Speed ≠ Everything

“How can you tell if someone has run a marathon? – Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”

It’s so true, isn’t it? Over the past month or so, whether they wanted to or not, my friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, the mailman, my dentist, etc. have all been subjected to the details of my marathon escapades in Rome. Their responses predictably fell into one of two categories. The non-runners tried to make polite conversation by asking how long this marathon was, all while backing away slowly, of course. That one just never gets old, does it?

The runners’ response was somewhat more inviting, albeit just as predictable: “Cool. What was your time?” This prompted me to launch into a well-rehearsed monologue of explanations as to why I had decided take it easy in Rome, before – much like a catholic schoolgirl on Sunday mornings – all but confessing my finishing time of 3:48.

I know I can run faster than that. My running buddies, of course, are well aware of this, too. However, the point is that in Rome I made a conscious decision not to run all out, mostly because the race didn’t fit into my training and racing schedule at all. I still loved every second of it, and it actually taught me a lot about finishing a marathon feeling strong. The whole thing has made me think – are we, as runners, too hung up on speed sometimes? What’s that all about?

Friends who take up running often tell me how far they have run and how long it took them. Of course, quantifiable improvements in running performance are very nice, but why don’t they tell me how they felt, how much (or little) fun they had, or where they went or what they saw on the run?

Please don’t get me wrong, I too find it really fun to run really fast sometimes. I like it as much as the next person and like many other runners, I include workouts in my training which are specifically designed to improve my speed. However, this is certainly not my only goal in training, or running in general. It’s not even the most important one, not by a long shot.

Many runs (and sometimes even races) have a very different purpose. A prime example of this is the long run, of course. Not only is speed not important on these runs, it can actually be counter-productive in training. Yet, being hung up about pace on the long run and going too fast has got to be one of the most common rookie running mistakes that I see time and time again.

My easy runs and recovery runs are for the pure joy and relaxation of the sport. I must say that over time, these runs have become more important than ever to me. Some call them “junk miles”, but I couldn’t disagree more. On these runs I just relax and enjoy the scenery and my hard-earned fitness. Having fun on these runs is paramount to everything, and they are so important to keep the passion alive. I never really remember how fast I ran anything, and apart from a few meaningful personal bests, I don’t even recall the finishing times of the races I have done. I do, however, remember the places where I have run, the sights I have seen and the people that I have met.

auchintaple-loch(Auchintaple Loch: a place which I passed – slowly! – on a recent long run.)

As a long-time (and hopefully life-long) runner, I find that this constant focus on speed is just not sustainable. It’s not feasible to constantly hunt those personal bests, for my part, I’m certain that I’d get very, very frustrated before eventually burning out entirely. This is not to say that I don’t have goals in my running or racing, when I’m not focussing on speed and finishing times, I might work on my running form, make a conscious effort to improve my cadence, aim for a clean negative split, try to high-five at least 5 spectators per kilometre, or tweak my nutritional strategy in an effort to avoid those dreaded pit-stops (the seldom talked about arch nemesis of virtually every runner).

Running is so much more to me than simply moving fast. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’d almost depreciate what running means to me in my life if I were to quantify it only in numbers. When a fellow runner comes to tell me about a recent run or race, I’m making a point to ask them: “Awesome – how was it?” They might still only tell me about their speed and times, but at least I am keeping the doors wide open.

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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.

joyofrunning

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!)

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:

run hard

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?

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.

Finding Speed

“If you want to be a successful runner, you have to consider everything. It’s no good just thinking about endurance and not to develop fine speed.”

–          Arthur Lydiard

Sometimes, when I’m apprehensive about doing something, I find that I have engaged my worryingly extensive repertoire of avoidant coping skills long before I can ask myself why I don’t want to get down to business in the first place. In those cases, I often realise that my trepidation is not so much due to a lack of will or determination, but more down to a lack of the required knowledge and confidence to believe that I am actually capable of what must be done.

I’m beginning to suspect that this might also be the reason why I’ve kept telling myself that I dislike speedwork in my running training for the best part of 10 years.

In the past, my speedwork boiled down to simply heading out the door and running a bit faster than normal, regardless of whether my training plan called for a 5km Tempo Run or 10x1km Cruise Intervals with 200m jog recovery. I put my moderately fast speed in races down to the fact that I tend to clock some crazy miles when I’m actually in training (Arthur Lydiard would be so proud!). But recently, my approach has changed gears drastically, no pun intended (ok, maybe a little). After reading some good books by various Olympic level trainers, I am now happily blasting my way through a plethora of speed workouts. I’m finding that these sessions are not only surprisingly doable, but they are also shockingly good fun! And who knows, if they do what it says on the tin, 2014 might just turn out to be my fastest year yet.

