Friday, 6 April 2018

Training for an ultra, with the sun going down

As I enter a wind down phase in my training, I feel it’s time to share a story; one of running and life which some of us might relate to; a tale of exuberance and hope which comes to be thwarted by an undeniable truth.

It also happens to chart the training of someone who has been told by two surgeons (independent from one another and for different injuries) that they shouldn’t run anymore. The injuries are;
·       Tibial bone spur (2010),
·       No right hip labrum (following a failed operation to repair a ‘torn labrum’ end 2013),
·       Arthritis to my hip (discovered during operation noted above),
·       A lack of cartilage to my right knee. 

I’ve explained the motivation for attempting this years’ Highland Fling Race in a recent post.

False resurrection?

During the months of October and November last year (2017), I had been running 2 or 3 times a week, doing a bit of weights and dipping in and out of whatever else took my fancy. So, despite my chronic injuries, by the end of this period, I felt strong and healthy;
·       I had reduced my easy running pace to 8.30 m/m,
·       My fat burning efficiency and fatigue resistance were developing,
·       My longest run was 20miles, my peak week was 40miles, and,
·       my resting heart rate (RHR) was down to 31.

I was really looking forward to starting specific training in December, full of the joys. I hadn’t overdone anything up to that point and no stone was left unturned in the preparation of the training programme.

Little did I know it at the time but my fitness didn’t progress beyond this point, for another 16 weeks!

….with best intentions;

This was to be my best-ever strategy for running an ultra. By the end of 2012, prior to the hip injury which had stopped me in my tracks, not only was I at a physical prime but my understanding of all facets of training had peaked. My 2018 comeback relied heavily on putting it all together and simply doing it.

The progressive adaptations to fitness over 5 months of training would ensure a peak for the 53mile Highland Fling Race, no doubt about it. The first 2 months, December and January, were simply meant as bedding in months.

There would be no immediate uplift in volume or intensity. I would just sprinkle in a little bit more endurance training – on the indoor upright bike – to compliment my running which was to be fixed at 3 times per week.

Then to progress in February and March, I would substitute the fitness gained from the bike work for a bit more time on feet; more running. It was hoped this strategy would mitigate against the otherwise continual impact on my body, thereby prolonging my ability to train consistently.

The hammer blow;

Prior to 2018 I had run on the West Highland Way twice; once during the Highland Fling Race (2011) and the other during my winter WHW (end of 2011). For those runs my time for the first 20mile section (Milngavie to Balmaha) was 3hrs 20mins and 3hrs 30mins respectively and from memory, this starting section was straightforward, and save the up & down of Conic Hill, fairly straightforward.

The intention with this training run (end Jan’ 2018) was to plod to Balmaha at around 70% maximum heart rate (MHR) and in around the same time as when I did the full Way. Right from the off, however, I was unavoidably working at a higher intensity. There were several mitigating circumstances (which I’ll come onto) but nevertheless, in working harder than intended, I was disappointed to have finished the run 10 minutes slower than expected.

Truth be told, this session carried more meaning than a simple training run, there was a lot riding on it. I had told myself beforehand that if it went ok then then previous two months could be forgotten, confined to the annuls of non-history. However, a combination of the time it took and the condition of my battered body in the aftermath confirmed my fears.

