Friday, December 31, 2010

Unsung heroes: Graeme Obree

Its hard to know where to start because there are so many things about Graeme Obree that make him the perfect hero - so much so, that it has not passed Hollywood by. Even so, he still deserves the "unsung" because, the chances are, that you haven't heard of him before.

Graeme Obree is your true cycling fanatic. Growing up in Scotland he competed in local time trials and supported his family with the proceeds from a humble cycle shop. He became entranced by the holy grail of competitive cycling - not the Tour de France but the hour record - which consists of cycling as far as you can in one hour. It is a record that has been held by the likes of Miguel Indurain and Eddie Merckx and is supposed to be about as close as you can get to legalised torture.

Now I am a bit of a purist when it comes to sport. For example, what I dislike about staged events like the Tour is that there are tactics, there is etiquette and prizes are given for hanging on the back wheel of someone only to sprint the last 30 seconds to be the first to cross one of the arbitrary stage finish lines. Consider the Ironman - there is no drafting allowed (the significant aerodynamical benefit of hanging on the back wheel) and no prizes for those who have the fastest bike leg and the sponsorship deals play second fiddle to the event itself.

What makes Graeme the ultimate cycling purist is not just the unquestionable brutal reality of the one hour record but the fact that he raced on a bike he built and designed himself! In fact, it is just possible that triathlon has Mr Obree to thank for the invention of the aerobars and the aero-position, but we'll come to that in a minute. Obree was in many ways the antithesis of Chris Boardman, the technical cyclist who trained with pulse meters, knew where his lactate threshold was and, more importantly, had the best bike sponsorship money could buy. This is not to detract from Boardman who was an incredible athlete but rather to put Obree's achievements in context.

In 1993, Obree booked the velodrome in Norway for 24 hours so that he could attempt his record; he failed by nearly a kilometer. Incredibly, he came back the next day just an hour before his booking ran out and went for the record a second time. Imagine the pain his muscles must have been in even before starting! And even more incredibly, this time he managed to secure the hour record!

A week later, Chris Boardman who, to be fair, had already announced his intentions of breaking the hour record some time before, stole the record from Obree. What was worse was that the UCI (Union Cyclisme Internationale) decided that Obree's riding position was "illegal". Obree had invented a peculiar riding style (see picture) in which he tucked his arms under his body, like a ski jumper, for maximum aerodynamic efficiency (and minimum comfort, no doubt). It's true that it was a fairly dangerous way of riding as Obree himself demonstrated when he lost control of the bike - but it is always better to make rules proactively before they are broken rather than reactively.

This didn't stop Obree, oh no. He invented another riding position, perhaps inspired by a film he had seen.

Da dadadada, da da da!

The UCI also banned this position and came up with some apparently arbitrary ruling based on the position of his seat. Nevertheless, Obree took back the hour record in 1994, gaining not only a sporting victory but a moral one. It seems like the UCI has learned its lesson and now states that the hour record must be completed on a bicycle similar to the one Merckx used in 1972. I have to say, I am in favour of this. Being a purist as I have said, I'd rather the winner was decided on the track and not in the laboratory or the work bench. Obree showed that, in spite of there being virtually no limits to the technology employed in the bike, even an amateur stood a chance (for the ball bearings in the bottom bracket he used some from his washing machine). However, nearly 20 years later with wind tunnel fashioned carbon fibre frames I'm not sure it would still be the case. I think that the sport of rowing has the balance right on this issue: any innovation which would price a significant part of the competition out of the market was banned. The most famous example of this is the ingenious idea of the sliding rigger with which Chris Ballieu beat Steve Redgrave to victory at Henley: instead of 100kg athletes thundering up and down the boat on sliding seats, why not allow the pivot point (rigger) to move instead? These boats still exist but are not allowed in any competition. There is also a minimum weight a boat can have thus putting a stop to the fierce search for ever lighter, stiffer (and more expensive) materials. In cycling, the rules are terribly confusing and complicated - it depends very much on the competition.

Obree not only fought his battles on the track: as a sufferer of bipolar disorder, he was prone to devastating bouts of depression. He has tried to commit suicide (thankfully with no success) at least three times. Last thing I heard is that he is writing a book on dealing with depression to follow up his excellent and thoroughly recommended autobiography "The Flying Scotsman". I also heard that he was planning to attempt the hour record again as recently as late last year. I think it is just as well that he didn't and, to me, shows me that he is winning that harder and more vital battle with himself.

On a side note, I can't help noticing how cycling and depression seem to be intimately linked. I suspect that the missing link is the word "obsession". Every year, it seems, another professional cyclist commits suicide (I've read that 3 of the 60 Tour de France winners have committed suicide which is a very abnormal proportion). Then there is Chad Gerlach, an American professional cyclist and past team mate of Lance Armstrong who has spent stints between competitions as a homeless crack addict. Although there is a big motivational difference between taking crack and human growth hormone, say, perhaps there is a reason in all this why cycling is the sport most often linked to drug offenses.

Chad Gerlach
POSTDATA: Wow, this post has suddenly become the most visited post on my blog - maybe it will go "viral", hahaha. Perhaps he is not so unsung after all and more people are singing about Obree than I realized. It could also be connected to the "news" I read recently that he has said that he is gay. First of all, I'm not really sure it is any of our business (and why is this usually described as an "open admission" as if it were something to be guilty about?). Secondly, in the context of his struggles with bipolar disorder and world level competition this can only have been an extra stress. Hats off to you Mr Obree.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Gadgets, Gizmos and Goodies (part II)

EZ Run Belt

What on earth is the point of this I hear you ask, and who on earth would be seen wearing it? Its the creation of Joe Sparks, an entrepreneurial runner from Toledo (Ohio, not Spain) and he designed it especially to help people learn the Pose Method of running. As I have mentioned before, one of the distinguishing elements of the Pose Method is to concentrate on getting your foot off the ground (or "unweighting") as soon as possible. By simple equilibrium, this helps you land with your other foot as close as possible to underneath your centre of gravity, thus reducing braking, impact and other annoying things. The point is that, if you try to land correctly by focusing on your landing foot, you have to override your body's automatic landing system and inevitably tense up.

The running belt encourages you to lift your foot up directly under your "butt" because any deviation from this straight line provides extra resistance. The idea is to run for a few minutes with the thing on and then unclip your feet and run free. It comes with several different resistance levels and loops to which you can clip to suit runners of different shapes and sizes. I find that it is good to take it out for a spin every so often, just to remind yourself what it feels like to be running more correctly.

Swimovate Pool-Mate

I saw an advert for this watch in a Triathlon magazine and I thought it sounded too good to be true. For 60 pounds, it claimed, you get a watch which is capable of counting the number of lengths you do in a swimming pool and the number of strokes you take to cover a length of the pool. It claimed to perform this feat using a small accelerometer inside the watch.

It does exactly what it says on the box. It works absolutely perfectly, never missing a stroke. Without it, I tend to lose count after 80 or 90 laps and this can be a problem when training for a long distance event such as the Ironman. It also calculates your "efficiency" which is based on the so-called golf-score, the sum of the number of seconds and the number of strokes you take to cross the pool. In swimming, unlike running or cycling, because water is 1000 times denser than air, it is much more important to focus on how far you travel per stroke than the number of strokes you take per minute (cadence). It also calculates the calories you burn while swimming, although I haven't had a chance to check whether this is anything more than a calculation based solely on the time you spend swimming.

I have the basic version but they have recently brought out a "pro" version which allows you to download your data to the computer for further analysis; I think this would just depress me too much.

