Training people when time is short

I’ll admit it here: as a professional coach I sometimes have to make business decisions along with coaching decisions. Ask my wife and she’ll  tell you I’m not nearly enough of businessman but here’s the rub: if I told every person who wanted to work with me exactly what I think they must do, most of my clients probably would not be able to work with me. There’s a simple reason for that.

It takes time…

To train to full potential you first of all need a long time: much longer than most people are comfortable investing in before we have developed a personal relationship. It’s cheaper to buy most subscriptions for a year yet most of us try a month first. It’s understandable.

Secondly, the decision to hire a coach often occurs to runners I work with ‘too late’ for an optimal build-up. My approach is not to turn these people away and ask them to come back later because quite frankly it means a lot of people will never come back. This is again the business man speaking but I need food on the table in order to be able to write and think coherently enough to coach. This decision-making does not have to be bad for you or for me as a coach as long as it’s clear what’s happening.

How short is too short?

I do not accept clients for shorter build-ups than 12 weeks (nothing material can be accomplished with shorter plans). If someone works with me for 6 weeks almost all the results they get (good or bad) is down to historical training – not my plan. So if things go badly, they will blame me in the wrong and if things go well I could take credit for results that are not my doing.

When I work with people ‘short-term’, I try to change things gradually away from current training and I consider the current plan a ‘stepping stone’ towards a longer term commitment where we have ‘time to do everything right’ later. I call this my ‘slow-track’. It does have the advantage of not shifting people out of their regular routine too quickly – something the body hates.

The Path to Full Potential (Arthur Lydiard)

The ‘fast-track’ is ironically the approach that takes longer to implement. I still call it the fast-track because it will get you to your full potential quicker. Focus on short-term success ALWAYS comes at the expense of fulfilling your ABSOLUTE POTENTIAL. I understand that for many of my runners long-term success is not the main goal – the next race is the goal and that may be it. I coach many runners who prepare for one big race and then that’s the end of their main running career. It’s pointless to impose career planning in those cases. It sometimes comes later.

The fast-track requires starting at least 28 weeks out from the main goal race of the season. At that date you already need to be fit enough to take on 10 weeks of heavy volume training (‘heavy’ is relative to you) so if you’re unfit (by your standards), you’d need to start even further back. You can see the problem here from a consumer (or I should say ‘client’) point of view: not many people plan THAT far ahead. The 28 weeks normally consist of:

  • 10 weeks GENERAL practice
  • 6 weeks RELATED practice (transition)
  • 12 weeks SPECIFIC practice consisting of about 6-8 weeks training, 2-4 weeks coordination work and 0-2 weeks Taper

BY FAR the majority of my clients sign up initially for 12 weeks or less – so we cannot run the full gamut of necessary work – we have to compromise initially. Keep this fact in mind here: most biological adaptations only begin to be build in the 6-12 week period after the initial stimulus. So a lot of what is achieved during a 12-week training plan is only ‘harvested’ by week 18 and 24! If your race is in week 12, you’re seeing only the early physiological adaptations especially the neuromuscular ones that happen quicker than processes such as capillarisation, mitochondrial biogenesis and so on.

Clubs and peer groups contribute a lot to the pressure here because we are often in the situation ‘here’s a club race 10 weeks from now – you ready’ and your scenario is that you’re just a few weeks back from an injury. It’s hard to say know especially if you’re a ‘goodist’ (want to please others) – there’s a reason selfishness is a vintage trait for high performers.

Going forward (I am launching my new coaching packagtes this month) I will try to make this clearer to anyone who works with me: the current plan works within certain time constraints (so it’s the ‘slow track’) but next time we work together we should be on the ‘fast-track’ (so be thinking about the right training roughly 28 weeks or more ahead of the next big goal.

 

The dangers of switching and of short plans

The most consistent underperformers are runner who constantly rotate their approach. I try to sniff them out in the early conversations as I know that although I will receive a payment, the relationship ultimately won’t work because the person wants immediate results and has a habit of shifting to another system ‘mid-stream’. The old heuristics nearly always work: don’t change horse in the middle of the fort.

