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Training & advice

Run by feel

How do you monitor your training? Perhaps you log the miles and count your mileage at the end of each week or maybe you record the hours and minutes that you ran. Perhaps you use a heart rate monitor to help you to hit the right intensity for each run or a GPS system that can give you all of this information and more. Or maybe you don't bother with a stop watch, heart rate monitor or GPS and just run by feel. I recently read Matt Fitzgerald's book: RUN - the mind-body method of running by feel, some thought provoking stuff that gives many good reasons to ditch the gizmos and gadgets and listen to our bodies!

Reading a book for me is normally about relaxing late in the evening, or killing some time on a train journey and being entertained by the story or descriptive writing. From the start of my engagement with RUN (as early as the preface) I was reaching for a pencil to highlight phrases, paragraphs and, sometimes, whole pages because I was thinking "Yes! That's so true!" or " Wow! That's just what so-and-so said!" and occasionally "Hang on, that's not the way I see it..."  For this book review I have listed and discussed the topics that I highlighted on my copy. The italic copy is text lifted from "Run". I have commented on why it stood out to me either by ringing a bell or by bringing up questions in my head. It could be that I haven't understood it completely and that I need further explanation.

The importance of enjoyment and intuition

Practice is always two steps ahead of theory in running. Science never reveals the best way to train. The best runners do. Science is valuable because it helps us understand why the best practices are so effective, which in turn helps us to emulate these practices more successfully than we might if we did so blindly. If not for my understanding of the new science of the running brain, I don't know if I ever would have realised what was really most worth emulating in practices of the best runners: not their workouts but rather their remarkable capacity to run by feel.

 Whilst talking to invited athletes on the eve of the Admiral Swansea Bay 10K this year, former World and current UK marathon record holder, Steve Jones put it to the group that the fall in standards in the UK could be the result of a change in the approach to coaching. "We had great coaches who we trusted. They were down-to-earth grass-roots club coaches. They were runners' coaches and coaching coaches. Now we have a generation of theorists all going in different directions."

Fitzgerald also uses Jones as an example when he says listening to his body instead of doing what other elite runners of his era did led Steve Jones to run much less and much faster in training than was normal and also let the Welshman to run a 2:07:13 marathon in 1985. Now an elite coach based in Boulder, Colorado, Jones shows his athletes how to trust their guts and hearts in their training, saying he would rather inspire them than know what the hell he is doing.

Members of the Nike Oregon Project, including Galen Rupp and Amy Yoder-Begley, have discarded the practice of following training plans and instead, under the guidance of their coach, Alberto Salazar, they decide on the format of each run only hours before doing it. Over the last few years, I have studied the run-by-feel methods of the world's best runners through the prism of the new brain-centred model of exercise performance and applied them in my own running. Following the examples of Salazar's runners, and mindful research suggesting that intuitive decisions are often better than deliberative ones, I abandoned the use of scripted training plans and began winging it. Then following the example of Haile Gebrselassie, and aware of studies showing that exercise is more effective when it is more fun, I began to rely on enjoyment as much as objective performance data in steering the course of my training.

Victoria Wilkinson, is one of Great Britain's best mountain runners. She  has competed for GB at six different disciplines (mountain running, road running, cross country, mountain biking, road biking and cyclo-cross). She lives and trains in one of the most picturesque parts of the country and  loves nothing more than getting out for a long fartlek session on the fells. She recently told me her philosophy, "In order to succeed you have to enjoy what you do. I find joy in the environment where I run."

Prepare to suffer!

Athletes' tolerance for suffering is trainable. Thus, increasing our tolerance for suffering should be the primary objective in pursuit of better performance through training, not a secondary consideration as it is for many runners....exposing yourself to intense suffering - in a controlled and sensible way, of course - will increase the amount of suffering you can tolerate in races and thereby increase your sustainable speed.

