Memories of times past
When I had run marathons in the 1960’s it was an event for wiry young men. Typically a few dozen of us lined up across the roadway at the start. We expected to finish in a time somewhere between 2:15 and 2:45 although we were not fixated on time. In that era the IAAF did not recognise world records for the marathon because courses were not considered comparable. Boston was point-to-point and down hill. Similarly the Polytech Marathon in the UK was a point to point from Windsor to Chiswick. But despite the fact that the marathon community was a small fraternity of wiry young men who trained fairly hard with little expectation of public recognition, the romance of the marathon was beginning to grow.
At the beginning of the decade, Abebe Bikila had won gold running barefoot in Rome. Four years later in Tokyo, he again won gold in a time more than three minutes faster than his time in Rome. At that time we did not appreciate the significance of Bikila’s Ethiopian origins, but we were inspired by his charisma.
The other charismatic figure of the 1960’s was Arthur Lydiard. The success of Peter Snell, Murray Halberg and Barry Magee in the Rome Olympics imbued Lydiard’s training method with a magical aura. Although few of us had read his first book, Run to the Top, that appeared in the early sixties, the key principle of building a base by running 100 miles a week at a good aerobic pace had thoroughly permeated the distance running world via word of mouth. Lydiard had not defined ‘a good aerobic pace’ in precise detail, and most of us probably ran it a little too fast. I usually ran at about 6 minutes/mile which was only about 30 sec /mile slower than my marathon pace. Nonetheless, this pace felt easy. After Percy Cerutty’s daunting Spartan approach with its killer sand-hill runs, Lydiard’s advice ‘to train. not strain’ seemed almost too soft, but the evidence from Rome was proof that it worked.
By 1968, the foundation of the modern marathon had been well laid and the event was about to emerge from the status of a challenging but obscure historic relic reserved for hardy young men. In the preceding December Derek Clayton had run under 2:10 in Fukuoka. Two years later, when I lined up for the start of the Australian marathon championship in Melbourne, I was a little disappointed that Clayton, winner of that event in both 1968 and 1971, was not there. Not that I would have had any expectation of keeping him in sight for long, but if he had been there it would have nourished the almost-credible but fading illusion of belonging to a small but select fraternity. That same year Frank Lebow and Vince Chiapetta organised the first New York Marathon. Initially it was a small event confined to laps of Central Park, but when the event moved onto the streets of the five boroughs with over 2000 entrants in 1976, the era of the big city marathon had begun. However, by that stage, I was no longer running marathons. My running had been displaced, initially by mountaineering, and then, after I married, by hill walking.
When I took up running again in my late fifties, the elite event was not all that different. It was a little faster and the Kenyans and Ethiopians were beginning to assert their dominance. The truly amazing transformation had been blossoming of the marathon as a massive community phenomenon. Thousands of runners, tens of thousands in the larger city marathons, started with expectations of finishing times ranging from 2:15 to 6 hours or more.
Out of curiosity I decided to run the Robin Hood Marathon a decade ago. It was over thirty years since my last marathon, the ill-starred 1972 Polytechnic marathon in which we ran an extra three miles or so, after the lead car broke down and we went off course. More than three decades later, after a brief preparation, I found myself at the start of another marathon, engulfed in a vast ocean of variegated humanity I spent far too much energy struggling to find some space in the melee, but eventually settled in comfortably I reached half-way in 93 minutes but not surprisingly, I slowed badly after 20 miles, finishing in 3:27. At that time I considered that it would be a fairly straightforward matter to achieve 3:15 or even perhaps sub-3 hours if I trained systematically.
Little did I realise that I was on the edge of a seemingly inexorable descent into old age. During my sixties, the various minor health problems that had dogged me for years started to loom larger in my life. By early this year it was clear that if I wanted again to race a marathon I should not wait too long before embarking on systematic preparation.
Training in spring, 2014
Training this year has been an intriguing adventure. In the spring I began gradually increasing the length of the weekly long run and by early May, I was running up to 34 Km on Sunday morning – very slowly. I was a little disconcerted by the lingering tiredness and aching connective tissues. After the long runs I immersed myself waist deep in cold water in a wheelie bin, which provided some relief. However in June I was knocked sideways by a bout of flu, and then in July, tore my gluteus maximus when leaping full length to catch a ball during a game of rounders – a team building exercise after a long day of project planning with my research team. It was a freak injury with an identifiable immediate cause, but I think that being over-tired makes a significant contribution to most muscle injuries. Consistent with this interpretation, it took me a while to get going again.
Medical students are encouraged to heed Occam’s Razor: ‘Plurality of causes must never be posited without necessity’. However, in my experience, focusing on a single cause for an event often leads to failure to identify effective future prevention strategies. Summer flu followed by a torn muscle suggested it was time to reconsider my strategy.
Modifying Ed Whitlock’s approach
Rather than exhausting myself in a weekly long run, I decided to try Ed Whitlock’s approach of multiple easy longish runs each week, initially aiming to build gradually to 4 two hour runs per week by mid-December. Ed modestly states that his method works for him, but he is reluctant to recommend it to others. However, even accepting that Ed is endowed with an exceptional natural talent for marathoning and a predisposition to age well, his phenomenal performances suggest that his training can’t be holding him back. Is there an understandable explanation for the success of his training strategy?
