Archive for January, 2010

Cautious optimism

January 30, 2010

The episode of arthritis that started with pain in my neck two weeks ago and spread to involve my left knee a week ago, is now responding well to treatment with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.  At present flexing my knee beyond 90 degrees it is still a little painful.  However, on account of the substantial improvement, today I went for an easy 5Km run in the low aerobic zone.  During the run I was not aware of any substantial pain and 6 hours later there is no sign of significant discomfort.  So I think the worst of the episode of arthritis is now behind me though I need to avoid over-doing things for at least one more week.

This is the week in which I had intended to do the tests to evaluate the outcome of the first 12 week training block within my proposed three year program to get fit enough to run a good marathon in 2012.  Unfortunately it would probably have been both harmful and uninformative to have attempted either a maximum effort sprint or a longish run to test aerobic capacity this week.  However I did do the planned one leg hopping test on my right leg – but not on the left leg as due to the continuing problem when I flex the left knee beyond 90 degrees.  By next week, the inevitable mild loss of fitness due to the two week cutback in training will confound any attempt assess the outcome of the training block, so I have assembled recordings of best achievements over the past two weeks to provide an estimate of my attainment.  Here is the table showing my estimates of performance at baseline, mid-block and near the end of the block:

Tests of performance during the first training block: Nov 2009 - Jan 2010

Strength

There was a substantial improvement in leg strength, mainly achieved in the first six weeks with only a marginal further increase in the second six weeks.  During the second half of the block I made only small increase in intensity of training by adding a small amount of fairly low intensity plyometrics.  Further improvement will require a substantial increase in the intensity – either increased resistance or increased intensity of plyometrics.

There has been a major improvement  in upper body strength though this is coincidental to my main goals.  Nonetheless, I have almost achieved my minor goal of regaining the ability to do 10 consecutive pull-ups, as I could years ago.

 Sprinting

With regard to sprinting, I have extended the list of outcome measures to include maximum stride length   Sprinting speed itself is not really my main objective. At baseline and at the mid-block test I had demonstrated a sprinting speed that might be regarded as reasonable for an aging marathon runner, but at that stage I could only achieve maximum speed by increasing cadence to greater than 230 steps per minute, which almost certainly reflects an inefficient balance between cadence and stride length.  Therefore, in the second half of the block I made minor modifications of foot dynamics in an attempt to improve my stride length.  I did succeed in lengthening my stride almost to 2 metres, at a cadence of 193 steps per min.  On account of the reduced cadence, the increase in speed was only a marginal.  Nonetheless, if I can get my cadence back up to 200 steps per min while maintaining a stride length around 2 metres, I will be very pleased.  So in conclusion I think it is probable that I am now sprinting somewhat more efficiently, but I still need to increase my leg strength and power a little more to allow me to get my cadence back to 200 steps per minute. 

Aerobic fitness

My aerobic fitness has improved moderately despite the low volume of running .  Heart beats per km when running in the aerobic zone have decreased from 668 to 638.  In fact my lowest recording over 2Km was actually 624 b/Km, but that was not within one of the tests.  Although the improvement is not much greater than the expected margin of error due to random variability, I have been feeling stronger during the 15Km runs, so I suspect the figures reflect a real improvement.   It was probably the inclusion of two moderate intensity elliptical sessions in addition to one longish aerobic run each week that led to the modest improvement.  My goal for this year is to get beats/Km during aerobic running down to 600 beats/Km.  That goal appears within reach

Adverse developments

The one serious adverse development was the episode of arthritis.  This was probably coincidental rather than being a consequence of the training, especially as the first signs were in the neck.  It is perhaps possible that overall stress level played a role, but there is little evidence to support this hypothesis, especially as I was careful to moderate the intensity of the session whenever I experienced increasing tiredness or evidence of increased heart rate at a given work-load.  The reduced frequency of episodes of arthritis in the past few years suggests that training actually diminishes the risk.

Conclusion

So overall, it has been a successful first block, but assessment was somewhat confounded in the final week by the recurrence of arthritis.   The arthritis has demonstrated that I will need to build some flexibility into my three year program, but it provides no reason to adjust my long term goal.

The future

In the next block, the primary target will be an increase in aerobic capacity and the major feature of the program will be an increase in the volume of aerobic running.  However increasing leg strength will still be on the agenda.  I will increase the intensity of the plyometrics and add some down hill running.

The only thing harder than training hard is not training at all

January 24, 2010

Today is the final day of the first twelve week block in my proposed thee year campaign to get fit enough to run a good marathon.  I had planned a total of 90 specific sessions over the 12 weeks: a mixture of running; elliptical cross training; resistance sessions and a weekly yoga session.  Over half of these sessions were intended to be quite demanding.  Early in the program I adjusted the target intensity of the elliptical sessions on account of accumulating tiredness, and on two subsequent occasions I opted for a shorter elliptical session because my heart rate suggested I was becoming over-stressed, but despite these minor adjustments, I have done 89 of the planned sessions.  In addition I did a few extra low-aerobic runs over Christmas, so overall, I have exceeded my target.  Today was to be the final session – a hill session.  I was looking forward to achieving 100% completion rate for the specific sessions.

