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Berlin Marathon Race Recap

2 days on from the Berlin Marathon 2021 and I can still barely walk. It’s been a long time since a race has taken such a toll and it underlines how much I put my body through on Sunday. I’m mentally drained too. Never has a race build up been so elongated and fraught with difficulties.

I am absolutely delighted that I was able to record nearly a 5 minute PB of 2:49:07 but the time alone does not tell half the story. Yes it will be the first thing (maybe the only thing) people will ask about it but it is not the time that I was most proud of.

I had told a few people I was aiming for 2:45 and that was still the case on the morning of the race. If I’d been told before I would run 2:49 I think I would have been disappointed. My previous best was set 2 and a half years ago and my training had been so much better coming into this race. I don’t think 2:45 was an unrealistic aim.

But I could also see that conditions were not ideal. The sun was out with no cloud cover and forecasts of up to 25 degrees which for a northern lad is tropical. I allowed myself an ‘easy’ first mile to test the water. I could already tell it was going to be a struggle but I tried to notch the pace up a little over the next few miles.

I passed through the 5k marker a bit down on pace and I knew I’d have to pick it up again to get on track for 2:45. The second 5k was nearly in the right ballpark but I was already starting to struggle getting enough water from the cups out on the course which was concerning.

In London and Dublin water came in bottles which is much easier. It doesn’t spill and it’s easy to carry so you don’t have to down it in one go. The cups at Berlin were not full but trying to grab one at pace still meant spilling half of it. Then when you did come to drink, half of it would run down your face rather than into your mouth.

The water issue was making fuelling difficult too. My plan was always to take my fuel just before a water station so that I could wash the gel or bar down after. But eating with a dry mouth was not easy.

I got the first bar down at mile 4 but when it came to my second bar around mile 12 it left me retching and in real difficulty. I had to chuck it knowing that at that moment, lack of water was more of a problem than lack of fuel.

Soon after that I decided that if I didn’t take action now, the race was going to turn into a nightmare. I stopped at the next water station to make sure I got a full cup of water down. It turned out to be a good plan with one problem; downing a cup of water gave me a stitch soon after.

I went through halfway at 1:23:37 and I knew there was no way I’d run the 2 minute negative split required for 2:45. I quickly readjusted to try and run the remainder at 2:50 pace and also to try and manage the stitch which did go after a couple of miles.

I stopped again at the water station around mile 15, this time for a bit longer to try and avoid the stitch. Yes it took another 15/20s out of my time but I knew I needed to try and do everything to get back on track.

The next gel around 16 went down better and I was able to start taking water again on the move so that by the time I was approaching the 30km mark (18.5 miles) I felt like I was starting to pick up again. Despite not knowing the course in depth, I knew it turned back into the centre around 30km which was a real psychological boost too.

In reality, my pace wasn’t picking up but it wasn’t declining much either and I started to realise that I was going past other people frequently. To be struggling at mile 12 in a marathon is frankly alarming and I felt like I must be the only person in difficulty. By mile 19 I knew that I was now faring much better than many people around me.

That’s not to say it suddenly became easy but I’d worked my way through a really rough patch by focusing on each 5km marker and trying to put out each fire as it arose. I finally felt like I was running ‘in the zone’ where I was able to maintain a decent pace without any major issues.

The major issues came (literally) screaming back in the last 5km though this time in the form of cramp. It has been a nemesis of mine in marathons before but I’ve always managed to stave it off. It’s usually in my calves but this time it seemed to be everywhere.

I kept trying to focus on good form knowing that trying to compensate for the cramp in one place may set something off elsewhere. I hadn’t been obsessing over my splits too much as I knew that they had been close enough to the right pace but I was also aware that my watch was measuring long.

This usually happens in every marathon. The course has a blue line round which is the shortest line to take and it must be at least a marathon distance. You can never stick fully to this line with other people and water stations to contend with so you are always going to run a little long.

But more than this, GPS is not 100% accurate especially when you run past tall buildings. It becomes a dot to dot of slightly inaccurate position readings. On a very twisty course this can result in a short reading as it may cut off a corner you’ve had to run round.

In big city marathons where you run lots of long straight streets, there’s far more chance of it measuring long because the GPS tracks you slightly off the straight road and will record curves and zig zags that aren’t really there.

