Thursday, 29 October 2009

Racing on ice

Funny how three words and four syllables can have such different meanings.

While it may be entirely plausible that i'm taking my racing career to the South Pole Marathon and racing on ice (and snow) i'm not. The cold is no friend of mine though good winter clothing makes training in sub zero conditions tolerable. And now I think of it the Yak Trax are a great running shoe version of car tyre snow chains which I tried out last winter in Pontresina. I was amazed just how much grip I was able to get on the cross country ski routes.

Even less plausible, at least until Andre Agassi's recent confession, would have been an evolution of the beer mile into the crystal meth mile - racing on ice. Running a lap of the track in Paris at the CRIC student relays after a few cold ones was difficult enough, I can't imagine trying to run eyeballs out after anything stronger than Kronenbourg !

So that leaves my racing plans on hold starting with the World Trophy 50k on Saturday. Its deeply frustrating not to be able to race have done a good build and being in excellent shape. The reason ? Well as many of you know since 2004 I have run with a pace-maker as a result of an irregular heart rythmn. And that rythmn has been giving me some trouble again so discretion has been the better part of valour and I need to get it fixed again.

Hopefully back racing again soon and able to focus on the 2010 Virgin London Marathon.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

World Half Seminar Part 4 - Conditioning and Peaking

So for the final part of my write up from last friday's endurance seminar and some thoughts from the panel on conditioning and then peaking for races.

George Gandy was one of the pioneers of strength work for middle distance runners. His Lougborough circuits in the 1970s were legendary and Seb Coe gives much credit to George for the impact of his strength programme on his performances. Interestingly George said that Seb did the strength programme until the end of the 1981 season and then basically stopped, and never ran faster over 800m again !

One of the key exercises for George's athletes is the full squat and the goal is to build up to 2 sets of 6 reps with 1.5 times body weight. He used to have the women working with less weight and is now convinced that they could handle the same as the men. And concerns about them looking like east european discus throwers could be banished - slim middle distances runners stayed slim middle distance runners !

Albertos athletes spend 90 minutes a day on supplementary exercises to build core strength and other capabilities. He also talked about passive stretching vs dynamic exercises. During his running career Alberto spent quite a lot of time stretching and still when it came to running fast he had a terrible style and looked incredibly tight. He referenced the dynamic exercises that east africans do and Wilson also talked about these and how they help make the body move effortlessly at speed.

When I asked Richard Nerurkar the next day what he would have done differently when making the transition from 10 to the marathon he said spending more time on conditioning so that he could better handle the stress of the extra marathon training was probably all he would change. You can't get away from a strong platform if you are going to run a lot. George used the analogy of putting a Formula 1 Car engine into a Formula 2 Car - the extra power would cause it to fall apart because the gearbox, suspension etc couldn't handle the power.

When it came to being in top shape when it matters the panel had plenty of thoughts. Wilson Kipketer said that to get the best from yourself you need to focus on the main goal race for the season. He said that you need to know at the start of the year what this target is and prepare for it. (It sounds so simple and obvious and yet for many people the main goal gets lost amongst all the other races). Performances in the other races were not so important and you need to arrive at the start of the last 4 weeks in good shape. Then it is just a question of sharpening up and resting so that you are fresh for the big race.

In the first part I wrote about how George Gandy likes to see progress every week and reckons you are never more than 6 weeks from a PB. He told us about how Lisa Dobriskey, 10 days before a major championship (I don't remember whether it was Melbourne or Beijing) ran a 1500m race in a pretty mediocre time. And for a while he was debating whether to give her some more hard workouts or just rest up. They went for the 2nd option and a week later when Lisa was running the race that really mattered whe was able to perform.

I asked Alberto about the workouts Kara Goucher had been doing in the last 2 weeks before the Berlin World Champs marathon (I had watched a few of them in St Moritz and they seemed pretty fast to me). Alberto commented that the most important thing was how hard they felt, the effort needed to be controlled and as the athlete was backing off she could run fast with less stress than when in hard training (and of course his other data about the use of altitude tents explained why 6000ft probably isn't so tough for Goucher).

There was also a good question about the improvement in Galen Rupp's finishing speed (not technically a peaking question I know but closely connected to racing). Alberto had watched Lagat running and realised that he was so efficient at speed that 5000m race pace for him was easy.

So he took this idea and applied it to Rupp. The goal was to be able to run 9x300m in 39secs before races. As part of preparation for this he had Galen doing the 30/40 workout where he runs 200m in 30secs then cruises the next 200m in 40secs. And they also spent some time racing 800m and 1500m this year. He felt that paying this attention to speed had helped Galen improve his ability to close races (and of course the endurance that came from lots of miles at a good pace provided the foundation so that he could be in position to use his new found speed).

