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.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Machine weights - to be avoided at all costs!

I was recently reading a well known running magazine when I came across an article regarding Machine weights vs Free weights for running. The article gave a balanced argument for both but recommended that maybe beginners would be better off starting with machines.

I’d like to say that without doubt performing weights using a Machine should NEVER be done by any runner, beginners, intermediate or advance, and especially not for people with an injury. No if’s but’s , no exceptions at all. Not only are they not performance enhancing I would strongly argue they are performance dehancing. The machines I am referring to are Leg Press, Leg Extension, Leg Curl, Hip Adduction ( inner thigh), Hip Abduction (outer thigh)

Pretty strong words I know but I hope after you read this article you’ll understand where I am coming from.

Lets look at the common arguments put forward by the pro machine weight training camp and see if they make sense and how relevant it is to running.

Keep in mind I am talking about the use of machine weights to improve running performance. Just because someone becomes stronger on a machine doesn’t mean the have more strength as a runner.

There is one very important principle to keep in mind when assessing the benefit of a particular exercise will have to your ability to run more efficiently

The strength, endurance, power and flexibility gained in an exercise is only transferable to exercises that use similar loads, ranges of movement, joint angle, body position and speed of movement

This is a universally accepted law that all good coaches apply to their training. We’ll come back to it often as it underpins (or should) the rationale for every exercise a coach or trainer prescribes for their athletes.

Simply put it means if the exercise doesn’t look similar to, feel similar to, use similar speed of movements, have the body and joints in similar positions to running then it wont improve your running.

Looking at it another way the more similar the exercise is to the action you are training for the more the brain can take all it learnt doing one exercise and apply it to the other. Remember the brain controls the body.

Imagine if you learnt to drive in a Electrical Gee Whiz car and then tried to drive a Porsche. You’d be able to manage it wouldn’t you, yes they are different but the basics are the same. Now imagine instead of driving a car you then tried to fly a plane. My guess is you wouldn’t know where to start. The skill set is different and somebody who had never driven a car before would have just as much chance as you at flying the plane. Thats how similar machine weight exercise and running are. Read on and I’ll explain more.

Now what are the Machine weight advocates claiming......

Machine weights isolate the main muscles groups leading to greater strength. – True
Does this matter? No. Can it be detrimental to our running? Yes

The strength gained in an exercise is specific to the particular exercise. Thighs capable of lifting heavy weights in a leg extension machine wont make you a stronger or faster runner.

Why would machine weights be detrimental to me?

If the main muscles become stronger than the smaller stabilising muscles then injuries can occur. An example of this is imagine if you tried running over very unstable ground at the same pace you run on the track. Chances of being injured? Pretty high I would think. For true usable strength you need to train the smaller stabilising muscles at the same time you train the main muscles – ie in the same exercise – something that Machine weight exercises are incapable of doing.

You can do exercises on Machine weights that you cannot do with free weights - True

Does it matter? No Can it be detrimental to running ? Yes

A few examples are the leg curl, leg extension, hip adduction and hip abduction machines. No you cant do those exercises using free weights but why would you want to. None of them work the muscles in a way that is at all similar to running and in fact they train the muscles in a way that can set you up for an injury when you run. Lets look at a couple of these each of these and see why they should form no part of any runners training program

Leg Curl – an exercise that involves lying on your stomach or sitting down and bending your knee (flexing) such that your heel travels towards your rear. So the hamstring is flexing the knee joint with the foot off weight bearing and the hips and pelvis are relatively fixed. In running the hamstring pulls the pelvis forward on a fixed leg with the foot on the ground, as this happens the knee is straightening not bending. So if your hamstring has gained its strength from bending the knee whilst the hips are fixed what do you think will happen when we straighten the knee and extend the hip? At best it will have very little strength as it will find it difficult to co-ordinate the action at worst it wont be able to relax over the knee joint and will tear.

Hip Abduction ( Outer thigh) Machine – this involves you sitting down with your legs in a position like a gynaecologists chair and then pushing your legs as wide as possible increasing the angle between upper thigh and pelvis in an attempt to work the gluteal muscles.

In running the glute muscle works to control the inwards rotation of the leg as you land, control the drop of the non stance side hip as you land and propel your pelvis forward all whilst one leg is on the ground. So instead of working to increase the angle between pelvis and thigh it works to control the reduction of that angle ie how much leg upper thigh goes in.

