The Ultra Trail Australia events have many exciting challenges, one of the most noteworthy being the large and numerous hills that runners will encounter in the Blue Mountains. As this event has expanded, so too has the spread of runners from across our vast country. The race is now attracting runners from as far away as Tasmania, northern Western Australia and Darwin.
One of the greatest challenges that some of our Aussie runners are facing is preparing for this mountainous event when they live in a flat area. For instance, some of the runners I am working with are training in Broome where anything remotely resembling a hill is a very, very long way away.
Therefore, I wanted to share some suggestions for how to prepare for hills without hills.
Run on Trails
The shear nature of trails requires runners to be strong. As you bounce from foot to foot over the uneven surfaces of rocks, roots and sand there is a more holistic activation of your muscles. These are the same muscles that will activate when you run up and down a hill, such as your quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles. So, if you have the chance to hit the trails and even practice some faster speed endurance work on them, this is a really good training strategy.
Fastpacking is the term used to describe fast hiking. One strategy that I have found highly beneficial for runners preparing for the UTA events is to load up their running vest pack with lots of weight and set out on a fast hike. The way I load up my pack is to use a 5 or 10L water bladder or wine cask filled with water. I put this in my vest pack and set off for an hour or two. The muscles required to hike with this weight are similar to those employed to run up and down a hill. Therefore, this can be a really great way to get stronger and more resilient by May.
Uphill treadmill running
Whilst I personally detest running on a treadmill, they occasionally have some usefulness. Conducting a hill interval session on a treadmill can help to replicate the nature of hills. Set the treadmill to an 8-10% incline and carry out a session. You may also like to finish the session off with a short period of time on a stair climber machine.
Flat treadmill running for downhill
Again, desperate times may call for desperate measures, a great one being running on a flat treadmill. Evidence suggests that running on a flat treadmill has some impact similarities to downhill running. Whilst this strategy may be somewhat useful, be careful not to overdo it.
Get out of the saddle
Standing out of the saddle on a bike or stationary bike is really hard work. Powering down through your quads without sitting on the bike seat activates similar muscles to those you use to run or hike up a steep hill or set of stairs. Building in some out-of-the-saddle work into your training could be really helpful. One suggestion would be to do 10-15mins of out-of-the-saddle training before you start a fartlek session or tempo run to help simulate what it feels like to run on the flat after you have just climbed a steep hill.
Go for a wander
Walking activates slightly different muscle groups to running. And in the Blue Mountains we will likely find ourselves walking at times. Therefore, the more efficient you are at walking the less emotionally stressful you will find this activity on race day. It will also help to build strength. Therefore, add in a little fast hiking into your training program.
Take a pilgrimage
If you have the luxury of sneaking a weekend away over summer or the Easter holiday period, then this could be really helpful for your training. Rest a little before flying to somewhere which has luscious hills to play in. After the rest earlier in the week you can go ‘a little bit nuts’ over the weekend and maximize some time spent in the hills.
Small can be beautiful
Small inclines or stairs should never be overlooked. If all you have time and access to is a small lump in the local park then just enjoy switching off the brain and running up and down it a zillion times. Just like sand granules on a beach, small things really do add up.
See if you can find a local strength guru to give you a hand with a strength program specific to hill running. This can include body weight exercises, skipping, hopping, single leg activities and some weighted gym work. Exercises could include: lunges, squats, deadlifts, single leg drills, gluteal activation work, calf raises and isometric holds, core work and much more. Sometimes you might like to do your strength session before you go for a run so that you can learn to ‘run heavy’ as you might feel after climbing up a large hill on race day.
My last suggestion comes with a little caution… sand. As we all remember from our childhoods, running on sand can be somewhat exhausting. Adding a little sand running into your program can help. However, be careful! Sand running places great loads on tendons and soft tissues, such as the Achilles Tendon and your hip flexors. Therefore, rather than setting off for an isolated sand dune running session, I recommend incorporating only a little running on sand during a standard session.
In summary, whilst I firmly believe there is no perfect substitute for running on hills, if you find yourself living in a region void of steepness then the above suggestions could help you feel more confident come the race day in May. Start carefully and gently on the path to adding hills because if you have been training on the flat-lands for a while you don’t want to shock your running legs and risk injury. Finally, be gentle on yourself. Whilst hills may not be your strong point, some of us have no flat regions to train on! So where we might have power on the hills, you might be superhuman on the flats!
Is running really as simple as we make it out to be. Of course the motion of pulling on your shoes and stepping out a door anywhere makes it appear simple. Once out the door we take one step forward, push strongly, move our other leg forward... and away we go. As we warm up we begin to exert a little more effort and our speed gets faster and faster. Simple! But is it really the case? Research shows that the answer is a loud NO.
As I open my eyes more and more to the world of running I am continually amazed by how complicated the sport is. The actual act of running and how each individual sequence of limb movements come together to carry us smoothly forwards is more attuned to ballet dancing than it is to anything else. Where we place our feet, the landing point, the subtle shifting of our weight and the counterbalances we put in place are all unconscious things that keep us in a state of running harmony. Further to this, the ground isn’t always flat nor the surface we are running on smooth. And what happens if you need to accelerate or decelerate? Go uphill or downhill? Or even crash through the bush with a map in our hand? Imagine that!
In this article I will explore the science behind running propulsion and discuss some amazing research recently released on flat, uphill and downhill running. During the article I will also try to highlight some important running technique tips that might help to make you faster and more efficient.
To run across flat terrain we need to utilize energy to move us forward. There are two types of energy at our disposal: the energy that we hold within our bodies, stored as glycogen or fat (protein can be used but is the least preferred source of fuel); or gravity, our free energy source. When we run on flat surfaces, the energy that we need to put in is directly proportional to the amount of forces opposing us.
Propulsive Force = Braking Force
The greatest opposing force that we have is the breaking forces we generate when our foot hits the ground. There are other opposing forces such as wind resistance and how much lateral movement we get from our running style, but where are foot strikes makes a considerable difference.
Studies have shown that if our foot lands directly under our center of mass, then we have a lower breaking force than if it lands out in front of us. Further to this, if our torso is gently pressing forward and giving us the appearance of a lean then we are more likely to have our feet landing under our center of gravity. In this position we are also tapping into the energy of gravity that will help us to move forward, thus reducing the amount of energy we have to put in.
Interestingly, the metabolic energy we have to put into running on the flat falls into three different categories:
Therefore, to run fast on the flat we want to:
Sadly, the ground isn’t always flat and on almost every run you will encounter a hill. So what happens now?
When we run uphill it becomes much harder to get our feet under our body. We also tend to want to slouch which makes us feel heavy. Despite this and contrary to what we might think, our braking forces actually reduce by approximately 40%. This is due to the fact that our foot strikes the ground with less force than when we run on the flat. In fact, by the time we are running on a nine percent gradient, the impact forces are almost negligible. However, the reason hill running is so tough is that the parallel propulsion we have to apply has to increase so dramatically to overcome gravity. For example, on a nine percent gradient, parallel forces have to increase by almost 75%. That is a lot of energy!
Therefore, to run faster up hill we need to:
We are always grateful when we get to the top of a hill and begin the descent. However, often by the time we are half way down the hill our quads are burning and our knees complaining. Sometimes we can even be surprised by how much energy we feel like we are using up.
When we run downhill our braking forces are dramatically greater than our propulsive forces.
Braking Force > Propulsive Force
In fact, by the time we hurtle down a nine percent gradient, our braking forces have increased by a whopping 108%! Therefore, even though we have gravity and momentum in our favour, our bodies still have to absorb a huge amount of shock from the impact of downhill running and at the same time apply some energy to overcome these forces.
Further to this, in downhill running our muscles are eccentrically contracting to brake us (ie. while under tension the muscles are lengthening) and yet we still have to provide some concentric contraction to create propulsion (ie. the muscles shorten whilst generating a force). This strange mix of muscle contractions to overcome the huge braking forces guarantees that downhill running is actually quite energy intensive. Research also shows that landing on stiff legs when running down hill also causes the braking forces to increase further.
Therefore, to run fast downhill we need to:
As you can see, behind every step that we take when we hit the trails or brave the bush lands is an intricate series of energy ‘ins & outs’. The alterations in surfaces and slopes change the way our muscles need to respond. Sometimes they will be contracting strongly to propel us forward and other times they will be eccentrically contracting to slow us down. Sometimes gravity will be working in our favour, and sometimes completely against us. Therefore, it is important to begin thinking about the way you catch, create and utilize the energy that you have available to you. When you are orienteering, this might be the difference between having enough energy to think clearly to the end of the race, and running out during those last few critical controls.
A recap of the World Orienteering Championships, Scotland
Elite athletes are constantly asked to focus on routines in the lead up to competitions. These include when to arrive, how much to train, when to sleep, what to eat, how to execute your race strategies and what to do for recovery. However, I have come to learn that routines cannot and should not dictate how you approach orienteering races. This year’s World Orienteering Championships once again reiterated that for me.
This was my seventh World Championships and I felt somewhat like Nanny Hanny of the team. Through previous years I had established a routine of approximately a 2-3 week preparation in the relevant terrain. During this phase I would base in the country I would be competing in and switch from physical preparation to striving for a comprehensive understanding of the regions forests and how these are represented on the maps.
Due to the tight schedule of coaching and racing, this year I only had 3 days in Scotland. When the races began rolling around I could feel the doubt creeping in, ‘was this long enough?’
The significance of routines
Given I only visited two Scottish forest maps and one local sprint map in the lead up to this championships, I knew that I could not approach the races in the same way. Normally I have felt relatively confident in the competition’s terrains and try to attack the courses both physically and technically. With understanding of the terrain comes a readiness to take more risks. That is, understanding a terrain can help de-risk the more risky racing decisions. Examples of such decisions are selecting a faster but more difficult route choice or starting the race with more speed.
New routines require new racing strategies
The limited technical preparation for Scotland left me feeling shaky. The few days prior to the races starting rolled around in a frenzy of visiting maps, washing clothes, shopping for food, preparing meals, team meetings and then collapsing into bed at the end of the day. This does sound exhausting doesn’t it? Despite best intentions, there was little time for reviewing old maps and studying potential courses. I did my best but I never felt it was enough.
Then suddenly the races were on me and I found myself standing on the start line of the Sprint Qualification. The race was shaky. Decisions were rushed, an alleyway missed. A few lapses of concentration but I found the finish.
Driving home from the event the lights went off, ‘What had just happened?’… Then they came back on again. In a moment of revelation I realized that my racing routines had to change. I was not as well prepared as I usually am. The focus on physical routines had to switch. I turned off the attack button and hit the caution one instead. My new approach of arriving just in time to race required a new routine for racing.
