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.
In this fourth episode I go into detais about the recovery tips I discussed with Eoin Flynn on the 2nd episode of the Trail Running Ireland podcast.
We talk about:
– What is recovery really?
– How do we know what recovery activities to prioritise?
– What are some good examples particularly relevant to our current COVID-19 lockdown?
Note my audio blogs become available on Deezer, Stitcher, Spotify and Soundcloud shortly after they launch on Podomatic – so have a look at the platform that suits you best.
Penfold’s recovery pyramid
The Power of When (quiz): thepowerofwhenquiz.com/
Circadean rhythms and athletic performance: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3906341
Parasympathetic nervous system and recovery: biostrap.com/blog/recovery-and-…ic-nervous-system/
Vagal tone: the performance biohack for athletes: www.teamusa.org/USA-Triathlon/New…Hack-for-Athletes
Genetics of recovery
Reviews of recovery methods in scientific literature
Schumann resonance and health
Wim Hof Method
Functional patterns: jhgadftqwuihxsa2135987courseone.functionalpatterns.c…adftqwuihxsa2135987courseone.functionalpatterns.com/10-week-program/
Anatomy in Motion: findingcentre.co.uk/closed-chain-bi…Vh07JZylWrKraRc
The final follow-on on my segment with Eoin Flynn on the Trail Running Ireland podcast is done. Listen below or check the resources and the transcript here.
Two questions where left on the table:
The first question was ‘what are the best training formats in a 2 km radius’ and ‘how to find substitutes for the training you cannot do in your 2 km radius’.
Listen to podcast (Soundcloud)
Podcast will be available shortly on Spotify, Castbox, Stitcher, and Deezer.
What are the best training formats in a 2 km radius?
There are only two types of sessions: consistent-paced or varied pace.
When you run at varied pace it is usually in order to be able to run more at faster / more intense paces than if you kept that pace up consistently
When you operate within a small area the first step is to survey what you have to work with:
How do you substitute training you cannot do within your 2 km radius?
Since nothing beats the original, the absolute best thing to do is to use the situation to your advantage. So, if you have only hills around you, do a hill block now – use the situation instead of trying to counter it. If you only have flat around you, then this is the time to focus n your flat speed even if that was not your original plan
Still some easy substitutions:
For all the harm this crisis has done, the cancellation of various races and holidays I was due to organise has allowed me to catch up on work a bit even as I work half-time (looking after the kids the other half of the day).
This means moving forward so long-overdue projects including audio/video content for The Educated Runner. I jumped on the new Trail Running Ireland Podcast with Eoin Flynn over the weekend and it was natural to dedicate a follow-up audio-blog to the topic we skimmed during my 10-15 minute segment on that show.
You can find that follow-on above – future instalments will branch out significantly and won’t be limited to expanding on topics discussed on the Trail Running Ireland podcast.
The references mentioned in the audio blog are below:
The Open Window theory
Study on Wim Hof Method and the immune system:
(note: Wim Hof Method and many other online course providers are handing out COVID-19 discounts right now)
vitamin C and immune function
Vitamin D deficiency and immune function
https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/18/take-daily-dose-vitamin-d-due-reduced-sun-exposure-lockdown/ (Scottish government recommends it before lockdown)
Vitamin D synthesis from sunshine
Vitamin D and sunscreen
Optimal exercise window for Vitamin D synthesis
Vitamin D3/K2 dynamic
Yesterday, I was glad to appear on the first episode of the new Trail Running Ireland podcast hosted by Eoin Flynn. I will be supporting the show with a training-specific 10-15 minute segment every episode. Generally, we will discuss trail running and mountain running training. I look forward to this as you can hear all about training from the world’s greatest experts already – just go on Google and it’s all there for you. But trail and mountain running training is much less discussed and talked about and I look forward to diving into that with Eoin who is a great man to facilitate getting information out there and summarising it neatly for the listener. We hope to make this practical by using a build-up to the EcoTrail Wicklow races in September as an example.
We began this week by discussing how to deal with the current situation, however, so a bit of a deviation from the main concept. I hope to provide some cliff-notes and resources for each segment for those who felt that 10-15 minutes only whetted their appetite for more information.
