Rebel Without A Pause

Is anyone else wondering how it’s possible that we are already approaching March? What happened to the first one-sixth of the year? Have I been hibernating? Have I been travelling at the speed of light? My main running goal for 2014, after all, was to educate myself properly about running speed workouts and to subject myself to them in all their gory glory.

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Before I blast my way through the whole year and straight into 2015, I think it’s about time that I pause for a moment and reflect upon what I have learned about speedwork so far:

  1. It’s perfectly doable. I was the first to admit that prior to this year, I was a speedwork Scrooge. I could handle some hill sprints and the odd fartlek run, but anything beyond that I deemed too complicated or painful for a free spirit such as myself. However, I found that even the toughest of intervals are absolutely doable and strangely satisfying and fun to complete. There, I’ve said it.
  2. Planning is paramount. Incorporating speedwork into my training schedule has taught me the importance of monitoring my runs and planning my workouts carefully. I find that the single most important factor to consider is my recovery time. I’m learning how much time I need to recover from the different workouts. I firmly believe that this is highly individual, but for each individual, there’s a pattern. I’m learning that there are some workouts I bounce back from, virtually ready to tackle the next on the following day if needed. Other workouts, on the other hand, leave me in need of extra recovery. By paying attention to this, I can make sure that I plan my training in a way that ensures that I’m physically in the best form to tackle a particular workout, and give myself enough rest to allow my body to adapt to the demands I’m placing upon it when this is needed the most. I’ve actually found that my training has gotten easier as as result of me learning more about my recovery times and planning my training schedules a lot more carefully.
  3. I’m feeling the paces. By running deliberately in different training zones I’m learning a lot more about what the different paces feel like. I play games on my runs now where I guess my pace before I look at my watch, and I’m getting increasingly more accurate with my guestimates. What is more, by running set distances at a target pace, I’m quickly developing a pretty accurate feel for how long I’m likely to be able to maintain a certain pace. Both are, in my opinion, really useful skills, which allow me to run very evenly paced training runs.
  4. Speed + Endurance = Stamina. I’ve always loved endurance runs and clock quite a high weekly running mileage – I just love to run and running a lot feels natural to me. That volume of running has taken me quite far (no pun intended!) and does, to a degree, translate itself into faster speeds in shorter races. However, I am find that the opposite is also true – since adding some serious speedwork to my training, I’ve noticed a big difference in my physical endurance and strength on longer runs. About two weeks ago I finished a 38km long run feeling perfectly strong and bouncy, surprised to note the curious absence of the “tired bum” syndrome I usually experience after a run of this calibre.
  5. I’m feeling it! Last but absolutely not least, I’ve learned that it’s totally worth it. Be warned, for this is the bit where I shamelessly gloat a little (ok, a lot!). This is where I tell you that I “accidentally” ran my all-time 10km PB during a training run two days ago. Yes, really. I got a little carried away (or hungry) during a tempo run and arrived back on my doorstep (to the smell of honey roasted vegetables in my oven) after 45:23 minutes. Yummy! This tells me that I’m either doing something very right with my training, or I’m doing something very wrong with my racing! Either way, I’m a happy bunny!

What do you think? How do you feel about speedwork? Have you noticed any differences as a result – besides running faster? Have I inspired you lace up your trainers and tackle some intervals? (I’m looking at you – you know who you are!)

Looking Forward… To March

March is without a doubt my favourite month of the year. It’s the month when the spring equinox marks the end of winter and the clocks change back to sanity. It’s the month when I can finally brush the dust (or snow?) off my racing flats and stretch my legs in the first few road races of the season. This year, in addition to all of this I’m excited to clock as many running miles as I can and add them to those of my fellow running bloggers in Kylabee’s Around the World Running Blog Relay. And if all of those cool things aren’t enough to ensure the awesomeness of March, it also happens to be my birthday month. You could call it the icing on the cake. Oh yes, there will be cake!

cambo snowdrops(Winter Spring is coming: snowdrops are lining one of my favourite trails)

I’ve got two big races to look forward to in March: the Inverness Half Marathon, followed by the glorious Rome Marathon.

The Inverness Half is my first road race this year, where I’ll put my winter training to the test. I have every intention of charging around Inverness with as much bestial vigour as I can muster on the day. My rampage might not result in a half-marathon PB, but it’ll give me a good idea where I’m at and what I’ve got to work with, running wise, for the rest of the glorious warmer months of the year. My target time for the Inverness Half is 1:45 – if the day is right and stars align I might aim for 1:40 instead. If, on the other hand, things start to assume the shape of a pear, I’ll be happy just to finish in under 2 hours.