One possibility is that a training load that is spread fairy uniformly across the week is less likely to produce marked transient exhaustion than a traditional marathon program dominated by the weekly long run – even if length of the long run has been increased gradually. Each training session contributes to both fatigue and eventual fitness. In the short term the rise in fatigue is more prominent, but fatigue fades fairly rapidly. The gain in fitness is less immediately apparent, but takes longer to fade away. At any point during a training program, the ability to resist injury and also the ability to race well, is determined by the difference between accumulated fitness and accumulated fatigue.
Because fatigue fades more rapidly, after an arduous training program, performance is usually enhanced by a taper during which fatigue disappears more rapidly than fitness. Conversely, during arduous training, risk of injury or illness is likely to be minimised by avoiding abrupt increases in fatigue that eat into the margin of reserve between fitness and fatigue.
Following a suggestion from Laurent Therond, I use a fairy simple mathematical model based on plausible values for the rate of decay of fatigue and of fitness to estimate my reserve of fitness during training. (I will post the details of the calculation on my calculation page soon). The units are arbitrary and the precise numbers should not be taken too seriously, but the principles emerge fairly clearly. In May, following several months of cautious increase in training volume, my fitness reserve typically rose to around 500 units by Saturday, but fell dramatically after Sunday’s long run. For example, after a 34 Km long run in May, my estimated fitness reserve fell from 591 on Saturday to 368 after the long run on Sunday.
More recently, after several months of Whitlock-style training, my fitness reserve remained stable in the range 500 to 600 units throughout the week. Furthermore, my total training load was over 20% greater than it had been in May. However, by the beginning of December, I was just a little disconcerted. My training load was substantially greater than at any time in the past 40 years and I was aware of a mild accumulation of fatigue in some of the long runs. On two occasions I had felt a few fibres in my hamstrings give way when I bounded up a flight of steps to surmount the River Trent flood defences. On each occasion shortening stride alleviated the discomfort, but it indicated that I was not far from my safe limit.
In any case I intended to introduce some progressive runs into my schedule early in the New Year as a part of specific training for spring marathon. I therefore decided in the third week of December that I would cut back to 2 easy two-hour runs per week, and introduce some progressive runs to see how comfortably I could maintain a pace near marathon pace. After a short recovery session on Monday, my reserve fitness score was at an all-time high of 680. On Tuesday morning, heart rate and heart-rate variability confirmed that I was in a relaxed state, so I set off for a 10K progressive run. After an easy start, I gradually increased the pace and by the end was feeling very fluent. It was a wonderful sensation to be running freely. Retrospective analysis revealed that my pace in the final stage was 5 min/Km and heart rate at 83% HRR. In my youth 5 min/Km would have scarcely been a jog, but on Tuesday it was exhilarating. Of course, it is virtually impossible that I could maintain HRR at 83% for a full marathon, so there is no reason to adjust my target marathon time downwards, but the wonderful thing was that I felt more like a runner once again.
On Wednesday I did a short high intensity interval session that I do frequently without overt evidence of exhaustion. I was little disconcerted to find in retrospect that my heart rate was higher than usual. The reason became clear that night. I was kept awake by a rising fever and a horrible cough that sent lancing jabs of pain through my head. The fever lasted for five days, and even since it has settled I have had a rather irritating cough.
A pause for recovery
Our family spent Christmas at my wife’s brother house in the Lake District. My wife’s brother is a former mountain guide and is currently Safety Advisor for a company that provides leadership training in various formats including outdoor adventure. Christmas at his house usually includes an adventure or two. This year it was mountain biking on Christmas Day and caving in the Yorkshire Dales on Boxing Day. It seemed to me that getting a bit of fresh air in my lungs would be more likely to help my recovery than harm it. Though I was the oldest member of the party, I was able to hold my own with the youngsters fairly well on both days. However, when I had to hoist myself onto a rock ledge while my feet dangled freely in the air below, to exit one of the caves, what would normally have been a simple manoeuvre had me struggling to find the required strength and brought home to me that I have not yet fully recovered.
So what is the conclusion? In the final few months of the year, I had achieved a larger volume of training than in any other 12 week period over the past 40 years. At the end of the 12 weeks I was running more fluently than at any time in recent years, though there were a few hints that I was on the edge of over-training. As I began to cut back the volume in mid-December, I was laid low yet again by a viral infection. Occam’s admonition against seeking unnecessary ‘plurality of causes’ would encourage me to look no further than the fact that many of my work colleagues and students had been suffering from upper respiratory infections at the time. The immediate cause of my illness was no doubt exposure to a sea of nasty viral particles. But I suspect that least in my case, training added a little to the vulnerability.
Nonetheless, I consider that on balance, in 2014 I have laid of solid base. Whitlock-style training is a viable proposition. It facilitates the building of a large training volume while avoiding sporadic peaks of stress. But like any training program that pushes the limits of ones reserves, for a cronky old-timer the best laid plans cannot eliminate the element of unpredictability.
The immediate challenge is to throw off the vestiges of my recent upper respiratory tract infection, without losing too much fitness. My experience in recent years is that for an elderly person, fitness dissolves very rapidly during complete rest, so I will aim for an active recovery in which I build up training volume gradually over a few weeks. Once I am back into full training, I will persist with the Whitlock principle of multiple longish runs at an easy pace each week. However if I am to be ready to race a marathon in the spring, I need to sharpen-up a little. Ed relied largely on short races for sharpening, but the demands of my present work schedule make it necessary for me to fit in two of the easy-paced long runs on the week-end, making racing impractical. On the other hand, progressive runs that reach marathon pace in the later stages provide race-specific experience without sustained stress, and seem to me the form of sharpening that best suits my present circumstances. So my key sessions will include a progressive run along with several longish runs at an easy pace, each week.