Real world goals will do it

Runners today have access to more measurements and metrics than ever before. Once upon a time an estimate of distance and the time on your stop-watch was the maximum you could hope for. Then the heart rate revolution happened and in later years GPS enabled real-time measurement of distance and pace and finally an estimate of power output, Ground Contact, stride length and more.

The ‘Unreal’ World

We can call these ‘primary metrics’ in that they measure one direct phenomenon: i.e. the speed you are travelling at or the number of beats your heart makes per minute. These measurements exist in two types – those that measure real-world effects (pace, distance, power) and those that measure elements of the process (stride rate, Ground Contact Time). To this, initially confusing, cohort of data points, has been added many ‘secondary metrics’ which are calculations based on a combination of ‘primary metrics’ such as looking at the Efficiency Factor of a runner by assessing how far a runner runs per Watt of work he creates or assessing stress by comparing the intensity and duration of your run against certain test performances and so on.  It goes without saying that once you delve into that level you’re no longer putting the tyres and chassis on your car – you are polishing the chrome. Like in this metaphor – polishing the chrome is worthwhile but not a priority for driving.

An advantage I possess as a coach is that I can look at all this (it’s my job) and make sense of it within the greater picture I am trying to paint with an athlete. Even then I have a cardinal rule when it comes to all measurements which I strongly suggest non-professionals adhere to in the interest of their own time:

“Look at your measurements to find answers not to create questions.”

To elaborate: use your measurements to identify the likely answer to specific questions you have – do not go to look at them because it’s the nerdy thing to do and come up with all sorts of distracting questions. This time would be better allocated to do something practical for your running instead (such a longer cooldown). If you need to go for a few minute to look and bask that is ok: positive emotional reaction to all things running is a good idea.

The Real World

This returns me to the title of this article. The human mind is not motivated by improvements in Ground Contact Time or a nice trendline for your Running Stress Score. Even if the intellectual mind could be fooled into considering this a primary aim, your subconscious mind (the ultimate arbiter) will find it irrelevant. No prolonged success can happen without the blessing of your subconscious mind. It’s needs must be met at all times or it will punish you (usually with pain – it’s way of saying ‘I don’t like how you are spending our time’).

Now: learning to run for 2 hours or completing a lap of a 400m track in 60 seconds or less constitutes real world goals. So does breaking 40 minutes for the 10 km distance or gaining the ability to run 7 days per week as a matter of choice. So does covering a certain well known mountain course close to your house in 1 hours 50 minutes this week and then hoping to do it in 1 hour and 48 minutes without too much extra effort the next time. So does running for specific reasons important to you and you alone as long as they are not delusional or dishonest (if you love running for the attention it get’s you, do not tell yourself it is for some higher cause – the subconscious will not be deceived). In my experience whenever runners run for reasons that are not entirely their own, pain results (psychosomatic – i.e. ‘physiological changes causing pain in tissues created by the subconscious mind’).

True deep motivation and connection to our goals (which will help meet the needs of our selfish, childish and overprotective subconscious) can only be gained through connection to real-world goals.

Implications

As a coach it is easy to be a nerd. The coach can survive this flaw as long as he does not transfer it onto his athletes. The runner can survive this as long as he or she does not let it get out of hand. The primary goals set for a runner or that you set, as a runner, for yourself  must be concrete. Not only does this mean they must be primary metrics, the goals should make sense in a normal conversational sentence containing no three-letter acronyms and no jargon. Yes ‘reach an ATL of 2000, three weeks out from my peak race’ will not cut muster. ‘Complete a 2 hour easy run and a 1 hour steady run through gradual progress in the next 6 weeks’ will pass.

Every workout we do is a task set for our bodies to solve. I want to delve into this more in upcoming posts. For the moment I bring it up only to support what I am trying to express here: you were designed to solve problems in the real world not the unreal world. Your body and mind (which are the same thing, it’s unfortunate language has provided two words for it) will respond better to focusing on a real world concrete task. Everything becomes easier: measuring progress, keeping motivation, planning the steps to complete the task.

So – no measurements?

Does this make other measurement irrelevant? We revert to my principle above: ‘Use your measurements to answer rather than create questions.’ This means if my stated goal was to progress to 9 hours of weekly running at intensities that will be beneficial for my long-term healthy, I can go into my data to look at heart rates and stress scores to see if the condition was met – does the data suggest I was straining rather than training?

Questions can also be asked ‘on the run’ by a look at the watch. My question might be as simple as ‘this feels a bit faster than I expected’ which a look at the watch can confirm or disconfirm. Like in almost every case, the question is never whether we should use something or not (a gun, a running metric, a treatment) but how we should use it.

Summary: keep your overall training and racing goals tethered to real world practical outcomes. Use more esoteric measures only to answer concrete questions that arise during the process of achieving these goals.

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Training people when time is short

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

It takes time…

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

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

How short is too short?