Those who do have been brainwashed by our society to expect the results of a pill no matter what they buy – our culture of instant gratification. Many runners without coaches do the same – trying one approach of training for six weeks then changing to another. This has little value and won’t facilitate any real improvements except for learning about different methodologies (something I have to do a lot).

So when starting with a new coach – be it I or someone else – I advise you to give them quite a long commitment (I’d say that eh?). The only reason you should cut a new cocahing relationship short is if you can feel the chemistry is not there.

Coach and athlete chemistry is essential no matter how knowledgeable the coach is. If there’s no chemistry and rapport the message and the trust won’t develop necessary for working together. And don’t feel guilty about ‘dumping me’ or any other coach: I do the same – if I can feel early on that the chemistry between a client and I is not what it should be, I try to let the relationship naturally fade out. This means doing as good a job as possible for that runner but not making any effort to recruit them again or upsell them (businessman again – you see!) on future plans. In the rare instances where I have come up against a brick wall I do the same – I try to let the client ‘slip away’. Every one of us encounters a puzzle we are not made to solve and it’s important to give up then before too much time is wasted. In one case I had to tell a client that we could never work together again due to a breach of trust – this is crucial to in a coach and athlete relationship as trust is the foundation for any real relationship and your ability to adapt to training is directly affected by your subjective belief in and enjoyment of your training.

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Juniors running the hills

As our club organised the Brockagh Burst Winter/Spring League race today, we had a good field of juniors partaking. The ‘short course’ was right on the limit of the distance and climb allowed by WMRA (World Mountain Running Association) for the under-15 age groups and included some features may have a coach unaccustomed to hill running raise an eye brow or two: a very steep grassy bank, some exposure to cold winds and sleet and a steep descent on grass, bit of rock and lots of fast fire-road.

Our junior coaching team had done a superb job preparing the squad by taking them out over the course on Friday so they had familiarised themselves with what lay ahead. One of our senior runners also ran with the pack and a special marshal manned the junior turn-off. So basic safety was not an issue.

What really impressed me was the reviews after: I was told that the juniors enjoyed this type of experience much more than training on the track (not to say they don’t enjoy that) because it’s ‘more of an adventure’. Thinking back to my own childhood I can understand why – I was brought up with radio orienteering (meaning running by torchlight through pathless forests and scrubs never knowing what you’ll step on next). So coming into mountain running I had no concerns about the terrain. These juniors going up a steep grassy bank will hopefully be more like Kilian Jornet in the way their minds scale challenges: they’ll see a hill in a road race or cross-country and think ‘that’s not a hill’. They’ll run over  muddy cross-country course and think ‘bit slippy but nothing like that hill race’.

As coaches and parents, we set the parametres for what children see as normal and what they see as extreme. Hill running really is under-rated in what it can do for the physical and athletic development of children. Psychologically children are generally adventurous and open to the outdoors and physically they are at a stage where motor skill development is rapid. So do we want a generation who see even a trail as extreme because it’s ‘uneven’ or a generation who have no fear of any terrain or any gradient. They can still grow up to be road, cross-country or track runners if they so wish or if their obvious talent is so great that they have to move off the hills to fully match their achievements to their talents. But it seems to me – not just on today’s evidence – that the trails and hills should be a core part of children’s running experience in the formative years of their athletic career because it is more natural, more physically challenging, more diverse and varied and simply more fun. The strict ‘against the clock and no variables’ type of running of track and road is very much a sport modelled on an adult mindset. There’s time enough for juniors to make the shift to this once they pass into our ranks.

The plodding state

Generally runners accepts that in order to build sustainable fitness a prolonged period of very low intensity running must be completed first so we build large reserves of low-stress endurance and prepare the body for the rigours involved in faster running.

This approach likely began with Arthur Newton from the 1920ies onwards epitomised in his ‘Newtonian Law’ to ‘start gently and progress gradually’. Scientific rationales for the approach folllowed in the 194oies when German physician Ernst Van Aaken created a system now largely forgotten in the English speaking world. Van Aaken trained Harold Norpoth – the 5000m silver medallist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and three time medal winner in the European Championship. He eventually set a 2000m world record of 4:57 in 1966. Van Aaken’s approach consisted of very low intensity build-ups for the vast majority of training including a trademark session of 400 m running and 100 m walking for distances up to 10 miles and more. Van Aaken was ahead of his time in his understanding of how lower intensity exercise nourished every cell in the body creating a healthy environment whereas higher intensity created a toxic environment which – if overdone – lead to long-term health damage.

