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

Friday, November 26, 2010

Nearly a third of the way there...

You've almost donated 1,000 pounds to the BHF, thank you so much! Now, wouldn't it be cool to be the one to tip the counter into 4 figures???

EDIT: Thanks to Fernando Gutiérrez for the 4 figures! (Let's see who will get us to 5...)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Carbo loading

I thought I'd give this a try - I'll let you know around kilometer 30 if it has any effect or not...

I've chosen to try the less extreme version of carbo loading, which doesn't have a carbohydrate depletion phase involving running on an empty petrol tank and which is quite unpleasant from what I have heard. The "light" version sounds great, doesn't it? Being able to stuff yourself with pasta and sugary drinks all day long. Now that I have seen what it involves, I'm not so sure. I've just carted a box of gels and magic powders into work that I am supposed to take on top of my usual diet, over the next 3 days - it weighs a kilo for goodness sake! I'll probably be so sick of gels by the time I get to the Marathon on Sunday, that I won't be able to force any down during the race!

A little twist to the carbo loading that I am also going to try is to do a short sprint before taking in the carbs, to get the lactate flowing in the blood. The sprint should be short enough not to tire me out or cause any muscle damage, but just long enough to get that burning feeling in your legs. Apparently, if you run below your Aerobic Threshold you burn more fat than at higher intensities, but your body also tends to store fat more easily than carbohydrate as a result. I've been playing around with finishing my workouts with a short sprint to see if I can trick my body into burning fat but storing carbohydrates. I haven't really seen much scientific evidence to support this so, for now, this is more of a superstitious ritual of mine. At some point I'll dig around to see if I can find anything more on the subject.

OK, enough procrastination. Now for those gels.... YUCK

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How fragile we are

I just had a piece of bad news today. This time it concerned someone who I wouldn't class as a friend but he was a trainee in my team for 6 months last year. I particularly remember watching the inauguration speech of President Obama with him - being African, he was especially proud and it was quite moving to share the moment with him. It's just mind boggling to think, had I known then, that sometime the following year, one of us would die suddenly of a heart attack... We still have the misconception that bad things only happen to other people, particularly if they are obese, if they smoke or if they don't do any exercise. It just isn't true and it makes me doubly determined to raise money for the British Heart Foundation. RIP

Monday, November 22, 2010

It ain't half hot...

I hate running in the heat but I suppose it's a price I'm willing to pay for the otherwise great lifestyle in Madrid. How can I be complaining about the heat in November? Thing is, I decided to run indoors in the work gym today. The air conditioning is set at about the right temperature for sitting around in a t-shirt and shorts, but as soon as you start actually doing anything you - at least I - start sweating buckets. (To give you some idea, if I spend more than an hour on the elliptic machine, the puddle of sweat goes as far as causing a short circuit which puts all the machines out of action - seriously!)

Today was worse than usual because I was running late and hit the lunchtime rush hour. When there are lots of other hot and sweaty bodies working out, it gets even more stifling. On the running machine, you don't have the cooling benefit of the air rushing past you so it's inevitable that your performance is going to be affected but that I should have to run 35% slower to achieve the same heart rate (intensity) as I would have running outdoors is just ridiculous! I suppose it is good to train heat tolerance now and again but it's got to the point where I can't do a proper workout indoors. It may also explain why I spent too much time running at too high an intensity the last couple of years - its only since I started biking that I found good outdoor trails and so, previously, I did almost all of my training on the running machine.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Why we run

I don't want this blog to turn into one of those blogs where I detail laboriously all my training runs but today was special. I can only suppose that its due to being in the tapering phase, where the training volume is reduced significantly, so that I have much more energy than usual. I'm also a bit nervous to write about it, as if I were tempting fate but, what the hell, I don't seriously believe in that crap - anything can still go wrong in the Marathon for any number of reasons, none of them being that I have somehow "jinxed" myself.

(I am touching wood as I write.)

Today just felt great and I wanted to write about it, more than anything just to remind myself in the future what it should feel like. The run was a 20 minute warm-up, followed by two 4km runs a bit slower than my marathon pace. I judged this pace by my heart rate but ended up running them both much faster than I expected. I thought something was either wrong with my watch or with me, it felt so easy and fluid. And now, I really don't feel tired; quite the opposite - I have this nice tingling feeling in my legs, my lungs feel bigger than normal and I feel wide awake. This is the famous "runner's high" that comes from the endorphins coursing through my body.