I think that the watch is good value considering what a niche product it is. It is not perfect, however. Firstly, the strap is a bit crappy and is molded to the watch so that, if and when it breaks, your watch is effectively rendered useless. It currently only supports crawl or freestyle but isn't programmed to recognize breast stroke, back stroke or butterfly and it is only useful for swimming in a swimming pool (that's to say, not in open water). However, the most irritating thing about it - and this is a fairly nit-picking complaint - is that its operation is pretty counterintuitve or at least it is to me. I can never remember when to press "start" or when to press "mode" and, may times, have ended up deleting the record I was trying to access. Still, this is something relatively easy for them to correct in future models. In spite of these niggles, it remains a permanent fixture in my kit bag and I curse myself the days when I forget to put it on for a swim.

Fist gloves

These are the antithesis of the hand paddles used in swimming training. They are useful in demonstrating and practicing the principles of Total Immersion swimming. As I have mentioned previously, where Total Immersion differs from other modern swimming schools is in the emphasis it puts on the kinetic chain. Rather than training the upper and lower parts of the body separately using fins, paddles and pull buoys, the idea is to train the precise coordination between groups of muscles that takes place, as in the case of a golf swing or the hitting of a home run. The difference with a golf swing is that you can propagate the ground reaction force through your body; in the water, you have very little anchorage. Nevertheless, if you put these "gloves" on, you notice two things: firstly, you lose the feel of the water and secondly, you can't anchor your hands; almost all your propulsion must instead come from this kinetic chain (or kick and roll). The surprising thing is that you can make reasonable progress through the water even wearing these absurd hand condoms. Of course, the real trick is - just like when you stop banging your head against a wall it feels great - once you take them off, you go flying.

I have to admit that I am slightly skeptical as to how much of the propulsion in swimming actually comes from this kinetic chain. On the other hand, it seems as though no-one really understands all the forces at work in swimming. As I start to take my swimming more seriously, I'll post more on this topic.


As you can see, Ironman TM has teamed up with Powerbreathe to give you the Ironman Powerbreathe. It came with a DVD following several athletes (including Luis Enrique, ex-Real Madrid player) through their trials and tribulations in the Ironman in Lanzarote. To be honest, at that time I didn't have any interest in Ironmans or Ironmen so I only got around to watching it fairly recently.

Anyway, this little device trains you inspirational muscles (nothing to do with your brain). It has a scale of difficulty from 0 to 10 - at only 2 I find it quite challenging to breathe in 10 times using it: afterwards my cheeks hurt as if I had blown up all the balloons for my kid's birthday party. This is probably because I never remember to use it. It seems like a great idea but I have yet to report any advances. What is great about it is that it is very portable and probably simulates some of the training stress of a very hard workout without the impact or potential interference with your aerobic base.

Monday, December 27, 2010


Over Christmas I have been reading a book by Dr Philip Maffetone, "The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing".

Maffetone takes a holistic approach, that is to say, he never loses sight of the big picture. It does mean the book is a bit repetitive because, he cannot explain one bit in detail without showing how it fits into the overall context. In spite of this, the book is thankfully devoid of that self deprecating style that is all too common and wastes no words on trying too make the subject matter more interesting, instead assuming that, having bought the book, it is quite likely that you'll want to read it.

The first surprising thing about the book is that it has to be the only book on training that has no training schedules nor exercises which is just as well because I already have all that ten times over. The second surprising thing is that it a lot of the conclusions to which I had been coming are all in this book. Well, that is not so surprising as I wouldn't have bought the book otherwise but it is surprising in the sense that Maffetone has been touting these ideas since the eighties when he helped Mark Allen to his winning streak of six times Ironman World Champion.

I am normally suspicious of the word "holistic" as it is often offered as a justification when no scientific reason exists. That says nothing for my prejudices against Chiropractors of which Dr Maffetone is one. Nevertheless, as with most things, there are some sound principles behind Chiropractice and Maffetone's book gives scientific reasons for all of its claims, which is just as well, because some of them are pretty radical. Where the science falls down is that many justifications are anecdotal and not based on controlled studies. But he is only one man and has seen more than his fair share of professional athletes (which he refers to as patients rather than clients) in his thirty years of practice. I can relate to the holistic principle - whenever I have been injured I have consulted different experts but, in most cases, each one has only been able to advise me based on their narrow view leading to conflicting information and for me to ultimately decide what is best. The classic example is the doctor who, when told your knee hurts when running, recommends you not to run. Often complete rest is not the best way to recover.

The other thing about the book that would normally make me very suspicious is - I know this is going to sound silly - the photo of the author. He has a shock of white hair but a completely lineless face. He looks like he has made a pact with the Devil. Either he is taking a very unholistic and unwholesome approach, or what he preaches really works for him. I suppose it makes me suspicious because the photo says to me "you too can look as good as Phil just by following his simple plan". It is just a photo, he can't help it if he looks about thirty years younger than he really is. (POSTDATA: I was amused to see that one of the searches someone did to get to this article was "how trustable is Maffetone?". Seems like I'm not the only one!)

There are two things that I especially admire about Maffetone. The first is that he questions everything and researches the answers tirelessly. The second is that he doesn't just limit himself to digging deeper and deeper in the same hole; every so often he suddenly decide to start digging elsewhere. Now he is making music and has already released a couple of CDs. He is one of these very rare people with depth and breadth.

Something that he mentions in the book that makes a lot of sense and comes from the world of Chiropractice is the idea of muscle balance. All muscles have counterbalancing muscles (protagonists and antagonists) and are part of an overall kinetic chain. I have certainly experienced both of these imbalances. When I started to run again, I would find that the weakest link would be in pain - first I had problems with my knees, then my hips, then my calfs, the Achilles and finally my feet. Also, after an injury I would notice the imbalance between my atrophied muscle and its opposing muscle.

I think I will try a couple of the "experiments" in the book but not this side of the Ironman. I'd already been coming round to the persuasive idea behind the Paleo diet - namely that we should eat the foods that our organism has evolved to digest - but I don't feel ready just yet to cut out all refined carbohydrates from my diet. Maffetone claims that these interfere with the aerobic functioning of the body. He suggests abstaining from taking refined carbs for two weeks and comparing your aerobic performance before and after.

His more radical "experiment" is really the premise of his whole book: that you should do all of your training at the Maximum Aerobic heart rate given by his formula. I'm sure he has had a lot of experience with many athletes but without having seen the statistics I just can't buy into the formula. It puts my aerobic running threshold at 147bpm, almost 10 beats below that established in a lab test especially for me and, what is potentially more disturbing, is that it puts my aerobic cycling threshold (also at 147bpm) at more than 20 beats higher than the lab established value - this is likely to be the intensity at which I complete the bike leg of the Ironman (in fact, Maffetone would say that the bike leg should be 100% aerobic). The question I can't avoid asking is how much he actually supervised Mark Allen's day to day training and how religiously Mark Allen followed Maffetone's principles. No doubt about it, Maffetone definitely on to something but I wonder if he has to polarize his findings somewhat to give them more impact, as if he is already taking into account that you will inevitably cut some corners. Or, put another way, when he first had these ideas they were far ahead of their time - now Sports Science has caught up on many fronts and perhaps it is hard for him to acknowledge these advances without discrediting his own work. The testimonials in the book are pretty striking and more or less follow the same pattern: they describe starting off having to jog or even walk so as no as not to exceed the maximum heart rate but then how, over a period of months and years, they return to their original training pace or faster but at tens of beats per minute less. What I found particularly intriguing is that many of them go on to say that they even start to find it very difficult to maintain a pace that takes them over their Maximum Aerobic heart rate! Maffetone even suggests that you could consider doing aerobic series - that is to say, run for 5 minutes at a pulse rate of 145bpm, say, and then 5 minutes at 120bm. Phew!