This week we discussed:
What we couldn’t cover but I think is important in relation to the current situation is:
So let’s recap the points we did cover first here in ‘part 1’ and I’ll go through the last five questions tomorrow in ‘part 2’ in an audio entry on my Patreon page so you can listen to it instead of read.
How the situation affected the running scene and running coaches
We all ‘lost’ our short and medium-term race goals and our long-term race goals are shrouded in uncertainty. For coaches it means we need to come up other goals for our runners to focus on during this period both to maintain fitness and motivation. Motivation is the main thing that drives running and losing a race goal is particularly bad for those of us who are quite extrinsically motivated and who train best when we can ‘see the carrot’ in front of us.
How to adapt training to the current situation
In the podcast, we mainly talked about the high-level change in strategy for training. I mentioned the basic principle of training that ‘the further you are away from a race the more general your training needs to be’. Traditionally, this meant doing ‘base training’, ‘general conditioning’ or whichever name our training system attaches to it and that generally meant lots of slow training. This is actually a good idea (more below) but there is more to it than that. General training really must focus on addressing the weaknesses that hold us back and the things that take the longest to develop. One reason the focus is on aerobic development (general endurance) early in training is that most of the adaptations related to those abilities take 6-12 weeks to take effect – so it’s no good beginning this work 8 weeks before your race – you’re only going to be ‘half-baked’ come race day. Race-specific training tends to be something you can do much closer to the race and the effects of this training tend to manifest much sooner.
Because all races have moved further away, it is nearly pointless to do race-specific training now (most of the effects of this will be gone by the time you need it) but it’s a golden opportunity to work on those weaknesses and to build that general base of endurance to new levels. You may always have had to rush your general preparation because there’s ‘always another race on the horizon’ – now at least you can commit a block of training to this work that you may not normally have had time to set aside.
Replacing races with time trials or virtual races has become the main ‘go to’ strategy for most coaches and runners and you can find a selection of races online and several coaches chipping in with ideas for time trials. Personally, with my won athletes – whom I know better than the general public (we should hope) – I do specific time trials aimed at finding out where in their physiology the ‘kinks’ are so we can then target a block of 4-6 weeks on improving it (any less and you won’t see any results). For, instance by comparing the results of a 6-min time trial and a 30-min time trial, I can learn whether we need to focus the next block on threshold development (mainly steady extensive work) or VO2max building (mainly hard shorter work) and then tailor 1-2 key workouts per week on that area. We can then do the time trial again at the end of the block to confirm. That nicely wraps a bow around the training and provides a short-term target to focus on and a sense of achievement when it’s done. I sell a standardised version of this type of programme in the TrainingPeaks shop if you are interested in taking yourself through the process.
Apart from time trials just reaching certain workout goals can substitute – for instance you may have been working towards doing a certain training run in a certain time for a while or attacking a Strava segment. If it’s concrete and has useful role to play in achieving your longer-term goals. Even if it doesn’t it can be worth it if it brings you’re a sense of enjoyment – which is the main reason we run after all.
I am currently in discussions with an international company on bringing the world’s leading technology in this type of analysis to Ireland. The current situation has paused this project – but I hope to report back on it in the months ahead.
Do runners have a responsibility to keep their immune systems strong by avoiding too intensive/extensive training now?
I thought that was an interesting question. Running can seem trivial during times where the news is full of serious topics. But I don’t believe running is trivial at all because of the power it can have in people’s lives. Before I get to that: in the show my general response was that if I was in the position to advise a runner, I’d tell them to do only the necessary training to stay healthy and strong and to stay clear of something that makes them feel run-down.
To make that a bit more precise: training can suppress our immune systems. Today there is talk of a ‘5-hour window’. Interest in this began long before the current situation arose because infection has been a problem for athletes for a long time. Elite athletes simply cannot afford lying in bed for two weeks with a bad flu and then not returning to full strength for another 1-2 months. So elite athletes and their teams have become specialists in how to avoid infection. So, there’s a lot we can learn from their experiences which is useful for life in general but specifically for now.
I’ll cover the book’s broad strokes suggestions in part 2: the message of our podcast was essentially ‘stay away from situations where you can be infected in the 5-hour window’. As Eoin rightly said, though, perhaps we should stay away from lowering our immune system altogether? So how do we do this? I’ll cover that in the sections in part 2.
