Ultramarathons. What , why and how are the questions I'm most commonly asked. Hopefully you find some answers here from my own personal perspective. My other blog at www.mile27.com.au/blog is full of information on running and health and fitness in general.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Plank or Crunches , which is the best core exercise for runners?

It’s been a while since my last blog but I’ve got a very topical one for you today. It’s long but take your time and read through it because if you want to learn how to strengthen your core specifically for running you’ll find the answers. Some of you may disagree with me as I challenge some conventional beliefs but this is all derived from applied functional science and is the work of far greater minds than mine.

There has been a lot of importance placed on strengthening the core over the last 5-10 years and a strong core is now seen as a prerequisite for optimal performance. Despite the increased awareness there is lack of real knowledge as to what the core is, what it does and most importantly how to train it.

What is the core?

We often think of the core as simply our abdominal muscles but there is a lot more involved. All the muscles that attach to the pelvis, the abdominals , the spinal muscles, pelvic floor muscles , deep hip muscles, scapula and shoulder girdle muscles make up what we refer to as the core. These muscles are not one big group of muscles that all activate as “the core”. They act depending on the load placed on them.

What does the core do?

The core is responsible for providing the legs and arms a strong platform from which to work. Think of your arms or legs as the arm of a crane and your core as the cranes base. If the base is unstable then the lifting capacity of the crane will be affected.

How do we train it?

There are literally hundreds of different exercises that are claimed to strengthen the core. The problem is that some of them don’t train the core at all and many of them only train the core to be stronger in one particular position. This may or may not be helpful depending on what you need a strong core for.
In our case we are looking at increasing our core strength for when we run. The type of strength required in the core by an Olympic weight lifter, a rugby player, a rower and a runner is going to differ greatly. So it makes sense that certain exercises would suit one sport but not others. Surely if the demands on the core are so different then there should be different core exercises for each particular sport? Why then are core exercises like the plank universally prescribed no matter what the sport?

This would be like saying if you want to improve your running you should do 800m intervals. This might be great for middle distance runners but is of little relevance for rugby players or tennis players. Specific training for specific sports is a concept that all coaches follow but seem to ignore when it comes to core training.

How do we switch our core on and why has ours switched off.

Muscles are “switched on” when the resting tension in a muscle increases. Effective muscle function involves a loading action just as you would load a rubber band by stretching it before releasing it. The more force put through the muscle in the loading phase the more force the muscles can produce. Think of what happens when you want to jump. Your first action is to squat down to load the muscles before you spring back up. The higher you wanted to jump the lower you would go and the faster your movement would be.

Core muscles work the same way. If they are put under load they will switch on. If there is no change in tension then there is no reason for them to activate. No movement equals no demand on the core, so sitting at a desk all day is a great way to switch off our core muscles!

How do we put the core muscle under load?

To put a muscle under load we need to place it under tension. The best way to do that is to take it through a dynamic stretch. For example if you are playing tennis and you want to play a forehand shot, your first action is to rotate your body backwards, this places the oblique abdominal muscles under tension so they can spring back and rotate your body forwards providing the power for your forehand shot.

How does this relate to running?

In running the core muscles are switched on by the loads placed on it by the legs and arms. As your right foot lands your left leg is behind you and your right arm behind you. This places a diagonal load or tension from your left leg to your right arm through your core which “activates” the core muscles.

The gains from any particular exercises are specific to the load, speed, joint position and energy system.

What this means is if we train our legs for example on a leg press machine then the strength we gain will be help us whenever we are lying on our backs pushing a weight away from us with our legs. Whilst this may be of use for a rower it isn’t of any use at all to a runner. The best exercises for a runner will involve standing or landing on 1 leg with the other leg behind us.

Because of this if we want a core exercise that will help us to run better then we need to look at exercises that use the arms and legs to place a load on the core that is similar to the load we experience when we run.

So enough of this theory which exercise is best – crunches or plank?

Hopefully you can now start to realise that neither exercise is very good at all. Crunches involve you lying on your back and lifting your upper body up against gravity. The plank involves supporting your body weight against gravity whilst resting on your arms and legs.

When we run the biggest movement of our torso is rotation which is driven by our arms and legs. Why then, do all the core exercises we do involve very little or no rotation? If thats what our torso does when we run surely we need to train our core to be better at that movement as that is what happens when we run.

So neither are very good – surely they cant hurt?

Unfortunately not only are these exercises not relevant for runners they will actually make the core WEAKER! Performing lots of crunches will tighten the front abdominal muscles creating a more hunched over posture which will reduce the amount of movement in your middle back which will reduce the load on your rotational and lateral core muscles making them weaker.

The plank is an exercise in which people need to use their rectus abdominus (six pack) muscles to stop their back from arching. This overloads the muscle to the detriment of the more internal muscles of the core. You end up with a strong six pack but completely dysfunctional core. Great if you want to lie on a beach and do nothing but not much good for running.

But I really feel my core work when I do these exercises

Unfortunately you are feeling your rectus abdominus work which makes up a very small part of the core. The problem is that this muscle is often recruited by the body at the expense of the other core muscles. So it gets stronger and the other muscles due to lack of work become weaker.

So what exercises are good for the core?

Exercises that involve standing up, preferably with one foot in front of the other and then using the arms or legs to place the core under load are the most beneficial for runners.

What does that mean?

For example standing in a lunge position and then holding a medicine ball and rotating arms from left to right, either at chest height or starting at knee height and rotating around to shoulder height or vice versa. See the end of this article for a video to show you how it's done.

Why should you believe me when everyone else is saying the plank is a great exercise?

Good question.

There is a universal law of training that every exercise professional will agree with.

The law of specific adaptation to imposed demand.

What this means is the strength gained from an exercise is specific to the load, joint position, speed of movement, energy system and range of the movement of that exercise.

When you think about that it makes intuitive sense. We all understand that even though bike riding and running both use our legs if we want to run faster then bike riding is a poor choice compared with running. Ok, there is some benefit as your heart and lungs have to work in both but obviously running would be a better way to use your time. The action of the legs is different in riding a bike compared to running. Take Lance Armstrong – surely the fittest man to ever ride a bike. When he did the New York Marathon he just broke 3 hours, a time that many decent club runners can achieve.

Imagine if all the exercise professionals were saying that the best exercise to help runners in the gym is to ride a bike. You’d be thinking surely there must be something a bit more useful than that. Yet this is exactly what is happening with the core.

The strength gained in the abdominals by performing the plank is applicable when the body needs to support its weight against gravity with both hands and feet on the ground and needs to hold that contraction for a period of time. This makes it an ideal exercise to strengthen your abdominals for when you do push ups but it bears no relation at all to the strength you need in your abdominals when you run.

Let’s analyse what happens to our core when we run. Our feet land 90 times a minute and every time we land our spine and pelvis undergo a rotational stress (among others) which our core must control.

So an exercise that has one leg forward, one leg back and involves rotating our body rapidly would closely resemble what happens when we run. If we hold a medicine ball with our arms to add some resistance then that load will be greater than when we run. The body will adapt this and find it easier to control that rotation when we run in future.

There are some variations of a plank that involve lifting a leg and or arm of the ground and apply different stresses to the core and these are certainly an improvement. But thats like saying riding a bike standing up is better for helping runners. Yes it probably is but it’s still no where near as good as running.

I hear you still asking “Surely it can’t hurt, there must be some benefit?”

Well maybe, maybe not. If you are overloading the already strong muscles in your core and teaching them to hold a static position then it is certainly not going to help the weaker muscles of the core learn to contract and relax 90 times a minute when you run. The more the stronger muscles work the less the weaker muscles have to do so the weaker they become. Net result: weaker core for running.

If you want to do an exercise to help your running it must place a similar load on it that running does and in a similar position.

Give up the crunch and the plank and try these three running specific core exercises.

1. Lunge position with rotation

a. Holding a weight with both arms rotate your arms around horizontally
b. Rotating from a waist high position to a shoulder high position

2. Lunge position with sideways overhead reach

Holding a weight overhead with both arms reach to one side as far as possible and then the other side

3. Lunge position with overhead reach

Holding weight with both arms swing arms upwards over head.

