Good health: we need it for running and much more

Today, I would like to deviate a bit from running training to talk about something relating to the foundation for success in all sport: good health.

You cannot improve your performance unless you are already in good health. The human body is an amazing design, and it will always prioritise critical repairs over ‘luxury’ repairs. So if you have been exposed to a toxin (for instance) or you are suffering from some form of malnutrition (or food allergy) then your body will first prioritise resources to fix these problems before it builds new layers of fitness for you.

Maximum training benefits therefore require maximum health. In 2020, some people will have been more concerned about their health than previously. Our media spends lots of time talking about disease and illness but not as much on what we can do to maximise health.

No matter how you view the risk of any type of disease symptom (cancer, flu, cardiac disease, covid, diabetes), it would always be useful, valuable and worthwhile to do everything in our own power to ‘maximise our health’.

To help with this, I would like to remind my readers of a concept I covered 8 years ago: ‘evolutionary’ medicine.

Evolutionary medicine and mismatch theory

Evolutionary medicine is a perspective of health that views most human suffering, illness, and injury arises as symptom of a mismatch between the environment our bodies evolved to thrive in and the environment we live in today. The logic is that our ‘genes’ have certain needs that they need to have fulfilled by the right type of environment. If we live in an environment quite different from what our ‘genes’ need, then we become vulnerable to harm and various diseases manifest as a result.

In modern civilisation the primary focus has then been on trying to mollify or suppress these ‘symptoms’ and, sometimes, even curing them. But the underlying cause is often left unaddressed: the mismatch between our genes and the environment we occupy. This leads to constant symptom management such as long-term drug prescription or never-ending rehab exercises. We are calming the fire, but never putting it out.

To understand the concept of ‘your environment’, imagine a ‘goldfish bowl’ that is dirty. The goldfish in this dark and murky water will very suddenly stop thriving and ‘get sick’. We now have two options: we can come up with some kind of chemical solution to ‘clean the bowl’ or to ‘inject into the fish to make it resistant to the dirt in the water’ OR we can clean the bowl (or move the fish to another cleaner bowl).

As a coach, I have often observed people who cannot heal from an injury or who stop performing and that this ‘condition’ resists ‘direct attacks’ with remedies such a biomechanical improvement, reduction in training volume and rehab drills. This is a tell-tale sign that we are not addressing the root cause – that the ‘bowl is dirty’ and that we are not going to get anywhere until we clean it.

Where it gets really personal….

This is one of the hardest tasks for a coach because it requires looking at a person’s ‘environment’. This includes where a person lives, what they eat, the air they breathe, the water they drink, the food they consume, the toxins they are exposed to and their psychological state (which can have an enormous effect on human physiology to a point where it is extremely immunosuppressant).

All these factors send ‘signals’ to our body which changes gene expressions, hormonal activity and other factors. If we optimise the signals that we allow our environment to send into our bodies, however, we optimise first health and then as a logical conclusion – also our performance.

When I learnt of this approach, I found it tremendously empowering. It showed to me than rather than being a mere victim to ‘chance’, a victim that had to rely on external experts at every turn to ‘save me’ when I fell ill or got injured, I was in fact largely the master of my own fate. This approach takes work: you need set yourself a mindset where you say ‘my health, my responsibility’ and you need to inform yourself deeply about how all environmental factors influence health (soil, air, water, food, light, electromagnetism, chemicals, exercise, lack of social interaction, lack of shelter, lack of safety etc.) because in this paradigm most solutions can only come from yourself and the choices you make about everything around you on a day to day basis.

It also showed me that my ‘cards where not marked’ simply because I had a history of cancer in my family. As a doctor told me the other day ‘your genes load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger’ (this is the concept of ‘epigenetics’ – more on this another time). We have the power to change our destiny. What message could be more important than that.

I adopted the same mindset when my second child was born with special needs. Sure, she has some challenges others will not face – but largely I ignored talk of ‘limitations’ and focused on all we could do to optimise her environment – get the best possible gene expression and, I reason, most of the so-called ‘baked in’ illnesses need not occur nor does she need to be considered a member of a ‘vulnerable group’.

It is true that we cannot control the world and if your local authority or a company near you pours toxins into your air, water and soil and you get sick as a result, then technically this was caused by others. I still personally retain 100% responsibility – because I can stay aware of my environment an take actions against anyone who pollutes it or do things to mitigate the harm of these stressors. So even in these situations, I feel we can ‘own’ our health 100%, which is how I personally want to live my life.