Sprinting with caution
I stole a glance at the back of my hand. Only minutes earlier I had written two words - cautious underdog. These words symbolized my new strategy and cautiouswas at the foundation of my new routine.
I picked up my map with reservations. How tough would this course be? The qualification and sprint relay had been filled with surprises. New fences and barricades; unexpected spectator passages and hidden fence crossings. The traps had been numerous and I had fallen for quite a few already.
So I started slow. I didn’t race to the start triangle nor attack the first control. I paused frequently to check my directions and ensure that no traps had been set. The atmosphere was amazing and spectators seemed to appreciate the novelty of Australians racing in their hometown. But their cheers were also distractions so I took the next couple of controls equally safe, aiming for the larger features and avoiding the narrow, twisting and more intricate alleyways. I used multiple features as attack points and avoided running at a speed that made reading the map difficult.
Before long it felt like I had survived the first section of buildings and I found myself reading ahead towards some areas of the course that spanned parks and small lakes. I changed gear and lifted my speed by a notch as linear features had become more abundant.
Through this section I was solely focused on taking time to plan my route choices and executing a perfect exit from the controls. Once I was heading in the right direction I lifted the speed, but never to a point where I felt out of control. I was determined not to let my alarm bells ring. But on reentering the buildings I was reminded of the dangers and cut my speed back to cruise mode.
Again I looked for the safe lines. Where there were none, I just trotted my way through the narrow spaces, ensuring that at every intersection I knew what direction I was taking next. I felt safe, calm and like an underdog. I saw spectators but they no longer took any of my concentration.
Leaping over a fence I refolded my map and was surprised to see that the entire remainder of the course was now in flat parkland. It felt somewhat reminiscent of the last part of the 2006 Sprint Final in Denmark. I knew what I had to do. Stay strong and use the excellent visibility to pick straight lines. Exit directions became my focus. I found that once I exited cleanly from the control and looked up, I could almost see the next control in front of me. Here I began to feel like I was finally tapping into some of my fitness and speed.
New routines required
Crossing the line I had absolutely no idea of how I had gone. But in my heart I knew that was the best I could have done and it was the most magical feeling. Only later did I find out that I had achieved a podium finish and fifth position.
Driving home from this event I knew I had found my new routine and one that suited a limited preparation in the terrain. Whilst not ideal to arrive so soon before the competition started, it was suddenly ok to not know everything about the terrain so long as I recognized that my old routines needed to be put aside. My new routine of cautiousness and calmness felt appropriate and with every race I ran with this new understanding.
I am sure this is why the week unfolded in the way it did. The transition from sprint racing to the forest was hard and my first race in the middle distance started shakily. But you learn from mistakes and each day I tried to execute my routines with 5% more perfection. I’d say to myself, ‘just 5% better today Han… just 5%’. On the finish line it often felt like 20%.
Recovery routines change too
The recovery from this World Championships will be new and different too. The immense focus and concentration has taken a different toll on my body. My head feels like someone has blown into my ears and filled it up with air. The body feels lethargic and dragging my suitcase through the airport concourse is enough training for the day.
Over the last 8 days I have completed 6 races. I put more focus into how I raced each of these events than ever before. The new approach of 100% concentration from start to finish resulted in a body that holistically feels exhausted. And given that this is the same amount of races I have done in the past 5 months I shouldn’t be surprised.
Therefore, I am setting no expectations on how long it will take me to recover. If I bounce back in a couple of day’s time then great. But if it takes a week or two then I am content with that. After all, it is critical to recover optimally so that the mind, body and spirit all have a chance to become even stronger for next time… whatever that will be. As always, lessons will be learnt.
The Scottish experience
I have amazing memories of Scotland. I loved the landscape and the beautiful people. Amidst lochs and tales of the Lochness Monster, you can live like a princess. In the eyes of the locals, from orienteering volunteers to the petrol pump man, my name is ‘Love’ (sounded more like Luv). Furthermore, up there in the far north there was an overall sense of tranquility and remoteness. The week was busy and I didn’t get a chance to experience much of the Scottish traditions. I never ventured beyond laughing at the Aussie’s wariness of their deep-fried haggis, driving the small laneways to events, and my first experience of wearing a midgiehead-net.
Despite my advancing age and being the Nana on the Australian Team, this year I feel like I opened new doors. I learnt that flexible routines and recognizing weak links in your preparation could become your greatest strengths. Whilst I am proud of running for Australia and the results I achieved, I am more proud of how I got there. I am now excited to share this revelation with others so they too can enjoy that amazing feeling that comes with the perfect run. After all, as runners and orienteers, isn’t that what we all strive for?
Running training. Two words that put fear in anyone who does run. But for those of us that do, these two words make us deliriously happy. Try to explain this to the non-runner!
Running, training, Jornet. Three words that put fear in any runner. Killian Jornet was born in a small hut, 2000m high on the slopes of a mountain in Spain. Growing up in the mountains, their entertainment was running and playing in the mountains. Now, at just 23 years of age, Kilian Jornet has broken almost every trail and mountain running record. He also goes in search of his own – record crossing of Mount Blanc and fastest ascent of Mt Kilimanjaro are just to name a couple. In Europe, his name sits on the table next to the salt and pepper. This year, his status became even more legendary after he won the Trail du Mont Blanc. For Jornet, running and training is happiness,
‘Breaking a record doesn’t motivate me. I want to go fast in the mountains, without assistance, without help. Just me and the mountain, to explore my capacities, the “animal” capacities, not technologic or equipment capacities.’
Jornet sparked my quest to write about running training. As a performance consultant and runner, I look for inspiration and new ideas all around me. I read, watch, listen and try to learn how experts, such as Jornet, find that extra 0.01%. I recently typed into Google three words – Running, training and Jornet.
Linking the mind & body
‘When I am at home I enjoy spending time in the bush. I leave in the morning between 3 and 5am then again in the afternoon around 1pm. I train three to four hours in the morning and one to two hours in the afternoon. Always on a mountain, a technician, to climb a peak, traverse a valley. The intensity depends on how I feel. If I’m tired, I slow down. Gassss if I feel good. My motto, if your mind is OK, your body will be OK.’
If your mind is OK, your body will be OK. This sounds simple. Is it too simple?
I recently wrote a large research piece on stress and its effects on injury and illness. What I discovered astounded me. All the research indicates that elevated stress levels lead to an increase in unwarranted musculoskeletal pain, weaker muscles and bones, and elevated illness risks. From our Western point of view, Jornet’s training schedule should surely lead to disaster. Even with his motor engine of a VO2 max of 92, ultra racing threshold of 190 beats per minute (bpm), and resting heart rate of 34bpm, Jornet must eventually break? Perhaps his protection is not his physical attributes but rather his mind and just how pure his enjoyment of running is?
‘I think the most important thing about running is not to think too much about training. It’s not about times or splits. When you start worrying too much about your training, that’s bad. Just enjoy running and being in the mountains.’
Jornet’s training program reflects his running values. For him, running is not training but rather a way of exploring his place in his world. Explore a new valley. Climb a new mountain. Do repetitions up a new trail. Seek perfection whilst having perfect fun.
This raises two questions. Can we imitate Jornet’s style of training in our normal routines that often involve cities, pavements, roads and cars? Should we imitate his freer mountain lifestyle with our dark mornings, full-time work, children…? I believe the answer is yes if we are to continue to run without illness and injury.
The purpose of training programs
We need training programs. They form a foundation that allows us to structure our running sessions, monitor our progression and substitute in new learning when we can. However, too often I see runners ‘broken’, heavily fatigued or just disenchanted with running. Either they have been haphazardly training with no structure at all and pushing past their natural limitations, ignoring the cautioning signals, or they have a training program set so heavily in concrete that the whole process of running has lost its art form. For the latter runners, the sport has become a chore.
It is important to understand the science of structured training. I view the training planner as your brake, not your accelerator. It is always easy to tell yourself to go harder, longer, higher. It is much harder to know when to stop. Your training planner can become your personalized reference and help to answer the difficult questions - when should I go long? When can I go hard? How often can I peak for a race? How much do I need to rest and recover? But when is enough, enough?
Body systems and Jornet’s principle of individuality
‘Each person is unique. Not only morphological and physiological characteristics are different, the man is something more than the sum of these parts. It is a mistake to expect identical reactions between two individuals performing the same job. This principle is crucial because it indicates that it is not to copy what others do.’ – Jornet, 2012
When you start out as a runner, both the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular systems take equal charge of your abilities: heavy breathing, racing heart and legs yelling STOP!But as we get fitter and our cardiovascular system becomes stronger, the body’s limits become fuzzier. You begin to relax as you run, control your breathing and don’t pull up too sore. So how do we know when to stop?
The cardiovascular system becomes quiet as soon as you stop running. The musculoskeletal system only tells you to stop when the muscle fibers tear too far, a bone becomes unhappy or you really hit the wall. Therefore, forming a training planner and monitoring these systems over time will allow you to understand where your limits are and then guide you with less risk of injury or illness. This process is science, it needs to be learnt and it needs to be individualized.
Focus, goal setting and Jornet’s principle of overloads
When I work with my clients, I begin by asking them, ‘why do you run and exercise?’ Their response to this question forms the focus of everything that they do with their sport.For example, ‘I run because it helps me remain less stressed at work’. This is not a goal but instead a value that keeps everything they do with their running in perspective. For Jornet, this is his love of running fast in the mountains.
Goals should not be pass or fail items but rather all the events and missions that make you fidgety with excitement. Big, small, fast, long… they should all go into the training planner. There is usually one or two big races a year that grab your focus from the start and to which your training can be tailored. Excitement, spontaneity and the body’s state of repair closer to the day should be used to determine whether you enter and run in any of the others.
The purpose of training is to damage muscle fibers so that when there is adequate time to rest, they repair with more strength and agility. Racing is even harder on the body and needs to be adequately compensated for. Month-to-month, week-to-week, day-to-day, the flow of training and racing needs to be built towards a pinnacle of intensity or volume, and then a planned time of rest can follow to allow the body to recover. My clients are asked to plan these things – the hard months and the easy weeks; the hard days and the easy days. Jornet calls this the principle of overloads.
‘A workout is a burden, a job, and a break is needed in order to benefit from it. The loads can build up but then require a rest period to recover, so as not to encounter overtraining.’
Planning and Jornet’s principles of flexibility & continuity
We should use our training program to know when it is sensible to apply ‘gassss’ or when we need to recover. We can use it to guide us on when to train for volume or speed. Without contradicting myself, having this structure then allows us to be flexibility… because life is a flexible thing. As Jornet states, ‘If I’m tired, I slow down. Gassss if I feel good.’
