As outlined in my recent post, I have been able to train consistently, and largely according to plan, for over a year. I have done virtually all the planned key sessions in preparation for the Robin Hood half marathon on 30th September – the main problem is that my pace has been well below the target which I set in April.
The target was optimistic. My 5Km performance a year ago indicated that my target HM pace should be around 115 minutes but I was sure I could do quite a lot better. 108 to 110 minutes might have been a sensible guess. However, I decided to go with my dream and planned a training schedule aiming for 100 minutes. The chance of achieving this wild dream depended on how well my aging legs could cope. My muscles had atrophied not only with age but also as a result of a protracted bout of arthritis early in 2010. During the Keyworth Turkey Trot HM in December of that year, my legs had let me down. In the subsequent months I had to abandon my attempted program of plyometrics because of an exacerbation the arthritic pain. However when I planned my preparation for this years’ Robin Hood HM I included a program of trampolining that I hoped would strengthen my legs sufficiently. As described in the recent post, the trampolining was not enough. My brief experimentation with lifting free weights in early August has given me reason to expect that a systematic program of lifting weights after the HM is the best medium term plan. But for now I have a little less than two weeks of tapering to make the best of my current situation.
In fact the two weeks taper period is perhaps the most important two weeks of a HM program. Done correctly, it can potentially produce improvements of 4 or 5 minutes. This is mainly due to a recovery of the strength and coordination that has been impaired by the rigours of training. The general principles of what must be done are fairly well established: decrease training volume rapidly in the first week and more gradually in the second week; maintain intensity while decreasing volume; aim to polish the required neuromuscular coordination by short repetitions at race pace; get enough sleep and eat healthily.
These principles have largely been established in studies of younger runners. It is reasonable to expect that they also apply to older runners, but the details of how they are to best applied have to be worked out taking account of one’s own strengths and weaknesses. My major weakness is manifest in my clunky, aching legs. My potential strength is my aerobic capacity and my fairly economical running style. So this week the priority is balancing the need for recovery with the creation of the sharpness that comes from running at race pace or a bit faster, while avoiding injury. Every step that I run this week must have a clear purpose directed towards these goals. Almost every step I run will be either: warm-up, moderate tempo at around HM pace; striding-out for distances of 50-100 m at around 75-80 % maximum effort with floating between the stride-outs; or cool down. This week and next I will not run a single step for the sake of achieving either distance or total accumulated volume.
But there is one other thing I will do. After 36 weeks of fairly consistent running at slow or moderate speeds, there are dormant muscle fibres that need re-awakening and fine-tuning. So my plan includes a weekly session of Pete Magill’s drills for older runners. These are mainly playful skipping and similar movements that engage the various muscles required for fluent running. There are 10 drills but it is not necessary to do all 10. Six require relatively simple movements starting with school yard skipping, moving on to high skipping, marching, foot shuffling, butt kicks and high knees. The seventh in order of difficulty is ‘skip and kick’, which requires moderate hamstring flexibility, but I can do it reasonably well. Three of the exercises are quite demanding: long skipping in which the length of the hops is taxing; bounding which produces a hefty eccentric load on impact with the ground; and carioca, which involves exuberant hip swinging. In the video, carioca is demonstrated by Pete’s youthful, lithe and glamorous partner, Grace Padilla. In the interest of minimizing risk of injury I decided to omit long skipping, bounding and carioca during this pre-race period.
After a rest day yesterday, today I did the first of the two drill sessions planned for this taper. One crucial aspect of the drill session is interleaving the drills themselves with stride-outs to encourage incorporation of the recruitment of the muscle fibres awoken by the drill within a fluent running action. So, after a 16 minute warm up that included 4 stride-outs, I did each of the seven selected drills, following each with a 50m stride-out. After the completion of the drills and stride-outs, I then did 15 minutes of running at a relaxed but steady pace, not far below my intended HM effort, finishing with an easy cool down and gentle stretching of calf, hams and quad muscles.
It was a very satisfying session. My legs are still a little clunky, but during the 15 minutes of steady paced running at the end, I could start to imagine myself running fluently again. I feel that the taper has got off to a good, though perhaps unconventional start.