Kate Goodhead is another leading GB mountain runner. So far, one of her best races was the European Championships in 2009. I interviewed her after the race and she told me how important mental preparation was to her, "Athletes need to be well conditioned mentally for mountain running. I have been conditioning myself as much as possible to withstand pain and even the day before the race I won't make myself too comfortable. I had an ice bath this morning, had an afternoon nap on the balcony outside, surrounded by the mountains rather than a bed, and I'm pleased to have had time for a swim before the end of the day. I have done the mental preparation. I have made myself do things that I haven't wanted to do like swimming in an outdoor pool for longer than I wanted to, until I have been freezing; like cycling from A to B, when I have wanted to take the car; by running before breakfast, when I don't need to. I make things tough. I rate pain on a scale of 1 - 10. Today when I rated the pain I knew that I have felt worse. Pain is closely related to fear. I haven't been afraid for a long time and I felt particularly reckless today. My hair was long two months ago but I asked my hairdresser to cut and shave it like this. This is my warrior style. She did it for free because she thinks I'm mad but since I have started doing these things I feel that I am connecting with myself and I have been running better."

Build momentum in training

Momentum in sports is psychological momentum ...In running, momentum occurs primarily in training and takes the form of a period of improving fitness...Even the most confident athletes know that they do not have complete control over their situation and are aware that success depends on the situation shaping itself to their benefit. This is why so many athletes are superstitious. Silly rituals like wearing lucky socks are ways in which athletes try to control the uncontrollable - that is, to keep momentum going...As primitive as superstitious rituals may be, they reflect an understanding that familiarity is a key aspect of the situational comfort that sustains psychological momentum. You wear your lucky socks over and over because they are familiar.

Many athletes, may not realise they have pre performance routines that help psychological preparation but everyone else around them will be able to see that they do stick to a set format. Last year I asked Mike East, who finished 6th in the 1500m at the Athens Olympics about how he prepared for competition. He said that he had no set routines but then went onto describe that on race day he wouldn't shower until he was ready to leave for the race. He would then put on race kit and make sure he had packed specific foods and drinks in his kit bag. He would eat sandwiches of brown bread, no butter, tuna and boiled egg whites to finish 2 hours before, drink electrolytes (6%) to finish 1 hour before and water up to the start of the race. He would have a Rego protein drink, Go Bar and drink with 8% electrolytes for immediately after the race. Music was essential and he would be thrown if he didn't have it. Over time he made selected play-lists, which comprised of around 15 tracks that he could guarantee he would listen to. If he had too many tracks to choose from he would find himself forwarding some of them and then lose focus. I would say that is pretty routine - like!

Physiology V Performance

[There is a] bias among triathletes, cyclists, and runners - caused mainly by the popularisation of heart rate monitors - to view their training in terms of physiology instead of performance. I believe this bias reduces the effectiveness of many athletes' training by discouraging them from pushing themselves as they would push if they kept their focus on performance. When your main concern in workouts is to stay within a target heart rate zone, you place a somewhat artificial ceiling on your performance. But when you focus instead on performance variables such as speed, distance and power output, you naturally push to beat the standards set in previous workouts - that is you work harder, and as a result you get a bigger fitness stimulus from the session.

I'm not a big advocate of heart rate monitors myself but I question whether it reduces the effectiveness of the training because, as fitness increases surely the runner's pace will be higher at any given heart rate?

Natural running pace and preferred intensity in other forms of exercise are not totally determined by physiology but are instead selected by feel. And where does feeling happen? In the so happens that natural running pace corresponds closely to the running intensity associated with maximal rate of fat burning, making this pace ideal for longer runs designed to increase fat - burning capacity and raw endurance.

(This made me wonder why it is that my natural running pace is noticably slower than another runner who races at the same pace as me. I have found it hard to run with someone who I can match in a race).  So your natural pace does have a place in your training. However, natural pace becomes a limiting comfort zone for many runners. Specifically, as a consequence of focusing too much on numbers and not enough on how their bodies feel, competitive runners often refuse to run any slower than their accustomed pace, even on days when they feel flat and their planned run is not supposed to be challenging.

