My new approach to running and training (Pt 1)

I have mentioned in a few posts now how my whole running approach has changed after the Manchester Marathon in April and a few of you have asked to hear more about it. I’m not sure I have anything earth-shatteringly new to reveal that will change the sport of running forever, it’s more a case of how a number of things have come together over the past year, which resulted in me beginning to make a number of small adaptations over the past couple of months. These small adaptations (which are still happening, I think) have resulted in my changing my training approach quite fundamentally and becoming a much happier runner to boot!

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I’m happy to talk about these changes, what prompted them and what I was doing before, for your amusement and profit kind reader, but at the same time I hesitate: I doubt there’ll be anything in here which you haven’t heard of before, or which some of you don’t do as a matter of course. In fact it could be that the only thing that surprises you is that it took me 5 years to actually figure these things out for myself! But if this tale demonstrates anything, it is how seemingly unimportant stimulae can help lead us to the next breakthrough in our training. Perhaps for someone my experience is just such a stimulus.

But first a word about what my training looked like before these changes: After disappointments in Athens in November 2014 and Manchester 2015, my main focus this year was to run a marathon with no drama, cramps etc. My training plan for this year’s Manchester marathon was based on 3 hard runs a week (Tempo Tuesday, Thursday Hill efforts (12k loop, pushing on every uphill bit) and Sunday Long Runs), with ample stretching and yoga to keep cramping at bay. It worked, in that I got a PB, but, hand on heart, by the end my training had become something I had to do in order to achieve my goal and set whatever ghosts to rest, rather than a pleasant activity which I did for my own enjoyment and self-fulfilment. The exception to this were the Muddy Saturdays (unstructured 8-10 k run along the local fields and footpaths at 8:30 on a Saturday morning with Nick), which were genuinely fun!

What I was after was an approach that could be sustained and be enjoyable in the long term

The obvious answer then would be to ease off a bit, put the hard workouts on hold and run just for the fun of it for a while. But as my fitness is still recovering from last year (when I basically gave up training from April to July), it didn’t feel like a good time to take it easy again. Instead, what I was after was an approach that could be sustained and be enjoyable in the long term: i.e. not train until I got sick of it for 16 weeks and then, after whatever event, just let it all go downhill until I did it all over again.

So what happened to help me change my approach? A few things really, some a while ago, but they are only now coming together to become a consistent approach… I’ll try to list them in some sort of chronological order:

1. I attended a presentation by Alan Maddocks to the Huncote Harriers in September 2015, who presented the Kenyan Training philosophy and explored the concept of race-specific training. I used many elements of Alan’s suggested approach in my training for Manchester, but I think I overlooked the bit where you fill the rest of your week with easy runs! The other thing I didn’t pay enough attention to was the bit where Alan mentioned that the Kenyans’ marathon-specific training follows a period of building a strong aerobic base!

2. My experience of being a laboratory mouse in the research in the Physiology of marathon running by Dr Dan Gordon and his colleagues at Anglia Ruskin University, and the fitness report I received as a result. It contained a plethora of useful information, but one of the things that stood out was the importance of building a good aerobic base. And the realisation that this isn’t a one-off (“I run marathons ergo I have a good aerobic base so I don’t need to think about it any longer“), but something that you need to keep working on, maintaining, building etc through correct periodisation of training.

3. My decision to let marathons be for a bit, and concentrate on distances of up to half marathons, with particular emphasis around the 10k distance.

4. The success of the Muddy Saturdays: They proved a very enjoyable experience, and each run is different, but from a strictly training perspective I realised that ran at a comfortable pace they did not compromise Sunday’s long run in the least. Running on uneven ground also has significant benefits in terms of core stability, proprioception, avoiding injury, building strength (especially when there are hills involved), etc. etc.

5. I think the final piece fell in place when I read the book “80 20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster” by Matt Fitzgerald. It’s strange how you become aware of something, store it in your memory and then bring it out when the time is right. I first heard of this book in Alan’s presentation in September, but thinking I had enough information at the time I didn’t read it until my taper for Manchester. That was fortunate: it meant I had the opportunity to experience everything else in this list first, so when I did read it I could compare the point the author was making with the highly specific advice about my training I had received from Dr Gordon, and my only experience of gentle runs (the Muddy Saturdays) for a long time.

It resonated: the main proposition, in a nutshell, is that the best improvements in running performance are brought about by a training regime that is made up of 80% low intensity training and 20% medium and high intensity training; the high proportion of low intensity training then means that the total training volume can be increased (usually through increased training frequency rather than longer sessions), further improving its effectiveness.

I am trying a sample 10k running programme from that book, which I have slightly customised as I didn’t want to sacrifice too much of the endurance I had built training for Manchester. I am half way through it (week 6 out of 12, finishing the Base phase and about to enter the Peak phase), and – as you will have gathered – I am very impressed with the way it has allowed me to change my whole approach to training, making me a happier and gradually faster runner. How faster? There is a bit to go yet before I can answer that question, but for now I seem to have found the sustainable, enjoyable training approach I needed!

I intend to follow this post up with a closer look at what the proposed 80 20 training looks like, how I’ve built my new training approach around it, my experience so far, and what tweaks I feel I still need to make to this approach…

Watch this space (and subscribe / follow the blog for instant notifications!)

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