Saturday, 19 March 2016

Brighton - A walk in the park or a day at the races?

MK Dons play Brighton today and where normally there would be that buzz on waking up combined with growing butterflies in the stomach today it just feels flat. The reason: MK Dons performance at the Cheltenham Festival - a festival I will remember ironically for the highly professional approach taken by an amateur to achieve beyond expectation. 

The Dons, in case you missed the front pages of several tabloid papers this week went to the
Cheltenham festival for a piss up. This got out of hand and ended up with a glass of urine being poured over other spectators. Oddly, this action offends me less than the overall context in which it happened. The fact that the clubs management and players felt it acceptable to be out four days before a crucial match for an all day drinking session is to me a far bigger issue.

In the George Best era, even as recently as the '90s, drinking was seen as not just acceptable but as part of the macho culture that surrounded sport. Football then lagged behind other sports until the introduction of managers like Arsene Wenger who absolutely understood that what a professional athlete puts into their body can make a significant performance improvement  on the pitch. These days, top sportsman - footballers included, carefully monitor nutrition as much as they monitor effectiveness during training and games. As part of that, alcohol is pretty much a no go area. There is nothing nutrition wise in alcohol that adds to athletic performance. Indeed there are many elements that significantly detract from overall performance, including focus and  muscle growth and regeneration after excercise.

I am not saying that the team shouldn't drink during the season (although I bet many professional sports teams do set that as their standard) but they certainly should not be out on an all day blender, certainly not in the middle of the season and certainly not when there is a game at the weekend. I find it difficult to imagine Andy Murray or Mo Farah going out for an all day session in the middle of Wimbledon or the Olympics and more importantly the reason they don't isn't because they are told not to it's because their desire to succeed is far higher than their desire to go an all out bender.

And that is a critical point here. We are watching a team that have finally made it into the Championship after many seasons of riding high in League One. This for me is about desire to succeed. Around 40 positions above the Dons in the league, Leicester look like they are about to make history. I am sure that those players are absolutely focussed  on the next game, both in training and in the overall preparation for it. They will not be going out for day long drinking sessions. That comes down to desire and focus. How much do the Dons really want to meet their objective this season and how much is just about turning up? Prior to this week, I was desperately  hanging on to the former. I saw a team whose salary bill is lower than any other club in the Championship and was battling to stay up. Admittedly with some performances I wondered but that's what I wanted to believe.

It's clear though that that nagging doubt is being realised. They don't care if their performance today is slightly reduced from a day out drinking. They don't care if their preparation for this game is not 100%. There will be loads of people watching today who would love the chance to be in their shoes. There are loads of people in the academy right now who have been watching what they eat (and where applicable, drink) since they were in their early teens. Future players growing up with a different mentality of what it takes to be a real professional. Maybe it's time for some of those people, players who will embrace the 100% mentality to replace some of those who clearly think their 90% will do. 

Finally, I have been behind Robinson for longer than many. Even though increasingly  I am not convinced that he has the ability to change tactically on the fly, his loyalty is valuable and his focus toward the long term sustainability of the club rather than his personal gain has been admirable. However, Robinson is the leader right now. The leader must have taken the decision that proper preparation doesn't matter. He must be behind this 90% mentality as much as the players. For me that's just not good enough. It belongs more in far lower leagues than the Championship.

I don't mind going down fighting. Going down with the players on a full day bender at Cheltenham before a key game though shows that that isn't the case. I want a result today - a draw would be great. It's going to very tough to achieve that. I know that, the supporters know that. The players though, they seem to think it's a walk in the park.  

Monday, 20 April 2015

Losing My Marathon Virginity - Lessons Learnt

I underestimated the marathon. Simple as that. Partly through arrogance - “I can run as well as anyone else”, and partly through surrounding myself with such experienced and seriously inspirational people. When you watch someone run 7 marathons in 7 days your brain kind of tells you that just doing one is going to be ok.