See the video below for a demonstration of these exercises.

These exercises are designed for people with no injury problems so if you have any please seek advice before attempting these.

For those of you that read my blog on resistance training for runners you will recognise that these exercises sound very familiar. The only difference is that instead of lunging forward with the legs the legs remain fixed. This puts the emphasis less on the legs and more on the core.

There are many other exercises that work the core and for my clients I design specific ones based on their requirements and their specific strengths and weaknesses but these ones are great exercises to train the core in three different planes of motion.

But I don’t feel my core as much as when I do the plank!

You may not but what is the purpose of the exercise – to feel your abdominals work or strengthen them so they are stronger for running? Feeling something work is irrelevant particularly if its the wrong muscle! The muscles of the core only need to activate at around 10-15% of their maximum strength to provide adequate support to the body. The idea is they can continue to maintain this level of activation for a long period of time. Much like an endurance runner can run for a long period of time but not as fast as a sprinter. As runners we need to train our core to have enough endurance to support us throughout our races. For this reason your core exercises should be done at a lower intensity but longer duration.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Should you do your long runs without sports drink?

Does training in a fasted state without using sports drinks or gels improve endurance performance?

I am often asked if sports drinks and gels are worthwhile. Are they necessary on a long run? Running on an empty stomach has got to improve the ability of the body to burn fat doesn't it?

The research from a number of studies on this is fairly conclusive.

The good news

Training on an empty stomach without additional carbohydrates WILL increase fat oxidation.

The bad news

If however before your race you have a pre-race meal and drink sports drink or consume gels or bars during the race then your ability to oxidise fat is no better than someone who drank sports drink during their training runs.

More bad news

Training in a fasted state and without consuming additional carbohydrate's means you won't be able to run as fast in training. To break down fat you require more oxygen and it takes longer to break down so therefore you have to run slower. Admittedly your pace will improve as your body becomes more efficient at breaking down fat but you would still be able to run faster using sports drink or at least having breakfast.

Your training should reflect your race

Your body adapts to the specific demands placed on it in training. So if your race involves competing on an empty stomach with no possibility of additional carbohydrates then training in a fasted state is very beneficial. If your race allows you to have some form of breakfast and has the means of providing you with sports drinks, gels or other food during the race why would you train to become more efficient at not having this?

What about if I run out of energy between aid stations? Will training fasted help then?

If you start to run low in energy and it's a few miles till the next aid station to top up your supplies will all that training in a fasted state help you know? I wasn't able to find any studies at all on this scenario and it's quite possible that it may help. But if this happens it means you didn't plan your nutrition very well during the race and you'd be better off giving more thought to organising your nutritional strategy.

Surely it can't hurt to run in a fasted state?

Remember that running in a fasted state means you have to run slower than if you consumed carbohydrates. All of us instinctively know this which is why we'd never fast before a big race and avoid sports drinks and gels during the race (I'm sure there are some notable exceptions to the rule but thats all they are – exceptions).

So lets say you can run your long run of say 20 miles at 9 min mile pace in a fasted state and when you have breakfast and have gels you can manage 8.45 min miles . Assuming you did this long run each weekend for around 3 months before your race. That means you would have run 260 miles of long runs. So you've run 260 miles at a pace 15 seconds per mile slower than you could have run if you'd consumed carbohydrates. Thats a lot of miles running at a slower pace. Yes your long run is meant to be easy but running at 8.45 min mile would feel no harder than running 9 min miles if you've eaten.

Of course this is a made up example and there are no studies I've seen that prove there is this much difference between the two but the fact is you cannot run as fast in a fasted state compared with ingesting a steady stream of carbohydrates.

What about if I need to drop a few pounds to reach optimal race weight?

Exercising at a low intensity for a long period of time is sometimes recommended to lose fat as it burns the biggest percentage of energy from your fat stores. Percentages don't really matter though as the overall energy cost is low so a large percentage of a low amount doesn't add up to much.

What is important is what is going to boost your metabolism. Since you can only exercise for so many hours per week surely it makes more sense to see if you can boost your metabolism during the hours you are not exercising. Even if you exercise for 2 hours a day that still leaves 22 hours a day you aren't.

Best way to boost your metabolism?

High intensity interval training is a proven way to not only boost your metabolism but also improve your endurance . Interval training improves lactate tolerance, increases aerobic endurance, boosts your metabolism and increases running efficiency. It should be a part of every runners routine.

The Verdict

Many years ago it was thought that you could train yourself to cope without water during a run by practising not drinking in training. That has long since been disregarded. Now we've moved to practising not drinking sports drinks. Hopefully people will realise that their training and consequently their racing would be much improved if they had a small breakfast and consumed some carbohydrates during their long run.

People will argue that they have never had sports drink and they run a very fast marathon and in fact Haile Gebrselassie apparently drank nothing but water in one of his marathons. Just because someone can perform well without sports drink doesn't mean they cant perform better with sports drink! In Gebrselassie's case an elite athlete can store enough carbohydrates for around 2 hours of running at around 85% of maximum heart rate. Running a marathon in 2 hours and 4 minutes allows him to get away with only drinking water. The rest of us aren't so lucky!

Now as far as the type of sports drink and the amount to consume well thats another question all together. Not all sports drinks and gels are the same. I'll cover this topic in another blog.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Running Free Magazine November

Here's a link to an article on Ten Tips for Strength Training for Runners that I wrote for Running Free Magazine. It's on page 30.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Running Free Magazine October 2009

Here's a link to download an article on Ten Tips to staying injury free that I wrote for Running Free Magazine. It's on page 40.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Resistance Training For runners Part 2

Hopefully you've read part 1 and are ready to take your training to the next level. This article gets a bit technical at the start whilst it explains a few important concepts but will leave you with a few ideas of how to change your exercise routine to give you the greatest benefit to your running.

Before I go on any further I just want to clarify that both part 1 and part 2 of these articles is referring to the general conditioning of runners. The aim is to make you a better runner. If you want stronger legs for squatting or bike riding or anything else then this article isn't for you. I am presuming running is something you do as a habit and that you don't have any injuries that affect your running.

If you have any injuries please see the article here

Most of us think of running as primarily a straight line orientated activity so we perform exercises like lunges in a straight line. Although the net result of all our body's efforts is forward movement, each individual joint in the body actually goes through movement in 3 different directions at the same time. Now I appreciate this may not make a lot of sense at first but stay with me and I'll try and explain. There are three important principles to get your head around. The first one is that every joint moves in three different planes of motion at the same time. The second is that we need the strength to control that motion in all three planes and finally; the movement or strength, or the lack of movement or strength at a particular joint will affect every other joint in the body.

Every joint moves in three different planes of motion at the same time.

Each and every joint in our body can move in 3 different planes and therefore 6 different directions. If we analyse the hip joint for example you can easily see that you have the ability to swing your thigh forward and back, (for the technically minded this is known as the sagittal plane) side to side ( frontal plane) and turn your thigh in and turn your thigh out ( transverse plane). So we have three different planes and within each plane we can move in two opposite directions.

When we run our hips moves in three different directions. When we land on our right foot our right thigh has swung forward – direction 1. The action of our foot landing causes our foot to pronate ( roll in), this causes the lower leg to rotate inwards which in turn causes the upper thigh to rotate in – direction 2. The pronation of the foot also means the knee travels inwards which causes the thigh to move inwards. So the upper thigh has moved in three different directions at the same time! How much movement we have and how well we control it greatly affects the way we run.

The amount of movement that occurs in each of these directions is dependant on how flexible we are and how strong we are. Some people lack the flexibility, other people are very flexible but lack the strength to control that flexibility. Someone who runs with knock knees often cant control the inwards rotation of the thigh properly and people whose knees turn out when they run typically lack flexibility in the sideways movement of the thigh.

This 3 dimensional movement occurs not only at the hips but also at the knees, feet, ankles, spine and shoulder joints. Some joints will have a very small range of movement but just because they don't move much doesn't mean that it's not important. The brake pads on a push-bike only move a few millimetres but if they don't move then you are in real trouble!