Today I did at 2 hour run a la Maffetone. I ran the whole way at an average pulse rate of 137bpm - that's 10 beats below the prescribed rate. It felt ridiculously easy but what was great was that, even so, I managed to cover over 23km so my aerobic base can't be so bad. It shouldn't be too traumatic to try Maffetone's experiment - at least in cold weather and over relatively flat terrain -  maybe I will try it out next year.

Whatever your conclusions you can't afford to ignore this book...

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Hmmm, slightly disappointing...

I got the results back from the "lab" today. As I predicted, my VO2max has gone up a little bit as a result of losing some weight but. contrary to my expectations, my running economy has got worse (that is to say, it is a higher number). Still, the optimistic way to look at it is to say that I did a good Marathon with a less than optimal running economy so there is some room for some improvement if I concentrate on running instead of this triathlon business. What's probably more likely is that there is a lot of error in the measurement - the most important thing for me is to go by the pulse rates in training rather than by the paces in the table (which tend to be much slower when I run on the treadmill). What is good news is that my thresholds have gone up by about 5 beats per minute so that means I can push the envelope a little more in my training runs. Anyway, so that you see what kind of feedback I get, here is the report - sorry that it is in Spanish:

CORRECTION:  In the end, I asked Diego to double check the results because it was strange that my thresholds should have increased by so much, when they have been around the same levels for years now. This is the revised report:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The VO2 Max Challenge

Now I know what a lab rat feels like...
I did a VO2max test today because Jonathan said that it would be a good idea to have a point of reference for the Marathon when it comes to the Ironman: I may find that all the cycling and swimming has a slightly detrimental effect on my running economy and we will be able to measure that and make the necessary adjustments.

The test itself is quite simple on paper but quite hard in practice. It consists of running on a treadmill while your pulse rate, oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are measured. Ah, and the speed is gradually increased until you can't keep up with the belt and are finally forced to stop. I always finish thinking I could probably have continued just a little longer but then, looking at the results, I usually see that I have hit my maximum heart rate and so that the debate I was having with myself in my head was eventually won by the right "me". In any case, it doesn't make sense to go crazy - I'd only end up getting injured.

Apart from measuring where my aerobic and anaerobic thresholds are (see previous post) and, of course, where my VO2max is, it is very interesting to see whether my running economy is improving. The VO2max is basically a measure of the maximum volume of oxygen I can burn (literally) per minute divided by my mass. The only improvements there seem to come from me losing weight. My running economy, however, has been improving in leaps and bounds. The running economy is defined by how much oxygen consumption (again, divided by mass) is required per velocity at each of the two thresholds - the lower the number, the better. As you can see, my running economy at both thresholds has been getting steadily better. It will be interesting to see the results from the test: I'll post them here once I get them.

In January I'll do the corresponding test on the bike. As you use less muscle mass when you are cycling, the thresholds for the bike are at much lower heart rates than for running. In my case, they are some 30 beats lower which I have trouble accepting. It means that I have to go really easy on the bike in training and it is impossible to go up even the slightest hill without breaching the limit. What makes it particularly hard to accept is that, in running, I notice my breathing pattern changes at each of the two thresholds and I don't really need a pulsemeter to know I am in the right zone; on the bike it feels like I don't get to the lower (aerobic) threshold unless I am competing. I have to decide whether to "have faith" like I did, finally, for my running training. The risk is that I will not advance enough on the bike in training and that I will get frustrated in the race and throw all caution to the wind. Phil Maffetone, the coach of Mark Allen (6 times Ironman World Champion), claims that the thresholds are independent of the sport and can be accurately predicted with a formula. My coach says that he absolutely does not agree with him and, I have to say, I am naturally sceptical of anyone claiming to have a magic formula. But this is just the sort of thing that might pop into my head half way through the bike leg of the Ironman if I am below my desired pace... I have the answer to that one already: thou shalt not worship false idols!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Unsung heroes: Andy Holmes

There seem to be two kinds of famous people in the world: those who are famous in their lifetime and those who have to die before they are recognized. Andy Holmes falls into the second category.

I got into rowing for the simple reason that the friend of mine with whom I went jogging said that it was easier than running "because you got to sit down". It certainly was at first - the guy at bow (at the front of the boat) used to row with one hand while smoking with the other - but, one day, I was plucked out of that boat and put into another one, by virtue of my height if nothing else. I can still remember being in the cinema with my parents (how long ago was that?!) when we bumped into my coach and he told us we would be rowing on the Thames in the Fours Head of the River race, over the 4.25 mile long Oxford Cambridge Boat race. Now I think of it, it was pretty crazy for that to be our very first race (it may not seem far in running terms but the Olympic rowing distance is only 2000m)! I remember thinking all the way along the course that I would stop after just ten more strokes and then apologize to my crew mates for letting them down terribly. But then I would find it in me to do another ten strokes and another... That day we overtook the senior men's squad from the club in their nice shiny yellow plastic boat (ours was a very sturdy wooden one) and that was the turning point from which I never looked back. From then on, it became very much a part of my daily life for the next 6 years.

Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes quickly became adolescent heroes for me. At this time they had already won gold medals at the Olympic games in 1984 but, in spite of this, rowing was still very much a minority sport, limited to being a backdrop to Henley Royal Regatta or an excuse to go to the pub by the river once a year on Boatrace day. To give him credit, Steve Redgrave had to win 5 Olympic gold medals in 5 consecutive Games to really capture the public's imagination, somewhat helped by his spontaneous remark just after bagging the 4th one, that if anyone should see him near a boat again, "they have my permission to shoot me". Andy Holmes also won no less than two of those Olympic gold medals (and a bronze one, to boot) but not many people have heard of him. Matthew Pinsent who won the other three golds with Steve Redgrave is much better known, more than anything else, because he was at the tail end of Steve's career when the sporting audience had finally woken up to this amazing achievement that was unfolding.

For me, I still think of the original pair of Steve Redgrave and Andy Holmes - teenage worship doesn't get forgotten so easily. For some reason Andy and Steve split up and went their separate ways after the second gold and Andy eventually gave up rowing. It was a great shame because he was clearly an incredibly talented oarsman - anyone who can stop a boat that Steve is rowing in from going round in circles must be. It seems so very poignant and tragic that, 17 years later, Andy should finally get back into rowing, at a more low key level only to catch a rare water borne disease (Weil's disease) and die from the infection. I was very shocked to read this when it happened a couple of months ago and found a lot of old memories getting stirred up. We were always told that, if we should get a fluey cold then we should go to the doctor and inform him that we were rowers, so that he could check for Weil's disease.

Greg is the one on the left and, yes, they are all standing on the same step of the podium
On a brighter note, while digging around on the internet to fill in some of the blanks in this post, I just noticed that Greg Searle - who last won an Olympic gold medal 18 years ago and had long since retired - is back in the running for the London 2012 Olympic team (when he will be 40)! Not only that, but he won a silver medal at the Rowing World Championships in November. This has filled me with irrational hope, that it's never too late.


I can't believe it - they've put a fence all the way through one of MY forests that I ride / run through on my way to work. At least there is still a path I can use. But that's not all... I got to the other side only to find that the gate was locked, with a sign excusing the inconvenience and saying that it would be opened at 6:45am. The thing is, it was already half past 7! Luckily I saw a security guard driving slowly past so I flagged him down. He seemed to completely ignore me so I had to climb a 2m fence and hoist my chunky mountain bike over it. Unfortunately I managed to get a small nick in my lovely brand new GoreTex jacket - bah! By this time I'd managed to get over to the other side and reunite myself with my bike, the security guard had summoned the energy and initiative to come over and investigate. When I complained (ever so politely) that the gate on the other side of the forest was open with no warning sign, that it was past 6:45am anyway and that I had caught my jacket on the fence, he just pointed out that I could have gone under the fence instead. Damn, I hadn't noticed that.

