Sunday, 22 July 2012

The curse of a novice runner


That’s my one word summary for the last 4 weeks. And I’m less than excited for how the next 4 is going to turn out. So this post is a wake-up call for me……and for anyone else wondering what to do when ‘overtraining’ sets in. I’ll talk more about that phrase in a bit.

First things first; I’ve regrettably pulled out of the High Peak 40. It would’ve been no fun in the condition I’m in and besides what I need now is rest rather than stepping up the training.

What’s tragic about this is that 2012 was supposed to be a year for staying away from hard efforts and for concentrating on building a base for 2013 and beyond. I’m in the final year of my distance learning honours degree so the intention of training easy all year seemed to suit the circumstances. It didn’t quite work out like that. Why? Because I’m a tit, that’s why!

Having arrived at the present day with such an epic fail I’ve decided to look for clues to find out where it has all went wrong. Therefore a 4 year summary of training and challenges (with conclusions) follows. When you do this, you’ll be as surprised as I am;


This was my inauguration year to running. However, I look back in horror at the things I was doing. Let’s take a step back;

Q.        What is one supposed to do when wanting to peak for a race? (in my case the Highlander Mountain Marathon (HMM) followed by the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM) later that year)

A.         It’s quite simple really; build a big base of running history, the bigger the better then sometime before the event, say 6-8 weeks, sharpen up a bit with some specific speed work and then a couple of weeks out (maybe 3), taper into it.

Here’s what I was doing and is what I continued to do until last July;

·         Upper body weight training; 3 times per week,

·         Leg weight training; once a week,

·         Cycling; usually 10miles per day and the odd 40miler at the weekend – note; on a heavy mountain bike, not a road bike,

·         Fast, up-tempo runs and hill rep’ runs,

·         Easy runs, usually once a week,

·         Fell running (trying to run); usually most weekends, and,

·         Plyometrics and high intensity circuit training during the last few weeks of any training schedule.

Anyone spot the obvious error?

No base, too much high intensity work, too much stuff that wasn’t running and not enough running. I averaged 33miles per week with a peak of 54 and a low of 3. I had about a month to build up for the HMM and its fair to say I left that event absolutely shell shocked. In fact, it took me 2 months after that failure to pull a pair of trainers on again, this time to start preparing for the OMM. And yes, you guessed it I simply did the exact same stuff, only I worked harder!

In the end the weather saved us. The 2008 OMM was cancelled mid way through due to the worst conditions experienced during its 40 year history. Rob and I did quite well but in my heart I’m not convinced day 2 would gone well as I was pretty goosed by the close of play.

I began studying a distance learning honours degree (Building Surveying) in December of this year.


Instead of catching the running bug, I had scared myself witless. The 6 months following the 2008 OMM were spent doing whatever I felt like, mostly mountain biking and upper body weight training – not that any of it was consistent or part of any training programme. Rob had managed to convince me we would be good for the Saunders Mountain Marathon in June followed by the 2009 OMM (always late October).

The truth is I love loved running in the hills. It was always such an adventure and exhilarating on the downs. Also, I seemed to be quite good at going up. So I set about training – doing the exact same stuff again.

For the Saunders I averaged 33 miles per week with a peak of 42 and a low of 3. Day 2 ended terribly for the both of us as we ran out of food with about 2-3 hours still to do. Nevertheless, we both really enjoyed this mountain marathon. Afterwards I took a month off training.

For the 2009 OMM I averaged 31miles per week with a peak of 46 and a low of 14. Rob had to pull out of this and a guy from my work filled in. After this mountain marathon I vowed that I would not spend a single minute of my spare time with James ever again.

I am a map reading instructor (from my Army days when I was awarded top student) and am Mountain Leader trained, I’m also an experienced navigator and was at the time a DofE instructor, supervisor and assessor. In short, I tend to make less navigational mistakes than others.

