Archive for September, 2013

Robin Hood Half Marathon and plans for the future

September 30, 2013

I lined up for the Robin Hood half marathon yesterday hopeful, but uncertain.  I had a successful six months of training behind me.  By using of the sub-maximal tests described in my posts in June and July to monitor for signs of over-training, I had managed to achieve a 10 % greater training volume than I achieved in the corresponding six months last year.  My aging legs had coped well.  My aerobic capacity had improved slowly but steadily throughout the six months, and furthermore I had managed to do a large number of training runs longer than 15Km, many of them in the range 18-21Km, so it was reasonable to expect that my endurance would be adequate for a half marathon.

In several of these long runs I had increased pace progressively, aiming to reach something near race pace in the final few Km.    However, the disappointing observation was that I had struggled to achieve a pace any faster than 5 min/Km in these runs.  On the one occasion when I achieved even this modest pace, my breathing and heart rate indicated I was already beyond the anaerobic threshold.  Simple physiology indicated that a 100 minute target for the half marathon (4:44 /Km) was unreasonable, but I pinned some hopes on the fact that in last year’s Robin Hood half marathon, I had run far better in the race than prior training suggested was possible.  While my aerobic capacity wasn’t quite as good this year, I was confident that my endurance was better.  So I planned to start at around 4:50 min/Km and adjust pace according to how well I was coping.

The weather was ideal for distance running: broken light cloud with bursts of sunshine and a cooling breeze.  Within the first few hundred metres I was a little surprised to see my heart rate shoot up to an alarming level and wondered whether there might be an impending cardiac problem.  However it soon settled to a reasonable level.   Perhaps I was a little more nervous about this race than usual.   I covered the first two Km at 4:53 min /Km (103 min HM pace).   I felt much more comfortable than I had felt at a similar  pace in training, but it was clear by 3 Km that I would not be able to maintain that pace for much longer.  My breathing was still quite comfortable but my legs were not coping.  In an attempt to reduce the impact forces on my legs, I increased cadence to over 200 steps per min, but my stride gradually shortened further and pace gradually ebbed away.

Although it was clear in the later stages that I would be far short of my target, and indeed had no chance of even achieving 105 minutes, I pushed on as fast as my failing legs would carry me in the final few Km.  However the increased effort was to little avail. As each runner went by I tried to lift my pace, but despite my attempts, each one forged inexorably ahead. Then with a little over 1 Km to go I spotted a young lady with a pink top and swishing pony tail who had passed me about 16Km earlier. The gap was slowly closing, so I had a target for the final Km. I caught her as we climbed up to the flood defence embankment with a few hundred metres to run. She defended strongly for a few metres but I was able to find a little extra drive. So despite being passed by many in the final stages, I claimed one scalp at the end.   My finishing time was 107:49

Afterwards I felt pretty wobbly and a couple of first aiders were quite solicitous for my welfare.  I managed to stay upright though I did need to steady myself against a tent pole.  I wasn’t in danger of fainting; I was simply exhausted.   So what does the future hold? I trained about as well as I could have for this event, but I am not yet ready to abandon hope of pushing back the tide of advancing years.  Perhaps on another day I might have achieved a time better by a few minutes, but if I want to run substantially faster in future, I need to carefully evaluate my strategy.

Aerobic capacity

It is important to note that my aerobic fitness did improve steadily during the six month of training.  In the final sub-maximal test, done during the taper, I achieved 650 heart beats/Km, whereas 6 month previously, shortly after resuming training after a bout of arthritis, the rate was nearer 750 beats/Km.    But the improvement throughout the six months had been painfully slow.  In 2010, when the year had started with a bout of arthritis similar to this year, I had made greater improvement in aerobic capacity in less than 3 months, with a much lower volume of training at a higher intensity.  However that year, my half marathon campaign was stymied by a several illnesses in the summer.    Nonetheless the progress in spring of that year indicates that higher intensity training would be likely to produce a more rapid gain in aerobic capacity.

The phenomenal marathon performances of Ed Whitlock, who does a very large volume of low intensity training, spiced up with fairly regular races, demonstrates that a program based largely on low intensity training can work well.  However, despite the relatively satisfying demonstration that I could cope with a moderate volume of training this year, it appears that I am unable to cope with anything like the volume of training that Ed Whitlock does.  He doesn’t record distances, but runs for several hours each day at an easy pace.  If I increase my training volume to 50 miles in a week, even at an easy pace, I experience rapidly accumulating exhaustion.  So, if I am to produce substantial further improvement in aerobic capacity, greater intensity offers the best prospect.

As I have described on several occasions previously, there is good evidence that high intensity interval training can produce increases in aerobic capacity, including increases in aerobic enzymes and muscle capillary density.  At this stage, I am very tempted to try HIIT for at least a few weeks, as soon as I have recovered from yesterday’s race, to see how well I cope with it.

