Do I have the stomach for long-distance running?

It would appear that my body has a problem with running distances above 20 miles. While my legs and lungs can cope fairly comfortably, my gastric system – that central tract of coiled hoses and contracting sacks I rely on to keep me fuelled and hydrated – has a tendency show a rebellious side.

In the crudest terms, I’m talking about puking. But not during the run. No opportunity to display a Jurek-esque mid-event vomit-recovery for me.

No, my body waits until I’ve completed my running and then, as I wind down and start to think about recovery I begin to feel unwell. I try to distract myself. I try deep breathing. I may survive fifteen minutes. Twenty even. But there’s no denying the inevitable: I will retch and heave, again and again. And often it doesn’t stop until I have lain down and slept.

The first time I experienced this was after a 24 mile run in April 2012 whilst training for that year’s Neolithic Marathon. It had been an effort to complete the distance, my furthest at that point, and after getting home and running a hot bath, I started to feel a little queasy in the humid bathroom. My wife brought me a cup of tea whilst I was soaking and remarked that I looked a bit grey. Two minutes later I was staring down the toilet bowl.

Some cursory internet investigations revealed that nausea on long runs was just one of those things that some people experience, usually due to inappropriate fuelling. A friend and fellow runner commented that long-distance running events were eating contests. I resolved to eat and drink more during the marathon and hope for the best.

Well, the result was better – slightly. Once the adrenalin surge associated with completing my first marathon had subsided, the grey pallor was upon me once again and I was overcome by a sudden desperate urge to empty my bowels. There was no vomiting but I was in no state to celebrate my achievement; I felt weak and miserable.

Then, a month later, I ran the Liberty Loco over 50km. This social event was well supported and offered plenty of opportunities to hydrate and take on fuel. No post-run nausea ensued and I felt fine after the run. I decided I’d cracked it. After a summer/autumn of very good half marathon training, I bought a small backpack and hydration bladder (Inov8 Race Elite 15 and Source Widepac: reviews to follow) so I could carry plenty of fluids and food, and set about winter training.

I built the distance back up over the weeks, to the point I could run 20 miles comfortably. Then, things began to take on a disappointingly familiar pattern. My next long training run – over 23 miles – ended with a vomiting spell. After this year’s Neolithic Marathon I was sick more than ever before. The journey home was interrupted a few times as my wife stopped the car to allow for another road-side hurl. Finally, and most recently, the Leland Loco – a different trail to the Liberty Loco but the same 50km distance and equally excellent level of support - also ended with a particularly debilitating bout of nausea that saw me stay the night at the organisers’ home because I was too unwell to travel.

Quite apart from the fact that one feels disappointed with oneself (and rather foolish) in such circumstances – no rational, sane person would choose to put months of time and effort into something only to achieve a state of wretchedness – there is a secondary problem. At precisely the point after a run when the body should be re-hydrating and taking on fuel to aid recovery, my body is unable to do so because it is exhausting itself further with endless dry-heaving and physical shaking.

The only way I seem to able to recover from the sickness is to sleep. I do not run to feel like a patient. I run for enjoyment!

Consequently, I am now re-assessing whether I should run beyond 20 miles at all, and seriously considering deferring my place in this August’s R.A.T. 50km race.

But I love long trail runs! It would be a terrible shame to have to restrict my running due to this problem. So, what is going on and what can I do to stop it happening? In my next post I hope to find out!

The Plan, The Whole Plan and Nothing But The Plan?

training schedule

So here I am, a week away from running the Neolithic Marathon and it’s a good time to try and asses how the reality of my training programme has panned-out against what is down on paper (in the pages of Matt Fitzgerald’s Brain Training for Runners). My last post, written as I was embarking upon marathon training at the beginning of the year, contained some recommendations to myself about how I’d like to approach things. A general comment I made was that I would “adapt not follow” my chosen training plan.

Flexi-weeks

One major shake-up I have been able to inject into the plan is to deviate from my usual “Sunday to Monday” running week. “Flexi-weeks” have made training fit my life better (and made a mess of pencil marks all over my calendar).