This is why we run.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Point of no return

I've gone and done it now: I've bought the flights for the whole family so that's it, no turning back now...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

In the Zone

This year I decided to heed my coach's advice. Apart from being able to run a Marathon in less than 2h40, he's also an academic researcher in Sports Science at the Universidad de Europa (which is conveniently near where I work). It's one thing to follow advice when your heart rate is at less than 100bpm, but it is another thing altogether when most of your blood is anywhere in your body but in your brain. Bizarrely enough, the advice I have found most difficult to adhere to has been not to run too hard. I guess it is ingrained in me from my brief rowing career in the late 80's to early 90's, that you cannot be seen to be slacking off.

A lot of people run with a pulse monitor but I'm not sure that everyone is necessarily using it correctly: I certainly wasn't. For me it served as a compensation if a competition or a training session hadn't gone as well as I had planned: at least I had hard evidence that I had tried my best. I'm not sure exactly how I got past this masochistic phase but I think that getting into triathlon has helped. The great thing about triathlon is that every race course is different (sometimes the transition zone alone can add kilometers to the distance) and even the same course from one year to the next can be a very different kettle of fish (current, wind conditions, etc). So, in the same year that I have changed my goals from beating my best time - which no longer makes sense - I have also done just that, and had personal bests in 10k and the half-Marathon... "Go figure" as our American friends would say.

A simplified view is that the human body is powered by 3 main energy systems and, when they run out, it has a 4th "backup" energy system which isn't nearly as effective but is practically unlimited: this is fat oxidation (literally "fat burning") and is what you rely on almost exclusively when you hit the wall (or "bonk" in cycling parlance) and run out of carbohydrate stores in the Marathon. The first system is the catchily-named ATP-PC system or Adenosine Tri >PO3 Creatine Phosphate system if you want to sound impressive. It is able to deliver tremendous power but only for periods of about 10 seconds and is very slow to regenerate. The second system is the Anaerobic system which, as its name suggests, doesn't use oxygen to generate energy; the third system is the Aerobic system which does use oxygen. Both of these systems operate in parallel and use glucose (sugar or carbohydrates) stored as glycogen in the muscles. However, the Anaerobic system generates lactic acid as a by-product and the build up of acidity causes fatigue in the muscles. If you do an activity and increase the intensity with which you do it, there comes a point when you are mainly relying on your Anaerobic system. Everybody has a different tolerance to lactate acid build up but it gets us all in the end. Sports physicians like to measure the point (usually in terms of heart rate) where your body starts to rely primarily on the Anaerobic system (AT or Anaerobic Threshold). There is a lower threshold - the Aerobic threshold (AeT) - below which your body is relying almost entirely on the Aerobic system. Somewhere above this, is a point called the MLSS (Maximal Lactate Steady State) threshold above which lactate acid accumulates in the blood, which is really useful for Marathon runners: it is theoretically the intensity at which you sh/could run a Marathon, supposing that you are efficient enough not to use up all your glycogen before you get to the finish line. The only bugger is that nobody has yet devised a way to measure it that doesn't involve running round a track and pricking your finger to measure the lactate level.

That was the simplified view, haha. To be honest, I have found so many conflicting definitions, especially concerning lactate thresholds and their relationship to the Aerobic and Anaerobic Thresholds, that I just content myself to be know that there are two main thresholds - an upper and a lower, both of which are highly individual and movable with the right training.

If you are still reading, then this is the good bit. Once you have established these thresholds, the theory is that you should do the vast bulk of your training for a long distance event at less than the AeT - which is kind of good news because, in my case, its a pretty easy pace. The idea is that, by consistently training at below the AeT, you are working your Aerobic system and it will adapt more effectively to the demands you put upon it. In particular, it will encourage the body to derive more energy from fat oxidation and help save those precious glycogen stores for later. The bad news is that almost all the rest of the training should be at above the AT, which is damn hard. This training is supposed to increase your AT (what good is that, I hear you ask, it just means I'll have to train even harder!) and increase your lactate tolerance. This is typically the goal of the dreaded "series" where you run very fast for a few minutes say, have a break of 30 seconds or so, and then do it again... and again... The interesting thing is that very little, if any, training is recommended in between the two intensities. Anyway, those are the training sessions I most hate because they are neither light enough to be able to tolerate for a long time, nor are they short enough to be able to put up with easily. However, that is the intensity that you typically run anything from a half-Marathon to a Marathon.

