Training philosophy – ‘running in three steps’

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Training your body for the demands of running seems like an incredibly complicated process if you read many running books cover to cover. I see the process as being very simple.

Step 1: Know what you want to do

A simple clear goal helps you understand what is required in training. Completing a 5 km race in 20 minutes or less fits this description. You need to be able to run 4 min / km pace (12 kph) for 20 minutes without getting hurt. You need to be able to train consistently enough to achieve this based on where you are today.

If you can currently run 30 minutes then you have a longer journey ahead. If you run 20:02, then a few simple tweaks are all that are needed and not much time.

Step 2: Divide it into manageable steps

Some training plans today want to focus your mind on ‘training everything all the time’. I do not believe in this approach because I view running as a skill and when you try to learn everything at once you tend to do a poor job of it all.

Imagine learning to play the guitar: if you focus on learning two chords then you can become very strong and proficient at holding those two chords and striking a pure tune. You can practice the transition between chord A and chord D and back without the distraction of trying to learn other chords. Six weeks of practicing chords A and D will provide a better foundation than six weeks working on 10 chords at the same time.

Running is the same: you find out the first piece you need to and focus on that and you spend most of your time on that until you’ve reached a reasonable level of proficiency. Running 1 mile perfectly without pain could be what is necessary for one runner. For another it may be ‘running for one hour without losing my breath and having no pain in the 72 hours after’. For a seriously injured runner you may have to start at a more rudimentary level: ‘work on your foot until you can balance easily on one foot’. Whichever it is you focus your energy there.

Step 3: Choose the first simple step and DO IT

This step requires the most experience because you need to understand which of your weaknesses holds you back from doing the training required for what you want to achieve.

If you need to run 4:00 min/km for 20 minutes and you cannot currently take a single step without excruciating pain, then the first simple step is not to run. You need to work further back than that. Without experience you must work with a therapist or a running technique coach who can provide the first priority for you.

Should you be so fortunate to have no injury, you can use logic and experience to give you the first answer (or also take the advice of a coach). If 4 min/km pace feels really easy for you over short distances – your 200m time may be much much faster than that – but cannot maintain it, then you probably have an endurance problem and need to increase that first.

If you run very good times on the roads but struggle to get up hills, you may have a technical issue or lack power and strength. You can begin by taking the problem apart and seeing how long you can maintain a fast pace uphill and what seems to happen when you slow down. From that you can begin to deduct the training necessary to fix it. All journeys are easier with a coach (I’d say that, of course) but while running is simple in principle, there is no cookie-cutter recipe you can follow to success. You need to evaluate yourself and where your weakness likely is and then GO FIX IT. Let us say you weigh 110 kilos and are 6 feet tall. You struggle to get up hill. Your first priority is not building power and strength – it’s reducing your weight in a way that doesn’t compromise your health.

Think about these three steps before you begin training again: clarify what you want to do, break the problem into stages of training and then go do the first step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running technique is reflexive

“Once the fundamentals of technique have been acquired, we can then add endurance and strength’  – Arthur Lydiard

Define (reflexive): (of an action) performed as a reflex, without conscious thought.

Technique – how we choose to run – eventually determines the longevity of our running careers and extent to which we can exploit our natural potential and our reap the rewards of our hard work.

The teaching of running technique must always be approached in the knowledge that human movement only functions optimally when it is subconscious, automatic and governed by reflexes.

Running technique coaching, even when showing short-term benefits, eventually runs into trouble when taught through focus on specific muscles and conscious control.

I support only those running technique coaching practices which seek to restore optimal posture and form through greater sensory and bodily awareness. You can call this ‘subconscious coaching’ – reprogramming your primitive ‘reptilian brain’ and the reflexes that work in tandem with it.

The best example is posture. Proper posture is crucial in generating correct technique. But forcing yourself into correct posture causes excessive tension and new compensations on top of the old ones.

No ‘perfect method’ currently exists for teaching running technique but current practice is constantly evolving. Of the many available tools out there, I employ the following as among the best for this type of coaching:

