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

Introduction

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.

Conclusion

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.

Predicting pacing in the hills

In the microcosm that is our own private goal-setting, the question ‘what time will I run for this trail race?’ emerges regularly. I have used a particular way of estimating performances for some time and I will share it here.

It’s harder to estimate what times you can shoot for when you run on trails, hills, mountains, and fells. Some purists will, not without justification, say that it’s also unnecessary as you are racing the other competitors primarily rather than the clock and ever-changing conditions on the mountains and trail-surfaces make direct time comparisons from run to run and race to race nearly meaningless.

I see the truth somewhere in the middle: changing underfoot and weather conditions does make it difficult to compare ‘like for like’ what a time on a course will be one day versus another day, one year compared to the previous year. Still we keep records for most classical off-road routes and many runners seriously target them. Kenny Stuart’s magnificent records on Snowdon, Ben Nevis, and Skiddaw, for instance, are still prized, if elusive, possessions. While conditions on a given day can make a race a ‘slow day’, this matters much less when we look at results over 20 years because these 20 years will reflect both several ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days.

 

Baseline

I begin by running over the course in training at a known controlled effort trying to keep it even throughout the run. If I cannot do this I look at historical gpx files for the run completed by myself or by other runners. For races like Snowdon this was particularly easy as the year’s progressed, as I had access to several recordings. This allowed me to pick splits consistent with my own strengths and weaknesses. The Snowdon race is a classical ‘up/down’ route. A weak climber will spend a greater proportion of the race on the uphill than the downhill and vice-versa for a strong climber but weak descender.  When running the route in advance – such as I could do for a local race like Leinster’s highest peak Lug na Coille – I could use the existing splits as they were as long as ‘ran true to myself’ during the training run.

Once I have secured a reasonable baseline run recording, I will copy and paste the splits into an Excel sheet. I then insert my own subjective estimated (or desired) target time next to the time of the baseline run. In the example below a baseline run of 67:37 is compared to a target time of 55:00. The difference between the two is calculated (in this case a difference of 18.7% is desired).

I then apply this difference to each individual lap split – that means I reduce the time for each split by 18.7%. The result can be shown below:

splits1.png

Using the information

How do you read this? So if you look at ‘lap 1’ which is the split that represents the first kilometre (uphill as you can see from the slow time), the training run time was 8:44 min/km. In order to, run 55 minutes with the same distribution of effort as in the training run, this needs to be reduced to 7 minutes 6 seconds. The second kilometre needs to be reduced from 8:31 to 6:56 and so on.

This allows me or my runner to have a rough goal in mind – we’d know in this case to try and get to the 2 km mark in just around 14 minutes. Any slower than that and we need to push the pace more. If we’re too far ahead we may be in danger of blowing up OR we may be able to hold back a bit more on the descent (by building a ‘cushion’ on the uphill).

I can also mark out ‘hot spots’ or splits that look too difficult to achieve.

splits2

A potential hot spot may be the 3:21 min/km on kilometre 6. From the recording I know that this is a downhill kilometre with a drop of 73 metres so 3:21 min/km is likely not unrealistic at full tilt. But it’s worth highlighting as runners often run downhill quite fast in training and then it becomes difficult to run them MUCH faster in the race situation. More time then needs to be clawed back on the uphill.

 

Breaking records

Let’s take a more exciting example: the Scarr mountain race (ok, maybe not exciting to me but I live on it). There’s a relatively new record on this course set since the course was amended from a straight up and down to a ‘looped’ course. It’s held by Des Kennedy in 36:43 and set in 2018 (remarkably as conditions were notoriously windy – showing you can run good times on ‘slow days’). Des Kennedy also holds the second-fastest run in the modern era (some old results have been lost to the mists of time) for the traditional course and thus we know the current record is from good pedigree.

