Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why it's important to keep a training log

Today I received a speeding ticket with photographic evidence. It was dated the 18th of March (quite why it takes 4 months to arrive - in which time you could have racked up quite a number of them - is beyond me) so it was hard to remember who was driving that day, and it wasn't possible to make anything out from the photo of course. My wife was quite convinced that it was me driving that day and I was quite convinced that it was her. In the end there were no points only a fine to be paid so it is really only an intellectual quibbling point but I was pleased to be able to pull out my training log and prove beyond all doubt that it hadn't been me: that day I had gone to work running...

By the way, the location of the speed camera that caught her was just by the headquarters of DGT (la Dirección General de Tráfico), the very same people who issue the speeding tickets.

Tempting fate

Today my boss (strictly speaking, recently ex-boss) made a comment that got me thinking. He said that I "didn't seem to get injured anymore". Of course, I am tempting fate by writing this post, but there is always an element of luck to not getting injured anyway. On the one hand, I've been running now for nearly 4 years and it has taken at least half that time for my body to adapt to being able to run again. I think of the legs like a kinetic chain that is only as strong as its weakest link. In my case, my injuries started up at the hips and gradually worked their way down my legs, passing through the knees, the Achilles and ending up in my feet. Physical conditioning has definitely helped avoid injury - I recently stepped awkwardly while running and completely twisted my ankle, landing on the side of my foot but I kept on running and had no pain or associated problems whatsoever - but I think the real change has been in my true motivation to run.

I went through the following stages and I suspect that I am not the only one to have done this:

Anger. I was disgusted with how I had let my body become and how I had let myself get to the point of smoking a packet of fags a day. Thankfully, the results of starting to run again were surprisingly quick to materialize and this was motivation in itself but when I ran, I ran with self hatred and I ran to punish myself. If I got stressed at work I would take it out on the treadmill.

Competition. Within a few months I was keen to enter a 10k race. Once I had tasted the adrenaline of being on the start line again, I was hooked, especially when I realized that I was reasonably quick, all things considered (I think my first 10k time was 42 minutes which irritated a few of my friends who had been running for years). Even in that race I remember how fiercely competitive I was, thinking things like "I can't let someone with a haircut like that beat me". Now I was running to punish others, not just myself. The goal was then to try to beat my times every time I raced, something that can only be sustained for so long.

Boom-bust. Of course, I started to get injured and I fell into the typical pattern of ignoring pain until it became chronic and then not having the patience to fully recover after an injury before ramping up the training to the maximum, causing the whole cycle to repeat itself. All my races were "A" races - that is to say, ones in which I aimed to do a personal best performance - and so, without any kind of long term view, I would do things like sprint at the end of a half marathon in spite of having a torn hamstring. What put an authoritative stop to this madness was when I got a stress fracture in my foot and was forced to watch my leg whither away in the space of the 3 months of wearing a cast or air boot and not weight bearing. This time I took my time in building up to running again and, in some ways, getting that stress fracture was the best thing that could have happened. Now all the links in the chain were as strong as each other. Since then, I have not had another injury.... from running. (Touch wood.)

Age denial. The best way to ease back into training before I could fully bear weight was cycling. I was pretty confident on the bike because I had ridden one all through my youth. What I hadn't appreciated, though, was that when you take a fall aged nearly 40, your body doesn't just bounce back as it would a child's. A couple of broken bones and torn ligaments has made me much more cautious. By the way, I had never broken a single bone in my life before the age of 37.

Long term goal. Staking so much (time, money and effort) on the Ironman forced me to take a long term approach. I could no longer take any risks in my training or racing and had to keep my eyes on the prize.

Running for running's sake. I actually enjoy running. I love the feeling of being able to get to anywhere I want to get to. I like running fast, I like running long. I enjoy the training (well, most of it) - it's no longer just a means to an end but an end in itself. In my book, running is the ultimate sport, everything else is just an excuse.

Unless I am lying to myself as I did to some extent or other all along my journey, I think that I have come to the final stop. The question I have is whether I could have got there by a more direct route, having the character that I have, and whether I can stay there indefinitely...

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


I've just come back from a relaxing week in Asturias with the kids (my wife was in Haiti). We had a couple of glorious days, one of which I took advantage of to canoe down the Sella river which, in a couple of week's time, becomes the venue for the frantic Descenso del Sella, now in it's 75th year, with thousands of competitors.

