TRAINING: Adapting to the changing times

The great coach Bill Shankley said: “Some people think running is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that. “* Now, look, running is not a matter of life and death and the corona-virus is for some people so here I’ll do you a favour: I won’t spout my uneducated opinion about what you should do on the virus and instead give you a well-educated opinion about what you can do with your training while this situation persists.

* come to think of it he might have been talking about football, but let’s move on…

The situation

Most of my clients have had their upcoming races cancelled or postponed and as such I feel that I can offer a few ideas for how to continue training along in the absence of your previous goal event.

You may have put in some very hard work to peak for a particular race. This is certainly the case for most of my clients as I employ a peaking model meaning we build a base first and then we do very race-specific workouts in the final 6-10 weeks. This means we can find ourselves with a very ‘sharp’ ability to race but a floundering ‘capacity’ – we are just about ready to ‘hit the race’ but our basic physiological abilities are beginning to sag around the edges. What do we do now that all this pent up energy has no place to go?

I think I have a good view of everyone’s pain. I am an athlete with my own goals. My three next race goals are nearly certain not to go ahead and for my main goal of the year (early June) I judge that the chances of my getting to race it is 60/40. Yet I will continue to plan for reasons I’ll outline below.

But I also see this from a race organisers point of view: I direct the Lap of the Gap Marathon and I am co-organiser of EcoTrail Wicklow. The first race is not under immediate threat but I know from people in the industry that May events are by no means safe. We could be forced to reschedule. There’s lots of preparation we are doing behind the scenes for these eventualities. For events further ahead – like EcoTrail Wicklow – there are other considerations about how we will be affected.

As a club coach, we have been told to suspend all training activities for the upcoming period so some of the cherished regular weekly meet-ups will go down the toilet for a while.

I also run an AirBnB with my wife. We decided to close this already a month ago. It did not seem prudent to invite strangers from all over the world into a house with our three small kids for an income stream we can survive without for a while. Apart from this, I onboard less clients and expect I will onboard less in the coming months until people gain certainty again about what goals they can commit to. Every business will probably feel the impact of this over the coming three months at least.

Finally, I am a holiday organiser and had been looking forward to a trip to the Lake District end of this month with a group of Dane with Paul Tierney as our local guide. This trip was also postponed until October.

So whether you’re losing your holiday, your race, income for your business, or have to reschedule or cancel your running event or even your weekly training with your club or your friends, I feel your pain. Now to what we can do about it (again this is about training – if you want to know what to do about the virus go to the HSE.ie!).

The solutions

The first step in this type of process is acceptance. There is no value in labelling any situation as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Situations simply are as they are and it’s always best to deal with what is in front of you and totally put aside any notions about how you would like things to be. it could be worse – it’s still nice to go for a run every day on your own even if there is no race next week and no training session with the club. Our sport thrives in solitude too.

Whatever training plan you are currently in the middle of will have gained you some fitness. You may not be able to employ it right now but you can hang onto it. If your race goal was imminent – such as the upcoming Vienna or Rotterdam Marathons or the Maurice Mullins races – then you should enter what is called a ‘Refresh Period’ for 2-4 weeks first of all.

Refresh!

What is a refresh period? It’s a period of training where you refocus briefly on neglected parts of your physiology. A ‘General Endurance’ refresh is used to rebuild the basic aerobic foundation usually gained through running in zone 1 and to a lesser degree zone 2 or under what scientists call the Aerobic Threshold or First Ventilatory Threshold. During race specific training this system always begins to erode a bit. In the absence of a race – rebuilding this a bit again is a great idea.

You can do other types of refresh if you need it more: a General Refresh focuses on both rebuilding basic endurance but also basic strength ,technique and speed through training such as weight-lifting, easy sprints and strides and form drills.

It’s also possible you were training for an ultra but now have something else in mind. If so your anaerobic capacity has likely suffered a bit and you could decide to do a period with some more intense work to revisit that system ahead of figuring out new goals.