Those two months;
·       Stress; right at the very start of December (beginning of the training programme) something happened at work which provided me with some unwarranted stress. I averaged 2hrs sleep a night for the first 5 days whilst I dealt with it but by then the damage was done. It took 2 weeks for my energy levels and motivation for training to return. In that time my RHR had climbed to 56, despite very little training.
·      Back injury; just as I was coming back to myself (mid-Dec) I hurt my back simply getting up from a seat at home. Bearing in mind, this was the festive season; 2 sessions of acupuncture were the only thing I could find available; another 2 weeks training were lost.
·       Cold virus / flu; after that and at the end of the year, I picked up what at the time I thought was a virus. My hunger went through the roof and for 3 weeks, I had zero energy for training. Prior to this, I had been carefully tracking my macro’s (food intake) and was consistently eating less than needed, thereby carefully losing excess body fat. This virus meant that in the following months I unintentionally trained at a higher intensity than previous - having lost my conditioning.
·      Knee injury; towards the end Jan 17’, with local forest tracks being inaccessible due to snow and ice, I injured my left knee whilst on a middle-distance road run. I wasn’t meant to be training on the road so on top of everything else, the injury was difficult to take. I was at a low point after this and after arranging an emergency physio appointment had faced up to the possibility that I might not make the start of the Highland Fling Race after all. Turns out it was a collateral knee ligament sprain; a week’s rest and self-ultrasound treatment and I’d be able to resume training.
·     Milngavie to Balmaha training run; it was during this (discussed above) that I realised my memory of the gentle West Highland Way was simply me looking through rose tinted glasses! All off-road training done prior to this was done on gentle terrain, on forest track roads local to me. Routes which lacked the inclines, declines and technical terrain found on the Way. This was an embarrassing mistake. And to compound that a recurring injury reared its head that day.  
·       Tibial bone spur; in 2010, and after months of consultation, I was advised to give up running due to this injury; the surgeon told me he was unwilling to operate as it didn’t affect my ability to work. Subsequently, in 2010 I gave up fell running in lieu of trail running - which seemed to mitigate things, at that time. Fast forward 8yrs, during the Milngavie to Balmaha run, however, I became increasingly aware of pain in my left ankle / foot. It’s difficult to describe but essentially feels like my left leg is attached to my left foot via a pancake of broken glass. I had trouble walking properly in the days after that run too. If this was to hamper me until the fling, there would be no fling!
·     Crisis of confidence; I have records of all training done since 2008 which for 2011 and into 2012 was a good thing in terms of setting targets and realistic training expectations. In 2018, however, I have failed to match any of my previous / historical performance levels, never mind exceed. My capacity for cumulative days of training has also altered significantly. After more than a 5yr lay-off the comparison with previous training specifics had led to an erosion of confidence.

I should be clear; I’m not apportioning blame or seeking sympathy here. I’m old enough to know by now, that if it wasn’t for all that stuff, it would probably be something else. It’s been unfortunate but that’s life, I had to get on with the hand I was dealt.

Into February;
I effectively now had 3 months to get fit for this race, not 5. AND I was in a worse condition 3 months from the race than I was 5 months from it. Despite this, I tried to remain positive. I had to accept that I wasn’t going to get to the start of the fling in the condition I wanted too. So, being in the best condition possible would be my renewed focus. A couple of amendments were needed;
·       The tibial bone spur; this was a big problem and throughout early February, it was beginning to have an impact on my day to day life. A quick google found a possible fix – a corticosteroid injection. Thankfully my physio approved; when I got it done I found instant relief. Honestly, it felt as though I had been given the left leg of someone 10yrs younger, it was like Christmas, my focus became reinvigorated.
·       New training strategy; that Milngavie to Balmaha training run turned out to be a blessing of sorts - did I mention that I had a brief chat with John Kynaston beforehand that very day? I decided my long training runs would now all be on similar terrain to the WHW; no brainer really! To offset these longer (time-on-feet) training runs, I also had to build in more recovery to my weekly schedule.

And then, an eclipse;

Over the next couple of months’, the day job picked up. I did 1300miles on the road one week then worked abroad for the following two. Training was unfortunately, less of a priority and became shoe-horned into fragments of available time.

In between coming back from a 7hr flight and going away for another week, I decided I had to squeeze in a 36miler. After all, I had been unable to do very much in the weeks beforehand and was unlikely to do very much in the next week.

I should have been relatively fresh but predictably, I wasn’t focussed; I wanted to get back home to catch up with my wife and kids before going away for another week, the next day.

Usually, long runs tend to be about concentration; my posture, foot-fall, gait, any little niggles, and food & fluid intake. With about the last third to go, I tend to find myself transitioning into a trance like state. This closing section is all about maintaining focus on the variables mentioned whilst dealing with increasing pain. You can tell when someone has entered that stage just by the wild, intense look in their eyes.