The rest of the time, it was neither cold nor hot, neither raining nor dry, ni fu ni fa. I was glad for a respite from the roasting temperatures in Madrid and this was definitely reflected in my running speed. I did my aerobic runs at almost 14km/h (on the flat), my tempo runs at 15km/h and the series (carrying an extra 3kg) at 16km/h. If I'm honest, I didn't really manage to do the series quite by the book (sometimes I didn't hit the required heart rate, other times I allowed myself too much rest). It is very difficult to find the discipline to do them properly when I am running on my own, on the road (without a running belt to force me to keep the speed up) and when I am on holiday. Never mind, I have some months to execute them to perfection between now and the Marathon in November.

I weighed myself today and was not surprised to see that I have broken the 90kg barrier (that is to say, from below). That isn't too far from what I used to weigh before I started running (again) just under 4 years ago but, according to the same scales, I am only 8% fat. Still, I'd like to get down to around 85kg or so in time for November so, as of today, it's back to counting calories and no alcohol for a few months!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Ghost Runner

I've just finished an excellent book (being on holiday I have more time for reading) called "The Ghost Runner", by Bill Jones. You can be pretty sure that some budding Hollywood scriptwriter is already busily polishing those rough real-life edges in readiness for a big screen epic.

In some sense the antithesis to the Oxbridge steeped Charriots of Fire, it tells the story of John Tarrant, a highly gifted - and working class - runner who was prevented from competing due to being a "dirty pro" (having naively earned and owned up to earning a measly 17 pounds from boxing as a teenager) by the "toffs in suits and trilbies". The book is rather a historical account based on a reportedly terse autobiography and interviews the author conducted with people wrapped up in the events; nevertheless it makes for a gripping story indeed.

All the elements of the ludicrously hypocritical British class structure are laid bare as pompous officials (who, by the way, are amongst those who most seem to benefit financially from the sport they are suffocating) find ever more convoluted reasons why Tarrant should not be allowed to compete. Until as recently as 1981, athletics was a purely amateur affair; while today the word professional is almost synonymous with excellence, the ideals of the time were that one should compete for the love of the sport and not for financial motivation. To some extent it is possible to understand this sentiment if we remember that money was thought to have the same corrupting power as performance enhancing drugs do today. But the reality was that the ban on earnings from athletic was just a means to restrict the competition to those who were otherwise "independently wealthy". I have to say I found it hard to understand how the furiously capitalist USA could be swept up by this, at a time when they were going to war with the communist Vietnam.

The protagonist is not really someone you necessarily like or even admire - he is pig headed to the point of boring and irritating nearly everyone around him and selfish to the point of leaving his family on the border of poverty so that he may pursue his fanciful and often arbitrary ambitions. But he is certainly someone you can empathize with and, to some extent, recognize in yourself if you have ever run or become obsessed with anything, running or otherwise.

Nor was his talent so unequivocal that the injustices he endured were ever overturned. Much of the book leaves you wondering "what if" without ever being sure that things would really have turned out so differently, however just his cause. Running as a"ghost" - an unofficial entrant without a racing number - he did win numerous Marathons and Ultramarathons and even held World records in the 40 mile and 100 mile distances for a time, but he became infatuated with the elusive Comrades Marathon, a grueling 54 mile event held in South Africa. Incredibly, his ban followed him there although in Apartheid South Africa, he was no longer alone, no longer running as the only ghost runner. Until only months after his premature death, aged only 42, the Comrades Marathon was strictly "for those of the white race". I'm sure the Hollywood bloodhounds can smell a good story in Tarrant's participation as the only white runner (because everyone else was too scared or stood to lose too much) in a rebellious mixed race alternative to the Comrades, the first time blacks and whites had ever competed side by side. It seems that the nearest he ever got to happiness was in South Africa, a persona non-grata amongst personae non-grata. Unfortunately, we are left with a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been, had his performance not been so dogged by the stomach problems he suffered, which eventually mutated into the cancer which killed him.

Reading this book has definitely put things into perspective in many ways. Highly recommended.

Sports nutrition part III

Electrolytes and water

Osmosis is the movement of water from an area with lower solute concentration to an area with higher solute concentration; body fluids are hypotonic, isotonic or hypertonic if they have concentrations that are respectively less, the same as or higher than the solutes in the cells.

