The Running Rules

Helping busy runners get healthier, happier and faster

When will you run your best marathon?

Have you fully committed to finding out what your potential is?

I’m 38 this month. Over the hill. Past it. Yet before I’m 40 I want to try and beat my 20 year old self by an hour in the marathon. Back then I was over the moon with my first marathon time of 3:41 and indeed for many years I was content that I could hang up my running shoes at any time with a solid marathon time to my name.

The numbers are arbitrary. Everyone is different. My 3:41 might be someone else’s 5:41. But having since run much faster than that I now know that I was scratching the surface of what was possible for me in that first marathon.

So how can a nearly 40 year old run so much faster than a 20 year old?

Steady vs sporadic commitment

I had always viewed the marathon as the culmination of 16 weeks of training. I’d book in a race then ‘commit’ to the training for the 16 weeks prior to the race. This is ‘sporadic commitment’. It assumes that each marathon and training block is a discrete period of time unrelated to anything else in your life.

The stop start nature of this way of thinking about training (“I’m either training for a marathon or I’m not”) made it harder to adhere to plans. I didn’t have a structure around my training the rest of the time so it felt unnatural during marathon training.

My body wasn’t used to it either and adding a lot of extra training stress without properly offsetting that with good nutrition meant I got colds as my immunity was lowered. I’d miss entire weeks of marathon training which, although is sometimes unavoidable, was hardly ideal.

Contrast that with the last 12 months where I haven’t been training for anything in particular but my training has been more structured and consistent than ever. I started viewing training as something that is a natural part of my life, not something that needs to be turned on or off.

This is ‘steady commitment’ and it can build over time if you allow it. At the start, you may not be able to commit to as much training as you think you need to get to where you want to be. But training accumulates over time so even committing to what you can now will help you in the long run.

Physical vs mental ability

We mostly think of ageing as a negative trait but as we get older we improve in many ways. When I ran my first marathon, I had youth on my side. I was also relatively fearless of the marathon. I didn’t know how hard it would be so I just gave it a shot.

But I now have much more experience of training and racing. I now know when and why things will get tough and how I can get through those situations.

You also learn over time. Your body might not be as young as it was but you learn to manage it better. You realise what you really want to focus on and learn the training techniques, recovery strategies and nutritional strategies to get you there

Your first marathon should not be your fastest. Unless it is your only marathon. You may not beat this time every time but with every marathon you build up more experience of things that went well and things that didn’t.

In every training block you should find new things to work on and build on your previous experiences. You should improve mentally over time.

There is one caveat to this: I said I wasn’t fearless when I was young. I was also not respectful of the distance and the challenge of a marathon. My next two attempts both ended pretty disastrously. I thought about quitting.

This is known as the dip and if you find yourself here you have to work your way out and not quit. If you find a way through, those bad experiences will help improve your future performances. I don’t regret those efforts. I wouldn’t have the bank of experience I have now if everything had always gone swimmingly.

You don’t know what’s round the corner

It’s easy to put things off. We don’t have time right now. Races aren’t on so what’s the point?

Yes there are some big life situations that might mean now is not the time to start committing to training but in most cases training can compliment whatever else is going on.

I took 18 months off running around the time of our first son and it was too long. When I started back it really felt like I was starting from scratch. However, I ran my first ultra less than 6 months after the birth of our second son.

Sometimes it’s easy to say ‘I’ll do it when’ but instead we can say ‘I’m going to start progressing towards that’. It doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily run your best marathon this year or next but you are starting moving towards the best that you can do.

And if you enjoy the process then it becomes addictive. You’ll want to see just how far you can go. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing then it’s at that point you should change things up or focus on something else.

You may not love running forever so why not do the best you can now while you do?

Consistency: the key to success

7 ways to find consistency with your running

Most things in life take time to get good at. They take dedicated practice. Yet most of us can run without any practice because we learnt the skill when we were young. Because of this, sometimes we choose to believe there are ‘natural’ runners out there and that we have a limited given skill level.

However, we all have the ability to improve greatly through consistent practice. Our fitness improves and so does our technique. We build mental resilience too which is a vital component to running success.

But what does consistency look like? Do we have to be running every day of the week? Do we need to be running 100 miles a week?

What is our potential?

We all have a potential which far exceeds what we’ll ever actually achieve. Even elites may never quite accomplish what they are physically capable of because so many things have to fall into place for a ‘perfect’ outcome.

Just think what lengths Eliud Kipchoge had to go to to break the 2 hour marathon mark. It was physically possible for him but only by optimising his environment with pacers that shielded the air resistance.

Mere mortals like us will never get close to what we could achieve because most of us do not have the time, money or inclination to train as elites would do. We have jobs, families and other commitments.

However, we can achieve a more limited potential that is still much higher than most of us believe. It is governed by how much time and effort we want to commit to it.

Initially, the returns from a relatively small time investment can be huge. After a while, it takes a lot of extra time for small gains so it becomes a question of how far you want to go.

But whatever level of commitment you choose, being consistent week to week speeds up your progress and minimises your risk of injury. The latter is possibly one of the biggest barriers to runners achieving their goals. So how do you get consistency?