By the way, if you are serious about training, it really is worth getting your thresholds measured properly with a VO2 Max or Lactate Threshold test. There are loads of short cuts around to estimate these thresholds but I think that most of them are quite dubious. The famous formula for your maximum heart rate as a function of age is a good example: it might work on average, but two identically aged people could easily have maximum heart rates differing by 30bpm. Also, the whole point is that training can move the thresholds so you should get them measured regularly.

In trying to keep my heart rate below my AeT I have found it hard to factor in the fact that your heart rate drifts slowly upwards as you run. This is due to the energetic cost of evacuating the heat from your muscles: the drift is very sensitive to the ambient temperature. This means that you should be going ever slower as you run which seems to contradict the perceived wisdom of doing a run where you finish faster than you started. Some people say that you should set the thresholds at a certain pace rather than a particular heart rate; nevertheless, the energetic cost of the heat evacuation is a real cost whether you like it or not. Its taken me a while to accept, but I am really feeling the benefits, in particular I seem to be able to run faster and longer at my AeT. I hope that I notice the difference in the Marathon!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My new secret weapon

It doesn't take a genius to come up with the idea of an "ovalized" or elliptic chain ring (that's the big cog connected to the pedals): there are sections of the pedal stroke which feel harder than others simply because you are using your body weight to move the pedals round and gravity only acts downwards; with an elliptic chain ring, the effective gearing changes throughout the stroke to compensate. The genius is in how to market such a thing in the year 2010 when Shimano famously flopped with this idea - the fatally flawed Biopace rings - back in the '80s.

What I couldn't understand until recently was, why on Earth did they put the hardest gearing at the "dead point", when your feet are at 12 and 6 o' clock? Surely this just makes it even harder! You have to remember that the motto of the 80's was "NO PAIN, NO GAIN" and so anyone who complained that something was "hard" was just being a pansy. The idea was, for a constant cadence, to increase the bike speed via the harder gearing to compensate for the ineffective dead spot. I actually got a chance to try them out when I borrowed a friend's bike to train on during my summer holidays in the UK: my friend said that he had stopped riding it because - surprise, surprise - it hurt his knees.

Nowadays, of course, its all about being more efficient, avoiding injuries and overtraining, massages etc. How easy the elite athletes of today have it (only kidding)! This translates into a simple 45-70 degree rotation in the elliptic rings et voilà - you have the Rotor Q-Rings. The gearing is such that you can get more work on in the part of the stroke where your muscles and gravity are working together (and it is easier to get past that sticky dead spot). What Rotor has managed to do where all others have failed, is shake off the skepticism and derisive laughter that has tended to accompany all but the roundest of chain rings. They have even used by several riders in the Tour de France.

So I was pretty astonished to find them in my local department store. Its probably because they are designed and made in Spain but, still, you can't even buy a bike that is not a mountain bike in the same shop. There being a recession and all, I thought I would do my bit to help Spain out and to reduce the PIGS to just a PIG.

(By the way, according to the Rotor manual, elliptic chain rings have been around since 1890. In those days they were neither optimised for speed nor for efficiency but for comfort: the maximum gearing was in the horizontal position and the minimum gearing was at the dead spot. This is surely a tribute to the advances of modern technology, that in just 120 years - a mere sneeze in time scale of Human Evolution - we have gone full circle. I mean ellipse.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My latest obession: What goes out, must come in

I realized recently that it didn't make much sense to think only about output, that's to say, exercise, without controlling the input - calories. I previously thought that you could think of your stomach as a kind of bank account where you would make deposits and withdrawals and, as long as you didn't get overdrawn or deposit too much (haha), it would all work out in the long run. Apparently, it doesn't work like that. The human body responds to the stimuli we give it and I was giving mine mixed messages. If you burn more calories in a given day then you should eat more that same day. In fact, trying to always eat less is counterproductive because your appetite forces you to compensate eventually - either that, or you start to lose muscle mass which isn't good if you are planning to run a Marathon. Much better to work in harmony with your body rather than against it and try to match your calorie intake with your consumption. What you should be doing, according to the latest research, is eating smaller meals more regularly and taking advantage of the "window" of about 30 minutes after exercising, when your body is particularly predisposed to absorbing nutrients. In practice, this means counting calories which is, as the Spanish would say, un coñazo.