Electrolytes largely determine concentration: these are electrically charged cations such as sodium, potassium magnesium and calcium and anions such as chloride, phosphate, bicarbonate and protein.

Water in the body is either in the intracellular fluid (ICF) which accounts for about 65% of the total, or in the extracellular fluid (ECF). All cells are freely permeable to water but require either fluid (hydrostatic) pressure or osmotic pressure for movement to take place. The cardiovascular system provides the hydrostatic pressure but osmosis is only possible if solutes are present in the water.

The composition of plasma and interstitial fluid (found between the cells) is primarily made up of sodium cations and chloride and bicarbonate anions. The intracellular fluid (in the skeletal muscle) however, is made up of mostly potassium cations and phosphate and protein anions. Due to these differences in concentration, there is constant pressure for sodium to leak into the cells an for potassium to leak out; the role of the "sodium potassium pumps" is the cell membranes is to maintain these concentrations. If the concentration of sodium increases in the extracellular fluid (by heavy sweating, for example) water would move by osmosis from the cells and into the ECF in order to dilute the ECF fluid.

Increased water vapour in the air (humidity) reduces the ability of sweating to lose heat by evaporation, even if it is cold. In dry, cold environments, more fluid is lost by ventilation. Trained athletes start sweating sooner and have a higher sweat rate than sedentary individuals.

The immediate effect of sweating is an increase in the concentration of sodium; it is the consumption of hypotonic drinks such as water that dilutes the sodium concentration leading, in extreme cases, to the potentially fatal condition of hyponatremia. An increase in sodium will result in an increase in ECF (by osmosis).

In endurance events of 2 hours or longer, it is recommended to take in sodium. The sodium concentration of sweat is between 230 and 1310mg/l. The recommended amount to ingest is 1g/h for heavy or "salty" sweaters, in a concentration of between 0.5 and 0.7g/l. The Tolerable Upper Intake Level (TUIL) of sodium is 2,300mg/d in an effort to reduce blood pressure but these recommendations do not apply to athletes; some athletes consume more than 5,000mg of sodium a day and excess sodium is excreted in the urine.

Potassium supplementation is not recommended because o the risk of hyperkalemia (occasionally seen in bodybuilders); rather one should obtain potassium from fruit and vegetables.

The maximal rate for gastric emptying is approximately 1-1.5l/h which may be less than the sweat rate and is even slower at exercise intensities of 70% VO2 max or more.

There is no hard evidence to suggest cramps (other than all-body heat cramps) are influenced by dehydration or electrolyte imbalance, as is commonly believed. The current thinking is simply that they are caused by muscle fatigue and corresponding "malfunctioning" of the firing mechanisms.

It is possible to hyper- (over) hydrate by taking glycerol, for example, but no corresponding performance improvement has been scientifically established and it's use is not recommended, except under strict guidance of a qualified professional. A typical strategy would be to consume 1-1.2g/kg of glycerol with 25-35ml/kg of water. This could lead to fluid retention of approximately 500ml more than fluid overload alone. There is a risk of gastrointestinal distress (a polite way of saying "the runs"), however. (I tried this about 4 years ago and didn't notice any effect, positive or negative. The fact that I could only source glycerol by asking for glaucoma medicine made me a bit reluctant to repeat the experiment.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sports nutrition part II



The body is constantly recycling proteins - breaking them down (catabolizing) and synthesizing them (anabolizing). About 20% of the Resting Enegy Expenditure is required for this process. Catabolism releases nitrogen and anabolism requires nitrogen so nitrogen balance is achieved when these processes are in equilibrium.

Proteins are made up of 20 different building blocks, called amino acids, all of which except the indispensable (formerly, essential) amino acids can be synthesized by the liver. Proteins are used for many different things other than building tissue - for example, transportation, signaling (hormones), enzymes (catalysts), the immune system and acid balance.

Catabolism (also a necessary step before proteins can be metabolized) produces ammonia which is toxic to the body and secreted in urine. For this reason, it is thought that more than 2.5g/kg/d of protein intake could be harmful. Large amounts can also result in dehydration.