A couple of other perspectives on peaking were provided the following day by Charlie Spedding and Richard Nerurkar, England's two fastest marathoners. And they had quite different approaches to the final 2 weeks. Richard was happy to run a fairly hard workout 10 days before the marathon. In his case 5x2km at marathon pace with a steady km to recover. Charlie on the other hand felt the need to keep in touch with his speed and would run something like 5x400m in about 62secs with a few days to go. One of the things that seemed to make a big difference to Charlie was the realisation that he took a long time to rebuild his speed and lactate tolerance and that by keeping that faster work going all year he was able to have a better control over his peak.

Liz McColgan talked about race tactics and how improtant it was to understand your strengths and race to them rather than just sitting and waiting for a sprint finish like so many athletes seem to do. (Two of my hazy memories of Liz are of her being outkicked by Bondarenko at the end of the Seoul 10k and then crushing the field 3 years later in Tokyo with a relentless display of front running - definitely her strength !).

Alberto talked candidly about how he had overtrained during his career, in particular when trying to get himself into top shape for the marathon and a theme from most of the speakers was the importance of being rested for the major competition of the season and the need for athlete and coach to trust in the work that they had done. At that stage it was definitely a question of less is more.

Monday, 12 October 2009

World Half Seminar Part 3 - Altitude

Part 3 of my write up from the weekend covers Altitude Training. I've stitched together materials from several parts of the evening and felt that it was worth doing this to present a coherent picture of what the panel thought about the use of altitude.

Ian Stewart mentioned at the start that he believed altitude was a critical ingredient in endurance success and to that end would be setting up altitude camps in east africa and europe for attendance by british athletes (it would be great to get some more detail on this so if from someone at UKA is reading feel free to add more ...).

Ian's belief was in part based on his personal experience. He trained at St moritz duing the 1970's and told the audience about the pre-Munich camp when he was training with Brendan Foster and Ron Hill. Ron had a bad time in Munich and in part this was blamed on altitude by the press and Ron himself. Ian was clear that Ron was running badly when he got to altitude and continued running badly at sea level. The point being that altitude is no magic bullet to get out of shape athletes fit.

Alberto agreed with this and went further saying that you needed to be in very good shape before going to altitude to get the most out of it. He talked about the effect that altitude has on the body and focused on two main changes that impact running performance. The first was the increase in red blood cells (presumabley size as well as quantity) and also the improvement in lactate buffering capability.

Then it started to get interesting. Prompted to comment by 'MC' Geoff Wightman whether there was any truth about Alberto training himself wearing a facemask and respirator device to reduce the flow of oxygen to his lungs he revealed that indeed he had. And that it didnt work though at the time he didn't understand why. (This was one of several examples Alberto gave where his experience as an athlete has led him to do something quite different as a coach). The bottom line was that it takes the body about 90 minutes to start responding to hypoxia by producing extra EPO from the kidneys. So the length of time he wearing the mask for wasn't long enough to produce a response - but was long enough to tire him out.

So what was the best altitude for training ? Again Salazar dominated the conversation hear with a point of view (probably backed up by a load of research from Nike at a guess) that you need to be at 7000feet to get the benefit of increased blood volume and red cell count while lower levels were sufficient to get some of the lactate buffering benefits. And it was living at altitude more than training there that brings the benefit. Pushed for an ideal scenario alberto would live at 7000-8000 feet and train at 4000ft. His group were able to do something similar to this in Utah where they stayed high then came down to Salt Lake City to train.

I asked him about racing after coming down from altitude because I had observed Kara Goucher leave St Moritz 4 days before the Worlds which confused the hell out of me. His response surprised me to say the least. she continued to use an altitude tent until 48 hours before the race ! And Dathan would be doing the same in Birmingham before the World Half (clearly it worked). That left me curious as to whether they were using an altitude tent even in St Moritz to sleep higher than they were training at (6000ft). My guess is that they were.

So does altitude work for everyone ? Certainly not for Liz McColgan. While Liz was able to train OK at altitude she said that she had real trouble racing afterwards and couldn't seem to find any form. She hit on an alternative, hot weather. And she meant hot. Florida was a favourite destination for her and she found that training in hot, humid conditions provided a similar boost. Glenn Latimer chipped in by recalling how a supposedly washed up
Steve Jones spent the summer of '88 training in a hot and steamy Illinois before going on to win the New York Marathon that autumn in 2:08.20. The consensus seemed to be that altitude works for the vast majority and you need to be in good shape already to get the most out of it.