At the same time Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerutty through the enormous success of their prodigies made endurance-based training methods the foundation for most athletics training schedules although both were exponents of slightly higher level stamina efforts once an athlete had gotten past the initial phase of ‘simply learning how to run’.

In recent times the Maffetone Method has soared back to popularity. Dr Phil Maffetone – who coached Ironman legend Mark Allen among many others – had worked out a heart rate formula expressed as the point where the long-term ‘clean’ aerobic energy system provides almost all of the energy for the activity. In this state the ‘rest and digest’ parasympathetic nervous system is more dominant than at higher intensities and the stress load on the body lower – reducing the risk of over-training. The Maffetone method uses heart rate – which is a symptom of the amount of stress the body is experiencing – in terms of energy demands and otherwise to ensure athlete’s did not push themselves too far because they had lost touch with the true sensation of ‘easy’. It is common for athletes to feel more comfortable at ‘steady’ once this has become the default while actually loading more stress on the body than they can potentially handle day after day.

Many modern brands such as Mark Sisson’s Primal Fitness and Lee Saxby’s ‘Born to Run’ and others have developed similar recommendations but this tradition runs back to the very roots of athletics history and has never been forgotten by running or athletics coaches – but was replaced by sexier ‘HIT training’ by fitness trainers and personal coaches who did not grow up steeped in athletics and running lore and who had not heard of Lydiard’s ‘tireless state’ when you can just ‘run and run and never get tired’.

In 2012, I saw the power of this system myself as my ‘MAF pace’ (my pace at a heart rate of 143 as it was then) was 4:40 and the vast majority of my build-up to a series of 8 personal bests from 5000m to the marathon was run at 4:40 to 4:50 min/km pace (at MAF or below). Yet there are times when this low intensity approach does not work. MAF coaches will teach you to first try to reduce the heart rate further as the non-improvement may be a sign you have an underlying condition or are hyper-stressed and need to further lower you training load to receive adaptations. But I have seen exceptions to this rule too where despite continuous super-low running there is no improvement and instead the runner get’s indefinitely stuck in ‘the plodding state’.

Sometimes this is because of a chronic injury – in such cases the brain shuts off our potential to run at full speeds to avoid you damaging the body irreversibly. Stubborn runners will sometimes fail to notice this as the true root cause of their inability to run at any heart rate at the paces they used to. Their conscious minds are happy to push through the pain while their subconscious puts on the brakes. But there is another scenario: we make a common mistake today in the athletics and running coaching community too focus too much on energy system development. We see a necessity to persist with low intensity running in order to continue to stimulate the aerobic systems adaptations. Yet this system – while highly scaleable – has limits and cannot be viewed in isolation. The aerobic energy system dominates when the demand on the body is relatively low so it is more of an effect of the demand than an outcome goal in itself. Moreover, training ‘energy systems’ is reductionist and the science on what adaptations are triggered by what training is still incomplete and evolving.

When I have seen athlete’s incapable of improving their pace at lower intensities I therefore do not always conclude an underlying condition or injury – sometimes they are ‘stuck’ in the ‘plodding state’. There is a constraint somewhere which results in the pace of runs not going up even when the aerobic system is probably healthy and responding. I prefer to simply experiment in these cases: using higher pace runs, using fast strides or using explosive work with a known transfer to running, in order to ‘blow through the plateau’. The barriers could also very well be simply mental – a brain with no real experience in faster running and thus it never elects the possibility until it is pushed to do so.

In Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerutty’s day this issue did not generally arise for two reasons:

  • Runners generally began the long endurance build-ups AFTER a season of learning to race or simply racing in cross-country and roads. This ‘jolted’ the body’s out of what Lydiard termed ‘the plodding state’ meaning runners ‘had a bit of pace in the legs’ by the time they began to do the ‘slower miles’
  • Runners in those  times had greater muscular strength on average and thus were less likely to have a constraint in that area to limit pace

Modern runners who could have come from an entirely sedentary background could face the problem that their physical strength is so low that the body is unable to tolerate faster running even after prolonged period of slow running. In such a case the bottle-neck shifts from the expected place – the aerobic energy supply – to another place – the ability of the body to cope with the forces involved in faster running. Unable to safely cope with greater forces, the brain will not allow it. In this case the trick is to find out the best way to increase the athletes tolerance which generally is a combination of strength and coordination work.