One to two hours after training is the best time to ingest protein (in the anabolic window) - 10-20g of high quality protein is recommended. According to Mettler & Meyer 2010, the recommended daily amount of protein for athletes is 1.5g/kg/d for 0 hours training, 1.6g/kg/d for 1 hour, 1.7g/kg/d for 2 hours and 1.8g/kg/d for 3 or more hours training.


In the same paper, based on the goal of replenishing glycogen stores after exercise, the recommended daily intake of carbohydrates for athletes is 3.5g/kg/d for 0 hours training, 4.5g/kg/d for 1 hours, 6.2g/kg/d for 2 hours, 7.5g/kg/d for 3 hours and 8.5g/kg/d for 4 hours training. The highest rates of muscle glycogen synthesis were seen if 1.5g/kg were consumed in the first hour after exercise. Some studies show that adding protein may increase this yet further.

There is a limit on the absorption rate of carbohydrates and this is why sports drinks have a concentration of 6-8%. It's estimated that 60g can be absorbed per hour but that it is possible to increase this to about 90g per hour by mixing glucose, fructose and sucrose, which have different transport mechanisms. However, indigested fructose ferments in the digestive tract, leading to bloating and gases.

If carbohydrates are consumed at least 1-2 hours before exercise, or as little as 15 minutes before, high GI (Glycemic Index) carbs have not been demonstrated to have a detrimental effect (e.g., blood sugar rebound) in all but a minority of cases. After exercise it is more effective to consume high GI carbs to restore glycogen while insulin favours storage.

Carbohydrate loading can result in almost a doubling of stored glycogen but does not require a severe depletion phase (Sherman 1981).


Ingestion of fats does not necessarily lead to storage of fat; excess calorie intake, however, does. Ironically, many "fat free" product have more calories from sugar!

Fats are needed by the body, for example, to digest certain vitamins (A, D, E & F). Chronic fat restriction can impact testosterone levels and HDL (which helps transport cholesterol from the arteries).

Trans fatty acids increase the risk of heart disease. The Recommended Daily Intake (RDI) is less than 2g but any amount less than 0.5g may be quoted as 0g on the label; look instead for hydrogenated oils on the ingredients.

The essential fatty acids omega 6 and omega 3 have opposite inflammatory effects but compete for the same enzymes. The recommended ratio for omega 6 to 3 is less than 4:1 but is more like 15:1 in the typical American diet. Omega 9 (found in olive oil) cab reduce the risk of heart disease.

Indigested fat in the stomach delays gastric emptying so it is best to restrict fat in pre-competition meals. It takes about 3-6 hours for fat to enter the bloodstream after consumption.

When exercising, it takes about 10-20 minutes to reach the maximum fat oxidation rate. Even very lean individuals have enough fat to run for 100 hours. Fat oxidation is inhibited when insulin is high (after meals) or when lactate levels in the blood are high but is encouraged 3-4 hours after eating.

A famous study was conducted by Phinney et al (1983) in which athletes followed an extremely high fat diet (85%) for four weeks. Although their rate of fat oxidation actually doubled, the time to exhaustion in a sub-maximal test was not significantly different. The price for conserving carbohydrate stores appears to be the intensity at which exercise can be performed.


No evidence for the effectiveness of supplementation with either glutamine or glucosuamine.

Creatine has been shown to be effective for weight lifters but most non-vegetarians ingest enough creative in their diets.

Caffeine has not been demonstrate to have either an impact on electrolyte imbalance or to cause dehydration but it can delay the sensation of fatigue. The optimal dose is considered to be 2-3g/kg.

Supplementation with BCAA (Branched Chain Amino Acids) shows promise for immune system support and helps reduce post exercise fatigue.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sports nutrition part I

I decided it was about time I dug deeper into the subject of sports nutrition because it was clear to me that my understanding was based on the watered down and often incorrect versions available to the layman. Sometimes there is no alternative but to go to the source if you want to avoid the misinformation that is spread like rumology.

It's often an iterative process because you initially have no idea where to find the source but in reading "Nutrition for Sport and Exercise" by Dunford and Doyle, I think I have got quite close to finding it. One thing I very much like about the book is that, not only do they cite their references, but for the most important studies they mention, they also give a brief overview of the paper in question.

Anyway, for my own benefit as well as hopefully yours, I thought I would summarize the points that I found most interesting in the context of an Ironman / Marathon.

