The Running Rules

Helping runners master their training and nutrition so that they can go further, run faster and smash their running goals

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.

Only two ways to get faster

Speed = Cadence x Stride Length

There are only two ways to get faster: increase your cadence or increase your stride length. Cadence is how many strides you take per minute. Stride length is the distance travelled per stride. Multiply them together and you will get the distance you cover per minute. Increase either one and the distance covered per minute (i.e. your speed) will increase.

That’s all there is to it. Simples.

Actually it is that simple, but how to do it is not necessarily as easy. The two factors are not independent so increasing one will probably affect the other either positively or negatively. Also, everyone’s build and technique differs, so how do you know which one you should try to increase?

Are you a shuffler or a loper?

At the two ends of the scale are the shuffler and the loper. A shuffler may have a high cadence but a small stride length due to little or no push off from the ground. Imagine sliding your feet out in front of you and doing that as fast as you can. The length of your legs is the limiting factor.

The loper uses a lot of energy to propel themselves in the air and may have a reasonably long stride length but the extra time in the air coupled with overstriding means their potential cadence is greatly reduced.

Overstriding, where the foot lands in front of the body at an angle which is not perpendicular to the ground, applies a braking force to the body (imagine running down a steep hill and actually trying to stop yourself going too fast).

This is a good way to get injured as it increases force through the ankle and knee especially. It also increases the ground contact time which reduces cadence.

The best way to see which you are is to get someone to analyse your technique or video yourself. Check that you are not overstriding by looking at the angle of your foot as it lands. It should be straight and under your body’s centre of mass.

Secondly, look at how far off the ground you push off. If you don’t get far off the ground, you may not be pushing off as much as you could. Of course too much is a waste of energy.

Finally, check your current cadence at a medium/hard effort – something you can hold for an hour. Your training should have a variety of paces included so we want to measure something that is in the middle. When you run faster or slower then cadence or stride length has to change but it’s likely to be a bit of both.

Although there is no hard and fast rule for optimum cadence, most elites are purported to run with a cadence around 180. However, runners have a big variation in cadence depending on many factors so cadences above 200 or lower than 150 are not uncommon.

The point is, the lower your cadence is now, the more room you probably have for increasing it. If you already have a very high cadence, you probably need to look more at improving your stride efficiency to get faster.

I know what I am, but now what should I do?

Knowing which end of the scale you are will help you to know whether you should try to increase cadence or stride length and you may actually have to decrease the other to improve in the long run.

Firstly, if you are overstriding, you should try and correct this. But the easiest way is to try and increase your cadence because, in doing so, it will likely force you to shorten your stride length.

Secondly, if your technique is not obviously at either extreme, try to increase your cadence very gradually but maintain your form. Adding strides to some of your sessions will give you practice at running with a higher cadence.

Increasing cadence is the easier way to get faster but it isn’t the most suitable for everyone. If you know that your cadence is high already and you observe little to no push off the ground, try some running drills like A-skips and bounds to improve your push off. This will help you increase your stride length.

Your cadence may actually drop a little at first as you put more energy into each stride but this will give you more headroom to increase your cadence again later.

If you make any changes to your technique, do it very gradually! Running in an unfamiliar way will put stress on places that aren’t used to it so only do this in small bits.

Keep analysing yourself

Most running watches will provide data for both cadence and stride length. Monitor these on a monthly basis on a similar type run to check for any noticeable changes. Try to video yourself monthly too.

The more you watch yourself, the more you are likely to notice anything out of place. If you’re unsure of what you are looking for then ask a coach or send me an email – I’d be more than happy to help.

Which type of runner are you? What is your cadence? How will you get faster?

What is your plan now?

Getting your focus right for the times

This week, after months of speculation, London marathon was finally cancelled. For the masses at least. (Hello to Eliud again if you’re reading this, you can probably skip this one…) I’d be amazed if that came as a big surprise to anyone. There just didn’t seem any way they could pull it off.