By inserting the recording of the record run into an Excel sheet, we can calculate what it would take to run a record of say – 35 minutes:

splits3

A potential challenger could use this to gauge where to insert their main charge. They can see they need to go below 22 minutes at the top (which Des reached in 22:51) in order to break the record and descend in 13 minutes 15 seconds. No kilometre looks truly unachievable for someone talented and fit enough to even consider attacking the record but putting them together is obviously the challenge.

 

How to use the information

Personally, I used these markers to establish rough segment targets within the greater run to help me along. On Snowdon I’d know when I should reach the climb halfway point to be on track for a sub-1-hour ascent, for instance.

If we have access to the route we are trying to ‘attack’ with this level of detailed preparation, we can go out and run the key sections in training to see how far we are from the level required. Looking at Des Kennedy’s example from above we could try to ascend in a sub-22 minute time, for instance, or simply try an ‘all out climb’ and see how far we fall short. As the workout is relatively short (4 km up / 22ish minutes), it would not stress our bodies unduly as long as general conditioning has been done before.

When working with Jason Kehoe, we often used this approach even when we didn’t have daily access to the mountains he was attacking. We would know pretty much how long it would take him to be at the top of the various summits to be ‘competitive’ and we’d be familiar with the average gradient. So, if we knew he had to climb for 48 minutes up a 5 km slope of an 18% incline, we could design a simple progression of workouts:

  • 8x 6 minutes uphill rep (15-20% incline), 90 sec recovery
  • 6x 8 minutes uphill rep (15-20% incline), 90 sec recovery
  • 4x 12 minutes uphill rep (15-20% incline), 90 sec recovery
  • 45-50 minute uphill time trial (15-20% incline) at ½ to ¾ effort
  • 2x 24 minutes uphill tempo (15-20% incline), 90 sec recovery

This particular progression is just an example but illustrates the basic logic. The general fitness needed to do the above had to be completed before this type of training began. Most runners do not engage in this type of very specific preparation because mountain running is either a ‘side-show’, ‘2nd priority’ or simply ‘part of the conditioning for road and cross-country’ – so it’s only an approach I would suggest to people for whom the mountains is the be-all end-all.

What could I do?

For ‘mere mortals’ it may interesting simply to see what running part of a course at ‘record pace’ feels like. I remember once going out on Scarr to run a section at the estimated record pace. It was a humbling experience but gave an insight into the physical requirements.

Scientifically, we can go much further with this level of analysis by using correction for terrain and climb based on mathematical equations as well as input from the new Power meters for running (such as the Stryd to which I am affiliated). Power meters allow us to calculate what power output we currently can create for a certain duration (uphill, downhill or flat) and then estimate based on that what is required to generate the desired pace on uneven courses. I may dedicate a future post to exploring this if I sense an interest from my readers.

Change of my business

One of the advantages of not being a ‘faceless corporation’ is that I can communicate about changes to my business the way you’d have a chat in the pub (or cafe as it is these days).

7 years in the making

It’s been 7 years since I began the venture ‘ChampionsEverywhere’ with Jason Kehoe, the first athlete I began to coach, as my business partner. Our goal was to create a ‘one-stop shop’ for runners combining both products and servics runners would need. This was later refined to services only as the business grew organically.

The last few years I noticed my work was becoming a victim of the core idea: trying to deliver everything. We had trimmed the business already by discarding certain side-projects (such as Primal3 and the Running Superstore clinic) but I still felt I was not spending a large enough proportion of my time coaching athletes. Over the years, our business had grown to 5 separate profit centres – corporate services, workshops, training plans and online coaching, Neuromuscular Therapy and personal consults – along with various ad-hoc projects.

Apart from the work involved in maintaining focus on these different parts of the work, all the mundane administration also bloats when you have such a structure: web design and maintenance, accountancy, marketing, scheduling, customer support, budgetting, venue booking, equipment purchase and replacement, insurance and so on and so forth.

Specialising again…

The area that suffered most was my writing output which I consider critical as part of the ongoing conversation with both my current runners and those I may work with in the future. So Jason and I decided to do another trim and effectively this means ChampionsEverywhere does note exist anymore as a legal entity but is rather just the online shop through which you can book our services.