Don’t overcommit yourself

The temptation can be to stretch yourself too much at the start. This can either be due to what you think is required to be successful or by watching what others do. I now run 6 days a week every week but that has been built up slowly over years of running 3 then 4 then 5 days a week.

Choose something that is easy for you to achieve. If 3 days seems like a lot, could you run 1 or 2 days at the start? If an hour is too much, could you do 20 or 30 minutes of running each time?

You can always add more days and more minutes to your weeks in the future. The key is to get started with something that you can manage right now.

Put your plan where you can see it

Make yourself a plan by factoring in your weekly commitments and fit your training around them. Preferably, you can find the same slots every week that you will be able to do your training in. If not, then it is even more important to plan.

Make sure you can see your plan especially in the early days. It is easy to forget to do a session at the start if you don’t have a visual prompt. And if you miss one, that’s when you can miss more and the whole plan falls by the wayside.

Print your plan out and stick it where you will see it every day. Maybe in your bedroom, or on the fridge or next to your desk at work. Do it where you need the prompt.

Alternatively, if you are more in favour of a digital reminder, add it to your calendar or add it to your reminders. Again, time the prompts to when they will have the most effect.

Make it easy

Structure your training at times which will give you the most chance of completing it. If you know you only have an hour window at lunchtime between two important meetings then it might be better to plan to do it earlier or later in the day.

If you know that you’re usually tired after work and not in the mood for a run then try and go before work.

Have your gear ready to go where and when you need it. There’s nothing worse than rooting around to try and find a pair of running socks or gloves if you’re in a hurry. If you’re running from somewhere other than home, be sure to check the weather and take everything you’re likely to need, preferably packing your bag the night before.

If food for after your training is an issue (for instance if you’re running at work), make yourself a lunch or snack the night before so that you don’t have to cut your run short to get food from somewhere else.

Work towards something

Consistency is much easier if you’re working towards a goal. The goal could be a race or time trial, a new distance or it could be simply adhering to your plan. In fact it can be useful to have both outcome goals and process goals.

An outcome goal is simply what you want to achieve at the ‘end’ of the training. The ‘end’ here could be a literal end if you decided not to continue running but is more likely to be the end of a block of training.

This could be running a certain distance, or a certain time for a distance. It could be achieving a certain weekly time or distance goal.

A process goal is almost more important. It is what you want to achieve week to week with your training. Sometimes this can be less tangible but it could be along the lines of enjoyment, keeping your consistency going or a weekly improvement in some area.

If we only ever focus on the outcome then it can make week to week training much harder and also increase the disappointment if we don’t quite make our outcome goal.

Keep challenging yourself

As alluded to, having some goals will help maintain your consistency. However, a lot of people respond best when they are challenged. If you set all your goals to be very easy then it is possible to become disinterested.

Find new ways to keep your training interesting and challenging. Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries of what you can do as long as you build to it sensibly and within the framework of your training.

Build new training stimuli like elevation, new terrain, more distance and more intensity slowly into your training but keep reviewing which areas you would like to change and improve on.

But you need to ‘win’ as well

You can’t keep pushing all the time. That can lead to overuse injuries and becoming burnt out. Remember to keep a high proportion of your training easy. Have some down weeks to recover physically and mentally.

You don’t always have to be on the edge of your capabilities even in harder sessions. Sometimes, accomplishing a session whilst feeling you had a little more to give can be a powerful mental tool for future sessions.

If you are constantly struggling in every session it will sap your enjoyment and increase your doubts of your own abilities. Find a balance to your training that is challenging but where you are able to prevail more often than not.

Keep enjoying what you’re doing

Ultimately, you can follow everything above but if you are not enjoying your training your consistency will wane in the end. Hopefully following everything above will sustain both your enjoyment and your consistency.

Of course there will always be the odd session that didn’t go to plan or you didn’t feel 100% on but if that is happening more often than not then you need to change something up. Go back through the list. Is your training sustainable, working towards a goal, challenging but also manageable?

By staying consistent with your training you greatly reduce the risk of injury caused by sporadic high and low mileage weeks. You will also raise your base fitness to a much higher level allowing you to build and excel at your running in the future.

Don’t be afraid to dream

Why most of us are constantly underachieving

It’s the time of year we like to set new goals and look forward to the future. We think about all the things we ‘did wrong’ last year and sometimes we might consider what went right too.

What are your goals for this new year? How did you arrive at them? Is there a burning desire to achieve something or did you just feel like you should set something to do?

How ambitious are your goals? Did you set something outside of your comfort zone or are you playing it safe? Are you worried what people will say if you fail?

Why are we afraid to push our boundaries?

Most people are afraid to think big. It has been ingrained in us at an early age that we shouldn’t fail. (Actually I’m pleased to say that this is a message that has started to change in schools. At my son’s primary school they do talk about reframing failure as a learning opportunity).

But for me and for many, the emphasis was always on ‘good results’ and ‘staying out of trouble’ and ‘conforming to the expected norm’. The result is that most people lead average lives putting an average amount of effort into everything and thinking that we’re only capable of average.

That belief coupled with worrying what other people think if we try and do something out of the ordinary leaves us too scared to try something radically new. Yet the reality is that because so many people think like this, it isn’t as hard as you think to do something more extreme.