 One of the athletes that I am currently coaching has a relatively fast natural pace and she doesn't back off on those bad days. This has resulted on more than one occasion in her actually coming to a halt and walking. She may need to tune in more to run by feel!

Technique, skill and style

 Excuse the massive copy here but I love this section!

In the same way that a great song, novel, or film can resonate with the masses, I believe that everyone can recognise a beautiful stride. Suppose you are watching a couple of dozen runners of widely ranging ability levels running individually at a fixed, moderate pace for 20 seconds. If you were then asked to rate the stride of each for pure aesthetics, your scoring would probably correspond closely to the results of a performance test, such as a 5,000m trial, of the same runners. In other words, the runner with the most beautiful stride would also be the fastest, and so on down the line. In 2010 Lucas Verzbicas became the first sophomore [year 11] to win the Foot Locker high school boys cross-country championship in the event's 31 year history. This young man, who had already set a national high school  record for 5,000m indoors (14:18:22) as a freshman [year 10], not only won the race, but also utterly destroyed the other 39 boys in the race, all older than he was. Verzbicas stood out in another way, though. His stride was beautiful - noticeably lovelier than those of the slower kids. My astounded media friends and I were all struck by it. And Verzbicas himself was not unaware of it. "That is what people always notice and acknowlege about me is my stride," Verzbics  told me after the race, answering my compliment in the aw-shucks manner of a Midwestern prom queen praised for her beauty, albeit with a slight Lithuanian accent (his family immigrated to the United States when he was 8)...While it may be neat to have your VO2 max measured in a laboratory and to learn that number, there is absolutely nothing useful you can do with this knowledge. The whole VO2 max concept has done nothing but overcomplicate the pursuit of better running performance. Looking beyond the running stride at VO2 max for the sake of running better is like looking beyond the cookie at its sugar content for the sake of finding out how it tastes....what happens so often in science is that scientists over estimate the importance of what they can measure and underestimate the importance of what they cannot measure. When exercise scientists developed the ability to measure oxygen consumption, they soon came to believe that oxygen consumption was everything to exercise performance. Even though it may be obvious that the stride action is no small piece of the running performance puzzle, scientists have had difficulty quantifying it's characteristics, and so the stride has been marginalized as an object of study and wrongly considered a peripheral factor in running performance.

Before the European Championships this year I spoke to Christian Malcolm, who went onto win silver at the Europeans and also at the Commonwealth Games in the 200m. He has had a long and successful career and, like Verzbics, is often complimented on his beautiful running style. In his younger days he was coached by Jock Anderson, whose main concern was that Malcolm ran his sessions with great technique. Achieving target times was secondary to this. He stressed quality over quantity. "Jock taught me lots of drills that emphasised efficient running. You need to be tall, you need a good high knee lift, you need to be efficient off the ground. Those were the things I would do day in, day out. Jock would rather give me less volume and have me running efficiently because you do get tired, you do get fatigued and it's important that your technique doesn't falter. Some people get to a certain point in the race and find they're not going anywhere. It's not because they haven't trained hard, it's because technically they're not efficient enough to get through that part. Other people would sometimes comment that I didn't do a lot of 300s or 400s in training and say that I should be doing more strength work and get stronger but I was the one that could do an indoor and an outdoor season and double up in nearly every race - do the 200 and the 100 and also the relay at the end of a meeting. I could go from January to September like that year after year without getting injured and that was because my technique was efficient. It wasn't because my aerobic fitness was better than anyone else or that I was stronger in the gym than anyone else but the fact that technically I was efficient and good. Athletes need to work on technique from the beginning, whenever they come into athletics. It's never too early or too late to start it. Too many athletes chase target times in training just because it's written on a piece of paper or in a plan. If an athlete is tired after a day at work or not having recovered from a race at the weekend the session needs to be altered. Jock would rather I did a few efforts well rather than hitting times but with poor technique. If you haven't got good technique it catches up with you. You may get away with it for 3, 4, 5 or maybe 6 years but later on when you've been doing it for 10 or 12 years running off balance for so many years will start to catch up with you."