From the 1st of April this year (2018), all online coaching services will be delivered solely by me through my new company Borg Coaching Services whereas Jason Kehoe will deliver all of our previously ‘face to face’ services such as personal consults and Neuromuscular Therapy through his clinic: JK Therapy in Tallaght. We no longer promote or schedule any workshops although groups or clubs can approach us to host one on request which we will consider based on availability.

This move allows me personally to focus 100% on the area I am most interested in: coaching you for better running performance. It does mean that I will no longer be providing advice on running technique, rehabilitation, strength and conditioning and injury in general.  This is despite recently qualifying as a Neuromuscular Therapist as another part of a hard-won skillset acquired the last 7 years. I decided against setting up a clinic here in Wicklow for reasons I may expound on at a later time but will not do here for the sake of brevity. If you have a niggle or injury but want to work with me, I have written an article suggesting what you do first.

The benefits

This change takes an enormous adminstrative burden off my table helped along with some automations and changes to how I sell my plans. Instead of doing it upfront I now use monthly subscriptions which involves less administration both for my runners and for me. My goal is always to spend less time on marketing, accounts and other admin and more time with coaching runners and writing plans as well as articles. I hope with this move everyone is going to see positive results even if it was bittersweet to say farewell to the workshops this weekend having invested so much time in first introducing them to Ireland and then continuing to develop them beyond that.

So for those reading my articles or working with me – I look forward to this next focused chapter. My only remaining side projects are Trailloebsferie.dk (where I deliver trail running holidays for Danish runners) and Lap of the Gap – the marathon here in Wicklow where I serve as Race Director. Apart from that I continue to serve as Head Coach and Chairperson of Glendalough AC. I have cleared my plate of certain other long-term commitments such as my race directorship of the Wicklow Way Relay which I am transferring to my ‘co-Race Director’ Jason Kehoe this year.

I couldn’t help but think of Warren Buffet who said ‘the key attribute of very successful people is that they say no to almost everything’. We can all learn a lot from that without turning into ‘selfish bastards’ – when we overcommit or spread our skills too widely, everyone around us is not served as well as they would be if we are committed to the right level and focused on the right priorities. I personally am very excited about this change.

The disappearance of the pre-season

In most sports a strong distinction exists between the competitive season and the pre-season. Take the English Premiership where the club squads spent the summer months preparing the bodies for a long and grueling season. They need this period in order to create the fitness necessary to sustain the rigours of the long season full of matches and to create a new level of performance by having time to develop new physical, mental, technical and tactical skills, something which cannot easily be done in the midst of a hectic match schedule.

Seasons without end

Both competitive and fun runners now find themselves in a season superficially without any real end and no real beginning. Almost any kind of race can be raced at any time of the year and even the disciplines that are not available year-round – such as cross-country and track – can stretch over 5 or 6 months. This creates a culture of perpetual racing and constant need to step-up and be ‘on duty’ for the loyal club runner or a source of ever-present temptation for the fun runner.

Because coaches are under a certain amount of pressure to create interesting sessions and often do not feel they can justify their position by saying ‘well, tonight we’re going to do 60 minutes easy to steady together’, we lose even more of the traditional focus of a pre-season. We have hard sessions and races of all types available – or even pushed at us – year-round, often by well-meaning coaches who are pushing these sessions on athletes because they themselves feel under pressure by the perceived expectations of their athletes. Coaches become part of the entertainment industry, rather than educators and mentors.

Full potential?

This does not create an environment for realising the full potential of each athlete. Without a long dedicated period of mainly easy to moderate training without any distractions or set-backs caused by hard racing or prematurely intense workouts, runners never get a chance to really develop especially the basic abilities. When injury rears its head it becomes particularly troublesome because the physical and mental preparedness of the athlete will be lower than ever when he or she returns to running. More often than not they will feel the temptation – or duty towards club or coach – to resume racing action well before it is advisable.