However, another issue has intervened.  For the past 50 years, I have suffered intermittent mild attacks of inflammatory arthritis. The joints that have been most prone to these attacks are my right knee, my neck and the base of my left thumb.  The most irksome manifestation of disability has been several prolonged periods when I could not operate the release button on a car hand-brake on account of a sore thumb; the most dangerous has been a restricted ability to look over my shoulder when cycling due to a painful neck; though the most worrying issue has been evidence of some permanent damage to my right knee.  However, for the most part, I have escaped lightly, and in fact have had less trouble from the arthritis since recommencing running than during the previous decade.

Two weeks ago I was aware of increasing pain in my neck when turning my head, and a week ago there were some twinges in my left knee.  The twinges were slight and I decided to proceed cautiously with the planned training, with only a slight modification.  During the past 12 weeks, I have been working my right leg a little harder in the leg strengthening resistance sessions to compensate for the fact that my right leg is relatively weaker as a result of past episodes of arthritis.  So this week, it seems a good time to devote the leg strengthening session almost  entirely to the right leg    However, despite giving my left leg an easy week, this morning, my left knee was quite painful when flexed.  So a hill session would be a bad thing to do.

It is easy to see that the sensible thing is to abandon the final session.  In the long run, missing one hill session will make no appreciable difference to my ability to run a marathon in three years time.  However, producing permanent damage to my left knee might well do so.  So rationally, the decision is very easy.  But in fact I am finding it quite hard to overcome my disappointment.  I suspect the underlying reason for my acute disappointment is a lingering doubt about whether my musculo-skeletal system is really strong enough to allow me to achieve my goal.  To be forced to make even a small compromise in my first training block feels like the new building is beginning to crumble even before the first layer of the foundation is in place.

However, there is a different way of framing the issue.  There is no point denying that my 63 year old musculo-skeletal system has accumulated some weak links.  In fact, ever since infancy, I have had problems with my feet, and in my younger marathon running days, I learned how to adjust to deal with these problems.  Simply trying to pretend that the weak links do not exist is simply burying my head in the sand.  On the other hand, if I am going to achieve my goals there will be times when I will need to push myself a little harder than my creaking body wants to go. Simply stopping whenever I feel a twinge in a joint or muscle is unlikely to get me to my goal   So one of the biggest challenges for the next three years is going to be acquiring the judgment to know when a twinge is really a signal to stop.  Today is definitely a day on which to stop.

Running with foxes

January 10, 2010

I have now completed 10 weeks of the first 12 week training block in my three year campaign to prepare myself for a marathon in the autumn of 2012.  It is too early for a quantitative evaluation of this first block, but nonetheless, it is possible to begin to formulate some initial impressions and to begin to explore the question of what modifications I will make to my plans in the next training block. 

The specific goal of the first block has been to increase my leg muscle strength and power in order to recover some of the stride length that I have lost with the passing years.  At present, when I sprint my cadence rises to around 245 steps per minute but my stride length scarcely exceeds 1.5m.  This certainly reflects a loss of leg strength with age, and is almost certainly inefficient.  In addition to the goal of increasing strength and power, increasing my aerobic fitness is a background goal that will be on the agenda for the entire three year campaign.

I have been following a program that includes specific leg strengthening sessions, mainly using body-weight resistance exercises; sprinting and uphill strides; together with a weekly longish run in the low aerobic zone and two tempo sessions on the elliptical cross trainer.  I had described the program in slightly greater detail in my posting on 13th December.

The first question in assessing progress is how closely I have followed the intended program. I had set myself the target of completing at least 90% of the specified sessions.  In fact I have achieved 100% of the specified sessions, so far, and in addition, have managed to do a few extra low or mid-aerobic running sessions.   However, despite doing slightly more sessions than intended, I have been near the limit of what my body is currently fit enough to handle. 

Approximately 50% of the sessions are quite demanding, and on several occasions I had to decrease the intensity of sessions to limit the accumulation of fatigue.  The first occasion was near the end of the first month, when increasing tiredness led me to make a 10% reduction in target power-output during the elliptical sessions.  After this small reduction in intensity, I coped well for the second month.  Then, over the Christmas period, I added a few additional running sessions, and subsequently, at the beginning of the current week, my legs felt very heavy.

Ice and snow

The icy conditions of the past two weeks have also contributed to the challenge.  A high pressure zone located over central Europe has deflected the westerly breezes that normally bring us moisture and warmth from the Atlantic at this time of the year.  Instead a chilly north-easterly sub-arctic air-stream has delivered the iciest few weeks that Britain has experienced for several decades.  In the east midlands we have has less snow than other parts of Britain, but nonetheless, intermittent desultory snow falls have left the ground with a thin and somewhat treacherous coating of ice.  When running, the first challenge has been to remain upright.  High cadence and short time on stance have been essential.

