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.

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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.