Are we meeting our needs?

Another way to understand this – if it is still a bit unclear – is that your body has needs that must be fulfilled to stay healthy.

These needs can be expressed like Adam Maslow did in the pyramid shown below. Some like food and water will be obvious to you. A failure to meet these needs can shorten lifespans either abruptly (lack of food, water) or over time (lack of acceptance, chronic stress, shorten lifespan etc.).

If we look at the year 2020 then consider how many of these needs are not being appropriately met and then consider that human suffering and illness manifests whenever these needs are unmet. I want to mention: I do not believe these needs are actually hierarchical as presented. But they do represent our needs all the same.

I want to invite my readers to an exercise. Read through the examples below and think of the many needs that are not being met to the normal level in 2020 and send me your thoughts. I will publish your suggestions – along with my own thoughts Monday or Tuesday next week.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a scalable vector illustration on white background


Once, we go through it together, I think we can arrive at a more sophisticated view on how to maximise the chance that every person in our society stays as healthy as possible. We will be able to see which health interventions support our needs and which sabotage them.

Postscript: an important question?

As a personal comment I will also ask that we consider this: so far (in Ireland), we have invested near 18 billion in the measures the government has taken so far in 2020 to address the ongoing situation.

 In light of the perspective of health introduced here, could we argue that perhaps we could have had a greater overall impact on health if we had prioritised differently?

Take for instance the greatest killers of 2020: cancer and heart disease. These two diseases are hugely linked to optimising the environment around humans so that these diseases do not manifest in the first place. Would we overall do better if we had prioritised differently? I think these are interesting questions that need attention – but I will not delve further into them here as we are getting off the topic of health as a foundation for running. I just want to plant that seed in minds of people better qualified than myself to answer this important question.

Some books I would recommend on the subject explored today:

Virtual Marathon – an opportunity to explore what taper strategy works best for you.

Normally around this time of year, thousands of runners around Ireland will be starting their marathon taper as they make final preparations for the KBC Dublin Marathon. The race may be virtual this year, but it provides a great opportunity for runners to practice running the distance and getting their tapering right for when the real race returns. In this article, Head Coach at RCI René Borg explores what a taper actually consists of and which way of doing the taper, will be most effective for you.

Taper: diminish or reduce in thickness towards one end. A gradual narrowing. A gradual or incremental reduction


It is no good arriving at your peak event super fit but dead tired. If you have ever ‘died off’ towards the end of a long race, you may automatically assume that this was down to insufficient training. It is just as likely that you did not ‘taper’ correctly. Executing the last weeks of training before an event badly leaves the body is not fully restocked in all the departments that count. And those ‘empty shelves’ make all the difference in the final part of the race.

The concept of ‘taper’ is simply an attempt to balance fatigue, fitness, and detraining. You want to remove as much fatigue as possible while losing as little fitness as possible. The research we have suggests that a good taper can generally lead to a 2-3% increase in performance with a range from 0.5% all the way up to 16% being reported! That is a significant increase – so messing up the taper is a bit like serving your steak with the wrong sauce: it can mess up the whole dish!

Any type of exercise you do leaves two effects: one short-term effect and one long-term effect. The short-term effect is fatigue. Fatigue manifests as a reduction in performance and so you are generally less able to perform in the days immediately following hard workouts when the effects of fatigue still linger. The long-term effects are positive (if training load is appropriate) and manifest as fitness: the ability to do more work or better work (running faster for longer etc.).

Once training stops or is reduced, fitness slowly begins reducing. Early on we do not feel the effects of this because we also become ‘fresher’ as we shed the ‘fatigue’ or ‘correct the accumulated wear and tear of training’ (Pfitzinger).

Classical tapering involves a rapid drop in training volume while intensity is increased. A second type of taper – sometimes labelled ‘sharpening’ (Magness) – maintains training pretty much as normal with a small reduction in the intensity, volume and density of training (reducing density means you increase the recovery days between harder workouts).

Some traditional tapers are gradual (i.e. drop volume by 15%, then by 10% in race week) and others are drastic (drop volume by 40% two weeks out, then by 60% etc.) and some are long (3 weeks) whereas others are short (1 week). So, which is right for you?

The problem

Unfortunately, one approach does not work for everyone. Some people do long tapers and feel stale and ‘rubbish’ by the time they hit the start line. Others do short and sharp tapers and feel fantastic. Some barely do any taper and still feel great. The key for a successful Taper is therefore to learn which strategy suits your individual needs.