Your ‘why’ has to be strong

If you don’t have a strong reason for doing something then it will be difficult to follow through with it. People’s reasons for doing things vary greatly and can be very personal. They might also not be immediately obvious. You might have to ask ‘why’ several times before you find the root reason.

For example: I want to run – why – to complete a marathon – why – to raise money for charity – why – because it is a cause I believe in strongly – why – because a member of my family suffered from the disease and I want to help others in that situation.

A strong reason will help you battle through when things get tough.

How big should the goal be?

The size of the goal is going to be very individual too. The goal of running a marathon might feel a very long way off for someone new to running but it wouldn’t be a big challenge for me without adding a strict time element. Conversely, a 100 mile race would be a big challenge for me but not for accomplished ultramarathoners.

Fitness entrepreneur Brian Keane says you should pick a goal that feels a little over what you think you could reasonably achieve. I agree with this. It needs to be something that you would absolutely love to achieve but also not something so wild that you will quickly get discouraged.

You have to be completely honest with yourself when assessing this. The context is key too. It is absolutely possible for many people to drop their marathon time by 30 minutes or more because their training has never been ideal. It would be very hard indeed for me to drop 30 minutes.

It can be tempting to play it too safe. Time goals especially lend themselves to this. It could be far more compelling to go for a sub 4 hour marathon than a sub 3:50 marathon but the latter might be the right goal for you to really get the best out of yourself. The sub 4 will come for free.

Tell people your goal

It is scary to pick a goal that you might fail at. But failure doesn’t need to be the end of the story. You can tweak things and go back and try again or you can change course to something else more suited.

Unless you are very strong willed it is a good idea to make your target public or at least tell people close to you. It gives an extra incentive to keep going when things are difficult. It also stops you backing out if you start doubting yourself.

In the extreme case, people will tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t do something. If your reason is strong enough, you will use this as fuel to prove them wrong and do it anyway. That’s precisely what happened to me in 2017.

What does an ‘unrealistic’ goal look like?

In 2017 I decided to run 24 parkruns (5k routes) across Northern Ireland in 24 hours. I was inspired by Eddie Izzard’s 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa (in my opinion a much more impressive feat).

I was told by numerous people that it couldn’t be done. And they had good reason to doubt me. I’d never run more than a marathon, logistically it seemed a nightmare and to be completely honest, I didn’t know if I could do it myself.

Once I said I was doing it publicly I knew I couldn’t change my mind. I was going to do it or crash spectacularly trying. But those doubting voices including my own added fuel to the fire.

My ‘why’ was strong. I was doing it in tribute to my late Mum, a marathoner and inspiration for my own running whilst raising money for charity.

I chose the challenge because it was different to anything other people were doing and anything I’d done before. I didn’t want to ‘play it safe’ and it also made me feel more confident asking for sponsorship!

So many people got on board with it in terms of running, organisation and sponsorship which made it a huge success raising over £10000. I am indebted to all those people but I do think the project appealed more because it was quite extreme (for me at that time).

What does ‘unrealistic’ mean to you?

Reevaluate your own goals for 2021. You don’t have to go as extreme as I did in 2017 (I haven’t myself) and it is all relative but could you push your targets a bit more?

If you plan to run a 5k – could you run a 10k? If you are targeting a 5 minute PB in the marathon, could you make it 10 minutes? If you want to raise £1000, could you raise £2000?

Choose something that makes you feel uncomfortable and start achieving!

Christmas with a difference

Enjoy yourself and stay on top of your health this Christmas

Christmas 2018 at Waterworks parkrun Belfast

Like many, it will be a very different Christmas for us this year. We won’t see any other family and we’re even opting for afternoon tea instead of a Christmas dinner. There won’t be the annual rush to get out of the door and down to the parkrun start line on time!

I know many will face tougher Christmasses than us and I extend my best wishes to you all especially this year. Keep your body and mind active and stay healthy.

We will be heading out for a run/walk on Christmas morning. It will be the first time in 7 years I haven’t done the parkrun but the coach has a run in the plan and it’s always good to get out early and enjoy the rest of the day in the warm.

It’s tempting to fall off the wagon completely at this time of the year in many aspects. Suddenly it’s colder outside and those runs don’t seem as appealing. Our diet can fall by the wayside because there are more ‘treats’ lying around that can sneak their way in.

New year is just round the corner which seems like the perfect opportunity to pick up the pieces but it can be harder than it needs to be depending on how far we’ve let it slide.

Last year I purposely took 2 weeks off running. I’d just run a marathon at the end of November and I felt I needed a little break. But I didn’t replace it with anything. No walks round the block, no cycling or swimming.

And I’m also the type of person that cannot resist an open bag of doritos, a tub of quality street or a social drink. Visiting family and friends at Christmas always turned into too much food and drink for a few days in a row.

I remember it taking a few weeks of marathon training in January to start feeling like I was getting back into shape again. It was tough to get going again even with the cross country season in swing and Boston marathon to look forward to.

That’s not to say that Christmas time shouldn’t be enjoyed. You should absolutely have the best time you can – we deserve it this year more than any. But there are ways to mitigate how much work it will take in January to get into shape. We don’t have to let it slide till then.

