Archive for October, 2008

Listening to the body

October 18, 2008

The aspect of running that requires greatest judgment is deciding when to persist despite tiredness or pain. The safe simple answer is never run through pain. However at least for a person approaching his mid-sixties, this apparently simple answer is not really simple. It is rare that there is no trace of discomfort in muscles or joints, and judging when to persist and when to desist is often tricky.

In accord with my plan to increase intensity a bit, this week I planned 8x400m at 8/10 of maximum effort on Thursday and 6x1Km at 4:20 per Km (estimated 5K pace) on Saturday.

Thursday’s 8x400m session went well. I ran on the somewhat overgrown grass of an abandoned sports field, and was pleased to find that I could run with a feeling of fluency. I did not wear a watch and have little idea of my pace. It felt like a 58-60 second pace used to feel in my youth, which probably means the actual pace was about 85 sec per 400m. The only niggle was a slight tension in my right calf that developed during the 7th repetition. I usually run with a forefoot landing, which is gentle on the knees but places more strain on the calf muscles. (See http://www.sportsscientists.com/2007/09/running-technique-part-ii-scientific.html for the scientific evidence). So for the eighth repetition I adopted a mid-foot landing and concentrated especially on lifting my foot from stance using hip flexors and hamstrings, while avoiding any trace of pushing off using calf muscles. The tension in the right calf caused no further trouble. I arrived home feeling satisfied that I had achieved my target and had avoided injury.

On Friday I had slight stiffness in quads and hams, but no pain in my calf. I did 3 sets of 20 body-weight calf raises standing on one leg, on right and left leg, with only a barely perceptible trace of discomfort in my right calf.

One Saturday I set out to do the 6x 1Km on the trail in Clifton Wood, as planned. The weather has continued mainly fine in the past week and the trail was fairly firm underfoot, apart from two muddy patches. A deepening layer of autumn leaves covered the ground, obscuring the tree roots, and the dappled sunlight filtering through the trees compounded the difficulty of identifying treacherous obstacles. However I love running in the woods, and despite my multiple musculo-skeletal weaknesses, I have only ever once seriously twisted an ankle – that was when carrying my young son on my back down a steep and stony hillside many years ago. I think I have fairly tough ankle ligaments as a result of lots of hill walking in younger adult life. So I decided that the delights of running though autumnal woodland justified the risk of ankle injury.

The first three repetitions went well. The times were 4:13; 4:18 and 4:14 per Km and my average heart rate recordings were 140, 143, and 142. At the halfway point on the fourth repetition, the tension in my right calf returned. As on Thursday, I adopted a mid-foot landing, but within a further 200m it was clear that the tension was increasing. What I had not taken into account in that this part of the path rises gently uphill over an irregular root-ribbed surface, and re-distributing the load onto my heel in mid-stance to alleviate tension in the Achilles tendon and calf was less easy than it had been on a level grass surface on Thursday. I slackened the pace for the remaining 300m. I was pleased that my time for the fourth Km was 4:16 and average HR was 143. However, gentle stretching of gastrocnemius and then of soleus revealed that there was a definite tear of soleus – the deeper of the two calf muscles that is mainly active when knee is flexed. Thus the features of my current style that I have developed to protect my vulnerable knees- forefoot landing on a slightly flexed knee, combined with the demands of running uphill on an irregular surface, had been my undoing. I abandoned the session and am now sitting with an ice pack over my lower calf – though unfortunately soleus is deep and less accessible to the benefits of ice. So, my plan to increase intensity has produced pleasing evidence that I can still run fairly fluently at moderate pace, but I am now nursing an injured muscle.

Increasing the intensity a little

October 12, 2008

In accord with my plan to add some moderate intensity workouts to my schedule, I set out to do 6 x 1Km intervals along a gently undulating circular 1Km path through Clifton Wood, yesterday. My goal was a notional 5K pace – since I haven’t run a 5K race for over 40 years, it had to be a guess, and I settled on 4:25/Km.

We have had very little rain this week, and the path was in fairly good condition apart from one shoe-sucking patch of bog near a fallen beech tree. At the end of the warm-up my legs still felt heavy following last week’s Hard Rock Challenge, and I really struggled to build up speed. My time for the first 1Km was 4:37 but mean heart rate was only 127 (about 80% of my maximum HR) so I was confident that once my legs were thoroughly limbered up I could step-up the pace a bit. In the second repetition, I cut the time to 4:13 and increased mean HR to 139. I covered the remaining 4 repetitions in 4:16; 4:22; 4:23; and 4:14 with mean HR 140 or 141 for each – though due to lower HR at the beginning of each repetition, the steady state HR in the second half of each repetition was around 145 which is 91 % of my maximum and almost certainly into my anaerobic zone. Overall, I felt quite pleased, and for similar sessions in the near future, I will set my nominal 5K pace at 4:20 /Km.