Just One Marathon
(Image © TattyDon)
I was honestly going to just do one marathon. Just a tick in the box and then back to the distances that I enjoy. Everyone told me that I wouldn't leave it at that and I ignored them! Part of that thinking was that I thought I could just run a marathon, bag a decent time and then pop it tightly in the done it box. I had two main targets: Sub 3:45 but really to run my 'target time'  of 3:30  (Two Half PBs plus 20 minutes). I ran a 3:46 hitting the wall big time at 20 miles. That left me not only missing my target but more importantly it made me very aware that there are a significant amount of lessons I could take to improve the time and to ‘ace’ it next time. I now know exactly what people were saying when they said you need to just do one to understand what it’s like. With that in mind I’m actually pretty pleased with the time and with the things I’ve been able to take away to run the same marathon next time. 

My Top Ten Learning Points:

  1. Hotel Location: Stay as close to the race as possible and in a town. Better meal choices, less driving, more chilled start
  2. Practice Absolutely Everything Before You Arrive. Clothing, gels etc are obvious but this should include the things you think are easy - like drinking water. 
  3. Don't Walk - Even Once. Once you have started it’s way too easy to do it again. A shuffle is way better for the head than a walk.
  4. In Head Preparation: Think in advance how you will deal with each quiet section. Especially when that section might fall around the 20 mile stage. 
  5. Don't forget it's your first one: Use the first one as an experience. Almost as a training run.
  6. Long Runs in Training: Look into whether it is worth (for the head at least) going further than most training plans recommend.
  7. Define your race goals well before you start training. Research your plan well ahead of time based on those goals. Align that plan to ‘real dates’ - If you do your long run on a Friday, make sure the plan says that. 
  8. Run Types in Training: Understand why each type of training run is important and how it fits into the overall training programme. Stick to it - don’t just chase the miles.
  9. Nutrition: Properly understand the effects of food on racing. Learn the importance of proper nutrition pre, during and post racing.
  10. Alcohol: Take it out of the equation. It provides no benefits to marathon training - only negatives.

Race Learnings in more detail:

I’ve broken down the lessons learnt into three main areas: The Race Weekend itself, Training and finally Nutrition. Whilst there were certain learning points to be taken from the weekend itself, it's the latter two that I think provide the real opportunities for improvement. 

The Race Weekend - All that training, nerves and excitement and it all comes down to one weekend:
  • Pre Race:
    • Hotel: We (My 'support crew' and I) stayed out at Crawley, about 40 minutes from Brighton. This worked well in that it meant that we weren’t battling into Brighton on the Friday night but wasn’t so good in other areas. Firstly, going down on the Friday was definitely the right decision. Getting in early to the Expo on the Saturday from Crawley was much easier and left us with the day free and no pressure  - and we avoided the horrendous queues later in the day. We were however restricted to the menu in the hotel (which meant I changed the pre race dinner I had had for every long run), I did a lot of driving and also it left us with a pretty early start on the Sunday. In future, I would definitely stay much closer to the event.