Try and maintain your regular running schedule. If you can’t do that or want a little break then why not go for a walk instead? Take the kids round the lights in the neighbourhood at night. I think people have made more effort with decorations than usual this year and we were out for half an hour last night.

Enjoy the food and drink but think twice about digging in the tub for more and more chocolate. If I wasn’t paying attention I would just keep eating if something is out on the table. Limit the amount of ‘nibbles’ you put out and ideally limit the amount in the house! We always buy more than we need.

Better still try and opt for healthier nibbles such as veggie sticks. Use dips if you like, overall they’re still going to be a lot healthier than bowls of crisps.

Use the time now to think about your goals for 2021. It’s tempting to switch off entirely and wait till the 1st of January to wave the magic wand but if you have time off round Christmas, it‘s a great time to reflect on the year and start planning ahead.

January comes round very quickly and before we know it we’re back at the grind with Christmas a distant memory and we haven’t got a proper handle on what we’re doing next.

A walk or a run can be a perfect time to get out and think about this year and next. Are you happy with where you are and what you are doing? What areas of your life could be improved? What could you start doing to address that area?

Enjoy Christmas and a massive thank you for reading and supporting my articles. Please let me know if there are areas you’d like me to write about more by emailing me or DM on social media. See you all in 2021!

Fail in training not in races

Why a ‘bad’ training session can be great in the long run

Anyone who has run for any length of time has had one. A training session that sucked. The paces were all off or you felt sluggish or maybe your brain was telling you you couldn’t do it. You were left wondering why you even bother.

I have them from time to time and it is frustrating. We want to be able to smash everything that is thrown at us – be an A* student all the time. But even though I’ll still be disappointed, I’ve started looking at these types of sessions more pragmatically.

You’re not a robot

One thing I’m realising more and more through studying nutrition is that the body is an amazingly complex thing. And day to day it’s affected by far more than just your current ‘fitness level’.

Sleep, diet, hydration, stress and mindset can all play a significant role in running. Add that to external factors such as terrain and conditions and there is no valid way of determining exactly how you should and will perform on any given day.

Just because you run at a certain pace one week, it doesn’t mean that you can and will the next week. We can’t set all the factors up exactly the same each time so let’s not beat ourselves up about being slightly slower one week.

Tracking devices are not accurate

‘Your running watch is wrong!’. I heard this quote at a talk once and it made me smile. I, like many others, think of our watch readings as the holy grail of tracking. A second per mile here or there, a particular heart rate reading or that extra .01 mile you do for Strava are all vitally important.

However, the truth is that there is an element of inaccuracy in all of them. Some can be better than others but there is no way to know exactly how accurate they are at any particular time. So again, let’s not get disheartened over a few seconds here and there when we don’t know if the distance is accurate.

You’re more fatigued in training

I’ve consoled myself with this on many occasions. If your training plan is set up correctly, you should (usually) be able to muster up a better performance on race day as there will be an amount of tapering that will have you optimally rested.

Of course you should have rest days built into your plan but you may still be doing some high intensity training two days after a long run. You’re unlikely to be doing a race two days after a long run.

You’re also more likely to (and should!) prioritise sleep, hydration and diet more in the days leading up to a race whereas you may not have time or the inclination to make it a big priority during a training cycle (though you should certainly still try to).

You’re training at the right level

If I sailed through every training session smashing all the paces then I’d probably be very satisfied with myself. Until I asked the question – why is this training so easy? Should I be pushing myself harder? What am I really capable of?

I know when I coached myself that sometimes I would let myself off the hook in a session. Nobody else would care about my pace so only I would know. But now with a coach, there is nowhere to hide. And sometimes I will ‘fail’ in my own eyes.

But doing so is a confirmation that the training is pitched at the right level. I have a good amount of success with it but it is challenging. If I failed to hit the paces any of the time then the training set would be too difficult.

Draw on the ‘bad’ experience in races

Some of those sessions stick in your mind for various reasons. But you can use them in a positive way to get through difficult patches in races by focusing on how you overcame them. Pair them up with good sessions and see how you progressed over time.

Sometimes I like to imagine one of those bad sessions in a race and think ‘at least this isn’t as bad as that!’. It could be extreme weather conditions or a niggle that you were carrying or just bad circumstances around a particular run.

There are no ‘bad’ runs

Ultimately, every experience shapes you as a runner and person. There are no ‘bad’ runs. There are challenging circumstances and we find a way to deal with them. Maybe not there and then but over time.

If you shy away from ‘bad’ sessions then you lose some of this experience. That doesn’t mean to say we can’t strive for perfection but that if things do go slightly awry, we learn from those situations to make us better runners.

Why I hired an online running coach

10 reasons why investing in my running was a no-brainer

Screenshot of a prescribed run on my plan

This year I hired an online running coach and it has significantly enhanced my training and life. This may come as a bit of a surprise to some given that I am a running coach myself and my own running has improved a lot in the last few years while I’ve largely coached myself.

I want to share with you some of the reasons I chose to work with another coach and some of the additional benefits I got as a result.

  1. New coach, new ideas

Ever feel like your training plans are getting a bit stale? Mine have developed over the years by following and adapting various training plans. Although there was quite a range of sessions I’d built up, I’d naturally started gravitating to the ones I typically prefer.