I am fortunate that I’m currently self-employed and work from home. From the end of February my work-load became less intense. I decided to see this as an opportunity to remove the necessity of doing my long run at the weekend. This has meant I’ve spent more time with my family during this period of training  than during last year’s run-up. This has been great and kept me motivated for every run. It has also meant I’ve had to claw back quite a few days so that my final long run today is the preferred seven days before from the event. That’s because once I started playing around with this, I found I was more inclined to throw in an extra rest day if I felt my body needed one (it often does!)

Skipping workouts

Clawing-back days to unflex the flexi-weeks, coupled with extra rest days has meant some scheduled runs have had to be jettisoned. Often a short recovery run would get the boot. But I’ve also skipped some key workouts.

The plan advocated one interval and one tempo run each week. After a few weeks of trying this, my body started to complain: first both Achilles tendons (although I’m partly blaming a night of drunken dancing for this) and then, more severely, the metatarsal tendon on my left foot. Top-Of-Foot-Pain – the old enemy!

I have since reached the conclusion that my form was suffering during intense speed-work sessions (something I intend to discuss at greater length in another blog post) and consequently decided to stick to just one session each week, dropping either an interval or tempo session. At first I was disappointed, mainly because I had been enjoying these runs very much, but now I’m thankful that I reduced the workload when I did as my tendon issues have remained manageable niggles as opposed to debilitating injuries.

Will it work?

In addition to all this, I missed almost an entire week of peak-period running whilst taking a family holiday over Easter – although this coincided with the Achilles issues so may have been a blessing in disguise. And, my intention to do more cross-training came to little more than floor exercises twice a week.

Yet, in spite of the missed days and reduced programme of workouts I am satisfied that I’m in a good position to run the marathon. My long-runs have gone well (bar some fuelling issues – another blog post on the to-do list) and I feel a stronger and, crucially, a happier and more relaxed runner than I was a year ago.

My goal is to enjoy the run and be in a fit state to make use of the free pass into Stonehenge at the end of it – something I was unable to do last year. If I can do that and finish in under 4 hours, well, I would consider that a very pleasing marathon performance.

 

The Neolithic Marathon 2013: twelve weeks and counting

Neolithic Marathon 2013 banner

Well it’s been a long time since I posted. I shan’t explain why just now – I’m too excited about the fact that my training for this year’s Wiltshire Wildlife Trust fundraiser, The Neolithic Marathon, has begun! Yesterday I got back from a gentle 6 miler around town and started writing this. I had used the time on the run to think about what lies ahead as I prepare my body and mind for a second go at this event.

At Avebury with the Wiltshire barefoot runners

At Avebury with the Wiltshire barefoot runners

First though, I’d like to rewind to Sunday when, after a 6.15am alarm call, I met up with two local runners, Steve and Ian, in order to run on the trails around the historic site of Avebury, the starting point of the Sarsen Trail. Let me reiterate that this was a SUNDAY and it was cold and wet outside – my wife thought I was mad, my 5-year old daughter was still asleep – but I was keen to meet these guys as they are the only other barefoot runners in the area that I’m aware of. It was an interesting and enjoyable outing, in spite of the miserable weather, and I’m looking forward to the next meet-up.

The three of us will be back there in any case in just twelve weeks for the start of the Neolithic Marathon. Steve and I will be among the small field of runners setting off from Avebury across the county of Wiltshire towards Stone Henge. Ian will be doing the half-marathon which follows the second half of the marathon route  - predominantly across the rough tracks of Salisbury Plain – and he plans to do it entirely barefoot.

Already, I’m thinking about how I’ll approach things differently to last year. Here are my initial thoughts.

Learning from last year

The Neolithic Marathon 2012 was my first marathon and, because of this, the focus was purely on building endurance and making sure I could run the distance. I trained at paces that satisfied my ego rather than were of benefit. I have since discovered Jack Daniel’s Formula and the value of using the correct effort/pacing levels for appropriate workouts.

Coming out the other side of training for the Malmesbury half last October, I feel stronger overall and more confident that any hard runs I do are less likely to lead to injury. So, over the forthcoming weeks, I shall be adding some speed work but also plenty of recovery runs into the mix. I shall also structure my training so that it’s not purely a steady build of long runs distances. There’ll be a couple of “easier” weeks – some ebb and flow –  to give my body a chance to benefit from the work it will be doing.