In the hip abduction machine there is no rotation component or hip extension component , in fact because you are sitting on the machine your hips are flexed. They couldn’t be much more dissimilar if you tried.

Machine weights are far easier to learn to use – True but thats a bad thing!

Just because something is easier to use doesn’t mean it is worth doing in the first place. It is easier to use because it doesn’t involve any co-ordination or neuromusclar skill something that the Machine weight Advocates say is a good thing.
However running is an activity that requires very good co-ordination and neuromuscular skill so it makes no sense to start with an exercise that involves neither of these.

Machine weight advocates will argue that you can start with free weights and then build up to free weights.

If we followed that train of thought we would have stronger main muscles (one of the supposed benefits of machine weights) and therefore the balance between our stabiliser muscles and main muscles will be even worse than what it was when we started so co-ordination between the two will be even more difficult.

It’s like saying that a good way to learn to ski is start with sitting on a sled and coasting downhill because real skiing involves too much co-ordination and neuromuscular skill. Obviously you wouldn’t start of by going down a black run , you start by learning how to snow plough and do some basic drills but it still LOOKS like skiing.

If the co-ordination and neuromuscular skills required for an exercise are similar then the brain can use the skills gained in one exercise and transfer it to another if they are different then it cant do that.

Machine weights are safer – False

Yes they are safer to use in terms of doing the actual exercise , the worst that can happen is you let go and the weight stack falls and makes a large bang whereas if you are using free weights and drop a dumbbell you can injure yourself BUT are they safer in terms of the effect they have on your body afterwards? No

If your main muscles are stronger than your stabilising muscles can control then you simply set yourself up for an injury.If the pattern of muscle recruitment and co-ordination is different for the machine weight compared to running then injury will likely result.Machine weights are very good for developing muscular imbalances that eventually lead to injury.

Machines weights apply a more even resistance via the use of cams and pulleys which allow equal load to be put on the muscle throughout the exercise – True
Does it matter? No

If we want to improve the way we run then the loads should simulate the loads that occur in running. In running we have a landing force we have to deal with, we have to deal with the constant affect of gravity and the affects of momentum. None of these are simulated by a Machine. Who cares if the machine can give your muscles a nice even load throughout the movement, it certainly doesn’t happen when we run.

It is easier to perform Machine weights exercises slowly which will lead to greater strength – False

A slower speed of movement will lead to more hypertrophy (muscle growth) not strength. One thing most runners don’t need is big bulky muscles (sprinters possibly excepted)

Body builders like machines because they can perform slow controlled movements that are great for putting maximum stress on the muscles to stimulate maximum growth. (Thats another argument that I wont go into today!)
What do we mean by greater strength anyway? Does the ability to lift a heavier weight mean anything when applied to runners? When you consider that when running each foot hits the ground ninety times a minute or 5400 times an hour, the idea of improving your strength to lift a weight 10 or 15 times seems a bit pointless.

Studies show that runners having undergone a Machine weight training program have improved running performance – True

This is what the Machine weight advocates cling to, research that shows improved performance after a 12 week weight training program. All these studies used either free weights or a mixture of machine and free weights, so are inconclusive when comparing free weights to machine weights. Short term studies like this also ignore any long term negative affects that machine weight had on the athlete.

Since there are some short term studies saying that some use of Machine weights when combined with free weights improved running performance isn’t that good enough to keep using them?

No. In my opinion why use a training method that contradicts almost every known training principle? When the risk of a running injury is higher using machine weights and there are far better ways to improve running performance, using machines make no sense.

Some people will argue that machine weights would be good for building a particular muscle up since they believe that muscle may be weak and causing an injury problem.
If you are recommended to use the leg curl, leg extension, leg press, hip adduction and hip abduction machines by a health professional or trainer find another professional or trainer for they do not understand what they are talking about when it comes to exercise prescription. They may be great a diagnosing injuries but they aren’t in terms of prescribing exercises.

Muscles become weak because they are not activated properly in a particular action (in this case running), just because you increase the strength and size of a muscle on a machine doesn’t mean it will activate properly when you run. Muscles are activated by movement and if your body doesn’t move correctly then the correct muscles may not be activated. The key is to get the body moving correctly.