If your race is a bit further way – like my own goal is – I advise that for now you continue as if nothing has occurred. Keep training until you hear for certain that your race is gone. At that time you can move into a refresh period as described above.

Return to basics

Should it become clear that the disruption will last longer than 2-4 weeks then your best bet is to ‘return to base training’ and simply stay in that base training until things normalise and then prepare a new build-up. You can never really do too much base training as long as you understand where your current weaknesses are and what needs attention (modern base training doesn’t just mean lots of slow volume although it’s a start as long as you can handle the volume you pick).

Finally, if you’re worn out by your training and you don’t really care any more whether you lose some of your race fitness, then this is THE IDEAL PERIOD to take a 2-4 weeks mental break from serious running similar to what you would do after a hard race. Think about something else and follow a lose and non-demanding schedule – just enough to keep you healthy and active.

 

So hang tight folks – we can still train and keep ourselves fit so we are ready to resume ‘life as normal’ whether it be in 2 weeks or, as some epidemiologists think, more like 12 weeks or more.

 

Cross-country running – the concerns and possibilities

Track athletes should regard cross-country season as a chance to build-up general condition, to race as often as advisable, always concentrating on a relaxed running action and getting to enjoy the environment in which they are exercising. Whether it is woods, parkland or rough pasture, it will make a surprising contribution to you development, physically, mentally and technically’ – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard

The year moves into cross-country season and speaking to the runners preparing for the battles ahead I sometimes get the feeling that no one truly likes the discipline. This is not the first time I have encountered this sentiment – I struggle to keep track of the people who curse cross-country or who find it intimidating, painful and just plain no fun at all. There are a few reasons for this and I want to touch on them in this article because I do not think they are unresolvable problems and neither do I believe cross-country quite deserves the poor reputation it has. Mainly we can ‘solve the problem of cross-country’ by becoming aware of the original context of this part of the racing season and what it is intended to achieve. We can learn to use cross-country rather than let cross-country use and abuse us.

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A young author learning about ‘back of the pack’ in early cross-country days

Why is it intimidating?

In the last years I have seen people coming into cross-country for the first time the way I did in 2007. Some took to it with relish but more were pensive about repeating the experience. When brought to my attention I got curious because I knew this was not simply a matter of the events being quite competitive and thus perhaps dispiriting to slower runners whose position at the back of the field becomes much more exposed and visible in a small cross-country field run over several laps.

Exactly this element came up a good bit – a cross-country race makes you feel like you’re in an arena. Shouting and roaring from the side-lines (whether abuse or encouragement – often hard to distinguish) is part and parcel and if you are one of the people still able to take in what happens around you (I am usually not!) you can feel all eyes on you.

Because cross-country introduces a team element people can feel more pressure and more guilt about under-performing than they would running ‘just for themselves’ and thoughts such as ‘I’d feel terrible if I had a bad run costing my team-mates a medal’ are common and understandable. As some of us know from relay racing it is a double-edged sword: this same pressure can stir us on to greater performances than we believe ourselves capable of. Confidence, experience and your exact psychology dictates whether this is a negative or positive.

Pressure – only for tyres?

And the feeling of pressure seems to be the red dot connecting a lot of runners troubled relationship to cross-country. Pressure from coaches, pressure from team mates and pressure from on-lookers – all of this, of course, comes from within ourselves at the end of the day. Today’s ‘fun running culture’ does not prepare most runners very well for this challenge. Since the 1980ies a culture of ‘everyone is a winner’ was implemented likely to get more feet on the street as a means to improve the overall health and fitness of the population. The downside of this trend is that it can fail to inoculate us sufficiently on how to deal with failure – which is after all part of life and something children need to pick up early if they are to grow up as effective adults.

A different type of pressure also makes itself very known in the course of the race itself; the competitive is more incessant and the competitive level fiercer than in almost any road and mountain race most newcomers will have encountered before. Gerry Brady, then High Performance Officer at IMRA, told me in 2007 to ‘run cross-country if I wanted to improve my placings in the hills’. I understood from the very first race why he was right: I was in fact a very poor cross-country runner. It is the discipline that happens to be worst suited to my particular strengths as a runner. Like most I certainly disliked the experience ‘during’ the race (let’s face it: it’s very painful competition!) but I always enjoyed the thought of doing the race and savoured the achievement afterwards even on the many occasions where the result itself was a bit disappointing.