You may be reading this and thinking, “But you only have twelve weeks!” True. But two weeks ago my long run was 16 miles and I felt comfortable. So I have a solid base to work from. Since that run I’ve been “ebbing”. Now it’s time to flow!

Brain Training

Fortunately the training plan I will be adapting (and I advise runners always to adapt and never follow someone else’s training plan) has all of the above in it. Building upon Jack Daniel’s training methods and adding some modern science and general common sense, Matt Fitzgerald’s “Brain Training For Runners” is a book I am finding very interesting. It’s already influencing how I’m setting up to approach my training even though I am only just half-way through reading it. A huge “Thank you” goes to the very wonderful Alan Thwaits for bringing the book to my attention. If you are unfamiliar with Alan I urge you to stop reading this immediately and go and check it out his inspirational blog, Barefoot Journey.

Cross-training

I trust you’ve been away, got some good stuff from Alan’s blog before returning? Good. Then I’ll continue.

A mistake I made last year was totally shunning any cross-training. I actually gave up attending a weekly yoga class in order to fit more running mileage into my schedule. I think I paid for this in the last eight miles of the marathon as my core collapsed and my form gradually eroded.

Brain Training for Runners

Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald

I don’t know about you but I find that I achieve my most efficient running form when my lower abdominal muscles are engaged, my posture is upright and the rest of my body is relaxed. It’s such subtle thing, I find it difficult to maintain for long periods. It requires pretty much 100% focus –  the slightest distraction and I lose it.

Matt Fitzgerald’s book contains some interesting-looking cross-training exercises that are designed to strengthen not the core muscles themselves but the line of communication between the brain and the deep muscles of the abdominal wall. I love this idea! Using Fitzgerald’s approach I hope to train myself to activate the core muscles even when my body is experiencing fatigue.

Early morning runs must return!

I’m not a morning person. However, I managed some pre-breakfast training last year but have gotten out the habit entirely over the last six months. Re-introducing early morning runs into my schedule is essential if I’m going to achieve all that I want to. Sunday proved I can do it. I just have to make sure I do it regularly.

Fuelling with the food-pack

I have acquired a very useful bit of kit. The Inov8 Race Elite 15 is a small, lightweight pack that so far has proved to be a joy to run with. I see plenty of uses for this little beauty. Last week, for example, I ran barefoot to a straight stretch of flat road in order to do an interval session, carrying shoes in the pack to slip on for the speed work. When I arrived, the shoes came out, my cap and jacket went in and I ran the interval session wearing the pack. Superb!

The main reason I got the pack is to carry food (i.e. substantial nutritional fare, not gels) and other kit on long runs. I did not take on enough fuel during last year’s Neolithic Marathon and the pack is a good solution to remedy that. The Race Elite 15 is bladder-compatible too which will be useful as the long-run distances -and spring temperatures – increase.

Barefoot?

It’s a question I get asked a lot when I announce I have entered a run – inevitable really when your online name is Barefoot Ape. Thing is, when I signed-up for the Neolithic Marathon a couple of weeks ago I was clear in my own mind that I would be running the event shod with a goal of bettering last year’s performance. The terrain is challenging, to put it mildly. But now I have my pack, I can set off on runs barefoot and carry footwear for when I start to wuss-out. I have twelve weeks to condition my winter-weakened soles …

 

Malmesbury Half Marathon Report

I am no sprinter. Yet, the day before I was due to run the Malmesbury Half Marathon, I found myself running full-pelt down my street after four kids who’d been causing a bit of a social nuisance. This was foolish not only because I was taking a risk with injury but also because the “kids”, when I caught up with them were a lot older and bigger than I’d realised. Fortunately, I suffered no ill effects from the physical exertion and at least one of the lads was prepared to listen to my – slightly breathless –  lecture on respect, so it was worth the effort. But, effectively I had done a 200 metre sprint, barefoot, with no warm-up on the day before my most important race yet.

Most important race? Yes, I had decided that this race was to be a benchmark test for how far I had progressed as a runner over the past 12 months. I had a target time of 1:45 in mind, purely because I wanted to see if I could hold my pace within 8 minutes/mile for the full 13.1 miles – something I had never previously managed. This would offer indications as to my current level of fitness and the effectiveness of my training approach.