Anyway, this is one of my bugbears about Spain. Every square inch of land belongs to someone and these someones seem to be allowed to build wherever they like (as long as the right "commissions" are paid to the right officials). As a result, there are fences all over the place. In fact, if I ever lose my job, I may set up a business in fence laying because it must be quite lucrative. It is a real challenge to go across country because you inevitably find your path blocked by some senseless fence - that is to say, a fence that doesn't really prevent anyone from entering a piece of land but only stops you going that particular way. When I think about the sort of trouble that gets kicked up when a famous pop star buys a country mansion in the UK and then tries to stop curious people traipsing through their grounds... What we need is an equivalent of the British Ramblers Association! Or perhaps a cross country version of the Critical Mass organizations.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I couldn't do it again even if I tried

First longish ride on the roadbike outside since September. I went over a speedbump a bit too fast and one of my drinks bottles went flying but I managed to catch it with my foot and avoid it falling to the road!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gadgets, Gizmos and Goodies (part I)

I love gadgets and one of the best things about triathlon is that there are at least three times as many excuses to buy them. I own and use all the following and am not in any way endorsed, sponsored or encouraged to use them by the manufacturers (although it would be cool if they decided to appoint me as a beta tester...).

Garmin 310xt

I've no doubt about it, this is my desert island gadget, the one I would keep if I had to sacrifice all the rest. I previously had the Garmin Forerunner 305 which was also a great gadget but the battery died on me (at the start of my second half Ironman, of all times!). I loved it so much that I was not angry with it - on the contrary - I had a perfect reason to upgrade to its big brother.

Both models have a lot in common:
- an accurate and fast syncing GPS that measures pace (well) and altitude (not so well)
- a heart rate monitor and possibility to add foot pod (for cadence and indoor speed) and bike cadence sensor
- and a very intuitive user interface with a highly configurable display which, believe me, is ever more important the more tired you are when you are using it.

In fact, I really couldn't think of how the interface could be improved until I started using the 310xt. They've made a few little tweaks, like the ability to configure 3 different bikes and an extremely handy real time heart rate graph that I must say I was missing from the 305. The more significant differences are that the 310xt has a 20 hour battery life (good for Ironman!), it is waterproof (good for triathlon in general), it has a much more accurate calorie counting algorithm and it synchronizes wirelessly with the computer. Actually this last point is the thing that least interests me as you still have to have the dongle plugged into your computer (that's to say, it doesn't use Bluetooth but its own communication protocol) and it can be slightly annoying if you find that halfway through your indoor training, it starts syncing to your computer that happens to be sitting within range!

I also bought the quick release kit which is very neat and a slightly better design than the 305 counterpart. The watch twists in and out of the watch strap and the bike attachment with a very reassuring "click" (although it's true that, at one point in the San Sebastian Marathon, a guy accidentally knocked into me and the watch clicked out of position and nearly went flying!).

The software that comes with it is fairly basic but there are many other more sophisticated shareware / freeware packages out there that are compatible. It's relatively straightforward to view your workouts in Google Earth but it is quite fiddly to import a route from Google Earth as a course. It really is an invaluable tool to be able to compare your current level of fitness with how you were in previous seasons.

Compex Runner

If you are sceptical about electrostimuators then you are right to be. If you are surprised that this gadget will set you back something to the tune of 350€-450€ then you probably expect it to either be genuinely effective or priced so that it looks as though it must be genuinely effective. I can happily say that the former is the case. I can also say, from my own experience, that the cheap electrostimulators do what you would expect - precious little. I don't really understand why the budget companies have not been able to emulate the programmes on the Compex models - maybe there is a patent issue (don't get me started on patents!).

I first came across Compex after a 10k race which I had started with very sore calf muscles from the training I had done prior to the event. I made my way to the massage tent to find that, rather than a "hands-on" massage, what was being offered was to be wired up to one of these things. The sensation is quite strange, that of your muscles pulsing without you telling them too but, as long as you have the contacts on properly, it is quite pleasant. The day after the 10k, my legs were noticeably better.

The Compex Runner offers lots of different programmes, from strength and endurance to recovery and relief from tendinitis. It even has a programme for "long run optimization" which is supposed to help increase the capillaries feeding your muscles with oxygenated blood. Some heathly sceptiscism is in order here, I think, as I am not convinced that it can really do all of those things. One thing is for sure is that it works very well for recovery. It is also incredibly powerful. To give you some idea, stimulating my quads at 150 starts to get painful and yet the machine can go up to 999! I have managed to get up to 999 on my stomach muscles (each group of muscles has a different response and tolerance) so, if anything, I think I know what it must be like to give birth.

It is very easy to travel with so I often take it with me to competitions and amuse locals by wiring myself up in the restaurant where I have my post race lunch. Its very expensive but the price equates to about 15 massage sessions. Still, I have to be honest, there is still no substitute for a good massage performed by a real human being.

Masster Plus

This is the nearest thing I have tried to a real massage. It is basically a Thermomix with a rotating set of rollers that vibrate your muscles at a very high frequency. For some reason, it is marketed as a miracle cellulitis reducer - hence the photo on the left and the pink box that it comes packaged in - but, don't be put off, it is also used by professional massage therapists and sports phsyicians alike. (By the way, if you click on the photo I will be able to know who you are!! :-) )

Unfortunately it is not cheap either. It weighs in at about 1,000€ due, I suspect, to its very high quality and hefty motor (and, no doubt, the desparation of some people to lose celulitis, with which it may well help for all I know).

More soon!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Josephat Menjo

I just received an update from the excellent Science of Sport blog about this phenomenal but relatively unknown Kenyan athlete, Josephat Menjo. He recorded the fastest 10,000m time for 2010 amongst other things - and this was without the aid of pacemakers or frontrunners. What I found particularly striking (no pun intended) was this photo showing his unusual technique:

Heel striking lives! ;-)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


So the story from Greek Mythology goes: when Achilles was dipped into the river Styx to make him immortal, he was held by the ankle and so this part of him was vulnerable (and in fact, lead to his eventual downfall). So we have Thetis (Achilles' mum) to thank!

The Achilles tendon is placed under enormous strain while running, especially at higher speeds. Its also in a part of the body that doesn't have a good flow of blood, so any damage takes ages to repair. Thankfully, I have never actually ruptured my Achilles but I have had quite serious tendinitis (and more recently, a very mild case) in the tendons of my ankle. The good news is that now the problem seems to have gone away altogether, just in time for me to start running series today, in preparation for the 10k race I have on the 31st of December. In part, this is due to following the advice of a couple of Swedish researchers...

Apparently, one of them was trying to actually rupture his damaged Achilles tendon completely (all in the name of science, undoubtedly) by "eccentric loading of the calf muscle". Eccentric loading means to put a muscle under strain while it is contracting rather than stretching (concentric loading). What the researchers found and eventually demonstrated scientifically, was that the injury healed much more quickly when this routine was performed. In practice, you stand on the edge of a step and, using a hand to steady yourself, you lift yourself up on to tip toes using both legs and then lower yourself down to below the height of the step using only the bad leg. (If both of them are bad then I suppose you are screwed.) You do this a certain number of times each day - more details can be found here.