When you see a mountain, run up it. When you find a trail, follow it. When you wonder what lies down the road, find out. Just ensure there is continuity and specificity, all within the limits of your training planner. Jornet explains,
‘Training has to be play and mimic the most similar features found in the competition. Racing across a mountain means we must train in the mountains and on technical trails. Continuity is essential to maintain a good fitness level.’
Rejajado and Jornet’s principle of recovery
Recovery must be structured into the program. It looks after both your body and your mind. If there is no time set aside to rest, the muscles and their protective connective tissue continue to be pushed and stretched, pulled and micro-torn. The damage builds and every system in the body will be sent messages from the brain that we are under stress triggering the body to begin the flight-or-fight response. The release of additional hormones and neurotransmitters, as well as the damage in the muscles and connective tissue puts the body at significant risk of injury or illness. One to three rest or recovery days can help to prevent this harmful reaction and ensure that you get the most out of the harder days of training.
In order to achieve what he does, Jornet must be King of Recovery. As he explains,
‘It is perhaps more important than even the active phase. Recovery is not training but rather rejajado… relaxation… stretching, drinking. When your mind is OK, your body is OK.’
Explore within a structure
In summary, if we follow a training structure but be adaptive and sensible we give ourselves the opportunity to experience running as the art-form of exploration. We can set ourselves challenges, explore the backwaters of our local suburb, be spontaneous with friends, and all within the bounds of our training planner. We can trial things, practice, fail and then ultimately seek to perfect the winning concepts. In my own words, if it feels good, it is good, then keep running till you believe you are good. After all, if you get the hard runs completed, and you work consistently to recover… who knows how many more Jornet’s are hidden in Australia?
Are you currently basking in the beautiful aftermath of ultra-running euphoria? On returning to your hotel did your saturate your day of running in the shower then crawl under the white hotel duvet to twitch yourself to wakeful sleep? At dawn, did you utter a groan when your feet hit the carpet and cringe as you lowered yourself onto the breakfast chair? Did you quietly revel in the ‘you-are-mad’ stares from hotel guests?
If so, you will be experiencing Euphoric Ultra Runner Syndrome. Enjoy it whilst it lasts because sadly, this is often replaced with Lost-Your-Mojo Runner Syndrome for which you must orchestrate your own recovery.
Here are my recovery suggestions:
Day 1-3: Euphoric Ultra Runner Syndrome and the DOoMs Days - Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness Days
These are the days of craving Mum’s apple crumble with more ice-cream than apple. During these days you might be lucky enough for someone to take pity and play the violin for you. Revel in the attention. For soon the novelty of mopey runner will wear off and you will be left to make your own cuppa again.
Thousands of runners recently attended the Ultra Trail Australia 100 and 50km races in the Blue Mountains. Sometimes it is hard not to be amongst the racing. However, sitting on the other side of the fence whilst the action gallops past gives a wholesome insight into the nutrition & hydration strategies of athletes.
Three Classifications of Athletes
In the race, we observed three types of athletes:
1. The Blank Stare Runner
The scenery of the Blue Mountains is stunning. Jagged tracks clutch to the side of overhanging cliffs. Damp forests hold tumbling waterfalls. However, the Blank Stare Runner will see little of this handsomeness. They also appear not to hear much until they stumble across your wildly clapping hands and goofy grin. They pull a tight smile and march onwards. From close up, they appear to have the ‘lights off’ - the I’m-on-a-mission facade with eyes glazed-over. From afar, there is an element of a plod, a trip, a stumble. One guesses behind it all is a negative mindset.
2. The Weary but Starry Eyed Runner
Fifty or one-hundred kilometers is never going to feel easy. There will always be an association with pain and a little suffering. But no matter how physically fatigued, the Weary but Starry Eyed Runner can maintain a smile. Their eyes sparkle with the challenge and even from a distance they easily acknowledge your excited cheers. They mutter a thanks, give a gentle high-five and then scuffle off around the corner.
3. The Prancer and Dancer Runner
This runner has the ability to make you forget about how much pain everyone else seems to be in. You find yourself pulling out your phone and googling entry dates for the next race. Before you see them, they have seen you. Their iPhone is out and they are happily snapping pictures to capture the memories. They are dancing across the rocks and prancing past the course marshals giving praise and a hearty, ‘thank you’. Their eyes are alight with anticipation. They might be fatigued but they are holding those negative thoughts at bay.
Which type of athlete are you?
You may fall somewhere in the middle and may shift from one to another at different points of a race. However, I am sure that looking back at race photos or your race debrief will help you identify with some of the above analogies?
Athlete Classifications: Symptomatic of Your Nutrition & Hydration
1. Race fuelling is about fuelling your brain not your body
Even for the slimmest athletes, the body has enough adipose tissue (fatty acids) stored to carry you a very, very long way. In endurance activities where the intensity is lower, a reasonably trained athlete should adequately utilize stored fatty acids for locomotive energy. However, there is one organ in the body that cannot use fatty acids for energy, and that is the brain.
The brain’s functional tissues is surrounded by the blood brain barrier. This is a physical block to protect the organ from harmful intruders and substances. When fatty acid is transported in the body, it is attached to a protein called albumin. This creates a molecule too large to pass through the barriers of the brain. Thus, the brain’s fuel source is glucose, the simplest molecular form of carbohydrate.
In races, we require the central nervous system and brain input to keep every other tissue of our body functioning. It drives our breathing, our heart, our working limb muscles. With an inadequate supply of glucose to the brain, this system starts to slow and will eventually grind to a complete halt.
2. Feed your brain glucose
If the brain holds everything together, then we must ensure that it receives an adequate supply of energy in the form of glucose. It is true that we can utilize stored muscle and liver glycogen for conversion into glucose and energy, but these stores are dramatically limited. Therefore, a fueling strategy for endurance race day must included simple forms of glucose, the best of which is a maltodextrin (pure glucose) gel.
3. Glucose absorption requires sodium
The absorption of glucose across cellular membranes requires a transporter protein that sits lodged in the cellular membranes. The functioning of this glucose transporter is often spared as the digestive tract starts to slow (the functioning of the digestive system will be overridden by the blood flow demands of the working muscles). That is, the body will prioritize the functioning of this glucose transporter over the digestion of fats, proteins and more complex carbohydrates, such as fructose.
4. Sweating causes a loss of sodium
Sweating causes large losses of sodium, especially over prolonged periods of time such as during endurance races. The amount of sodium varies from person to person and day-to-day, but can be in the vicinity of 1500-2000mg per 1L of sweat. No other electrolyte loss comes anywhere near the losses of sodium. This is because most other electrolytes, such as magnesium, are found within body cells. That is, sodium is an extracellular molecule floating freely in the bloodstream so it incurs the largest electrolyte losses during exercise.
5. Failing to replace sodium disrupts glucose absorption
If you fail to replace the sodium you are loosing, chances are you will not be absorbing the glucose you are trying to ingest. Without sodium present, the functioning of the transporter proteins slow. Therefore, the cellular membranes of the digestive tract, working muscles and mitochondria (power houses where energy is produced) become impermeable to glucose.
6. Low sodium and glucose intake affect the brain and central nervous system
If you are trying to rehydrate during races on water alone, you will likely be disrupting the body’s ability to absorb nutrition. Further more, if you are using a sports drink or electrolyte with inadequate sodium to meet your losses, you may also be disrupting your nutrition intake. Begin to become aware of your sweat losses both in volume and in the salt crusting that can appear on your clothes if you are a heavier sodium sweater. This can be a great guide to judging your losses.
Your Athlete Classification Explained:
The Blank Stare Runner
Your central nervous system is seriously affected. In essence, you have become similar to a diabetic with low blood glucose levels. Whatever you are drinking and eating is inadequate to supply sodium and glucose to the transporter pumps in your cellular membranes and thus, energy to your brain. Try to learn to listen to your central nervous system. Negative thought processes, clumsy feet, feeling cold, dizziness, vertigo, numb feet or hands, or even nausea can all be symptomatic of low glucose levels in the brain. If you observe someone like this or their eyes have a glazed-over appearance, feed them instant glucose along with a higher sodium concentration electrolyte. If they are nauseous, you can rinse their mouth with glucose as the oral mucosa has a direct glucose absorption pathway to the brain. If this helps, you can then start to slowly feed them glucose via gels, chemist jelly beans and glucose tablets.
The Weary but Starry Eyed Runner
Your nutrition and training strategies are strong but likely the quantities need adjusting. Sparkling eyes and alertness suggest that the central nervous system is coping. The physical weariness can be a symptom of further training required, or it may also be that you need to increase the quantity of glucose and electrolyte replacement. You should also be paying close attention to changes in your central nervous system as the race progresses. If negative thoughts, anxiety, clumsiness or any of the other symptoms above settle in, make sure you increase your glucose and sodium intake. This is especially true if you start to experience cramping.
The Prancer and Dancer Runner
You are nailing it! To run like this, your central nervous system must be functioning fully and you are alert enough to absorb your surroundings. Further to this, it appears that your training has prepared you optimally for the challenge you have embarked upon. However, keep an eye on climatic changes throughout the race as increases in temperature, humidity or wind will alter your evaporative sweat losses. Monitor your thoughts and alertness, with any small changes requiring a top-up of energy.
Day 4-14: Lost-Your-Mojo Syndrome
The weather feels colder. Your sick of the colour of your running shoes. Work should be for the under 30’s. Where did all this traffic come from? You think you will just start training again in Spring or Summer.
If any of these thought processes have crossed your mind, you are likely suffering from Lost-Your-Mojo Syndrome. Here are some suggestions for getting it back:
CLIMB A MOUNTAIN. Whether it be literal or symbolic, make it your mission to achieve a highpoint. This might be walking to a peak, learning a new skill or finishing the spare room renovations. We are addicted to achievement so pick up your camera or a hammer and do something noteworthy.
EMPOWER OTHERS. I recently took a Gone Running Tour to my favourite part of Tasmania. Showing them my playground and helping them summit mountain peaks was like taking a holiday - refreshing and up-lifting.
INVEST. A massage. A physio appointment. A tweak from the chiropractor. Each modality has its place and will only speed up your recovery. Furthermore, investing in yourself will remind you that bliss doesn’t just come from crossing finish lines.
MOVE. It shouldn’t be training but it should be simple movements. Go for a short swim. Walk barefoot on the beach. Jog slowly on grass. Trot a trail or two. Go wherever and however the heart desires.
SOCIALISE. We need to hibernate for our recovery but chances are you feel like remaining in your warm cave all winter until the daffodils come out. Short social outings involving running shoes, tea pots and laughter will help you regain the balanced lifestyle that probably got put on hold during the previous training phase.
SLEEP. Sleeping, especially in the hours before midnight, is when our body heals. If I am having trouble with healthy sleep routines, I try relaxation and a small dose of Melatonin at bedtime. Melatonin is produced naturally by our body and plays an important role in maintaining our sleep cycle. You can often purchase it from health stores and natural pharmacies.