The body often tries to make up for a lack of movement in one direction by obtaining the missing movement in one of the other directions. For example you often notice runners whose feet turn out as they push off. This can be because their calf muscles don't give the ankle enough forward movement so the body gets that missing movement by making the foot turn out more.

Determining whether you have too much movement or not enough is beyond the scope of this article but what I hope to give you is some exercises that develop both strength and flexibility. Someone who specialises in assessing the functional movements of the body will be able to determine your specific strengths and weaknesses. (Contact me for more information)

We need the strength to control this three dimensional movement

The range of movement is only one part of the equation. The strength to control that movement is just as important. If we lack this strength then the joint can go through too much movement and the energy which is stored in the muscle is lost. Much like pulling a rubber band back too far and breaking it. This doesn't mean we will tear a muscle ( although that can happen), it means all the energy that was being stored in the muscle is lost so it is much harder to propel ourselves forward. Using the rubber band analogy if you break the rubber band the only way for it to travel forward is for you to throw it which obviously uses up much more energy than just flinging it forward if it hadn't broken.

The ability to load in three different planes and then explode out of that position is how muscles work most effectively. If the resistance training exercises you perform don't load the joints in all three directions then you are not training the muscles efficiently.

The key to a good resistance training program is to make the exercises harder than the task we are training for , in this case running. When we perform a lunge for example we often use a weight to increase the load and we take our knees and hips through a greater range of movement than when we run. This is great for the forwards and backwards motion of our joints but we've completely ignored the sideways motion and the rotational motion. By modifying a lunge to include components of the sideways movement and rotational movement we can create a much more effective exercise. The same can be done for jump lunges, jumps, hops etc.

The movement or strength or lack of movement or strength at a particular joint will affect every other joint in the body.

Most of you will remember the song “ the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone ...”. This idea that everything is connected all the way from the foot to the head is a concept that has been ignored until recently. Latest research shows that what happens at the foot can have a dramatic effect on what happens at the knee, hip, spine and even shoulder.

To give you some example of this try standing up and getting a sense of awareness of what kind of curve you have in your lower back. Now turn your feet so your toes point towards each other as much as possible and notice how your lower back feels. Next turn your toes out as much as possible and again notice how your lower back feels. What you probably noticed is that when your toes pointed in the curve in your lower back increased and when they turned out the curve flattened. Even if you didn't notice this you will have seen that when your toes pointed in your knees pointed in and your upper thighs pointed inwards and vice versa when your toes pointed out. Remember I didn't ask you to move your back or knees or thighs, just your feet.

Hopefully you can see that just by moving our feet we can effect the curve in our lower back. What you may not have noticed is that if the curve of your lower back changed then the curve in your upper back will have changed also. If the curve in your upper back changed then the way your shoulder blades connect with your upper back will have changed. This will have affected how the muscles that connect your arms to your shoulder blade act. So just by changing your foot position you have affected how your arms work!

By training only one part of the body in isolation to the rest of the body we ignore the effect the rest of the body has on that joint. By sitting on a machine lifting our legs we ignore the effect the movements of the feet and pelvis have on the activation of the hip, thigh and pelvic muscles.

Training for running must involve the use of the feet, knees, hips, pelvis and arms at the same time to activate the leg, hip, core, shoulder, back and arm muscles most effectively.

The Exercises

Okay enough theory, hope that made sense and you understand the basic principles. Here are some ways to load the body in all three dimensions that relate to running.

Taking the basic lunge and then adding in different arm movements we can load the body in each of the three planes.

Forward and back Plane ( Sagittal)

1. Lunge forward and with both arms reach towards the ground in front of your foot, touching the ground if you can.

2. Lunge forward and with both arms reach back over and behind your head.

Sideways Plane ( Frontal)

Place both arms in the air above your head.

1. Lunge forward and lean to one side, reaching your arms sideways

2. Lunge forward and lean to the other side , reaching your arms sideways

Rotational Plane ( Transverse)

Hold both arms out in front of you at shoulder height.

1. Lunge forward and swing your arms over your front leg

2. Lunge forward and swing your arms away from your front leg.

Training Tips

Each of these different arm movements will load the joints and muscles of the body in different ways. If you find one particular movement more difficult than the others then it most likely indicates your body doesn't like that movement because it lacks either the strength or flexibility to perform it well. Meaning thats the one you should do more than the others.

If you find a difference between left and right your first priority is to achieve equality between left and right.

Once you have this then you can start to add load to the exercises by holding a weight or medicine ball in your hands.

The speed of the movement will affect the difficulty. If any of you remember your high school physics you'll remember Force = mass x acceleration. So if we have a low mass ( light weight) but move it quickly ( high acceleration) then we will have a high force applied to our joints. We can also achieve the same thing by using a heavy mass and slow acceleration but which one do you think is more applicable to running?

As far as sets and repetitions go I would suggest starting of with around 5-10reps and 1-2 sets of each different movement. As you get used to the movements you can increase the reps to increase your endurance or weight to increase strength. Which one depends on what you goal is. If you are an ultrarunner then obviously endurance is the priority, if you are trying to improve your 5k time then strength may be of some benefit.

You can add these arm movements into any of the legs exercises listed in part 1 of this article.

If those descriptions don't quite make sense I will endeavor to put a link on to youtube with a video of me doing them so you can see what it looks like.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Running Free Magazine September 2009

Here's a link to download an article on Ten Tips to Running Faster that I wrote for Running Free Magazine. It's on page 40.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Resistance training for runners Part 1.

If you are looking for a simple list of the best exercises that you should do then stop reading now. If you want to understand in more detail the loads the legs are placed under when we run and how different exercises have different affects on the body and through that learn the types of exercises that will best improve your running performance then read on.

Resistance training for runners can have many benefits. Increased leg strength and endurance means our legs can tolerate more load ( running either faster or for longer), tolerate the demands of running downhill more effectively, increase power to run uphills, decrease our risk of injuries, strengthen our tendons and ligaments and improve our running efficiency to name a few.

To get the most out of resistance training the exercises performed should place the body under similar loads as running does. One of the key principles to resistance training is the SAID principle. - Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. What this means is the body will adapt to whatever training load ( imposed demand) you put on it by becoming more efficient at performing that particular task (specific adaptation). Each exercise we perform in the gym involves a complex series of muscular contractions throughout the whole body. Every exercise is different and the brain remembers what combination of muscles it has to activate and what forces it has produce to perform the exercise more efficiently next time. If we are training for a specific function i.e. running then it makes sense that we should ensure that the exercises we select place the body under as similar load to running as possible.

I often hear people say that certain exercises really burn their thighs so it must be a good for runners. Unfortunately this is far from the truth. Resistance exercises work the legs without doubt but that's where the similarities with running end for many of them. I know what you are thinking. “Surely resistance training which uses leg muscles must help our legs become stronger for running? They are not that different activities?” This depends on the type of resistance training and sometimes it can actually make you weaker for running not stronger.

Another key principle to consider is the difference between movement type muscles and stabiliser muscles. Some muscles in our body are designed to make us move and others are designed to keep our joints stable whilst we move. If our movement type muscles place our joints under more load than the stabilising muscles of our joints can handle then we end up injured. The brain tries to prevent this by decreasing the amount of force our movement muscles can produce. An easy way to understand this is think about how fast you can run on the track compared with running on a rocky undulating surface. On the rocky surface our brain knows our ankles are struggling to remain stable so it will decrease the amount of force the movement type muscles in our legs can produce which means we run slower.

If the stabilising muscles are weak then often the brain will try and make the movement type muscles try and act more as a stabiliser . So now you have the muscles that are responsible for moving you as quickly as possible as trying to stabilise you as well. The result is you tire more easily. If you can increase the strength of the stabilising muscles you allow the movement muscles to get on with the task of moving your limbs as fast as possible.

To understand which exercises are best for running we first need to understand the loads placed on our body when we run. We can then select particular exercises that emphasise these loads. There are three main points to consider.

1.Running is a one legged activity.

Running by definition involves one foot being off the ground at all times. What this means is that when we land we have to stabilise the foot, knee, hip, pelvis and spine against the landing forces of with one leg not two. We also have to stabilise the non landing side of the body against the forces of gravity. For example when we land on one leg, gravity continues to act on the other side of the body causing it to drop. The muscles on the landing side of the body have to control that drop so you don't end up swaying side to side.