Today I set out to do an easy 15K along the banks of the river Trent. I didn’t wear a watch, but I would guess my pace was in the range 6:00 to 6:15 /Km It was a glorious day and when I got to Beeston, where families were sitting beside the river in the sunshine eating lunch, with Dads ambling out of the riverside pub carrying pints of beer, it seemed so idyllic that I decided not to turn for home as initially planned, but to continue a few Km further south through the Attenborough nature reserve. On the return journey my recent exertions started to catch up with me and over the final few Km my legs were once again heavy. I had to concentrate to maintain a high cadence with a rapid lift of the foot from each stance. The total distance was between 18 and 19 Km. It is wonderful to be enjoying a late Indian summer after such a miserable official summer.

Hard Rock Challenge

October 7, 2008

On the weekend, while thousands headed to Gateshead for Sunday’s Great North Run, I headed for south- west Scotland to join a smaller more rugged, or perhaps just fool-hardy, band of runners and cyclists for the Dalbeattie Hard Rock challenge, a team duathlon over 26 miles of forest terrain. I was scheduled to do the 10 mile run before handing over to my team-mate, Paul, who would do the 16 mile bike section. After the high winds and torrential rain on Saturday, Sunday dawned clear and crisp with scarcely a breath of wind: perfect weather for running.

I had decided in advance that I would avoid getting into oxygen debt on the hill climbs, and hope that I could maintain my balance well enough on the descents to make up for lost ground. The first two miles included a long steady ascent during which most the the field forged remorselessly ahead of me. However, I resisted the temptation to push too hard on this ascent, and subsequently over the gently undulating mid-section of the race, I was able to overtake at least a few of the many who had forged ahead of me.

Miles seven, eight and nine were over very rough, hilly terrain. On the descents I followed in the footsteps of a nimble footed young woman who skeetered over the tree roots and rocks like an alpine chamois. She appeared to be a local who knew the course well. I was able to maintain a pace faster than I would have dared if I were running alone. At one point as we descended at reckless speed over some tricky boulders towards a few spectators huddled in a small clearing in the gulley below, they called out ‘Come on, Catherine’ and she answered back: ‘you have only come to see me fall’, but she managed to stay on her feet and I did my best to place my feet exactly as she had done. During the 8th mile I followed close behind as she moved to the head of the string of half a dozen runners whom I had been pursuing for the past few miles.

At this stage I began to plan my strategy for breaking clear of this group. At 8 ½ miles I drew level with the young woman on a moderately steep ascent and even though I was breathing more deeply, I sensed that I was coping equally well with the climb. She was eager to take the lead again when we began the next steep descent and I happily followed close behind. Another small group of spectators shouted out encouragement, one shouting ‘Well done, lady in front’. The tone of voice implied a hint of condescension towards the male runners struggling in her wake. I thought ruefully that on terrain such as this, being elderly was probably a greater handicap than being female. In reality, it was probable that with only a few seconds separating all the runners in our little cluster after more than an hour of competitive running, we were all fairly evenly matched, and it would be mental toughness and strategy that would determine the finishing order. ( I was also aware that some might be solo competitors who would be preserving their energy for the subsequent bike stage – but I had no way of knowing whether any of the cluster were in that category. Nonetheless, I anticipated that the pace would soon quicken).

I knew from reconnoitering the last part of the course during my warm-up that the final half mile was down hill along a well-made track, so near to the 9 mile mark I decided that with the majority of the hard work done, it was now safe to push into the anaerobic zone and allow the lactate to accumulate. I broke away from the group on what proved to be the last substantial ascent of the course. The sound of footsteps behind me faded rapidly and I found myself on my own, somewhat breathless but confident I could sustain the pace to the finish line. As the view of the track opened out in the final half mile, I could see another three runners spread out between 100 and 200 yards ahead of me. There was little chance of overtaking them, but I focused on narrowing the gap as much as possible, and was within 20 yards of the hindermost at the finish. I felt I had run a well paced race. My time was 78 minutes 19 seconds, which allowing for the rough terrain, was very satisfying. My team-mate Paul covered the 16 mile cycle ride in 83 minutes and we were 12th team out of 39 in male team category.

It subsequently emerged that about half of the group with who I had done battle over the final few miles of the run, including the ‘alpine chamois’ who had led me down the steep descents, were actually solo competitors who went on to complete the subsequent 16 mile bike section. This put my ‘triumph’ in the run section into proper perspective, but nonetheless, I still feel pleased that I was able to execute a strategy that got the best out of myself. After a year dogged by ill-health I am starting to feel confident that my strength is returning. In the final months of the year I will concentrate on trying to develop some speed – I have very little idea of what is a reasonable goal to aim for. I would be really delighted if I could get my time for a mile below six minutes.