The 36miler was a circular route and with only the first third done I felt myself transitioning! It’s irreversible and of course, I decided to plod on. By the time I had got past half way I had no choice but to battle through the torture. Again, I was at another low point. In fact, at that time, looking back I couldn’t recall a time since I started training for this race that I had been given any reason to be positive.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, my next long run (the following weekend) was a disaster; a 24miler with 10miles of mountain bike technical track to begin with. By the 14mile point I aborted and took a short cut back to the car. My appetite for battling through yet more overwhelming pain had simply expired by this point. It was only the second time in my life that I had thrown the towel in, being reminded of my first Bob Graham attempt – albeit having been hampered by a recent bout of food poisoning back then.

I had been struggling for almost 4 solid months by this point. Yeah, ok for the smart Alec’s among us, training isn’t meant to be easy. But this was something very different. At no point in the years previous did I ever have to contend with such a rapid onset of structural fatigue and pain (below the naval); a familiar theme nowadays. Maybe this was the arthritis? Is what the surgeon was getting at when he said I probably shouldn’t run anymore? How was I going to manage 53miles if I could barely get through 14?

Fortunately, in this moment, running had again forced me to the depths of despair. It would have been easy for me to fall back on excuses at this point but in my gut, I was reminded that they are simply a masked shortcut to failure. I’ve always maintained that the right path tends to be the most difficult; there was no other option, I would forge on.

There would be no going away for a few years to be tempted back; my conscience and failing body would not allow it. No matter what, I would have to find a way to accept the outcome of the race because I knew in my heart that I had given the training everything.

Finally, a glimmer of light;

For those that aren’t aware, the final part of training (before the taper) is regarded as pivotal in terms of volume and intensity, where recovery is scaled back whilst the finishing touches are applied. An inability to train due to illness, injury or work/ family commitments are like death to progressive adaptations in fitness during this period. If ever there was a time for consistency it was now.

I have explained why I don’t take paracetamol or ibuprofen, in a previous post. However, to turn the tide in this training, I felt I had to become an expert in pain management and to do that, I needed to take every option available to me.

When I asked my local pharmacist for advice, he said that I could rely on any experience running long distances whilst taking painkillers. Back between 2010-2012, I used to take ibuprofen during long runs and fortunately, a lack of adverse effects during those runs gave him sufficient confidence to say that it shouldn’t prevent me from trying it now, in 2018.

The strategy now was to wait until I began to feel the initial onset of pain (if fresh, this is around the 3-4hr mark) and take 400mg of ibuprofen; 2hrs later, 1000mg of paracetamol and 2hrs later ibuprofen.

Well…you know that feeling when you are cold and catch a sun beam? That’s what this phase in my training felt like. The warm satisfying glow, you hope will last a while. And boy did I bask in it. My wife would say I was like an unresponsive zombie at times (due to the accumulation of fatigue) but what did she know!

The best I have ever trained in my life was for my Winter WHW (end 2011); granted I didn’t have a daily 2hr commute back then! However, in training for this challenge I have struggled to match even half of that volume during the first 16weeks.

In fact, it took a full 16weeks from the end of November 2017 until the end of the 3rd week in March for my fitness to match its starting point (see false resurrection above). In other words, I’ve effectively had no base training. As frustrating as that is, I’m at the stage now where I can’t allow myself to dwell on it.

Nevertheless, my mileage for the last 3 weeks has been 40, 63 and 80 respectfully. Considering I was unable to run for 5 of the 7 days in that first week (working on a remote island), I’m quite chuffed. Not only that but I have never run as many technical miles in training as I have the latter stages of this programme.

In fact, I have run on the WHW 4 times in recent weeks. The last one was out and back south on the WHW from Tyndrum with my mate Bridey. This was done specifically to assist with positive visualisation rehearsals. And boy am I glad I did it because it has brought back into focus just how demanding the last 12miles are!

Two minor problems with this phase though are;
1.     The volume of ibuprofen and paracetamol I’ve been getting through, and,
2.     The blood blisters under several of my toe nails (painful).