This is the frustrating truth about many things related to running: what works for one person may not work for you, even if it appears to be backed by good science. This means ultimately you must experiment with the different approaches available until you find the right recipe for you. This will occasionally mean ‘learning the hard way’!

I looked through all my own best race performances and found an equally mixed bag. I had performed well in some races with little or no taper and badly in some races with an extensive taper (and vice-versa). All this tells us, of course, is that performance depends on a lot more than the taper in isolation. Looking back there is no way of telling whether ‘I would have run even better with a taper’ than without it. So what rules can we follow?

How to pick your taper

The taper you should pick depends on:

  1. The length and toughness of your training build-up
  2. The length of the race you are training for
  3. Your individual physical and psychological attributes

In relation to A and B, the rule is simply that you need a longer taper, the more demanding your training has been and the longer the race. It makes logical sense: the more tiring your training, the more time you need to shed the fatigue. The longer your race, the more you will need to be fresh. No one is surprised to hear you need more taper for a marathon than for a 5 km race.

The taper also needs to be specific to the event. Doing a lot of 3 km and 10 km race pace work during a taper is not a good idea for marathon as it shifts the emphasis of your metabolism towards sugar and anaerobic metabolism (the opposite of what we want). The type of intensity you do during the taper must mirror the intensities you will use in the race. A 5 km runner may do short and sharp 3k to 10k work.  A marathoner should focus on 10k to marathon paces only (leg-speed strides can always be done in moderation).

Where your decision becomes harder is when it comes to your physical and psychological characteristics. Firstly, it is known that drastic tapers benefit people with more Fast-Twitch fibres more than those who are predominantly ‘Slow-Twitch’. This means if you have good natural speed, bulky muscles but may be lacking a bit of natural endurance, then tapers benefit you more than if you are not naturally fast, thin and sinewy, have a hard time gaining muscle mass, and a general tendency towards endurance. The latter type tends to get stale if training is ramped down too aggressively and benefit more from the approach Magness’ calls ‘sharpening’ (see above).

Essentially, a sharp traditional taper leads to a slight shift towards Fast-Twitch muscle fibres (FT). This can be beneficial for runners with more FT training for shorter events but can be a problem in nearly all other cases. There ARE other physiological changes which benefit nearly everyone, but it would take too long to go through them here.

Finally, you must consider your own psychology. The more you derive confidence from your workouts, the less tapering you can likely afford to do without impacting your race performance. Essentially, tapering can be summarised as ‘do whatever YOU need to FEEL OPTIMAL on race day’.

For some this will be significant rest and just a few sharp workouts. For others it will mean business as usual with few dosed down versions of tried and trusted workouts that confirm to you that ‘you’re fine’.

Ten rules of thumb to help build your perfect taper

The best I can do for you is therefore to illustrate some different approaches and give some hints as to which would likely suit different types of runners. From there you can narrow the approach down rather than having to try 20 different strategies and only striking gold in the tenth attempt!

Some basic rules for the Taper I have picked up from several coaches and scientists over the years are presented below. They are ‘heuristics’ (rules of thumb) meaning not all will apply to you and you need to learn through trial and error which are best for you:

  1. A taper should last from 7 days to 21 days
  2. The longer your race, the longer the taper
  3. Lower your volume, but maintain your training intensity
  4. The longer and harder your training, the more aggressive the taper
  5. The more tired you are, the more taper you need
  6. Follow any hard work out during taper with 2 easy days – not just one! Do not be afraid to take days off
  7. All workouts – hard and easy – should decrease in volume
  8. Put extra focus into your recovery methods
  9. To use a taper, you should need a taper (meaning: no need for a taper if your training load was already light for you)
  10. Keep your Taper workouts SPECIFIC to your event

I hope this gives you a starting point. Good luck with your final weeks of training.

City Marathons are back and with them the carbon plated shoes…

With the return of marathon road running this weekend in the London Virtual Marathon, Eoin Flynn asked me had I any thoughts on the matter of carbon-plated shoes to share with our readers?

“Yes, strong ones,”I replied. Yet I am not a shoe guru. Shoes are one of the aspects of running that interests me the least. As a coach I need to know a bit of everything, but my focus is on the training and not the equipment. What interested me in answering Eoin’s question is the implications the shoes have for the sport overall – not the technical details of the shoes themselves.

