Progress

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.

Base-building

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.

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7 Responses to “Progress”

  1. Ewen Says:

    Canute, thanks for the update on what you’ve been up to in recent months.

    You seem to be in great aerobic shape. I’d be ecstatic with a h/b per km figure of 629 for that length of run. I presume your 1/2 M racing HR is lower than mine. I’d expect to average a HR of 147-8 for a HM race & my current h/b per km of around 700 indicates I might run 100 minutes for a half. The McMillan Calculator gives me a bit under 101 based on my GC 10k.

    Like you I’ve noticed that muscular strength (speed?) appears to be the ‘weak link’. My long runs are more likely to be in the 5:20 to 5:40 per km range. Pushing down to 5s during a long run seems to be a big effort for the legs even though the heart and lungs are doing it easy. Nevertheless, I’m confident of running around 100 minutes for the Melbourne Half off a few more weeks of preparation and a good taper. I expect you might surprise yourself in the Robin Hood Half.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, my heart rate at HM race pace will be lower than yours. If I had an adequate mass of aerobic fibres to maximise use of my cardiac capacity, I would anticipate a HR around 138 during a HM. At 629 b/Km that would give me pace of 4:34 per Km and a finishing time of 96 minutes. However, in practice this is completely unrealistic as I have nowhere near the mass of aerobic fibres to maximise the use of my potential cardiac output.

      I will aim for a race HR around 133. Even this HR would be enough to get me to the finish in 100 minutes if I had enough aerobic fibres to utilise all of the cardiac output at that heart rate.. However, I cannot achieve even that at present. Contrary to the usual pattern, my b/Km increases as pace increases towards 5 min/Km at present. I think this is because I am using anaerobic fibres to achieve the faster pace and hence am using fuel very inefficiently. This is likely to create a large stress that promotes excessive, unproductive adrenergic activity. I hope you are right in your suggestion that I might surprise myself in the HM. I am hoping that some sharpening up during the taper will allow me to activate current dormant aerobic type 2 fibres. I will simply have to wait and see.

      Your GC 10Km was great and I agree that 100 minutes is a reasonable target in Melbourne. Good luck

      • Ewen Says:

        Canute, that’s interesting. It is unusual that h/b per km increases as your pace quickens so perhaps you are running anaerobically at that pace. I find that my most efficient h/b per km (lowest) is in the tempo run to race-paced effort — I’m presuming due to better elastic recoil at faster speeds.

        Would you put your inadequate mass of aerobic fibres (mitochondria?) down to recent lower volume? I know you were running a high volume for the first 18 weeks but I’m wondering how quickly one might lose aerobic condition after switching to lower mileage? I know it varies from individual to individual. I myself have noticed a loss of aerobic condition after 6 or 8 weeks of low mileage (in the old days) which is probably compounded by increased anaerobic interval training during that period.

    • canute1 Says:

      Ewen
      I am fairly sure the lack of aerobic fibres is not due to low volume. The defect appears to be in type 2 aerobic, fibres, not type 1 which are the fibres that respond best to low intensity, high volume training. My inability to maintain paces faster than 5 min/Km, which I attribute to lack of 2a fibres, has been a major problem since the arthritis more than two years ago. However,the profound tiredness and clunky legs that dominated the race-specific phase were apparent at the end of the base-building, due to doing around 80Km per week for the final few weeks of that phase.

      Although my improvement in the race-specific block was far short of what I was aiming for, my sprinting speed and pace during intervals did improve slightly; just nowhere near the target amount. Furthermore in the race specific phase I actually achieved a greater average weekly volume (a little over 60 Km/week) than in the 18 weeks immediately preceding any race in the past forty years. My aerobic fitness as assessed by b/Km at slow paces is at its highest level for many years.

      The main issue is that my target paces were designed for a 100 min HM, while all the evidence of the past two years indicates that my current HM capability is around 108 minutes – a limit apparently determined more by lack of leg strength rather than aerobic fitness. I had deliberately set a more demanding target for the training paces in the hope that my legs would respond well to increased intensity – but I am afraid that they weren’t up to it. However I will await the outcome of the race itself before drawing a final conclusions.

  2. ThomasBubendorfer Says:

    Hi Canute, great to hear from you again. It’s been a while.
    Since you are such an experienced runner, I would love to hear your opinion how training should change for a runner as he/she is getting older.

    I recently read at Joe Friel’s site that older runner should do more anaerobic/explosive training to stop their muscles from degrading with age (or at least slow down that process). A friend of mine, approaching 50, swears that he had to switch to the same kind of training. He reckons he already has a huge aerobic base and aerobic training now has very limited effects on him, but things like hill sprints help to get him along.

    What is your take on all that?

    • canute1 Says:

      Thomas

      Thanks for your comment. Yes I agree that training should change as one gets older. I think that both weights and hill sprints are likely to be beneficial in most older individuals.

      However it is interesting that Ed Whitlock achieves phenomenal times based on a very large volume of aerobic training. However he is clearly unique. Furthermore, he apparently did a lot of track interval training before he settled into his more recent high volume aerobic program.

      So overall, I think one needs to take account of one’s natural strengths/weaknesses together past training to determine the best strategy for each individual. Nonetheless, I an sure that at some point it is crucial to deal with the effects of muscle atrophy.

      • canute1 Says:

        One additional point that each individual needs to consider in planning strength conditioning is the balance between eccentric and concentric load. Running entails rapidly applied eccentric load – Hence it seems natural to think that training that entails a lot of rapid eccentric loading might be best . However this is risky because the eccentric loading is the main reason that muscle and tendon injuries are more common with running than cycling,

        Over a year ago, as the arthritis appeared to have settled I started a cautious program of eccentric exercises such as hopping but had to stop when I found that it was exacerbating the pain in my left knee . After the pain settled, I tried a modest amount of trampolining but as described above, that wasn’t adequate. I still believe that for older runners some form of eccentric exercise is useful and I haven’t yet given up on the trampoline, but I think that my main focus after the HM should by lifting free weights (in which the drive comes from concentric contraction). I think this helps is several ways: not only will type 2a fibres facilitate faster running, but they will also provide better stabilization of my knees, allowing them to cope with eccentric training, and in addition lifting weights promotes growth hormone release.

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