EARTH. My father has a theory that we absorb the busyness of life, much like the generation of static electricity. His way of teaching me to release this energy was to earth - pitching the tent in nature and sleeping long hours in our sleeping bags. When I need to unwind you won’t find me at home anymore.
STRESS. Stress causes a boost in the catabolic hormone called Cortisol, our fight or flight generator. Your body won’t want to heal when you are running away from a tiger. Therefore, avoid stressful situations when possible and if you find yourself in an unavoidable situation, focus on taming the tiger rather than fighting it.
GO ON A DIET. Not training and starting to feel frumpy? I can empathise but now is definitely not the time to pick up the latest Women’s Weekly magazine. Instead, focus on upping the veggie, healthy fats and protein intakes. Include plenty of water and some whole-grains.
JOIN THE GYM. Unless you need a warm winter haven or some social inclusion, avoid ‘gym training’. Heavy weight training, boxing classes and any other activities that make washing your hair a painful activity should be avoided. Acute muscle damage will only slow the repairing of the more chronic tissue degradation still lingering from race day.
WATCH TOO MUCH TV. It is easy to slip into sedentary mode. Sitting down for long periods will cause a shortening of the repairing muscle fibers, especially those around the hip joint. If that chosen tv series is too all-absorbing, opt for lying on the floor over curled-up on the couch.
This is your opportunity to revive and thrive. The work is done. All that is left to do is to try to find a sense of peace and tranquility in your busy lifestyle. Here are some quick tips to help you out:
Science shows that most children perform optimally on 9 1/4 hours of sleep per night. I believe we are very similar to children - running around, using our minds, shedding emotions etc. Therefore, try to get to bed 30-60mins earlier each night to try and catch up a little. If you can’t sleep then just lie peacefully as this will still be assisting.
With less training, use this extra time to have a little ‘out’. Go for a 5min walk in your lunch break or a 15min wander before breakfast. Try to watch a movie and stretch a little. Sit on the couch and enjoy your family’s company. This your time to give a little back to yourself. My trick is to have an extra long bath mid-week and a few extra minutes over my cuppa in the morning. Don’t see this week as an opportunity to hammer work. That can wait till after this weekend.
It’s time to start the refuelling… big time! Slowly switch across from a nutrition packed start of the week to a slightly greater focus on carbs. Cut back the fibre in the last 48hrs and the protein in the last 24hrs. Lots of sweet potatoes, pumpkins and whiter starchier foods. Avoid too much refined sugar and opt for things like honey instead.
Start the rehydration soon. This involves sipping electrolyte during the day and then adding in other tasty beverages such as green teas, soda waters, etc. etc. Avoid excessive caffeine so that you don’t trigger a greater stress response. Remember, the body is trying to heal itself so excess stress won’t help this. Don’t drink too much before bedtime so that you don’t disrupt quality sleep.
We all suffer anxiety pre-race. But it won’t help if it runs away with you. Be mindful of when anxious or unhelpful thoughts stick. Acknowledge the thought and then imagine hanging it up on a coat hook in your head. Tell yourself you will come back to it later. You won’t, but somehow it settles the mind. If you are anxious try and distract yourself with something soothing - take time to make a cup of tea really mindfully - smell, taste, feel and listen to the art of making a good pot of tea. Read books. Watch uplifting movies. Learn a language… after all we only run for our sport.
Prepare 2 days out
Earlier than this and you are being too anxious. Less than this and you are rushing the process. Prepare on Thursday, chill out and travel on Friday.
Run after you travel
It doesn’t need to be more than 20mins but definitely try to get out for a jog post-travel. I would also suggest lying with your feet up the wall to drain fluids from your lower legs. I do this for 20mins when I first arrive at my hotel and again before bed. The jog should be super light and refreshing. Don’t worry about running on the course or anything like that, just head out the door from the hotel.
In the race have fun
Even if it isn’t always fun, smile. It is amazing how a smile can take hold. Focus on one tiny section at a time, each meal time or hydration opportunity can be used to break up the run. Smile in checkpoints and let this be your time to fill with joy from your support crews and the crowds out there. If there is suffering - feed yourself. Before you get cold, put layers on to get warm. If your feet are a tad sore, fix them before they are very sore. Don’t let negative thoughts out. If they do slip past you, then chase them down and then replace them with nutrition and happy thoughts. Focus on how good that finish will be. If you were healthy enough to start then you are more than healthy enough to finish (within reason).
Believe in me
I believe in you so now it is your turn to believe in me. We are ready. We are healthy. We are capable of finishing with a smile on our face. Trust me. Now just get out there and run with joy and a fire in your heart. Start the race with humility, build through the run with confidence, and finish the race with fire. I know you can do it.
I was anxious for the race on Saturday. Excited, but anxious. I wasn’t scared about breaking records or standing amongst a cohort of amazing elite runners. No, I was scared for the same reason as any other athlete there – will I finish? How much will it hurt? And most importantly, can I run well enough to feel content with myself afterwards? After all, can there be any greater emotion than contentedness?
In the week leading in to the race I allowed myself to feel scared. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow explained – ‘For after all, the best thing one can do when it is raining is let it rain.’ And through my life experiences I have come to realize that some of the things that rightly scare us can also become our greatest strengths.
I find change scary and it was the plethora of change that had occurred in my life in the last six months that was making me anxious. In October we sold our first ever home and left all our friends to move back to Tasmania. In November I started working with my new coach, James Kuegler, and started an extensive fit out of our new retail store. In December we opened the first Find Your Feet store and with that all the challenges of employing staff, paying bills from thin air and generally chasing our tails. January heralded my first international orienteering race in my home country and a further three weeks overcoming knee niggles incurred on the last day of racing. February welcomed Gus, my new strength coach, and the last year in my twenties. And March? March was 6 Foot Track and the start of my year of trail racing. So, yes, I was anxious because my benchmarks and parameters for performance had shifted. But Einstein said, ‘ Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’. As the changes had all been positive I now just had to trust in my coach, the overall process and myself.
I ran this race learning from yesterday, living for today and hoping for tomorrow. I started faster than last year to find space on Nellie’s Glen. I didn’t want the risk of not being able to watch my footing as I had new shoes on and decided not to strap my ankle after the tape fell off last year. The fast start got me into a better rhythm through the first section of the course to Megalong Road. This was where I hit my maximum heart rate of 192 beats. Despite my fast pace of sub 3:40min/km pace through this section, I later saw that Emma Murray was still faster than me through this section and down to the Cox’s River.
The descent to Cox’s River is beautiful and I tried to forget about the race for a while. I was comfortably tucked behind a cluster of boys for this section and just tried to relax as much as possible, saving energy for the large climb to come. This is a great section to refuel and I started my routine of Shotz Gels and a very concentrated sodium electrolyte solution in my 250ml hand flask that I carried for the entire race.
Conversations about pace and time began amongst our group as we neared the river. I tried not to buy into it. I knew that focusing on record pace and times was only going to burn the energy that I desperately needed to conserve for the latter part of the race. I purposefully had no idea what time I needed to be at certain points of the race because I know that my strengths can never match another athletes’. Instead, I focused on running very wide through the cleaner flowing water of the river to avoid getting gravel in my shoes like last year. This worked a treat and I cleared the running waters with purpose.
Maybe I am a sucker for punishment but I love ascending big hills. However, this year I felt a little out of sorts when I first hit the hill. My legs felt a little nervous and jittery, and felt like I couldn’t apply power through my quadriceps. Instead of letting the negative thoughts overcome me I tried to focus on activating my glute muscles and unloading my quads. I also kept the energy intake happening and sipping my electrolyte. This worked and by the end of the first descent on Pluvi I felt light and fast again.
Climbing towards the top of this long hill was when I started to notice some of the other athletes struggling. The sun was coming out and I could see the beads of sweat on their shoulders. It was also dripping off the brim of my cap. I knew I needed to keep drinking and made the decision to drink water at every aid station I came to whilst constantly sipping my Shotz electrolyte.
Unlike last year, I hit the Black Range alone. Whilst this was hard from a pacing perspective, I felt comfortable running like this. Back home I have done many long hours hiking and running on the slopes of Mt Wellington on my own. Through training and overcoming some fears of wild places, I have learnt to love this sensation of isolation. I tried to run strongly but conservatively along the range, focusing on a short arm action and purposeful steps. I tried to avoid the plod and kept reminding myself that each step serves me a purpose of one step closer to the finish. I also tried to engage with the volunteers at the aide stations to ensure that the race didn’t become too serious and ‘all about me’. I kept expecting the boys to come racing past but as time went on, I realized I was probably alone for the long run.
As I came off the range someone yelled that I only had 10km to go. I was shocked and it was the first time I allowed my bubble to burst to look at my watch. I saw I had around 45 minutes to cover the last 10km. This was when the negatives started – ‘no way?!’ Then I remembered my coach saying to me just before the race, ‘Never let the negative words out if you can’t catch them’. I now had to catch my words! I went back to my strategies, taking on some energy to ward off the negative thoughts and giving my brain the glucose it was asking me for.
The last part of the race had been really tough for me in 2014 when I had found myself walking on many of the smaller pinches. This time I set myself a challenge of running more than last year and except for one purposeful walk, I ran everything. I kept reminding myself that I had been doing more than this duration in training and that I was stronger than I knew. With thirty minutes to go I took my last gel as a sign of ‘now the hard work really starts’.
My strides were starting to shorten as I ran past an official looking sign saying that I had 5km to go. My bubble burst for the last time and I looked at my watch. By my fuzzy calculations I had 20 minutes to reach the finish and this was the first time I began to really focus on the race record. But how could I do it? I had to run sub 4 minute kilometers to the finish line and although it was almost all downhill, I was beginning to experience a lot of discomfort. My new The North Face running shoes were a size too small due to availability in Australia and my big toe nail was ripping at the tips of them. All I could feel was a searing in my sock and stiffening quads from trying to run with my toes bunched up. I started talking out loud to myself. ‘Come on Hanny! This is not pain, just discomfort!’ I tried not to look at my watch for fear of what I might see. I just ran. My legs were stumps and my crunched up toes where disrupting my balance. Because of this my arms flailed wildly as I careered down the last rough hill. As I crested the arch I looked one last time at my watch and hoped I had done enough. All I could think about was not letting down the people that had believed in me so much.