But even if it wasn’t a shock, it finally ends the last shred of hope for thousands of runners, many of which might have been running there for the first time. It may have been a lifelong dream for some culminating in the one event.

Of course, there are many in the world suffering at the hands of the virus and the cancelling of a race should be considered in that context, but the virus has far reaching effects for many outside the obvious factors.

It places uncertainty on almost all aspects of life and to many, running is a multi-faceted health benefit improving body and mind, not to mention generating huge amounts of money for charities.

London is just one of many races cancelled round the world and the chances are that if you had a race planned in 2020, you will have been affected. It is understandable that, for some, finding the motivation to carry on and build on their training will be difficult.

It might seem harder to focus now than during the first main lockdown in the spring. Back then, the messages coming out were to endure the lockdown for a few months then things would start getting back to normal. Now, there doesn’t seem to be a timeline. We’re past the first lockdown but things are far from back to normal.

However, the benefits of running haven’t changed and for most of us there are higher personal reasons for running than doing a particular race. Motivation will ebb and flow but if we have a solid routine and good reasons for carrying it out, lack of motivation can be overcome.

Can you run your race virtually?

A lot of races are offering a virtual option. Some of these, like the New York marathon, give guaranteed entry into a future race which might well appeal to some. Even if there is no virtual option it doesn’t stop you running the distance yourself.

There are pros and cons to running virtually. The plus side is that there is none of the expense and logistical problems of a big city marathon. You can just lace up and run from your front door if you wish. If there are no time constraints, you can pick the date and time to suit you too.

You can pick any course you like. You can make it flat as a pancake for a good time, you could choose something very scenic or you could challenge yourself with the terrain or elevation. Doing the latter can help ease any time pressures you might have otherwise imposed on yourself.

However, it is much harder to run a good time without closed roads, crowds cheering you on and aid stations. You may have to carry supplies or pre-plan to stash them en route. You need to be conscious of traffic if you are not off-road.

You may be able to get someone to support you or run some/all with you if you are running for a longer time or you could run loops from your house to avail of the facilities. My brother ran 20 5k loops from his house in 2013 to raise money for charity and was joined by many for varying numbers of loops.

If you do choose to run a race virtually, decide on your motivation for doing it and decide on your goal. Don’t shortcut your training just because it isn’t a ‘real’ race. Whatever you do, you want to be able to cover the distance comfortably without getting injured.

Try something new

Maybe like me, you were training for a marathon but don’t want to run one virtually. I love running but to me, the marathon is something a bit extra. With a young family, the weekend long runs are a big sacrifice of time and yet my weekly mileage has increased without doing these.

Instead, I’ve been training towards a 10k with slightly more sessions across the week but in general shorter. The change has been subtle but enjoyable and I feel in the best shape of my life. Tuning up for a longer race would not take too long either.

There are lots of things you could do to vary your training up. You could train for a shorter distance like me or a longer distance which might relieve any time pressure. You could train on new terrain such as on trails or in the mountains or even on the beach.

You could change your routine. This is something I have intentionally done since lockdown. Because I no longer have to commute to work, I get my run done in the morning instead of at lunchtime from work. This has also changed the terrain for me as it is hilly at home but flat near work.

Try tracking a different metric (see Trinity of Tracking). If you’ve never looked at your heart rate, buy a chest strap and start working out what your body is doing. If you’ve never kept a running journal, start giving yourself an RPE (Relative Perceived Exertion) score after each run.

Work on a weakness

We all have weaknesses and with limited racing opportunities it can be a good time to try and plug the gaps we have. There are so many aspects of running that also spill into our daily lives and general health.

You might work on a technical element of running by incorporating more running drills into your weekly schedule. You might improve your strength by adding in some/more strength work. This is something I have been very bad at in the past but have been doing in the last few months.

Maybe hills are your weakness or you shy away from speed work. Maybe you run too fast on easy days or don’t get enough sleep. Maybe your diet could be improved. There are so many things you could focus on.