Turning negatives to positives

It did not bring me down or intimidate me for two reasons I hope everyone who has a negative relationship to cross-country can use:

  1. Cross-country is not an end onto itself – it is a tool to improve strength ahead of winter training and the mental and tactical abilities needed to race competitively.
  2. The standard in cross-country is very high. I always felt it was an honour and a privilege to simply be at the starting line even when finishing last as I did in the Dublin Senior Cross-Country in 2008.

A few may pause me here and say ‘what do you mean cross-country is not an end unto itself’. Here I talk about the history of the discipline: traditionally there are very few specialised cross-country runners and instead the discipline serves to prepare for next years track and road events.

The history: cross-country is a tool not an end unto itself

Cross-country serves as a form of neutral ground where road, track and mountain specialists can all meet and test their mettle against each other. Two of history’s greatest coaches – Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerutty – were both adamant that cross-country should not be treated to seriously and merely was a tool to better winter training before the real target races on road and track in the coming year as the two quotes below demonstrate:

‘Cross-country running is of great benefit to track runners and other athletes as a general conditioner…Cross-country is a good disciplinarian. You will subconsciously control your effort to be more economical and this is probably its greatest asset as an initial general conditioning exercise…The times to run during cross-country racing and training should not be treated with too much importance. Courses and weather and ground condition vary so much from day to day and have such an effect on performance that to try and chart progressive times can only be confusing and misleading. …It is the tough rugged ground with everything underfoot from hard ground to swamps that gives you the benefits you need. * – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard

* Courses today have often become too fast under the mistaken impression that we are doing athlete’s a favour in making the courses easier. We are in fact allowing faster more sustained running which is detrimental to the type of training that should happen during this type of year not to speak of the softening effect this has on today’s runners.

‘During this period we may race occasionally across country for the sake of interest only, never as a sport in itself. Therefore, I insist that conditioning goes on on the morning of the race almost as normally, and it was the custom, after the cross country race and a short spell, to run over the course a second time for added effort, training or conditioning! We consider a whole day, as we have in Australia, too much time to be wasted on merely one race, and that of no real importance, and providing, more often than not, only thirty minutes’ hard effort, or five miles’ running.

Cross-country can never be more than a part of conditioning, since no true records are possible.’ – Percy Cerutty, Athletics: how to become a champion

After a discussion at our club I decided to reiterate that I could not agree more. Medals and titles in cross-country are purely a bonus. The main thing is that athletes use the fitness and challenges of the races to improve their training and racing for the next year. We are not an American University squad and no one is under any obligation to structure their training around being super-fit for cross-country. They are welcome to do this but can just train through it as Percy Cerutty suggested and let the dice fall where they may.

Where it goes wrong

Coaches have a big responsibility here in remembering that 1) running is in individual sport and the long-term development of the individual athlete must always take precedence over the short-term ambitions of the club and 2) a lot of the perceived pressure comes from the coach, so as a coach you have the power to set the right level of anxiety for the events.

I would prefer people see cross-country as light-hearted* fun. I do believe it is good for the mental development of runners – and even of personalities – to learn to ‘give it their all’ and to experience this pressure which makes the pressure in most other races seem negligible. It is also a great opportunity for people who consider themselves specialists to step out of their comfort zone. The best thing that any runner can do is to thoroughly break down their running ego which is often protected by sentiments such as ‘I am a long distance runner’, ‘I only run for fun’ and so on. Whether these are true or not, they hinder personal growth and they can provide a false sense of self – a fragile confidence that doesn’t bear being challenged.

* A note as this caused a comment: light-hearted means ‘amusing and fun’ not necessarily ‘not taken at all seriously’ or ‘done half-heartedly’.

Reality check?