However, my coach has put in some new session formats I’d not tried before. This really helps keep training fresh and motivation high. It also means my bank of sessions to choose from in the future has increased.

  1. Tackle weak areas

Whilst focusing more on sessions I enjoyed, I was sometimes neglecting sessions that would work on my weaker areas. It’s easy when you are your own coach to skip those hill sessions or strength work that you don’t enjoy as much.

Having someone else coaching you means you don’t get let off the hook as easily. It’s also great to get advice on how to make those tougher sessions seem a little less daunting.

  1. Know how hard to push

Quite often in the past I would be guilty of either pushing too hard or not pushing hard enough. The level was sometimes quite subjective to mood rather than objective to fitness levels.

I still do think that the individual knows their own body best but it’s incredibly useful having an independent coach who has expectations on what you should be able to achieve in a session. Sometimes it acts to push me a little harder than I’d ideally like and sometimes it holds me back a little from an unnecessary high level of effort.

  1. Accountability

Essentially, a coach gives you accountability in what you are doing. Instead of wimping out on that final push of a tempo run or dropping that easy run because it was wet outside, I now know that somebody else is watching what I am doing.

  1. Get back time

One of the biggest reasons for getting a coach was to free up my own time and energy that I would previously have used putting together my own training schedule. Or worse still, trying to figure out day to day what I should be doing in times where I hadn’t done my own schedule.

I always found that my own training plan was always the one I wrote last and occasionally it didn’t get done at all. Now I don’t need to worry. I always know in advance what I’m doing and I don’t have to think too much about it. Sure, I’ll contribute to the overall structure but I don’t need to deal in the specifics.

  1. First hand advice

One of the key benefits of having a coach is being able to bounce ideas off them. I am of course dictating the goals I want to achieve but I can now have a discussion with someone else as to the best way to get to those goals.

I can also get feedback on specific sessions that went well or not so well and how to handle the ups and downs. A coach can be much more objective when my own reaction to sessions may be a bit more erratic depending on how I feel it went.

  1. Use someone else’s experience

Having someone coaching me who is a much more experienced runner is a massive boost. I can get valuable insights not only into training but mental and physical preparation and racing. It’s also inspiring to work with someone who is competing at such a high level themselves.

  1. Improve own knowledge

I am a believer in continuous learning and that your overall knowledge is shaped by the interactions you have. Especially now when it is harder to meet and train with other people, I think it makes complete sense to work with someone else online.

The sharing of thoughts and knowledge helps to become multi dimensional in your own approach and I’m sure that comes through in my own coaching.

  1. Build up support network

A coach can open doors to other fitness professionals they know that may be able to help you on your journey. I’m currently doing a weekly online strength class recommended by my coach. It could be a physio, nutritionist or therapist, all of which are great to have recommendations for.

  1. Tap into potential

I’m not getting any younger and realise there is probably a limited time window to hit the times I want to. I’m still improving as a runner and I see older runners still improving too but I want to make sure I’m doing the most I can to get the most out of myself now. I don’t want to look back and think ‘what if?’.

Invest in yourself

I’ve known I was serious about my running for a long time now but actually taking it to the next level and investing in myself solidifies that commitment. Does it guarantee success? Of course not. But I firmly believe it greatly increases the chances.

In what ways could you invest in yourself and what benefits would you see?

More than one way to climb a mountain

How will you get to the top?

You are sitting in your car at the bottom of a mountain with a goal of reaching the top. You can see the top from where you are. It looks steep and daunting to go straight up and you know there is a longer gradual path that climbs round the side of the mountain.

Which do you choose?

The answer may seem obvious to you but there is more than one legitimate choice and it may depend on your goal, mindset and other factors.

Route one

The first option is to scramble up the steep side making a beeline for the top. You know it will be a tougher route and it might not be enjoyable but you hope it will save you some time and get you to the top faster.

There are some pros and cons to this approach. The main pro is that you are fully focused on your end goal, reaching the top, and you are going to try and achieve it in the shortest time possible.

This is good if time is a limiting factor, you can give it your full focus and your main reason for this expedition is to reach the top. But what if you are also expecting a business call? Are you going to be able to take that at the same time?

What if it gets unexpectedly steep? Will you be able to carry on? Do you want to enjoy the ascent to the top, not just the view from the top?

The long and winding road

The second option is to take the long path that you know is a more gentle ascent. You know it might take longer to get to the top but you’d like to enjoy the journey too. You can take that business call because you’re not clinging onto rocks with your hands.

Here the pros and cons flip round. The main con is that it might take longer to reach the top. In fact, this time there is a risk that you turn round before the top, not because it has got too difficult, but that the path is too long and you got bored walking it.

But on the plus side, you can appreciate the views while you are climbing, you don’t have to put everything else on hold while you climb. You are also less likely to encounter unexpected obstacles impeding your route.

Come back another day

There is a third option. You decide that today isn’t the day to get to the top. Maybe the mist is down and conditions aren’t ideal for you to start on this journey. Maybe there are more important things in your life that you need to concentrate on today.

This is also a valid route. You have the option to say ‘this isn’t right for me now but I will tackle this at a point in the future’. Get specific on when that might be though because ‘later’ is code for ‘never’ in many cases.