Muscle power

But there is little doubt that yesterday the principle limitation was my lack of leg muscle power.    I had reached a similar conclusion last year.   Loss of muscular strength is one of the most overt problems of the elderly, and therefore at that stage, the logical step was a program of weight training to increase strength.  Since squats provide a very good ‘whole body’ workout, with particular benefits for legs and trunk, I embarked on a program of squats augmented by dead lifts.  In the final months of the year, I made major gains in strength, increasing my 5 repetition maximum (5RM) for squats from a little over half my body weight to more than 160% of body weight in a period of three months.

I had intended to follow that lifting with a program of plyometrics to increase my capacity to handle the eccentric loads that the leg muscles bear at footfall when running.  Unfortunately, the episode of arthritis confounded that plan.  Since recovering from arthritis, I have continued a maintenance program of squats, and my 5RM has only deteriorated only a little.  However, apart from a small amount of trampolining, I have not dared to introduce plyometrics for fear of stressing my fragile joints.

Eccentric strength

The crucial test of eccentric strength is hopping.  Unfortunately, the distance I can cover in five hops has deteriorated by about 20 percent compared with three years ago.  It is interesting to note that subsequent to the program of weight lifting, my performances on the elliptical cross trainer have been better than at any time in the past three years.  Since the elliptical requires a leg action similar to running, apart from a minimal requirement for eccentric contraction, it is almost certain that the increased strength has helped me perform better on the elliptical, but has had little impact on my running because there has been little improvement in eccentric muscle strength.

So the major challenge is to find a way to increase eccentric muscle strength without placing too much stress on my knees.  I will continue with squats and dead lifts, and probably also add hang cleans as these are good for developing power in the upper leg muscles, but  this program is unlikely to provide the eccentric strength required for powerful running.  At this stage, hill sprints appear to offer the best option.

Next steps

I have not yet formulated a detailed plan for the winter, but it will include a trial of HIIT and also lots of hill sprinting.   Next year I want to focus on preparing for a marathon in the autumn, so I will begin working on endurance in the spring.   Although the half marathon will not be a key target, I will probably attempt a half marathon sometime in the spring.  I will not set a specific goal at this stage, but think it is reasonable to hope that a time somewhat better than yesterday’s performance will be possible.

Responses to training and to over-training

September 25, 2013

I am now tapering for the Robin Hood half marathon, five days away.  After a frustrating start to the year, in which a recurrence of arthritis limited my training for a few months, I have been able to train consistently for six months.    I have achieved a greater training volume in those six months than I managed in the equivalent period last year, but frustratingly, my pace during tempo runs and progressive runs is slower this year than last year.    In the event, last year I performed better than appeared possible in the light of my prior training paces, though at the cost of a  somewhat painful final few kilometres.  Again this year I will be hoping that I can lift myself to a higher level on race day.  Despite the lower level of aerobic fitness this year, I am hoping that the greater training volume will have produced greater endurance.   So I will be approaching the race with modest optimism that I can achieve a time near to last year’s time.

However, Sunday’s race is merely a stage in my campaign to run a respectable marathon at age 70.  At this stage it would be premature to estimate a target time for a marathon in three years time.  This year’s Half Marathon will provide something of a guide, though in fact my most important goal this year has been to establish that I can maintain an adequate training volume over a period of 6 months.  Because my aging legs cannot cope with too much stress, I do about 20% of my training on the elliptical cross trainer.   In the past 6 months, I have averaged 36 miles of running per week, together with an additional 1000 Kcal/week on the elliptical (equivalent to approximately 10 miles/week), giving an average weekly training volume equivalent to 46 miles per week.   Although modest in comparison with a volume exceeding 100 mpw achieved by many younger marathoners, the key question is how to determine  the optimum amount for me.    The short answer is the that optimum amount is the amount that maximizes my response to training in the short term while building a base for future years.

What determines the response to training?

Four things determine the benefit you get from training.

  1. Genes
  2. Life-time training experience
  3. The type, intensity and volume of the training
  4. Current level of stress.


There is little that we can do about our genes, but it is nonetheless, worthwhile reviewing the issue of genes briefly.  The marathon performances of my younger days suggest that I was blessed with genes providing at least a moderate natural facility for distance running and also with the capacity to profit from training.

However in my present situation there is a third aspect of genetic endowment that matters: my ability to withstand the ravages of age.  My parents both enjoyed moderately good health into their 80’s, so I have probably at least an averagely good selection of genes for longevity.  The evidence from my own health so far is equivocal.  Throughout my sixties I have suffered several health problems that have confounded any attempt to answer the question of how the tissues of my body are aging.  These minor illnesses in themselves might be an indicator of increasing vulnerability to deterioration, but give little indication of widespread deterioration.  In light of the fact that I have been able to train consistently for six months, my performance next Sunday will be potentially a good measure of the underlying rate of deterioration, uncontaminated by illness.    To match the rate of deterioration predicted by WAVA, I can afford to drop 1 minute compared to last year’s HM time of 101:50. On present form, even 102:50 will be a challenge.  However, if possible I would really like to set the clock back at least a little.   My gold standard target is 100 minutes and silver standard is last year’s time: 101:50, though realistically I should be very pleased even to achieve 102:50.

