of no real importance, and providing, more often than not, only thirty minutes’ hard effort, or five miles’ running.
Cross-country can never be more than a part of conditioning, since no true records are possible.’ – Percy Cerutty, Athletics: how to become a champion
After a discussion at our club I decided to reiterate that I could not agree more. Medals and titles in cross-country are purely a bonus. The main thing is that athletes use the fitness and challenges of the races to improve their training and racing for the next year. We are not an American University squad and no one is under any obligation to structure their training around being super-fit for cross-country. They are welcome to do this but can just train through it as Percy Cerutty suggested and let the dice fall where they may.
Coaches have a big responsibility here in remembering that 1) running is in individual sport and the long-term development of the individual athlete must always take precedence over the short-term ambitions of the club and 2) a lot of the perceived pressure comes from the coach, so as a coach you have the power to set the right level of anxiety for the events.
I would prefer people see cross-country as light-hearted* fun. I do believe it is good for the mental development of runners – and even of personalities – to learn to ‘give it their all’ and to experience this pressure which makes the pressure in most other races seem negligible. It is also a great opportunity for people who consider themselves specialists to step out of their comfort zone. The best thing that any runner can do is to thoroughly break down their running ego which is often protected by sentiments such as ‘I am a long distance runner’, ‘I only run for fun’ and so on. Whether these are true or not, they hinder personal growth and they can provide a false sense of self – a fragile confidence that doesn’t bear being challenged.
* A note as this caused a comment: light-hearted means ‘amusing and fun’ not necessarily ‘not taken at all seriously’ or ‘done half-heartedly’.
Cross-country can be a rude wake-up call this way. I have seen runners who did extremely well in smaller road races or hill runs being completely demoralised when they realised just what standard of running is actually available to compete against. It can be a rude wake-up call if these races have made you think you’re probably one of your country’s better runners only to find out you cannot break into the top-200 at a major meet!
On the other hand, I have seen great competitors such as my partner in ChampionsEverywhere – Jason Kehoe – who finished third last in his first cross-country race, yet he’ll be the first man to sign up for the colours every Autumn. It would be easy for Jason to celebrate his wins and top-3 finishes in the hills and to rest on the laurels of having been ‘Irish Champion’ or ‘King of the Mountain’ not exposing himself to the scrutiny of regional, provincial and national quality fields in cross-country. I know he is a competitor who will continue to grow and improve when I see him win a hill race in summer and then unblinkingly accepting finishing half-way down a 400-man strong field at the National Novice cross-country. This means he understands that cross-country is a process and that the high level of competition can be used to become a better runner rather than an intimidating horde to be crushed by.
Thus I said earlier that I felt privileged to be at the starting line of any cross-country race because I know any athlete who has made it that far has already done a lot more in terms of physical and mental commitment than all the people who are not there.
We grow through some level of discomfort and being challenged where we are not strongest. If we remind ourselves that cross-country is simply a tool to such an end: making each individual tougher for their own personal running goals and ambitions and as individuals and to ensure a better winter training, then we can lift a lot of the pressure. About the expectations of others: I think cross-country offers a perfect opportunity to learn to detach yourself from them. Let others have their expectations: you know what you want to achieve for yourself and you go race so you learn those things.
Runners can also emphasize the positives: this truly is a unique time to achieve something together rather than only on an individual level and to subordinate personal ambitions temporarily for collective ones. You get the buzz of representing your club as part of a team where you can make the difference between winning and losing even if you have no chance of winning the race yourself. The difference between 44th and 45th could be a medal – any effort is meaningful in this context. I even think cross-country can tell us something about our values as a society. When running is taking to its most negative extreme it becomes a personal obsession purely about satisfying the ego needs of an individual at the expense of the needs of others. This is an extreme but obvious behaviour that, while useful in an individual sport, is not the type of behaviour, we generally value as a society and in our communities.
Cross-country can reflect our more social values as a species: giving up your time, energy and effort to assist a group in achieving a goal even when it is not particularly your goal. I hesitate to use the word ‘sacrifice’ because it too is over-used these days but there is an element of that here. It’s a way to say ‘we’re part of this group and today we give something of ourselves for the group without necessarily receiving a personal return’. A running club is not a nation state and I don’t want to sound like I’m encouraging flag waving and banner rallying. But cross-country races have the potential to strengthen the common identify and the bonds of a club exactly because it is something we do together. It’s very likely that in a team of 4 runners every single one of those 4 runners would rather be doing some other kind of race. But they are there because it’s a chance to show what the group can achieve as a unit rather than individuals.
Are there people who should not run cross-country? Of course. None of us do athletes a favour by introducing them too early. Fit4Lifers or rank novices need not be thrown to the lions. Little positive will result from a novice athlete trailing in more than half a lap behind the second-last runner or facing the ignominy of being lapped.
The role of each club coach is to ensure people are introduced to it when they are physically and mentally ready. They need not win or even finish top half of the field (not everyone can) but they should not be completely out of their depth.
This article is a bit philosophical in nature because I feel the issues people perceive with cross-country have mainly mental and cultural roots and are not so much necessarily intrinsic to the race itself. In my next article I’d like to step back to something a bit more practical: how can you prepare for cross-country in a way that makes you more confident and more likely to succeed. Being confident and well-prepared has a tendency to over-ride almost any other concerns and negative sentiments. It is the uncertainty about whether we will fail or not that plays as a demon in our minds most of the time.