When it comes to measuring the effects of altitude Salazar was pretty blunt. Measuring Haematocrit and Heamoglobin are really just measures of hydration and therefore useless for measuring whether you actually got more red cells (Note: both measures are a ratio of solid matter to the liquid part of the blood so clearly any increase/decrease in plasma volume will have an impact on the ratio). He meaures the total red cell mass though didnt explain how or how frequently.

The altitude discussion wrapped up with George Gandy explaining how after a spell of training in Boulder, Colorado Jon Brown struggled to adjust to sea level race pace and had a disappointing London Marathon. And then he promptly turned to Alberto to ask if he had any insights into what might have gone wrong ! Top coach, always wanting to learn more. And the willingness to share experiences and lessons learned was a feature of the whole evening - and a stark contrast to what I often see with UK coaches trying to protect their precious knowledge from each other.

The topic of altitude came up again on saturday at the England Athletics seminar on 'Tranistion from 10k to Marathon' which was the warm up act for the launch of the National Coach Development Programme (all event groups). Both Charlie Spedding and Richard Nerurkar trained in Kenya and America during their careers and felt that altitude was a key part of an endurance runners development though Charlie's advisor, Lindsay Dunn, had a different take on how to use altitude focusing on faster pace training with plenty of recovery rather as opposed to the bigger volume blocks that many athletes go for.

Part 1 - Reviving distance running
Part 2 - Progression

Endurance Seminar - Part 2 Progression

Its been great to see just how many people have been reading the first installment. It makes it worth the time and effort when that happens. And if there is anything I missed then please leave an update in the comments area.

So on to part 2 and progression.

This discussion came off the back of the first part when most of the panel were talking about developing a big aerobic base off the back of plenty of miles and targetted faster running. And how the culture of the 1990s had got us away from building this big base in search of quick fixes.

Alberto talked quite a lot about Galen Rupp's progression during the 7 years or so that they have worked together. Most of us know that Rupp has now run a mid 27min 10k and took the NCAAs by storm this year in last year of college eligibility. According to Alberto this year he will have been running 95 miles a week (what we didnt find out was if this was his 52 week average or what sort of variation there was from week to week - and more on Rupps workouts later). What he did say was that he has been increasing his volume by 5 miles a week or so over a number of years and clearly as a guy in his early twenties there are many more years of increase to come. Kara Goucher was a similar picture with a progression year on year as she built her aerobic fitness.

And interestingly Dathan Ritzenhein was the opposite ! So Alberto pointed out that as a marathoner Dathan had been up at around 120mpw in recent years under Brad Hudson's training but this season he backed down to more like 100 and focused on doing more faster running with an eye on the track again. The results are there for everyone to see with his sub13 5000m in Zurich backed up with a fantastic bronze at the World Half this weekend. And just in case the 'low mileage' guys started to get too excited Alberto pointed out that when Dathan goes back to the marathon then they will build up his volume again.

Editor's note - the athletes Salazar is now talking about are the second wave of athletes in the Oregon Project - more talented and with a bigger background than his 13.30 brigade of a decade ago. Clearly have the right raw materials help !

So back to progression and an interesting view from Liz McColgan - indeed one of the few areas that the panellists disagreed on. Liz reckons we should be identifying at a much younger age where an athletes strengths are and therefore their likely best event. The british mindset is to start with the shortest track race and keep moving up throughout our careers until eventually we get to the marathon. Of course Liz did race a pretty handy 1500m in her day but she was a 10,000m Championship runner as early as 1988. Ian Stewart shared that he was always a 5000m runner, as a junior and senior. That was where his talent lay and he stuck to it. (The day after I asked Richard Nerurkar about when he knew he was a marathon runner. He made his marathon debut in 1993 and age 29 but revealed that during 1988/89 he had been training in Boston with Pete Pfitzinger and other marathoners and had handled the long runs very well and knew even then where his future lay. Of course he stuck with the 10,000m for a few years to take 5th in Tokyo '91 and then run the final in Barcelona '92. He is also one of those athletes like Dathan who ran faster over the 10k after moving up to the marathon but thats a topic for another day).

Alberto took a differing opinion. His approach is very much to maximise his athletes potential at shorter distances before moving them up (as their aerobic base develops) as he explained through his examples of Rupp, Ritzenhein and Kara Goucher. I suspect there was some nuance lost in the big panel discussion and if you actually dug deeper both sides of the argument probably had the end goal event in mind and just a slightly different approach to getting there.