How do change our goals?
Before jumping on the podcast Eoin was telling me how he was lucky that his current goal was in Autumn, so he didn’t really have to change much at all – he just had one long build-up. This is a rare luxury today when the calendar is so packed. If you’re an ardent racer and disappointed with the lack of your regular ‘racing fix’ that’s obviously no comfort – but it’s the only positive you can really take from the situation – look to your long-term goals in the months where it looks likely races will go ahead. And then put your full focus on training for those races instead.
This approach doesn’t always work if you are one of those personalities (no judgment btw!) that need regular carrots to keep ‘on trail’. Some runners I work with simply perform better if they can feel the gravitational pull of a race. A ‘distant moon’ just won’t do it for them! In those cases, using intermediate goals and time trials such as I mention above, is necessary to keep things on track.
One run bound to become popular in the coming two weeks is the ‘Circuit run’. I originally adopted this phrase for a run described to me by Keith Livingstone, author of ‘Healthy Intelligent Training’. A run being used by his ‘HIT Squad’ of young talented high school runners in New Zealand.
As the name implies it requires a circuit. With the Irish population currently advised to exercise within a 2 km radius of their home, a circuitous route is a natural choice. Using the ‘Circuit run’ format can spice up the experience. With guidelines also stating to keep exercise ‘brief’, the easiest way to keep training load high is to increase the intensity and do less easy running during this period. Normally this is a recipe for disaster but if, as we all hope, this restriction will only last 2 weeks at most, it can serve as a ‘special block’ (a period focused on something specific after which extra recovery is taken to rebalance). So if you increase your intensity over the coming two weeks, you need to balance that out with more than usual easy running in the week after that.
The circuit run consists of running one circuit at one pace and the second circuit at a second pace (or intensity / HR). The basic format is a steady run where you alternate between ‘steady’ intensities and ‘easy’ intensities. This is a way to build up time at paces that for most will range from 10k to marathon pace or in the heart rate zone 3 (subthreshold to threshold running). For specific instructions use the workout description I wrote years ago: click here
But you do not have to limit yourself to this format. Here are two variations that provide a different stimulus:
Steve Magness coined this term (I believe) to describe a type of workout popularised by numerous coaches in different terms (Renato Canova and Peter Thompson among them). In alternations there is no true ‘rest interval’ (that’s why they are not called ‘intervals’) and instead you simply ‘alternate’ two paces or intensities. For this to work best one intensity should be high enough to start accumulating some lactate in your system. This usually requires faster than 10 km pace and, generally, faster than 3 km pace if the circuit or fast segment is quite short. You alternate this fast – lactate accumulating – pace or intensity with a more moderate intensity but NOT WITH EASY.
Not a lot of runners and coaches are aware that easy pace is not necessarily the best intensity to recover from a hard effort. This is because of something called ‘lactate clearance’ and the ‘lactate shuttle’. Simply put your body can reuse lactate and it can become increasingly good at this ‘clearance’ and ‘reuse’. The maximum ‘clearance rate’ (think: how quickly your aerobic energy system can hoover up and reuse the lactate floating around) is not at easy paces but rather usually occurs somewhere between marathon and 10 k pace. The pace needs only be slow enough that no more lactate is accumulated and the body starts to ‘lower the level’. A lab test can find these paces for certain (I’ll post more on this in a month’s time) but without that you have to feel your way along.
When you alternate a ‘hard’ (lactate accumulating) pace with a ‘moderate’ (lactate ‘eating’ pace), you teach your body many useful things including:
This workout can give you the physiological benefits of running at 10 mile or 5 km pace while at the same time boosting your ability to recycle lactate. For that reason it does not have to be overly long. The only thing to watch is the length of the fast segment. If your circuit is very long, you cannot run at 3k or 5k pace without accumulating too much lactate. Alternating 2 km at 5k pace with 2 km of marathon pace will be too demanding for most runners – so this workout works best on a shorter circuit OR if you do part of your circuit at the faster pace (for instance ¼ of the circuit at 3 k pace and ¾ of the circuit at marathon effort).