Do not take my opinion here as any kind of judgement on anyone who is already running in this type of footwear and enjoying it. I totally understand where you are coming from and, in fact, if I decided to return to road racing at some part of my own master’s career, you can be pretty sure that I would be wearing the carbon-plated shoes.

Why? Well, for me road racing is about pure competition so you cannot afford to be at any disadvantage. If I run a 5 km race in a pair of non-carbon plated shoes then I stand to lose somewhere between 40 and 80 seconds on people with a similar fitness level – that is, of course, if the shoes work exactly like advertised and if they work that way for everybody. This is the view espoused by our own Irish international Stephen Scullion: ‘if you don’t wear them, don’t expect to be competitive’.

With that caveat out of the way let us dive into the issue of carbon-plated shoes. I would be grateful if anyone reading this considers it the beginning of a discussion – not the attempt at a final word on the matter.

Quick background

The carbon-plate controversy began with the advent of a shoe called the Nike Vaporflywhich has since spun off newer models and rival shoe companies like Hoka have followed suit. Today there is even talk of the first carbon-plated running spike for track racing. The benefits are claimed to be around 4 to 7% – the equivalent of dropping your marathon time from 3 hours to 2:53 (4%) or 2:47 (7%). In reality, the actual improvement for an individual remains murkier.

I am taking it at face value here that the shoes provide the benefit they claim (4% in early models and 7% in later ones) for some (but not all people). Obviously, if the scientific research proving this is found to be flawed and the real benefit is lesser than we are discussing a ‘made-up problem’ here but it’s beyond the scope of this piece to review the science.

This has created an enormous ripple through the running community going as far as threatening the diversity of the shoe market where elite athletes are abandoning brands like ASICS and Mizunoin droves and tightening Nike’s hegemony on the running market.

Better ban them?

Personally, I believe the running world would be better off if carbon-plated footwear was banned. That is a strong opinion and I want to qualify why I hold it. I am not simply a ‘Luddite’ who wants to hold back technological progress at all costs. I own a Garmin.

But who am I really to disagree with Kipchoge who succinctly says: “We must all accept technology and move on.”

He is right in many ways. If technology is implemented, then we must all accept it and move on. Or be left behind.

I do not expect carbon-plate footwear to go away but here are the reasons I believe they are problematic. I do not want to stir up a hornet’s nest here as much as I want to stir up a bit of discussion on the topic.

Reason #1: It shifts the focus from athlete to equipment

We have sports that are heavily focused around equipment (from formula 1 at one extreme through cycling somewhere in the middle to ‘pure’ sports such as running and eventually martial arts at the other extreme).

My first concern is we have seen a shift in conversation from talking about the athletes to talking more and more about their footwear. This should never be the case in running where the main star should always be the runner. The shoe sponsor should reflect in their glory rather than the athlete being an accessory to the latest shoe.

It creates the situation where any runner who is beaten by a fellow competitor wearing a carbon-plated shoe can’t help but reach the finish line thinking ‘did I just get beaten by the shoe, or the person?’ and where anyone breaking their old PBs must wonder ‘would I have beaten my best in my old regular runners and does that mean I have really gotten any better at all?’ I know history only remembers the times we ‘put on the board’ but personally I would feel somewhat ‘bittersweet’ about a ‘carbon-aided PB’.

Previous iterations of running shoes – while offering improvements, where never ascribed as much credit for breakthrough performances. The difference between shoe models was always ambiguous enough  Now you have a situation where athletes sponsored by other shoe brands will spray paint a Nike Vaporfly so they can gain the advantage of that shoe without offending their sponsor.

Reason #2: It raises awkward questions about improvement, record-breaking and the nature of ‘enhancement’

We may say that ‘technical’ running shoes supposed to give us an advantage have been around since the early Sixties and general footwear obviously since Ancient times. So, what makes one technological step forward different from another? Why is carbon more ‘offensive’ than ‘EVA foam’?

The line to me goes when the technological advantage leads to the detriment of the sport. A good example is the technological step-backs taken by Formula 1 because certain features of cars made the races ‘too predictable’.

A second – more relevant – example was the 2010 ban on buoyant polyurethane swimsuits which led to the obliteration of long-held world records. It was felt then that this cheapened the sport and destroyed its history – lessening the value of ‘world record breaking performances’ (in a similar way to the many ladies’ records broken through the use of doping in Athletics in the 1980s). We have seen signs of this with many long-standing records being obliterated only for a large cohort of fans to point out that ‘it only happened because of the shoes’ and that the original record holder ‘performed better’ and other awkward questions that can tarnish the experience of ‘breaking a record’ both for the record-breaker and the fan.