What I found perversely satisfying was that the recommendation was to add extra weights to the point of being slightly painful to complete the exercise. Is it just me or does it not feel as though you are getting better more quickly if the treatment hurts?

By the way, the condition used to be called Achilles tendinitis - the difference being that it was thought to be an inflammatory condition when in fact it is not. The point is that it is actually better not to take anti-inflammatories as a result. The reason the ankle feels stiff in the morning is because the collagen builds up in a random fashion around the damaged area; with use you break some of the structures leaving only the correctly aligned ones.

(DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor or qualified to give advice on how to treat injuries. In other words, enter at your own risk, don't blame me, etc. Still, if there are any inaccuracies or things that I have simply got wrong, I would be interested to know about them.)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A stroke of luck

I finally got my bike back today with its Rotor crankset (see previous post) so, naturally, I was keen to try it out.

Just as well I took the bike for a spin on the indoor rollers because, after 20 minutes, a bit fell off and one of the crank arms worked itself loose! I dread to think what might have happened at 30kph, on a road miles from home. As I said, a lucky stroke. Literally.

Oh, the Rotor Q Rings are the business - the pedal stroke feels much more even already. Could be the placebo effect but who cares when it looks this cool?

Master class

The other day I attended a talk by Jonathan based on his own research and the results of the athletes he coached through the Klagenfurt Ironman (Austria) this year. What was surprising, given the small sample (7) of those who could actually be bothered to fill in all the information on how many minutes they spent training in each sport and at each intensity, was how faithfully the results confirmed his hypotheses.

I've talked before about the concept of "polarized training", which means that you perform the majority of your training (approximately 80%) at below your aerobic threshold and the rest (20%) at above your anaerobic threshold. This was basically the premise of his talk but it was very interesting to understand where this idea comes from.

One of the papers he cited, by Fikerstrand and Seiler, was a study of Norwegian Rowers from 1970 up until 2001. The paper showed that one of the main changes in training which could account for the increase in performance in these rowers was a polarization of their training intensities. It is interesting to bear in mind that the event they were training for lasts approximately 6 minutes, a world apart from an Ironman event which can take anything from 8 hours to 17 hours (the cut off which, incidentally, is the time that the creator of the event took to complete it in 1978).

Another interesting nugget is that, if you look at the training patterns of elite Marathon runners, they spend only 4% of their total training time running at Marathon pace (and even this is probably in tune up half Marathon races)! This reminds me a little of the rowing training I did in the 90s, where we would either do underdistance (sprints) or overdistance (steady state) but, of course, no-one trains overdistance for the Marathon. What is hard to accept, as I have said many times before, is that you are doing some good by training underdistance and below pace.

Jonathan did various regressions of the performance (time) of each of the athletes who competed in the Klagenfurt Ironman (by the way, everyone he coached completed the event) against different parameters. There was clearly a correlation between overall training time and performance but, what was significant, was that there was no notable correlation between performance and "TRIMPS" - an objective measure of training intensity and volume. In particular, there was a high correlation between time spent training in zone I (below aerobic threshold) and performance, a very low correlation between time spent in zone III (above anaerobic threshold) and performance and a significant anti-correlation between time spent in zone II (between the two) and performance.

Why should this be? Surely, there should be more performance benefit from training in zone III? And how is it possible that training in zone II is bad? The argument goes something like this. Let's suppose that we have a limited amount of time in which we can train (this is always the case in practice but, for non-professional athletes it is a much more obvious limitant). How should you divide up those X hours a week between the different zones? The so called "high quality" training (a euphemism for "high pain" if ever I heard one) is very beneficial to speed but it is also very stressful for the body. The body needs time to adapt to the stresses placed upon it (recovery or "supercompensation") before it can be re-stressed; otherwise injury results. Not only can you be doing low intensity, zone I, work in the meantime, it appears that the zone I work helps the body adapt to the stresses of zone III training, as well as developing the aerobic fat burning engine.

I have to admit I work in a bank so I'll give you an analogy from an investment point of view. If you had a fixed amount of money to invest, you might choose to invest a proportion of it in high risk investments and the rest in low risk investments. It would be foolish to put all your money at risk - although you might be lucky of course - and, it would be suboptimal to put all your money in a low yielding, conservative fund. The same idea applies here - you should invest only a proportion of your training time in the high risk zone III and the rest in the safe but boring zone I. The reason that there is no sense in investing time in zone II is that it doesn't appear to promote specific adaptations in the body as effectively as the other zones and it has the added disadvantage of tiring you out more for your next zone III workout. (In the finance analogy, imagine that you get a free Playstation by placing money in the low risk fund...)

I suppose that the optimal proportion of time in zone I to zone III could vary from one individual to another (just as risk preferences do) but, for now, we will accept that one should spend 4 hours in zone I for every hour in zone III. In practice, we tend to do our series at a little bit less that zone I if we are tired - another reason to not overdo the amount of zone I training - and it is sometimes difficult to do all zone III training in the zone because there are hills, gusts of wind, or we just get bored and want to get home sooner. Furthermore, some proportion of races of distance more than 5k will be run in zone II, so it is inevitable that a percentage of training time will end up in this category. In the case of our Klagenfurt athletes, 75% of training time was spent in zone I, 21% in zone II and 4% in zone III; in the competition itself, the numbers were remarkably similar except that, of course, zone I and zone II were switched around.

(By the way, we haven't even mentioned the most obvious things to try to correlate: performance and physiology or talent - be it  measured in VO2max or whatever. This is what struck me most looking at the graphs in the presentation, that performance seemed to be dictated by hours of work alone - this would mean hope for the less blessed but determined amongst us! Perhaps an explanation for this is that the number of hours one can tolerate in training is linked to one's physiology and, similarly, the more competitive the athlete, the more of a priority training will be for them.)

The conclusion was basically that, if you want to do an Ironman:
- you have to put in the hours (10-15 hours weekly as a minimum);
- you should save yourself for the hard training days and not be tempted to push it just because you feel good
- and you should stick to your training plan!

A last point that Jonathan brought up was the importance of strength training. When you run, forces of several times your body weight ripple through your muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones a thousand times per kilometer. Anecdotally, he has been able to spot those athletes who are about to get injured as those who struggle to squat (lift with legs in standing position) 1.4 times their body weight (+1 for the weight of their own body, of course).

Monday, December 13, 2010

I'm still in shock... wife just proposed, as a part of a general refurbishment of the house, that we buy a shed TO KEEP MY BIKES IN OUTSIDE!!!

Sunday, December 12, 2010


If you only buy one book on running, then buy this one. It should really have been called "The Bible of Running", although it's true that I most probably would not have considered buying it had that been the case. It is a pretty hefty tome and goes into a lot of technical detail but it is not meant to be read from cover to cover; rather it is a reference book. It has chapters that go into great depth on heat evacuation - if you are a regular on this blog then you'll know that this is one of my pet subjects - on energy systems, on technique and on injury prevention and recovery. What sets the book apart for me is the section on training: it has case studies from some of the most famous and successful athletes and coaches, including excerpts from their training programmes. The book is orientated towards running but it is of interest to anyone involved in endurance sports.

Tim Noakes is one of the most respected researchers in the field of Sports Science. From the same stable comes "The Runner's body", two of the authors of which hail from the same University in Cape Town. In fact, these two - Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas - are those responsible for the excellent Sports Science Blog.