This workout was based on the work of Shannon Grady (author of the ‘Lactate Revolution’) and can be done on circuits of 200m or shorter. You begin by running the short circuit at 800m to 5 km pace (depending on your goals and ability – best pick a pace you plan to use extensively later in your training) and then do several circuits (four to five) at easy pace until you are fully recovered. This session prepares your body to be economical and efficient at fast paces normally reserved for hard repetition sessions. But because of the very short segment of faster running and the very long recovery, you will have little to no build-up of lactate and metabolic waste products in your body. This allows you to prepare your body for these paces without needing long recovery or turning the workout into a heavy anaerobic load which, when done in excess, overloads the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response (overstimulates your sympathetic nervous system) with deleterious consequences for your health.
In reality, this session is just a type of ‘short to medium strides’ under a different name – that means controlled fast short repetitions followed by very long easy running intervals. An example could be 6x 200m @ 3k pace with 800m easy jog in between each (a 6 km run and then you would want to add warm-up or cooldown) or the classical 10x 100m @ 1500m effort with 400m jog recovery.
The great coach Bill Shankley said: “Some people think running is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that. “* Now, look, running is not a matter of life and death and the corona-virus is for some people so here I’ll do you a favour: I won’t spout my uneducated opinion about what you should do on the virus and instead give you a well-educated opinion about what you can do with your training while this situation persists.
* come to think of it he might have been talking about football, but let’s move on…
Most of my clients have had their upcoming races cancelled or postponed and as such I feel that I can offer a few ideas for how to continue training along in the absence of your previous goal event.
You may have put in some very hard work to peak for a particular race. This is certainly the case for most of my clients as I employ a peaking model meaning we build a base first and then we do very race-specific workouts in the final 6-10 weeks. This means we can find ourselves with a very ‘sharp’ ability to race but a floundering ‘capacity’ – we are just about ready to ‘hit the race’ but our basic physiological abilities are beginning to sag around the edges. What do we do now that all this pent up energy has no place to go?
I think I have a good view of everyone’s pain. I am an athlete with my own goals. My three next race goals are nearly certain not to go ahead and for my main goal of the year (early June) I judge that the chances of my getting to race it is 60/40. Yet I will continue to plan for reasons I’ll outline below.
But I also see this from a race organisers point of view: I direct the Lap of the Gap Marathon and I am co-organiser of EcoTrail Wicklow. The first race is not under immediate threat but I know from people in the industry that May events are by no means safe. We could be forced to reschedule. There’s lots of preparation we are doing behind the scenes for these eventualities. For events further ahead – like EcoTrail Wicklow – there are other considerations about how we will be affected.
As a club coach, we have been told to suspend all training activities for the upcoming period so some of the cherished regular weekly meet-ups will go down the toilet for a while.
I also run an AirBnB with my wife. We decided to close this already a month ago. It did not seem prudent to invite strangers from all over the world into a house with our three small kids for an income stream we can survive without for a while. Apart from this, I onboard less clients and expect I will onboard less in the coming months until people gain certainty again about what goals they can commit to. Every business will probably feel the impact of this over the coming three months at least.
Finally, I am a holiday organiser and had been looking forward to a trip to the Lake District end of this month with a group of Dane with Paul Tierney as our local guide. This trip was also postponed until October.
So whether you’re losing your holiday, your race, income for your business, or have to reschedule or cancel your running event or even your weekly training with your club or your friends, I feel your pain. Now to what we can do about it (again this is about training – if you want to know what to do about the virus go to the HSE.ie!).
The first step in this type of process is acceptance. There is no value in labelling any situation as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Situations simply are as they are and it’s always best to deal with what is in front of you and totally put aside any notions about how you would like things to be. it could be worse – it’s still nice to go for a run every day on your own even if there is no race next week and no training session with the club. Our sport thrives in solitude too.
Whatever training plan you are currently in the middle of will have gained you some fitness. You may not be able to employ it right now but you can hang onto it. If your race goal was imminent – such as the upcoming Vienna or Rotterdam Marathons or the Maurice Mullins races – then you should enter what is called a ‘Refresh Period’ for 2-4 weeks first of all.
What is a refresh period? It’s a period of training where you refocus briefly on neglected parts of your physiology. A ‘General Endurance’ refresh is used to rebuild the basic aerobic foundation usually gained through running in zone 1 and to a lesser degree zone 2 or under what scientists call the Aerobic Threshold or First Ventilatory Threshold. During race specific training this system always begins to erode a bit. In the absence of a race – rebuilding this a bit again is a great idea.
