“Are you such a loser you can’t tell when you are winning?”Seth, “From Dusk Till Dawn”, 1996, slightly adapted.
I’ve been asking myself this lately. My training plan for my two remaining marathons of the year (Snowdonia on 26 Oct, then Athens two weeks later) has suffered what weather forecasters would call “severe disruption” brought about by niggles verging on the injury, a cold and a sense of disappointment with my running: I am running much less than I had planned to (I have missed 23% of all runs of this plan, to say nothing of strength & yoga sessions), and this is reflected in most of my objective metrics, such as the fitness metric and weight, both of which are struggling to remain constant over the past two months, let alone improve…
Mentally too: I feel like I’m not up to each run I am about to do (even the short comfortable ones), and I am nowhere as focused as I should be on Snowdonia (the hardest marathon I will have attempted), which is just over two weeks away…
Then I look at what running I have been doing and a slightly different picture emerges: I’ve done all my long runs pretty much as planned, including the 3 – 3 1/2 hour hilly cross-country ones. My speedwork sessions are becoming faster and the mile-long uphill efforts on my mid-distance runs keep registering PBs on Strava.
So what’s the true? Is my training fraying at the edges? Have I peaked? have I over-trained? Or is it all going well, but I am too much of a loser to tell?
I genuinely think it’s a case of all three at once. Which brings us to the second thing I’ve learnt, namely:
2. The mind gets tired too…
I think the prolonged marathon training has tired me. Not physically (there have been too many breaks, missed workouts etc for that), but mentally. There were two workouts in August, four days apart, where I think at some subconscious level I decided I had had enough:
The first was five long (2km) intervals at too fast a pace on a hot afternoon, and the other was a progression 20 mile (32km) LR where I suffered from bad stomach cramps and had to run-walk the last third home.
And I think those two negative experiences, on the back of 8 months of marathon training and one marathon race already done, were enough to take a huge chunk of the pleasure out of training. This manifested first mentally: I felt slow, heavy and sluggish on every run (especially the short, easy ones), and the very idea of going for a run put me off. Then physically, as my body followed my mind’s cue: I got overuse niggles / injuries even though use was reducing, not increasing and I became more prone to colds, etc. My output metrics peaked, and my fitness & weight numbers remained broadly the same since.
… So keep it fresh and happy!
Not all workouts were bad though. The hardest, the 13 to 20+ milers (21 to 32+ km) cross-country long runs, up and down the tallest hills of the county (ok, it’s a flat county, but still!) went unexpectedly well! As did the speedwork sessions. Why? Because these are fun, that’s why!
Because as slow, and heavy, and sluggish as you may feel when you set off from the car park, it’s almost impossible to not enjoy cresting one hill after another and racing down some technical downhills almost as if you didn’t have 19 miles in the legs already! Or smashing one half-mile (800m) rep after another, getting faster as the session progresses and as one session follows the next!
And as slow, and heavy, and sluggish as your mind may convince your body it is, 10 months of marathon training are bound to have some impact on your aerobic base. And having complemented the high-volume base training with targeted high quality sessions in the form of speed- and hill- work (80 : 20 rule, remember?), speed is bound to follow fitness.
So yes, I have over-trained, but mentally, not physically. Which has led my training to fray at the edges, meaning I could not realise all the fitness gains I had hoped for when I created this plan, so my fitness peaked months before my second of three races.
But at the same time all is going – reasonably – well: My fitness peaked at the level it was just before my Prague PB and has stayed there since. In the mean time have adapted my training for the specifics of the next race I’m training for, so qualitatively as well as quantitatively I’m not a million miles away.
So if the first thing I learnt as I ran longer for longer was that marathons are hard (so we should enjoy them), the second is that the mind also gets tired from marathon training (so we should keep it fresh and happy): What that means for each of us will be a bit different, but some things that worked for me were:
- Get out of your way to make running fun! And by “getting out of your way”, you could do much worse that going off road and into nature…
- Give yourself memorable victories: the memory of charting a route to connect the county’s highest peaks, and running that route through trails I had never been on before has all but erased the memory of the bad LR…
- Break things up! You’ve ran your marathon, now concentrate on a 10k or a 5k! Leverage your aerobic base, train for speed and give your mind a break from the never-ending sequence of 20-mile LRs! And when eventually the sequence of Parkruns loses its gloss, think of the next longer – or just different! – challenge…
- The conversation between the mind and the body goes both ways: reward yourself physically, and you will feel the benefit mentally. A good yoga or long stretching session, a long bath, meditation, a sports massage… whatever works for you. They will refresh your mind as well as your body, and this is important because:
- if a tired mind can use a bad workout to convince the body that it is slow, the body can use a strong workout to convince a refreshed mind that it is fast. But don’t exhaust your body trying to convince a tired mind – it won’t listen.