So what is the right approach?

I hope you can see by now that this isn’t about climbing a mountain! It stands true for not only running goals but any goal in life. And there is no answer that is right all the time. I have used all three, and the right answer depends on what your goal is and what your circumstances are.

I am a fan of making incremental changes that can be sustained in the long term because that way you are more likely to enjoy the process and keep improving and progressing.

But that doesn’t mean that this is always the right thing to do and occasionally achieving a goal is more important than the journey to get there. In that case, making a lot of short term sacrifices to get there can be a valid approach. Just be careful to ensure the goal is really that important.

To extend our mountain metaphor, imagine you went route one to the top of the mountain but when you get to the top you see another taller mountain in the distance. You now realise that you will have to descend a long way down first before ascending the next mountain. And you can see the longer path now leading steadily up to the higher mountain.

Routes I’ve taken over the years

I thought running a sub 3 marathon would be the pinnacle for me, that I’d be content once I got to the top but whilst I did feel a great sense of achievement, my immediate thought was ‘what next?’.

Thankfully in that case I was on a more gradual path to a higher mountain. I had made sustainable changes to my running schedule that stood me in good stead to ascend the next peak.

Contrast that with when I broke 20 mins for 5k the first time. That was a real slog because my training wasn’t good. I just kept turning up to parkruns and inching a few seconds off each week. When I finally got to the top, I celebrated and didn’t do it again for another 3 years because I hadn’t enjoyed the journey and any other mountains looked too far off in the distance.

Finally, in 2017 I ran 24 parkruns in 24 hours for charity. This is an example of where a route one approach worked. I had to sacrifice more time than I would like with training runs and the journey was tough. But the goal was clearly defined and mattered more. I didn’t need to be able to do it on an ongoing basis, I just needed to finish.

Get out of the car!

What do you want to achieve and what approach will you take? When will you do it? It is fine to turn the car round, go home and come back in a year. But don’t sit in the car forever staring up at the mountain. Decide now and choose your path to the top of your running mountain.

Ready to nail a sub 3 marathon?

5 specific workouts to show you’re on target for a sub 3

When racing a marathon nothing is guaranteed. You only have to look at Eliud Kipchoge, probably the greatest marathoner of all time, at the 2020 London marathon to see that anyone can have issues causing them to have an off day.

However, for running a sub 3 hour marathon, there are some specific workouts that, if you can hit or get very close to, will show you’re on the right track. Of course, none of them are the same as running 26.2 miles in 3 hours but they give a good approximation of your fitness and ability.

Yasso 800s

I promise I’ll include some less well documented sessions but it would be remiss of me not to mention Yasso 800s which, simply put, are 10 x 800m intervals where each interval takes 3 minutes. Standard recovery is 3 minutes in between intervals but I think you can get away with as little as 90 seconds.

You should not be flat out on these intervals. I equate the pace to be roughly 10k pace or around an 8 out of 10 effort. These are best done on the track for ease of measuring 800m (2 laps) and to keep the conditions consistent between intervals.

You can do these out on the road but there is nothing worse than turning halfway through a session to find you had the wind behind you for the first half and battling against it for the second half.

If you can get a consistent effort of 3 minutes across all intervals then you’re in good shape for a 3 hour marathon. Interestingly, this works proportionally for other target times too. E.g. for a 4 hour marathon, the 800s should take 4 minutes; for a 5 hour marathon, 5 minutes (though in this case I would suggest only doing 8 intervals as it becomes a very long session).

Sixes and Sevens

This is a really tough session but great for your confidence if you can manage it. Run 20 x 1 minute on at 6 minute per mile pace, 1 minute off at 7 minute per mile pace. It ends up being a 40 minute fartlek session.

Running a minute at 6 minute per mile pace is not bad especially if you manage the Yasso session above but the ‘recovery’ at near marathon pace is tough. However, with practice you start to see the 7 minute mile pace as easy (which it needs to be, certainly at the start of the marathon).

Again, I recommend doing this on a track or somewhere flat, looped and sheltered.

10x your 5k time

This one tends to break down a little bit at either end of the spectrum but I still think it is a useful gauge in terms of your expected marathon time. Run your current best 5k effort and multiply by 10 to get an approximate marathon time. Working backwards from 3 hours gives 18 minutes for a 5k.

Of course, for a marathon you need strength and endurance not just speed so it’s only a guide and some may find they can run a sub 3 hour and not get under 18 minutes and some may be better over 5k and struggle with the marathon but it is a good target to get under your belt.

Additionally, it is a good test of your mental ability. Both an 18 minute 5k and a sub 3 hour marathon are tough but in completely different ways. The more ways you find to challenge yourself and the more situations you come through mentally, the better for tackling new challenges.

Long Run Fast Finish

This was a game changer for when I broke 3 hours the first time. The idea is fairly well documented but I’ve seen plenty of generic marathon training plans that don’t include these runs. Run the last 3-4 miles of a long run (e.g. 14 or 16 miles) at close to half marathon pace.

For a sub 3 I would recommend the last 4 miles at 6:30 pace though this is really hard to do if you’re not used to it. At the start of the training cycle you might have a job hitting target marathon pace but that’s fine. You’ll get to feel what marathon pace is like and over time get faster.