On Tuesday evening when I arrived home from work, it was snowing properly; large soft flakes were covering everything with a beguiling white blanket.  It was too good an opportunity to miss so I slipped on my trainers and headed out for a run.  Although it was already about 4 hours since the sun had set, the snow was reflecting every iota of residual light, so I headed for the riverside path below the escarpment.  No signs of human habitation were ether visible or audible, but I suspect that it was reflected light from the village beyond the escarpment that filtered through the trees to light my way.  There were fresh fox tracks on the path, and after about 800m I caught up with the fox.  We looked at each other quizzically for a few moments.  Despite the low light level, he looked splendid with his russet fur contrasted against the white snow.  Then he trotted off through the trees and I continued on my way.   I returned home feeling mentally refreshed but aware that my legs were very tired after the increased training volume in the previous week.

By midweek, my heart rate was 3-8 bpm higher for a particular workload on the elliptical cross trainer, indicating that I was becoming over-stressed.  Rather than decrease the intensity of sessions on this occasion, I shortened the sessions by about 25%.   On Saturday (yesterday) my energy level was back to normal when I set out for my weekly sprinting session, at the end of an easy 10Km low-aerobic run.  Unfortunately, on account of the depth of snow cover, my pace could scarcely be called sprinting.  My peak pace was only 3:10 min/Km (compared with my more usual 2:40 min/Km in recent weeks).  Indeed 3:10 min/Km is similar to my 10K pace of 40 years ago.  My cadence was 240 steps per minute, indicating that my stride length was only 1.3 m. Almost certainly the deep snow was holding me too long on stance. It was a session more likely to develop leg strength than good neuromuscular coordination.  Nonetheless I felt invigorated.     

Today I did 4x200m uphill strides and then an easy 15 Km run.  Again the conditions underfoot slowed me, but the air temperature continued to be invigorating.  When I turned directly into the chilly northeasterly breeze after about 8Km, I could feel the sweat on my brow begin to freeze; the wind-driven snow was nipping my exposed wrists and my fingers went numb inside my gloves. It was a relief to turn back southwards with the wind behind me for the final few Km.   I have been taking heart beats per Km during aerobic runs as an index of aerobic fitness, and have typically been recording around 640 b/Km in recent weeks, but today the recording was 720 b/Km. I suspect that was mainly due to diversion of blood to my innards to keep my core temperature up.  Although my pace was slow, I actually felt quite strong.

So, in the past few weeks, the snow and ice have prevented any meaningful quantitative assessment of my fitness, but I am pleased that I am feeling stronger.  Although running in the snow has provided some enchanting moments, I hope it has cleared in two weeks time when I am scheduled to repeat the various tests of leg strength and aerobic fitness to evaluate the outcome of this 12 week training block.

Leg strength and power

Despite the moderate evidence of gains in leg strength revealed by the mid-block tests reported on 13th December, the continuing shortness of my stride leads me to anticipate that I will have to devote further sessions to increasing my leg strength and power.   Following the mid-block tests I had decided to persist with the body-weight resistance exercises and to introduce a small amount of low intensity plyometrics into the weekly schedule.  I have done this, but do not expect to see much evidence of gain from the low intensity exercises done so far. I am regarding this as preparation for the next phase.  At this stage I anticipate that building leg strength will continue to be a major focus of the next three month block. 

My provisional plan will be to continue with twice weekly resistance sessions, one session focused on the legs, the other on core strength.  I will almost certainly augment the body weight exercises with exercises employing greater resistance.  I am quite impressed by the potential value of resistance work with stretch cords.  It appears to me that the sustained resistance provided by cords minimizes the risk of jerky movements that might occur with free weights.

I will also include 2 or 3 brief session of about 20 minutes each week in which I will do low to medium intensity plyometrics; other explosive exercises; and running-specific drills.  The low intensity plyometrics will include exercises such as line jumps (jumping forward and back over a line with a focus on quick movement with minimal time on the ground) and two-footed jumps over very low hurdles.  By doing these jumps with two feet, each leg is required to lift only half my body weight and I am able to get off stance very rapidly – much more rapidly than when hopping or when running.   I hope this will encourage efficient co-ordination between the stretch receptors in my tendons and the motor neurons in the spinal cord that are responsible for initiating muscular contraction.

My medium term plan formulated in November includes preparation for a 10 Km race in the spring.  Provided my legs can cope with the demands I will be making of them, I will gradually replace the current elliptical interval and tempo sessions with interval running sessions.  However I am mindful of the fact that during the current training block, there have been times when my legs have become tired and heavy, so I will reserve the possibility of continuing to do the interval sessions on the elliptical cross trainer, where the absence of eccentric stress extracts a lesser price from my legs muscles while allowing aerobic development.