You really have no idea what is going on during the marathon but you can see the inaccuracy afterwards. Usually you can see how far out your watch is by comparing it with the mile markers but I had my watch in miles and the markers were in km so I hadn’t really been paying attention.

The result was that I got lured into thinking I had more in the bag to beat 2:50 than I really had in reality. I was ticking off the miles on my watch at around the right pace but the km markers weren’t coming as soon as they should. I knew I had to keep the effort level high to make it – I couldn’t ease off.

There is a long straight section into 40km at which point it zigzags back towards the finish just beyond the Brandenburg gate. Some people were walking or stopped altogether. Having collapsed before at mile 25 in a marathon, I was determined not to stop no matter how much I wanted to. Plenty of time for that at the finish line.

If the section to 40km seemed to go on forever then the last straight down to the Brandenburg gate and beyond was worse. I’m glad I read that the end wasn’t at the gate because it’s a good bit past it and I was ready for it, not that it made it much easier.

I know some people get emotional at this point but I was having difficulty just concentrating holding my running form together. I had been more in awe before the start of the race but now just needed to focus on getting to the end.

Making sure I smiled for the cameras (I’d no doubt been grimacing most of the way round), I crossed the line and immediately the cramp consumed my legs and feet. I could barely stand let alone walk. Someone kindly held me up whilst an electrolyte drink was brought my way.

Lots of thoughts flooded into my head having tried to block out most of it during the race. I knew I couldn’t have done more. I didn’t hit the main target I’d set but in a way I’d achieved more than just a time in the way I’d battled through.

I thought about the sacrifices Louise and the boys had made back home to allow me to get here at all. I thought about the inspiration of my Mum who introduced me to running and would have been 67 this week. I thought back to the tough training runs and weeks I had been through that had tested my mental resolve especially in the 6 weeks before.

All these things contributed to my ability to deal with the situation but I still wondered why I put myself through it. I think on reflection, it is the sense of achievement at being able to overcome a difficult challenge. It’s about testing myself and coming out the other side of it.

And it’s a truly personal experience. At the end of the day, others will applaud your achievements but there is no real context to place them in. Everyone has a different potential, different circumstances and different problems to overcome.

Time for reflection and evaluation is important too. A lot of sacrifice can go into running a marathon. Was it worth it? Which parts were enjoyable? Which were not? What would I do the same again? What could be changed next time?

I know there are certain things I’m not keen to repeat but it’s still too early to say what my next challenge will be. The dust has to settle a bit more, I need to enjoy some things outside of running for a little while. But I’ve definitely learned and reinforced a few things:

  1. Your ‘why’ has to be strong enough otherwise you will choose not to suffer when it hurts the most.
  2. You have to be able to adapt your target / expectations depending on the conditions that you get.
  3. Having a variety of different targets can help you do this. I had 2:45 as a target but also 2:50, a PB (2:53:50), 2:55, 3:00 and simply just finishing to get my second major.
  4. Being able to problem solve on the move is key to running a good time. A marathon is rarely plain sailing so what strategies do you have when things go wrong?
  5. Breaking down a marathon into smaller chunks and focusing on each one in turn will make it easier to get through the whole thing. By focusing on each 5km rather than the fact I had 14 miles left when it was going wrong, I was able to turn the race round.
  6. Work in the units of the race in your training and on the day. Tracking kms on my watch would have been easier and would have shown me how far off my GPS was.
  7. Realise that most people are having a tough time of it, not just you. A marathon is not easy.
  8. Try and take it all in and enjoy it. The crowds at Berlin were fantastic, especially the bands. I wasn’t in a good place to take it in but I really tried at points and I did have a smile on my face when I passed by the bands or someone shouted out my name. 
  9. Share in the success and pain of your fellow runners. Running can be lonely at times and although everyone’s experience of a race is different, you’ll be able to reminisce and reflect on many of the same things.
  10. Be thankful to the people that have made sacrifices or helped you to get you where you are. Thank you @loulou.ladd and the family, @jm_run_coaching for the extra resolve you’ve managed to instill in me and everyone supporting me at @malluskharriers and @therunningrules.

I hope everyone running Belfast and London this weekend has a great race. You’ve put all the training, planning and prep in and now it’s all about executing the race!

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!

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 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.

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.

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