Don’t try and change everything at once. Pick one or two things to work on and track your progress. Commit to persevering with it for your next training cycle and you will definitely see progression. In fact, it can be more rewarding than focusing on something we’re already good at because the improvements ought to be that much more stark.

Set your dream goals for the future

Whilst it might be difficult to see how to achieve some goals now, set out what you want to do in the next 5 years. It could be some of all of the things above or something very specific. Making long term goals can help you set your short term sights in the right direction.

For most of us I think staying injury free and enjoying our running is high up the list and following some of the ideas above will help towards that. Specific goals might be very personal. They might be a achieving a time goal or qualifying for or competing in a particular race.

Dream big! I still want to complete the six major marathons. So far I’ve only London on my CV and I’ve had Boston and Berlin cancelled this year. It means that I’ll need to stay fit for a few years yet as we don’t know what will happen over the next while and I’ll need to qualify again for some of them.

Most of all though I want running to be an effortless part of my life. It needs to be in balance with other things I do and I keep striving to find the optimum training schedule to do that. I think that is one of the most important keys to enjoying the process of training.

Start today!

Unfortunately, Covid-19 could be around for some time and our lives are constantly at risk of being disrupted. But time is not standing still. There is still so much that we can do to better ourselves and get fulfilment from our running. Take control of your running and make your plan today! Let me know what you’re focusing on right now.

The Trinity of Tracking

Triangulate your fitness and performance

Last time, we looked at how obsessing over pace can seriously affect our confidence. We touched on monitoring ‘relative perceived effort’ (RPE) and heart rate. But if you’ve never done this before, what do you do?

To get started with RPE, all you need is to score each running session out of 10 for intensity, making sure that the score fits in with the session purpose. For example, it is counter productive to run at 8 for an easy run or to run at 4 for intervals.

Another way to think of RPE might be to compare it to your starting effort for various race distances. I say starting effort because all races get harder towards the end when you fatigue. 1-2 could be a walk, 3-4 an ultra marathon, 5-6 a marathon, 7 a half marathon, 8 a 10k, 9 a 5k.

Different individuals may be inclined to underestimate or overestimate their effort but as long as the estimates are relative to each other they will be useful.

It is a more subjective metric but it gets you to think about how you feel rather than just watching numbers. This is important because it allows you to get more in tune with what your body is doing and allows you to decide when to push and when to hold back.

Heart rate monitoring is a little bit more complicated but is an invaluable tool. Firstly, you’ll need to invest in a chest strap monitor and a compatible watch (if you don’t own one already).

Many watches include wrist based heart monitoring but it isn’t very accurate compared to a chest strap. The wrist based monitoring can be very glitchy or generally non-responsive to intensity changes. However, most of the watches that have wrist based monitoring also allow you to pair a chest strap over bluetooth.

Next, you’ll need to work out what your ‘heart rate zones’ are. These are generally worked out as percentages of your maximum heart rate but it’s also difficult to find out what your maximum heart rate is.

The general rule of 220 – age is good enough to at least start off and see whether the numbers are in the right ballpark. Beware that some of the heart rate zones on tracking software like Strava and Garmin Connect also seem to be way off for most people.

To keep things simple for now, think of 3 intensity zones relating back to RPE, easy (up to 4), medium (5-7), hard (8 and up). You simply need to find your medium band. The lower end would be a pace and intensity you could maintain for a long time (several hours) and the top end is an intensity you could only keep going for an hour.

Using your maximum heart rate, try 80% for the lower end and 87% for the upper end. Over time you can tweak these numbers to be more accurate for you. Don’t forget heart rate is still a sliding scale not a stepped scale. The boundaries between intensity zones are not concrete so the bottom of the medium zone will be close to easy while the top is close to hard.

  • Example:
  • Runner Age: 36
  • Max HR: (220 – 36) = 184
  • Easy/Medium boundary (Aerobic Threshold) = (80% of 184) = 147
  • Medium/Hard boundary (Lactate Threshold) = (87% of 184) = 160

So all easy running should be 147 or below and harder interval sessions should be 160 or higher. Anything else such as marathon pace efforts or tempo running will fall between 147-160.