Although Fitzgerald recognises that great running style is important he believes it is best developed by practising natural running rather than by a structured method.

The teaching of running technique has become popular lately. ...This belief that there is a single right way to run represents quite a departure from the old- school view of running technique from previous decades, which held that good running technique was essentially something that a runner was either born with or not, and that the only way to improve running technique was to simply run and let the process happen naturally....In fact, to my knowledge no study has ever demonstrated an improvement in running economy or performance resulting from technique training. Consciously meddling with your stride may indeed make it less efficient instead of more efficient. Research has shown that there is less activity in the brains of skilled performers of all manner of coordinated movements when performing those movements than in the brains of the unskilled. The more you think about something while you do it, the less efficiently you do it.

The four stages of learning supports this with the notion that to learn skill we go through the process of:

  • Unconscious incompetence - we can't do it and we don't know how to do it
  • Conscious incompetence - we can't do it but we know what we want to do
  • Conscious competence - we can do it and we know what we are doing
  • Unconscious competence - we can do it and it has become automatic

So it may be that the more we think about something the less efficiently we do it for a while but by going through this process it could make us more skilled at the end of it than if we just left well alone.

In support of becoming efficient through natural running he talks about a study conducted by Stephen McGregor, an exercise physiologist at Eastern Michigan University:

John was the highest performer on the squad, despite having one of the lowest VO2 max measurements. How did he do it? He was one of the most economical at faster speeds. McGregor told me he wondered if John had not become extremely efficient as a consequence of forcing himself to keep up with more aerobically powerful runners in training and races. If so, this case is evidence that training in a group environment with some slightly faster runners may be an effective way to develop a more beautiful - I mean efficient - stride. The result may not be automatic, however. After testing John, McGregor became quite curious about him and asked his team's coach if he could account for the test results based on real-world experience in working with John as a runner. "He's not the most talented guy, but he can really suffer," said the coach. When he heard this remark, McGregor was reminded of the VO2 max testing he had done with the team members. In a VO2 max test, the subject runs on a treadmill at incrementally increasing speeds, each of which is sustained for one or two minutes, until he can go no faster, while breathing into a tube connected to a machine that calculates oxygen consumption. Most runners reach their highest level of oxygen consumption at their fastest running speed in the VO2 max test, but some are able to survive one or even two more belt speed increases after reaching VO2 max, and John was one of them. So perhaps training with naturally faster runners is a good way to develop a more economical stride - but only if such a runner is willing and able to suffer more than most other runners.

Fitzgerald hypothesises that the source fatigue and loss of form is a result of neuromuscular limitations rather than metabolic and talks about McGregor's plans for future research:

.....McGregor's idea is to track physiological and biomechanical changes (using accelerometers) in college runners over the course of four years - their entire collegiate running careers - and correlate these changes with changes in their competitive performances during that time. The objective will be to determine whether it is primarily physiology or biomechanics that accounts for the improvement of those runners who improve the most over four years...he says he does expect to discover that, at this level, improved performance is caused mainly by changes in the stride - that is by neuromuscular, not cardiovascular, adaptations to training.

He does point out that refining running style may be beneficial to elite runners:

Conscious stride manipulation might make more sense for elite runners than for the rest of us. Stride technique improvement methods are like nutritional supplements. A balanced, high-volume, progressive running programme is like food. Nutritional supplements are not intended to provide the foundation for optimal nourishment. Health is best supported when a person uses supplements minimally to augment a nutritious diet. Elite runners have a nearly perfect "diet" in the sense that their bodies are exceptionally well designed for efficient running and they already do what is known to improve running efficiency: hard, varied, high-volume running. So there is nothing left for these athletes to do with respect to enhancing the "beauty" of their running but to supplement their training with conscious stride fiddling.

Later in the book whilst discussing injuries Fitzgerald gives an example of using hills to develop strength:

James Carney struggled with injuries and performed poorly in the few races he was healthy enough to run....Hudson had Carney run steep hill sprints (we're talking 10 X 8 seconds at full speed) to develop overall leg strength and thereby reduce injury risk.