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

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

The Path to Full Potential (Arthur Lydiard)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The dangers of switching and of short plans

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

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

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

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

Season planning – part 1 (pleasing everyone!)

IMG-20171219-WA0006.jpg

Going into each new year, I have to sit down and plan out roughly what workouts I want to do with the club.

What complicates this ideally simple task is the number of different priorities, experience levels and interests in every athletics club. Rarely do we have more than 2 or 3 runners targetting the same race and when we do it is generally ‘by decree’ such as when we tell the membership that we ‘want a good crowd out for the County 5 km championships’. Even then, the target race for the club may not be the target race for the individual runners turning out. You can ask people to represent you but you cannot ask them to prioritise the club’s goals over their own. Running is too strongly an individual sport.

My solution is to simply accept this imperfection and try to provide solutions so that members and club can have their cake and eat it too. I’ve split this into two parts – one part (this one) about how to handle sessions and one about the overall annual planning process.

Individual customisation within group runs

At the beginning of the year I send out an email to all members to encourage them to attend group training. Simultanously I provided suggestion for how runners can tweak each session to their own need. I have provided you, dear reader, with a few examples below to take into your own practice:

  • Adjust your pace and/or intensity: If you are doing an easy or medium run and the group is doing a Fartlek or interval sessions simply change your pace very gently so you still get your moderate run while the rest work hard.
    • Example: The group is doing 5 km pace intervals with easy recovery. A runner next to you may be doing 400 m in 75 seconds and then 2 minutes dead easy. You simply speed up a little bit on the 400m and then slow down a fraction during the 2 minutes recovery. Hey, at least you are there!
  • Put on the brakes: My favourite strategy when I have a runner partaking in another coach’s session (when the other coach’s session doesn’t fit our plan) is to give the runner a ‘ceiling’.
    • Example: We use this with Jason (Kehoe) all the time – early cross-country season, he can partake in interval training but is only allowed to bring his heart rate up to a certain level (such as 167 the first month then 173 the second and so on). Again, the runner is ‘there’ and ‘showing their face’ but doing the correct training for them
  • Add your workout back in: If the group is doing a 10 km ‘steady’ run but you have a 10 minute hard tempo planned, then I suggest simply planting the 10 minutes hard tempo in the middle of the 10 km run and run the rest of the 10 km at whatever pace you had planned. No one even needs to know what you’re doing!

It should go without saying that the normal rules of ‘train to your own level’ applies no matter what session is on. Too many runners get hurt or overtrained because they are trying to drag themselves behind better conditioned runners. When I was at my best in 2012, I often got outperformed by runners in sessions that I would go and beat solidly in races. The reason may have been that I was training quite control and well within my capabilities whereas some of my training buddies may have been ‘out on their feet’.

There’s no medals for ‘winning training’ and the only benefit can be a short-term ego boost.

Communicate early

I try to provide workout information earlier and earlier and with more and more details so the club runners have a chance to calibrate their own schedules with the club workouts. It’s hard to expect someone to jump into some ‘hill sprints’ when they have been building their next three weeks around a Thursday night tempo.

I’ll show some graphs of how we do this one in the next post but essentially I present the workouts in six week blocks so people can see the logic and the progression. I believe that if a club members knows ahead of time that the next 6 weeks are focused on ‘improving power’ and there’s  progression of six workouts, then it makes it easier for them to place that into their own schedule or to think about how they can attend and modify it to what they are doing now.

If a runner was ‘peaking’ while the rest of us are ‘building’, for instance, then they might do the hill sprints shorter and sharper or cut down the total volume. There are many options here – almost any session can be tweaked to do something else than its original intention.

Built-in flexibility

A final way to ensure runners attend group workouts even when they are not ‘exactly what they had scheduled’ is to ensure the formats are flexible.  We have often used Fartleks because it is easy to insert whatever intensity you want into such a workout and to run it as a tempo (just run the recoveries faster) instead of as an interval-style workout.

Our regular Winter ‘Handicap League’ is the same – you can do anything you want on this course. You can run the 5 km or the 10 km and you can run it as hard or as easy as you want (and still be competitive). You could even run it as an interval session – just program it into your watch and speed up and slow down during the run and then meet-up with everyone else for coffee after.

 

Oh dear, pay walls!

I should apologise for the lack of activity here – I am obviously writing for quite a few pages (Running Culture, Mountain-Runner, ChampionsEverywhere and others) but my main constraint these days is that I need to prioritise paid work. As a coach you want to constantly educate and communicate but once you become ‘a pro’, you need to spend enough hours marketing, accounting, and delivering services to paying clients. That’s the bread and butter that keeps the mortgage paid and the food on the table.