As a final note – some runners become psychologically stuck in the ‘plodding state’ – unable to shake themselves into a zone of slightly less comfort and in such cases you need to look at workouts that challenge that comfort zone. Running at 10 minute/mile and 6 min/mile is not the same even if you could learn to do it at the same energy demand – there are other differences between running at the two speeds both in terms of how the movement manifest and the level of forces to be absorbed – and this is where an approach that solely practices low speed ‘mono-pace’ runs into limitations. We may not get the adaptations we need to move on in all of the areas within our body that need them.

My philosophy: Train, don’t strain

Arthur Lydiard, my greatest training inspiration, coined the today ubiquitous phrase ‘train, don’t strain’, a principle so simple it boils down to understanding the graphic below:

TRAINDONTSTRAIN

The ‘war-face’ gives away an athlete outside the boundaries of what they can control. Arthur Lydiard had another illuminating quote on the topic:

‘Train to failure, train to fail’.  

-Arthur Lydiard

Listening to a podcast with Z-Health founder Dr. Eric Cobb, I recently got a modern perspective on this old observation providing the scientific rationale. Any coach or personal trainer knows the SAID principle: Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. Dr Cobb warns us in his teaching material that we must add the two words ‘ALWAYS’ and ‘EXACTLY’ to this fundamental principle of training:

Your body always gets better at doing exactly what you practice regularly.

– Dr Eric Cobb, Z-Health, I-Phase Product Manual

His observation came from the effortlessness with which the world’s best performers carry out their sport. Many have made this observation before. If we ‘strain’ to the point where we make our ‘war-face’, you can be pretty certain that many other aspects of how you carry out your running are also ‘falling apart’. Since you ALWAYS get better at training EXACTLY what you practice regularly, you should aim to finish your hard sessions with your form and technique mostly intact so this becomes the conditioned response when the going gets really tough in races.

I know from experience how difficult it can be to fully internalise this principle because many of us are drawn to the masculine values of running and the notion of ‘having the most guts’ or ‘being a good sufferer’. This can happen to a point where it becomes part of your athletic identify. For many reasons – physical and psychological – such an approach cannot be sustained healthily for long.

Elite athletes who look like a picture of calm at the end of a world class performance will often still be suffering inside. The difference between them and you is that they have learnt to do so without falling apart. We must do the same and from a training perspective this begins by avoiding ‘training to failure’.

This principle holds sway in all areas of your life – if you spend more time sitting slumped and collapsed than standing tall and erect, then you are also ‘training to fail’. If your normal position is sitting down for 8-10 hours per day then you will ALWAYS get the adaptations that are EXACTLY appropriate for sitting. You can deduct without difficulty that these adaptations are the opposite of what you will require as a high performance runner.

If you are not yet convinced consider another nugget of wisdom from the good Dr Cobb: exercise is a drug meaning it is dose dependent. Incidentally, this is true even of healthy substances – too much water will kill as surely as too little will. In the world of drug the challenge is to find the ‘minimal viable dose’ so we can get the benefit without the risk of an over-dose that harms us. Most runners I know train as if this principle did not exist: more is always better and ‘exercise is good for us’. In reality ‘the right amount of exercise is good for us and the wrong amount is harmful for us’ sums things up more neatly and lies at the heart of the ‘train, don’t strain’ principle. This requires that you have confidence, intelligence and patience. If you believe you lack these skills, do something about it or hire a coach to keep you on a leash until you learn.

An entirely different dynamic also comes into play when we look at how your brain responds to regular high-threat and high tension stimuli. I will touch on that in the next post when I discuss another useful metaphor provided by Dr Eric Cobb called ‘The Threat Bucket’.

In the meantime, I hope this little insight into the ‘train, don’t strain’ principle helps you make better decisions in your regular practice sessions.

Training philosophy – ‘running in three steps’

meme3

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.”

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.