So you can immediately see that any exercises done with two feet on the ground ( or machine) is not going to place the body under a similar load to running. The muscles that control the gravitational force on the other side of the body wont have to perform any work at all as there is no force on that side since the leg is already on the ground. So what do you think will happen to those particular muscles? Well if they are not being placed under any load then there is no stimulus to become stronger and if they are not needed then they will become weaker.

Let me be very clear on this point so there is no confusion. Doing 2 legged exercises will make the muscles that stabilise your body when on one leg WEAKER.

2.Running involves landing on one leg.

The biggest load on the body when running is the one that occurs when we land. This seems obvious but how many exercises in the gym do you see involving landing on one leg? Standing on one leg and squatting up and down is not the same as the foot is already on the ground.

3.Muscles have more strength when they are lengthened and loaded first.

To illustrate this point try this simple test. Stand up and then jump. Now try and and jump a little higher. What you will have noticed is the first movement you made to jump up was to squat down. When you tried to jump higher you would have squatted lower. Why would you squat lower when the aim is to jump higher?

By squatting lower you increase the length and load on the big muscles of the hip which are responsible for jumping, allowing you to jump higher.

Think of trying to fling a rubber band , the further back you pull the band the further forward it flys. The tendons and ligaments in your legs operate in much the same way. The more they are stretched under load the more power they have when released. The good news for runners is gravity can provide this load so we effectively recieve energy for free.

A good example of this is the Achilles tendon. As we land our lower leg continues to travel forward which places a stretch and load on the calf muscles and Achilles tendon. The Achilles stores this energy which is then released as our calf muscles contract and we push off the ground.

All the muscles in our legs operate in the same manner. As we land our leg muscles have to prevent our leg from collapsing into the ground. The muscles act as a breaking force against gravity. This obviously happens at speed and takes less than 0.5 of a second. During this process muscles are loaded and lengthened which is then released as we drive off the leg.

This is why good runners make running look effortless. They are actually putting in less effort than slower runners because they have become very efficient at loading and unloading their muscles..

Hopefully you can now understand that running is the process of landing on one leg, decelerating that movement by loading and lengthening the muscles in the leg and then pushing off again.

Lets now look at the different types of leg exercises commonly used in the gym and see if they are of any use to the runner.

Leg Press, Leg Curl , Leg Extension

Exercises such as leg press ( lying on your back pushing a weight with your legs) , leg curl (lying or seated curling your legs behind you) and leg extensions, (sitting straightening your legs in front of you) are all of very little value as they are all in a seated or lying position. This means all the hip, knee,foot and core muscles that are involved in supporting you when you stand on one leg don't have to work at all.

Yes these exercises might make your legs stronger and you might feel it burn in all the right places but that's not the point. Does it load your muscles in a similar way to running? The answer I hope you can see by now is a resounding NO. The likely result from doing these type of exercises is stronger movement based muscles and weaker stabilising muscles. This translates into weaker legs for running as your movement based muscles now have to take on the role of stabiliser muscles as well. A job they are not designed to do.

When choosing leg exercises ELIMINATE any that involve lying or sitting down using a machine. Remember by doing these types of exercises you are likely to make your muscles LESS able to handle the demands of running.


There are many different versions of the squat and done correctly even a two legged squat can be of some benefit. Particularly using it as an initial exercise to build strength for the more useful running exercises.

The obvious problem is squats are normally performed on 2 legs which negates the use of all the stabiliser muscles in the hip, feet knees and core.

The second problem is that when squatting we control the descent, typically taking 1-2 seconds. When we run the descent takes less than 0.5 of a second.

The third problem is when we squat our feet are already on the ground so we don't have to deal with the landing forces that occur 90 times a minute on each leg when we run. Whether squatting is done with a bar, dumbbells, bodyweight or ball behind your back it should only ever be done as a means of developing initial strength in your legs and hips. If you've been running for a while you'll have this already and should choose a more relevant running exercise.

One legged squats are obviously are better option than two legged as at least we have to involve the stabilising muscles of the hip, knee, foot and core. But even 1 legged squats miss out a crucial ingredient of a good running exercise. There are no landing forces involved as our feet are already on the ground.


The lunge is a much better option. For starters it looks similar to running with one leg forward and one leg back. If we start with feet together and step forward landing on one foot we have to deal with the landing forces as our foot hits the ground. The landing is relatively quick so simulates a similar load to running. The foot, knee, hip and core muscles all have to work to stabilise the body as we land. One of the down sides is the action of pushing back to the start position. During running we push forward not back.

Walking Lunge

This is the same as a normal lunge except instead of pushing back we continue forward. This is resembles running even more so but it still has it's limitations. The landing force is on one leg but the other leg is still on the ground so the landing forces and the stabilisation load on the opposite side of the body aren't as high as it would be during running. Another problem is when we land we typically land on our heel when we lunge ( or walk) whereas when we run we should land on the mid foot or toes ( see http://andydubois.blogspot.com/2009/06/running-heel-to-toe-in-supportive.html)

Jump Lunges

This involves starting in a lunge position and then jumping in the air and swapping legs over so you land on your other foot. This is a more dynamic exercise that increases the speed of the landing and therefore increases the landing forces. It also allows you to land on your toes so makes for an excellent exercise for runners. The deeper you go when you land the more the muscles of the hips and thighs are loaded.

Skipping and Jumping

Skipping and jumping are particularly useful for training the calves and the Achilles tendon. Deeper jumps can also effectively load the big muscles of the hips. Although landing on two legs there is still significant landing forces ( particularly when jumping higher and or longer distances) involved . Jumping and skipping make an excelletn introduction into one of the best exercises for runners.


Bounding is basically running but with REALLY long strides. The longer stride means increased landing forces and therefore greater demand on the leg hip and core muscles. Very effective exercise for runners.


Hopping is even more difficult than bounding as you hop from one leg to the same leg rather than landing on the other leg as you do when you run or bound. Landing forces are higher than for running. This is the ideal scenario. To be able to replicate running in the gym with an increased load so when you run outside it feels easier.

I have listed these exercises from easiest to most challenging and I would recommend most people start with Lunges and progress to walking lunges, jump lunges, jumping, bounding and finally hopping.

In part two of this article I will discuss running as a three dimensional activity. We think of running as a one directional activity ie. We run in a straight line. Our body direction might be in a straight line but every joint in our body is moving in three different directions at once. By adapting our exercises to load in each of these directions we can make our resistance training exercises even more effective.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Why we get injured and is rest the best treatment?

Bit of a long post today but hopefully a very informative one.

Injuries have plagued me for many years and I have suffered almost every running injury there is. I also develop rehabilitation programs for many of my clients suffering injuries, so I've got a keen interest into why the body becomes injured and what the best approach is to recover from the injury. Over the last year or so I have turned my attention to how to prevent them in the first place.

We tend not to think about injuries until we sustain one and then we restart the stretching routine we've been neglecting. This is obviously not the smartest way to approach the problem. If we could somehow prevent them before they happened we'd save a lot of time. Injury prevention to most people means warm up and cool down properly and stretch. Pretty boring really which is why we tend to skip it. Well new training techniques have been developed that not only prevent injuries they also improve performance. Read on and I'll tell you all about it.

Why injuries occur.

Injuries occur because a joint, muscle, tendon or ligament is placed under more load than it can handle. This can be a progressive load that gradually overloads the structure over time or a sudden load which damages the structure immediately. Either way the load is more than the structure can tolerate.

Injuries suffered from a progressive load are initially felt as a minor discomfort that disappears after warm up. The progressive load continues to wear down the structures and the minor discomfort increases to the point where it is present all the time and exercise is compromised.

What to do when we are injured

The goal of injury recovery should be to return the body to a condition that if it was placed under the same load that brought about the initial injury it would be able to handle that load. Unfortunately most injury recovery programs aim to return the body to it's pre-injury state , i.e. the same state that was unable to handle the training load placed on it

The first advice given when suffering an injury is rest. Unfortunately rest is often thought of as the magic cure for all injuries. If you start training again and you are still injured then you simply didn't rest for long enough. Rest is of course beneficial in many situations but what does rest actually mean? Doing no exercise at all is most peoples definition of rest and unfortunately rest alone doesn't often solve the problem.