Race expectations

I’ve always felt I had unfinished business with the Highland Fling Race having walked in the region of 90mins of my race in the spring of 2011, especially as I had not trained specifically for it and was carrying an Achilles bursitis injury incurred participating in a mountain marathon the week beforehand.

Back when I was at my best (2011/2012) I set my sights on returning to post a sub 9hour fling. This was virtually impossible but with a lot of luck I felt it could happen. Realistically, I knew that sub 9hrs 30min was within my capabilities. I obviously never got the chance to return, until now.

A few months ago, predicting I might not reach similar fitness levels, I set my ‘Gold’ target as 10hrs and ‘Silver’ as beating my previous time of 10hrs 24mins. However, as discussed, it seems I’ve had a bigger set back than anticipated during the last few months.

The complication to setting these targets is that the route for the race will probably go low after Rowardennan (technical terrain), for the first time and in my opinion, this adds close to 10mins to the race duration not counting the added impact on the body.  
There are some added complications;
1.     The quicker onset of pain and fatigue these days,
2.     In 5yrs, my pace (across all types of runs) has slowed by more than 30secs per mile,
3.     If the weather is vastly different to training conditions i.e. if it is a hot day.

Therefore, notwithstanding the above, if I run to a similar performance as that in 2011, it stands to reason that I should finish in around 11hrs; 10hrs 24mins plus 10mins for the low road and 26mins for the added 30secs per mile.
I’ve therefore got sufficient reason to revise my targets for the race;
·       Gold; sub 10hrs 10mins i.e. the equivalent of sub 9hrs 30mins in 2011.
·       Silver; sub 11hrs i.e. beating my 2011 time in real terms.
·       Bronze; I feel just by getting to the start line in 2018 I’ve already earnt this!

There is just one other caveat to all of this though. Given the journey I’ve been on over the last few months, I feel it would be remiss of me not to consider the fact that pain might play a big part in this race. I’ve therefore decided that if I get to the end of the first stage (20miles) and I’m suffering, then I will not force myself towards any of my predetermined targets. Instead, I hope I have it in me to finish the race within the time limits and just try to soak up the atmosphere of the day.


In announcing a comeback to running towards the back end of last year (2017), it somehow failed to don on me that I was 5yrs older and had a different body to the runner I once was. It was a mistake to think I could simply bed straight back in to where I left off.

I’ve been assured by other more experienced runners that laying dormant for 5yrs was likely to be the main factor for my woes but as I’ve said, there will be no continuation of this comeback. I’ve put my life on hold for it and whilst my family and employer have been supportive, my injuries wouldn’t sustain a prolonged commitment.

If this was simply an age thing, I’d like to think that I’d crack on; 2019 might have turned out to be more straightforward but I’ll never know. It has become apparent that the 2018 Highland Fling Race will be my final soiree. It also stands to reason that this, my 49th post, will be my penultimate.

At least now I know for certain where I am though. This comeback has removed all guess work from any future running aspirations and oddly enough I feel that is a good thing. Just a few months ago, I wasn’t sure if I’d even make the start of the race.

This last few months has been a bigger battle than any training I have ever done, I’ve got my fingers crossed that it pays dividends. Now all that’s left for me to do is make the most of what sunlight remains.

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Fatigue resistance; a key component of running faster

I read a runner’s blog recently in which he signed off by stating that if you wanted to be a better runner all you had to do was decide to become one. His story was a familiar read, full of words, honesty, inspirational sentences and even brought the odd wry smile to my face.

However, it was also devoid of specific advice. Yes, it was a good read and yes it resonated with something inside but unfortunately (for me) it was the opposite of a John Kynaston piece and therefore, a little disappointing.

We’re here to progress, to move forward, to collectively do better than what’s gone by. Are we not? How else do we do this in the age of social media, if not by collaboration?

In this post, I will discuss leg strength training, how to perform it and how to incorporate it properly into one’s training regime. I will do so in a way which will be both detailed and straightforward.