The first time I realized I had done it was when I careered off the steps. Emotion exploded out of me in a flurry of excited bounds before I sank to the ground and shed a tear. People were taking my shoes off but I couldn’t concentrate. So much had led to this moment and so much relief was pouring out of me. I was niggle free for the first time in a very, very long time and it was the first opportunity I had had to race at full strength for a long while. Whilst you run alone you don’t succeed alone. So many people and circumstances gave me my armor out there on Saturday - Jackie Fairweather, James Kuegler, Darryl Griffiths, Canberra, Hobart, Find Your Feet and of course Graham... just to name a few. For all involved, I am entirely grateful.
Through running Six Foot this year I have learnt a huge amount:
Congratulations to everyone who completed the Six Foot Track in 2015. There were so many amazing results and none more than others. Be proud of what you achieved. Learn from your successes and your weaknesses. And most importantly, be content.
This is Part Two of my article series -Diet Patterns of an Injured Athlete. What a can of worms I have opened for as you will soon find out, there will be a Part Three!
In Part One, I wrote about my battles with inflammation and Achilles Tendonitis, describing how I had tried just about every form of treatment for my stubborn injury. After 9 months I began to query my overall health, eventually reaching a point where I realized there must be more at play than just my running, training and biomechanics. What I now believe was occurring in my body was an accumulation of stressors that were inhibiting my body’s ability to recover from my chronic injuries and training loads.
The Stress Response
A stressor is anything that places a load on the body and generates a flight or fight response. During such a response, the stress hormone Cortisol is pumped into the body generating physical changes that help us to remove the stressful situation. The interesting thing about the human stress response is that it is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ mechanism. That is, the body cannot distinguish between different stressors, whether they derive from your workplace, family life, pain, other discomforts, environmental inputs or even your diet. And it is the accumulation of these individual stressors that can lead to a chronic stress response in which the body remains in a heightened state of stress-induced arousal.
Last year, this was me in a nutshell. I was accumulating stressors from training, Find Your Feet, emotional ‘female’ occasions, my general environment. Further to this, without realizing it, my diet had evolved to be rich in inflammatory foods, particularly sweet substances such as sugar, fructose and natural sweeteners. As I began to awake to these circumstances, I began delving into the literature. Everything I read alerted me to the fact that my body was struggling to stay in homeostasis (a balanced physical state). I was constantly pumping out cortisol to the detriment of my hormonal, physical & psychological health. It was this disruption to my hormones that was likely leading to my injury woes.
Hormones and Stress: A tight link
The body derives almost all of its hormones from one master hormone, Pregnalone. It is produced in the adrenal glands and is the precursor to many hormones including cortisol, DHEA, aldosterone, testosterone, estrogens and progesterone.
When we are in balance, there should be ample Pregnalone for the body to make adequate amounts of our sex hormones and cortisol. However, if we enter a chronic state of stress (such as through poor diet, inadequate exercise, insufficient sleep, lack of relaxation, and internalizing our emotional stress) we can fatigue our adrenal glands. This begins an occurrence of ‘Pregalone Steal’. That is, we override our need to produce the sex hormones for the sake of creating more Cortisol.
For optimal health we need our sex hormones. They help to keep us: in balance; feeling masculine or feminine; generating empathy towards others; rested at night; alert during the day; balanced in our emotions; healthy in our musculoskeletal system; and most importantly for the athlete, physically recovered. One of the two most important hormones here are Testosterone and Growth Hormone, both of which are produced by males and females (although to a much lessor extent in females). Without testosterone, the body’s ability to repair musculoskeletal tissue is hindered. I believe now that this was one of my main issues throughout 2014 – increased Cortisol levels and inadequate sex hormone levels.
Making Changes: A big mountain to climb
I believe that one of the biggest challenges to any athlete is identifying and acknowledging one’s chronic state of stress and with it, an unbalanced hormonal state. What many of us struggle to appreciate, myself included, is that stress doesn’t mean stressed. After all, in 2014 I was Happy Hanny. I didn’t snap at everyone and I wasn’t hiding in a hole feeling depressed or stressed. However, I was often on overdrive and if I add into this my poor diet, huge amounts of travel, elite level racing and fluctuating sleep patterns, my body had quietly accumulated stressors. This had crept up on me over a longer period of time and my hormonal health was now compromised.
Challenging myself to trawl through the research on overcoming Pregnalone steal and naturally boosting my hormones, I came across one very common suggestion: fix what you can fix. That is, whilst we can often point the finger to a large area of our life that feels stressful, it might not be the easiest one to initially change. For me it was Find Your Feet and my training. I couldn’t easily stop working otherwise this would add financial strains into the mix. I couldn’t reduce my travel as this was what I did for work. I couldn’t alter my training any more as I was already doing far less due to my injury. But two changes that I could make easily were to my diet and sleep routines. Thus I embarked on the journey of fixing what I could fix.
Change: Fixing what I could fix
Injury frustrations and research triggered me into radical change. Increasing my sleep was easy but in November I embarked on the overwhelming process of removing all forms of sugar for a two-month period. I chose this as my starting point because it seemed to be the most well documented and successful area of research into hormonal health. I knew I had a serious sweet tooth and that I found it hard to avoid the overwhelming need for more, especially mid-afternoon and after dinner. Therefore, the changes that I made included:
Be it chicken or eggs, my Achilles improved 100%.
Sugar: The bad and the ugly
There are many problems with sugar. In order to understand them one needs to understand what sugar is actually composed of and its impact on the body.
Sugar (the white stuff) is just pure energy and contains no nutrient value at all. It is composed of 50% glucose and 50% fructose. The glucose component of the sugar is readily acted upon by body cells in the presence of insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas. The fructose component must be processed into glycogen by the liver.
If our diet is too high in sugar and its various forms, many problems can occur. Some of these problems include:
In other words, consuming high amounts of sugar doesn’t really do anything for you. Simply put, sugar is empty calories.
Removing the White Stuff: The results
You might be asking why I decided to cut out all sugar for eight weeks, including fruit and natural sugars? My reasoning comes back to my addiction to sweet things. As I inferred in Part One of this article series, I was loading up on sugar and refined foods to the detriment of good nutrients, fatty acids and protein intake. Without these vital nutritional components, my body was pushed into a greater state of stress and inflammation whilst being denied the very things that would help it to recover. I needed to go cold turkey and break my sweet tooth!
The first two weeks was a nightmare. I was terribly lethargic and fighting constant headaches and moodiness. My partner, Graham, had also jumped on the challenge of two months without sugar. On one occasion we were out on a gentle ride and literally both bonked about 55 minutes into our gentle ride, crawling and pushing our bicycles home again. What likely had happened was that our bodies were so used to burning glucose that once our glycogen stores dried up we were left incapable of efficiently resorting to fatty acid metabolism for energy production. This is not the state that an endurance athlete should find himself or herself as fatty acid metabolism is what drives energy production during long events.
The biggest change that occurred in my diet wasn’t just the removal of sweet foods, but also the fact that I had to replace this energy with something else… fats and proteins. Till then, I had been educated from all fronts that fats were bad! Sports scientists, nutritionists, the AIS, coaches… everyone pointed the finger at fats being bad for you. To turn this around and be snacking on avocados, nuts, full-fat butter and cheese… it was hard but rewarding. During this period Graham and I saw no increases in weight and if anything, we leaned & toned up. Further to this, over the two months our energy levels began to sore. The cravings subsided and my own general emotional wellbeing strengthened. I began to feel like I was in a constant state of calmness, no longer seeking sugar inputs for the mid-morning and mid-afternoon cravings. Better still, I began to see signs that my hormones were balancing, my endurance was enhancing, recovery from strength training had quickened, and my Achilles was getting better! At last I was winning.
Since this experience I have not been a princess when it comes to sugar intake and there have been setbacks. The festive season threw me off course a little, as did an increase in travel and competitions, which lead to a loss of routines. But I have realized that reducing stressors and remaining in nutritional health is all about balance and being aware of what certain tasks, thoughts and food groups do to your own body. For me, I have realized that as soon as I overindulge in sugary foods, I become more susceptible to inflammation. This is also true if I work too much without enough rest. For example, despite no dramatic changes to my training, in the post-festive season I saw a slight return of my Achilles as well as a grizzly knee. This less balanced diet and lifestyle also saw more of my raw emotions and my ability to cope with stressors diminish. As I became aware of the fact that I felt I was travelling backwards, I cleaned up my diet and work schedule again, noticing rapid improvements in the inflammatory responses in my body. In short, I started winning again!
Way Forward: More research!
Since experiencing such dramatic changes for myself I am beginning to cautiously suggest similar changes to clients who are experiencing chronic injury issues. Without fail, I am seeing similar results. I have seen a client who had not menstruated for two years return to healthy cycles. I have had another who felt she was unable to cope with workplace stressors thrive again. Similarly, I have had two clients overcome tendinopathies and another a chronic knee inflammatory issue. Things certainly look positive from a coaching perspective.
But the story doesn’t just stop at sugar and stress. What I have now become aware of through my continued research into the modern literature is that there is a plethora of studies currently being conducted on holistic health, diet and lifestyle, with plausible links to chronic inflammation. Evidence suggests that chronic inflammation could be strongly linked to lifestyle diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes and even neurological diseases. Whilst such studies appear to be embraced by the medical and alternative health world, it fascinates me that it doesn’t appear to be filtering into the sports industry. I see a strong need to find current, accurate research on diet, stress and chronic inflammation’s link to the world of sports injuries and recovery.
Therefore, in later blog posts, I hope to be able to share my studies on other aspects of nutrition and lifestyle, and how this may begin to point the finger towards causation for poor recovery from training and injury. Areas of interest to me are now:
Until then, I urge you to reflect on your own holistic health and to take note of how small decisions in diet, sleep, exercise and work manifest in your body’s ability to recover. Should you feel the need to experiment with your holistic health, I believe that the perseverance and hard work will likely pay off in your health, recovery and performance. Play hard!
Since the start of 2014 I have been battling return from an Achilles injury. I do not use the word battling loosely as this is what it has been. A battle. I have tried just about every quick remedy I can. In this order I have tried and mostly failed:
It was eight months and all this, before I finally twigged… ‘Something else must be at play!’ More importantly, I stopped looking for the quick fix and started to face up to my insecurities, fears and bad habits. Underlying all this work was knowledge that I had a lot of habits that were fueling the inflammatory enemy of my Achilles battles. For me, it all boils down to nutrition, hormonal health and recovery.
However, not completely naïve I did start to think about nutrition and recovery earlier this year when I sat with AIS dieticians, a leading sport nutritionist. I had reservations of my ability to recover from hard sessions, and constant tendency to iron deficiency and hormonal imbalance. I had noticed that my resilience from stressor loads was not where I wanted nor expected it to be, and that it was something I needed to address. In other words, I needed to stop patching and start fixing underlying causes. I made some changes to nutrition then:
The results? A slight improvement but I was still noticing the niggles and my Achilles still showed inflammation. So I faced the reality and plucked up the courage to fight the biggest battle of all – removing all sugar from my diet. As the ultimate fruit bat, this is like putting a possum on a fruit-free diet. Yikes!?
