Picking a topic for today’s post was not easy as so many events have played out over the last three weeks. The aerobic phase of my training is now complete and it is a big milestone in more ways than one. In the previous three years, I attempted three ambitious mileage build-ups, and each time the result was the same: feeling good, getting stronger quickly but breaking down between week 7 and 10. In hindsight, it was all predictable, the greatest cause of injury is a previous injury, so once the snowball started rolling down the hill, it quickly got bigger and bigger, and so did the number of my setbacks and disappointments.
I began this year taking a very simple measure to avoid a repeat of history: doing no more than seven weeks aerobic training as part of a fairly short marathon build-up consisting of the following:
- Aerobic: 7 weeks
- Hills: 3 weeks
- Stamina: 2 weeks
- Coordination: 1 week
- Taper: 2 weeks
- Race: 20/05/2012 (Copenhagen Marathon)
The turning point
Ballycotton 10 mile
As a little sweetener to my aerobic phase I had cheekily scheduled in a longer race (which I knew I could keep mainly aerobic in intensity) and my choice fell on the traditional “Ballycotton 10″ mile race in County Cork, a terrific race with a standard so strong that a sub-60 minute finish does not always guarantee a top-100 spot.
I came into the race full of confidence having executed a 100km, 112km and 120km week in the lead-in, breaking several of my best performance times on my regular training routes. If any doubt infringed my mind on whether I could be “fitter than ever”, Romain Denis put them to rest when he tested me at the UCD Sports and Performance laboratory and came back with my best lactate readings yet. My VO2max is still strangely repressed compared to earlier tests but it is the least important of the three main performance variables: VO2max (oxygen uptake), lactate threshold and running economy. Both of the two latter came out very strong in the test.
The Lydiard system specialises in moving up the threshold paces at which you can still rely mainly on your aerobic energy reserves (which are 19 times more efficient than anaerobic sources) and the results bore this out: my moderate aerobic paces increased from 13 to 15kph and my lactate threshold (the upper limit of aerobic paces) moved from 15kph to 17kph. I was honestly taken aback by the scale of improvement given the short time I had to rebuild myself after running less than at any point before taking up the sport in 2011. I had taken to the training like a duck in water.
Putting “one on the board”
But “playing well” is no use if you don’t score goals and to translate this into a runner’s terms: I had to show my fitness in races and preferably record some PBs. The aerobic phase usually comes too early in the programme, and the legs are too fatigued, for record-breaking performances. Luckily for me, many of my PBs are now fairly aged and made a very enticing target at Ballycotton. To afford myself some measure of protection and “screw back on my race head”, I replaced my Wednesday fartlek with the very hilly 5km Fit4Life race in Rathdrum. Another ChampionsEverywhere runner finished well up at the top there and was only a few seconds off his personal best, set on a track, despite having logged heavy, exclusively aerobic, mileage for a long period leading into it.
For me the result was the same. 18:12 may not sound that impressive on paper, but I managed to keep a very steady to strong pace throughout, never using any of those crucial reserves that are needed to keep running consistently, day-in and day out, for an extended period. It was my fourth-best 5km and I felt refreshed after, a feeling I would take with me into Ballycotton.
From here, it really all went perfectly, my race plan came off very well, running strong and steady until midway and then turning on the aggression. Once I broke my 10km best time on the way, and still did not feel truly taxed in neither legs nor lungs, all doubts evaporated and I managed to also run new best times for 5 miles, 10km (again) and 2 miles. The last 5km I covered in 18:06, faster than the 5km race four days earlier, confirming my belief that I have now mastered the ability of “holding back” when it doesn’t matter and giving it my all when it does. An important skill, and on the day I just narrowly missed the hour but still left a happy man. If you are always at your best, you are never at your best, as the old saying goes. This is certainly true if you believe firmly in periodisation as I do.
A small “spanner”
After the race, my plan was to take a few easy days and then build back towards 120km and try to surpass it in the closing weeks of the aerobic phase. Unfortunately, towards the end of an almost extremely pleasurable sunshine jog on the Monday, my left arch caused me problems and forced me to dose my training down to 90km and then 80km to allow adequate recovery. I eventually traced the problem to a new pair of racers I bought for Copenhagen: my LunarRacers. Sadly, they are too soft and spongy for my feet. The moment I walk on a harder flatter sole, or barefoot, any discomfort disappears.