If you have strained a muscle then rest will give your body a chance to repair damaged tissues. The body repairs muscle tissue by depositing collagen fibres in the muscle. These fibres are aligned randomly over the torn muscle fibres. Without further stretching, massage and exercise these new fibres won't align themselves to the same direction as the muscle fibres and become known as scar tissue. Scar tissue is weaker and less elastic than muscle tissue so your chances of becoming injured in the future are greatly increased. So although a period of rest is required, a period of active recovery is also required before the body is ready to resume normal exercise.

When the injury doesn't involve a torn muscle such as knee pain, tendinitis, lower back pain, shin pain etc. rest has very little affect on the injury. To understand why think of what you would do if your car is making a horrible noise and not firing on all cylinders. The approach you are least likely to take is to not drive it for a week, then try it again a week later and hope that magically the problem has been fixed. You may argue that the body unlike a car is an organic organism and therefore has the ability to repair itself. This thought is valid in the case of a torn muscle but if faulty biomechanics are the cause of pain then resting for a week isn't going to change the biomechanics and consequently the pain will be the same. The site of the injury may feel improved initially as the weeks rest has given the body a chance to reduce any inflammation present but the cause of the inflammation has not been addressed.

To truly recover from an injury the actual cause of the injury must be addressed. Often we are told the cause of an injury is a tight muscle. For example Iliotibial band syndrome is often “caused” by a tight Tensor Fasciae Latae muscle. Stretching this muscle will solve all our problems apparently. However have you ever asked yourself why that muscle is tight in the first place? Often it is because part of your Gluteal muscles are weak. Why aren't they working like they should? Identifying the root cause or causes of the problem is the key to overcoming injury. Once this has been discovered then corrective exercises can be used to stretch, strengthen, activate, stabilise and mobilise the appropriate muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments.

Once we are injury free how can we prevent any further injury?

Common advice is to make sure we increase our training mileage gradually, make sure we run in good shoes, introduce speed and hill work in small amounts and slowly build it up, take recovery weeks and recovery training sessions regularly, get regular massage and stretch before and after training sessions. This is all very good advice that should be followed by everyone, but, many of us who follow this advice still get injured. Why?

Almost all injuries happen unilaterally. We strain a muscle on one side of our body but the same muscle on the other side is fine. We blame the increase in mileage or speed work, shoes that are to old or stretching that we didn't do after the session yet we never think to consider why the other side didn't become injured as well? If increasing the mileage too quickly was the “cause” of the injury why did one side become injured whilst the other side coped ? If the extra speed session we introduced is the reason we became injured how was it that one side coped without any problems?

The truth is that particular muscles and joints on one side of the body could cope with the demand placed on it whereas the other side of the body couldn't. If both left and right joints had the same strength, flexibility, mobility and stability as each other then it makes sense that the body would have coped with the training demands placed on it. Think about all the injuries you've ever had. Have you ever been injured in both your left and right leg or arm in the same spot at the same time? No, thought not. So if we really want to prevent injuries then we need to ensure the strength ,flexibility, mobility and stability in the joints and muscles on our left side are the same as the right side.

Obviously there are some loads which no matter how balanced , strong and flexible the body is it wont be able to cope with. You will however receive plenty of warning signs from your body before this happens and if you listen to these will be able to avoid injury.

How to determine if your body is balanced, strong, flexible and mobile?

Many of us will already realise we have one muscle tighter than another. Unfortunately the solution is not as simple as stretching out the tight muscle. You need to discover why that muscle is tighter. If you stretch it you will only temporarily increase muscle length because the reason it became tight in the first place hasn't been addressed.

To fully understand your joints and muscles strengths and weaknesses relative to your activity you need to assess the movement of every joint in the body as it performs that activity. For example the demands placed on your musculoskeletal system during tennis are far different to that during long distance running.

We think of an activity like distance running as a fairly one directional activity. We run in a straight line after all so how many other directions of movement can be involved. Although we do run in a straight line all of our joints and muscles move in three different directions or planes. Take your hip for example. During running when your front leg hits the ground your hip goes through internal rotation, adduction and flexion. In plain english that means your upper thigh rotates in relative to your pelvis, moves closer to the midline of the body and your upper thigh lifts. Every joint goes through the 3 dimensional movement in varying different degrees.

The foot bone is connected to the ankle bone ....

Another factor that is often ignored is that the body works as one complete unit. What happens in one part of the body affects what happens in another part. If you've injured your foot then it affects the way your whole leg, pelvis spine and even the other leg function. No joint works in isolation. Take the knee , it's function is connected to and dependant on what happens at the foot and what happens at the hip, not to mention the spine. To truly recover from and prevent injury the whole body needs to be assessed because your knee problem might be stemming from a lack of movement in your foot or a tight muscle in your hip and have very little to do with "tight" or "weak" muscles around the knee.

An assessment that takes every joint in the body through three different planes of movement in relation to your chosen activity will very quickly highlight problem areas. Once identified these can be corrected through specific exercises. Once any deficiencies have been corrected then exercises can be progressed to develop overall strength, flexibility, stability and mobility in relation to your specific activity. This will not only improve your movement efficiency it will also allow you to withstand a greater training load and therefore improve performance.

If you would like to be assessed and are based in London I am offering free functional assessments for the first 5 people to contact me which will highlight any deficiencies in your feet, ankles, knees, hips, lumbar spine, thoracic spine and shoulder joint relative to your sport. Please contact me on andydubois@hotmail.co.uk for more information.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

World Trail Championships 2009 Serre Chevalier

On returning from a two week holiday in Morocco I received an email confirming I had been selected for the Australian team for the World Trail Challenge. To be accurate I was the only member of the team and the only person who put in a nomination for the event, but I was told that my previous performance's where of a sufficiently high standard to warrant selection. So having just turned 40 I had achieved something that for many years thought would only ever be a dream – to represent my country in my chosen sport. This thrill was tempered by the fact I only had 6 weeks to train for the event and in the middle of that 6 weeks I had the 100km World Championships. Not exactly much time to prepare for an event that involved 68km of running up and down highly technical mountain trails with 3500m of ascent and descent. This is the same ascent/descent as climbing Mt Everest from base camp! However the chance to represent your country doesn't come around very often so I couldn't refuse

I wasn't as well prepared as I have been for other mountainous ultra's. Normally I spend a lot of time running up and down trails, getting my legs used to the extra load that comes with running downhill. Having the confidence to run down hills fast involves training the legs to be able to react quickly to changes of direction, having the ability to slow down quickly to avoid overshooting a bend, having the strength in your feet and ankles to cope with rocky, uneven tracks and be able to leap over rocks, tree roots etc with the confidence that you'll clear the obstacle and land safely.

Even doing all this I still lack the essential ingredient to become a really good downhill runner on technical trails – being fearless. All the good fell runners have no fear, they can switch off the brain and trust the legs. It's like downhill mountain bikers, they love the adrenaline that comes with pushing the descent right to the edge of their capabilities without the constant thought that if they fall they could break several bones. My mind always says if you fall now you could tumble down that slope for several hundred metres and surely injure yourself. Despite this I managed to remain competitive in mountainous ultras as I may not be great a running down very technical slopes but I am good at running down slopes that aren't so steep , so I usually manage to make up any ground lost when the slope levels off a bit.

Going into the race I had no idea what kind of time I should aim for and I find aiming for a position is always counterproductive as you can never control what other people do so I had to think about what kind of goals to set for the race.

What criteria do we use to decide if we have had a good race or not? How do we know if we should be pleased with our performance or disappointed? For some it is the position they finish or the time they do, for some it might be just to finish but for many it's a bit more complicated than that especially for the ultra-runner..

I have several criteria . If I can finish a race without injury affecting my performance is one factor. This might seem strange to any of you reading this who run shorter races but in an ultra a little niggle or sore spot that wouldn't affect you in a half marathon or marathon can force you to a painful limp after 50 miles. Next is having control over my body for the whole of the race. During an ultra the body starts making very obvious signs it wants to slow down or stop, if I can control and override these signs making my body do what I want it to do not what it feels like doing is very rewarding.