  • Race:
  • Nearly Over
    (Image © TattyDon)
    • Pacing: The aim was to run at about 8:15s which would have left me with a finish time of around 3:36 (well inside the 3:45 target). We went off pretty fast running the first 10 miles at an average 8:06, the second 10 miles at 8:22. 20 miles therefore was pretty much back on target at a 20 mile PB of 2 hours 43 but we had already started to slow significantly. At 20 miles the wheels fell off!
    • Water Stations: The Brighton organisers decided not to go with bottles this year but instead to go with paper cups every mile. Two learning points here: The first is I should have practiced drinking from a cup whilst running! Sounds simple but I just couldn’t do it without waterboarding myself. I’m sure there is a way (I gather since that squeeze it into a funnel and pour it down) but my main lesson here is to think things like this through and practice and test it again and again before the race. The second element associated with the water stations are that with cups it is way too easy to walk. I realised the best way to drink the water was to stop and drink it. That turned very quickly into an excuse to stop (or walk) through the water stations.  
    • Walking: For the first time since I started running properly I walked during a run. I’m gutted about that. I’m not just talking about the water stations. During that last 6 miles I walked several times. Maybe if I had learnt to drink from cups whilst running I wouldn’t have walked although to be honest I doubt it. I’m not even sure I could have done anything different having hit the wall. But looking back on it now, I wish I had slowed to a shuffle (as I recommend in my ‘Things I wish I’d known’ post). Even a 9:30 - 10:00 shuffle would have kept me going and might have made the difference. 
    • The Wall: I wasn’t worried about the wall. I thought I had experienced it at the MK20 and maybe I had. This was like that but multiplied by ten. Parts of me hurt that had never ached running. My hips, my back, my arms. My chest go so tight I thought I was getting an asthma attack. I wasn’t thinking coherently - these days I calculate splits, finish times etc on the fly all the time. I remember stumbling for about half a mile over how long six miles would take at ten min mile pace. My head was completely gone. I needed that though so that I can anticipate, avoid or cope with it next time.
    • Mileage:  I arrived at the marathon having done two long runs of 20 miles - both in race conditions in addition to several runs of around 17 to 18 miles. Whilst this is in line with many training plans, I had neither run a full 26 miles in training nor had I run for nearly four hours. Six additional miles (or an additional hour) is a long way - over a quarter again. In retrospect I would look to go longer in training (in time perhaps rather than mileage) and look for a training plan that facilitated that. 
    • Support: The crowd support was at times overwhelming. Just awesome. I can vividly picture the middle piece of the race where you come back into Brighton near the finish line. It felt like there were crowds five deep up against the crash barriers at both sides. It was just incredible. I think the finish straight was like that as well although that’s a bit of a blur to me. I remember a lot of shouts down that bit. There are bits of the course though where there is no support. Out towards Roedene in the first ten miles or so it was ok. I was still fresh. Hitting 20 miles in the empty industrial estate near Worthing was really tough though. There were far less people about there. Just where you needed the crowds. I had no strategy for how to deal with that, how to occupy my mind to avoid the doubts creeping in.

Training: Those months of dedication and early Sunday starts
  • The initial training plan: A few people asked me in the build up to the race which training plan I was using. My response that I wasn’t really sure left the next question generally unvoiced: “Why was I using that plan?” My plan was a result of me googling something like "marathon plans for sub 3:45”. I then discounted any that had more weeks in them than I had left (because I was starting late due to injury). I ‘merged’ the resulting plan with one for 3:30 as I still wasn’t clear on my goals. Finally, I heard someone talk about heart rate based training and so reengineered it to fit that. The result was a fish mash of plans only very loosely related to any goal that I had. Hardly scientific! My plan also had Tempo runs on a Wednesday and a rest day on a Friday. I generally do a Tempo club in on a Friday so throughout I was switching dates and runs round in my plan. I had ended up with a plan I didn't trust and which I couldn't reliably follow anyway...
  • Training Plan: This is the big one as far as I am concerned. Even though I read books on marathon running, told others the value of Long Slow Runs, of Tempo Runs and Interval Training, I did none of that. I purely focussed on mileage, driving out mile after mile at marathon pace. In retrospect that was my biggest mistake. The stats from running friends performing well at the Manchester Marathon show the value of varied training. Next time, I will stick to the plan but also understand better the purpose of each run type.

Nutrition: Apparently it's 90% nutrition ten per cent training (or not in my case...)
  • Race Nutrition: I paid very little attention to this I talked of carb loading without really understanding it. I threw gels down fairly randomly during training and races, again without understanding the purpose of them. I changed my pre race meals to suit the environment I was in at that time rather than aligned to any plan.I hit the wall, I cramped up and I pretty much collapsed. Wonder why that happened...
  • Overall Nutrition: I paid absolutely no attention to my nutrition throughout the whole training period. I changed nothing. Only towards the end when I was ill (again) did I start even taking vitamin C and Zinc supplements. I had always backed off taking supplements  in the past because “with a rounded and balanced diet one shouldn’t need them”. It was only late on that I accepted that I don’t have that. 
  • Alcohol: This is the one thing that I am really kicking myself over. Most of the other points on this page are about doing things better - improving training, nutrition and pacing. My consumption of alcohol throughout training can have had no positive impact on my training at all. In fact, there is plenty of evidence out there pointing to the detrimental effects of alcohol and marathon training in terms of muscle regeneration and dehydration. Realistically, if I wanted to succeed, alcohol was something I needed to cut out and would likely have provided me with a big hit. 