Energy systems

ATP is the currency of energy in the body and is produced by the three metabolic pathways:

1) Creatine Phosphate. A very fast acting system but of short duration (10 seconds) and slow to replenish (by oxidation). This explains why you see sprinters gasping for air after running.

2) Aerobic glycosis. As its name suggests, this system does not require oxygen although the lactic acid that is produced as a by-product is subsequently available for oxydation. Perhaps this explains the effectiveness of series training, with the rest in between allowing oxidation (and therefore removal) of the lactic acid. After a few minutes acidosis reduces the ability of the enzymes to catalyze the metabolic reaction and fatigue sets in. The source of fuel is carbohydrate - either directly in the form of glucose or as glycogen (the form in which glucose is stored in the muscles and the liver). Glycogen yields 3 ATPs while glucose only 2. This system is the preferred energy source for fast twitch muscle fibers. The brain relies on glucose as its energy source (except in the case of starvation or severe carbohydrate restriction).

3) Carbohydrates can also be metabolized by oxidative phosphorylation, the preferred energy system for slow twitch muscle fibers. Fats (stored as tryglycerides in adipose tissues) and proteins (which are catabolized directly) can also by oxidized. Alcohol - the 4th macronutrient - cannot be stored and therefore must be oxidized directly. Carbohydrates and proteins yield 4.2 kcal per gram, alcohol 7.0 kcal per gram and fats at 9.4 kcal per gram are the most energetically dense, although they require more oxygen to metabolize. Proteins are the least favoured source of energy (because they have many other important uses) but typically make up 3-5% of the energy generated. Oxidation produces many more ATPs than the other metabolic pathways (for example, glucose produces 36 and glycogen 37) but it is a much slower process than glycosis, requiring 124 chemical reactions.

The proportion of fat / carbohydrates being oxidized may be calculated by measuring the Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER) or the ratio between oxygen consumed and carbon dioxide exhaled. The point at which the highest proportion of calories derived from fat is obtained is quite different from the point at which the maximum (absolute) number of calories from fat oxidation is achieved.

It is possible to accurately estimate the number of calories being burnt using the RER and the VO2 (the amount of oxygen consumed). The more slow twitch muscle fibers an athlete has, the higher his potential VO2max or maximum oxygen uptake. Excess calories from food (over and above the Resting Energy Expenditure (REE) and energy used in exercise) are stored as fat.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The need for speed

It feels so good to be running fast again! I did my first series of above-anaerobic-threshold runs (or simply "series" for short) on Tuesday. They were relatively short (3 minutes) and few in number (7) so it wasn't too tough to maintain the speed that I started off at (16kph) for the whole series. I always do series on the running machine because it forces me to keep up a good speed and I can just focus on getting them done without worrying about stones in the path, crossing roads or avoiding pedestrians and their dogs. It was a little difficult to tell whether I was doing them properly - that is to say, hitting the right heart rate - because my Garmin started going bonkers again, at times registering heart rates in the 200s which, for me, is an impossibility. (Today I switched back to the old clunky heart rate strap that came with my now defunct Garmin Forerunner 310 and the problem seems to have gone away.)

Doing "series" are usually the most dreaded workouts. The idea behind series is that, by breaking the work up into chunks with a short rest between (in this case, of one minute), you are able to tolerate the intensity for longer, thus gaining more of a training effect for the same level of psychological and physical damage. In fact, one of the things that attracted me to the Ironman was precisely that the training would entail much more long, steady running, rather than high intensity torture. Sometimes people say to me, "Oh, it's only a 10K? Well, at least it's easier than a Marathon" and I say that they are both very hard in their own way. In a 10K you suffer at a much higher intensity - your motor is red-lining all the way - but for less time; in a Marathon, much of the time you are not suffering at all. In fact, I fear shorter distance races more than longer ones. Suffice to say, they are both very different, as are doing series and long slow runs. It's not surprising that after having done so much low intensity training, it comes as a welcome change to be able to get a high quality workout done in half an hour. I always feel like I have really trained after doing series, my lungs feel as though someone has reached down into my trachea and tried to pull them out. In this sense they are amongst the most satisfying workouts you can do as however much we tell ourselves otherwise, sometimes it is just simply a case of YES PAIN YES GAIN.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Running technique #2