This trains your body and mind to run at pace on tired legs which you will need to do on marathon day. I firmly believe that running as close to even splits as possible is the best strategy to running your best marathon. This means you have to run as fast in mile 26 as in mile 1 but the effort is much greater. The fast finish runs prepare you somewhat for this.

However, I also believe they have a less obvious benefit. Knowing you have 4 tough miles at the end means you are more likely to reign in your effort at the start of a long run which is also something you need to do on race day.

(Atlantic) 252 hour

Remember the radio station or am I the only one that is old around here?! This is an elaborate name for a simple concept; an hour long 9 mile tempo with 2 miles at marathon pace (6:50), 5 miles at half marathon pace (6:20-6:30), 2 miles at marathon pace (6:50).

Like the fast finish runs, you have to hold back for the first 2 miles (consider this the warm up). The next 5 miles are comfortably hard; a pace that you feel you can hold, you’re not quite on the edge but you are working. When you get this pace right you almost feel invincible.

The last 2 miles will feel a relief from the faster pace but you still have to keep moving. Again this is great practice for the marathon itself. You will feel like you want to ease off that marathon pace but you have to keep ticking those miles off in under 7 minutes.

The beauty of this is that it fits almost exactly into an hour. If you’re looking to progress with this workout I would keep the marathon pace constant and work on lowering the time for the middle 5 miles. The controlled but challenging pace makes this one of my favourite runs.

Try one this week!

Don’t worry if you can’t hit these in week 1 or even week 10 – a marathon training cycle is long and you will adapt greatly over the course. These represent targets for what you can achieve towards the end of the training cycle but you can start working up to them from the beginning either by reducing the reps or the paces.

There are many other sessions that can and should be incorporated into a good marathon training plan; these are just some of my favourites. Why not try one of these this week? What other sessions do you love in a marathon training cycle?

Running fitter for longer

More ways than you think to prevent injuries

Injuries can be the most frustrating aspect of running. Some are unfortunate like spraining an ankle on uneven terrain but in many cases we can avoid or at least mitigate injuries by looking after ourselves more.

Find a great physio

The first obvious thing to say is that if you have any injury concerns you should see a good physio. Even if you have never had any issues, it is worth having a recommended physio ready should you ever need them.

I’ve talked to plenty of people before complaining of niggles but when I ask if they’ve been to a physio they’ll say ‘Yeah I should do that’ or ‘I’ll see if it gets any better this week’. That’s code for ‘I’m not going to see a physio – I don’t think it’s serious enough’!

Physios are not just for elite athletes – we all need a bit of maintenance or fixing from time to time. If something unexpected started happening with your car, would you take it to a mechanic or keep driving it hoping it would go away?

Additionally to seeing a physio, I advise getting a yearly check up with your GP just to make sure there are no new issues with your heart health.

Running on a solid foundation

The stronger your body is the more chance you have of staying injury free. Many people who love running, including me, shy away from specific strength training because they don’t find it as fun. However, it doesn’t need to take a huge amount of time or even be a chore.

If you have been to the physio before they may well have given you strengthening exercises for your weak areas which can form the basis of your routine. Exercises like squats, planks and hip hinges will improve your mobility as well as building strength.

If you find time is an issue, try doing a set of exercises after an easy run day (just not the day before an intense session). If you find doing strength work boring, stick on your favourite podcast, audiobook or music to help get through it.

Different types of running sessions such as hill training or cross country can also help with strength. As always, if you are trying something new, build up slowly! 

Regulate the volume and intensity of your training

A good training plan will manage the volume of training properly week to week but you also have to be aware of your base level of fitness before starting any plan. You can’t immediately go from running 10 miles a week to a plan starting at 30 miles a week without increasing your risk of injury.

Similarly, you need to monitor the intensity of your training. Running too hard too much of the time increases cortisol (commonly referred to as the stress hormone) because your body cannot tell if you are running for fun or running away from a sabre toothed tiger!

Yes you will have some sessions in the week that are hard and these will adapt your body over time but too many people run too hard during their easy runs. It wasn’t until I started monitoring my heart rate that I realised I was running too fast on easy days.

Running slower on easy days has tremendous aerobic benefits but also reduces the stress on your body and your recovery time. It should leave you feeling fresher to tackle the hard days too.

Mix up your terrain (slowly!)

Take your best wine glass and drop it onto different running terrains. Is it most likely to survive on grass, sand, treadmill or pavement? I certainly wouldn’t be backing the pavement! Running exerts tremendous forces through the body which can be reduced by running on softer surfaces.

However, although this is true, you should introduce this gradually if it is not something you do very often. You will need more strength to run on softer surfaces because the reactive force is not as great from the surface. Anyone who has run cross country in the mud will know it takes much more effort to keep going than on the road!

Additionally, some of these softer surfaces are less even and predictable so you need to be more vigilant for potential hazards such as holes in the grass / sand or tree roots on trails. Introduce new terrains slowly into your routine.

Fuel your running properly

Your diet can have a big impact on your injury and illness prevention. Your body needs energy for all bodily functions, not just exercise. Eating enough to fuel your training is important because it prevents taking energy away from other things like your immune system and bone health.