  • Joint exploration: Exercise allowing the runner to ‘explore’ all the ranges of motion his joints possess allowing his brain to re-establish a correct position of ‘centre’ and re-map the available range of motion and help remove sensory-motor amnesia where present. These exercises are best performed with a high level of awareness.
  • Self-limiting exercise and constraints-led training: Self-limiting exercises would include running barefoot on hard surfaces, crawling through a narrow tunnel or holding a weighted bar overhead. All these exercises force the learner to work within certain constraints. Other constraints can be moving within a narrow area, putting a soft plate behind a runner on a treadmill that his rear leg will move back into and so forth.
  • Subconscious learning: By isolating one particular movement and performing it as a drill, we can repeat a pattern enough that the subconscious brain may recognise it again as useful and begin re-integrating the pattern into the greater pattern of complex movements such as running. Drilling can also recondition a part of the body that has become deconditioned – perhaps your hamstrings are no longer sufficiently reactive to play their part in running so your body no longer utilises them. Drills can ‘bring them back up to scratch’. Isolation exercises like this must be done with caution, however, to avoid conditioning muscles to do activities unrelated to your sports movement or teach it to act in a way that is not in harmony. Whenever possible, we want to avoid isolation work.
  • Externally focused action cues: When we utilise internal foci (i.e. ‘contract your hamstring’) our conscious mind obstructs the smooth workings of the subconscious mind. This has been proven to reduce performance in motor-skill learning. External foci must therefore always be preferred such as ‘remove your foot from the floor’. Here we allow the brain to choose the optimal way of moving the foot. I focus learners on the objective (‘drop down and land on the floor in front of you quietly’) rather than the process (‘bend your knees and hips somewhat as you drop off the step onto the floor and ensure you land with most of your weight towards the balls of your feet’).

There are other parts to the method of teaching running technique coaching falling into grey areas in the three categories above. Coaches should notice that traditional methods such as ‘active cueing’ (‘stick your pelvis forward’) are generally discouraged as these tend to overly engage the conscious brain and are open to interpretation – i.e. cues have different effects on different runners. External cues are exempted from this rule.

Percy Cerutty, the great coach of Herb Elliott, deserves the last word on this article:

“The recognition that anything that is inhibited, mechanical, regimented, done under imposed duress or direction, even that which may be thought to be self-imposed-anything at all that is not free out-flowing, out-pouring, instinctive and spontaneous, in the end stultifies the objectives, limits the progress and destroys the possibility of a completely and fully developed personality.”

My practice: Steady hill climbs

Running Rene 2I refer to every running session, we do as ‘practice’ rather than ‘workout’ to stress the emphasis: we want to practice doing the right thing and not simply motoring through with terrible running technique and bad biomechanics.

We coaches disseminate a lot of theoretical material on the internet these days and not always enough about what we actually practice. So starting today, I will share practice sessions I have recently done or am just about to do with my athletes or on my own.

Because a lot of advice becomes essentially useless if you rob it of its context, I will always provide the background necessary to understand ‘why’ we are doing this session and guide you on how you should modify it if your context and situation is different.

Steady hill climbs

Background

Glendalough AC, the running club where I serve as head coach, meet for most of our runs in the Laragh GAA grounds in the heart of the scenic Wicklow Mountains. We are blessed with runnable trails on our door-step.

We will have a team competing in the annual Wicklow Way Relay, which I have been race directing since 2014, in which teams of 8 runners compete on hilly trail routes ranging from 8 km to 21 km.

To prepare our runners psychologically, physically and tactically to manage the long extended climbs well, we will do a steady workout over a known uphill course.

In previous winters, we have used the infamous ‘zig-zags’ at Derrybawn Woods for our hil repeats because we can easily access the start of the climb from the GAA pitch  .The short trot to the barrier that marks the start serves as our warm-up.

For my runners I want a session that is a challenge without over-taxing anyone. Our current group consists of runners of medium experience – most having run from 2 to 5 years – but not many very athletes will longer experience and no beginners as these are in the Fit4Life group.

The climb to the top is 1500 metres with about 150 metres of vertical ascent. Ascent grades vary throughout and all the under-foot is hard-packed trail very similar to the upcoming race. Most runners complete the climb in 12 to 16 minutes if they do hill repeats with active running recovery, so running the whole climb steadily I expect about 10-15 minutes ‘under tension’ for my runners.

Coaching considerations

Since the race is only 9 days away we cannot expect major up-turns in our runners fitness and we also do not want to risk over-cooking our athletes or giving them a very negative experience with the uphill as this could well be the last memory they carry into the race.

We want to ‘toughen it up’ and ‘succeed’ at the same time. My training philosophy obeys Arthur Lydiard’s dictum to ‘train, don’t strain’ and I do not want to see major break-down in form as that is a sign to me that runners ‘have lost control’. You could call this ‘controlled aggression’ to describe exactly what I want from the session.

Since the main part of the session is quite short – 10 to 15 minutes of the 60 minutes available – we will do uphill drills and strides as the final part of our warm-up.

I like to use very quick two and one-legged jumping drills uphill with focus on upright posture as well as quick strides with exaggerated running form to move the body’s joints through full range of motion.

My instructions

I will instruct the runners to focus on an effort they could describe as 6 or 7 out of 10 and that ‘deep, rapid breathing’ is acceptable but not ‘rapid, shallow breathing’ (hyper-ventilating). Runners will likely describe this as ‘steady’ to ‘comfortably hard’.