Other than the crazy sprint I mentioned, my preparations for the race had been near ideal. I’d had an enjoyable taper, adding a little more running than I usually would do into the final week before the race, some extra yoga too and doing all the necessary with my fuel and hydration intake.

The weather on the morning of the race was pretty awful. A constant, chilly rain had set in early which was a real shame. The organisers had attempted to create a carnival atmosphere for this, the inaugural staging of the Malmesbury Half. A few hardy souls still turned out along the route to offer support but the fair in the registration field was a washout. Still, the pre-race warm-up was well attended (although I gave it a miss, as I always do) and then there was a short walk uphill to the starting line in town. By the time the field of 366 runners had huddled together there, all of us were soaked to the skin. The usual pre-race banter was in short supply; everyone was keen to get running. This suited me fine. I wasn’t in the mood for conversation; I wanted to focus on my performance and race plan. My only slight concern regarding the rain at this stage was with my shoes. The Inov8 BareX Light 150s hadn’t really been tested in wet weather and I wasn’t sure how their virtually gripless soles would handle slick surfaces.

The race began with a downhill stretch through the pretty town of Malmesbury. In past races I have gotten carried away by the increased pace a downhill start affords. I wasn’t about to make the same mistake and made the necessary adjustments to ensure I wasn’t rushing off too quickly. The route took us out of town within the first mile and from there, the next 11 miles would be ran mainly on narrow rural lanes. The rain persisted but my Helly Hanson cap with it’s rather large peak kept it out of my eyes.

After the about a mile, another runner,  a chap a bit younger than myself, came up alongside and remarked that he guessed I was used to running longer distances than the half marathon. Really? He went on to qualify his assumption by complimenting me on my “relaxed and natural” form! My resolution not to speak to anybody was broken – I’m a sucker for flattery. His story was that he had injured his knee two years ago by slipping badly on some ice. This was his first race since recovering. The interesting part was that he’d made the decision once leaving hospital to change his approach as he found that the shoes and orthotics he’d previously relied on now irritated his knee. I observed that his own gait was relaxed and very light – it was hard to imagine him running any other way.

We ran, chatting for a couple of miles together before wishing each other well. He was accelerating and I was determined to keep to the plan. I had a good rhythm going and felt very comfortable hovering around 8 minute/mile pace.

Mile 6 of the Malmesbury Half

Mile 6 of the Malmesbury Half

The 6 mile mark approached. Several things happened in the space of half a mile. A photographer awaited at the bottom of the first climb. A gave her a grin and pressed on up the hill. Before the race started, there had been much chatter about the fact that course was “lumpy” and that there was a terrible hill just before mile six. I was happy to find that the impression I had of the route by looking at an elevation graph  - that it was, in essence, flat – held true on the day. This “terrible” hill was steep but I was up it in a flash.

At 6.75 miles there was an aid station – a little further on than advertised. I had taken a gel not long after cresting the hill and looked for the aid station to get water to wash it down. One small organisational gripe here was that marshals on both sides of the road were so keen to offer cups to runners that they had advanced into the road and, with their outstretched arms, had effectively narrowed the road to such a degree that I almost collided with another runner.

From the hill on I had started to pass people. I felt strong and had to rein myself in from increasing my pace. I joined a small group which had, at it’s centre, two runners that were keeping abreast of one another, trading conversation and looking very comfortable. I slipped in behind them. My Garmin told me they were keeping a very steady pace at just under 8 min/mile. My assumption was that one or both were experienced runners, perhaps using the event as a training race. (I later learned that was indeed the case, with one of them being capable of a 1:16 finish!) So I was happy to sit with this group for a while and see how I felt after another couple of miles.

As the 9 mile mark approached, I was enjoying myself immensely and I decided to notch it up. Leaving the little group I pressed on but was soon surprised as the route turned onto a potholed track of compacted gravel. This slowed me a little initially but I soon hit my stride again, and a little side-to-side was actually a welcome break after 9 miles of linear road running. The shoes coped well with this surface – as they had throughout in the wet conditions. I would later hear complaints from others about how heavy their shoes had become once saturated with water. Whether it was because of the BareX-Light’s mesh upper allowing water to pass through easily or because they are very light (only weighing 150g), the last thing on my mind whilst I was running where my shoes.