Where Next?

Contemplating the Future
(Image © TattyDon)
So… what next? My intention is to do way more research before my next marathon to understand the reasoning and the science behind some of these lessons. I want to understand the value of the Long Slow Runs on training for instance - it always feels so counterintuitive to run so slowly as a preparation to running fast.  I want to understand nutrition better in general and get my race day fuelling right  - collapsing or cramping on the finish line is not a sensible long term strategy. I intend to approach Brighton 2016 with a whole different mindset - my body trained and fuelled so that I am really arriving with the best chance I can possibly give myself. 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Looking Back - What I Wish I Had Known

Looking back at the past year, I started thinking about the things that I wished I had known when I started. I properly started running in January. Before that, I ran occasionally - on average less than twice a month through 2013. I ran because I wanted to stay fit for football and tennis. No other reason. And I rarely enjoyed it - it was a means to an end. 

Inspiration to Change
(Image © TattyDon)
A photograph of me on holiday brought it home to me that I was starting to lose control of my weight. I wasn't massive but my size was definitely increasing year on year and I was doing nothing about it. My neck issue put that thought on hold for a while and it took me until the start of last year to feel physically confident enough to run again at which point there was no stopping me. This year I have run over 1300 miles and have moved from an average pace of around 9:30 to  8:00 mins per mile. I have most definitely 'got the bug. 

So what have I learned over the last year that I wish I knew when I started out?

1 Miles Under The Belt: This to me is the absolute clincher. You have to develop a core. I have read a few times that you should increase your mileage slowly, concentrating on at most a ten per cent increase week on week. I didn't exactly do that but then I had a lot of drivers which meant that kicking in a 'do or die' attitude to running was personally my best way forward. However you end up doing it, I would say that getting to 100 miles a month level is key. I would go as far as to say don't really worry about anything else until you get there. That doesn't mean don't race, it just means don't start focussing on epic distances or breaking  records until you have this baseline.

Attack Those Hills
(Image © Unknown)
2 Hills are your new friends: I started in January when I went away for new year to Southleigh in Devon. I found a circuit which was only 2.5 miles and over which I was only able to run at 11 minute pace. The circuit had an elevation gain of 500 feet which over 2.5 miles felt pretty aggressive. I walked occasionally but generally tried to keep running where I could. When I got back to Milton Keynes, I was able to run 5 miles without thinking. The ‘Hill Training’ from that week in Devon gave me the base to get over the mental ceiling of only being able to run for three or four miles. It provided the change in my breathing which took my running from being a chore to being simple. Now I approach hills with vigour, pretty much however tired am. I understand that they are the route to success, the core of development. I am also increasingly aware  that in a race, a hill is a great place to move up the field.

3 Race Times Give you 10% bonus: There is a quote I see quite regularly on twitter which reads "Don't judge your life by everyone else's highlight reel". For ages, I was looking at everyone's race times, at seasoned runners training times and comparing them to my running stats. I couldn't see how I was ever going to get close to competing with them. (Also, when you are running day in, day out you don't necessariliy notice the speed gain or endurance gain that is taking place). Then I raced my first half. My PB went from a training time of 113 minutes to a race time of 101 minutes. After a couple of half marathons and various races, I now get that being in a a race tends to give you around a 10% performance increase on your training times. 

4 Invest in the Hardware: I can't emphasise this enough. As soon as you start, get yourself some decent running shoes. I did what everyone told me and got myself professionally assessed and bought the recommended shoes. I have no idea whether that bit was a gimmick or was worth it but I do know that I ran for nearly a year with no injury. My present injury is probably due to not changing my running shoes quickly enough and going from very worn ones to new ones overnight. Change them as soon as they look worn  - start checking from 300 miles. 

Buy running shorts, running tops, gloves  - everything! It honestly makes a diffference. Loads of research (admittedly as well as marketing budget) goes into this stuff. A running top that takes sweat away, shorts that don't chafe - they all make for worthwhile investmensts to make you get out there day after day. 

