After a frustrating few years in which illnesses and an accident had frustrated my attempts to get fit, by the end of summer 2011, I was ready to make another start on the challenge of preparing for a marathon. In the mid-summer months I had been running at a gentle pace for an average of about 20Km per week without any problems, apart from the rather dismal evidence that my muscles had atrophied following the protracted arthritis that had blighted much of the preceding eighteen months. It appeared to be a good time to get started again.
Laying a new foundation
After the midpoint of the seventh decade, getting the body used to working again is not easy. The goal of running a marathon in 2012 that I had set a few years earlier, would of course have to be deferred. As I re-examined the situation at the approach of autumn 2011, it was clear that the medium term goal should be to run a half marathon in the autumn of 2012. The first step was to do a few months of general conditioning. This included two weeks of running on the mountain trails of the Sierra Nevada in southern Spain. The second step was to see if I could get at least a modest level of speed back into my legs; at least enough to run a 5K in 25 minutes. After adding some interval sessions to my program, I lined up for my inaugural run in the recently founded local parkrun at Colwick lakes, in early November. I was delighted to cross the line in 24:48 but a little rueful to acknowledge that this was a pace that I would once have regarded as a little more than a jog. In late November and December I focussed on increasing the distance of my longer runs, and was satisfied to run 21Km at an average pace a little faster than 6 min/Km before Christmas. I just had to accept that numbers that might once have been minutes per mile now measured minutes per Km.
I started the New Year with a few weeks of easy running and then in mid-January, embarked upon the first of two 18 week training blocks. The first block would be base building, consisting largely of low-aerobic running, with occasional progressive runs to avoid getting bogged down in slow plodding mode.
By the end of the 18 weeks of base-building I was running over 80 Km per week – the greatest weekly volume I had achieved for more than forty years. Again I tested myself over 21 Km and was reasonably satisfied to find that I could maintain a pace around 5:40/Km without excessive effort.
Race- specific training
Now it was time to plan the next 18 week block of specific preparation for racing a half marathon. After the vicissitudes of the previous three years, I was very uncertain in setting a target time. My dream was to break 100 minutes. The objective evidence suggested that 108 minutes was more realistic. I was still finding a pace of 5 min/Km very taxing. Nonetheless, I drew up a plan designed to get me across the line in 100 minutes in the Robin Hood Half marathon on 30th September The plan called for a total volume of around 1100 Km , including 17 long runs (15 Km or more) and 37 fairly intense runs – progressive runs, tempo runs and interval sessions. As the target time demanded sustaining a pace of around 4:44 per Km for 21.1 Km, the key sessions would be long runs in which I aimed to achieve a pace around 4:44 for the final 5 Km.
In light of the persisting lack of leg muscle strength, I also included regular brief sessions on the trampoline in the hope that this would provide a relatively gentle form of plyometrics that would help my legs adapt to eccentric loading. In addition, the program included some body weight resistance exercises but I had decided against using weights because my left wrist was still painful following the arthritis of the preceding eighteen months. Any load that applied a twisting force to my wrist was excruciating.
The plan got off to a shaky start. In the first week I felt overwhelming tiredness; my legs were sluggish and clunky. However, I was not too concerned. The weekly volume of around 80 Km/week in the final stages of base-building had been appreciably higher than the average of 64 Km per week that I planned for the next 18 weeks, so I was content to make the transition to the more intense race-specific program with a fairly easy recovery week. After a week of running easily, apart from one mildly demanding 8Km progressive run, I was a little dismayed to find that the following week my legs still felt sluggish. My heart rate variability measurements provide no evidence of generalised ‘whole-body’ stress. It was just my legs that were clunky, so I pushed on with the planned program. To reduce the effect of repeated jarring impacts on my legs I replaced some of the planned progressive runs by interval or tempo sessions on the elliptical cross-trainer. In the next few weeks I completed all the intended sessions, but I could not achieve the target paces. It was becoming increasingly apparent that the 100 minute target was unrealistic.