Additionally, eating a well balanced, varied diet with good quality foods will help to get all the micronutrients essential for good health. To go back to the car analogy, you are very careful to put the right fuel in your car to avoid problems down the line and although the body is far more complex, the same basic principle should apply to your body.

As a last note on diet, carrying excess weight can add more stress to the joints when running. This is absolutely not to say you shouldn’t run unless at your optimal weight. It is so beneficial to exercise no matter what your body composition. However, it does mean you should respect the extra work your body has to do and that losing a few pounds (if you wish) may help prevent injury.

Appreciate the effects of lifestyle

As mentioned before, training can put an extra stress on your body. Generally, this is good because you control the amount of stress to a level that is healthy and will adapt your body to be stronger over the long term.

However, there are many other stresses we encounter in our daily lives. Poor sleep, work stress and anxiety can give your body more to cope with than it can handle. It doesn’t necessarily have to be linked to training stress, the body has to deal with everything that is thrown at it.

At times of sleep deprivation or high pressures at work, we are more vulnerable to injury and illness. The key is to be flexible, listen to your body, understand what pressures you are under and adapt training accordingly if necessary. It could be tempting to blast your fastest 5k of the year after a stressful meeting but it might not be the best for your body!

Could you make a change this week?

What is causing you the most risk of injury? What could be a quick fix for you? Whilst it is difficult to predict exactly when and how an injury will manifest itself, by being aware of the factors above, you can stack the odds more in your favour.

Running like clockwork

How to love running even when you’re busy

Most of us are busy. All of the time. We work all day in jobs that demand more and more of us, we have families to support and nurture. We have meals to cook, packed lunches to make, kids to ferry about the place. It doesn’t leave us with a lot of energy for ourselves.

We might be able to get motivated with our running for a week or two or three but then something unexpected crops up and we miss a day. Then we miss two days, three, a week. Suddenly we realise we’re back out of the habit and we’re losing fitness and confidence. The motivation has gone.

When we lack consistency we lack the ability to reach the potential we have. Not only that but it’s bad for our mind because we know we could do better. If only we had the time.

Enjoy running now

Part of the problem is that we’re very good at choosing outcome goals for our running – completing a marathon, running a fast 5k. We’re not as good at defining our process goals. What do we want our training to look like week to week? How much time do we want to dedicate to it?

If we want to run a marathon, we will need to do a decent amount of training. Does this fit in with what we want to do currently in our lives? Will we be able to keep up with it with the other commitments we have?

Maybe it is a goal for further down the line and actually we’d just like to run consistently for 30 minutes 3 times a week to enhance your physical and mental wellbeing. We can probably still have some outcome goals based around this as well but over a shorter distance.

You don’t have to do it alone

Talk to your friends, family or work colleagues. Explain why running is so important to you and that you need to spend X time on it a week. Try to offset that by sharing responsibilities (cooking, kids etc) so that they can also do something they want to do.

Finding time for anything is much easier if you don’t feel guilty for doing it. Think of the benefits for others as well as yourself. Your mood and health is likely to be much better from running and you’re also going to make sure they have time for things too.

Be specific with your plans

Once you know what you want to do week to week, the best way to stay on track is to have a plan. But most plans are not enough by themselves. They will tell you what type of session to do on what day. But you need to be more specific if you struggle with consistency.

What time are you going to run? Where are you going to run? Do you have all the gear that you need ready? What happens if something unavoidable crops up? Do you have a plan B?

If you only have a vague plan in your head then it is very easy to let your running slide. Excuses can creep in. Do a quick planning session once a week for the upcoming week. Identify any problem days or abnormal commitments and work out how your runs will fit round them.

But I simply don’t have the time!

Some people are incredibly busy but most of us just think we are busier than we actually are. There are 24 hours a day. Let’s say you are lucky and get 9 hours of sleep a night, that leaves 15 a day or 105 a week.

Maybe you work 40 hours a week and maybe you spend the same amount of time on your friends/family. You’ve still got 25 hours left. What do you do with this time? Could you cut a little TV or social media time? Are there times you’re not really doing much because you haven’t got a plan?

The NHS guidelines are to get 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week for your health. We should all be able to find that time but we may need to be a little bit creative to do it. Here are some suggestions:

  • Go early! – Getting out for your run early gives you a head start on the rest of the day. In summer it has the added bonus of getting you out in the sunlight which helps sleeping patterns. (If you are doing this in winter make sure you are well lit and somebody knows where you are going. Only run on roads with proper footpaths and lighting.)
  • Run during your lunch break – This is an effective use of time that you might otherwise be reading a news website or trawling through social media. If you work in an office, check to see if you have showers in the building. Many modern offices now do.
  • Use school times or kids clubs Can you run straight after you’ve dropped the kids off to school or immediately before picking them up? Do your kids go to drama, sports clubs etc? These are often perfect slots of time for a run while you wait for them.
  • Struggling for childcare? Take them with you! – This can work for children of all ages. For very young children you can get a running buggy. Older kids might be able to run with you. For primary age kids, is there a football pitch you can run round while they play in the middle?

Start today!

Finding time is not easy but with a little bit of purpose, support and creativity, you can love running once again. What is your biggest struggle and what will you do today? Please leave a comment or mail me at alan@therunningrules.com.

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