For that reason I am playing with the idea of starting a Patreon page which would allow me to charge a small fee for my writing – which again would allow me to put writing at the top of my list of priorities (if sufficient traction is gained). I was once a top-dog trainer in a big multinational and I’d like the be able to set the time aside to put together material allowing people to learn how to coach themselves in a really user-friendly manner. Because truly I believe people must be the captains of their own ship and the coach’s job is only done once the person you work with see you as more of a sparring board than a drill sergeant. This is not my original view either: it was the key philosophy of Percy Cerutty – the great Australian coach of the 1950ies.

If I do start a Patreon page I want to ensure the concept and material is unique if not always in content (after all – most things about running has been said by someone somewhere) but in presentation. I want something that is easier to use and understand than what you would get if you bought a book or read an article on a ‘free’ internet page. I grew up believing in the necessity of ‘value-add’.

Igloi intervals (misunderstanding intervals)

Today, interval training has become synonymous with hard training for the majority of runners. It is no wonder this type of training causes a bit of confusion as even the name is a misnomer. Often we will say ‘we’re doing intervals’ and we will think about the hard sections but the ‘interval’ in ‘interval training’ originally referred to the ‘rest interval’ (also the meaning of the word itself).

Leaving the name aside, it’s a bigger mistake to think of intervals merely as ‘hard’ training because they can be run at any intensity. Truly there are only two basic types of workouts: steady effort runs and varied effort runs. An interval session is varied effort because intervals of easier running or recovery break up faster sections. This basic format has spawned countless specific session types such as alternations, lactate shuttlers, cut-downs, Fartlek, cruise-intervals, tempo-intervals, and many more. Steady effort runs are the opposite – runs with the intention of maintaining even pace or effort throughout. In reality even steady effort runs do not truly exist because you can never hold the EXACT same pace all the time – there’ll always be some variation. But it’s the intention that counts here.

Igloi intervals are an example of intervals that are not necessarily hard but that can serve a different purpose than traditional intervals. First a bit of back story:

A problem to solve

In the recent year I have – with some success – tried to break what I call my ‘pace rut’ which is basically finding it difficult to do the hero workouts of my glorious 2012 season where I seemed I never trained as well as that year neither before nor since. The challenge is that recreating the circumstances as they were do not work because we are always operating on shifting sands – our bodies change and it takes more and more to make them respond with a training reaction. A beginner can be coached by just about anyone or do just about any training plan and they will improve. The seasoned runner often hits a point where nothing seems to make them truly better. There is so much paint on the canvas that nothing new seems to stick.

You can attack these problems from many angles and you don’t have any option but to simply try – you cannot intellectualise yourself to the root of the problem. All we can know for sure is that because human beings are complex dynamic systems, then we also know that they operate within constraining forces and bottlenecks. A limitation in one key system may be preventing all other systems from moving on. The best example is injury or illness: once present it is often impossible to get the body to adapt beyond a certain point because the injury restrains the adaptations. But it could be anything: the strength of your breathing muscles, your running technique, the way you eat, the stress level in your life or the more classical culprits – the aerobic and anaerobic systems.

I tried first to repair the aerobic system to see if this would bring paces back up. I noticed eventually that extending distance was easy enough but it only had a small effect on average pace. I could easily go out and run all day (as I did during a trail running holiday) without feeling one bit tired at the end as long as it was slow. So I threw strides and power training at the problem again with some positive effect – race performances were slightly better this year than previous ones and my 100m times began to drop again. But average training pace did not yet improve much which is what you’d expect because there needs to be some kind of transfer mechanism between very general work (long and slow or very short and very fast) towards the middle (medium work, medium speed). It does not magically ‘just happen’, in most cases. Enter Igloi intervals.

Format

Mihaloy Igloi utilised a format of interval training with many short repetitions interspersed with very short rest intervals done at various paces which were described through subjective statements such as ‘easy’, ‘fresh’ and ‘fast good’. Without going further into details about his method (others have done this far better elsewhere), you can make it work for you by selecting a very short interval (I opted for 150 metres) which you aim to run at the pace you’d like to restore as your ‘default’ – in my cause the 4:40-4:50 min/km pace I used to be able to hold for 90-120 minutes no problem even over undulating courses (that’s a 42 second 150 m). The recovery is a 50 metres float, very easy. Since Monday is my recovery day and I had decided I really needed it I confined myself to a very short 4 km run (20 x 150m, 50m float). So the session was:

  • 20 x 150 metre repetitions with a target of 42-43 seconds
  • 50 metre active floats with no target

I wanted to keep this aerobic (recovery run after all) so put my heart rate warning on to ‘beep me’ at 143 bpm or higher. The way I imagined the run I would be able to run longer total time at ‘better paces’ without pushing my heart rate into the ‘steady’ zone (which would have made the run a short easy tempo). Keeping in mind that the road outside my house is very hilly, I knew some reps would be a bit slower and to go by feel in those cases. So how did it pan out? The graph below show it:

pace dsitribution

Basically of the 20 minutes run only 4 minutes were slower than 5:19 min/km pace and I also got about 2.5 minutes at paces from 3:37 to 4:35 min/km. The heart rate did not run away on me doing this: the average was 142 beats per minute with the highest 153 bpm.