This was James’ maiden voyage into mountain marathon and despite his very good fitness I had serious misgivings about him replacing Rob. Remember, I work with this guy. Unfortunately he is simply not cut out for working in the construction industry, certainly not from a designing and contracting position anyway.

So anyway throughout day 1, James was adamant that he knew which direction to go which invariably happened to be at least 90 degrees from the direction I wished to go. Let’s just say, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. On day 2 (after the total disaster that was day 1) I did not allow him an opinion as he was forced to try his hardest to keep up with me. For day 2 alone, we were placed in the top 20.

I have thus far stuck to my word and steered clear of James. I wish the same could be said for him………..James, if you read this, I have nothing against you personally, but, get your own life. I hope you’ve now stopped using my stories and passing them off as your own.


Rob and I started training for the Bob Graham Round as soon as the new-year kicked in. I had done nothing since the OMM, no running whatsoever, but I was confident of achieving this aim. Nothing in the training philosophy changed;

In the 28 weeks of training until I managed a successful attempt (2nd go) I averaged 30miles per week with a peak of 54 and a low of zero (four times). What these stats don’t tell is the number of days I was bedded down with illness.

Of the 28 weeks I was ill for 11 of them. I had managed 3 chest infections and a bout of food poisoning but more importantly I became a member of the Bob Graham Round 24 hour club. Rob managed it at the first time of asking in an admirable time of 21hrs 29mins.

I was unable to do anything for 3 months after the BGR due to a strange heel injury I had picked up. I was also troubled by an injury forced upon me whilst playing football – a favour to some mates. Nevertheless, Rob and I had a sights on a challenge that we had unfinished business with; the HMM.

In October and with confidence having become a member of the club, I began training for the event which was 6 months away. Again the same training ensued. After all, it had finally proved its worth!


The HMM was a disaster and so too was the Fling - 2 weeks later. Up to the event I had averaged 31miles per week (for 28 weeks of training) with a high of 58 and a low of zero (two times). I was knackered weeks before I even toed the start line of the HMM and the football injury, now diagnosed as a posterior impingement, meant that fell running was being seriously impeded. I was forced to look deep into my soul following these two events.

Privately, I had ambition. Was this based on naivety? For the first time, I began to believe it. I now came to realise that some people were born runners and some people were confined to trying, forever; hence the title of the blog which was conceived around this time and inspired by the likes of John Kynaston and Debs MC.

Following the Fling, I read as much as I could. A friend had told me about the ‘bible’ for runners whilst on a training run – none other than the ‘Lore of Running’. I read as many blogs as I could. I didn’t have a coach and I didn’t have the time to be a member of a running club (Hons Degree and family commitments). I also did a lot of high intensity cross training and cycling up to the end of July. Here, it was time to put what I had discovered to the test. From now on I was going to train differently;

·         I would log my training AND feelings on a daily basis,

·         I would include walking breaks during my long runs,

·         I would be comfortable with running slowly and would do it more often,

·         I would include walking 3 mornings a week (2miles with a 40llb pack on),

·         I did only one high intensity run per week – an all out 4 miler,

·         I did one high intensity cross training session per week, and,

·         I added a supplement called Neovite towards the end of my training and began taking beetroot juice at around the same time.

Rob and I ended up doing the WHW late November though it was not my intention when I started the programme. Unfortunately Rob began to suffer around 40miles into the challenge due to freezing storm conditions which affected his vulnerability imposed by a recent chest infection.

I had entered the challenge myself in a less than perfect condition. There was something wrong with my right hip flexor and my right knee. I began to suffer myself having been on my feet for 24 hours. We were forced to walk more than half of the distance and again two close mates overcame another challenge to finish with some good memories to last.  

Up to this challenge I had averaged 42miles per week (over 17 weeks, not including the WHW) with a peak of 70 and a low of 10.


The injuries I had before I even did the WHW were seriously affected by it. I spent the following four months in rehabilitation. I was able to do some training though – mostly the old favourites - cycling and upper body weight training.