I had bought these runners to help me with my transition from my past as a “shod-runner” (wearing ASICS Nimbus and other “bricks”) to minimalist/natural runner. Most of my runs are done with a wide mixture of shoes to allow all tissues enoguh time to adapt. So I do some runs barefoot (usually strides on grass), some in minimalist shoes such as Inov-8 X-Talon 190 (usually fartleks and hill runs), some in my Inov-8 Recolite “sandals” (usually long runs) and some in traditional racing shoes such as LunarRacers and DS Racers. I do not wear traditional training shoes anymore; since Antony’s “intervention” in October last year, the one pair I still owned began to interfere with my movement, and I happily took it as a sign to finally ditch them.
Rotating shoes is not enough, however, I do my drills (which do not include any static stretching, something I will write more on later) many times per day and once the arch-problem arose, and my old heel-issue flared up, I acted very aggressively both in terms of lining up increased regularity of recovery activities, dietary improvements and focusing on correct movement. As they say “first you move well, then you move a lot”, I could easily see my form slipping when the training load increased, so being able to regularly hit the “reset” button has provided me tremendous opportunity for removing irritation from joints and ligaments within days, all the while keeping up a routine of jogging. On the few days when inflammation was at a level of discomfort, I just dosed down to 3k-5km jogs. But unless I have a fracture, active recovery is always preferred over “lying around” or “sitting around” which to me seems like the most certain way to an early grave.
Improvisation is key
You may expect that as the writer of most of our programmes, I should follow them more slavishly than anyone but there is a reason Lydiard-training is today rebranded as “Healthy Intelligent Training”. A schedule is a loose battle plan, “lining up the troops” ahead of the fight, so to speak, but like all great generals, successful runners need to be able to understand how to move the pieces around as the battle takes unexpected twists and turns.
For me this meant dropping volume and intensity much lower than the programmes state in a few occasions, only to return back stronger a few days later once this recovery measure had time to take effect. After Ballycotton, I jogged easily for 35 minutes and then 20 minutes (because the first jog had aggravated the irritated arch). By Wednesday it had cleared so I did a shorter fartlek than normal, but this irritated my ankle. I responded immediately by doing only 18 minutes jog the following evening and then converting the next two runs from road runs to hill runs where I could get quality without having to expose the body to the same level of pounding. Adding this variety also served to take away some of the risk of “repetitive strain”. It meant dropping to 80km that week, instead of moving on to 125km, but it worked and I finished my aerobic phase with 112km, the second best week of the year, and a feeling of moving forward again.
Cormac Conroy, one of the local Sli Cualann top men here in Wicklow, has a very simple and straightforward approach I admire and recommend every runner take to heart: he never does anything today that would ruin his chances of running tomorrow’s workout. My approach was essentially similar. My programme called for just over 800km to be run in the 7 weeks of aerobic training. I ran 712km in those 7 weeks. Am I heartbroken? No, because it was the right training load for me currently, and now I can move on to the exciting challenge of the Wicklow Way Trail next Saturday, a race I have not run since my 5th placed finish in 2008 (in the older shorter incarnation), rest-up for a number of days and then begin the very specific conditioning for the Copenhagen marathon. Pursuing the 800 km target would likely have seen the pattern of the last few years repeat itself, even with the improvement in my recovery methods, meaning a 3-6 weeks on the sidelines and an uncertain marathon destiny.
All this tinkering had me pondering how to help all runners make better decisions, and to that end I spend the last weeks pouring over some of the most successful methods out there in helping runners better assess whether they are underrecovering. We’ve launched the new programme to our existing customers already, and I am looking forward to being able to share it more widely. As part of it I have begun certifying myself in the Functional Movement Screen, a very easy to apply and scientifically rigid way of monitoring the quality of the movement patterns in each athlete and keep them out of trouble that way, as well as measuring if the work they do is helping them improve that aspect of their training.
So, it seems that, this time “I did it” and managed to finish an aerobic build-up unscathed, even in the absence of a coach to hold me back from my own worst instincts. Perhaps I have finally gained the maturity to be a “self-coached athlete”. That’s all for now, hopefully see some of you at the Wicklow Way Trail 2012. A four year absence has certainly been too long…