I also derive a great sense of satisfaction in finishing races strongly. If I can push hard right till the end of a race rather than have to really struggle and slow to a shuffle or worse still a walk means that I've raced the whole course. Sometimes in a race you go into “just get to the finish” mode rather than trying to get to the finish as fast as possible. If the aim was just to finish then speed wouldn't matter, but it is a race after all so finishing strongly and racing the whole course is always a goal.

During any race you always have good and bad patches, how I deal with those bad patches often decides if it's been a good race or not. Sometimes the bad patches can overwhelm you and you lose the sense of racing for a while and go into survival mode. If I can get through the bad patches by staying strong mentally and continue to race throughout these patches then I know I'm doing ok.

Last of all and certainly not least is did I enjoy the whole experience , whether that's because of the scenery, the atmosphere, support along the race, other competitors camaraderie or just the challenge of the race itself, if I don't enjoy it then whats the point.

So with those thoughts in mind I arrive in the Serre Chevalier Valley in the French Alps near the Italian border at the town of Le Monetier les Bains . As it is the World Championships an opening ceremony complete with a parade of nations was organised. Being from Australia and as there was nobody representing Antiga, Andorra, Angola or any other country with letters starting before Au I was first in line. So carrying the Aussie flag with a great sense of pride I lead the other nations through the small town to the presentation area, watched mainly by athletes friends and family and a few bemused locals. I can only imagine what it must feel like to do this at an Olympic games!
A few speeches follow and then I head back to the hotel for an early night.

Rising at the ungodly hour of 3.20 am I have my liquid breakfast and get myself ready. I am a little nervous as to how my body will cope. After the 100km race 3 weeks ago one of my groin muscles has been a bit sore, it felt ok in my last training run but that was only an hour so I'm not sure if it will hold up for 68km and my knee had been a little sore after doing a stairs session. A sore knee wasn't a good thing to have when the race involved 3500m of downhill. It feel ok warming up so I hope it will get me through the race.

It is still dark when we set off at 5am. The first section of the race is a “gentle” 11km path which follows the valley floor rising approx 400m . Usually my legs feel great at the start of a race but today they feel like they would be happier lying on a couch. I feel like I am working much harder than I should be for a race this long and am worried if I feel this bad at the start how am I going to feel at the finish. I am getting passed by quite a few people which doesn't fill me with confidence either. I take a mental time out and tell myself to forget everyone else just focus on running my own race. Slowing the pace just slightly I gradually start to find a rhythm. A quick check of my body reveals my knee feels ok as does my groin so all good so far. My biggest fear is if either of these become so bad during the race that it forces me to walk or even worse pull out. I am representing my country and I want to give a good account of myself.

After the first “gentle” section finished the climb to Galibier at 2579 metres begins. It is a steady climb that gradually reveals the most magnificent views along the valley. The sun is still hidden behind the mountains behind me but the intial darkness has turned into a pale blue light. It is going to be a nice day by the looks of it.

It is too steep a climb for much running to be done so power walking is the go. I am starting to feel better and better as the climb continues. After a hour or so the refuge de Galibier comes into view at which the first aid station is situated. A quick drink and off I go again. Here is where the climb gets interesting, it goes from being steep to almost vertical. It follows a narrow “path” which is steep enough in places to warrant using your arms to help pull you up!

At the top of this climb the summit is reached and the views are breathtaking. The sun has risen above the mountain range and illuminated the valley and rows of mountain peaks in a 360 degree panorama. A truly stunning sight. I have a quick stop here to get my sunglasses out of my backpack and whilst I do take the opportunity to take a few photo's. I had debated with myself whether to take a camera or not. I knew the scenery was meant to be superb but this was a race. In the end I decided to take it and if an opportunity arose where I was stopping for another reason such as getting sunglasses, clothes, etc out of my pack then I'd take a photo. I wasn't going for first place so 15 seconds lost in taking a photo won't matter.

As the old saying goes – what comes up must come down. The first descent and the first real test of my knee. I set off nervously downhill. Just 5 days ago my knee was still sore running down the hills in Hampstead heath which dont even compare to this. Will it cope?

The first descent is ridiculously steep on a very narrow path that changes direction frequently. I am slow and am passed a lot. I have no confidence in my ability to run quickly and safely down this and don't want to risk falling. I carefully make my way down until finally the path evens out a bit and I can start striding out, I begin overtaking some of those who passed me earlier. My knee feels ok and I am starting to feel more confident about the challenge ahead.

The descent is long and very steep and I am quite happy to get to the bottom of it in one piece. I run hard when I can and take it carefully when I have to. Running along another valley the course heads towards the next climb. It is a narrow path that is strewn with randomly placed rocks just waiting for the opportunity to trip me up. Sure enough it does. One minute I'm running along, next minute I'm lying flat on the ground. I pick myself up quickly and begin running again before the person behind me even has a chance to overtake. Checking my injuries as I run I noticed a chunk of skin missing on my right palm , no problems there – you don't run with your hands, there is also some blood running down my shin and my knee is sore. Not so good. Still there's knee pain and there's knee pain, time would tell if it would stop me from running or merely be an annoyance.

The path gradually climbs as it follows the valley. I am running along a very narrow track that is surrounded by high grass that makes it difficult to see where your feet are landing and even more difficult to see any rocks to avoid. I narrowly avoid being tripped over at least half a dozen times as I run along here. I'd done a lot of road running in preparation for the 100km race 3 weeks ago and when you run on roads there are no obstacles to lift your feet over so I'd developed a low foot lift which is very efficient running on roads but not so good running on rocky paths. My toes would catch on a rock and I'd go stumbling forward, getting the leg through just in time to stop me falling over only for it to happen 50 metres further on. I am very glad to finish this section. The route follows a popular trekking route and as I run by a few popular bivouac site a few heads peakd out of tents to see what the hell is going on.

The next climb begins and looks like it is a series of switchbacks on a well made path. Unfortunately the route avoids the well made path and switch backs and takes the more direct route - straight up. I start to struggle as I reach the top of the climb, feeling very lethargic and heavy but notice no-one else looks any better. A few people are passing me but I also pass a few people so I cant be going that badly. It is the altitude having an affect. I am breathing a lot heavier than I should be for the speed I am going and by the sound of everyone around me so are they.

Finally the summit is reached and a glorious blue alpine lake comes into a view. It is a magnificent sight and I have to stop and take a photo. Not strictly in the rules I'd set myself but it was so beautiful I can't help it. Running around the lake and heading downhill I am feeling pretty pleased with myself. Two mountains down only one to go and the knee feels ok despite the fall.

The sun is warming up and I am drinking plenty. I didn't refill my water bladder at the last aid station so I hope I have enough to make it to the next one. There are only three on the whole course so they are well spread out. At the top an official calls out something in french about the next aid station and I think he says another 10 minutes but my French is poor at the best of times. The descent is runable , just , and I do my best to maintain a good pace. Treading that fine line between out of control and in control. After what is a lot more than 10 minutes the course reaches a plateau and the next aid station finally comes into view. I refill my water supplies and have a couple of cups of coke and head off.

Before long I start climbing again. I thought there was a fair bit more descent to go but obviously I am wrong. This climb is similar to the last, just as steep and just as long. I keep looking ahead to see where it finishes and it takes a long time before the top finally comes into view. The day is quite warm by now and when I cross any streams I dip my hat in it and cool myself down. I love these conditions, to be in the mountains and have a beautiful blue sky, sun beating down on you and be cooled by the crystal clear icy cold mountain streams is a perfect day out for me. I may have been suffering on this climb but I was really enjoying myself also. You cant complain too much when you have scenery like this all around you.

At the top is another gorgeous alpine lake view. This is offset of the sight of the path climbing high off in the distance. I grab a gel from my backpack to give me a bit of a boost for this final part of the climb, take a quick photo and set off again. The route is very narrow and contours around the lake on a very steep slope crossing snow in several places. It is essential to watch where I am going because a slip whilst wouldn't prove fatal would probably end my chances of finishing.