I had managed to peak at 54 VDOT performances for my three target races this year: the Wicklow Road Championship, the Wicklow Way Relay and The Relay. But most of the year I had hovered around 48-51 with my best level in 2012 being 58-60 (despite bizarelly having been measured with a VO2max of 78 in a laboratory – an engine whose potential has never shown itself in an actual race likely due to other constraints). After the recent race I had dropped to 49, recovering to 51 by this weekend’s session. This run immediately jumped it up to 52. Did I suddenly get fitter? Unlikely, but rather it shows that this workout type gave me a better relative pace for the average heart rate – so overall a better workout than had I just gone out and run 142 bpm average for the whole stretch (although I should really do that now to prove my words!).

A few weeks ago I covered an Out and Back over 6.1 km (so 50% longer) at a pace of 5:14 min/km with an average heart rate of 151 and higher maximum heart rate (today’s pace was 5:00 on average at a heart rate of 142). So I was 14 seconds faster per kilometer for 9 beats of my heart less per minute. The 6 km course is a bit hillier than the 4 km but Grade Adjusted Pace was also better at 4:59 min/km versus 5:09  min/km (so 10 seconds faster per kilometer adjusting for hill differential). Interestingly in the longer run I never got down to paces as fast as 3:37 min/km. So what does all that mean?

Outcomes and how you can use this

Potentially:

  • Igloi intervals can give you a better run in terms of overall quality of paces your body experiences
  • Igloi intervals can give you this increase in quality while putting less metabolic load on the body

Essentially, it is a way to extract ‘more time’ at certain paces at lesser cost by using small recoveries to extend the time you can maintain these paces. So how do you give it a try?

Here are the steps:

  1. Pick the pace you’d like to make your standard training pace again (or the pace you’re looking to get better at for other reasons)
  2. PIik a very short interval that you’re confident you can run this pace at without your heart rate going crazy (often 50m to 250 m will do)
  3. Pick a very short recovery period, preferably one that makes it easy to remember (for instance you could do 100 m on/50 m off, 150 m on, 50 off, 200 m on, 100m off, 250 m on, 150 off etc.). But there’s no hard and fast rules – the recovery should be just long enough to get a small bit of breath back – but be warned 50 metres goes by very quickly!

 

Simplifying training

‘Everyone knows the ingredients, few know the recipe.’ – Arthur Lydiard

My main desire as a running coach is to simplify the training system, we put in front of runners. Running as a sport is superficially simple but at the same time endlessly complex because it deals with complex organisms. The word ‘complex’ does not mean ‘complicated’ but it appreciates that when you deal with human beings you enter the realm of ‘unknown unknowns’ – when you start out training or coaching you simply cannot know everything that will become important.

The more rigid the structure of training plan and system we put in place the more we risk forcing these complex variations through a funnel that doesn’t suit them. We need to step back to universal principles that are demonstrably true equally for all individuals (such as the force of Gravity which affects us all in the same manner) and focus training on how to apply the effects of these laws to the ever-evolving unique situations of each individual.

The recipe for success

Arthur Lydiard said about running training that ‘everyone knows the ingredients, very few know the recipe’. This metaphor is as helpful as it is true – as coaches and runners none of us are truly inventing anything ‘new’ anymore – all the ingredients are pretty much discovered and several well-known recipes exist. We have reached a stage instead where the communicating the necessary steps of how to apply proven recipes is the task that will distinguish mediocre coaches from great ones, the successful from the not so successful.

In my own search to try to take the many successful historical system and communicate their key principles in a simpler manner for today’s audience, I have begun to settle on the following ways to represent the three core ingredients of running: consistency, endurance and power:

No perfect models

Before I go on keep in mind the truth about models: all models are wrong, but some are useful*. A useful model for guiding our running training decisions needs to be simple and succinct so that a runner can infer the correct decisions about what to do day to day and week on week intuitively.

* True because models are always simplified abstractions of a certain perspective of reality – they cannot capture the full complexity of reality itself. So no model can ever be 100% true. We need to take care not to live our lives as if it was any different

There are many layers of traditional training plans that while not completely useless, have bothered me because they add layers of complication that we may or may not need. A good example is phases and periods. On the one hand this can be useful to guide runners about what the focus of a particular period is (such as a ‘general period’ or a ‘base phase’). On the other hand, it adds extra words that we all need to think about he meaning off. Let’s play with the idea of removing phases and training periods and replacing them with the three elements of running: consistency, endurance and power. At any given time we are working on one of these three:

  • Consistency: training here is focused on being able establish a consistent long-term running routine. Anything we do that allows us to run more regularly, recover quicker and in a healthier and less injurious way falls into this area.
  • Endurance: the ability to produce a particular movement for multiple repetitions without falling below a minimum threshold of performance* or put another way – the ability to maintain a certain power output.
  • Power: The force we can absorb and create within a certain space of time. The more force within a shorter space of time, the more powerful or explosive we can be said to be. Frans Bosch refers to this as ‘Reactive Strength’ and running properly requires being able to absorb 2 or more times your body-weight within  a time-span of roughly 200 milliseconds. In other words: you need to be pretty powerful!