Now I don’t know about you guys, but there’s a limit to my athletic prowess and I’ve got no ambition to even try and all out race a Half Marathon followed by a Marathon within a fortnight. As such, I don’t see the Rome Marathon as a race. The trip to Rome is my birthday present to myself; a little springtime vacation in the eternal city, a chance to catch some sun as the winter loses its icy grip on my home turf. I always love to run when I’m on holiday, so this particular city break will also involve a marathon length sight-seeing tour on Sunday morning. I have solemnly promised my physiotherapist that I’d run a personal worst in Rome, and might even take a camera on the run. And really, who wouldn’t want to earn a medal for completing and epic long run?

Finally, March is also the month of Kylabee’s Around the World Running Blog Relay (ATWRBR). It’s a fantastic idea, which involves a bunch of running bloggers (or blogging runners?) from all over the world to run together in spirit towards a shared goal. In order to share my contribution to this running extravaganza, I have added a page to my blog where I’ll declare all my runs, for everyone to see/marvel/point and laugh at.

If you are a running blogger, why not join us in our quest to run wild in March? It’s not too late to sign up!

Do You Ever HIIT It?

This week hasn’t exactly been a textbook training week for me. Work has been unexpectedly busy; I stayed in the office later than normal on several nights this week, did some teaching on Saturday and out of the corner of my eye I am haunted by the sight of a mini Everest of essays which are taunting me to start the climb of marking.

I love my work, I really do; but like all things in life, it can sometimes get in the way of other things. As a result, I’ve simply not been able to find the time to fit in some of my scheduled workouts this week.

On Tuesday I returned from work late and hungry and was in no state to tackle the tempo intervals which my training schedule demanded. I opted for a quick, hilly fartlek run instead and mentally postponed the intervals until Thursday, hoping I’d have more time then. Naturally, when Thursday came my workload (and associated mania) had only grown: when I stumbled into my little house on Thursday evening (out of the darkness and the pouring rain), a quick glance at my watch confirmed that provided I ate dinner straight out of the fridge and while standing up, I could spare a whopping 30 minutes for a run before having to resume my ascend of the mountain of marking. (Sadly, the latter does not pass for a hill workout!).

Thankfully, there is one running workout that I can comfortably complete in the space of half an hour, including warm-up and cool-down: the hard-hitting 10x100m sprint repeats. I really don’t like being in a situation where I genuinely can’t complete a certain workout, but I’ll be damned if I don’t go out and do what I can to come home sweaty, stinky and gasping for breath regardless.

How I feel after a sprint workout:

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Although my running efforts are very much geared towards the training for endurance events, I still see much value in a sprint workout: in addition to directly improving leg strength and running form, it also increases the odds of being able to fathom that charmed sprint finish at the end of a marathon.

While it’s hard to pick up a running magazine these days that doesn’t contain at least one reference to the supposed neigh magical qualities of the HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) session, the concept is hardly a new one; in the 1970s the great Seb Coe already ran HIIT sessions.

New is only the fact that a number of recent research studies have reported evidence that HIIT training might be superior to traditional endurance workouts in improving athletic performance – hence all the hype. However, the same research also suggests that there are individual variations in how well athletes respond to this type of training, which may have genetic underpinnings – so even the true deciples of HIIT training acknowledge that it doesn’t seem to work for everyone.

Personally, I believe in the importance of continually working on many aspects of my running fitness; including strength, endurance, stamina, balance and flexibility. For me, sprint sessions are therefore an important, even if occasional part of my training as an endurance athlete. However, just like any other workout, I believe that sprint repeats contribute to improve my running fitness primarily within the context of a well-rounded training system, rather than being a magical quick fix in and by themselves.

I’m curious: what do you make of the HIIT-hype? And to the endurance athletes amongst you, do you include such workouts in your training regimes?

Lover of the Light

“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”

– Margaret Atwood

Today, the inconceivable became possible once again. This evening was possibly more awesome than Christmas, New Year and the Winter Solstice combined.

Today there was finally enough light in the sky to allow me to squeeze a trail run in AFTER work.

I only managed to run 9km before I had to surrender to darkness once again, but I don’t care. A little staggering around in the dark has never killed anyone and more importantly, I managed to get safely back to my car without the need for any lights at all. That’s right – for the first time this year, I was able to run after work without having to resemble a renegade Christmas tree.