When the pre-season still existed

Moving back in time to 1950ies and 1960ies New Zealand when master coach Arthur Lydiard laid out the foundations for much of today’s training practices, a very distinct season existed:

  • 12 weeks X-country schedule
  • 6 weeks Road Racing (2 mile schedule)
  • 10 weeks Marathon conditioning
  • 6 weeks hills
  • 10 weeks Track Schedule
  • 4 – 6 weeks track racing
  • 2- 4 weeks off training

The period of cross-country and road-racing was not considered too seriously and as a form of preparation for the pre-season which Lydiard labelled ‘marathon conditioning’. This consisted of 10 weeks although in his later books he recommended spending as much as 3 to 6 months preparing the body for harder training and racing. In this he mirrored the earlier advice of Percy Cerutty who dedicated 6 months of every year to ‘General conditioning’ and focusing on simply ‘getting stronger’ with 3 months of race practice and 3 months competition.

As a club coach, I advise that coaches clearly bulk out a sizeable part of the year – or even two parts (one in Summer, one in Winter) as dedicated ‘pre-season’ where racing should take a complete backseat and no high intensity workouts are done. The focus is purely on creating a new performance level, clearing up old injuries and moving past them and work on the areas holding the runner back. This could be done by not insisting every member of the club, for instance, be ready and available for the entire cross-country season or to train straight through most of the races (as Percy Cerutty’s athletes used to do) not paying them too much respect but merely treating them as a hard steady workout in the middle of the winter season. This means sometimes putting the needs of the individual higher than the needs of the club. A difficult but necessary balancing act for coaches to take upon themselves as we tend to be the main catalysts of the environment that exists around our athletes.

This way many athletes would be able to dedicate the dark and wet months from November to February mainly to training or, for athletes with a longer season, perhaps the period January to March or April. The mid-summer can also serve as a good period for pre-season if Autumn objectives are very important for the runner or the club. But this means avoiding the temptation of the many summer races and the club putting on workouts of a steadier more endurance-focused nature during that period. Smaller clubs struggle to accommodate this but there are solutions – such as providing your runners with heart rate or pace ceilings so that the person doing ‘pre-season’ is running ‘easy to steady’ in a workout where a runner further along the peaking curve is doing ‘steady to hard’.

Happy festive season and I hope the seasonal spirit of this post was of use to you going into 2017.

 

 

Pace and Power – cross-country training

Our club Glendalough AC gears up for the Irish Winter cross-country season starting with back to back weekend commitments on the 2nd and 9th of October. Since we view this essentially as a precursor to Winter training, we try to not overdo high intensity work in an attempt to not wear down too much of next year’s condition.

This Sunday some of us travel to the traditional ‘open’ cross-country race at Stamullen in County Meath (the Star of the Seas) and with a few others running at the Dublin Half-marathon on Saturday or the Rathfarnham 5k this Sunday, we had to keep things short enough to allow recovery.

A happy memory fro my first go at the Star of the Seas cross-country in 2007. This year we revisit it.

The undoing of a good road runner

A big challenge which turns many good track and road runners into poor cross-country runners is constant change in ‘resistance’ from the course. The softer and heavier the ground the more muscular work must compensate for the lack of elastic recoil. Slopes and obstacles provide additional resistance and so do the regular sharp turns and twisty bends that slow you down and force you to accelerate back up to race pace – an inefficient way to run but one we must all master. So cross-country doesn’t suit muscularly weaker metronome-pacing and one-dimensional runners so well and neither does it favour overstriders who get punished heavily for their longer ground contact time on such terrain. Great coaches like Lydiard and Cerutty recognised this and saw cross-country as the natural way to precondition athletes for the winter training and the season ahead because it exposes our weaknesses and helps us work on them.

