Archive for September, 2012

Robin Hood Half Marathon, 2012

September 30, 2012

The taper for the Robin Hood half marathon had gone fairly well.  In contrast to the final few months of training during which my pace during tempo runs was very disappointing and I had be quite unable to achieve anything approaching a reasonable race pace when I pushed myself in the final few Km of long training runs, I had been pleased that by the end of the taper I could maintain a pace around 4:50 per Km comfortably for short distances.  It was still very uncertain for what distance I could maintain such a pace, so I had very little firm evidence on which to base a pacing strategy in the race itself.  A time anywhere in the range 102 to 108 minutes was plausible.  I decided therefore that I would run by feel rather than by the watch.   As both Robert and Ewen pointed out, this is a bit risky because the extra adrenalin can distort perceptions on race day.  I think I have a fairly good capacity to estimate effort, by conscious attention to the depth and rate of my breathing, and by an awareness of the overall sense of wellbeing or distress generated by the many non-conscious signals that pass from body to brain.  I accepted it would be a bit risky to rely on these sensations, especially as I have only raced once (a 5Km last November) since I ran the Keyworth Turkey Trot two years ago, but I was prepared to take the risk, rather than settle for a sensible target of around 105 minutes.

In the Turkey Trot my arthritis-ravaged legs had let me down.   Although I was pleased on that occasion that I was able to make a good race of it, largely due to an impromptu duel over the final few Km with a young woman named Emily, my time of 108:45 had been unimpressive.    Unfortunately, due to subsequent painful remnants of the episode of arthritis I had not managed to make much progress with the leg strengthening exercises that were clearly required, so once again, today I was starting a half marathon aware that my legs would be my vulnerable feature.

For a few days I had been watching the weather map monitoring the progress of a cyclonic system that had deepened to the east of Iceland mid-week.  As the high pressure that had provided us with some stable weather during the week moved further eastwards, we were in for some strong south-westerly gusts by Sunday,   Perhaps not ideal for long distance running, though I noted optimistically that as the Robin Hood course heads mainly south west in the first half before turning back the northeast, and the winds would probably strengthen throughout the day, we might get some net wind-assistance, .  It was also clear that the temperature would be cool.

Before pinning my race number on my vest last night I popped out to assess the likely temperature and make a final choice between T-shirt and singlet.  The sky was clear, the moon was full and stars sparkled though a crisp atmosphere. If it stayed as clear as this, it would be chilly tomorrow, but I was fairly sure that clouds driven by the approaching cyclonic system would sweep over us before morning, so I elected to pin the number on my singlet.

I set the alarm for a little before dawn, to allow a leisurely breakfast.  As the sun rose the underside of the accumulating clouds turned pink.  The cyclonic system had not quite reached us though the breeze was freshening.  It looked like the weather would be ideal and the rising wind would be more a help rather than a hindrance.

At the start I found a spot near the back of the red pen (for runners aiming for 90-105 minutes), along with a variegated mass of humanity – some wiry, with serious faces and club vests, jiggling around to keep warm; others dressed as Robin Hood, apparently more intent on enjoying the experience than worrying about the stop-watch.  As the wheelchair race was getting under way, the drums increased their tempo, and it was impossible to avoid a surge of excitement. However as we stood waiting I noted that my pulse was a steady 57 despite the rousing beating of the drums.  Rather than being concerned that adrenaline would mask my sensation of effort, I was now a little more concerned that the benefits of my light warm-up might have dissipated.   A few spots of rain fell, but I knew that I would warm up again fairly quickly once we were under-way.

The drums masked the sound of the start horn, but I became aware that the mass of humanity was moving and gathering speed as we approached the inflatable arch that defined the start.  I had little control over pace at this stage, but had reached a gentle trot as I passed under the arch.   In the next few minutes the human mass became more chaotic as individuals struggled to establish their own pace   However, frantic scrambling at this stage is pointless.  I was locked in the midst of a clump of burly men bearing logos proclaiming that they were participants in the Cooper Parry Relay.  When one of them announced after we had covered a few hundred metres that we were now doing 6 min/Km I decided it was time to at least extricate myself from this particular clump, so I tucked in behind a rather muscular young (male) fairy wearing a pretty blue tutu, and followed as he forged ahead.