Life-time training experience

In the short term, there is little I can do to alter life-time training experience, but in regard to the medium term future, there are important issues to consider.  I suspect that running to and from school over 60 years ago, got me off to a good start.   However the more pressing issue at my current age is the question of whether a large annual training volume at this stage will actually hasten deterioration.  Excessive training can lead to chronic inflammation that is likely to damage tissues, possibly irreversibly.   It is likely that a range of factors, including not only genes and past experience but also current lifestyle factors, especially diet, influence this.  Thus, the question of how much training an individual can tolerate is likely to differ between individuals but is not necessarily immutable.   But whatever my current ability to tolerate training might be, monitoring response to training to detect signs of over-training is likely to be crucial.  I will return to this when addressing the effect stress in greater detail.

The type, intensity and volume of the training

Not only volume of training, but also type and intensity play a key role in shaping both the  immediate response and also the long term effects of training.  The pros and cons of different training regimes is too large a topic to deal with here, but it is perhaps pertinent to note that many athletes who have enjoyed years of high-level performance adopted a periodised program along the lines advocated by Arthur Lydiard, with a limited period of high intensity training and competition following a period of base-building in which the emphasis is on large volume of training at modest or low intensity.   I started my current HM campaign with a period of Lydiard-style base-building, and am confident that this was beneficial

Current level of stress

Again we are brought back to the key issue of stress.  As already discussed, avoiding cumulative tissue damage due to chronic inflammation is likely to be a key to the longevity of an individual’s running career.  It is also a key determinant of the short term response to training.

It is widely recognised that the benefits of training arise from a training stress followed by an adaptive response during the recovery period.  So stress is an essential element of training.  The stress includes microscopic local trauma to body tissues including muscle fibres and other connective tissues, and also increases in stress hormones that exert a widespread influence throughout the body.

Microscopic damage to muscle fibres activates satellite cells, which are a type of stem cell that when activated combine with muscle fibres to extend and strengthen them.   Thus in the short term heavy exercise results in loss of strength, but provided recovery between sessions is adequate, there is an overall upward progression.   On the other hand, if recovery is not adequate, there is a risk of a downward spiral.

In the case  of the hormonal responses, the increase in the stress hormone cortisol  promotes a physiological state that mobilises body resources in a way that is helpful in the short term, but potentially damaging in the long term.  The benefical short term effects include mobilisation of glucose and fats to fuel activity, but in the longer term, the result is muscle breakdown and deposition of fat.  Cortisol has anti-inflammatory effects which in moderation tend to be helpful, but if excessive or prolonged, weaken the immune system.  The mechanisms that determine the balance between the beneficial and harmful effects of inflammation are complex and remain something of a mystery.  But, at least one thing is clear: sustained stress leads to damage to many tissues of the body.  Fat is deposited around the viscera; chronic inflammation damages heart and skeletal muscle.  Adequate recovery is essential, both for the sake of a constructive medium term training benefit, and also for long term health and fitness.

Monitoring stress

Therefore, during the past six months, as I have attempted to establish the limit of training volume and intensity that my body can cope with, I have performed the sub-maximal tests described in my posts on 25th June  and 17th July 2013, on a weekly basis.  Apart from one episode early in the year, when I had increased the training load too rapidly, I have avoided the suppression of heart rate at sub-maximal effort which is a warning of impending over-training.  However on numerous occasions I have observed a moderate increase in heart rate at sub-maximal work rates, which I interpret as a sign of accumulating stress.  In response to this sign of accumulating stress I have avoided demanding training session for a few days, and the signs of stress have resolved.

The apparently clear-cut benefit of this strategy for regulating training stress is that this year, I have managed to cope with a training volume over the 6 months from April to September that is about 17% higher than in the equivalent period last year.   I am optimistic that this will stand me in good stead next year when I intend to train for a marathon.  However, as outlined in the introduction, the somewhat disappointing outcome is that I appear to have a lower level of aerobic fitness (indicated by heart beats/km at a given pace in the aerobic zone) than at this time last year.   Possibly this is due to a lower initial level of fitness arising from the disruption of training in the early months of this year.  Alternatively, perhaps in my determination to make up for lost time, I might have pushed myself too close to my limit and therefore gained less benefit from the training.  However, provided I have not seriously exceeded the limit, it is not unreasonable to hope that I might experience a similar improvement in performance during the taper this year as last year, and in addition will be able to draw upon enhanced endurance based on the greater training volume.   I will start the half marathon on Sunday with the goal of testing this optimistic speculation.

Ewen, I will do my best to earn that mansion in Forrest for you, but I fear that your garden shed might be at risk.