MCR 13.1 Blog W15/20: Getting to race day on a rope bridge

How did it end up like this? Regular readers will know that with five weeks until race day at the Manchester Half Marathon I expected to be on top of my game – fast, strong, absorbing the effects of a gruelling high mileage schedule, and ready to attempt to smash a one hour fifteen half. Equally, regular readers will know about the setbacks, the illness, the contemplation on setting targets, the injury – it hasn’t been a classic Phil training block.

With only five weeks to go now, there isn’t time to be contemplative. We’ve got to put some sort of plan together to get me to race day and try and do something. We’re at the point in the film where almost all is lost, and our heroes have to cross a rickety rope bridge to save the day.

Answer me these questions three...
Answer me these questions three…

This might be a common scenario for many runners – we all set out with the best intentions but sometimes it just doesn’t happen, whether like me you are beset by illness and injury, or the scale of the task of training for a big distance you haven’t completed before psychologically intimidates you and prevents you from doing the work. Either way, you get to a point where you’ve decided you are still going to run and need to work out how to do it in the limited time available.

The first thing for me to do is to work out what went wrong

Part of me has been kidding myself that getting ill and then getting injured was just pure bad luck.

This might be true, but in reality it’s unlikely. In recent years I have very rarely been ill or suffered from injuries. The main correlating factor in this training block has been the amount of mileage I have tried to do. Essentially I took the training plan that I used for the previous marathons I have trained for, but added in a four mile run every morning before work Monday to Thursday. This increased my weekly workload massively, taking me up to 80-90 mile weeks at the peak of the mileage bell curve.

It took a message from an old acquaintance from my university days, Will ‘Dusty’ Spates to make me realise this. Will is an academic and currently leads an athletics club at Birla Institute of Technology and Science, KK Birla Goa Campus, a St Andrews athletics blue (2002), and formerly a coach at Shorter University (Rome, Georgia) from 2005-07 and 2013-15, in his second stint recruiting and coaching Alfred Chelanga, Shorter’s first men’s All-American and first cross country national champion. Here’s a bit of what he said to me:

To run a 1:15 you don’t need 90 mile weeks; you don’t need 80 mile weeks. You should be able to get by and be a lot healthier on 60-70 mpw and top out at 75. More than likely you are probably a little addicted to mileage right now… this can happen for various reasons psychological as well as physiological. If you feel the need to do more than 60-75 mpw per week go for it – you can pile on the volume (total cardio time) on the bike, exercise bike, or the pool (aqua jogging or swimming). I think you can get a lot more out of less and/or smarter training!

I’d probably been coming to this conclusion myself. Without drilling down into the data, I was just feeling slower and weaker than I had before. I was struggling to get through speedwork sessions, my easy, medium and hard paces felt slower, and my long runs were more of a struggle than they should have been.

The most pertinent line of Dusty’s comments were about the psychology of being addicted to mileage. This really struck me – since late 2014 my improvement has been incredibly rapid. Coupled with that I have always been to some extent stressed and weighed down by the desire to achieve times while I’m still in my prime. I realise I’m only 26, but with marathon cycles coming once a year, I feel that as a real pressure. I wanted faster improvement, and to do that I thought I needed to do more training, more workload, and that if I didn’t I was being soft on myself.

The reality is, to use the wording Dusty used, that it hasn’t made me healthier, but it also hasn’t made me stronger or faster, and it’s made me more susceptible to illness and injury.

So how do we change things over the next few weeks?

Well the first thing, fairly obviously, is to cut back on the mileage. As of this week I’m ditching those first thing in the morning four milers, instantly putting me back on to the same sessions I was doing in my old marathon training plans.

As a result of this I’ll also be getting more rest in. Thinking about it now this was an obvious flaw in my old plan – I was both increasing my training stress while simultaneously decreasing the amount of rest my body had to absorb that workload.

One of the things I have also been thinking recently is that I’m not as physically strong as I should be. I’ve mentioned the terms strong and fast before, but in this context I’m talking about strength in terms of core strength and stability. I’ve wanted to do more on this – strength sessions including light weights, press ups, sit ups and planks to build strength – but going back to my addiction to mileage I’ve always used additional training time on mileage rather than strength sessions. I will look to try and introduce these to the final few weeks of training, and then into my normal schedule.

Does anything else need to change?

I have some other commitments in terms of my racing schedule over the next few weeks. Next Saturday (17 September) I’m due to race a track mile, and then two weeks after that (2 October) I’m entered in the Standalone 10K.

Occasionally with health and training setbacks races have to be skipped. I don’t think I have to do so here – I am no longer physically injured, assuming it doesn’t flare up again, and there is just as much chance that this will happen during training than during these races. I am not starting training again specifically to be ready for these races, I am only doing so because I believe I am ready to train again. Finally, these races don’t represent a ‘break risk’. It is not as though I am trying to run my first marathon and have an imminent 20 mile race a few weeks before race day – a fast mile and then a 10K are eminently manageable, and should the adjusted training workload prove effective, the latter race should represent a good test.

Changing your attitude is just as important as changing your training

I’ve already come around to this, but it’s worth mentioning again. Despite changing and readjusting your training, it’s possible to remain downheartened by still measuring your performance against your hoped for goals.

This is isn't quite what I imagined, but let's be positive...
This is isn’t quite what I imagined, but let’s be positive…

What’s important is to think about what is still ahead to achieve. I may still be able to run a PB as I’ll be running on a flat half marathon course for the first time in a while, but what’s more important is what you can achieve as an athlete from overcoming adversity. I’ll be learning how easy it is for me to overcome setbacks and still deliver a good performance, meaning that in the future I can react to problems more flexibly, more successfully and with a more positive mindset.

I’ll also be going in with the knowledge that what is also up for grabs – a bit of late season form to build on into the spring marathon after a bit of rest, and a bit of a ‘data baseline’ for what an incremental target could be for 2017. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this block and analysing the trials and tribulations of it, is it is no bad thing for your improvement to be incremental.

Philip Goose

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