You can do other types of refresh if you need it more: a General Refresh focuses on both rebuilding basic endurance but also basic strength ,technique and speed through training such as weight-lifting, easy sprints and strides and form drills.
It’s also possible you were training for an ultra but now have something else in mind. If so your anaerobic capacity has likely suffered a bit and you could decide to do a period with some more intense work to revisit that system ahead of figuring out new goals.
If your race is a bit further way – like my own goal is – I advise that for now you continue as if nothing has occurred. Keep training until you hear for certain that your race is gone. At that time you can move into a refresh period as described above.
Return to basics
Should it become clear that the disruption will last longer than 2-4 weeks then your best bet is to ‘return to base training’ and simply stay in that base training until things normalise and then prepare a new build-up. You can never really do too much base training as long as you understand where your current weaknesses are and what needs attention (modern base training doesn’t just mean lots of slow volume although it’s a start as long as you can handle the volume you pick).
Finally, if you’re worn out by your training and you don’t really care any more whether you lose some of your race fitness, then this is THE IDEAL PERIOD to take a 2-4 weeks mental break from serious running similar to what you would do after a hard race. Think about something else and follow a lose and non-demanding schedule – just enough to keep you healthy and active.
So hang tight folks – we can still train and keep ourselves fit so we are ready to resume ‘life as normal’ whether it be in 2 weeks or, as some epidemiologists think, more like 12 weeks or more.
As 50 years of practice and the recent Stephen Seiler study has shown, the most important determinant of success in running is ‘volume’. And to do volume we need to achieve consistency. To have consistency we need to have good recovery. To have good recovery, we need to have a very strong aerobic system. To have a very strong aerobic system, we need to do as much easy running (defined in TFTUA as Zone 1 and Zone 2 training – or every run done below the ‘aerobic threshold’) as possible.
In Rene Borg’s latest Patreon post on Educated Runner, he looks into some key principles deduced after reading the fantastic ‘Training for the Uphill Athlete’ by Scott Johnston, Steve House and Kilian Jornet.
In the microcosm that is our own private goal-setting, the question ‘what time will I run for this trail race?’ emerges regularly. I have used a particular way of estimating performances for some time and I will share it here.
It’s harder to estimate what times you can shoot for when you run on trails, hills, mountains, and fells. Some purists will, not without justification, say that it’s also unnecessary as you are racing the other competitors primarily rather than the clock and ever-changing conditions on the mountains and trail-surfaces make direct time comparisons from run to run and race to race nearly meaningless.
I see the truth somewhere in the middle: changing underfoot and weather conditions does make it difficult to compare ‘like for like’ what a time on a course will be one day versus another day, one year compared to the previous year. Still we keep records for most classical off-road routes and many runners seriously target them. Kenny Stuart’s magnificent records on Snowdon, Ben Nevis, and Skiddaw, for instance, are still prized, if elusive, possessions. While conditions on a given day can make a race a ‘slow day’, this matters much less when we look at results over 20 years because these 20 years will reflect both several ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days.
I begin by running over the course in training at a known controlled effort trying to keep it even throughout the run. If I cannot do this I look at historical gpx files for the run completed by myself or by other runners. For races like Snowdon this was particularly easy as the year’s progressed, as I had access to several recordings. This allowed me to pick splits consistent with my own strengths and weaknesses. The Snowdon race is a classical ‘up/down’ route. A weak climber will spend a greater proportion of the race on the uphill than the downhill and vice-versa for a strong climber but weak descender. When running the route in advance – such as I could do for a local race like Leinster’s highest peak Lug na Coille – I could use the existing splits as they were as long as ‘ran true to myself’ during the training run.
Once I have secured a reasonable baseline run recording, I will copy and paste the splits into an Excel sheet. I then insert my own subjective estimated (or desired) target time next to the time of the baseline run. In the example below a baseline run of 67:37 is compared to a target time of 55:00. The difference between the two is calculated (in this case a difference of 18.7% is desired).