* This is not the generally accepted definition but rather one proposed by Ivan Rivera Bours which I decided to make the standard definition for our coaching system at ChampionsEverywhere. In my view it is more useful and accurate than previous definitions – in running we need to be able to create roughly 180 repetitions (strides) per minute to gain the greatest efficiency through elastic return and minimising muscle action.

Bashing strawmen

Over the years I have come to realise that a lot of the seeming inconsistencies in certain training methods can easily be explained once you understand the balance between these three factors – a relationship that really came together for me through the writings of Ivan Bours from Running in Systems. Advocates of one method tend to establish an ‘out of context’ strawman of other systems to ‘beat up’ – it’s the usual ‘us versus them’ habit playing out in our minds to defend our favourite systems from others.

A lot of opponents of Lydiard’s period of ‘long slow or steady distance’, for instance, are both wrong and right when pointing out that it ‘doesn’t work’. This period works in the right context: most of his athletes had a very high power output (young strong men) when they initially went into the program and came from a physical culture (1950ies new Zealand) so their endurance could be perfectly expressed. Throw a runner today who is often criminally deficient in power directly into high volume and you risk getting a pure plodder. Similarly, when you read Lydiard’s early books carefully it is clear that the first step is to achieve consistency and his approach takes a very gradual approach to building new runners into a regular routine. These beginners often start with ‘Out and Backs’ where incidentally you will generally express a healthy level of power for the duration of the run because you run well within your limits. Similarly, he would often create the right level of base strength, where missing, through introducing the runners gradually to cross-country BEFORE any kind of ‘marathon-conditioning’ phase. Today’s common view on these methods is more stereotypical and adopted by many simply as ‘go out there and complete time on your feet at any cost and keep increasing it’. He also built in what was essentially a POWER focused phase with his famous ‘hill conditioning’ which featured plyometric (explosive low-contact jumping) exercises performed uphill. Lydiard very early on understood the true meaning of ‘running-specific strength’ but I won’t elaborate on that tangent here.

It begins with….

Consistency get’s the central place in the triad for this reason: it does not matter whether you currently need to focus more on endurance or on power if you do not first have consistency. Consistency means you have a routine with regular enough stimulus to continuously improve in sustainable steps and this again largely rests on being able to stay healthy and injury-free. ‘Consistency’ training therefore is about creating a runner who runs in a way that does not wreck their body and who has a life situation and habits that allows for recovery. It is about creating healthy training habits such as ‘train, don’t strain’ rather than ‘no pain, no gain’ which can never breed consistency – only a stop-go system of ‘breakdown’ and ‘restart’ – probably the most common way people’s training end up today as the 80% injury rate (unmoved since the 70ies) confirms.

‘Consistency’ training therefore is about creating a runner who runs in a way that does not wreck their body and who has a life situation and habits that allows for recovery.

If we don’t have consistency because – let us say – we move terribly and our running style predisposes us to injury, then its pointless to train for endurance OR power as the brain will pick up on this danger and restrict performance (often through manifesting pain or keeping your paces down). Abilities that are generally presented as ‘fundamentals’ in training or physical therapy literature such as mobility, stability, strength, skill, technique, motor control and range of motion (note some are different names for the same thing) falls into this box. Consistency requires a natural range of motion for instance and it requires a certain baseline of technique (optimal ‘biomechanics’) to be present and a certain type of strength. Sometimes a runner achieves consistency because they have a few of these but not the others – so a runner with tremendous strength can achieve consistency even in the face of poor motor skill. It is not optimal – but sufficient.

Coach and athlete must decide the risks and benefits of diving deep into these areas (i.e. ‘you’re very strong but move rather poorly, what can we risk changing now without negatively affecting you for a long time to gain long-term benefits in return’). Generally the answer comes through a process of stochastic tinkering – applying small gradual changes and using the feedback of each change to guide the next (‘well give you a simple postural drill for 6 weeks and otherwise continue as normal – let us see if we see a positive motor response without drop in performance’).

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Athlete-focused training in a nutshell

In this system, the runner and coach must together assess the current priority based on asking the question ‘what do we have and what do we need the most’. We may have consistency (let us say a runner walks through my door who has been training 5-6 days per week for three years with little issue). I’d be happy to tick the ‘consistency’ box (for now) and would then assess, based on historical race results, training records and physical testing, whether the runner has an endurance or a power deficit (finding the bottle-neck – the critical constraint stopping long-term development). We want to walk Lydiard’s ‘Path to Full Potential‘ and we cannot do so if we ignore a glaring weakness.