I suspect that I might not be the only numpty to be confused by all the different speed workouts. Therefore, I thought that perhaps a quick summary might inspire other speed-averse runners pick up the pace a little here and there. If, however, the thought of running faster makes you yawn, I suggest that you stop reading here, as this post is about to get a little technical.

Before I’ll do my best to describe the how and why for each of the speed workouts I’ve been tackling so far, as part of my own current half-marathon training.  To put this into context, I run five times a week for a total of around 60-70km, made up of one long run, two easy runs and two workouts from the list below – never on consecutive days or immediate before or after the long run. All of the workouts below require a warm-up; 2-5km of easy running, followed by some form drills and 2-3 strides (which means progressive acceleration over 100m or so until flat out speed is reached).

Steady State Run:

How? This is a continuous, medium paced run, which is somewhat slower and longer than the more widely known tempo run, but still faster than an easy run. This means that the pace for a steady state run is about 10-15 seconds per kilometre slower than my 10km race pace. During my half-marathon training, a steady state run would be around 12km.

Why? This is a great run for developing a solid base fitness – not quite as taxing as a tempo run, but it still teaches the runner to push the pace a little over a considerable distance.

Tempo Run:

How? This is the famous moderate-paced continuous run, which is run at about a 10km race pace. It’s therefore faster than the Steady State Run. During my half-marathon training, a tempo run would be between 5 and 10 km, getting longer as the training progresses.

Why? Apart from training the runner to maintain a taxing pace for a long time (the sensation of a tempo run has sometimes been described as “controlled discomfort”), a tempo run also improves the runner’s lactate threshold, meaning that one can run faster for longer as a result. This is one of the staple workouts of all endurance runners.

Tempo Intervals:

How? Tempo Intervals are moderate paced repetitions with short recovery intervals. The intervals are slightly faster than tempo runs, or a 10km race pace. During half-marathon training, a tempo interval session would involve 4-5 reps or 2km with a 400m jog recovery in between.

Why? Tempo Intervals essentially train the runner to be able to push the pace on tempo runs. They are somewhat faster, and therefore include a short recovery jog in-between repetitions.

Cruise Intervals:

How? Cruise Intervals are the fastest of the stamina-building workouts – the repetitions are faster, but shorter than those of a tempo interval, and the recovery jogs are also very short. A Cruise Interval session during my half marathon training would involve 8-10 repetitions of 1km ran at roughly my 5km race pace with 200m jog recovery in between. It’s easy to run these too fast though, so it’s important to be careful to get the pace right.

Why? Again, they boost stamina and teach the runner to run faster. The short recoveries mean that the repetitions get harder over time. It’s also a great workout to learn to pay attention to good pacing for races, as cruise intervals are quite fast, but not so fast that the pace can’t be maintained for all repetitions.

Progression Run:

How? A progression run starts easy, but finishes fast. A typical progression run during my half marathon training would be about 10km in length, of which the first 8km are ran easy and the last two are ran much faster. Similarly, I also do progression long runs: running 22-25km, with the last 3-5km at target race pace.

Why? These are tough runs, but they teach the runner to work a bit harder on already tired legs, a skill which is invaluable during races.

Fartlek Run:

How? Funny name = fun run! I suspect that everyone knows by now that fartlek is Swedish for “speed play”, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still have a giggle or two at the mention of the name, right? It really is just playing with speed: keep running but mix things up in terms of pace. Run fast to the next tree, then even faster to the bench, then jog until you can breathe again, then target the lantern… you get the idea. The only rule is to not settle into any particular pace for long. As part of my half-marathon training, a fartlek run would last between 30 and 60 minutes.

Why? Fartlek runs train the runner to tolerate pace changes and to push the pace whenever needed. They are also great fun!

Hill Repeats:

How? There are various variations of this workout, including different length hills and whether or not the descent is run fast (in which case it’s a continuous run), or used as a jog recovery (in which case it’s an interval run). For intervals, it’s best to find a steep hill that takes about 45-60 seconds to run up. Then sprint up the hill 10 times, with each ascend followed by a descend at a slow recovery jog pace.

Why? It’s often said that hill runs are speedwork in disguise. Apart from training our muscles to cope with the demands placed upon them by running up and down steep hills (duh!), hill reps are also a great leg strength workout and will make subsequent runs on the flat seem a lot easier.

Sprints:

How? This is by far the fastest running I ever do and the only time I try to run truly flat-out. I usually do 10x100m sprints with about a 1 min recovery jog in between, which is enough to leave my legs burning.

Why? These are basically a strength workout for the legs. Sprinting also trains the body to better remove lactic acid from the muscles and help develop a strong running form. Therefore, even though I never race a distance shorter than 5km, this is still a very useful workout for an endurance runner.

 Happy, speedy running everyone!

Speed