I then apply this difference to each individual lap split – that means I reduce the time for each split by 18.7%. The result can be shown below:
How do you read this? So if you look at ‘lap 1’ which is the split that represents the first kilometre (uphill as you can see from the slow time), the training run time was 8:44 min/km. In order to, run 55 minutes with the same distribution of effort as in the training run, this needs to be reduced to 7 minutes 6 seconds. The second kilometre needs to be reduced from 8:31 to 6:56 and so on.
This allows me or my runner to have a rough goal in mind – we’d know in this case to try and get to the 2 km mark in just around 14 minutes. Any slower than that and we need to push the pace more. If we’re too far ahead we may be in danger of blowing up OR we may be able to hold back a bit more on the descent (by building a ‘cushion’ on the uphill).
I can also mark out ‘hot spots’ or splits that look too difficult to achieve.
A potential hot spot may be the 3:21 min/km on kilometre 6. From the recording I know that this is a downhill kilometre with a drop of 73 metres so 3:21 min/km is likely not unrealistic at full tilt. But it’s worth highlighting as runners often run downhill quite fast in training and then it becomes difficult to run them MUCH faster in the race situation. More time then needs to be clawed back on the uphill.
Let’s take a more exciting example: the Scarr mountain race (ok, maybe not exciting to me but I live on it). There’s a relatively new record on this course set since the course was amended from a straight up and down to a ‘looped’ course. It’s held by Des Kennedy in 36:43 and set in 2018 (remarkably as conditions were notoriously windy – showing you can run good times on ‘slow days’). Des Kennedy also holds the second-fastest run in the modern era (some old results have been lost to the mists of time) for the traditional course and thus we know the current record is from good pedigree.
By inserting the recording of the record run into an Excel sheet, we can calculate what it would take to run a record of say – 35 minutes:
A potential challenger could use this to gauge where to insert their main charge. They can see they need to go below 22 minutes at the top (which Des reached in 22:51) in order to break the record and descend in 13 minutes 15 seconds. No kilometre looks truly unachievable for someone talented and fit enough to even consider attacking the record but putting them together is obviously the challenge.
Personally, I used these markers to establish rough segment targets within the greater run to help me along. On Snowdon I’d know when I should reach the climb halfway point to be on track for a sub-1-hour ascent, for instance.
If we have access to the route we are trying to ‘attack’ with this level of detailed preparation, we can go out and run the key sections in training to see how far we are from the level required. Looking at Des Kennedy’s example from above we could try to ascend in a sub-22 minute time, for instance, or simply try an ‘all out climb’ and see how far we fall short. As the workout is relatively short (4 km up / 22ish minutes), it would not stress our bodies unduly as long as general conditioning has been done before.
When working with Jason Kehoe, we often used this approach even when we didn’t have daily access to the mountains he was attacking. We would know pretty much how long it would take him to be at the top of the various summits to be ‘competitive’ and we’d be familiar with the average gradient. So, if we knew he had to climb for 48 minutes up a 5 km slope of an 18% incline, we could design a simple progression of workouts:
This particular progression is just an example but illustrates the basic logic. The general fitness needed to do the above had to be completed before this type of training began. Most runners do not engage in this type of very specific preparation because mountain running is either a ‘side-show’, ‘2nd priority’ or simply ‘part of the conditioning for road and cross-country’ – so it’s only an approach I would suggest to people for whom the mountains is the be-all end-all.
For ‘mere mortals’ it may interesting simply to see what running part of a course at ‘record pace’ feels like. I remember once going out on Scarr to run a section at the estimated record pace. It was a humbling experience but gave an insight into the physical requirements.
Scientifically, we can go much further with this level of analysis by using correction for terrain and climb based on mathematical equations as well as input from the new Power meters for running (such as the Stryd to which I am affiliated). Power meters allow us to calculate what power output we currently can create for a certain duration (uphill, downhill or flat) and then estimate based on that what is required to generate the desired pace on uneven courses. I may dedicate a future post to exploring this if I sense an interest from my readers.
Runners today have access to more measurements and metrics than ever before. Once upon a time an estimate of distance and the time on your stop-watch was the maximum you could hope for. Then the heart rate revolution happened and in later years GPS enabled real-time measurement of distance and pace and finally an estimate of power output, Ground Contact, stride length and more.