Stripping training down

At the outset of this article I mentioned the desire to strip training theory down to the bare bones and the example of ‘removing’ possibly unnecessary layers of information such as training periods and phases. Instead of having a ‘general period’ followed by a ‘specific period’ and so on, we can instead simply say that ‘this week we focus on power’ or ‘the next four weeks are all about consistency’. We also move away from another pet peeve of mine: the proliferation of physiological terms in book for laymen. Scientists and science are there to tells us why the world is the way it is. But coaching is about ‘how to do it’ and this does not require an understanding of the underlying physiology (which is still in its infancy anyway and ever-developing) – you only need to know what works and what doesn’t. So we do not need to worry about various thresholds and what they are doing inside the body. Instead we can fall back on analysis by feel the way Lydiard did it: for instance he knew that high volume required staying at efforts that allowed recovery within 24 hours. He called such efforts 1/4 effort and 1/2 effort and described them subjectively.

This does not mean we have to stop using heart rate monitors – they are still useful feedback tools and ‘lie detectors’ and can help you understand your response to training better. Let us say you have 12 weeks to your next target race. You’ve been off running for a while due to other commitments. You and your coach know from experience that you are strong and powerful but lose endurance quickly and you currently feel unfit. You make a loose decision to spend the first 4 weeks getting back into a consistent habit and ensuring you can go back to training 5 or 6 times per week without issue. You and your coach work out the details. Since power is not a big priority for you, the next 6 weeks are ear-marked for ‘endurance’ with the final two weeks some race pace specific coordination (I did not touch on that in this article – in short: it’s the final piece you put in and what Lydiard fittingly called ‘Coordination’ which means ‘coordinating your endurance power at a race specific pace).

Finally, even within systems with periods or phases you never train only one thing – its only the emphasis that varies. A Lydiard base phase included ‘power’ work in the form of Fartleks, some steady runs and strides whereas endurance was still present in later weeks – only less so. Going back to the ingredient and recipe metaphor: you may add most of the spices up front but you still add a few later as the dish settles and you get an idea of the flavour.

Summary

To be successful in running we must have the factors in place creating consistency in our training and then we build a foundation of tirelessness (endurance) and explosiveness (or ‘reactive strength’ and ‘power’ the specific strength necessary for running) with the emphasis guided by the strengths and weaknesses of the individual athlete. Once these basics are firmly in place a brief period of specific training to coordinate our abilities brings us to a peak.

I will elaborate further on how to implement this as part of my work to complete the ChampionsEverywhere training system 3.0 – like previous iterations the goal is to simplify the message while staying true to the same unchanging universal natural principles.

Sources

Strength and Coordination and Integrative Approach. Frans Bosch.

Running to the Top. Arthur Lydiard.

Running in Systems. Ivan Rivera Bours.

Thinking in Systems. Donatella Meadows.

 

 

Workouts: Wind-sprints

Arthur Lydiard, perhaps my primary coaching influence (although many vie for the title), first led me to the workout he called ‘windsprints’ or simply ‘sprint until winded, then float and repeat’.

Lydiard had a very simple – pre-physiology logic – for using this workout. He felt that longer hard sessions left the entire body very tired and needing many days recovery. On the other hand if you sprinted only briefly followed by short running recoveries, you could accumulate a lot of fatigue in the legs very rapidly without leaving a lot of residual fatigue.

“If you run 20×400 metres, you will be at it a long time and you will become very tired; but if you run five laps of the track by sprinting 50 metres in every 100m metres, floating the other 50, to give you 20 sharp sprints in all, you will be extremely tired in your running muscles, but will have taken only 7 minutes to do so. Sharpening puts the knife-edge on anaerobic training capacity without pulling down the good condition you have carefully built up.” – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard

Based on this he made this a customary exercise during the final weeks of training for races as a ‘sharpening exercise’ and I have been using the workout in this format ever since including our final preparations for the Wicklow Novice yesterday evening.

More than one way to skin a windsprint

Interestingly, Lydiard did not refer to his workout with the word ‘wind-sprints’ in his original (and superior) book (Run the Top from 1962). I prefer this book because it was written in the middle of his halcyon years – it would be another 2 years until he celebrated Peter Snell’s double 800/1500m gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics. In Run to the Top he mentions workouts such as ‘Run fifty yard dashes, alternating each with the customary sixty-yard float, for three miles’.The early book has an almost endless variety of ‘dash’ and ‘sprint’ sharpener whereas the later books settle on a more prescriptive formula for windsprints called 100/100 and 50/50 (or in ‘Running with Lydiard’ 45 metre windsprints every 100 metres and 100 metre windsprints every 200 metres).

Either way you choose to execute this workout (and I prefer using the varied rather than the standardised versions), you have shorter bursts of MAXIMUM speed followed by easier running. Normally, less experienced athletes will be unable to complete more than 6 to 10 minutes of this. I have seen some elite athletes I work with complete up to 20 minutes. Peter Snell, as a miler and half-miler, would have used 2 miles on the track as he describes in his autobiography ‘No bugles, no drums’ (called so because there are no bugles and no drums in the book!).