What is most surprising about the book is that, in spite of being endorsed by Runner's World - a magazine which appears to make a living out of trotting out the same old hackneyed populist articles year in, year out - is that it proceeds to debunk pretty much every myth about running there is. I was already familiar with the myths about drinking to replace lost body weight, about lactate acid causing fatigue, about pronation and motion control shoes, about cramps and electrolyte imbalance but there were a couple of new ones for me too: namely, the myth that VO2max is an unalterable determinant of your running potential and the myth that you can never do too much stretching. On this last point, according to the popular thinking on stretching, the one single adaptation that the body makes in response to running that is detrimental is that the muscles shorten and become less flexible. It does seem strange that we should have evolved in this way if it were truly detrimental; however, the authors claim that the rigidity increases the energy return in the stretch-recoil response of the muscles and that too much flexibility actually slows you down. I'm quite pleased about that as I have always been rubbish at stretching. (This is a good example of how we choose to believe what suits us.)

This book is by no means a smart-arse attempt to be contrary or, indeed, to fuel conspiracy theories. It is, if you like, the equivalent in the field of Sports Science to books written by Steven Hawking for the layman (except that it is somewhat more credible). The sports science that filters through running circles and running magazines corresponds to research which was current a number of years ago; just as in any science, the paradigms are always shifting and human knowledge is becoming more profound.

"The Runner's Body" has a good section on nutrition which is clearly based on the same ideas as the latest offering from Matt Fitzgerald. If the above authors are the equivalent of Steven Hawking, then Matt Fitzgerald would be Simon Singh: that is to say, he is not himself a sports scientist but he is very good at doing the leg work and writing up his findings in a way that anyone can understand and appreciate. What I found particularly interesting was seeing what athletes actually ate (bearing in mind they may be contractually obliged by their sponsors to say they take certain products). There is also a chapter with some healthy recipes that looks worth me trying my hand at. I've already talked about my success in losing body fat in a previous post - that was all thanks to this book.

Matt Fitzgerald has also written a book called "Brain Training for Runners" which is also very good, if not a little bit spun out. In this book he expands on what is essentially Tim Noakes' "Central Governor" theory that fatigue in exercise is induced by the brain so as to avoid catastrophic damage (or death). Of course, just as anyone who has suffered from a mental illness will be too aware, this doesn't make it any less insurmountable. Still, there are a number of implications and this book studies what you can do to improve your performance.

It's difficult to choose between the two books on Pose Running by Nicholas Romanov but this is the more recent one and some of the ideas are a bit more polished. There's also a nice appendix where you can see the results of studies that were done on the ground impact forces during running. It is, as its name indicates, a book on triathlon - certainly the sections on cycling and swimming are interesting - but I can't help feeling that he is stretching the point by giving so much protagonism to gravity in the development of these techniques. It is reassuring to see that you come up with essentially the same ideas that have been already dealt with in other books that specialize in these sports but to insist on the subtle differences I think detracts from the overall aim. As I have mentioned before, it was strange to me that running was considered to be the only sport whose technique was magically bestowed upon us at birth, never to be lost, and so it should be no surprise that the community of sportsmen that really brought the Pose Method into the spotlight were the triathletes, all too aware of the importance of technique in swimming and cycling. This book goes some way to completing the circle.

I'm a pretty terrible swimmer so you'd be wise to take any recommendation of mine for anything to do with swimming with a pinch of salt. Bear in mind that beginners have learnt to swim (properly) more recently than experts and so remember the experience more clearly. I did a weekend of Total Immersion classes and went from covering a 25m pool in 22 strokes to covering that same distance in 15 strokes. In swimming, the number of strokes you take for a given distance is a good measure of your efficiency. I went back to 22 strokes the next day but at least I know what I am supposed to be doing - it is just a question of putting my mind to it.

Many people say that Total Immersion is nothing new - that all modern swimming techniques put emphasis on buoyancy (hydrodynamic body position), moving your body past your hand rather than ripping your hand through the water etc. The distinguishing features of Total Immersion seem to be that (a) it is aimed at long distance (and especially triathlon) swimming, encouraging a very economical two beat kick and (b) that, instead of separating the upper body from the lower body, you work on the whole kinetic chain from the ankle to the shoulder, rather like a golf swing. You are positively deterred from using kick boards, fins and pullbuoys. The technique made a lot of sense to me as I could see the parallels with rowing.

I haven't yet found any really  good cycling books for triathlon. I think this is because the cycling leg of the triathlon (especially the Ironman) is so different from most other types of cycling - with the exception, perhaps, of time trialling - that it tends to get covered in triathlon books which cover the other two sports as well. These three are all good (I even bought the Joe Friel book in spite of it proclaiming itself a "bible") especially if you are new to triathlon, as I was this year. There are so many details you need to know, much more than just three sports but also the two "extra sports": the transitions T1 (from swim to bike) and T2 (from bike to run).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Take it to the Bridge

Going for a run with my brothers
One of the good things about living in a Catholic country is that you get a fairly decent number of holidays. I suppose, had it not been for the Catholics, they would have been good old Pagan holidays (or, in Spain, I should probably say Moorish but let's not get into that). Anyway, unlike in the UK, Spain respects the day that the holidays fall on, which means that, if they happen to fall on a Sunday, that's just too bad... This year, we had Monday the 6th of December and Wednesday the 8th of December off thanks to some Saint or other, so I took a cheeky day's holiday to make the "bridge" (el puente) and get a whopping 5 days holiday which we spent in Asturias.

As you can see from the photo, it could just have well been taken in England or perhaps in Wales but, what you can't see in the photo is the marvelous sea food which I packed in after the run. If you are ever in Villaviciosa - the capital of the cider county - you have to try the Sidrería "la Ballera". For a mere 28 euros we had a delicious and abundant 3 course meal for 3 adults and two kids including drinks (a bottle of cider, coke, water), coffee and desert. It's as if they never noticed the arrival of the Euro.

This week I got back to some slight training but treating it like a holiday and putting enjoyment first. I did a very picturesque but vertically challenging 2 hour cycle ride on a mountain bike, going in a circuit through Colunga,  Lastres, Luces and Villaviciosa. The countryside is so beautifully distracting that I am surprised when I remind myself that it was actually pouring with rain the whole time. I also went for a few runs along mountain lanes and roads - good strength training!

If I am truly honest with myself (and you) I'm noticing the tendons in my feet, especially those in my left ankle, a little sore from last week. They seem to get slightly better each day but, for now, they are on my watch list. I think I will stick to cycling for the rest of the week, do some ankle strengthening exercises and work again on my POSE technique. You can see from this slow motion video that I shot that I am landing a little ahead of my centre of gravity and it could be what is causing the problem.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why we run part II

People tend to see my quest to become an Ironman as falling somewhere between madness and masochism.  For example, I get asked things like "Wouldn't it be more fun if you did the Ironman wearing a crown of thorns and a cross on your back?" Given my track record over the last couple of years of injuries and pure bloodyminded grit, it's not altogether surprising that people have that impression. And I can't help thinking that saying "That's all behind me now" will only make me sound even more like a masochistic madman in denial. But that's all behind me now.

It's not about suffering, showing how much you can suffer or even overcoming suffering.

What it is about for me probably sounds childishly naïve (read "cheesey"):

The further that I am able to run, bike or swim comfortably, the wider my world feels to me.

The easiest way to understand this is to think of the opposite extreme. Imagine (or, in my case, remember) being limited to walking on crutches and how your world suddenly shrinks. It becomes an effort just thinking about walking 10 meters. Well, I feel exactly the opposite. Even if I have no intention of "doing a Forest Gump" and running out of my meeting to the hills I can see in the distance, just knowing that I could do it effortlessly makes me feel I have so much space, in every sense of the word. I've noticed that I have even started to feel that the forests that I run and cycle through on my way to work "belong" to me and so, by now, I must be one of the most wealthy land owners in Madrid.