So for a completely different take on progression we had George Gandy. Talking about Lisa Dobriskey's ability to pull championship medals out of a compromised season (she won Commenwealth Gold and World silver in injury affected years) George talked about how he looks for progression every week in training. Not year to year, mesocycle to mesocycle but week to week. This certainly caused a few furrowed brows from the other panellists and as he explained because Lisa was used to that sort of progression they could handle a 6 week block knowing just how far they could her fitness. In fact he said that you are only 6 weeks from a PB, a comment met with a few sagely nods from Salazar. (What he didn't say is 'if you are in very good aerobic shape already' - which has to be implied from the earlier discussion on volume. Lisa had mentioned that during the winter she is running about 70 miles a week and has built up to this over a number of years - so clearly her aerobic base is pretty good now).

There was some interesting detail behind this - and George is good at detail :-) He explained how athletes often progress very quickly in the first couple of months after their end of season break (i'm sure many of us have been there - i was on fire from dec 98 to feb 99 without really doing a lot other than having recovered from the previous season). So one of the things he does is look to hold people back in that period by adding more miles, more reps or less recovery. Basically by keeping them tired during the winter he can control the evidence of the progression so that when he starts to reduce the load as the competition season approaches then continues to be a visible improvement. He used the metaphor of running with a sack on your backand adding or removing weight from it to control the speed.

George also talked briefly about how after 10 weeks or so with a particular stimulus performance can start to plateau and how that is a sign for him to change the direction of the training in some way. And if you are in to seriously long term evolution of training ideas based on evidence then his recollections of the Loughborough circuit sessions were fascinating if a bit long winded. The abridged version is 'from 13 stations in the 1970s when Coe was there the programme has evolved to 16 stations today - and he is less convinced of the need for conventional sit ups...'

The final word goes to Salazar who said that endurance performance is a 'culmination of years' of training.

Part 1 - Reviving distance running
Part 3 - Altitude
Part 4 - Peaking and the other bits and pieces

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Notes from Endurance Seminar at the World Half

I've got a ton of notes from the various seminars and presentations this weekend around the World Half Marathon in Birmingham. Over the next few days I will try and write up as much as I can.

The expert panel on Friday night comprised (left to right in photo) Wilson Kipketer (800m World Record holder), Alberto Salazar (Head Coach of the Oregon Project, 3x NY Marathon winner), George Gandy (Head Coach at Lougborough University), Lisa Dobriskey (World Silver 1500m) and on the other side of the room out of camera shot were Liz McColgan (1991 World 10,000m Champion), Glenn Latimer and Ian Stewart (now Head of Endurance at UK Athletics). Its fair to say that most of the time was spent with the folks in camera shot ...

The first big topic was about how to revive distance running in the UK (and Europe) so Alberto gave us some insights into the American experience. After the high point of the 1980s in the US standards dropped alarmingly in the 1990s. One of the measures he used was the number of high School runners clocking sub 9minutes for 2 Miles. For many years there would typically be 30 or so but by the low point it was down to just a handful each season. And given that producing successful endurance athletes is a numbers game then having a small pool of talent coming into the college system was going to have an impact further up the pyramid. This was a theme that both George and Wilson agreed with. You had to have a large number of young athletes coming through to give you a chance to produce the Dathan Rizenheins and Galen Rupps. Encouragingly the number of sub 9s is now back to close to an all time high - although we didn't get to hear what had made running sexy again for amercian school kids.

The Oregon Project was kicked off a decade ago as one initiative to try and revive fortunes. Alberto's first experience at raising standards turned out to be a chastening one. His plan was take a bunch of mid-13 minute 5k runners, speed them up a bit and then move them up to the marathon. By recruiting guys who had competed well and had good track speed he reckoned his chances of success were high. As it turned out he only managed to get one guy into the 2.10-2.11 range and the insights were revealing. Alberto's assumptions were based on the fact that during the 1980s he trained with a bunch of guys in Boston at the GBTC who were running sub 2.09-2.12 marathons with far less speed than the guys he was planning on moving up in Oregon. Where the plan fell apart was that the 2000's generation had been running far less volume than their eighties counterparts and while this wasn't a problem at 5k when they moved up it caught them out big time. When pushed for some numbers he reckoned that the GBTC guys were probably doing 120mpw + while the Oregon guys came from a background of 90mpw plus or minus. Thats a big difference over several years training and the cumulative effect on aerobic development is huge.

He developed this idea further with a story about how kenyan kids at age 18 have 15,000 more miles in the bank than the average american high school athlete. While the numbers mights have been rough and ready the point certainly hit home. We need to run more and sooner. And expect that our athletes will peak at a later age than their east african counterparts because they will be behind in their development.