We can call these ‘primary metrics’ in that they measure one direct phenomenon: i.e. the speed you are travelling at or the number of beats your heart makes per minute. These measurements exist in two types – those that measure real-world effects (pace, distance, power) and those that measure elements of the process (stride rate, Ground Contact Time). To this, initially confusing, cohort of data points, has been added many ‘secondary metrics’ which are calculations based on a combination of ‘primary metrics’ such as looking at the Efficiency Factor of a runner by assessing how far a runner runs per Watt of work he creates or assessing stress by comparing the intensity and duration of your run against certain test performances and so on. It goes without saying that once you delve into that level you’re no longer putting the tyres and chassis on your car – you are polishing the chrome. Like in this metaphor – polishing the chrome is worthwhile but not a priority for driving.
An advantage I possess as a coach is that I can look at all this (it’s my job) and make sense of it within the greater picture I am trying to paint with an athlete. Even then I have a cardinal rule when it comes to all measurements which I strongly suggest non-professionals adhere to in the interest of their own time:
“Look at your measurements to find answers not to create questions.”
To elaborate: use your measurements to identify the likely answer to specific questions you have – do not go to look at them because it’s the nerdy thing to do and come up with all sorts of distracting questions. This time would be better allocated to do something practical for your running instead (such a longer cooldown). If you need to go for a few minute to look and bask that is ok: positive emotional reaction to all things running is a good idea.
This returns me to the title of this article. The human mind is not motivated by improvements in Ground Contact Time or a nice trendline for your Running Stress Score. Even if the intellectual mind could be fooled into considering this a primary aim, your subconscious mind (the ultimate arbiter) will find it irrelevant. No prolonged success can happen without the blessing of your subconscious mind. It’s needs must be met at all times or it will punish you (usually with pain – it’s way of saying ‘I don’t like how you are spending our time’).
Now: learning to run for 2 hours or completing a lap of a 400m track in 60 seconds or less constitutes real world goals. So does breaking 40 minutes for the 10 km distance or gaining the ability to run 7 days per week as a matter of choice. So does covering a certain well known mountain course close to your house in 1 hours 50 minutes this week and then hoping to do it in 1 hour and 48 minutes without too much extra effort the next time. So does running for specific reasons important to you and you alone as long as they are not delusional or dishonest (if you love running for the attention it get’s you, do not tell yourself it is for some higher cause – the subconscious will not be deceived). In my experience whenever runners run for reasons that are not entirely their own, pain results (psychosomatic – i.e. ‘physiological changes causing pain in tissues created by the subconscious mind’).
True deep motivation and connection to our goals (which will help meet the needs of our selfish, childish and overprotective subconscious) can only be gained through connection to real-world goals.
As a coach it is easy to be a nerd. The coach can survive this flaw as long as he does not transfer it onto his athletes. The runner can survive this as long as he or she does not let it get out of hand. The primary goals set for a runner or that you set, as a runner, for yourself must be concrete. Not only does this mean they must be primary metrics, the goals should make sense in a normal conversational sentence containing no three-letter acronyms and no jargon. Yes ‘reach an ATL of 2000, three weeks out from my peak race’ will not cut muster. ‘Complete a 2 hour easy run and a 1 hour steady run through gradual progress in the next 6 weeks’ will pass.
Every workout we do is a task set for our bodies to solve. I want to delve into this more in upcoming posts. For the moment I bring it up only to support what I am trying to express here: you were designed to solve problems in the real world not the unreal world. Your body and mind (which are the same thing, it’s unfortunate language has provided two words for it) will respond better to focusing on a real world concrete task. Everything becomes easier: measuring progress, keeping motivation, planning the steps to complete the task.
Does this make other measurement irrelevant? We revert to my principle above: ‘Use your measurements to answer rather than create questions.’ This means if my stated goal was to progress to 9 hours of weekly running at intensities that will be beneficial for my long-term healthy, I can go into my data to look at heart rates and stress scores to see if the condition was met – does the data suggest I was straining rather than training?
Questions can also be asked ‘on the run’ by a look at the watch. My question might be as simple as ‘this feels a bit faster than I expected’ which a look at the watch can confirm or disconfirm. Like in almost every case, the question is never whether we should use something or not (a gun, a running metric, a treatment) but how we should use it.
Summary: keep your overall training and racing goals tethered to real world practical outcomes. Use more esoteric measures only to answer concrete questions that arise during the process of achieving these goals.