Nutrition guru, Darryl Griffiths of the Australian company Shotz Sports Nutrition in Melbourne, first highlighted the evils of sugar to me. Built sturdier and more mean than an Audi sports car, Darryl was horrified at my tendency… no dependency… on sugar. At the time I shrugged it off as bulls$@t – ‘Yeah, yeah, but endurance athletes need the carbs!’ I was merely frightened. If I wrote my current dietary pattern for a day down it looked something like this:
So there you had it, a day of highs, lows and one huge amount of sugar… mostly in the form of fructose. My moods swung, energy pitched and plummeted and stress levels were hard to control. I struggled to sit down, felt restless at my desk, and thoughts could even feel cloudy. If something got difficult I found myself reaching for the dried fruit jar. It sometimes helped a bit. However, underneath this is no way to live life. It was time to make a change.
There is so much information out there on how to come back from injury. We have all heard it. Build 5% each week, start with slower training and gradually introduce the faster stuff. However, there are so many other times of transition in our lives and as summer approaches, I believe this is a time for caution. For haven’t we all at some stage said to ourselves, ‘Summer is here! It is time to finish up work for a while, whip out the toys and get fit!’
I know that I used to have it in my head that as soon as university exams were done and dusted I would be able to throw myself head first into heavy training to 'get back to where I want or need to be'. This thought process spells danger and I fell into the trap many times.
The first problem is that many of us lead a more sedentary lifestyle and our body may have become used to sitting down a lot. Suddenly bouncing up and spending time on your feet, added to a training load can come at the price of injury or illness.
Secondly, you need to think about how much you have been doing and slowly ease yourself into heavier training. Perhaps give yourself 1-2 weeks of slowly building up the training. If you are unsure how to do this, maybe the first week should just be about slow volume. Go for runs, some long and some short, some with friends and some on your own. Add in some strength and easy cross training, all at a talking pace. Then, in the second week, I would start to add in some gentle intensity in your training. Opt for longer, slightly slower repetitions over shorter & faster ones. Some example sessions that can get you started are:
These sessions are still aerobic sessions and will prep the body. Don't forget to keep up the strength training and focus lots on activating the core and glute (bottom) muscles to support your hips & running form.
For those who feel prone to niggles or injury, one of the best things that I have been recently introduced to by my NZ coach, James Kuegler of Cadence Coaching, is water running, preferably in the ocean or sea water. Here is what I do (at least 3 times per week at the moment as I return from injury):
In summary, avoid the pitfalls of being too excited about summer. Remember, it is a wonderful season but should not always be viewed as a boot camp. My challenge to you is this: Get yourself fit without taking risks. Learn to train smart and in a way that you can sustain most of the year despite how busy your life can become. If you do, the results will take care of themselves.
We are lead to believe that overtraining is a ‘syndrome’ reserved for the elite or the silly. After all, elite athletes can easily complete hours of solid training. And the silly? They just do a lot. However, in this article I wish to highlight an important paradox about overtraining.
I recently had a client who came to me following difficulty completing a trail race. He was a forty-year old, single parent of three children and running his own business. He was also chairman of a school board and heavily involved in his eldest son’s sporting ambitions. Amongst this schedule, he was fitting in four sessions of training a week. Two of these were intervals with a local squad. The remaining sessions were run early in the morning before the children got up. On his best weeks he may complete about five to six hours of training, plus a little stretching before bed.
Following discussions with my client, it became evident that he was suffering from overtraining: sleep constantly disturbed; heart rate suppressed whilst training hard; elevated heart rate in the morning; daily fatigue, especially in his legs; depressed mood with decreased tolerance to stressors at work and home; moodiness with the children; and a failure to athletically perform in races. He was neither elite nor silly, just a guy who works hard for the benefit of everyone.
This leads to the question, how could my client be over trained? After all, the text-book definition suggests overtraining as: ‘a physical, behavioral, and emotional condition that occurs when the volume and intensity of an individual's exercise exceeds their recovery capacity.’
When I raised this notion of overtraining my client’s response was, ‘but I only train up to four sessions per week!’ If you experienced a similar reaction to the word exercise, now consider this:
Overtraining = Working Out + Daily Stressors > Rest + Recovery
Many athletes do not take into account their daily stressors, which may actually be a far greater load than that of the workouts they complete. Note that I am not talking about stresses. You may enjoy these activities but cumulatively, they place a load on the body. Busy adults can find that the cumulative load of training and daily stressors can exceed their rest and recovery. My client loves many aspects of what he does but the cumulative load has led to emotional, mental and physical fatigue to a point where he risks injury, sickness or underperformance.
This now leads to the next question, how do you bring a busy adult back from overtraining? Too often we divert straight to the exercise. And whilst yes, this may need work and adjustment; it is not always the underlying problem. What I like to suggest to my clients is - modify what you can modify.
For many individuals it would be hard to create more time in the day for rest and recovery whilst also doing everything else that you do. We can’t change the number of hours in a day or the fact that we must work in order to pay the bills. For an adult, exercise is often a necessary unwind, a chance to personal endeavor, or socialize with like-minded people. Simply cutting back training may not be the answer.
However, often we can change small things, small routines, behaviors or personal rules that have become so ingrained that we barely recognize them. Not only do they take time, but also valuable emotional and physical energy. Do any of these ring a bell?
These are just a few arguments that I have heard over the last few months and a case of very black and white thinking. I have found that most athletes I work with are Type A personalities and like myself, we struggle to see the shades of grey. Reducing unnecessary rules, tasks and routines may be a positive start in allowing your body more rest and recovery. For example:
Secondly, everyone can change his or her diet. It doesn’t need to be going on a diet, but everyone can modify what they choose to eat to reduce or eliminate refined carbohydrates, unhealthy vegetable oils, caffeine and sugar. Dietary changes can have a huge impact on a person’s life, especially the quality of their sleep and balance of their moods. A balanced diet rich in protein will assist the body’s ability to recover from training sessions whilst healthy fats will support the neural and endocrine systems.
Rest and recovery also needs your attention. Rest certainly suggests sleep but other passive and active recovery methods are also important to consider. Tasks that are creative or mindful will nourish your body as they help to alleviate some of the stress response. Tasks such as cooking, art, reading, mindful walking and yoga are great places to start. Further to this, socialization in moderation will help to support the hormonal system, especially the regeneration of our masculinity and femininity.
Finally, allow the body to sleep. It is during sleep that the true physical and mental recovery can happen. During the night, the earlier sleep cycles are important for the body’s physical recovery then in the latter dreaming cycles the body is mentally and emotionally repairing. Dealing with daily stress, including dietary stress, will lead to better sleep quality, and greater mental and physical performance the next day.
In summary, one of the most common misconceptions in sport and exercise is that training is just completing a workout. On the contrary, training is the workout PLUS the recovery that follows. As our body deals with all stressors in the same way, the harder we push in training (volume, strength or intensity) and life (work, family, volunteer, social) the greater the recovery required. In essence, if you wish to optimize your performance and avoid overtraining, consider everything that you are doing. The less stress we are under in our daily life, the more capable we will be of training to capacity.
Returning to the Junior World Orienteering Championships as a coach was a fascinating experience. The pre-camp training sessions, long days in the starting quarantines and grappling with appropriate words of encouragement for my athletes post-race were some of the challenges. I can confidently say that the two-week Bulgarian experience increased my coaching knowledge and skills. However, added to this came a huge personal revelation that highlighted the difference between youth and adulthood.
Bulgaria: Bed bugs & blooms
Bulgaria is a new travel destination but with extensive racing experiences in neighbouring countries I was forewarned of its challenges. Small things like excessive supplies of cabbage the night before a race and temperamental water supplies could be among the simple trials. Easy to overlook were the stray dogs ruling the streets, horse & carts, bed bugs and dozens of Russian-built Cruella Deville-inspired hotels crumbling post-communism.
On arrival in Borovets, the alpine ski resort one-hour north of the capital Sofia, 2900m peaks overawed this excitable mountain goat. No amount of stray dogs or scary looking gondolas would bar my path. After a short bug-infested sleep I slipped onto the shady spruce-shrouded trails and began the large 1600m ascent towards the skyline. After an hour of climbing (and just a little stress about how late I might be for breakfast) I was rewarded with blooming alpine meadows and literally hundreds of butterflies. I have later heard that this is a hot destination for butterfly ‘twitchers’. Never fear, exhilaration ensured I was back for breakfast on time and my coaching responsibilities took over.
Pre-competition: Lessons on adulthood
The pre-JWOC camp rushed past in a blur of control flags out, control flags in. We trained alongside the New Zealand team and enjoyed the usual happy trans-Tasman banter. The athletes performed exceptionally in the eroded gullies of the middle distance maps and heavily vegetated long distance terrain. On many occasions they put me back in my box when I was misplaced and they were still perfectly in control. If it gave them additional confidence then I was only too happy to be lost!
Just prior to the commencement of the races we held a birthday party for one of our New Zealand athletes. She had turned twenty, the same age I was when I won the Junior World Long Distance and shortly after the Senior World Title in the Sprint Distance. These achievements are still bounced around and I have never really stopped to consider the circumstances under which they were achieved. Watching this athlete blow out her birthday candles and receive presents of Bulgarian pool floaties highlighted just how different 20 and 28 years of age is. I couldn’t help but realize that at some point we all transition from childhood to adulthood and begin to accept responsibility for all of our actions and words. I can now honestly say that at the age of twenty I was still a child. At twenty-eight I am an adult and now I am ready for that role. At what age the switch occurred I cannot say but I am eager to fulfill big shoes again.
JWOC – a little more than golden
I loved my role as coach of the Junior World Orienteering Team in Bulgaria. Aside from being outside all day every day, the most rewarding aspect of the job was watching athletes rise to the challenge of international competition. Under difficult conditions from the weather gods and Bulgarian Way, our athletes performed exceptionally. A huge highlight was observing our senior men and women walk away at the end of the week with heads held high. They had learnt from their younger years and applied the teachings to their 2014 races. Well-deserved results are the most rewarding! Our best Australian results were five top-20 finishes and if we take a little credit for our kiwi friends, a gold medal and two more podium places.
Conclusion – back to the real winter
In the involved process of preparing for my own World Senior Championships in the Dolomite mountains and ensuring our junior athletes were ready to perform, I had spent little time thinking about what it would actually feel like to return to JWOC and on the other side of the crowd barriers. Despite some strong emotional moments as I grappled with a changing of the ages, I loved every part of coaching at the international level. Without fail, returning home to negative temperatures is the rude awakening you never want. But warming me from the inside are fond memories of all that was achieved in the last six weeks and dreams of bigger things to come… I may have my ‘athlete’ shoes and ‘coaching’ hat on as I say this!