The second bit around hardware might be more me specific to me. I am a data junkie. I will sit and analyse my run and bike stats for hours. I use three apps / sites to give the all the data I want. For that reason, the piece of equipment I value more than anything else in this space is my Garmin. Every stat I could want, full GPS mappng, heart rate etc. It drives me forward. Finally, Strava. Since Strava is essentially geared around segments, you are constantly acheiving personal bests, constantly moving up leaderboards. I love that. Just because I have been out for a slowish run, doesn't necessarily  mean that I haven't hit a PB. I love that feeling when the little trophy pops up showing you what achievements you have made. I sync them using a site called Tapiriik which keeps all three apps (Strava, Garmin and Runkeeper) together.

5 It's Not Cheap: I've read several things about running being one of life's great free sports. In some ways that's fair enough. No expensive gym fees, no huge kit list and no expensive servicing costs. However, the reality is it's not free either. As I pointed out  above, you need decent shoes. And they need replacing every 300-500 miles. Before long you will need a GPS watch or something to measure the data. And then there's race fees, club fees and the running kit. You run every day, one pair of shorts and socks really isn't going to cut it! Then you start looking for extra challenges. Multi-sports. Suddenly you are into tri-kit. Into tri-shoes and then a new bike...

6 Join a Running Club: I started running to beat depression and mainly because of that I've never really struggled to find the motivation to get out the door. For many, being in a running club gives you that motivation. For me, it has given me friends, support, structure and the incentive to push myself far harder than I otherwise would have done. Through that club, I have been paced to a Half Marathon PB and have worked with others to improve their times. Most welcome all standards of running so take a deep breath and throw yourself at it. I wish I had done earlier. 

7 There Will Be Detractors. When you start, you will get a lot of advice. 'bad for your knees', 'you're obsessive', 'you won't keep it up' etc etc.You will hear countless reasons why others are not able to run  - often couched in a way that says you will soon learn yourself.  Listen to it but process it. Pick carefully who you go to for running advice. Three things that worked for me in this area is to find out early who will be really supportive, create a bling wall to celebrate your own personal achievements and finally, use social media. Online groups like #UKRunchat are great at offering you support, advice and giving those family and friends close to you a break from constant running talk!

8 Intervals Are Vital.If you want to get faster then do intervals. They are tough, they are still the one part of training that makes me think twice before stepping out of the door. But the exhilaration when you have completed them is immense. Easiest ways to do intervals are either to pick a Strava segment or two and try to set a Personal Best on that or to do them with a running club. Chasing your mates up and down hills or over measured segments makes it way easier!

9 Watch The Weight Loss. If you run every day the weight will initially drop off. Simple as that.  I haven't changed my diet much at all over the past year but I've lost another stone (2.5 stone in 18 months). It's easy to get carried away. Watch the calories you are putting back into your system (especially after long runs) and make sure you are taking on enough. However, also be aware that muscle is heavier than fat and you will soon start developing it! I reached a level and then started to slowly put weight back on. Get a set of scales that measure Body Fat % rather than just weight. That tells you a more accurate story of where you are heading.

The flip side of this is I have seen several people who run but still struggle with weight. Do some research into what calories you are burning. A slow three miler followed by a celebratory cake and latte will not decrease your weight. I used MyFitnessPal to record my calorie intake. It also takes feeds from Runkeeper (or Fitbit) to add in the exercise you have done that day. Doing that has given me a far better picture of when to take on more, when to lay off and also more generally, an understanding of what foods contain what in terms of calories. 

10 Don't Walk. This one might be a bit more controversial as I'm aware that most beginner programmes start with run / walk sessions. I'm not knocking that  - I started in Devon like that.  I would say that once you can run without walking, never walk on a run again. Even if you slow to a snails pace, don't give in and start walking. Much of this is a fight with your mind. Your head will give up way before your legs do... Don't let it.

And finally....

11 Take in a McDonalds On Your Runs. I love running past a McDonalds on a Sunday morning if only for the smug satisfaction I get from watching all those people too lazy to even get out of their cars to order fast food. I was them once. Now I'm a runner...