George had an interesting take on why athletes weren't running enough. Back in the 1970s and 80s there were fewer major international events. So although athletes raced a lot in low key events they really only had to peak once a year so spent the whole winter and spring just running and racing tired. These days you have the Euro Cross, Indoors, World Cross and then a summer track season where you need to make some money and try and perform in a major championship against fierce competition. So athletes are spending a lot more time preparing for races instead of just getting aerobically fit. This is a reality of a fully professional sport which we don't seem to have come to terms with.

So some big lessons for Alberto from that first experience which could be summarised as: if we have fewer runners available we need to train them smarter (and the Oregon/Nike version of that will be developed in a subsequent post); identify the talent at a younger age and start to build its aerobic capacity with progressive volume (more on this later as well with some examples).

The other panellists were in agreement on one big theme which was the need to train in groups. Lisa talked about doing some of her runs with up to 60 athletes at Loughborough under George's guidance and how that helped her to improve. Ian Stewart revealed that UK Athletics was setting up two altitude bases, one in Font Romeu and one in Kenya as well as using Loughborough as the permanent centre for endurance in the UK. A change from the previous regime was that he was keen to encourage non-funded athletes to also use these venues to start to re-create the large group concept of yesteryear.

And its not just the US and UK thinking along these lines. Outside the conference I bumped into Michel Boeting who used to work with Jos Hermans at Global Sports Communications and gave me my marathon debut opportunity in Amsterdam in 2003. One of Michel's recent projects has been to set up a privately organised group in the Netherlands with Dutch and a few Belgian runners. At present they have about 30 athletes including the likes of Michel Butters and results seem to be picking up already though funding is still proving hard work - this seems to be a difference between Europe and the more entrepreneurially minded US where a number of groups have sprung up outside 'the system'.

In the next few days look out for: Managing the volume progression, Altitude and Marathon Preparation.

Part 2 - Progression here

Friday, 9 October 2009

Al Sal et al at pre-World Half endurance conference

This evening should be fun. UK Athletics have put together a star studded line up for an evening coaching conference before this weekend's World Half Marathon in Birmingham. With Lisa Dobriskey and her coach George Gandy, Liz McColgan and most intriguingly Alberto Salazar there should be something for everyone.

Earlier in the summer when I was training in St Moritz I got to see quite a bit of Kara Goucher's final preparation for Berlin and then after watch Ritz recovering from his 10k and sharpen up for that historic 5000m at Weltklasse. Some of what I saw made me really curious, especially Kara's timing of descent from altitude and the intensity/duration of her last few workouts. So perhaps some insights.

And then tomorrow morning there is a marathon seminar with LA Olympic Bronze medallist Charlie Spedding, his advisor Lindsay Dunn and World Cup Marathon winner Richard Nerurkar.

Watch this space next week for some insights ...

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Record Breaking day at the Burnham Half Marathon

Another week, another half, another course record. This time at Burnham on Sea in Somerset (photo left by Keith Gough).

I have a love hate relationship with this place. As a kid we used to run lots of cross country here and the course was close to the sea. And this meant that it had a tendency to flood and when you a are a short, skinny, 12 year old running through shin deep icy cold water with a freezing wind coming in off the sea is not a lot of fun. And I had some great races on that course when it wasn't flooded.

Anyway 25 years later and Burnham is still flat and a little bit closer to the sea thanks to erosion and global warming. Just under 300 runners turned up and after a steady start and a 5.30 opening mile I soon found myself out in front and able to run as I liked which today meant rolling of a series off miles in about 5.18 which is a nice marathon tempo for me at the moment. At the 11 mile marker it was time to put my foot down and the final 2.1 miles to finish was covered in just over 10mins 20seconds so I was certainly moving a bit quicker at the end and I reckon that last full mile was about 4.50.

Behind me were a string of PB's as women's winner Ami Yetton ran 82 mins and Andrew Orr, preparing for the Florence Marathon knocked several minutes off his best. Indeed all through the field PBs were being set on what is a very flat course (unless the wind blows) and without a dount one of the fastest in the West.

All in all a good hard workout with 4 weeks to go until the World Trophy 50km in Gibraltar and things are looking good knowing that I have a turn of speed available in the closing miles.

1. Adrian Marriott (Wells) 68:57 (record)
2. Jon James (Wells, M40) 73:27
3. Andrew Orr (Serpentinie RC) 73:38


1. Ami Yetton (Ply H) 82:20

Full Results

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Burnham On Sea dot com
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