Cross-country can be a rude wake-up call this way. I have seen runners who did extremely well in smaller road races or hill runs being completely demoralised when they realised just what standard of running is actually available to compete against. It can be a rude wake-up call if these races have made you think you’re probably one of your country’s better runners only to find out you cannot break into the top-200 at a major meet!

On the other hand, I have seen great competitors such as my partner in ChampionsEverywhere – Jason Kehoe – who finished third last in his first cross-country race, yet he’ll be the first man to sign up for the colours every Autumn. It would be easy for Jason to celebrate his wins and top-3 finishes in the hills and to rest on the laurels of having been ‘Irish Champion’ or ‘King of the Mountain’ not exposing himself to the scrutiny of regional, provincial and national quality fields in cross-country. I know he is a competitor who will continue to grow and improve when I see him win a hill race in summer and then unblinkingly accepting finishing half-way down a 400-man strong field at the National Novice cross-country. This means he understands that cross-country is a process and that the high level of competition can be used to become a better runner rather than an intimidating horde to be crushed by.

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Jason Kehoe in action in a cross-country race

Thus I said earlier that I felt privileged to be at the starting line of any cross-country race because I know any athlete who has made it that far has already done a lot more in terms of physical and mental commitment than all the people who are not there.

We grow through some level of discomfort and being challenged where we are not strongest. If we remind ourselves that cross-country is simply a tool to such an end: making each individual tougher for their own personal running goals and ambitions and as individuals and to ensure a better winter training, then we can lift a lot of the pressure. About the expectations of others: I think cross-country offers a perfect opportunity to learn to detach yourself from them. Let others have their expectations: you know what you want to achieve for yourself and you go race so you learn those things.

The collective effort and social aspect of running

Runners can also emphasize the positives: this truly is a unique time to achieve something together rather than only on an individual level and to subordinate personal ambitions temporarily for collective ones. You get the buzz of representing your club as part of a team where you can make the difference between winning and losing even if you have no chance of winning the race yourself. The difference between 44th and 45th could be a medal – any effort is meaningful in this context. I even think cross-country can tell us something about our values as a society. When running is taking to its most negative extreme it becomes a personal obsession purely about satisfying the ego needs of an individual at the expense of the needs of others. This is an extreme but obvious behaviour that, while useful in an individual sport, is not the type of behaviour, we  generally value as a society and in our communities.

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The bright side of cross-country

Cross-country can reflect our more social values as a species: giving up your time, energy and effort to assist a group in achieving a goal even when it is not particularly your goal. I hesitate to use the word ‘sacrifice’ because it too is over-used these days but there is an element of that here. It’s a way to say ‘we’re part of this group and today we give something of ourselves for the group without necessarily receiving a personal return’. A running club is not a nation state and I don’t want to sound like I’m encouraging flag waving and banner rallying. But cross-country races have the potential to strengthen the common identify and the bonds of a club exactly because it is something we do together. It’s very likely that in a team of 4 runners every single one of those 4 runners would rather be doing some other kind of race. But they are there because it’s a chance to show what the group can achieve as a unit rather than individuals.

Side-note: should everyone do it?

Are there people who should not run cross-country? Of course. None of us do athletes a favour by introducing them too early. Fit4Lifers or rank novices need not be thrown to the lions. Little positive will result from a novice athlete trailing in more than half a lap behind the second-last runner or facing the ignominy of being lapped.

The role of each club coach is to ensure people are introduced to it when they are physically and mentally ready. They need not win or even finish top half of the field (not everyone can) but they should not be completely out of their depth.

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The author in action at the Dublin Novice

Next: cross-country in practice

This article is a bit philosophical in nature because I feel the issues people perceive with cross-country have mainly mental and cultural roots and are not so much necessarily intrinsic to the race itself. In my next article I’d like to step back to something a bit more practical: how can you prepare for cross-country in a way that makes you more confident and more likely to succeed. Being confident and well-prepared has a tendency to over-ride almost any other concerns and negative sentiments. It is the uncertainty about whether we will fail or not that plays as a demon in our minds most of the time.