During the cross-country season we do our windsprints on heavy grass because attaining maximum speed is not our goal – rather it is tiring our legs quickly with an effort that feels similar to what will happen at the very end of the cross-country races.

For ease of execution I place four big cones on each corner of the GAA pitch we use for sessions and we use the long sides (roughly 110-120 metres) for the ‘sprint’ and the short side (90-100 metres) for the ‘float’.

Coaching instructions

My instructions to our team were, from memory, as follows:

  1. Go for fastest possible speed but ease in the first one or two
  2. Stop the workout once you can no longer maintain proper sprint speed
  3. Look for a feeling of heavy fatigue in the legs if possible
  4. Stop at 10 minutes if not done before then

Runners recently returned from injury were told to test their legs with relaxed strides rather than all out sprints but otherwise follow along with the format.

As the workout can be very testing, although brief, we do a very long warmup – 3 km of easy running minimum followed by 400 metres of ‘Indian/Brazilian run’ (running in a column formation with the back runner sprinting to the front – basically an exercise in acceleration and overtaking) and then some hurdling and jumping over low and high hurdles.

Because I did not want people over-cooked I explained that ‘most athletes have had plenty at 10 repeats’ which the group took to heart and everyone stopped at that number. Unfortunately, I had lost count myself and decided to continue running until 10 minutes – getting me 12 repeats. This was of no consequence as my quality (i.e. speed and running form) had not begun to drop very much.  I refer here again to Lydiard’s principle to ‘train what you want to happen, not what you don’t want to happen’ or ‘train to failure, train to fail’.

How it feels

The first one or two can feel deceptively easy but then it begins to catch up on you and the ‘float’ tends to begin to slow down noticeable (you can see this here in my workout).

However, if done well an experienced athlete can stay very steady. I began with a number of 22 second repeats followed by a few 21 second ones. I never went slower than 23 seconds. This fits with another principle I believe in ‘controlled aggression’ (to be violated during the late stage of races and the odd ‘come to Jesus’ workout but not habitually).

I noticed that towards the end of every sprint I felt exactly like I would do at the end of a race desperately fighting my way over the finish line. The little red cone became my whole world for a few brief seconds. Having this experience almost twelve times during a session helps up the capacity for what discomfort we believe we can accept.

The adrenaline boost from the workout is rather large so expect to be hyper the evening after doing it. Personally, I can still feel the adrenaline in the body as  I write this 15 hours later!

For a more technical ‘blow by blow’ set of instructions on how to do wind-sprints refer to my earlier post on ChampionsEverywhere on the workout.

Modern perspectives

A lot of research has gone into the area of ‘priming’ which has shown that the best way to prepare for a race is not always to ease off completely. Neuromuscular strength gains from better coordination and training of the nervous system and brain can be attained very quickly – within a few days sometimes and thus be of benefit to the race whereas benefits to overall fitness happen much slower. Workouts like windsprints are a huge stimulus to the nervous system because the top speeds means the brain has to recruit pretty much ALL AVAILABLE MUSCLE FIBRES. There is much research and practical experience to suggest this can be very helpful on race day as long as it is not done too hard too close to the event.

 

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.

 

 

Training philosophy – ‘running in three steps’

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Training your body for the demands of running seems like an incredibly complicated process if you read many running books cover to cover. I see the process as being very simple.

Step 1: Know what you want to do

A simple clear goal helps you understand what is required in training. Completing a 5 km race in 20 minutes or less fits this description. You need to be able to run 4 min / km pace (12 kph) for 20 minutes without getting hurt. You need to be able to train consistently enough to achieve this based on where you are today.

If you can currently run 30 minutes then you have a longer journey ahead. If you run 20:02, then a few simple tweaks are all that are needed and not much time.

Step 2: Divide it into manageable steps

Some training plans today want to focus your mind on ‘training everything all the time’. I do not believe in this approach because I view running as a skill and when you try to learn everything at once you tend to do a poor job of it all.

Imagine learning to play the guitar: if you focus on learning two chords then you can become very strong and proficient at holding those two chords and striking a pure tune. You can practice the transition between chord A and chord D and back without the distraction of trying to learn other chords. Six weeks of practicing chords A and D will provide a better foundation than six weeks working on 10 chords at the same time.

Running is the same: you find out the first piece you need to and focus on that and you spend most of your time on that until you’ve reached a reasonable level of proficiency. Running 1 mile perfectly without pain could be what is necessary for one runner. For another it may be ‘running for one hour without losing my breath and having no pain in the 72 hours after’. For a seriously injured runner you may have to start at a more rudimentary level: ‘work on your foot until you can balance easily on one foot’. Whichever it is you focus your energy there.