I will ask them to imagine they had to go back down and do the whole ascent one more time at the same effort to ensure they don’t ‘go to the well’.

As a final cue I will let them know that a huge drop-off in pace on the second half of the climb means they paced themselves badly and to try for an even effort throughout.

Once the runners reach the top, they should wait on for their team-mates as part of the team spirit of the upcoming event. We can safely do this as the evening will have high temperatures and the trail is sheltered by forest.

When everyone has gathered at the top, we allow runners to make their own way down ‘relaxed fast’ or ‘easy’, whichever they prefer. Once back at the gate, everyone collects any jackets or similar and we use the 10 minute trot back as our cool-down before doing some gentle mobility on the GAA pitch.

When to use it

You can use this session in similar circumstances to those described here or you can place it as a general strength-building workout in early or mid-part of your build-up to an important race.

The workout could be done on road if training for a road race instead of a trail race and slope and distance customised to suit your race distance. The earlier in training you do this type of ‘steady climb’, the more control you need to show with your pace as you are not yet as fit as you will be later. Running Rene 2

Training philosophy – ‘what is fitness’

One question I get all the time is ‘will I lose my fitness’ when an athlete faces down-time due to a niggle. Coaches only  get this question when the runner can still ‘run through the pain’ so you know the injury has not yet reached critical stages.

How we answer the question depends on our definition of fitness. Many endurance coaches and athletes chose a narrow interpretation simply relating to our energy systems and cardiovascular abilities – our ‘metabolic conditioning’ or ‘bioenergetics’ as it has been known since Renato Canova took the stage in athletics.

The definition is really stupidity – you cannot drive a car with a big engine but no wheels nor do you have any use for a fantastic cardiovascular system with two broken legs.

Fitness is your ability to respond to the demands placed upon you in any given moment whether that be running a marathon or lifting a crate. An injured runner has low fitness because they cannot cope with the demands of a marathon.

So I tell athletes: ‘if you get injured, you .lose ALL your fitness’ to help them shift their minds away from obsessing about losing cardiovascular abilities. Cardiovascular and musculoskeletal adaptations do build and regress rather quickly but this concern can be easily remedied by doing whichever alternative activity is possible eliciting a similar physiological reaction (such as hiking, doing a MovNat training session, or running-specific strength and conditioning). The only mistake is risking losing ALL your abilities simply to hold onto some of them: imagine going ‘all in’ during a poker game just to protect a few chips. Nonsense. Of course it is.

Exercises: One-leg stance

one leg stanceThe one leg stance test is familiar to any runner who has ever sprained an ankle. I fully understood the importance of this after learning Lee Saxby’s ‘Born to Run’ running screen which places this as one of the crucial milestones to master.

You cannot expect to do thousands of one-leg jumps without injury risk, i.e. running, if you cannot master this simple milestone first.

Watch the video on YouTube

 * In the scientific literature the one-leg stance is referred to more technically as ‘uni-pedal stance’ – search for this if you’re interested in the research. This article provides a good starting point.

Training laws: do what’s necessary

discipline

Any training planning process starts by following this quote by Arthur Lydiard. If you want to improve from a 3:10 marathoner to a 2:30 marathoner then you begin by understanding what would be necessary to run a 2:30 marathon (this primarily means – what is the ‘pace’ in this case 3:33 min/km pace) and where you stand in relation to this. This shows us the gap between where you are and where you want to be. As a coach it allows me to find out what you ‘need to do’.

Discipline comes from having commitment to a process even when no one is looking and there are no social media streams to impress.Dan Pena says ‘motivation get’s you started, discipline keeps you going’. Discipline requires willpower – not an unlimited resource – so in order to ‘discipline yourself’ you must focus on the few things that matter*.

Discipline does not mean punishment but comes from the word ‘disciple’ meaning ‘to teach’. Mastering discipline requires teaching athletes the how and why of high performance behaviour while maintaining independent decision-making. Once you have confidence in ‘the way’ (‘how’) to train, belief helps fuel discipline (thus why discipline comes from ‘teaching’). The ‘why’ helps athlete’s retain their sense of good judgement day to day and not turn into robots or blind automatons.

* We will revisit the latter in training law #1 – First things, first. 

Training philosophy #1

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When I discuss dream, a goal or a vision with a runner or potential student, I often hear ‘the world is like this and this’. Problems instead of opportunities.

The status quo has no real interest to me except as a place to get your bearings from. I do not accept the ‘lay of the land’ or the ‘way of the world’. Everything is open to change. Once you embrace this growth mindset – and act as if you have no limits, you open doors you didn’t even know where there.