Technology in this way can come to resemble a form of ‘technological’ or ‘mechanical doping’ and it opens an awkward discussion that chemical augmentation is morally wrong and reprehensible but technological enhancement is wonderful and laudable? I do not myself posses a clear answer to that question.

BUT, you may say: other technological improvements in athletics have already had this effect before, namely the synthetic track. It is well-known that modern polyurethane tracks are at least 1 second faster than the grass and cinder tracks widely used up to the late sixties. This means modern records look somewhat inflated compared to times run on the older tracks. This brings me to my third concern.

Reason #3: It creates an uneven playing field

The transition to polyurethane track was slow and gradual due to the expense of this technology but at least in any given race athletes were presented with a ‘level playing field’ (because everyone ran on the same surface). The best athletes in the world would eventually get access to the best tracks in the world. With carbon-plated shoes many runners will have different shoes – some with greater advantage than others. Running now more closely resembles Formula 1 – you still need the best driver to win. But you also need a superior car. You may win a race in a Ferrari but in a Lotus?  Forget about it.

This would be less of a problem if the shoes were equally available to everyone. However, the modern carbon-plated shoes must be purchased at great expense costing nearly twice as much as regular running shoes and having a much shorter lifetime (so the price ‘per mile’ is many times that of a normal running shoe). In a capitalist society we accept that price should follow perceived value and in this way the shoes are obviously a success and some people are willing and able to pay for this. We also understand that more research means higher prices for a long period of time until the initial development cost is paid back. It’s possible this situation will improve although I see no definitive trends of shoe prices having a tendency to drop over time!

My main concern lies in the words some and able. One of the great attractions of running for many people lies in its simplicity ‘just put on your shoes and run’ and the perception that you ‘get out what you put in’. There’s a fundamental sense of ‘fairness’ and individual control embedded into the essence of running as a sport. You do not rely on team-mates and having the best equipment was long considered to make a negligible difference compared to, say, having the lightest carbon-fibre bike in cycling.

The carbon-plated shoes have changed this dynamic because now the best time will be run with those who are either willing, or more importantly able, to afford. Athletic prowess becomes not just about the work you put in but the investment of money you can make. Even for those wearing the shoes the effect is different as studies showed ‘responders’ and ‘non-responders’ – so we have a tool that benefits some people more than others (for details on this read here).

I know a counter-argument is that ‘if you want it enough you’ll prioritise your money’ but it’s beyond question that a 250-270 euro price tag will be more than some people can afford under any circumstances. These people can now find themselves at a disadvantage they did not previously have.

Perhaps this should not matter: because is not our sport about personal achievement? I would agree to an extent, but we cannot forget that place and position also matter and, even more so, our sense of personal achievement is not only derived from beating our personal times. It is based on how we judge our own achievements relative to everyone else. If the average times in races go down because of carbon-plated shoes, then the times of those without them will appear ‘less’ in comparison.


Weighing these three main concerns up against the benefits (faster times and potentially more public interest in the sport), I feel we would be better off putting carbon-plated footwear the way of the polyurethane swimsuitsand 3d silicone chevronsin road cycling.

How do we go about this in practice? It’s quite simple really, athletics should just ascribe more tightly to ‘technological doping’ definition as set out by WADA:

Technological doping is the practice of gaining a competitive advantage using sports equipment. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considers prohibiting technologies if they are “performance-enhancing” or “being against the spirit of the sport”. In 2006, WADA initiated a consultation on technology doping which is now officially recognised as a threat, whilst the decision to allow or ban a new technology, specifically relating to sports equipment, is the responsibility of each sport’s own governing body.

The primary concerns that drove the adoption of a definition of ‘technological doping’ are summarised on Wikipedia:

“people fear that sports engineering could: overshadow the triumph of human spirit and effort, make certain sports easier, create unfairness so the “best athletes” might not win, and ensure that rich athletes and countries have an advantage over the poor ones.”

This mirrors my basic concerns about what carbon-plated shoe will do to the sport of running. For the moment, I plan to keep my focus on the trails and cross-country, leaving me free from having to make the awkward choice of ‘whether to buy a carbon-plated shoe’ for another while.