A power and pace based cross-country workout

With that in mind  I designed a short session that looks like this:

  • Warm-up (easy running and dynamics followed by an ‘Indian run’ – running as a column with the back runner constantly overtaking the front runner)
  • Main workout: 4 laps of a 500m heavy grass GAA pitch with stride sections, obstacles and sharp turns. An easy lap trot and then 10 minutes of 400m laps around the field at ‘steady effort’
  •  Cooldown – easy running and dynamics

The main session aimed to practice the constant breaking up off ones pace alternating stride (very fast efforts) with easy sections. Obstacles further brought in a challenge to express high power quickly. I used plastic hurdles of three different heights for runners to pick what suited them best. Some hurdles were placed on easy sections and some on stride sections. In addition a few very sharp bends were inserted to get us ready to accelerate in and out of it quickly.

Not quite the type of obstacles we included but having the strength to cope with this type of ‘variation’ in running is crucial for cross-country

It took roughly 9 minutes to complete a circuit of just under 2 km with the overall strain being medium although heart rates would hit over 180 bpm for brief periods. Pace varies enormously because most of the strides were as short as 6 to 8 seconds and often involved accelerations out of sharp turns. Even so we could see paces up below 3:30 min/km (keep in mind we are not world class runners here). Just how chaotic this looks you can see here as I hit the ‘lap’ button every time we passed a cone.

To balance this out we did 10 minutes very steady cross-country running after a short jogging intermezzo during which we covered about the same distance (this time with no obstacles).

Interesting but a worthwhile workout?

You may well ask is this type of work bread and butter? No. General conditioning remains king. A fitter athlete will beat an athlete doing this type of workout without a base simply because they will not go so deep into oxygen debt. This type of workout only works as the polish on the chrome if we view the general endurance base as the chrome. So coaches and runners should see it as  a sharpener and at the same time a practical way to do an interesting session, with a group, that does not fatigue runners too much for races in the upcoming days.

The steady section at the end helps return the body to equilibrium and serves as some light maintenance of the ‘back-up’ paces that we may have to fall back upon in cross-country once our fuse blows.

In recent years Frans Bosch – the great biomechanics researcher – has shown how variability is a key element of developing better motor skills because this allows the body enough exposure to different movements that it can sort ‘not useful’ from ‘useful’ and at the same time running is a heavily power-dependent sport – because we always have to absorb and create great forces even at relatively slow paces. This workout ticks both these boxes and would also make a fine alternative to Lydiard Hill Circuits as part of a transition from longer steadier running to faster track intervals.

 

 

 

Ask the right questions

Training, when boiled down to its bare essentials, consists of asking your body to solve a specific challenge or a series of separate challenges. We can consider this the same as asking your body to answer a question. The question you ask, and in which context you utter it, dictates the response you will get. Ask the wrong question at the wrong time and you will get an answer you would rather not have heard as many of us have likely experienced to our chagrin as we made our way through life!

Scientifically speaking every training method creates a stimulus which is nothing more and nothing less than another environmental stimuli for our internal systems to act upon. Done right our bodies will respond by constructing the appropriate answer to the stimulus. Drink some alcohol and your body improves its ability to produce alcohol dehydrogenase and aldehyde dehydrogenase enzymes. Different types of running challenges elicit similar responses.

Six honest questions for your workouts

In order to choose the right questions you, unsurprisingly, need to query yourself first:

  • What stimulus am I looking to achieve
  • Why is this stimulus desirable / my next priority
  • How must I execute this workout to ensure the stimulus applies as expected
  • Where in my schedule will/should I be ready for this stimulus
  • When will be the best time to apply this stimulus and when will I be recovered enough from it to apply another stimulus
  • Who will this stimulus work best for and am I one of them?

Sample answers

If had to construct a workout progression for a marathon that begins with long 3 km intervals at marathon pace, for instance, I would query this workout:

What stimulus am I looking to achieve?

I want my body and mind to accept the goal marathon pace and monitor my reaction to it.

Why is this stimulus desirable / my next priority?