In my mental preparations for the race, the ideal strategy was to get to the 10 mile mark and then run my own “5K race”. Remarkably, as I left the gravel behind and mile 10 approached I felt I could go for it. Even the presence of another short steep hill didn’t deter me. With each successive mile I increased my pace, moved up through the field and felt wonderful.

So, on entering town, as I flew down the cobbled hill toward the park, I was reminded of the chase the previous day and, not for the first time during the race, came out in a broad grin. The few who were out in the rain supporting the race responded with encouragement. I was excited and  shouting “well done!” to those who, having already finished and with medals on display, were making their way back through town.

Malmesbury Half finish

Malmesbury Half finish

Over the final stretch, along the narrow park trail I had to dodge several groups of umbrella-wielding pedestrians which I think was pretty poor from a marshalling point of view. I didn’t have time to be grumpy though. My wife and daughter were there and I slowed for a high-five from Lily before heading toward the line. I had not looked at my watch once my own personal  ”5K race” had begun but now, as I crossed the line I glanced down to check my time. And that’s what the photographer saw! If he’d waited a second longer before clicking the shutter he’d have seen a very happy Ape as my Garmin showed 1:41.22!

My training  - overall slower running and Jack Daniel’s inspired pace sandwiches – had improved my speed and endurance and I shall continue in the same vein into the future. My preparations, from taper to race-planning had worked out well. The Inov8 shoes had done their job. I was particularly pleased that I had managed to maintain my pacing discipline and because of this achieved a fairly substantial negative split.

8:06, 7:59, 7:53,7:54, 7:49, 7:53, 8:03, 7:47, 7:43, 7:45, 7:36, 7:20, 6:59, (0.36)

But much, much better than the numbers from my Garmin was how I felt throughout the race and, in particular, during those final 3 miles: light, controlled, strong and with energy to burn. I wonder now if I could achieve something similar over twice the distance …. ?

 

The Pace Sandwich: faster running, less chance of injury

On Sunday 23rd September I will line up for the Malmesbury Half Marathon. It will be only the third time I’ll have raced the distance. The previous one (Frome 2012) was all about completing the event barefoot. The one before that (Chippenham 2011) took place just over a year ago and I ran it  - rather foolishly - whilst recovering from an injury. I finished it in 1 hour 48 minutes and a fair bit of discomfort. For Malmesbury I’m aiming for a personal best finishing time –  preferably below 1:45 – and no injuries .

Though I have entered quite a few races since that ill-fated half marathon, this next one will be the first for which I have set myself a target finishing time. Back in August 2011, I had hoped to be standing at the start of the Chippenham Half with a target time in mind. Instead, I was stood there stubbornly determined to complete the course and steadfastly ignoring the signals my body was sending. “We are not healed yet”, shrieked the strained metatarsal tendons in my feet. “Quiet, down there!” came my terse response, “I am NOT about to let all my hard work and months of training  go to waste!” So much for listening to my body.

Thing is, it was the “hard work” during training that had done me in. I had incorporated interval sessions and tempo runs in to my schedule in a fairly ad-hoc fashion and my naivety regarding both the frequency and intensity of these had resulted in injuries that meant six weeks away from running.

Since then I’ve been cautious about re-introducing faster sessions in to my weekly running, prepared to take the slightest twinge as a warning of impending injury. The races I have entered have been, for the most part, on trails and so more about the challenges of the route than outright speed.

It’s taken me a while to be confident enough to do so, but, over the last two or three months, I have been running faster again; on roads, more regularly and in a way that very much lowers the possibility of over-training injuries. The majority of my running remains, as it has done for most of the year, at a slow “easy” pace. On the one hand, this keeps my solid base of aerobic fitness topped-up. On the other, the low-impact nature of slower running means stress-related injuries aren’t likely to be a problem.

But now, twice a week, I go out on a structured mixed-pace run or, if you will, a pace sandwich.  I really like these workouts, so much so that I’m going to try and sell them to you … you never know, they may save you picking up an injury yourself.

Three runs for the price of one!