Eoin Flynn joins RCI’s coaching team

Running Coach Ireland is delighted to announce the appointment of Eoin Flynn as Assistant Head Coach. 

Eoin has a wealth of experience in athletics having competed across track, road, cross country and mountains over the last 16 years.  

Eoin has completed in close to 250 races with 82 race wins across the different disciplines with some of his highlights including: 

  • National Senior 800m and 1500m Track Finalist 
  • Bronze Medal in Senior National Inter-County Cross Country Championship 
  • Bronze Medal in National Marathon Championships in Dublin Marathon 
  • 10 Irish Caps with the Irish International Mountain Running team in 6 World Championships in 4 European Championships 
  • National Novice, Intermediate, Senior and Masters Team Titles on Road and Cross Country with Rathfarnham WSAF Athletics 
Eoin Flynn in his role as speaker

Eoin also coached large groups for a number of years from his base in Gran Canaria and will assist Head Coach René Borg across numerous areas of Running Coach Ireland: 

  • Supporting RCI athletes in achieving their running goals 
  • Supporting René in his coaching philosophy and RCI´s coaching infrastructure that will further enhace RCI´s premium service to its athletes. 
  • Assisting in the Management and Administration of Running Coach Ireland as it continues to grow into a best in class coaching service for athletes across all abilities and race disciplines. 

For further information on our coaching services, please visit our webshop.

Educated Runner Audio Blog #4: Recovery in COVID-19 times part

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?

Listen directly on Podomatic

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…very-management/…r-dr-marc-bubbs/

The Power of When (quiz):
Circadean rhythms and athletic performance:
Parasympathetic nervous system and recovery:…ic-nervous-system/
Vagal tone: the performance biohack for athletes:…Hack-for-Athletes

Sunlight and circadean biology…ght-and-sleep

Genetics of recovery


Reviews of recovery methods in scientific literature…40279-013-0083-4…68867319300379…Reports.pdf…rcice_physique…guide-recovery

Schumann resonance and health…nce-therapy/…Researcher-Jack-K

Wim Hof Method

Exercise programs
Functional patterns: jhgadftqwuihxsa2135987courseone.functionalpatterns.c…
Anatomy in Motion:…Vh07JZylWrKraRc

Educated Runner Audio Blog #3: Running in COVID-19 times part 2

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)

Listen to podcast (Podomatic)

Podcast will be available shortly on Spotify, Castbox, Stitcher, and Deezer.



Out & Back, Circuit Run, Fartlek



Functional Patterns

Anatomy in Motion by Gary Ward



Even with your shoes on by Helen Hall

Running Rewired by Jay Dicharry


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:

  • Easy runs: let’s start with the obvious – most of your volume will be easy running no matter what you do. So the first thing you need to do is explore your local area like you have never explored it before and be creative with the different ways you can combine all the streets and trails within the radius. I’ve run the trails on my local mountain in all sorts of ways I never did before: loops, figures of 8, and combinations of loops and out and back segments
    • This is proving to be enormously beneficial because I used to always think I should drive somewhere to keep my training varied and avoid boredom. Now I know I can do so much more from the door than I thought.
    • You might discover new little hills and streets for your work you were never aware of – and they are there to be used on the busy days you’ll have when things return to normal and you don’t want to drive
  • Out and back: 2 km out and 2 km back stretches from your address is a great route choice if you’re looking to keep your effort consistent – especially if the 2 km stretch is relatively flat. A great workout – called an Out and Back is done at steady pace (marathon pace for faster runners). It’s a pace judgement workout where the main goal is to ensure you can return to your house in roughly the same time that it took you to run to the turn-point without upping your effort very much. If you can do this you’re in the tzone of ‘training, not straining’.
  • Circuit runs: usually you can construct a good circuit somewhere within your 2 km radius whether it’s a 400m or 1 km loop of a park or a residential block, a field or a car park. These routes are great for any type of workout where your harder effort and your recovery are of equal duration.
    • A classic Kiwi workout I learned from Keith Livingstone consists of running one lap at a ‘steady’ or ‘moderate’ pace (by feel) which is usually marathon to 10 mile pace for most runners and then running one lap easy.
    • Such workouts are very easy to progress because you can simply increase the speed of the easy run. If you want to increase the speed of the faster lap, you normally hav eto make the part of the circuit you run at fast pace shorter
      • For instance, if you have a nice 600m loop around your house with a clear marker about 300m through (let’s say ‘Woodies’) you can decide to run ‘hard’ to that point an then ‘cruise’ easy until you get back to the start of the loop again (this would give a session with 300m hard, 300m easy
  • Fartleks: Fartleks are great in most parts of training because they are self-directed lowering the risk of overtraining. They are great way to remind your body of whatever paces you feel like running at without going overboard. In our current situation the big advantage of Fartlek is the flexibility: you can literally just use the ‘lap’ button on your watch to change pace whenever you feel like it.
  • Use your watch: with modern watches you can program nearly any workout you want. You can even add in a virtual partner set at a certain speed to compete with you as a quiet replacement for your regular training partner. If you do this, you can run anywhere and get an interesting workout. Simple workouts are good to start with if you are new to this. The typical introductory workout for learning hard repetitions is called ‘30/30’ and was invented by a French researcher called Veronique Billat. The basic idea is to run 30 seconds a bit faster than your 3k race pace (or just very hard if you don’t know what that is) and then ‘float’ gently through 30 seconds of recovery. You do this until you cannot keep the effort consistent anymore (usually 10 minutes to start with). The beauty of this workout is that your heart rate will usually be high for most of the 10 minutes – but your legs will only work hard for 5 minutes! More experienced runners can extend up to 20 or 30 minutes or do several sets of 10 minutes with 5-minute jogs in between each. They can also eventually extend – as Billat recommended – to 60/60s and eventually 3 minutes ON, 3 minutes OFF (usually repeated 4-6 times).