When I picture these hill sprints and the technique used to get up a steep gradient I see someone using the exact same technique that I would expect to see in high knee drills: knee up to hip height, dorsi flexed foot, driving and landing on the front half of the not only will this exercise have developed Carney's  strength but also his technique and perhaps this too helped prevent future injury.

But the rest of us have much more to gain from improving our "diet" by developing strength, mobility, and power to make our bodies structurally better to efficient running and by increasing the repetition, variation and exposure to fatigue in our training.

This made me wonder which comes first - the chicken or the egg? The technique or the physiological fitness? With good technique wouldn't it be easier to make progress physiologically? Wouldn't it keep injuries at bay and help us to develop great rhythm and so enjoy our running. If balance, coordination and posture are developed early could we have a better chance of achieving our targets and dreams?

Running shoes v barefoot

A hot topic at the moment. Fitzgerald joins the debate:

Running shoes are known to wreak havoc on running efficiency. A 2008 study by French researchers found that running shoes decreased running economy both by adding weight to the feet and by altering biomechanics in ways that reduced the ability of the legs to capture "free energy" from ground impact forces and reuse it to propel forward motion. On the biomechanical side, the core problem is that running shoes encourage runners to overstride, striking the ground heel first with the leg extended ahead of the body, instead of flat- footed with the foot underneath the hips. Overstriding exerts a strong braking effect - a pronounced heel strike even looks like pressing the brake of an automobile. No runner overstrides without shoes, because heel striking without the presence of cushioning in between the foot and the ground would be painful and injurious. Fully 80 percent of runners instantly become heel strikers when they put on a pair of shoes.

Clifton Bradeley (Human Performance Centre Sub 4) seems to disagree with this and says that good natural forefoot running is only suitable for a small percentage of runners, and for them has few injury risks for only a short window of time in their lives and that being a forefoot runner for many years can create problems.

For me, however, there is a good compromise: a flat foot plant underneath the centre of mass will prevent the braking effect caused by heel striking in front of the body and prevent the risk of injury from the overworked achilles tendon of the forefoot striker.

Preventing injury

The injury rate is much greater in running than it is in swimming and cycling. The difference between running and these other two endurance sports is impact. It is the high-impact nature of running that makes it so injurious. Thus any reasonable measure you can take to reduce impact forces without compromising the overall quality of your training will enable you to run more with fewer injuries...In one study [Irene] Davis attached accelerometers to the lower legs of 10 high-impact runners. These accelerometers measured impact forces and were attached to displays that allowed the runners to see visual representation of how much impact force they generated with each footstrike while running on the treadmill. Davis instructed the runners to try to cut their impact levels in half by feel - that is, by fiddling with the way they ran while watching the displays. Not only were all of the runners eventually able to do it, but a six-month follow-up revealed that the runners were able to make their new, lower-impact stride permanent. .Davis told me that there is a simple, do-it-yourself way to get the same result. Just listen to how much noise your foot impacts make when you run and consciously try to run more quietly. In fact, using visual and auditory biofeedback to make stride changes is a better way to improve your running form than trying to learn global techniques such as Chi Running, because the biofeedback method encourages you to modify your biomechanics more  unconsciously (you think about the feedback, not your body itself) and organically.

Tim Gallwey produced a series of best selling books, which set forth a new methodology for the development of personal and professional excellence in a variety of fields. The Inner Game encourages the coach to ask questions of the performer that focus the mind, not on the outcome of a task that he is having difficulty accomplishing because this will inevitably cause doubt and anxiety, but on the thing that will help to achieve the task. By focusing on the sound of the foot-fall rather than on the impact each step is having on the body the runner will achieve the outcome without stressing over technique.

I would recommend any coach or runner whose ultimate aim is to improve performance to read this book. It will challenge you to evaluate why you do what you do or use the methods you use and give you a deeper understanding of why some things work and others don't. The book is available from book shops or direct from, telephone 01455 611185              

Happy reading - I recommend having a highlighter at the ready!