I recently came across a very interesting blog by Steve Magness, a competitive runner who is doing a Masters in Exercise Science. What particularly caught my attention were his fairly scathing criticisms of the Pose Method. As you may have read in a previous post of mine, I am quite a fan of the Pose Method, having attended a clinic in Denmark hosted by the charismatic founder, Dr Romanov. These criticisms seem to be aimed at the typical guru style of confidently claiming that they have the panacea, the magic solution, but it can only be acquired by paying lots of money to a certified expert. The Pose Method does of course have its certified coaches and clinics but Romanov goes out of his way to provide people with the tools to teach themselves. He has written a number of books and produced a number of videos but with a bit of persistence you can find almost everything contained in them, for free, on his website. This is how it should be: the Pose Method, like the Alexander Technique or Pilates etc, should be part of the public domain and the added value should come from the convenience of finding everything you need in a book or benefiting from the years of experience of a certified coach. My point is that it should be possible to acquire a good running technique without buying any books or paying any coaches.

As I have said before, the Pose Method is a method more than a technique and I found it a very effective way to run more lightly and more efficiently on my mid-foot with the very real consequence that my knee (with the torn meniscus) immediately stopped hurting while running. As with any method, it is a good idea to define an objective and measurable "ideal" which you are trying to attain - this may require an over simplification of reality or, said another way, the ideal may not actually be itself achievable (for example, zero ground contact time). Romanov developed his ideas based on the way Russian ballet dancers were taught, in terms of "poses". In just the same way as any dance has a basic form which you must first learn and internalize and then build your own style upon, the Pose Method gives you a solid base on which you can make some subtle adjustments, like those suggested by Steve in his excellent article.

Having read his article in detail, I've come to the conclusion that it is to the Pose Method, what Einstein's Relativity is to Newtonian Mechanics. That is to say, Newtonian Mechanics is still what is taught in schools today and is perfectly good enough for most practical purposes but it is an approximation to Einstein's model.
I took away the following ideas, which tally with my personal experience of running with what I think is a reasonably good running technique over the last two years.

1) You should NOT try to get off your feet as quickly as possible. This appears to directly contradict the Pose Method, which advocates "pulling" the foot from the floor as quickly as possible. The pronation (rotation) of the foot acts as a spring which is loaded as your foot rolls from the outer edge to the big toe and is released when you "toe off". In order to benefit from this natural spring, you must allow it to fully load and...

2) particular, your heel should be allowed to momentarily "kiss" the floor for the spring to be fully activated. (Note that sprinting is an exception as you run up on the forefoot, although I am not able to say why at this point.)

3) You should extend your hips in such a way that you optimize not minimize the vertical displacement. I very much liked Steve's analogy with firing a cannonball - too steep an angle of attack and you have more vertical displacement than horizontal; too shallow an angle and you lose flight time and the cannonball ploughs into the ground. I think the cue of "running tall" ensures that you don't take off with too shallow an angle, collapsing on to an overly bent leg.

The irony is that the hardcore advocates of the Pose Method have a tendency to live by its doctrines with what I would be tempted to call religious fervour. Having skulked around for some time in the forums where people post videos of them running for (free) analysis by others - many of whom are certified coaches - I've noticed that the response is usually that they could be puling their foot off the floor quicker. Of course they could - if the ideal is "zero contact time" then there is always room for improvement. Having said that, it is a very valuable tool to have people constructively criticize your technique. What I think is a shame, is that there is such a resistance to ideas like the above that I can begin to imagine what it was like for Copernicus when he exclaimed that the Earth actually revolved around the Sun, rather than the other way round.

In scientific research it is a very difficult balance to obtain, in between rigidly adhering to a particular theory and being swayed from one theory to another depending on how convincingly they are expounded. I think the key here is the difference between what you believe and what other people believe. In order to advance a theory, you need support, consensus, and so it is important to be able to convince others. In doing so, you may need to simplify things or even compromise on certain points but it is vital to be consistent otherwise you will confuse and ultimately lose your audience. But this rigidity does not necessarily have to carry over to your own beliefs; you should be open to other people's suggestions which you may file away for subsequent digestion. I think this distinction marks the difference between followers and leaders and between dictators and true pioneers. In this sense, I am very lucky with the coach I have, Jonathan, because he has a very clear idea of how he believes things should be but he is very open to study any new ideas, whether they come from an experienced elite Marathon runner or someone like me, who runs for a hobby and occasionally turns up interesting things on the internet.