Each pace sandwich is a longer distance workout which has at it’s centre a chunk of faster running: for me at the moment this is either a block at my target half-marathon pace or some threshold running which may be one long section or some shorter bursts with recoveries. Whatever makes up the middle portion, these runs always start and finish off with at least 1.5 miles at an easy pace.

So, it feels – psychologically as much as physically - like I’m doing three runs (or more depending on the length of the recoveries) in one session. The shift of mental gears during transition from slow to fast and back again is interesting. I enjoy noticing how my body tries to adapt and my how the perception of my surroundings alters with each change in pace.

Another bonus is that I can run the slower starting or finishing sections barefoot – carrying the shoes I use for the bouts of faster running in my hands. Apart from the fact this keeps my weekly barefoot mileage up, I’ve found this helps with my form on the shod portions. Changing from barefoot to shod and back again really emphasises the feeling of several-runs-in-one.

Warm-up and cool-down included!

In the past, my focus on warming up and cooling down  - essential parts of any workout – has been a little circumspect. Now, in a pace sandwich, the easy-paced sections fore and aft mean that there’s no chance of setting off too quickly at the start or denying my body the luxury of a gradual wind-down at the end. It may seem obvious, but, for me, including these portions into the actual main body of my run has been a hugely positive move. What Dr Philip Maffetone has to say on the matter makes sense:

Time spent warming up and cooling down should be included as part of your total workout … Don’t be fooled into thinking that because you don’t feel like you’re getting much of a workout that the warm-up and cool-down don’t count as part of it. Tremendous health benefits are obtained through these aspects of your training.Dr Philip Maffetone, The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing

It is highly likely that a lack of a proper warm-up and cool-down routine contributed to my over-training injury last year.

Finish feeling like you have more in the tank

After I have completed one of the predetermined faster sections of a mixed-pace run, I have found that I feel like I could have gone a while longer at that pace. However, because the structure of the run is set, I’m not tempted to push it any further than planned. I like this. It gives me confidence and yet signals that I’m not over-doing it. I also like the fact that by the end of a pace sandwich I feel refreshed. Long gone are the days of finishing training runs and feeling out on my feet. I’ll save that level of effort for race day.

Jack Daniels and the VDOT of confidence

Now I am in no way suggesting that mixed-pace training runs are anything new. Indeed, who doesn’t enjoy a ripping good fartlek every now and again? What’s new to me is the concept of adding structure and the specifics of how to do so: the correct intensity of running for the correct length of time, and so on. These things have come to me via the guiding hand of Jack Daniel’s Running Formula, a book that will be familiar to many of you. For those who haven’t come across it before, there now follows a very brief overview.

In order to gain benefit from the Daniels approach, the first thing one must do is use a previous race finishing time to calculate a VDOT number (if you’re interested in this, a quick Google search will reveal that there are many web-based VDOT calculators out there in internet land). From my VDOT I have been presented with a range of training intensities (effectively pace values) for different types of running: repetition-training; interval-training; threshold-training; marathon-pace training; and easy-pace base building. Daniels argues that, until my VDOT changes, there is no benefit to gained from training any faster or harder than prescribed.

Jack Daniel’s Running Formula is a highly detailed training manual. As such I’m not even attempting to offer a review or an opinion as to it’s effectiveness until I’ve followed it’s recommendations and programmes to a more in-depth level. All I’d like to say is that I’ve enjoyed the process that it’s encouraged me to follow in my training thus far and the confidence that when I run faster I am doing so with an intensity that is good for me. I must state categorically that I am not following a Jack Daniels training plan.

Categorically, NOT Jack Daniels

For now, with the Malmesbury Half in my sights, I have adapted one of the training plans in the book. Heavily. First, there is no half marathon plan. So I’ve had to take a marathon plan and judge where to cut times and distances of the suggested workouts. I also joined a 24 week plan at week 18 and, because of circumstances (well, a muddy music festival), I missed almost a week’s worth of training at the peak mileage point. But the crucial element that I’ve taken from the plan is that two workouts each week are structured mixed-pace runs.

Is this enough to run a PB on September 23rd?

Well, I will soon find out. If it doesn’t work out for Malmesbury, then I may have to rethink my training for the next race that comes along. Whatever happens, I shall certainly continue to enjoy delicious pace sandwiches as part of my weekly running.