Step 3: Choose the first simple step and DO IT

This step requires the most experience because you need to understand which of your weaknesses holds you back from doing the training required for what you want to achieve.

If you need to run 4:00 min/km for 20 minutes and you cannot currently take a single step without excruciating pain, then the first simple step is not to run. You need to work further back than that. Without experience you must work with a therapist or a running technique coach who can provide the first priority for you.

Should you be so fortunate to have no injury, you can use logic and experience to give you the first answer (or also take the advice of a coach). If 4 min/km pace feels really easy for you over short distances – your 200m time may be much much faster than that – but cannot maintain it, then you probably have an endurance problem and need to increase that first.

If you run very good times on the roads but struggle to get up hills, you may have a technical issue or lack power and strength. You can begin by taking the problem apart and seeing how long you can maintain a fast pace uphill and what seems to happen when you slow down. From that you can begin to deduct the training necessary to fix it. All journeys are easier with a coach (I’d say that, of course) but while running is simple in principle, there is no cookie-cutter recipe you can follow to success. You need to evaluate yourself and where your weakness likely is and then GO FIX IT. Let us say you weigh 110 kilos and are 6 feet tall. You struggle to get up hill. Your first priority is not building power and strength – it’s reducing your weight in a way that doesn’t compromise your health.

Think about these three steps before you begin training again: clarify what you want to do, break the problem into stages of training and then go do the first step.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Running technique is reflexive

“Once the fundamentals of technique have been acquired, we can then add endurance and strength’  – Arthur Lydiard

Define (reflexive): (of an action) performed as a reflex, without conscious thought.

Technique – how we choose to run – eventually determines the longevity of our running careers and extent to which we can exploit our natural potential and our reap the rewards of our hard work.

The teaching of running technique must always be approached in the knowledge that human movement only functions optimally when it is subconscious, automatic and governed by reflexes.

Running technique coaching, even when showing short-term benefits, eventually runs into trouble when taught through focus on specific muscles and conscious control.

I support only those running technique coaching practices which seek to restore optimal posture and form through greater sensory and bodily awareness. You can call this ‘subconscious coaching’ – reprogramming your primitive ‘reptilian brain’ and the reflexes that work in tandem with it.

The best example is posture. Proper posture is crucial in generating correct technique. But forcing yourself into correct posture causes excessive tension and new compensations on top of the old ones.

No ‘perfect method’ currently exists for teaching running technique but current practice is constantly evolving. Of the many available tools out there, I employ the following as among the best for this type of coaching:

  • Joint exploration: Exercise allowing the runner to ‘explore’ all the ranges of motion his joints possess allowing his brain to re-establish a correct position of ‘centre’ and re-map the available range of motion and help remove sensory-motor amnesia where present. These exercises are best performed with a high level of awareness.
  • Self-limiting exercise and constraints-led training: Self-limiting exercises would include running barefoot on hard surfaces, crawling through a narrow tunnel or holding a weighted bar overhead. All these exercises force the learner to work within certain constraints. Other constraints can be moving within a narrow area, putting a soft plate behind a runner on a treadmill that his rear leg will move back into and so forth.
  • Subconscious learning: By isolating one particular movement and performing it as a drill, we can repeat a pattern enough that the subconscious brain may recognise it again as useful and begin re-integrating the pattern into the greater pattern of complex movements such as running. Drilling can also recondition a part of the body that has become deconditioned – perhaps your hamstrings are no longer sufficiently reactive to play their part in running so your body no longer utilises them. Drills can ‘bring them back up to scratch’. Isolation exercises like this must be done with caution, however, to avoid conditioning muscles to do activities unrelated to your sports movement or teach it to act in a way that is not in harmony. Whenever possible, we want to avoid isolation work.
  • Externally focused action cues: When we utilise internal foci (i.e. ‘contract your hamstring’) our conscious mind obstructs the smooth workings of the subconscious mind. This has been proven to reduce performance in motor-skill learning. External foci must therefore always be preferred such as ‘remove your foot from the floor’. Here we allow the brain to choose the optimal way of moving the foot. I focus learners on the objective (‘drop down and land on the floor in front of you quietly’) rather than the process (‘bend your knees and hips somewhat as you drop off the step onto the floor and ensure you land with most of your weight towards the balls of your feet’).

There are other parts to the method of teaching running technique coaching falling into grey areas in the three categories above. Coaches should notice that traditional methods such as ‘active cueing’ (‘stick your pelvis forward’) are generally discouraged as these tend to overly engage the conscious brain and are open to interpretation – i.e. cues have different effects on different runners. External cues are exempted from this rule.

Percy Cerutty, the great coach of Herb Elliott, deserves the last word on this article:

“The recognition that anything that is inhibited, mechanical, regimented, done under imposed duress or direction, even that which may be thought to be self-imposed-anything at all that is not free out-flowing, out-pouring, instinctive and spontaneous, in the end stultifies the objectives, limits the progress and destroys the possibility of a completely and fully developed personality.”