As said earlier, these are generic guidelines and you should fine tune these thresholds to what your body is telling you. At an easy pace, you should be able to maintain the same pace and heart rate for at least an hour. If you’re running harder than easy, your heart rate will drift up.

Just under your lactate threshold, the effort should feel ‘comfortably hard’, meaning that you feel like you are working hard but not struggling. It’s a pace you could keep going at for about an hour. Over your lactate threshold, you should start to feel heavy legs setting in and a feeling that you’d like to stop in much less than an hour.

As your fitness changes, so will your thresholds so it’s important to keep listening to your body and be honest about whether you’re pushing too hard or not hard enough. Over time, you can use the combination of all three to know exactly where your general fitness is and gauge your performance on any given day.

There is a lot of information presented here and you can get even more detailed. However, if you have only ever tracked pace then getting started on heart rate and/or RPE will open up a new dimension to your training tracking. The key takeaways are:

  1. Ensure your easy runs stay easy allowing you to hit harder workouts at the intensity required.
  2. Use heart rate and/or RPE in tandem with pace monitoring to better gauge your performance in a session.

As always, if you find this helps or have any questions about getting started, please mail me at alan@therunningrules.com.

Obsessing over pace?

How to avoid losing your mojo

Most of us know our PB times. They’re etched in the memory banks eagerly waiting to be overwritten by new ones. We probably know roughly what pace we ran to get those results. And those paces are almost always a little scary. How did we manage to run that fast for that long?

We forget that those are by definition personal bests. We forget that we can’t be at our best all the time even when we’re improving in general. We forget about outside factors such as weather or terrain. We forget that we aren’t machines.

At a recent interval training session, I asked everyone how they would track their intensity for the session. Almost all said they would monitor their pace. It didn’t surprise me that pace was the majority answer but the extent of the majority was surprising. Maybe it shouldn’t be.

There is nothing wrong with monitoring pace sometimes, especially in a race where we have a target. After all, pace is what determines the result we end up with. Nobody ever posted up a comment on Strava boasting about a new low average heart rate for a 10k race.

The problem is when we obsess over pace all the time. On easy runs it can stop us running easy enough. We don’t get the full benefits of a recovery run that we should. It can lead to feeling burnt out from too much mileage at too high an intensity.

On harder sessions, tracking pace can really knock our confidence when we can’t quite hit the pace we are aiming for. We spend the whole session nervously glancing at the watch and thinking ‘I’m not getting this, I can’t do this’. We’re not focusing on good running form and consistent effort.

Quite some time ago I moved to tracking heart rate in training. Heart rate monitoring is not without some flaws and does require some experimentation to get right but it can really help you hone in on your actual effort level.

It flips the mindset of an easy run on its head. Instead of trying to hit a certain pace and feeling like something is wrong if you fall short, the emphasis is on staying under a target heart rate. Pace becomes irrelevant. You run slow enough to achieve an easy pace for you that day.

Harder sessions are similar. Instead of beating yourself up that you didn’t hit the right pace, you know that you put in the required effort for that session. In fact, you may even exceed your pace expectation by targeting heart rate instead.

The main problem with monitoring heart rate is that whilst general guidelines can be given which are useful as a starting point, every individual is different so ‘heart rate zones’ will differ. This is where a third metric, ‘relative perceived effort’ (RPE), can help.

RPE requires you to give an honest assessment of the effort you feel you are putting in. You score your effort out of 10. You can make up your own scale but I suggest up to 4 as easy, 5-7 as steady to tempo and 8-10 as threshold up to an all out sprint.

By combining and monitoring pace, heart rate and RPE, you can build up a far more complete picture of how you are performing and in turn improve your confidence in your training and progression.

In the next article, I’ll talk about how to track heart rate and RPE but for now please think about your own training. Do you solely track pace? Did tracking pace ever leave you dejected? Please let me know at alan@therunningrules.com.

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