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.


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.

Season planning – part 1 (pleasing everyone!)


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.


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


  • 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!