I found a pretty cool ipod app which makes it a bit easier to keep track and, the surprising thing is, in spite of the huge error margin (I mean, does a croissant have 150 or 450 calories??) it more or less seems to balance up at the end of the day and - get this - it is working! I've been running for 3 years now and I wouldn't say that I am overweight, but I could be a bit leaner  if only for the reason that, if someone asked me to carry a plastic bag with a couple of kilos of fat around the Marathon, I would gracefully refuse. Also, if you look at how much money people spend on shaving a few grams off their bikes, I can safely say that I am saving myself an absolute fortune (which I can then spend on other triathlon related goodies, of course).

I now find my days off training quite annoying (I used to look forward to them) because I have to be careful what I eat (around 2,000 kcals a day); on a good day I may have to pack in 4,000 kcals, which is quite a feat. I've managed to shave off 3 kilos so far and, according to my bathroom scales (which I'm sure have an incentive to flatter me), my percentage of body fat is down to an unbelievable (for me) 8%. Its definitely true that the belly is shrinking away, but I fear that those abdominal muscles that I last saw 22 years ago will never see the light of day again. But that is not the aim! At least, that is what I keep telling myself...

First objective: Overcome the fear of the Marathon

As I mentioned, I have actually done a Marathon before although, I have to say, it doesn't really feel like it. To be honest it was a very disappointing experience. I got terrible cramps in my calf muscles at around 27km and had to hobble the remaining 15km, stopping to stretch every 200m or so. I was wearing a t-shirt with the words "Go Rob!" scribbled in black marker pen so, every time I stopped, the crowd would scream at me to "keep going Rob, you're nearly there!". ("Nearly there?! You bloody run it!") The worst thing about hitting the so-called wall is that it puts you in a really, really bad mood. You just can't be bothered. I remember thinking, "What's the point? I might as well run a egg and spoon Marathon or a 3-legged Marathon.". On top of that, I was actually getting very cold because I couldn't keep my heart rate up. Anyway, I knew that it'd only be worse if I packed it in and, in any case, I didn't have any money so I wasn't sure how I would have physically got back to the hotel. I also thought of my long suffering family who were gallantly waiting where I had told them to wait, at least an hour before I finally turned up.

Why did it go so wrong? I'd been obsessive in all my preparations, taking all kinds of silly supplements religiously. I'd even done a lactate threshold test, a VO2 max test and my coach had given me a clear indication of what pulse rate I should aim for at each point in the race. Its very simple: as soon as the race started, all that went out of the window. My pulse rate was 10 beats higher than it should be from the start. I put it down to the excitement of the race - but it just would not get down to the rate it should have been for the speed I was running at so therefore... I ignored it! Funnily enough, the point at which the cramps set in was when my pulse was at the level it should have been at the end of the race! Now why was it so much higher for a given speed than it had been in training? It was a cold (albeit windy) day so it couldn't be down to overheating, the bane of my running races - or could it? The humidity was around 90% and this effects the ability of the human body to expel heat via perspiration - the only difference that the outside temperature being high makes is that you have more heat to expel. Most of us have experienced a hot, muggy day where your clothes cling to you and you feel sluggish. On a cold, humid day, you don't really notice anything until you start running and - even then you may not realize it - the sweat just rolls down you but doesn't evaporate. Mental note to self: my coach is usually right.

Your heart goes "boom"

I also had another run in with the dreaded cramps in the half Ironman I did in Lisbon. I think it may have had to do with the fact that I drank: 1 cup of coffee, two red bulls, 5 gels with caffeine and probably a liter of coke. Cramps are a bit of a mysterious phenomenon from what I have been able to find out - it doesn't seem as though the conventional wisdom that they are largely provoked by an electrolyte (salt) imbalance has ever been definitively proved. I can only imagine that no-one has really looked into it seriously because any athlete worth his salt (excuse the pun) is unlikely to have suffered from cramps, otherwise they would never have made it to a high level of competition. There are exceptions, of course. Still, for want of a better explanation, I'm sticking with the electrolyte imbalance.

The good thing is that I did another half Ironman, this time in Madrid - ASTROMAD - and I didn't suffer from cramps. It was a really tough triathlon - very hilly and very hot. To give you some idea, the winner (Eneko Llanos' brother, a pro) did the cycle leg in 3 hours; in Lisbon, my time for the cycle leg of the same distance was 2h31. This time I stayed off the caffeine but I can't say that I stuck to any particular pulse rate because by heart rate monitor chose that particular day, of all days, to die. The difference was that I took about 9 salt stick tablets, which contain a mixture of electrolytes similar to those lost in sweat. I came up with the number 9 based on how much weight I typically lose through sweating, and the sodium content of the other junk I was taking. Anyway, I didn't get any cramps nor did I die of salt poisoning, so I guess I calculated it more or less right.