Because of the Law of Specificity – the body get’s better at doing exactly what it is asked to do regularly. It is my next priority because I feel I have completed the foundational training.

How must I execute this workout to ensure the stimulus applies as expected?

Marathon pace represents a certain level of perceived effort. If I go beyond this effort I am no longer executing a marathon-specific session but instead something faster. I must adjust my effort then and perhaps my expectations or my readiness for the workout.

I should execute the workout on similar roads and similar time of day to the race for best simulation of the real race situation.

Where in my schedule will/should I be ready for this stimulus?

My body should be prepared for the overall workload involved in the workout through more generic training. This would mean, among other things, that I must be able to sustain the desired pace for a significant period of time without pain and I must be able to run much longer than the workout prescribes at slower paces.
When will be the best time to apply this stimulus and when will I be recovered enough from it to apply another stimulus?

It should happen early in the specific period of training to allow time to adjust and revise and to be properly prepared by the general period. It should be done after some easier days so the body and mind are fully charged and ready for a race-specific stimulus.

It will normally require 48-72 hours to feel fully recovered after this type of workout although it varies with the individual. I believe that for me it generally takes only 48 hours.
Who will this stimulus work best for and am I one of them?

An experienced runner with a strong endurance-base and no injuries would be ideal but as long as the pace is retained at the marathon level then it should be suitable to any person who has otherwise prepared adequately for a marathon in the general period.

How to implement this

It would excessive and onerous to perform this query for every workout in your schedule. Experienced coaches ask themselves these questions on the fly as they put the plan together – so if the answer to question around when recovery is expected is 48 hours, the coach will now to place only restorative and easy runs on those days after the workout in question. The runner who executes the plan must then have a firm measure by which recovery is gauged so they can make a simple ‘yes/no’ decision if the original answer does not seem to have been true (all answers about the future are guesses by definition and must be treated so).

For those without coaches, begin by querying the harder workouts and the key workouts you will use to truly feel prepared for the race and then build everything else around them – place easier supportive workouts far enough before or after that they do not interfere and put easier days on the rest. Plan how long you think you need to be ready to do the workout and how much you feel you need to progress it before you are mentally and physically confident enough to face your race goal on the starting line.

Training planning would require a separate article so I will keep it as generic as that here.  I will leave you with the advice to understand the variables of training which these questions are asking you to consider:

  • Intensity: the absolute intensity is kilometres per hour (or mph) and the relative intensity is how it affects YOU in terms of heart rate, subjective discomfort and muscular soreness etc. (i.e. ‘4:00 min/km or 15 kph or ‘5 out of 10 discomfort’ or ‘144 heart rate in relation to my maximum of 198’)
  • Duration: Is the time in minute of the workout (i.e. it took 34 minutes)
  • Volume: This is the total distance covered (i.e. ‘3 x 2 km’ is 6 km)
  • Density: The relationship between exercise and recovery  WITHIN a workout (i.e. ‘1 minute HARD, 1 minute rest, is 1:1’)
  • Frequency: The number of training sessions per period of time (i.e. ‘7 days per week’)

In future posts I will look at workload and monotony and how we can analyse ourselves whether the way we combine the five above factors based on the six questions can help us avoid planning poorly.

What training volume is your toxin?

The volume of training to do occupies most endurance athlete’s mind more than anything else. It’s understandable – efficient running requires a lot of repetition and a lot of repetition triggers a lot of the energy adaptations runners are looking for. But it’s not as simple as ‘more is always better’.

King Mithridates of Pontus

Exercise mimics a drug almost exactly – or we should even say ‘a toxin’ – similar to those the Pontic king Mithradates sipped in small amounts to gain immunity. The process of Mithridasation became named after the eccentric and brilliant king who pushed Rome to despair through all his long years as a way to gain big benefits from small controlled doses of exposure to a harmful substance.