I warned you that it was naïve but there is a good reason for that. Running is something we have done since we were children in the time line of evolution; it is only natural that the pleasure should be childlike.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Three things that make you look a bit of a pillock but that really work

Compression socks

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I think compression socks are the worst of the three in the "pillock stakes" because you could conceivably have such a poor sense of style that you would choose to wear them even if they had no beneficial effect. Footballers get away with equally ludicrous socks but they have the excuse of needing something to hold the shin pads in place and, anyway, footballers are not paragons of good taste in my book.

Compression socks really do work - there are numerous scientific studies around attesting to the fact. Firstly, they hold the muscles firmly in place and reduce the vibrations that occur from impact that would otherwise waste energy and cause muscle soreness the following day. Secondly, they help the blood flow back to the heart due to a gradual increase in compression further down the extremity. There are some other wild and wonderful claims that I personally don't buy into but these two effects alone are worth the entry price. I've started to wear thigh compression as well and I may try arm compression when I am riding in the aero position on the bike, as the arms particularly suffer from a lot of vibration from the road.

Breathe Right nasal strips

These were particularly useful for me for the San Sebastian Half Marathon last year because I had to share a hotel room with a friend of mine who snored terribly. What is surprising though, is how much they seem to help me breathe when I am running. I'm not sure whether it is a placebo effect or not, because it seems unlikely that opening the nostrils a tiny bit can really help you oxygen to your lungs more quickly when you remember that you've also got that hole called your mouth that you can breathe through. Surely it would be equivalent to just opening your mouth a tiny bit more? I once had an argument with someone who said it was impossible to breathe through your nose and your mouth at the same time - I'm still not convinced. Whatever the case, apart from the pillock factor, these are very cheap. One thing I have learnt from having them start to peel off after only 10 minutes or so, is that it is important to wipe your nose clean (I mean the bridge of your nose!) before applying because it tends to be a bit greasy, or at least mine does.

Kinesio Tape

It really irritates me when I see articles in running magazines that talk about Kinesio tape as if it were something mystical (because it was invented by a Japanese person?) and say things like "its possible that even the colour of the tape has an effect". Give me a break. No, this stuff really works and it works for a scientific reason. If you are looking for something with mystical powers then those deionizing magnetic hologram bracelets are your thing.

As I got injured so much last year, I became a little bit of an expert in Kinesio taping. I got hold of the tapes and a book from ebay and I almost looked forward to my next injury as a challenge. The tape is special in that it is prestretched so that, when it is applied, it bunches up as you can see around the armpit of our model above. Particularly if you have an inflammation, these "waves" help separate the dermis from the nerves and give a sensation of relief. They also help the flow of blood and lymphatic fluid with all its curative goodness. The trick is to apply the tape with the skin of the affected area initially in tension and then to gradually relax it as the tape is laid down. The other great advantage of the tape, of course, is its like a fluorescent sign saying "I'm injured, what's your excuse?".


This is from roughly the halfway mark
By the way, I'm feeling a little better today - at least my temperature has gone down - but I still have no appetite. Both the kids are ill with the same thing and they seem to be having a worse time of it than me...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010


I'm feeling today how I was expecting to feel the morning after. A combination of my overtaxed immune system having to tend to general body repair and an hour spent waiting for a taxi in freezing winds at Heathrow last night. Oh, for a minicab - I would have paid in blood - but no, Heathrow is too "civilized" for that.

I'm aching all over and I've only managed to eat a couple of packets of crisps and a bag of mints to try and get some energy back. I'm regretting the albeit very light workout I did this morning (walking on the treadmill with a very steep incline). Had I known I was going to feel like this I would have happily stayed in bed! Now I see why the Marathon can be hard to recover from. Anyway, never mind - I think it is the only time I have felt ill all year and, if I had to get sick, I couldn't have chosen a better day for it (well, in terms of my training cycle at least; not so good from a work point of view).

Believe me, this post is supposed to be anything but a "poor me" appeal; I want to remember this lesson for next time. I should have kept taking my iron tablets a little longer and avoided traveling for a bit.

Back soon!


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Running technique

This was the photo I had in my head as I was running the Marathon the other day. The question is: which of the two runners above has the better technique? (Hint: they are both Ironman or Half Ironman World Champions so they are probably running at about 18kph in the photo.)

When I got back into running recently, I was surprised that no-one talked much about running technique in running magazines. Having been a keen rower in my teens and early twenties, I knew how important technique was. Of course, in water sports the resistance is 1,000 times that of air, but even cyclists are well known for their obsession with pedaling technique and posture. It seems as though the only reason is that running is considered to be a "natural" activity (whatever that means) and therefore we are all born with perfect technique. Actually, that's not as silly as it might sound: if you have ever watched small children running, you'll have seen some of the best running technique on the planet. On the other hand, if you have ever run a Marathon, you'll have had a chance to marvel at the extraordinary variety of running styles, not all of which can possibly be considered good technique.

So what happens to screw up our running style? Wearing shoes, that's what.

OK, OK, I know that there has been a lot of hype lately about barefoot running and I really don't want to get into that. (Having sustained a stress fracture in my foot from running too much, too soon in too minimal a shoe, I know the dangers.) However, shoes have been getting ever more bulkier as new materials are developed to allow them to maintain a reasonable weight. The more padding, the higher the heel counter, which means more and more stability features have to be built in as your foot is raised further from the ground. There are two negative side effects to this tendency (apart from the escalating price, that is):

- The stability features take protaganism away from the many muscles in the feet and lower leg that are designed to keep you upright and, as a result, the muscles and tendons weaken (atrophy).
- The extra padding reduces the sensitivity of the feet. If you've ever had your feet tickled, you won't be surprised to know that your feet are especially sensitive: the sensors are there to "automatically" activate the orchestra of muscles in your legs and core as your feet touch the ground, so that you don't fall over. It's something that happens so quickly that there isn't time for the message to be processed by the conscious part of the brain. This is called "proprioception".

These two side effects are viscous circles: the weaker the muscles and tendons become, the more stability you need. The more padding you have, the harder you land (your leg muscles are activated imperceptibly later) and the more cushioning you need. There is also a third feedback loop: more padding encourages you to land on your heel - there is a theory that the lower perceived impact of the foot tricks the body into a walking gait. Heel striking exaggerates the rotation of the foot as you land and requires more stability. This rotation is called "pronation". In fact, this was the alarm bell that rang when I got back into running. I'd run for many years without any problems or ever having heard the word "pronation" before. When I got back into running, my knees started to hurt and I was immediately told I needed orthotics and shoes with extra stability control. Lo and behold, the knee pain disappeared overnight. The problem is that this is rather like prescribing someone with a limp crutches for the rest of their life: their limp may get better but they will be dependent on crutches for life AND more susceptible to further injuries due to weakened musculature. (There are scientific studies out there on the incidence of injuries with motion control running shoes if you look hard enough,)

The other thing that caught my attention was the fact that I was strongly recommended NOT to buy lightweight running shoes or "racing flats" because, at 90 kilos, I weighed too much. As I am a bit of a bloody minded sort of person, this just made me want them even more. I realized that an elite slip of a runner would be hitting the ground with a far greater impact than me because, at more than 20kp/h, the ground forces are much higher than at my more humble speed, even if I am carrying an extra 30 kilos.