However, a word of caution, the workout I come to describe here is an advanced level session. If you gloss over the detail, you will fail to achieve the consistency and progression it is designed to give you.

Can we simply decide to become better runners?

Yes and no. The author of the blog I read seemed to make several assumptions and provided little substantiation for his opinion. It appears he has had some success in the short time he has been running and has possibly overlooked his superior genetics.

No-one will improve at anything unless they decide too. However, we do the best with the limits with which we were born e.g. hardly any of us have the capacity to break a world record in distance running; we can’t simply decide to overcome this hurdle.

That said, for me (and perhaps for the gentleman in question) the power of mental strength knows almost no bounds. Where people perceive something as impossible, it often is, for them. That doesn’t mean that with a different mindset, in another era, they can’t overcome their greatest of challenges.

Like I said, I liked the blog, it resonated with me. But this post intends to add a little meat to that bone, if you will.

What factors must we contend with?

Anyone reading this should have a basic understanding of running training. Among the factors that determine our potential are;

1.     VO2 max,
2.     Running economy,
3.     Mental strength, and,
4.     Muscle capacity to store energy.

The training described in this post covers a myriad of factors which ultimately boil down to those mentioned above. If you have thus far failed to achieve distances and associated times which are closest to your realistic expectations, you will begin to from now on if you incorporate these tips into your own programme.

Fatigue resistance

I have a higher than average VO2 max, a much-lower than average resting heart rate and better than average overall strength. However, I have poor biomechanics. Therefore, any personal running performance is determined by this factor alone.

I’m certain there will be many others who like me, have certain things going for them when it comes to undertaking ultra-distant challenges but who also have something else with which to contend, that makes the road to be travelled, less than straightforward.

If you want to improve, you would be well placed to address your greatest weakness. I can’t get myself a new body so everything I do in training is geared towards creating a fatigue resistance factor that is greater than (or at least equal to) the other things I have in my favour.

There are a number of ways in which I try to achieve this;

Leg strength training - there are a number of ways this can be gained but as long as you understand how to appropriately sprinkle it into your programme, you’ll be good. In base training, it should cover about 20% of your volume and by the time you are peaking it should take the form of plyometrics. You also need to know that leg strength gains are lost 10-14 days after a specific session. This post details the leg strength session I undertake.

Plyometrics – by the time I need to take my training to the next level, I will replace leg strength training with this, the details of which may follow in another post.

Interval training immediately following leg strength training – after all, we’re training to become faster runners! By running lactate or VO2 max intervals with fatigued legs we give ourselves a supremely high quality workout, one which trains the muscles and the brain to perform when we need them most.

Long runs – I don’t do long slow distances as one might suggest, instead I run long distances as ‘progression runs’. So, for the first two thirds of any (long) distance try to run at a 70% (Karvonen formula) effort, allowing yourself to extend up to 80% on long inclines. Personally, I am happy to walk for periods of time but only where my heart rate looks like it is about to extend beyond 80%. For the last third, you should open up and run within yourself, pushing the pace but not so hard that you blow up. I suppose there is an element of caution that is required with this. In my experience, this type of run trains the mental strength associated with running slow AND then later, that required for running hard when fatigued. One other thing with this, run these sessions on the same surface you intend to race on.

Back to back runs – this is running two days in a row but crucially for the purpose of this post, it specifically refers to running the day after either a strength day or a long run. It will be nigh on impossible to treat this type of run as a recovery workout due to the fatigue you will be feeling from the previous day’s work out. Try not to limit your effort to 70%. Instead, run freely but try to avoid going over 90%.

Recovery – this is just as important as the highest quality training session in your regimen and is something which only you can decide is an appropriate volume of time. I’ve read somewhere that a runner should take 5 days off after running hard for 20miles or so. This assumes we’re all the same. It will depend on your ability and training history. What I would say is this - the leg strength training I suggest next really affects muscle glycogen depletion rates. Recovery should consist of adequate glycogen replacement, rest and a gradual return to training. Personally, where I do the following workout, the next day I run hard then the next day I rest. The day after that I will either undertake a recovery run (70% effort) or if I am feeling well enough, a long progression run.