‘Lydiard holds all the Keys to running success’ – Barry Magee
Over the years I have had my fair share of niggles and big learning curves. As a younger athlete I always thought more was better and that my body was tough enough to cope with a mess of speed, volume and strength all thrown in together. Thankfully none of these niggles have progressed to true injuries and I believe that I can truthfully track this back to a series of outstanding coaches who put me on the safe track over the years. These were Max Cherry, Barry Magee and Dick Telford. Over the last 18 months, I have become increasingly aware of their influence on my running and coaching, particularly when it comes to injury prevention. In this article, I am going to explore the importance of buffering injuries through periodization and the value of investing in an aerobic base by exploring the methods of my coaching mentors. To do this, I begin with Arthur Lydiard.
Potentially the Father of formalized base training, New Zealand’s Arthur Lydiard (1917 – 2004) rose to fame through his coaching of marathon legends, Peter Snell, Murray Halberg, Lorraine Moller and Barry Magee. Lydiard’s coaching foundations have become an integral part of many coaches’ current approaches to endurance training. In recent years, the likes of Nic Bideau, Dick Telford and Barry Magee have endorsed Lydiard’s ideas. His theories are also an evident part of the Kenyan Way.
It was Barry Magee whom I trained under during my year of study in Auckland and who introduced me to principles of Lydiard. I remember sitting in his lounge room watching him draw Lydiard’s Pyramid of Performance. For most of the year, Magee would send us off tempo running around the grassy volcanic cones of Auckland. Every weekend we would head to the Waitakere Ranges to run the famous Lydiard 22 mile hilly loop. It was only immediately prior to our key races that Magee embarked us on the higher intensity, shorter duration training sessions.
Following the Lydiard Way, Magee determined that all athletes, irrespective of their age or distance specializations, required a substantial aerobic base to protect them from injury and to sustain their maximal performance ability. Without this aerobic foundation and as running speeds and intensity increased closer to races, a myriad of yo-yo performances, injuries and disrupted training could occur. In my latter years, and without the direction of a coach, I fell into the trap of increasing my anaerobic training to the detriment of my aerobic base. Niggles and underperformance ensued.
As Magee reiterated with us, Lydiard believed that injury prevention and performance lay in the development of a long aerobic training base otherwise known as cardio or base training. That is, running should be conducted frequently and at intensities low enough for the oxygen intact to adequately meet the energy demands of the working muscles. In practical terms, in a fit athlete this type of running can be maintained for many minutes or hours and focuses on lower heart rates (generally between 60 & 80% of your maximal heart rate).
Following long base periods, Lydiard and Magee required their athletes to move into a transition phase characterized by hill resistance and leg-speed training. The purpose of this phase was to continue to maintain the aerobic base but to strengthen the leg muscles in preparation for the anaerobic training that was soon to follow. Lydiard’s hills were not classed as intervals like we often carry out here in Australia, but rather bounding, springing and bouncing up the hills to define the muscles and running technique required to run fast. Lydiard’s alternative was to conduct this training in a gym setting with a focus on leg strength and plyometrics.
Prior to my move to Auckland, a highly influential Tasmanian distance coach, Max Cherry, coached me. Cherry came from Percy Cerutty’s running school at Portsea. The Percy Cerutty approach was to train like a Spartan throughout a season and an integral part of Cherry’s coaching were large training volumes interspersed with plenty of bounding, springing and intervals. Cherry emphasized that these sessions would prime our legs for the demands of track running which were carried out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The key difference between Cherry and Magee’s training was that Magee isolated the hills to a specific block whilst Cherry would intersperse them constantly through the season. However, both coaches would always ensure their athletes had the cardiovascular base behind them before participating in this type of hill training.
Lydiard believed that only after his athletes had completed their aerobic and resistance training phases were they ready to move onto true anaerobic or speed work. He determined that without the earlier two training phases, the athlete was at risk of systemic acidosis, a body state in which the cellular mechanisms that allow for balanced chemistry and recovery within the muscles are compromised. In simpler terms, Lydiard used to refer to anaerobic training as ‘tiring, exacting work’ that degraded the body (as apposed to aerobic training that upgraded the body). The anaerobic training was carefully interspersed with recovery training and rest days to ensure that the repair process generated a stronger body & mind. His athletes would perform numerous bouts of high speed work with just enough recovery to get through the workout holding good form, but in doing so create the desired training effect of an increased ability of the body to chemically ‘buffer’ the lactic acid. This training has also become known as VO2 max training and would lead an athlete into the taper period before his or her main race.
I currently train under the influence of the renowned Canberra distance coach, Dick Telford. Dick is another who buys into the Lydiard Way. Telford’s training is strongly influenced by the environment of Canberra, utilizing the hills and bushlands to develop our aerobic base before approaching speed training on the track during specific parts of the summer. Hills are Telford’s greatest friend and some of his sessions have been a key feature in my training partner’s programs since they were 14 years old. Telford keeps the most intense training to the end of the season when our bodies are fully primed for it. Very few of his athletes appear to ever be injured.
However, from where I sit as a coach, the modern ‘Australian Way’ of training for distance events is a bit of a jumble for most runners. There is often a mish-mash of long runs, jogging, cross training, very high-speed intervals and occasionally strength training all in the same week and all year round. There often appears to be no thought to periodization and the supplementation of running with strength-building training. This is particularly true of my adult runners who seem to fall into three categories. The first are those who just duck out the door in their moment of spare time for a run, moving by feel and training hard or easy, depending on the amount of time they have available. Their training often one-hit-wonder’ish with large or fast bouts followed by numerous rest days until the next session can be squeezed in. The second are those who love to run but prefer to plod out the door and just continue on plodding until an event pops up that they wish to enter. The third are those individuals that want to get fast faster. Every session they do is conducted at high intensities or large volumes, with little thought given to rest or recovery. Gym sessions are tough, swims are tough, and runs are long and tough. Eventually their body or mind snaps.
Perhaps this ‘Australian Way’ comes back to our ability to train all year round. Unlike the Europeans who have snow forcing them to take a bit of downtime, we can continue to run and run and run all year. Add to this the overly full calendar of running events and we seen to just move from one race to another without thought given to periodization. In other words, we love to run and thus even when our bodies are screaming out for a rest we simply say, ‘but one more dawn run can’t hurt?!’ The result of all this is that in 2013, more than 80% of runners in Australia experienced an injury.
Despite wisdom and experience, last year I fell into this trap. I returned from racing at the World Orienteering Championships in Finland knowing that I needed to develop more speed and endurance. I jumped straight into strength training, track running, hill intervals, fartlek, Parkruns and a streak of races. More speed, more speed! What I failed to remember at the time was that my body was run down from the races and that before I should begin my speed preparations I needed to slowly rebuild my aerobic base and strength to a point where my body was strong enough to handle the degrading anaerobic work. A niggling Achilles and hamstring ensued.
Wiser now, my training has returned to the Lydiard Way and the coaching principles of Magee, Cherry and Telford. Currently my training is focused around building my aerobic base via: long slow runs over the Canberra hills; increasing my jogging miles in the mornings; replacing speed training with tempo runs of around 10-16km conducted at marathon pace; and working on overall body strength in the gym. This phase will last for around 12 weeks in total.
In April I will initiate a hill specific phase that will be focused on hill intervals, leg speed running and plyometric training in the gym. During this time I will still aim to maintain my long runs and easy jogging miles to ensure that the aerobic system remains strong. Finally, when the body feels fully prepared, I will reenter my last phase of training that will include race specific and speed training. This will be interspersed with lots of jogging, long runs and additional recovery days to counterbalance the intensity.
In conclusion, in order for us to achieve our greatest levels of performance and avoid injuries, we need to be prepared to take our time. Rushing the development of our aerobic base or failing altogether to periodise our training can lead to a mash of training that can ultimately lead to underperforming on race day or degrading the body to a point of injury. For a lasting experience in the sport, I believe we need to run in the steps of our coaching fathers, that of Lydiard, Magee, Cherry and Telford. As they have influenced on me, training hard but smart can be your ultimate weapon.
Since the start of 2012 I have been working behind the scenes with a number of our young athletes. They all bounced into our first meeting with large ambitions, boundless energy but slightly ‘broken’. Injuries, sickness and fatigue!
Here I would like to share a story. In 2010, during Find Your Feet’s early days I had a lovely young guy, Josh, who approached me for some advice. Having grown up on King Island and only recently moved to Hobart, Josh was keen to develop his running. His initial goal was to complete the Flinders Island 30km race that was in about four months time. However, Josh was broken.
‘I find that I have all this energy at the beginning of the week and go hard on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and sometimes Thursday but then have to have the rest of the week off because I am too tired at the end of the weeks.’
I am sure we can all see the error in Josh’s ways. Going hard for four days straight and expect to be able to keep this going? Some slight alterations to Josh’s training has seen him recently become one of Tasmania’s most elite senior runners.
At some stage we all fall into the trap of thinking more is better. More training, more regimented nutrition, more competition, more work, more study, more friends… our personal list of ‘mores’ is almost as long as our list of ‘shoulds’. Like everything, there is a plausible balance where one has to do more to get more out of oneself. But past this fuzzy threshold lies a grey world of potential fatigue, injury, sickness and winter-blues. Not only this, but like Josh, we seem to stop thinking straight, get in a rat-race cycle, and not be able to work out why things start to fall apart.
So how can we avoid falling into this trap? How can we define that perfect balance where optimal enjoyment, health and performance lie? I believe the answer to this lies in excellent planning and preferably, with the assistance of a great coach.
When a new athlete starts with me, it almost always seems to be at a point in their lives when they have dozens of balls in the air or are faced with a tough decision. What to do at university next year? How to come back from injury? How to balance training when I begin my new job? Then add in family, friends, training, competition, first time on a national team… it quickly becomes overwhelming. I call this the Much Syndrome. Although I know for certain that I am the greatest sucker for ‘doing more’, when I step back and reflect I realize that there is a serious equation at play: when things near the level of too much, we begin to feel we have to do more. Therefore, my first coaching advice I give is to have a rest. This means one to three weeks of catching up – sleep, gentle exercise, time at home and work or study. This remedy is amazing!
Following a rest period, the clarity of the mind is amazing. Suddenly my athletes have a renewed sense of purpose and their energy is infectious. We may even begin to see huge jumps in their level of performance without any changes to their training. I attribute this to improved concentration, logical thinking and physical adaptation following their previous training.
