Friday 19 September 2014

Where am I with my marathon training?

I don't know about you, but this is a question that I often ask myself at this point in my training. It is now just over 4 weeks to the Amsterdam Marathon and I have a target to meet - am I on track or not?

It is a really difficult question to answer when one is pushing at a personal best time since the 'cliff edge' of performance drop caused by attempting a faster time than one is 'capable' of is so dramatic. Given that is the case, why didn't I just start my training a bit earlier, train a bit harder and 'clever' so that my target was more easily achievable? Of course that never happens. If I had started earlier either my target would have shifted or I wouldn't have put in the intensity necessary. So, how do I judge where I am?

It is at this point that I envy those in the running community who can follow a plan - usually a published plan with a track record of producing the necessary performance. I simply can't do that. I find that both track and interval work are simply too risky. The number of times I have turned-up at the track unable to do a session is just too high. I also hate being told how far or fast to run. Sometimes it feels good to blast as fast as I can go, and sometimes just getting out the door seems like an achievement. I don't do plans. So, where am I?

A decent place to start might be the equivalent running performance tables - but, for a couple of reasons they don't work for me. They don't work because I never have a 'performance time' in an equivalent state of training and fatigue to that of my target race. At the moment I am pushing in close to 100 mile weeks and blasting a 5km just doesn't work - quite literally the legs don't work. I tried one just over a week ago and I pulled-up with about 700m to go suffering from the stitch. It was just after a 100+ mile week. It was an odd race. I had turned-up with the intention of doing a 'threshold' type run and I took a place in the crowd that reflected that (with friends who are around 20 mins) - but, I had turned-up in racing flats suggesting my unconscious had other plans. I had run to the start from home giving me a decent enough 5km warm-up. Given I was mid-training cycle, when the gun went off I started running and I felt surprisingly good. I was running fast and I was hardly struggling - it reminded me of The Matrix. How was this possible? So, I sped-up and ran faster and faster touching a 3:30 km at 3km. But, it didn't last - of course not. My pre-race fueling came back to haunt me and I jogged in to the finish with a season's best time but not a PB. I had blown my chances of using the equivalent running performance tables since there was no way I could risk another fast 5km before the marathon - my shins would kill me and even a mini-taper would have a negative impact on my potential marathon time.

The downside of being 'old' (48) is that since track work is so damaging, 'going long' in training is about the only way to gain the necessary aerobic fitness (although I might post a bit about doing 'stairs' later). The problem with going long is that it also means going slow and there is always the worry that 'train slow, race slow' might actually be true. So, I am going long and running slow whilst not following a plan and with no useful race performances to go by. So, where am I?

Well, a few years ago - possibly about 3 years now - when I started marathon running - I asked that question for the first time and tried to come-up with a technique that could produce an answer from my own training data. I started to use a metric called heart beats per km. I have posted about it before. With a little tweak - distance correction - it is pretty good. The number of heart beats per km falls as you train and is decent enough reassurance that performance is likely to improve to. Indeed, I even attempted to use it to predict race performance and it isn't that bad - at least for where I was back then. When I was crunching the data for hundreds of runs that I had done I noticed a few things. First, the heart beats per km fell most as training volume increased - but, also there was an effect of speed, albeit a bit less obvious. The further and faster I ran the better the predicted performance time. On the one hand this is obvious and yet it is so often ignored by those who ought to know better. All too often I see runners who are carrying excess weight with little aerobic base attempting to do intervals and tempo runs at the track. A few simply enjoy doing them and don't really care about 'training' they are much more interested in the feel of the moment. But, for a good few it is their main fitness session. It almost seems that they have forgotten that running further is the key and that blasting 200m may not achieve that much. The complexity of lactate turn points, running form, leg speed, threshold work etc has obscured the really simple truth - if you want to be fast just run a lot. Of course to run a lot you will have to slow down, but that really doesn't matter too much. The second simple truth is that training takes time - a lot of time - not only will you spend a long time running but the improvements will take months or years to peak. The third truth is that running fast is governed by simple physics. The heavier you are, and the heavier your shoes are, the more energy it will cost. Heavy shoes are great for adding training load, but race light. Getting a grip on weight is critical - every performance runner knows this. The advantage of running long here is two fold. Energy consumption is proportional to the distance run, pace is largely immaterial, and the longer you run the less time and desire there is to eat! So, back to the question; "Where am I?". How does knowing that increased distance and speed are important help?

Well, if you read the various running blogs and training sites with their manifold plans of fiendish complexity you might get the impression that marathon performance is so individual that only vague ball-park estimates can be made from a training diary that does not adhere to a plan. How many long runs have you done? What was the longest run? Have you done speed work, threshold work etc? But, there is a recent bit of work that suggests otherwise. Tanda (2011) gives a very simple formula, based on data 9 weeks before a marathon, that seems pretty good at predicting performance. He found that for a group of marathon runners performance was related most strongly to the weekly mileage and pace - knowledge of the number and length of long runs was not critical nor was the speed work. It is beguilingly simple. The best performers ran further in training and faster. You can easily make the calculations on your own data. Of course this doesn't mean it works the other way around - i.e. just because you optimize your training to the formula you will get equally good results - but, it does mean that the other elements of training might not be that critical.

So, I am no longer worrying too much. I am just running a lot and at a sensible pace (although some think it is still too fast) - I am easy to find on both Strava and Garmin Connect. My Tanda prediction is heading in the right direction and my fitness must be improving. Where am I? It clearly isn't a question that anyone can answer for sure. If I get my taper, race preparation and execution right and the weather Gods are smiling then my goal may be possible. At least that is what both my heart beats per km and Tanda say even though at the moment my legs and body says; "No!".

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