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.

 

Advertisements

Pace and Power – cross-country training

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

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

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

The undoing of a good road runner

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

A power and pace based cross-country workout

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting but a worthwhile workout?

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

5047555512_b7caf7a5e6

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.

dscf3251

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.

crossteam

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.

4001074425_d32f3713f0

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ask the right questions

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

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

Six honest questions for your workouts

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

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

Sample answers

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

What stimulus am I looking to achieve?

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

Why is this stimulus desirable / my next priority?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to implement this

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

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

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

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

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

What training volume is your toxin?

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

King Mithridates of Pontus

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

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

Complex problems solved through simple metaphors

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

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

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

A lack of time and response-regulation

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

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

 

 

The plodding state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My philosophy: Train, don’t strain

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

TRAINDONTSTRAIN

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

‘Train to failure, train to fail’.  

-Arthur Lydiard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My practice: Junior ‘MovNat’

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

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

Source: MovNat Certified Level 1 Trainer Manual

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

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

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

2016-06-02 14.04.52

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

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

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

What energy systems does this train?

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

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

Our junior session

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

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

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

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

Finishing it off

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

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

Watch the video

 

 

 

 

 

 

Training philosophy – ‘running in three steps’

meme3

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

Step 1: Know what you want to do

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

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

Step 2: Divide it into manageable steps

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

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

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

Step 3: Choose the first simple step and DO IT

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

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

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

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

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