I can’t stop smiling. The seasons are finally turning and this is only the beginning.

Cambo Evening(As I ran, the sun set over Cambo)

Efficient Running (An Alternative)

About half way through my weekly parkrun (a series of timed 5km fun runs that are fun primarily for masochists and manic tempo runs for everyone else) I found myself in need of changing my mental approach to running so fast that it hurts.

Having learned last week that munching a chocolate bar on the start line isn’t at all conducive to fast running, I opted for a chocolate shake this time, which proved to be a superior choice. I ran better and more comfortably and still managed to have chocolate for breakfast – Bridget Jones would be so proud!

Just as I was lamenting if it was possible to turn running stitches into a full-blown hernia and whether or not I was in the process of conducting a personal case study, I was distracted by the first sight of (many) puddles of mud.

Having never been been one to shy away from a bit of dirt, the fact that this was a race – of sorts – was all the excuse I needed to give myself and those running near me a full mud bath by diving right into the middle of the swamp. Splish, splash – as the lumps of mud hit my face, I smiled in the knowledge that my skincare was taken care of for the day.

Towards the bottom of the hill the mud got so deep that I temporarily had to change my running form from mid-foot strike to front crawl. Cross training – check!

And thus I spent my run physically alternating between navigating the hills, bathing in the mud and doggy-paddling towards rare stretches of dry land in between, all while mentally rejoicing at the ever decreasing length of my to-do list.

I suppose this isn’t quite what the experts mean when they talk about efficient running, but it sure works for me!

Demonstrating my multi-tasking skills:

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23:03 minutes of tempo run, skincare, mud-bathing, breakfast, cross-training, scientific experimentation and solving the world’s problems (in my head)

Feeling Seriously Runspired!

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“There’s an overwhelming cultural mentality today that difficult tasks should be avoided; that volitional discomfort is an indication of some psychological oddity. Meanwhile, ultramarathons promise exactly the opposite; the expectation is that the race will be strenuous. Your body will get battered, your spirit will get broken, and you’ll question your sanity and emotional stability. (What’s more – you’ll pay somebody a lot of money in race fees for this to happen. If it weren’t for ultrarunning, there’d be a huge boom in masochism support groups. Clearly, we NEED this sport.) It’s no wonder most people think we’re insane.

But here’s the good part: our gain for suffering through all of this is something akin to enlightenment. We understand that our bodies and minds are capable of far more than most people ever realize – that the primary limiting factors in life’s journeys are the extent to which our minds can dream, and to which we’re willing to work to achieve them.

These truths we discover about ourselves are what keep us coming back for more. In that regard, ultrarunners are the fishermen leaving the shore: we’re fully aware that the storms might be terrible – but the rewards we harvest by venturing into the sea are always worth the hardship.”

-Donald Buraglio, The Running Life: Wisdom and Observations from a Lifetime of Running

I can’t think of a more wonderful place to run my first ultramarathon than the Scottish Highlands – what a place to be, what a life to live! Am seriously getting excited about pushing the limits, even though the race itself is still four months away. Here’s what’s in store for me, the backdrop to all the pain I’ll no doubt suffer:

Cateran trail

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I’m feeling so antsy right now that I’m seriously thinking about heading up there and start to recce the trail this weekend – despite the fact that the whole area is currently buried under several feet of snow!

Curious and Curiouser

snow-night

I don’t know what’s gotten into me lately, but whatever it is, I hope that I can get rid of it soon, because it’s very annoying. For some reason I can’t comprehend, I’ve often felt worried by the prospects of going for a run over the past few weeks. It’s pretty unlike me to fret about things in the first place, and this is just silly, because I absolutely love my runs. The “normal” me can’t wait to lace up her trainers.

I really don’t know what’s behind this, but when I glance at my training schedule I often find myself thinking: “Oh gosh, that’s going to be hard.” Or worse: “I wonder if I can complete this at all.” Unfortunately, these thoughts have sometimes made it harder to put on my running shoes and taking that first step out of the front door had, at times, be accompanied by a defty dose of mental-kicking-of-my-own-bottom.

I could understand these sentiments if my running wasn’t going well, if I was burned out or unwell or just generally struggling with my energy levels. However, nothing could be further from the truth; once I’m on the run, all the worries melt away instantly. My runs have been fantastic lately, and I’ve felt full or energy and ready to enjoy my freedom in the world. Moreover, all my specific workouts have also gone wonderfully well and according to plan – the whole lot of them have been nothing but pleasantly challenging and I finished them with a big smile on my face.