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:

  • Flat speed work:
    • ‘hills are speedwork’ in disguise. Do your planned sessions on the hills instead. If the focus is intensity, then do it up a hill for roughly the same duration that your reps would have been. If you run 400m repetitions in 70 seconds, then do 70 second hill repeats.
    • Downhill is a fantastic tool for leg speed development, so if you had planned flat strides or sprint training, do it on the shallowest downhill you can find and you will benefit from the downhill which will allow you to run faster than you normally can – stimulating your nervous system and preparing it for faster running on the flat later.
  • Hills: treadmill with incline (but different muscle groups!)
    • Plyometrics (explosive jumping with little ground contact time) and skpping (with a rope) if you know if it. Traditional ABC and SAC drills and any type of strength and conditioning that has some relation to running
    • Weighted training (run with your race pack for instance for more resistance)
    • Sprint parachute
    • Staircase: a great replacement for hill sprints especially and if you happen to have access to a stadium for longer climbs.
  • Trails:
    • If you are training for trails and only have pavements and road to run on, you are short on options. The best you can do is look for a few grassy areas to run on. If there are no options, you are better off just working with what you’ve got – the training will transfer to a large degree to trails. Just ensure you get on the trails as soon as we are set free.
  • Strength and conditioning circuits:
    • If you’re stuck in your flat as some runners in some countries are, this is a great time to invest in some online training that can be done in the house but that is specifically targeted at improving gait. Some good systems are Functional Patterns and Anatomy in Motion and MovNat – all of which offer online courses so you can follow along. There are also several books you can buy which will give you a program to follow such as Helen Hall’s ‘Even with your shoes on’ and Jay Dicharry’s ‘Running rewired’
    • A quick search on YouTube will reveal many more. I generally recommend trying out whatever is free from the source and see what motivates you the most to get started on. The key is doing the exercises consistently. So often it’s better to get a really good consistent routine doing the second best exercise in the world rather than never getting started on the best exercise in the world.

Educated Runner audio blog #1

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

Vitamin D deficiency and immune function (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

Trail Running Ireland podcast – episode 1

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:


  1. How the situation affected the running scene and running coaches
  2. How to adapt training to the current situation
  3. Do runners have a responsibility to keep their immune systems strong by avoiding too intensive/extensive training at the moment?
  4. How do change our goals?


What we couldn’t cover but I think is important in relation to the current situation is:


  1. The BENEFITS of running in a health crisis
  2. The specific tactics for boosting your immune system with running
  3. Are there any proven immune-boosters out there?
  4. What are the best training formats in a 2 km radius?
  5. How do you substitute training you cannot do within your 2 km radius?




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.


A run for the times: Circuit runs

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:

  • How to re-use lactate efficiently as an extra fuel source
  • How to alternate between paces relevant to your race just as you may do when surging or changing pace in a race situation
  • Recovering at a ‘faster’ pace as you will have to do in races

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).

Economy intervals

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.