My hons degree had seriously suffered in 2011 and this (2012) was now the final year. Regardless of performance (or lack of it) during the last 3 years, all the marks come from this one. Additionally I had always presumed that 2012 would be a year out of training; I was going to be recovering from my operation on the posterior impingement and be left with plenty of time to study.

Well as ever, things never work out as you expect them too. My second opinion turned out badly; fell running, proper fell running, is a thing of memories now. I can still run though. OK, so 2012 would be a base year.

I had never done base training, real base training. This was the perfect year for it. I would steer clear of the pressure of competition and knuckle down with the studies whilst building an easy, relaxed base. Then in 2013 I would be ready and fresh for a new challenge.


In 13 weeks of training I have averaged 44miles per week with a high of 65 and a low of 17. The trouble is base training only lasted 3 weeks. I agreed to help others by pacing for their challenges and got into a rut of running myself into the ground with no recovery.

For the last 4 weeks I have been exhausted and unable to fully concentrate at work. Up until two weeks ago I had been having trouble sleeping and for a while now I’ve had diarrhoea, despite eating healthily.

I think it finally clicked (that something was wrong) when I paced a friend over leg 1 of the BGR almost two weeks ago. He was noticeably stronger than me despite the fact that we were going at what should’ve been a very easy pace. Tapering aside, I know that 9 days out of 10, I am the stronger of the two. From that point, I’ve really struggled to maintain a decent pace when running.

I’ve virtually had two weeks off training and have been sleeping on average 10hrs per night. Despite this, I’m still getting up looking like death warmed up and really feeling like I need to stay in bed. The thought of any training wilts me further.

I dragged my sorry carcase out for a 12.5miler yesterday and have dropped from just over 8 minute mile-ing for a local hilly route, done at an easy/base pace, to just over 9min/miles for the exact same effort. I’m down by a minute per mile and am utterly devastated.

So where do I think it has gone wrong?

The figures above don’t look all that good, granted. But remember, I’ve been cycling and weight training concurrently. I’ve also had life commitments like everyone else, not to mention my blasted hons degree – studying up to 30 hours a week where commitments allow. It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of the mileage up to mid 2011 is done in the fells and includes a lot of going up and down.

Indeed, the reason my average mileage appears to have leaped up by a third in the past year is simply because I’ve not been running in the fells and have therefore had more time to run locally. That said I’m surprised at the figures. I’ve went weeks at a time doing approx 60miles for the average to be ruined by a week wiped out by some mystery illness.

This has been a recurring trend throughout the years and I think its time I realised that I have a propensity to do too much. I think I managed this fairly well throughout the training for the WHW and I believe it was because I was logging everything on a daily basis.


This post is far from the detailed research analysis it could’ve been but then again I have more pressing things to get on with – studying for my exams for example – and besides, this has taken me the best part of 9 hours to compile! Here are some bullet points which I hope will make easy reading;

·         I have never managed to do any more than 3 weeks of pure base training i.e. running with no anaerobic interruptions throughout the entire phase. Considering I have been trying to be a runner for nearly 4 yrs this is utterly compelling.

·         Base training should be as long as you can possibly make it; this must be my number one priority for the next programme. Why? Because the better your base, the more resilient you will be to speed training and therefore more likely to peak for your chosen event.

·         I do too many other things besides just running. Is there any need for cycling up to 100km per week on the turbo trainer? I naively thought this would help me build more endurance and keep me free from running injuries. Eh no, it just made me more tired.

·         What’s with the intense leg weights that I seem so stuck with? Anyone who knows me will agree that I’ve got an arse and quads like a black power lifter - WTF? Perhaps it’s high time I just did more running instead of trying to build legs that I think will spring me up and down hills better that a mountain goat!

·         I’m too heavy (see above). Bradley Wiggins has been at the top of his game for a while but even he managed to shed 10kg, yes 10kg, prior to doing the Tour de France. And what’s more astonishing is that he trimmed this from his muscle composition – those that were deemed as not required, including some from his legs!