The hopping test and a re-evaluation
By mid-July it was clear that my legs muscles were too badly atrophied to sustain the modest speeds specified in my plan. At that stage I repeated the hopping test that I had used in the past to assess my leg strength. The test entails measuring the distance covered in 5 consecutive hops on one leg. When I had last carried out this test in February 2010, I covered 9.71m with 5 hops on the left leg, and 9.24m on the right. The shorter distance on the right was consistent with the fact that in previous years the arthritis has usually affected my right knee more than my left. In contrast the recent episode had attacked the left knee mote aggressively, so I expected the right leg now to be the stronger of the two. Indeed this prediction was confirmed, but what I hadn’t predicted was how much both legs had deteriorated. Now I could only manage 7.77m on the right and 7.45m on the left. There had been a decline of more than 20% in 30 months. It was clear that the trampolining was not enough to reverse the decline.
A change of plan was called for, but I did not want to change too radically. I cut back the intensity of the running while maintaining the number of sessions of each type, and introduced some resistance work using weights. I was delighted at this time to receive an email out of the blue from Kieren, a runner whom I knew only as the author of a blog that had been one of the major inspirations that led me to take up blogging five years ago. Kieren has suffered an injury around that time and I lost track of him after he had stopped blogging – though I had eventually discovered that in more recent times he was posting reports on the Fetch web-site about his progress using weights, especially squats, to get back into shape. He had meanwhile stumbled across my blog and emailed me with a comment about heart rate. We got into conversation about the benefits of squats for strengthening legs and core. I adapted my program in light of his advice, while taking great care to avoid any twisting forces on my vulnerable left wrist. I was delighted to find after 4 weeks, that not only was there an appreciable improvement in my speed during stride-outs at 80% maximum effort, but my left wrist was also much less painful. Apparently my stronger forearm muscles were providing more support for my wrist.
Re-focussing on running
At that stage, with less than 6 weeks remaining before the HM, it was time to put all my efforts back into running. Despite the appreciable increase in sprint speed, as soon as I increased the training volume again, my legs felt sluggish and I continued to find it difficult to achieve paces much faster than 6 min/Km during long runs or 5 min/Km in tempo runs. Nonetheless, I persevered with the sessions I had planned. A sustained effort to strengthen my legs would have to wait until after the HM.
By end of this eighteen week race-specific training block I had covered 1040 Km (about 90% of the planned total volume); 16 of the planned 17 long runs and all 37 of the moderate to high intensity progressive, tempo and interval sessions, though almost half of these were performed on the elliptical. The major shortfall had been in the paces achieved during both the long runs and the tempo sessions.
My current state
My basic aerobic fitness appears to be good. In a relaxed low aerobic run a week ago, I covered 12.5Km at an average pace of 5:49 min/Km with an average heart rate of 107 b/min – that corresponds to 629 b/Km, and suggests that my heart is pumping well and delivering an adequate supply of oxygenated blood to the muscles; and that my slow twitch fibres are fairly well endowed with mitochondria. But I simply cannot sustain paces any faster than 5 min/Km for an appreciable distance. Despite being adequately supplied with oxygen, muscles cannot generate the required force if the fibres are not strong enough. I appear to be too reliant on a sparse cohort of anaerobic type 2 fibres to achieve faster paces. The major problem is probably a lack of aerobic type 2 fibres.
I am now at the beginning of a two week taper, during which I will reduce the training volume while maintaining the number of moderately intense sessions. I hope that as the accumulated tiredness dissipates, my neuromuscular coordination will improve, and my speed will increase at least a little. I will not make any precise forecast about race time until I see how my legs respond to the taper. It is clear that 100 minutes is out of the question. On the other hand, I will be very disappointed if I cannot improve at least a little on the 108 minutes I recorded in the Keyworth Turkey Trot two years ago. But whatever I achieve in two weeks time, it is clear that after this race is over my major task for the next few months should be a serious program of resistance work to reverse the atrophy of my leg muscles.