As we approached the first mile marker, my breathing was relaxed and I recognised the rhythm as one breath every six steps – a rate that I knew I could maintain comfortably for at least the HM distance.  My overall sensation was ‘OK’ though I was aware that my legs were moving  a little less fluently than that they had been during the best of the short runs in the recent taper.  However, at this stage, there were no grounds for serious concern.  As a safety precaution I checked my watch at the mile marker.   The time was 7:46 (equivalent to 4:50 /Km) and heart rate was 130.   I only intended the watch-check as a back-up to avoid serious misjudgement.  Nonetheless I was pleased to see that my pace over the first mile had been at the faster end of my expected range, yet my HR was still well below the upper aerobic zone targeted by HM runners.   Although pleased, I was not surprised as I knew that it was unlikely that either heart or lungs would be the limiting factor today.

At the first drinks station I consumed about 150 ml of water.  I wondered whether the fluid was worth the few seconds I lost in weaving through the still tightly packed mass of runners, but that had been my prior plan so I stuck to it.  As we headed south westward along the wide open boulevard on the north bank of the Trent, I expected the head wind to be challenging.  However, I was still in such a tight mass of runners that I scarcely noticed the wind at all.

As we ran through the campus of the Boots Company, it was necessary to watch out when approaching the sharp bends to avoid collision with runners trying to save a metre or two by running the tangents.  However, by and large, the mass of runners was now fairly streamlined.  I was still breathing with a comfortable 1:6 rhythm, but my legs were definitely not coping well.  My left knee was a little painful and both gastrocnemius and hamstring muscles were tightening.

Shortly after entering the University campus we encountered the only appreciable hill on the entire course (apart for the ramps leading to bridges) and I was happy to let the majority of nearby runners surge ahead as I slowed a little to reduce stress on my legs.  At the top of the rise we passed through the imposing portico into the courtyard of the Trent Building – the administrative headquarters of the University.  Although it was awe-inspiring to run through such an imposing portico, I have some mixed feelings about the grandeur of Trent Building.  When the University administration top-slice my hard-won research grants to cover university overheads, I wonder, in an iconoclastic frame of mind, how much of the top-slice goes to maintain the splendid wood-panelled Senate Chamber and the Vice-Chancellor’s Office. However, today, it was an occasion to simply enjoy the grandeur.

On the descent from Trent Building to the lake I caught up with most of those who had surged past me on the ascent.  As we rounded the head of the lake a wonderful steel band was beating out a rousing rhythm.  Another quick glace at my watch showed that my HR was still 130 (though it had almost certainly been higher on the climb and was now probably a bit below average following the descent).  Although my legs were still uncomfortable, we were now at the half way point and I was fairly confident that the legs would hold out to the finish.  I decided it was time to apply a little more pressure.  As we left the University campus, I scanned the mass of humanity ahead for appropriate quarry to add a little spice to the chase.  At this stage, the majority of the pack were still running with dogged determination and no-one was offering themselves as easy prey.  Most had the demeanour of runners with serious intent.  I could see the green tunics of two Robin-Hoods not far ahead. They were running strongly but nonetheless I decided they would have to do.  However, despite a substantial increase in effort, my legs were reluctant to go much faster and it was not until after the nine mile marker that both Robin Hoods were behind me.

My breathing rate had now increased to one breath every four steps but was still comfortable.  I was sweating lightly but felt more water logged than thirsty, so I did not deviate from my path to pick up any water at the third water station.   As my legs were reluctant to go any faster, I settled in to maintain my place in the pack.  The continual slight shifts of position within the pack made it impossible to focus on a particular person, but I was surprised by just how many of the pack were runners who had forged slowly ahead of me in the earlier stages.  I was confident that I was running a slight negative split, so overall the pack was scarcely weakening.

I had almost forgotten about the wind until we did a dog-leg back to the southwest approaching the 10 mile mark, and the gusty south-westerly asserted itself.  After a few right angle turns in the next mile or so, we were back on the river embankment, passing near to the finishing point, but with a two mile loop along the river bank still to be run.  I could hear an excited voice announcing over the loud speaker that someone of apparent local importance, whose name I didn’t catch, had ascended the slope onto the flood protection embankment leading to the finish as the race-clock passed 1 hour and thirteen minutes.  I estimated that whoever he was, he had about two minutes to run at that point, while I now had about two miles to run.  My brain was still working well enough to estimate that provided my legs didn’t give up during those two miles, my time would be around 102 minutes.