Monday, July 11, 2011

I'm back with a vengeance!

I'd thought that I would just leave my blog there - after all, mission accomplished, I'm now an Ironman - but, of course, it never ends there, or anywhere. Once I met a guy who was reported to have been awarded the biggest trading bonus ever paid in the City - 35 million pounds - and the obvious question came to mind: "Why does he keep working?" The answer is obvious and it is that, if you are driven enough to achieve something, once you have achieved it, your drive doesn't just go away overnight.

Lately I've been gorging myself on books written by Ultrarunners - people who regularly run distances of 100 miles or more - like "Running on Empty" by Marshall Ulrich, which tells of his feat of running across America (3,000 miles) in 57 days. As I often say, my goals seem to define me more than I am able to define my goals... So I have this uncanny feeling that this challenge of running an Ultramarathon is slowly creeping up on me and that, one day, I will just wake up absolutely determined to complete one. For the time being, I am really hoping that I can stave it off because I don't think my wife will be too happy: Ultramarathons tend to be very extreme events, not just in distance but in conditions. About the Ironnman, she told me quite plainly that "if I wanted to do another, it would be with another"... In the context of this blog, that paints a slightly unfair picture of her. Doing the Ironman put an enormous strain on her and I am very grateful to her for the patience and suffering she put up with to help me achieve a personal goal that she could only distantly relate to. If, on top of that, it seems like a dangerous pursuit, then it will be hard to convince her of the validity of the goal. I'd hope that training for an Ultradistance event would at least be less time consuming - just think, if I were to spend those 25 hours a week I trained for the Ironman just running, I would be covering well over 250 kilometers, the sort of distance only the top Marathon runners in the World might be clocking up. On the other hand, to compare Ultramarathoners to Marathoners seems to be like comparing hippies to soldiers. The Ultramarathon scene is very different to any other from what I can gather. Above all there is much more camaraderie as most people are concerned more with completing the distance than being first to cross the line. There is something so enticing about watching someone like Anton Krupicka, one of the best Ultrarunners in the World, running across his trails:

Which reminds me, I'm getting ahead of myself: I've spent the last month and a half in what I've been calling my "Forrest Gump" phase. I asked my trainer for a sabbatical and he said "Fine, as long as you keep on weight training in the meantime". The irony is that he programmed me so much weight training that it didn't really feel like much of a break from structured training. Even so, I've been avoiding as much as is possible training for the sake of training - that is to say, I try to actually get somewhere by running or cycling rather than going on random out-and-back jaunts. I've been running to work a lot more frequently - that's 25 kilometers in total just there - but the Powers That Be have suddenly and arbitrarily decided that employees are not allowed to cycle on campus. This puts a serious spanner in the works because it means that I have to get from the gym to my office using the internal (infernal?) buses, thus adding back all the time I saved combining running and getting to work in the first place. I'm fighting this one at the highest echelons of the company so I hope that it will be a short lived dogma.

I've enjoyed running without a heart rate monitor, not worrying whether I'm running too slow or too fast, just listening to the sound of my own breathing and the tap-tap of my feet, or my iPod which I have been using a lot more lately. I managed to build up to running almost 100 kilometers last week, which isn't bad while still being a long way off Forrest Gump territory. I haven't been worrying too much about what I eat (or drink, for that matter) either and, as a consequence have put on about 5 kilos since the Ironman. I'm not bothered about that at all, I've got plenty of time to burn it off and I'm not even sure that it isn't due to the increased weight training I have been doing, rather than the lax diet. But it hasn't been completely without wrinkles. For some reason (er, hello? increased mileage!) the torn meniscus in my knee has been acting up. It doesn't hurt when I am running at all, although I do notice it clicking slightly when I run up hill. The problem is that when I am walking it gets a bit irritating. I'm hoping it will calm down in a week or two. I've also been having some problems with blisters (which, by the way, are the bane of Ultrarunners). It's been the result of me mucking around changing shoes and trying to find the perfect minimalist trail shoe (verdict: Vivobarefoot Evo) and minimalist race shoe (verdict: Vivobarefoot Ultra). Everything was going fine until I decided to watch one of the most tedious films I have ever seen in my life - Ironman 2 - and I couldn't help but entertain myself by picking at the dead skin (and some bits that were still quite alive) on my foot. As a former smoker and nail biter, there is something exquisitely addictive about peeling off dead skin: I go into an almost trance-like state and can't stop until the pain brings me to my senses.