When we train we are doing much the same. So let us try to ask ourselves the question again: how do I pick the best volume of training to do? Many people have read and are fully bought in on the idea of ‘more volume not always being better’ and understand that ‘everyone is individual’. Yet even such benign and common-sense notions are limited in application because once you hit that road yourself the answer doesn’t always seem to obvious especially as the harmful effect of too much volume can be delayed long enough that we don’t realise until it’s too late. And that is before we factor in that we all suffer from a degree of bias when it comes to our own abilities: almost every person imagines themselves to be ‘the exception’ when, of course, most of us are average by default.

Complex problems solved through simple metaphors

In my own life – especially in my many years having to make decisions about very abstract concepts in the IT industry – I found the easiest way to arrive at a simple answer was to re-frame the question in the context of something else. In IT we would often reframe our very complex sounding problems within the context of a transaction over a shop counter and similar ‘down to Earth’ sales relationships. When talking about the right physiological and psychological dose of running, we can use our drug metaphor: imagine you were given a drug and told it will make you stronger if taken consistently. You are told that taking more of the drug will likely make the benefits show faster but that taking too much of the drug will lead you to begin to feel worse. As if that was not enough, you are informed that no one knows the exact individual dose that is beneficial and the one that is harmful. Now you are pretty much in the same situation as the person deciding how much running to do on any given day and during any given week (for my Irish and Danish readers: it’s a bit like deciding how many pints you can drink without getting a hang-over the next day – based only on previous experience and even then not always accurate).

So how would we approach this problem if we feel taking the drug is worth the risk. We are told that the harmful effects will be small and not life-threatening. I cannot answer for you but here’s what I would do: I would take the smallest dose possible on day 1 and see how I respond in the following day. Then I’d take a slightly bigger dose. Once I felt a positive effect, I’d try to sustain that dose for as long as I feel a benefit. Why not up the dose at this point you may ask, so let me answer: because I am now certain I have a dose providing benefits with zero risk of side-effects. This is a perfect relationship between gain and risk – much like putting money in a bank account and just seeing the interest accrue rather than putting them in risky stocks with potentially better investment but also big risks.

Once the benefit slows down or ceases, I would try to change the dose and even here I have options – I could change the individual dose I take or the frequency and see how the effects change. At all times I would be extremely wary of the response. This leads me to ask an open question to anyone reading this (answer it for your own benefit): do you review your own response to training as diligently as you would in this ‘drug scenario’? We have to consider that while the drug metaphor is contrived, exercising can be dangerous: a person with the wrong lifestyle doing running that is consistently too hard may drop dead FROM THAT EXERCISE (in combination with lifestyle and a certain type of diet) in their thirties or forties. That is not joke and not intended to scaremonger – but exercise, in whatever form, is not such a simple matter that it cannot be done in a way that will harm you. Serious harm such as what I describe in this paragraph is rare: but why gamble when not necessary. Which brings me to: when do we gamble?

A lack of time and response-regulation

Sometimes we do not have all the time in the world to reach the level of preparedness we feel is necessary for a race. Let us say that I have 8 weeks and I am trying to gain the biggest possible adaptation. In this case I would do as I did before and each day slightly increase the dose of my drug and see whether I got any benefits. But this time I would not plateau – instead I would continue to increase until the first of detrimental effect (‘over-reaching’ in training terms) and then I’d dose right back for a few days and take note of the ‘borderline’ – during the remainder of that

Another thing to consider is that our resistance to the ‘toxin of exercise’ fluctuates which means you cannot establish an upper border you can tolerate and expect it to always stay the same. It may move down and it may move up – this is where it is incredibly important to continue to monitor your actual day to day and week to week response to exercise. There are many clever tools available to serve as canaries in the coal-mine – subtle measurements such as HRV can tip you off before most people feel themselves suffering detrimental effects from overdoing it. The reason for this is that heavy training ramps up your sympathetic ‘fight and flight’ nervous system and this bestows you temporarily with amazing powers. But you are borrowing energy in the future here which will need to be repaid. Like taking too much of a drug, however, you can feel so great while ‘on the buzz’ that you are entirely incapable of self-monitoring or judging accurately based on your subjective feelings. In this case an objective measure or a good coach are ways to protect yourself from waking up with a massive head-ache.