The second stage of overcoming the Much Syndrome is creating a good plan. Very few of my athletes seemed to plan ahead. Not any more! In order to create a plan we use a spreadsheet that covers every week of the year. This is how our plan evolves:
As I have seen with Josh and many of my other runners, big improvements can be made by having a bit of rest, planning life’s commitments into your training, and not being afraid to make some changes. Enlisting the help of a coach who can help you with planning your weeks and reigning you back when you begin to look fatigued will help you stay on track to achieving everything that you are capable of becoming. Remember, coaching is not just a privilege of the elite. Having a coach to help you balance life is often even more important for those amazing senior athletes defying age!
Paula Radcliffe. Marathon world record holder. Greatest British athlete of all time. Failure?
This year was the second time Paula Radcliffe failed to complete the Olympic Marathon. In Athens she stopped at the 36km mark in floods of tears. This time she failed to even make it to the start of her home Olympics in London. But does this make her a failure? I think we would all agree that Paula Radcliffe could never be called this!
Radcliffe had goals and dreams. As she stated to the press following the announcement of her withdrawal from the London Olympic competition,
"No one tells us in advance where the limits of our own bodies lie and pushing these limits is the only way we can ever achieve our highest goals and dreams."
There appears to be this inherent link between running and goals. In fact, it is hard not to start a conversation with a runner without finding yourself asking what their next goal is. It is almost the first step in the running lifestyle, the New Year resolution of the runner, and the way of interpreting ourselves as an athlete. Like Radcliffe does, we set goals, strive hard towards them, and then depending on the outcome we either tick or cross them off. In Radcliffe’s situation, there was one almighty cross that made it to the news headlines on the far corners of the globe.
There is an increasing body of literature and research about the validity of goal setting. Radcliffe’s situation is one of many in a diverse range of fields. Every day, individuals and organisations set goals but for one reason or another, fail. Australian athletes who didn’t quite make the cut-offs for London, individuals trawling the weight loss industry, industries such as General Motors that set business goals and yet end up requiring government bailouts to survive… None are failures and yet all failed to achieve their goals.
While conventional wisdom has it that goal setting is critical to performance outcomes, there is amounting evidence to suggest the contrary. Recent research in the field of neuroscience suggests that the brain protects us by resisting change. Why do we dislike getting up 30 minutes earlier than normal to head outside for a run? Because we naturally avoid pain and seek immediate rewards by staying in bed to sleep. Part of the problem with goal setting is that it requires substantial behavioural or thinking changes that will be inherently associated with a fear of discomfort… failure. I am sure we can all associate with that feeling of initial excitement when choosing our next big race and then soon after that feeling of impending dread of the hard work and lifestyle changes that now have to be carried out whilst fear lurks in the background.
As Ray Williams of Psychology Today writes, ‘When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns.’ Aubrey Daniels, in his book Oops! 13 Management Practices That Waste Time and Money, argues that continually setting large goals is an ineffective practice as research shows that when individuals repeatedly fall short their performance declines. A report written by Adam Galinsky at the Harvard Business School argues that goal setting can focus too much attention on the wrong things and can lead people to participate in extreme behaviours to achieve their goals.
This leads us back to Paula Radcliffe. As she herself admits, she pushed the limits with her body and sometimes stepped that bit too far. Stress fractures. Bone grafts on 18 year-old injuries. Osteoarthritis. Hospitalizing stomach injuries. London. One-step too far?
Another problem with goal setting is that goals are hard to measure objectively. They come with a pass or fail connotation – ‘I either achieved it or I didn’t’. We never hear of athletes saying, ‘I was only two seconds off qualifying and so I achieved 96% of my goal’.
As a life and performance coach, I look for a focus not a goal. Identifying a focus requires recognizing the endeavours that you have naturally carried and that will only slightly implicate the self when they start to emerge. That is, one must find a focus that has sat inside you like a seed waiting to germinate. For example, I recently had a client who recognized their love of running but who wants to experience the art of trail running. This is their focus, their over-arching support. From this we set a series of targets that would provide a range of flexible and creative approaches that would lead to trail running experiences whilst cultivating their intrinsic motivation for the sport of running. We schemed events, training sessions, physical development objectives, lifestyle adjustments… all of which were planned but had no connotation of failure associated with them. My client experienced trail running at an elite level and didn’t have to live in fear of failure. It became a win-win situation.
If you have some goals already set and are working hard towards them, take a moment to step back and identify what is your overall focus. Why do you want to achieve this goal? What is it about this goal that makes you tingle? This will likely be your focus. For example, you may want to see what your body is capable of, feel fitter and more confident, or want to show your children the importance of physical activity. What you will find is that although your goal still holds relevance, it takes the stress of its accomplishment. It becomes a target in a bigger picture that has a greater meaning. Identifying your focus will foster greater intrinsic motivation that will assist you to become less reliant on extrinsic motivations to keep you on track and still running when you are ninety.
In summary, there are psychological implications of not achieving goals that can be more detrimental than not having goals at all. When Paula Radcliffe retired from racing the London Marathon, she admitted to crying more tears of pain than ever. The narrow emphasis and pass or fail outcomes make goals hard to measure objectively. Identifying the greater focus behind your goals will provide a supporting structure for your daily lifestyles and training that will help you to feel intrinsically motivated and positive about your running. Identifying your focus may not be easy and may require you to dig deep beneath your layers. Persist and it will be worth it.
My recent Irun article discussing the importance of recovery in training sparked remarkable interest amongst readers. I loved reading through all the feedback. One reader asked a very thought-provoking question: to what extent does the recovery process and necessity of rest change in an older runner? My correspondent was a remarkable 65-year-old athlete who recently ran the Boston marathon. Following the event, he pulled up stiff and sore, especially in his hamstring muscles. He explained that even with plenty of therapeutic treatment and stretching, it had still taken him ten weeks to recover. For me, his story raises two questions, does age alter the degree of damage that occurs to the body during intensive exercise and is the recovery rate significantly delayed?
The 2005 World Masters Games attracted over 21,000 competitors, highlighting the flourishing interest in maintaining a high level of physical performance throughout the lifespan (Fell & Williams, 2008). Bringing this closer to home, you only have to look around at a fun run to realize that most of the athletes participating are ‘older’. For this article, I will rely on the work of Pimentel et al. (2003) who suggests that ‘older’ refers to greater than 50-years-old, an age at which he noted rapid decline in physical athletic capacities.
Ageing is accompanied by significant declines in physical functioning capacity. Although regular exercise helps to protect against age-related illnesses, our older runners will notice a decrease in performance and, like my correspondent, often a delay in their recovery following higher intensity efforts. So, why does performance decrease with age and what causes the delay in recovery in older athletes?
Unfortunately a number of physical changes occur as we age that will affect our performance. These include (but are not limited to) changes to skeletal and heart muscle, and glycogen uptake and re-synthesis (Du et al. 2005).
Skeletal muscle is the muscle that generates movement and power as we run and an older runner will undergo greater exercise induced skeletal muscle damage. With advancing age, the muscle’s ability to repair and adapt is diminished. This could be caused by a decrease in muscle capillarization and mitochondrial activity (the power generators in the muscle) (Du et al. 2005); Fell & Williams, 2008). However, the good news is that training in older age can impart a protective effect on skeletal muscle, thus delaying these effects.
This leads us to a discussion about running training in older athletes. The main purpose of training is to unbalance the homeostasis of an individual’s functional systems, and the natural consequence of this is some degree of fatigue (Fell & Williams 2008; Smith & Norris 2002). If the body is allowed to recover with effective rest and nutrition, this should lead to adaptations that will prepare the individual for future physical demands and preferably, increased performance. However, does this process of insult and enhancement differ with age?
Below is a diagram taken from a paper by Fell & Williams, 2008, who adapted the model from Smith & Norris, 2002. In the diagram they propose that following an equal training stimulus, older athletes will experience greater damage and fatigue which delays the recovery response. That is, an older runner is likely to feel more sore, more tired and take longer to recover.
(Fell & Williams, 2008)
Below is another diagram presented by Fell & Williams. Figure 2 proposes that if a younger athlete and a veteran athlete move through the exact same training cycle involving regular training stimulus’ followed by a period of recovery, the younger athlete will enhance their performance whilst the older athlete will begin to show a decrease in performance. As we discussed earlier, the veteran athlete requires a longer recovery period than the younger athlete, and this should be accounted for in the training program. Of concern is that continued training without adequate rest actually results in progressive overreaching.
Here I will refer to my dear old coach Max Cherry who passed away in 2008. Max always used to say that for every 10km we race, we must allow one week to recover. This meant that following a marathon, I would allow myself four weeks to return to full strength before I began hard training again. I was just 20-years-old at the time. This theory has never failed me and is thoroughly supported in the scientific literature (Smith & Norris 2002). If we take into account the two diagrams above, an older runner might be looking for at least five to six weeks gentle recovery before jumping back into a higher intensity program.
A discussion on recovery would not be complete without mentioning nutrition. The literature shows that older adults should consume adequate carbohydrates during endurance training (6-8g/kg/day) and may benefit from the provision of carbohydrate and protein in the early recovery phase following endurance exercise to maximize glycogen re-synthesis in the muscles. There is no suggestion in the literature that fluid intake needs to differ with increasing age (Tarnopolsky 2008).
This has been a long article that has raised many valid points for consideration when conceptualizing training programs for veteran runners. The most important concept that I have ascertained from my research is that runners greater than 50-years should allow for an increased quantity of recovery following high-intensity efforts due to the increased muscle damage. Nutrition should focus on protein to assist in the muscle repair process and carbohydrates to increase glycogen re-synthesis. Finally, if in doubt, err on the side of safety and have an extra rest or recovery day - any training that you are doing is imparting a protective effect on your muscle and heart, and warding off age-related problems.
Du, N, Bai, S, Oguri, K, Kato, Y, Matsumoto, I, Kawase, H & Matsuoka, T 2005, 'Heart rate recovery after exercise and neural regulation of heart rate variability in 30-40 year old female marathon runners', Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, vol. 4, pp. 9-17.
Fell, J & Williams, AD 2008, 'The effect of aging on skeletal muscle recovery from exercise: possible implications for the aging athlete', Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, vol. 16, no. 1, pp. 97-115.
Pimentel, AE, Gentile, CL, Tanaka, H, Seals, DR & Gates, PE 2003, 'Greater rate of decline in maximal aerobic capacity with age in endurance-trained than in sedentary men', Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 94, no. 6, pp. 2406-13.
Smith, D & Norris, S 2002, 'Training load and monitoring an athlete’s tolerance for endurance training', Enhancing recovery, preventing underperformance in athletes. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, pp. 81-101.
Tarnopolsky, MA 2008, 'Nutritional consideration in the aging athlete', Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, vol. 18, no. 6, p. 531.
These articles are a collection of my writing. If you have feedback or questions, would love to hear from you!
keep in touch!