Leg strength training

A few years ago, I did this training in order to become a better fell runner. I stumbled upon it quite by accident. Sometimes, we like to revert to type. I like weight training. I thought I was being innovative by creating a leg strength training programme.

But do you know what, it worked. My ability to get up and down hills quickly, dramatically improved. My mates started copying my training techniques and soon they were witnessing fantastic results for themselves.

Back then the focus was on going up and coming down fast. In a leg strength session, I would perform 3 or 4 sets of an exercise before moving onto a different exercise. This developed strength, as well as fatigue resistance, in a specific direction.

Clearly the focus is different now (I am no longer fell running); forward propulsion is more important. Now I perform a set of each exercise within a complete circuit, taking no rest between each set. My intended peak workout, is the following circuit which will be completed three times in total;

·       Rack pull (8reps),
·       Single leg squat (20reps each leg),
·       Hip flexor raise (30reps each leg),
·       Single leg side raise (20reps each leg),
·       Single leg bench step up (20reps each leg),
·       Weighted box step-ups (30reps),
·       Skipping (80reps).

At the moment, I am completing the circuit twice and am up to 14 reps in the third circuit. The next time I do the workout I will do 15 reps in my last circuit, 16 the next and so on.

Rack pull – 6 to 8 reps

Start the session with this (after warming up) which I recently pulled from some running magazine. It’s a close variation of the deadlift though you don’t go all the way down. Move straight onto the next exercise.

Single leg squat – 12 to 20 reps

Find a box to put your rear non-weight bearing foot onto. Perform the required number of reps for one of your legs then move onto the other. Move straight onto the next exercise.

Hip flexor raise – 20 to 30 reps

I stand on a bosu ball as an extra aid to balance training and use ankle weights to increase resistance. Some books suggest we extend the weighted leg behind us before pulling back to the horizontal. However, I don’t believe there is a specific requirement for us to extend the leg back; next time you’re out running slow have a look at how your leg lands and how it is then brought back up. Move straight onto the next exercise.

Single leg side raise – 12 to 20 reps

Glute strength is vital in terms of overall stability. Move straight onto the next exercise.

Single leg bench step up – 12 to 20 reps

In this the important thing is that the rear, non-weight bearing leg, does not take any weight when lowered. The weight bearing must be maintained over the working leg for the duration of the number of reps. Note, I am not holding onto anything here, my arm is extended outwards simply to aid with my balance. Move straight onto the next exercise.

Weighted box step-ups – 20 to 30 reps

I wear a 50lb pack on my back to do this. Sometimes with this, I have a bit of a spring in my step which should be encouraged but in base training it’s not specifically sought after. The important thing here is that you’re able to do it. Move straight onto the next exercise.

Skipping – 60 to 80 reps

This brings a recoil action to the set and addresses the lower legs. It also brings the circuit to an end.

The interval session - this doesn’t need to be structured, there will be time for that closer to the priority race (for which you are training). The pace of the intervals should be either lactate or VO2 max, not both. The duration of intervals and rest periods need not be consistent and there is no minimum number of intervals required but be careful overdoing it. Again, progression will depend on your ability and training history; 4 or 5 intervals over a distance of 5 or 6 miles should be sufficient though.

This session develops aerobic conditioning, leg strength and fatigue resistance; going for an interval running session immediately afterwards simply reinforces the workout.


Through superior fatigue resistance you will bolster your running armoury in a way like no other. Try it in 2018 and see for yourself. Don’t pay too much attention to your times in the short term though, this is all about being strong towards the end of an ultra where otherwise the wheels would be coming off.

Finally, approach this training with caution always thinking of where you want to be in 3 to 4 days from the workout. If you find you are unable to train consistently over a period of 2 to 3 weeks, adjust the session downwards to make consistency your priority. As an example, and if you have never done this sort of thing before, I suggest your very first attempt at this type of workout should be for the minimum number of reps and for only one circuit prior to your run. Even if this seems easy, be careful in ramping it up too quickly.