The outward leg of the final loop exposed us once again to the gusty wind and my breathing was deeper now – I was definitely in the upper aerobic zone.  Then there was a short stretch shielded from the wind by trees and enthusiastic spectators; a short sharp pull up to the top of the flood protection embankment, and a final sprint to the finish.   By this stage my leg muscles were tightening quite alarmingly.  In the final 50 metres I tore a few fibres in my left calf.  As I crossed the line, the race clock indicated a little over 102 minutes.  As I had crossed the timing mat at the start a short time after the official start I expect my official chip time will turn out to be under 102 minutes.  According to my watch, my time was 101:50.  [Note added 1 Oct 2012: the published results confirmed 101:50]

I am delighted to have achieved a time at the leading edge of what I thought was possible.  As in the Turkey Trot two years ago, my legs were again the limiting factor, but my time was about seven minutes faster.  There is no doubt that a program of leg strengthening must now be my highest priority.  I also feel a bit sheepish about tearing fibres in my left calf, as I was aware that they were at their limit before I began the final sprint.  However, even though the sprint gained me only a few seconds and three or four places in the finish order, I find it difficult to resist the temptation to treat the final run to the line as a race with whoever else has managed to get to the home straight at the same time.  That surely makes us balanced and worthy opponents.

The end of the taper

September 27, 2012

It is two days from the end of my taper for the Robin Hood half-marathon on Sunday.  Tomorrow will be a rest day.  On Saturday I will run about 4 Km easily, including several short stride-outs at estimated race effort to dispel any of the sluggishness that can develop during rest days, and consolidate the neuromuscular coordination required for racing.

I am pleased with how my legs have responded to the taper.  In the final few weeks of training I had been disappointed by the fact that I found it difficult to achieve pace anywhere near a reasonable race pace during tempo runs.  I hoped that this was due at least in part to chronic tiredness of my leg muscles, so the main goals of the taper were to allow my legs to recover, while including enough running in the vicinity of race pace to develop the neuromuscular coordination required for racing.


The figure shows the profile of time spent in each of the training zones over the past three weeks.  Despite a 50%  reduction in training volume I have maintained a near constant proportion of around 25% of training time in the upper aerobic zone, throughout the taper    I have been pleased to discover that whereas two weeks ago a pace of 5 min/Km required an effort somewhat greater than I could imagine sustaining for the HM distance, today, I felt comfortable and fluent at pace of 4:50 /Km.   In part this is surely because my legs are less tried, but I think it is likely that incorporating some faster running, together with two sessions of Pete Magill’s drills, has helped re-awaken the muscle fibres required for racing.

So the taper has produced the intended improvement in fluency.  But what does this tell me about my prospect of maintaining that fluency and pace for the full distance? In several of the long runs during the previous 6 weeks I had planned to maintain a pace near HM race pace for the final few Km.  However, the fastest pace I had achieved in a long run was 5:14 /Km – a pace which would produce a time of  110 minutes for the HM.  The evidence from the short runs during the taper suggests that I can do substantially better than 110 minutes, but there is no way in which I can answer the  question of how my legs will cope with the full 21.1 Km distance, in advance of the race itself.

So planning a sensible pace for Sunday is still tricky.  If I start at around 4:50 pace, it is not clear how long I would be able to maintain that pace.  Commonsense dictates that if my goal is to maximise my chance of recording a ‘creditable’ time, I should start at around 5 min/Km pace or even a little slower, and hope that I can run a negative split to get me to the finish in around 104-105 minutes.   However, somewhere deeper in the intuitive recesses of my brain, where less tangible evidence based on my running history is weighed up alongside the numerical data recorded in recent training runs, I believe that I can run a time faster than 104 minutes.  Therefore, provided I feel comfortable after I have emerged from the initial melee of the massed start, I will abandon rationality and prudence, and let the intuitive recesses of my brain set the pace. I will trust that these intuitive reaches of the brain will weigh up the various non-conscious feed-back signals from my body together with subliminal memories from the past in way that allows me to extract the maximum performance that my body is capable of achieving.  In the end, it will be my body rather than the stop-watch that tells me whether or not I have run a well-judged race.

An unconventional start to the taper

September 18, 2012

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.


September 15, 2012

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.