So what is going on? Why do I, in between my runs, seem to forget that I genuinely relish every single one of these runs?

Has anyone else ever felt this way? I’d love to know what’s behind this slump in motivation between my runs, so I can kick it out the front door instead of having to drag myself out through it day in, day out. I wonder if it’s just old man winter clouding over my enthusiasm, as I’ve come to a point where I really can’t wait for spring to make an appearance; not just to brighten up my runs, but my days in general…

Having said that about winter, I should also mention that I have just returned from a wicked trail run in the snow. The conditions were terrible by anyone’s standard – which meant that the run was awesome, of course!

At least I’m still moving forward (and loving it!).

On the Long Run

Oh, Sunday morning – in my world, that means one thing: long run! And what a glorious day it was today; in the midst of the cold, grey Scottish winter the sun managed to melt away the clouds for the morning and even the wind was howling with less vigour that before.

Today, I ran out of my front door and along the Fife Coastal Path for 20 miles. I absolutely loved the feeling of going on a running journey – while circular runs are very convenient, it’s always a bit frustrating to run for three or four hours only to finish where I’ve started. The only downside to the point-to-point run was that I had to catch a bus back home, but it wasn’t all bad – while waiting for the bus, I had time to grab a massive sandwich and a Chai Tea Latte – heaven! The ground conditions on the coastal path were ever changing and ranged from harbour roads and crossing flat, bouncy grass tracks to staggering through deep sand and unrunnable scrambles over slippery rocks on the shore. I took each hurdle as it came and stayed happy and relaxed the whole way, as evidenced by the fact that I kept stopping to take photographs:

Heading to the trail:

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Is it just me, or is this just asking to be run?

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I passed several pretty fishing villages:

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Stopped to admire the views:

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This came out of nowhere – I suspect  that I took a wrong turn somewhere and ran into a fairytale…

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Passing some interesting rock formations on the route:

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This is where the going got tougher, but the end (St. Andrews) was in sight:

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After 32 kilometres the sun was still shining on me:

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When training for a marathon, my long runs involve running up to 35 km (or 22 miles) at a reasonably steady pace. In those runs, the goal is to keep moving forward, to dial into a pace and stick to it for the next 3 hours or so.

However, in preparation for the 88km ultramarathon in June, I’m aware that I’ll have to make some significant changes to my approach to running for a really long time. For a start, my long runs will have to get a lot longer; I’m hoping to clock several long runs of 6 hours and in excess of 50 kilometres before then. Right in this moment, even writing about those kind of distances makes me feel a little queasy! I’m sure that training my body to endure what I’m planning on inflicting upon it will be the relatively doable part – it’s the taming of the craziness that is my mind which leaves me feeling a little twitchy!

I’ll also have to take my long runs onto the trails a lot more often before the ultra. At the moment, I like to alternate my long runs between the roads and flat-ish trails and footpaths, which I find is a good combination to prepare me for a road marathon.

Finally, I’ll have to slow things down a lot. At the very least, there will be several pit stops on race day. Although the plan is to run the whole 88km, the reality is that there will of course be stretches that I’ll walk: necessitated, for instance, by particularly steep climbs, eating dinner on the go, giving sore muscles a stretch or break, or even the temporary surrender to fatigue. The idea of walking on long runs is new to me, and while I won’t have to practice the walking itself (duh!), I need to get used to the transition back to running as soon as possible. And I have no doubt that this will get increasingly harder with every passing mile!

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What have you been up to this weekend? Did anyone else get to enjoy the surprisingly fantastic weather?

Resting… the Hardest Part of Running?

I’m beginning to realise that endorphins are my drug of choice – and right now, I’m in a state of rest-day induced withdrawal.

Most runners are painfully familiar with the joys of the taper in all its terribly glory; including the bloated feelings of laziness, the perpetual suppression of running-related stimuli, the carb-obsession and the everlasting state of severe grumpypansieness. And do I even dare touch upon the precarious mental state of the injured runner here? For fear of my life, I think I won’t. The point is that both of these runners are suffering from running-withdrawal, and it ain’t pretty.

As a runner taking a few rest days, my mental state is differentiated from that of the tapering runner and the injured runner mostly by superior levels of masochistic tendencies, as my plight is truly self-inflicted.

Yet the urge to run is strong in this one. Things are so bad that I’ve actually caught myself daydreaming about a treadmill earlier…

Accidental Run

After all, what’s a runner who isn’t running? The obvious answer would be that a non-running runner isn’t really a runner at all. However, my rational mind tells me that there are plenty of scenarios where a runner who isn’t running can also be a pretty smart runner.

