Nuggets of running wisdom (part one)

Well, that came along quickly…it’s now just FIFTY days until the London Marathon 2019.

After getting fed up with relentless training from 2013 to 2017, I took a year off marathoning last year, and it has had the desired effect of making me return with a fresh focus and love for it.

But, determined not to fall into old bad habits, I have decided to become a ‘student of the sport’, learning from experts and putting a lot more thought into training rather than going hell for leather on every run, slowly sapping my reserves and enthusiasm in the process.

And with this more intelligent approach, I’m now covering more miles than ever before, but not letting it drain me of energy, increase my risk of serious injury (touch wood) or, crucially, affect my enjoyment of it all.

It was arrogant to think that with improving race times and a career in dietetics I didn’t need running (or nutrition) tips from anyone else. Now I realise that (as with my day job) the more I learn, the more there is to learn…and the more I want to learn.

Maybe this ultra-keen phase will pass, but I’m certainly enjoying geeking out and immersing myself in podcasts, books, blogs, the odd film, and of course, social media.

So, here I’ll be listing the top ten most valuable nuggets of wisdom that have helped change my approach to running, rekindle my love for it, and hopefully push me towards some PBs soon too…

…I’ve had to divide this into three posts, as I started writing more than intended (as ever). Parts 2 and 3, with nuggets 4-10 are to follow ASAP!

  1. Do not underestimate the value of a running club

I’d often met people, particularly at races, who said that I had to join a running club. My private thoughts on this had always always been that:

  • I prefer running solo
  • I push myself to the limit when I run on my own
  • I seem to be getting better without any help
  • So what would be the point in joining a running club?

Well, I thought I’d give it a try several months ago, and could instantly feel the benefit. I was immediately surrounded and pushed on by like-minded, positive people of a similar or better standard, pushing me to a new level of effort. On top of this, it’s already exposed me to a wealth of experience, expertise and new ideas. I’m lucky to have a brilliant club, the Heathside Harriers, on my doorstep, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.

You might feel that you’re not ‘into’ running or not fast enough to warrant belonging to a running club, but based on my limited experience at least, runners of all abilities are encouraged to take part as they wish. 

  1. Long runs are not meant to be run flat out

As I mentioned before, I used to run pretty much every training run at maximum effort. Whether running 5 miles to work or a 24 mile peak marathon build up run, this meant everything was within about 5-10 seconds / km of my target marathon pace (I always work in km for speed – blame strava for that). 

This approach seemed to have positive effects on my performance and I liked the feeling of constantly pushing myself. However, I was unwittingly putting my body at risk and the monotony started to get to me, especially during peak marathon training.

When given this year’s suggested marathon training plan by a coach at my club (see above), I was really surprised to see how much emphasis was put on variation in sessions, and also on the fact that the majority of long runs should be done at EASY pace.

This came as a shock to me, as I couldn’t really see the point in doing it this way if you were able to go faster. But, I did plenty of research and, as ever, was happy to see that I’d been wrong all along. Indeed, most evidence points to doing most of your endurance work at this ‘easy’ pace, which seems to be generally defined as up to ~1 min/mile slower than marathon goal pace (i.e. ~40 seconds /km).

It’s a case of putting your ego to one side, getting the fabled ‘time on your feet’, and thereby gently building stamina and an endurance base. This allows you to achieve physiological adaptation (e.g. increased capillarisation of slow twitch muscles) without unnecessarily stressing the body too much or risking injury.

Finally, and not to be underestimated, is the psychological component. These slow runs help you cope with the mental aspect of going long, while the reduced emphasis on speed can help you switch off, relax and just enjoy running. The speed work can come later or elsewhere in training.

  1. Stretching is often unnecessary (and potentially damaging)

Being completely honest, I never used to stretch much anyway, but I always felt like it was something I should be doing. Other runners all seemed to be doing it, and it’s a message that gets passed down as gospel, everywhere from PE classes in school  to chatting runners in the final seconds before the starting gun: stretch before running to avoid injury.

The accepted wisdom has changed though – away from stretching and more towards simple warming up of the muscles. Dynamic warm up activities in particular, which can incorporate exercises to wake up the whole body or focus just on those most useful for the task in hand, are now considered to be the best bet for avoiding injury and boosting performance.

Static (traditional) stretching, on the other hand, can overly increase flexibility in that muscle (i.e. beyond what is needed), causing injury and reducing the force that the muscle can produce, negatively impacting performance.

Obviously it feels great (in a sadistic way) to stretch out tight muscles, but current thinking states that this should be saved for post-exercise, when the muscles are already warm. It can then help lengthen the muscles and lessen that next-day-stiffness. Pre-run though, the focus should be on warming up rather than stretching those muscles.

Please tune in for parts 2 and 3 very soon!

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