As the Ironman culminates in a Marathon, I thought it was probably a good idea to do one beforehand, one that I actually "enjoyed" or at least felt proud of. So I'm down to run in the Marathon in San Sebastián (Donostia) on the 28th of November, in just under two weeks. I'm in what is called the "tapering phase" which is when you reduce the number of kilometers you run (but not the intensity) so that you can charge your batteries. The thinking is that there is little you can do to influence your fitness between now and the race. I'm feeling pretty good, I have to say (TOUCH WOOD). I ran into work today and it was very easy - just over 12km/h for an hour at an average heart rate of 144bpm. My target heart rate for the Marathon is to run the bulk of it at 163bpm (according to my coach's calculations - if you are interested, you can check out his publication). So I should hopefully be able to hit my target speed of 13km/h, which would get me past the finishing line in about 3h15mins. That is, of course, if it is not too humid. Or any number of other reasons that can screw up a Marathon...

How did I get here?

Florianópolis, Brazil, home to the Ironman 
Just over 3 years ago, I decided that enough was enough and I made a radical change in my life. I gave up smoking, drinking (well, for a while anyway...) even biting my nails and decided to GET FIT again. Unfortunately I don't seem to be able to do anything in moderation and throwing myself into running and cycling after 15 years of sofa-lounging came with more than its fair share of injuries.

I started 2008 thinking that running a Marathon was insane and unhealthy. Later that same year, I ran my first Marathon in Amsterdam. In 2009 I started having problems with my knees but that only made me even more determined. After initially going down the well-trodden route of huge (and expensive) running shoes and orthotics, I decided to retrain my running gait to reduce stress on my knees: I refused to believe that I was some kind of freak of evolution that could only survive as long as Nike didn't go out of business. In retrospect, had I gone about this in a sensible fashion I think I would have got to where I am now much quicker and with much less pain. I totally underestimated how long it would take for the muscles, ligaments and bones to adjust to a different running style that gave more protagonism to the lower leg and foot. As my coach put it, "Maybe 35 years of wearing shoes can undo millions of years of Evolution". Hence the torn Achilles, torn hamstring and, finally, the stress fracture in my foot. The stress fracture was a kind of blessing in disguise as it forced me to STOP and retrain from scratch. Since then, I have been injury free - well, at least, running injury free. Now I am able to run for hours without any discomfort or aches and pains the next day. All this was thanks to the POSE method.

Me at the Berlin Marathon. I really hadn't noticed the sign behind me.
While I was recovering from my foot injury, I decided to take up cycling. I was practically born on two wheels as I grew up in Cambridge, but it had been 10 years since I had last ridden a bike because - you guessed it - I had a very serious road accident that really should have been the end of me, all things being equal. I managed to find a route from my house to work that took me through forests and virtually avoided any contact with cars and other evils from the modern world. I started with a mountain bike because it made me feel safe, with sturdy wheels, a solid frame and a forgiving suspension fork. So safe, in fact, that, in a brief moment of Evel Knevel inspired madness, I went flying and tore three ligaments in my shoulder. When the doctor said my shoulder would look like that "forever" I actually asked him if he was joking. Thinking that mountain bikes perhaps weren't quite as safe as they looked I bought a racing bike...

In 2010 I moved to duathlons and triathlons but I vowed to myself I would NEVER consider undertaking an Ironman (3.8km swim, 180km bike + full marathon run) - I mean, that's just ridiculous! Instead, I started going out on long cycle rides with a bunch of Ironmen and women and it was inevitable that I would end up talking to them... So I did my first triathlon in April - a half Ironman in Lisbon - and I have not been able to get the stupid idea of doing a full Ironman out of my head since then.

Recently, a dear friend of mine died of a heart attack aged only 41. I was so shocked and angry about this that I became convinced that I would do an Ironman in my friend's honour. He was also a keen cyclist. You can see more about that and check out my podcast at my website.

So, I am about to buy the flights to Florianópolis, Brazil, where the Ironman I am taking part in takes place on the 28th of May 2011. This is the point of no return...