The truth is that I fully understand the importance and value of rest days. I’ve trained hard for five weeks now, with three to four workouts a week topped off with at least two easy runs. It’s high time I take a little break; both my body and mind will thank me for it and come back to training stronger than before (even if the latter is currently staging a dirty riot).

“I’m doing the right thing… I’m doing the right thing.” Repeat after me: “I’m doing the right thing.”

Running Crazy

The Good, the Bad and the Downright Funny

It never ceases to amaze (not to mention entertain) me that some runs are rotten while others turn out to be brilliant for no apparent reason. This week I’ve had my fair share of both types of runs and you know what? I wouldn’t change it for the world.

If nothing else, this week has taught me that running, just like life, is full of ups and downs. If it’s good, it’s wonderful and if it’s bad, it’s experience!

On Tuesday, I took my scheduled 90 minutes easy run to the fells. I always find it hard to run for over an hour in the evening after work, as I usually spend the majority of this time fantasising about dinner. I had hoped that beautiful scenery would offer some distraction, and was not disappointed:

NormansLaw

Wednesday saw the worst run of the year for me so far. I know we’re only just at the start of February and I fully expect worse to come; however, this doesn’t change the fact that my so called speed intervals were a calamity. It was a proper British wintery day; grey, rainy, cold, miserable and very, very windy. My legs were feeling the fell run of the previous day and were refusing to shift through the gears. To make matters worse, I had forgotten my gloves, which not only left me feeling even more cold and miserable, but also rendered my fingers useless to operate my sportswatch. Also, in case anyone is wondering, I can confirm that dropping both keys and phone into a puddle isn’t at all conducive to running an interval session.

I admit that at first I felt quite deflated after finishing the session, but that feeling didn’t last. Once I was sat down at home (in warm, dry clothes and sipping on a steaming cup of peppermint tea) I had a chance to review the random jumble of gibberish that my watch had recorded on the run; a testimony to my frantic attempts to operate the stopwatch with frozen fingers in the middle of an icy storm. I laughed at the special kind of idiot (aka me) it took to go out and try to run an interval session in those conditions in the first place… but intervals I did run, six times 1.5km (more or less). Who cares how fast or slow they were? I was running straight into the middle of a northern winter storm; and if that isn’t a good workout, I don’t know what is!

Friday morning saw me find my early morning running mojo on a pre-work run along the coastal paths. I didn’t expect to be capable of much power at such an unearthly hour, but once I was warmed up I was positively bouncing. Perhaps the rest day had worked it’s magic, or perhaps the stars were aligned for me. I don’t mind either way; the run was beautiful.

On Saturday morning I managed yet another early start and thanks to utilising the time otherwise reserved for breakfast, I was able to take part in my local parkrun. In a spontaneous act of lunacy, I inhaled a chocolate bar while standing on the start line, hoping that it would give me energy. Instead, it gave me stitches about half way around the five kilometre course. This seriously dampened my engine and I resigned myself to simply making it to the finish line. You can imagine my surprise when I crossed the finish line and realised that I had just taken a few seconds off my pervious parkrun record. I only hope that this won’t encourage me to repeat my narcoleptic nutrition strategy at future races.

Sunday is the day of the long run, and although today’s run wasn’t all that long by my standards, it got progressively faster in pace. Just for added entertainment value, every single one of the 22km of the run was complicated by a rather mischievous west wind. Every outdoor runner in Scotland is familiar with the sensation of running as hard as they can, but not moving forward at all, thanks to the wind. This made for a frustrating and very slow first five kilometres of my run. Then I changed direction, at which point the wind also changed its strategy of interference, in that it was now actively trying to kill me. Rather than just stopping me from going forward, it was now picking me up mid-stride and randomly dropping me at a point that was previously somewhere to my right. Twice I took off in a straight stride along the sidewalk and landed in the middle of the road (and thereby in traffic) instead. Clearly, this was yet another problem that could only be solved by eating more chocolate (it soothes my nerves, gives me energy to lean into the wind and it makes me fat, thereby complicating the wind’s endeavours to transport me elsewhere, I reasoned). Despite the turbulence, I ran the last five kilometres of the run at a solid half-marathon pace, hence finishing my running week with a metaphorical rude gesture at the west wind.

If there’s a moral to be found in all of this, then let it be that some creativity and a sense of humour help in almost all running situations. Failing that, I personally recommend chocolate.