 

 

My practice: Junior ‘MovNat’

2016-06-02 14.05.57I believe one of the most important fitness methods of the recent years is MovNat (short for ‘Move naturally’) recently in the spot-light with Christopher McDougall’s book ‘Natural Born Heroes’. MovNat define their approach this way:

MovNat is a fitness and physical education system based on the full range of natural human movement skills. The Movnat system trains physical competence for practical performance. MovNat aims at effectiveness, efficiency, and adaptability. 

Source: MovNat Certified Level 1 Trainer Manual

My colleague Jason Kehoe and I have practiced and integrated this physical education system into our training with runners since 2011 and both use it regularly. Since it involves crawling, jumping, balancing, vaulting, climbing, running and similar real-world movement that kids engage in naturally, its a perfect fit for conditioning aspiring young athletes.

Our sport of athletics revolves around the core human movements running, jumping, throwing and walking. MovNat is a perfect foundation for developing the sports-specific jumps, throws and walks later by creating a foundation based on jumping, gait and throwing patterns you would use in real life.

I drew up a session with some basic equipment I had designed by TD Gym Equipment based on my designs:

2016-06-02 14.04.52

We keep the ‘core’ running-emphasis of the session intact by having running interspersed throughout the short ‘obstacle course’ (the MovNat system refers to this type of workout as a ‘combo’ – a combination of different movements with emphasis on smooth transition between each movement). The movements included in this ‘circuit’ are:

  • Running
  • Sprinting
  • Walking
  • Balance walk
  • Balance lunge walk / split squat
  • Vertical jump
  • Depth jump
  • Broad jump
  • Step vault / hurdle / side vault
  • Foot hand crawl (‘cat crawl’)
  • Inverted crawl (‘crab crawl’)

In addition you have a number of transition movements such as the rotation you do as you switch directly from a foot hand crawl (face down) to inverted crawl (face up).

What energy systems does this train?

It depends purely on the intensity at which you execute but there is a significant explosive component to the workout from the vaults and jumps although these are short and brief and do not incur significant oxygen debt.

However, I am not one to obsess or focus heavily on hitting particular systems within the body. I want us to look at the session from a movement perspective: what we are training is the ability to efficiently and safely perform a series of potentially life-saving movements against increasing tiredness.

Our junior session

We had roughly 17 juniors at this evenings session, we began with a ‘prison break’ game around the pitches where I, as the coach, play out a scenario that encourages the juniors to go into various different walking gaits and crawling and creeping motions as well as sprinting ‘walk side-ways across the wall, NOW sprint across the yard’ etc.

The inverted and foot-hand crawl were then introduced and a game of ‘Cats and Crabs’ a team ball-game I invented featuring hurdles as goals and a tennis ball to get ready for the main menu.

When introducing the vault and balancing obstacles (as shown in the video below), I do not go through meticulous instruction as I would with a group of seniors. The juniors concentration levels are better suited for simple mimicking of what they are shown. Because of age differences and the large group, the juniors were encouraged to use a wide variety of techniques to go over or even under the bar. This increases the fun and gives you as a coach an interesting insight into the movement ability and confidence of each junior athlete.

If I could redo the session, I would cut down the movements from the 6+ to 3-4 as younger runners tend to gravitate towards their favourite obstacles and ‘break order’ or lose track of the various parts of the game.

Finishing it off

In order to integrate the session with running, we finished off with 5 minutes of ‘wolfpack Fartlek’ where the runners are in three packs following a nominated ‘alpha’ around until they hear the whistle blow. A new alpha is now nominated and the kids follow that person until the whistle blow again – and so forth.

While this may seem like a lot of content, it took only 1 hour and kept everyone engaged and having fun while stimulating a wide array of physical abilities.

Watch the video