( Look closely on the left hand side you'll see a few runners crossing the snow. The pass is high up on the left)

After what seems like hours I can hear the sound of music and people. Must be the top., but where? I scan the horizon and can see no break in the mountain wall in front of me. As I get closer I can see the path start to be enclosed by rocks and a tiny gap appears at the top, that must be the pass. Sure enough it is. I am very glad to reach the top and amazed that are where spectators and officials at this isolated location, the Col des Beraudes at 2899m.

Now comes the descent. The first part is so steep that there is a rope bolted into the cliff face for people to hold onto to help descend safely. After that it is not much better and I am concentrating intensely to make sure I don't fall. Finally the slope evens off slightly and I can relax a little and get back to some decent running. My knee and groin still feels ok so I set off as hard as I can on the gradual descents. It is a long descent, rocky and steep in places so is hard to get into a good rhythm. I want to look up and take in the surrounds but every time I do a stumble on a rock so unfortunately I have to focus on the ground just in front of me.

(That faint path heading down from left to right is the "easy" part of the descent)

One thing is puzzling me, I know there a three big climbs and three aid stations and I thought the last aid station was before the last climb but I've done three climbs and only had two aid stations. I couldn't have missed an aid station so does that mean there is still another climb to go? Time will tell.

The path eventually drops out of the stark alpine environment through trees and pastures and I hear people clapping , either it's the finish or another aid station. Deep down I know which one it is. Sure enough the last aid station comes into view. Maybe the last aid station is after the last climb. I think it is 10km to go from the aid station or was it 15?

Filling up again I set off on a nice undulating path along a river, pushing a good pace and still feeling strong. My knee is sore but not more sore than the rest of my body so it is not effecting me. This is the flattest section of the whole course but it doesn't last long and before long we are heading up again. “Last climb before the finish” someone yells out encouragingly . Does that mean it's a big climb or last small climb followed by an undulating run to the finish? The climb leaves the river , ascends through a forest, then onto the high pastures to the refuge. Great all down hill from here I think. Wrong! It keeps ascending and ascending all the way back up to 2427m! I really struggle up the last bit, the combination of being on the go for 8 hours and the altitude affecting me. The good news is that despite this I am passing people and no-one is passing me. Everyone is suffering.

Finally the top is reached as someone yells out “8km, all downhill to the finish”. The path is steep at first but gradually levels out slightly and I am able to stride out and pick the pace up. Knowing it is all downhill and how far it is to go means I can really push the pace now. Just when I'm starting to enjoy myself again the path gets more technical, steeper, and more rocks which slows me down.

Rounding a bend I see the path heading uphill again. I thought it was all downhill! Fortunately it doesn't last long and a well paved 4wd track appears. Perfect! I can stride out without fear of falling down a steep slope or tripping over a rock. I set off and pick the pace up. My knee hurts now but it doesnt matter. It's not going to stop me this close to the finish. I start catching and passing people. As soon as I've caught one person and look ahead and set after the next one. I look down the valley and try and spot the town where we finish. It still looks a long way down.

The path narrows and descend a steep switchback through a forested area. It is still ok to run down I just have to watch the corners. I descend below the tree line and still cant see the town and the valley floor still looks a long way off. The enjoyment of running at a good pace is starting to wear off and I'm looking forward to the finish line now. With the excitement of picking the pace up I haven't had any of my carbohydrate drink for a while and feel myself starting to run low in energy. It cant be far to the finish now surely?

After what seems like ages I reach a path that looks vaguely familiar . It's the same path we set off on this morning. The question is how far along the path am I? I'm really starting to run low now and the desire to walk is increasing exponentially. Really should have had another gel and I wouldn't feel like this. I know I cant be too far away so tell myself that regardless of how far away the finish is you're running hard all the way to the finish no matter what.

The path follows the river and I know just after a bridge crossing the river the finish is barely 100 yards away. I see a bridge with the sponsors banners on it, maybe that's it? No , different bridge. Not far ahead is another bridge, maybe this is it? Again no. Finally I recognise the right bridge and I know the finish is just around the corner.

I am smiling both on the inside and out. It's been a long day – ten hours and 24 minutes to be exact , I have no idea what position I'm in and I don't really care. I've had a great race. It's been more difficult than I imagined and more enjoyable. Stunning mountain scenery and a course that took me well outside my comfort zone has made for a very rewarding day. I couldn't be happier. I know I could have gone a lot faster if I'd had 6 months to train specifically for it but I didn't so there is no point thinking about what could have happened.

I savor the run up the finish straight, enjoying the applause of the crowd and the thrill of the achievement and finally cross the finish line.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

World 100km Championships

Five weeks ago I was in some of the best running from of my life. A typical training week was a 2 hour run Tuesday including an hour of sprinting up and down hills, Wednesday a marathon in under 3 hours, Friday 45-60km hilly run and Saturday 30km in just over 2 hours. My legs although tired weren’t sore at all from all this mileage and I felt great. Unfortunately that was five weeks ago and the race was yesterday.
Since then I’ve been on a 2 week holiday in Morocco where I had planned to run but a combination of a trek that was far more difficult than first thought, a stomach bug that meant eating very little for 4 days and then 3 days in Marrakesh where running was as practical as running down Oxford street during the Xmas sales meant I didn’t manage to run at all.

Once back from Morocco I went out for my usual runs on Tuesday and Wednesday hoping I hadn’t lost too much and was surprised by two things. First of all my times for my hill sprints were if anything quicker than before which I took some confidence from and secondly how sore my legs were after the two days which was not so good. Legs were too sore run on Friday, Saturdays run felt horrible, my calves felt like they were going to tear with every step and my right thigh was significantly tighter than my left and also felt is was about to tear with every stride. I had a couple of days off and tried again on Tuesday and was surprised that I actually felt ok to begin with but this didn’t last long so I cut that run short and left it till Friday to run again. Fridays 2 hour run felt good from a speed point of view but calves and thigh still very tight and only a week to go until the race. Decided any further runs weren’t going to achieve much so spent the week massaging and stretching.

So it was a little nervously I lined up at the starting line in Torhout, Belgium. Would my legs still have sufficient conditioning from all the miles before Morocco to run a good time? Would my right thigh and calves hold out and allow me to even finish?

Torhout is a small, pretty Belgium town that had come to life for the event. At the same time as the 100km run there was a 100km walk , a marathon run and a 10km run involving over 1000 people and the two towns that the runs passed through were geared up for a big night. The races started at 8pm and so would finish till the next morning. To keep the spectators entertained bands, DJ’s and beer tents had been organised meaning everyone was in the mood to party ( except for the runners of course, although I did see quite a few people who were obviously planning on running one of the events indulging in a few beers only hours before the race!)
The gun went off and we set off. I was keen to settle into a very comfortable pace and not get caught up with everybody else. Marathon and 100km runners set of at the same time but you could tell who was who as Marathon runners had 4 digit numbers, 100km runners had 3. As I passed the 5km mark a checked my watch and saw I was on for around 7.40 pace which I felt was very realistic based on times five weeks ago, now, I wasn’t sure.

I caught up with a fellow Serpentine runner Ian and we chatted for a while, both of us focussed on maintaining “conversation pace”. I dropped behind Ian as we came to an aid station as I had decided to walk the aid stations. This was based on a purely practical reason. The cups they were giving out were tiny and when I ran through the first aid station I managed to get enough water from the cup to almost wet my lips and tongue. I had decided to carry a special sports drink on me but rely on the aid stations for water. You can’t run 100km without water so I decided any time lost walking for 10 seconds whilst drinking would be made up by not dehydrating later on. I’d had a bad experience during my first marathon with the same sized cups so didn’t want to repeat the experience.

The race consisted of 5 laps of approximately 20km (one slightly longer the rest slightly shorter) on traffic free roads through rural Belgium countryside. It was pleasant rather than pretty although the smell of cow manure in some stretches was a bit overpowering. Lots of spectators lined the route initially but as night came on the spectators became less and less and the ones that were around seemed more concerned with drinking and partying than clapping and supporting runners.