I don't want to get into a long discussion of running technique either, but I will give you some pointers in case you are interested. There are several schools out there, all with very similar approaches. As usual, the key is in the subtle differences between them. To name the most prevalent ones there is Evolution Running, The Pose Method, Chi Running, Natural Running,... I can only comment on my own, personal experience and that is that I found the Chi Running book too "mystical" although it was the first time I realized the importance of the core muscles in running; the Pose Method, however, is based on much more hard science and so it particularly appealed to me. What is also different about the Pose Method is that it is, as its name lays plain, a method which is something more than a technique - it is also as much about how you learn that technique. For me, it has two key innovations that distinguish it from the others. Firstly, the charismatic Dr Romanov makes a big deal about concentrating on taking your foot off the ground rather than on how you land. The idea is that you cannot effectively control how you land directly as this is taken care of by proprioception (and, if you try, you'll only tense up and waste more energy / injure yourself). However, as you are flying through the air, whatever you do with your trailing foot is reflected by your leading foot otherwise you would not be in balance. The second innovation is the focus he puts on perception. When I first read the book, I thought this was more mystical mumbo jumbo but I had a chance to experience it first hand when I went on a Pose workshop in Denmark last year with the very same Dr Romanov. We were filmed running, we did some drills and we were filmed running a second time. Everybody improved on the second video but I was sure that I would not have done as I had made no conscious effort to change anything the second time I ran. I was flabbergasted to see that I too, had made a measurable improvement in the second video. The reason: the drills taught my body to be more aware or to perceive important aspects of the running technique.

What the various techniques all have in common is that one should try to reduce the "bounce" in the run as much as possible. If you think about it, as we are running along horizontally, we are doing work against gravity by bobbing up and down. It seems counter-intuitive, but the main way to achieve this is to take shorter strides or, equivalently, run with a higher cadence. Personally, I think it is better to increase your cadence as a result of running correctly (e.g., not heel striking nor over-extending the trailing leg, having a compact arm swing, etc.) rather than to force it by running with a metronome(!) for example. The other benefit of not bouncing is - you guessed it - you land with less impact and are much less likely to sustain injuries.

I should warn you that it takes about a year for all your muscles, tendons, bones and ligaments to "reconfigure" for a new running gait - I learned this from painful experience (in the literal sense). The Pose book actually says that you should only run as long as you are able to run well so that you have to have a lot of patience to learn the new technique, running perhaps 5 minutes only and making up the rest of your training with some other exercise. If you follow any of the above mentioned techniques, you'll end up using your Achilles tendon and your calf muscles much more than before, and your knees much less as the load is shared over the whole of your leg. A good way to know if you are running too long with the new technique is if you have any pain in your calf muscles the next day. I have finally accepted that PAIN IS BAD.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Post Marathon analysis

You can see from the first graph the difference between the two Marathons I have run. What is striking is that the line representing the Amsterdam Matathon from 2008 is very similar to the line representing San Sebastian, just shifted left by about 15 kilometers! It looks like I was using my anaerobic engine from the start of Amsterdam - probably a combination of starting too hard and not having done enough aerobic training prior to the race.

In the second graph, you can see the very clear trend that I was running faster and faster throughout the whole race - I wasn't even aware of this until after the 35km mark, when I decided that I felt strong enough to push on to the finish line. I think I could have started off a bit faster but, who's to say that I wouldn't have blown up. Something to try next time now that I finally have a Marathon I can be proud of under my belt... Certainly I was trying too hard to be below Jonathan's prescribed heart rate: as there is always some "noise" due to slight inclines, wind, etc., perhaps I should have allowed it to go a bit over the limit knowing that there would be other stretches that would compensate.

What is really interesting (well, to me, anyway) is the third graph. I had thought that the calorie counter in my watch would have a fairly simple algorithm that would correlate calorie expenditure to heart rate but I was surprised to see that I was burning as many calories per kilometer at the beginning of the race as at the end. This is partly due to the fact that, at the beginning, my heart rate was low but I was taking more time to cover the ground; at the end, my heart rate was much higher but I was running faster. Even correcting for this, it turns out that my watch has something a lot more sophisticated under the hood. The third graph compares the number of calories I was supposedly burning per kilometer with the number of heart beats I was above or below Jonathan's prescription. There definitely appears to be a relation between the two - maybe something for Jonathan to look into? It would certainly be a lot easier to maintain my calorie burn at 63kcal/km, say, rather than having to scribble the particular heart rates for each kilometer on the back of my hand / watch.

As for how I feel today, I really don't feel bad at all. My weight is back to normal (although I did break the 8% body fat barrier!). My legs are a bit stiff, mainly in the muscles that I didn't concentrate on in my weight training, interestingly enough, like the groin, glutes and hip flexors. Now I have a little holiday from serious training, to allow my body to rebuild itself after its little ordeal. Its definitely a good moment to get back in the swimming pool and see if I can get some halfway decent technique...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

In Jonathan We Trust

This was the mantra I repeated over and over to myself (until, with only a few kilometers left, someone shouted "Con dos cojones!" and this promptly replaced the old mantra). Jonathan is my coach and, this time, I stuck to his advice.

Ali G runs da Marathon

I had a brilliant race. I can't tell you much about San Sebastian, the Marathon course or its environs, as I spent most of the time looking at the hairs on the neck of the guy in front of me but they say it is a very picturesque route (very flat but a bit windy). More importantly, I managed to achieve all my objectives: no cramps, no "wall" and a time of 3:07:18 (that's an improvement of just under 53 minutes, by the way)! Oh, and I actually enjoyed it. What's crazy is that I ran the first half marathon in 1:37 which means that the second half marathon took only 1:30! The only strange thing is that, as the race wore on, I seemed to be able to run faster and faster at the same heart rate. I can only guess that the excitement of the race or the caffeine loaded gel I took after breakfast (yes, I couldn't resist taking this risk in spite of what happened in Lisbon) were to blame for an accelerated heart rate at the beginning.

As it was so windy, I went from peloton to peloton, having to almost sprint in between, as facing the wind alone was very costly. I was having to constantly decide between running along at too low an intensity in a group, or braving it and suddenly finding myself well over the limit. Sometimes these decisions were taken based on the strange running style of the person in front of me or simply because I didn't like his haircut. It was always a relief to see that, once back in the fold of my new group, my pulse would settle back down to a maintainable rate.

It felt very easy until about the 35km mark when I felt my legs getting a bit tired. I felt a lot more scared than tired because I was literally running into unexplored territory: I had never run more than 27km nonstop before. But, as I had run the first half conservatively, I was able to run the end making full use of my anaerobic engine: the last few kilometers I was clocking at over 15kph! It was such a great feeling to be overtaking everybody and hearing people in the crowd saying things like "Wow, look at him go!" as well as some other stuff in Basque which sounded equally encouraging, even though I had no idea what they were saying. I was running for a Basque club that some of my friends run for so people were probably egging me on all along the course but, it was impossible for me to know as I can barely pronounce the name let alone actually remember it.

A nice surprise was to "bump into" some friends of mine from my triathlon club along the way. One of them is very fast so overtaking him made me feel invincible and probably spurred me on to shave half a minute off my time. (It was only afterwards that he explained he was just doing a "training run" and had only run the second half...)

Coming into the stadium and feeling the crowd, I mustered a massive sprint for the finish line and my trademark roar as I crossed it. What an adrenalin rush! I felt overwhelmed and I started to "craugh" (cry and laugh at the same time) uncontrollably. You had to have been there really to understand...

So all this bodes well for the Ironman - I need fear the bastard Marathon no longer. It seems that the carbo loading, the 9 high5 isogels and the 9 salt stick pills I took during the race, the calorie counting, the controlled low intensity workouts and the Pose running technique all paid off in the end. Now I have the "problem" of being tantalizingly close to the magic 3 hour boundary. Hmmmmm....

Here's why its a good idea to take salt tablets

Location:San Sebastian