·         The 24 hour cut off for the Bob Graham Round is easy. If I can do it considering the lack of training I managed to do then most ordinary club runners can do it too. The reason most don’t is because they fail in their head before they’ve even set foot in the hills – that and the huge commitment needed to learn and train on the route. I think 21hrs30mins would be a better benchmark for a good standard of runner. I suppose that is an admission that I’m not in that category. It’s high time I stopped waxing lyrical about me being a member of the BGR 24hr club.

·         Be comfortable doing recovery runs. They’re still mileage after all and important ones. In fact in base you should always run within yourself. Every second week, you can maybe go for one up-tempo run but keep it short and keep it below 85% effort.

·         Use a log to record your thoughts and performances. Don’t give too much care for your early stuff except to try and stay fresh most of the time. When I trained for the WHW I changed the programme weekly depending how I felt my adaptation was going. Training for that was the best it had ever been despite the various errors I made.

·         Read and contribute to others if you can. There are many elite runners out there who like to talk about how their race went and about how honoured they feel to be a part of such a wonderful experience but there are not many that want to help others with tips and advice, like Ian Sharman and Debbie MC who do, for example. I wouldn’t have learnt anything (and some would say that is still the case) had it not been for some of the best bloggers – I’ll share my favourites at some point in the future.

·         Don’t do too much high intensity work and if you’re serious about achieving your goals wise up and do something that’s specific and structured to your chosen event. For too long now, I’ve been flogging myself to death in the hope that the harder I work the better I’ll become. Utter bollocks. I need help with this so it is something I intend to bottom out before I start training again. Here’s the title of some books I’ve purchased and will get round to swatting up on once I’ve finished my exams (mid sept);

o   The runners body; runners world. A quick look through this book tells me this is a great book if like me you are analytical.

o   Running Anatomy; J Paleo, P Milroy. All the different muscles and body composition of a runner explained and a guide to injury prevention.

o   Brain training for runners; M Fitzgerald. Specific to marathon distance and below but a quick look tells me that many of the principles can be applied to ultra runners and lets face it, it’s bound to apply to a novice like me.

o   Relentless forward progression; B Powell. I would advise against buying this book if you’re the same as me. I intended to skim through it and read the whole thing in about two hours. It is simply not detailed enough for those wishing to learn and those who have spent a while already doing so. That said, the author runs an excellent website (irunfar) and has made a massively positive contribution to the ultra community worldwide.

·         Drop the ego. I’m a nobody just like most people. When I look at Geoff R, Anton K, Kilean J and countless others, I envy their spirit, their desire to be at one with nature. I wish I could run without the pressures of life but as a father of two and a shit paying job for an inept organisation in a dead end part of the world, that’s totally unrealistic. It’s time to get real. In fact it’s long over due.

·         IF I drop all the unnecessary stuff I will be into unchartered territory. When I resume training again I will no longer have my hons degree hanging around my neck. These are reasons to be optimistic. After all, it’s not all been bad, I’ve raised some money for local charities, shared great training days and challenges with my best mate, conversed with some wonderful people along the way and learnt an awful lot too.

All the other stuff that I’ve learnt is specific to certain phases of training. It is further my intention to disclose all this stuff when I start training for next years Highland Fling. I’ve said I can do this in sub 9 hours. That was my alter ego talking; it’s what I want to do. I think I’ll get under 9hrs30mins and if the training is text book I stand a chance of going under 9. But when has it ever been that? For anyone? From where I am right now, if I have another disaster in the months coming up I think my wannabe running days could well be over.

I’ll leave this post with a quote taken from the Lore of Running (pg 485);

The single most important reason most runners are prone to overtraining is, I believe, that we lack the ability to make an objective assessment of our ultimate performance capabilities. We simply will not accept that we are mortal and that we have a built-in performance range beyond which training and other interventions cannot take us.