I finished the first lap feeling good and on time for 7.40 still. So far so good, the second lap started off much the same as the first, my legs felt keen to run,no sore spots in calves or thighs and feeling comfortable. Towards the end of the second lap although feeling comfortable my legs were starting to hurt more than they should have. I finished the second lap which was exactly a marathon in 3.14 and my legs felt sorer than they did when I was running sub 3 hours in training. Not a good sign. Still, I was on track for 7.40 and my main aim was to break 8 hours which still gave me 20 minutes leeway. The third lap felt a lot different as all the marathon runners had finished so there was a lot less runners around and it was now dark, very dark in some places.

I was focussing on running from aid station to aid station where I would walk just long enough to have what I wanted to drink again. The organiser’s had placed km markers every 5km so these helped measure my progress. I reached the 50km mark in 3.52 which is 7.44 pace if, I could keep the same pace up for the second half. Considering I had run 50km in training in under 3.40 several times and felt comfortable enough to run again the next day, 3.52 should have felt very comfortable which theoretically should allow me to push hard on the last 50 and run either a negative split or at least the same time. Well that was the plan 5 weeks ago. Based on how my legs were feeling now I knew that running a negative split was very unlikely and survival was the name of the game. The question was how much time I was going to lose in the last half. My 5km splits were declining quickly and my legs really starting to hurt.

Somewhere between 55 and 60km my legs decided they needed some relief. Well actually that’s not true, my mind is what needed some relief, the thought of dealing with the pain in my legs for another 40+ km was more than it could handle so I stopped to walk. Feeling disappointed that I was now walking I started running again almost immediately only for a few minutes down the line to find myself shuffling and then walking again. I knew straight away that if continued to do this it was going to take a long time to finish the race and I would be very disappointed in myself.

Dealing with pain in ultra’s is obviously a very mental thing and for me it comes down to confidence. Confidence that your legs can handle the damage you are inflicting on them. Five weeks ago I had that confidence, now I didn’t. I didn’t know if they would last the distance, I didn’t know if I had bitten off more than I could chew, I’d only run 5 times in the last five weeks, was that enough to maintain the great form and condition I had back then. I was worried about my right thigh and both calves, if one of them went then it’s a long limp home. I pride myself on my mental strength but now it was letting me down. I was crumbling when things got tough whereas in previous races I revelled in it, actually looked forward to the point where things become difficult, looked forward to testing myself. How strong mentally and physically was I? Only when you get to those points in a race do you find out and that’s why many of us do these races.

I quickly snapped out of this mental low patch and set myself some new targets and rules. Walking was allowed at aid stations whilst I was drinking and every ten minutes for one minute only. I accepted I just didn’t have the mental strength to face the thought of running non stop for another 45km with legs that felt that every step was tearing more and more muscle fibres before finally something gives way. I set of for my ten minute run and felt immediately better. I noticed my pace actually felt ok, my legs were still killing me but I could still run a decent pace. I counted down the minutes until ten and then walked for one, being very strict with the one minute. If I went through an aid station I reset the ten minutes from when I left the aid station. Bit by bit I saw the 60km 65km and 70km marks go by. Time wise I wasn’t sure what time I would be heading for, I did some initial calculations in my head and came up with 8.15 which wasn’t so bad and gave me a bit of a mental lift until I realised I’d calculated wrong. I decided to forget about it and just keep running.

About half way through the fourth lap I noticed my 5km split times were starting to speed up, somehow I was getting faster. Not a lot but it was a couple of minutes over 5km which adds up after a while. I also noticed if a lent forward slightly as I was running my speed would increase without any extra effort. The downside to this was it made my legs hurt more. I was starting to believe that my legs would get to the finish, my claves hadn’t torn yet and my right thigh felt no worse than my left. With only 30km to go I passed through the small village at the other end of the course as the band were playing “Born to be wild”. Lifted by the music and with my confidence and mental strength steadily growing I lifted the pace and decided to try and go longer before I walked. Unfortunately lifting the pace and increasing the time until the next walk was not a great idea and ten minutes later I was walking again. Ok lets try that again, without the adrenaline that was flowing due to loud music and a few kind spectators cheering me along. This time, with a more sensible pace I managed to keep running past the ten minutes until I reached the next aid station. Ok from now on aid stations only, my legs weren’t going to tear in two, I was going to finish so lets finish it as quickly as possible.

I ran through the town for the last time and headed out for the last lap. If I could run the last lap there’s a chance I could break 8.30 which although is a lot slower than my initial target is still a reasonable time. The stretch out of town was the most difficult for me. It is very dark , no aid stations to break it up until you almost reach the other village and very few spectators. I almost made it to the aid station without walking but after rounding a corner expecting to see some lights and people I saw another stretch of road ahead of me. I crumbled and walked. Come one I said to myself get running again, so after barely ten seconds I set off again and made it to the next aid station.

Just as I left the aid station I noticed someone just ahead in an Aussie top so I took off and caught him and said G’day. We chatted for a while and then got serious. We had 15km to go and 1 hour 20 left to beat 8.30. We ran side by side trying to keep the pace up, conversation revolved around splits, speed and aid stations. Idle chat disappeared as we concentrated on the job at hand. Both of us were using each other to keep us going, I’m sure he was doing it easier than me as it felt like he was setting the pace but I’d caught up to him at the station so he must have been going slower than me for a while for me to catch him.

Initially the km’s ticked away very slowly and the desire to walk was extremely strong but I had resolved to try and not walk at the start of the lap and now that I was running with someone the same pace as me I really didn’t want to stop now. After what seemed an eternity the 90km sign came into view. Only 10km to go. I really didn’t know if I could stay with him till the finish but every time I slowed even slightly he yelled out something encouraging. I tried to do the same for him but I was concentrating so hard on making my legs work I couldn’t offer much. Occasionally if he slowed and I had a momentary good patch I’d pick the pace up but I couldn’t do any more.

Eventually the we reached 95km. Only 5km to go. I’d resolved myself to the fact that it was going to hurt like hell but there would be no more walking except at the next aid station. Only 5km and we still had 35 minutes to do it in. Bit by bit, urging each other along we kept pushing the pace. I was dangerously close to blowing up, I couldn’t keep this up for much longer but I didn’t have much longer to go. We could see the lights in the town get closer and could even hear the party that was still raging at 4am in the morning. My Aussie mate (Michael I found out afterwards – we didn’t exchange names during the race) was keen to really push it hard for the last little bit but I knew I had nothing left. I still wasn’t sure if I could maintain this pace to the finish so I told him if he had anything left to go for it. He just kept encouraging me to stay with him. We passed the 40km sign which meant there was exactly 2.195 kilometres to go (as it was a lapped course you constantly passed signs that were for other laps). I knew that just before you enter the town you pass under a railway bridge and from there it is only around 800m to go. Mentally I knew as soon as I reached that I would make it.

We both realised we were going to break 8 and a half hours and as 2nd and 3rd placed Australians had a chance of qualifying for the Commonwealth Championships in September. The railway line came into view and I told Michael again to go for it, I’d be just behind him and would see him at the finish. He picked up the pace a tiny amount and I just couldn’t keep up. It didn’t matter though, we’d helped each other out and managed to run faster than we would have alone. (in fact my last lap was almost 10 minutes quicker than my 4th). I ran through the town feeling both exhausted, relieved and pretty pleased with myself. Ok it hadn’t been the best race of my career but I’d managed to hold it together (just!) and finish strongly.
Crossing the finish line in 8.25, Michael ( who had put 15 seconds on me in the last 800metres) was waiting for me, we shook hands then hugged realising how much support we had given each other and what a difference it had made.

So I’ve finished my first 100km race. Will it be my last. There’s a small chance I’ll make the Aussie team for the Commonwealths so will have a chance to run another 100km in September if not I would like to have another go just so I can see that kind of time I can do when fully fit.

What else did I learn? Well I’ve always thought of physical and mental strength as separate and maybe for some people they are but for me they are intrinsically linked. If I’ve trained well, I gain a lot of mental strength and belief in myself which carries into a race if I don’t then mentally I’m not as strong.

Today my legs are very sore but I can walk ok as long as I don’t have to go up or down! I’ll take this week of, selection is announced next Saturday so will wait till then to decide what my next race is.