Probably the best thing about the last 6 weeks has been my coming to terms with the Ironman. As you will have realized from reading in between the lines of my race report, I was somewhat disappointed with the experience of the race itself, having any attempt to grit my teeth and force out a best performance frustrated by muscle fatigue and having expected to have been overcome by emotion on crossing the finish line. It particularly sticks in my mind the comment of one of my work colleagues after I explained this to him. He said that I had very little "self love" or, in other words, I was too hard on myself. The problem I find with competitions which are so extreme that just finishing them is an achievement in its own right, is that you train and train precisely so that it doesn't seem like a "big deal" anymore. This is where the need to go further and further comes in - and I really want to avoid falling into that trap! During the first few weeks after the Ironmman I suffered the Post-Ironman Blues as can be expected: I suddenly felt aimless, like a rebel without a cause. The weekends did seem incredibly long though, now that I wasn't spending most of them out on the bike. What has started to happen is that I have begun to realize what an achievement it was, finishing an Ironman. Now I can barely contemplate the amount of training I was doing only a few months ago. Now it really does seem impressive and finally I am starting to feel proud of being an Ironman. Are my children at least proud that their dad is an Ironman? I don't think they can really understand what the distances mean, even though I have recently started running one or two kilometers with them (at quite a clip!). Luca (the eldest) still always brings up the time when I came second in a 5k race at work as my crowning accomplishment. By the way, I chickened out of getting a tattoo done but instead opted for something just as permanent but with the advantage that I can take it off: a ring with the magical distance of 140.6 miles emblazoned into it, to remind me that I can do anything I put my mind to.

I've decided it's time to get back to work. Jonathan has just sent me my training programme and tomorrow, for example, I have to run 7 series of 3 minutes at above my anaerobic threshold (around 16kph should do the trick) while wearing a weighted flak jacket. I think that will be the fastest I have run all year. I suppose it will be a shock to the system at first, but I am looking forward to doing some speed work again. I recently read that one of the reasons to include high intensity training in the preparation for a Marathon is that you train your fast twitch fibres which get recruited late on in the race as the slow twitch fibres fatigue. It's no good if you have neglected them all season for them to be put to test at the end of a Marathon. I wonder if this was something I should have done in preparation for the Ironman (I did do high intensity work on the bike but not running) - perhaps then I wouldn't have suffered so much from muscle fatigue at the end of the race, who knows. On the other hand, this can interfere with the body's fat burning capabilities - it's all quite a delicate balancing act.

By the way, I was flicking through a Brazilian Triathlon magazine last week, one with coverage of the Ironman in Brazil, when I was shocked to see that, out of all the 1,800 athletes competing, they chose a picture of me!! It's actually an article about whether or not to use a disc wheel - which is ironic because my wheel was actually a normal wheel with a plastic cover, but I suppose the same principles apply.

So what's next? Well, the next goal is to try to break the elusive 3 hour barrier in the Marathon. I've signed up for the Marathon in Valencia on the 20th of November. It's rather like the one I did in San Sebastian - flat, sea level, cool but humid and with potentially strong winds. I think I have a chance to break 3 hours if everything goes well because

a) The Marathon I did in San Sebastian (only the second Marathon I have run) I did in a time of 3:07 with a huge negative split (when you run the first half more slowly than the second half) of 7 minutes.

b) All the aerobic base training I did for the Ironman should stand me in good stead.

c) My best time in the Half Marathon is 1:23 which, according to those tables that equate performances across distances, is equivalent to a sub 3 hour Marathon. (Of course this doesn't really mean anything except that it isn't an unrealistic goal.)

d) If I felt denied my teeth gritting moment in the Ironman, then with some luck I will have it in the Marathon instead.

e) This will be the 4th Marathon I've run (if you include the Ironman Marathon) so I have some experience to draw on.

f) I'll be running in my super-lightweight Vivobbarefoot Ultras!

So I invite you to follow me on the next part of my journey to