For example if you foot doesn’t pronate enough then your lower leg and then upper leg wont rotate inwards when you land which would normally switch on your inner quadriceps muscle and your gluteal muscles, the rotation of your upper leg combined with correct movement of the pelvis shouldl also switch on your gluteal muscles. No amount of repetitions on the Hip Abduction machine is going to make your foot pronate more .

If you are looking to increase you strength for running have a look at the following articles here and here

Strengthening your Gluteus Medius – do exercises like the Clam or a side lying leg lift actually do anything?

The Gluteus medius is situated on the side of your hip and controls the movement of your pelvis in the frontal plane. In English that means it control how much your opposite side hip drops when you walk or run. To feel what I mean, stand on 1 leg and let your other hip drop towards the floor. Now lift it back up again – you have just worked your gluteus medius. To see what I mean simply watch any catwalk model walk and observe how the hips move from side to side and the pelvis tilts side to side when looking from behind.

Weakness in this muscle is very common and is responsible for a number of injuries including Iliotibial Band (ITB)Syndrome and knee pain.
One common exercise given by health or fitness professionals is to lie on your side and lift your top leg off your bottom leg and hold it there for up to 60 seconds. This does work the Gluteus medius but does it help stabilise the movement of your pelvis when you walk?

A study* I have just discovered confirms that strength in performing that exercise is completely independent on how much someone’s pelvis tilts from side to side. In other words performing that exercise had NO effect on Gluteus Medius strength in running.

Some people who were very weak in this exercise had very good pelvic control and some who were very strong in the exercise had very poor pelvic control.
The researchers concluded that a more dynamic test of Gluteus medius may be more appropriate.

The Clam and exercises like it – are you wasting your time?

The Clam is an exercise that is very similar, you lie on your side with your knees bent and keeping your feet together you raise the knee of the top leg , opening your legs up so that your legs make the shape of a clam, this is repeated many times. Side lying leg raises are similar except the leg is straighter and the whole of the top leg is lifted up and down.

These are recommended by many physiotherapists, doctors, personal trainers and coaches but it is my view that exercises like this are next to useless in improving gluteus medius (or gluteus maximus for that matter) strength in running or walking.
The only difference between the exercise used in the study mentioned above and clams or side lying leg lifts the angle of the knee is different and instead of holding the leg up you are moving it up and down. I don’t feel this makes the exercise any better hope to convince you to try and different approach to strengthening this muscle for running.

The rule of specificity

Remember that the strength, endurance, power and flexibility gained in an exercise is only transferable to exercises that use similar loads, ranges of movement, joint angle, body position and speed of movement. This is a universally accepted rule that no coach, trainer or physical therapist can argue with.

In simple terms it says that the strength gained in a particular exercise is only relevant to other exercises that look and feel similar to the original exercise. For example the strength gained in doing a bench press will make you better at push ups but wont improve your ability to throw a cricket ball, or the strength gained in doing small range squats will help skiing but wont help you to kick a ball further.
If the body positions, loads, speed of movement and range of movement aren’t similar then the body wont transfer the gains from one exercise to the next.

When you think about it it makes sense, someone who is good at tennis is often good at squash but may be hopeless at bowling a cricket ball. Someone who is good at surfing will pick up snow boarding easier than someone who has strong legs from doing squats in the gym.

So lets compare the two positions

Clam/ Side lying leg lifts

Body Position..............Lying on your side
Load........................Weight of one leg
Initial Movement........Lifting leg up- contacting muscle
Speed of Movement.....Slow and controlled
Range of Movement.....from slightly lower then hip to approx 45 degrees or more
Stimulation.............Consciously driven by exerciser

Running or Walking

Body Position..............Standing on one leg
Load........................Weight of body minus the weight of the stance leg
Initial Movement........Pelvis dropping down – stretching the muscle
Speed of Movement.......Fast – less than ½ a second
Range of Movement.......From pelvis tilted 5-15 degrees up to 5-15 degrees down
Stimulation...............Unconsciously driven by reaction to gravity

As you can see there are NO similarities at all. You may as well do bicep curls.


One other important point to remember is that muscles react to feedback given to them by tiny cells called proprioreceptors that are found throughout the body.

These proprioreceptors tell the brain what is happening. For example if they feel that a muscle is getting stretched rather rapidly the brain will activate that muscle to protect itself. This is exactly what happens in the gluteus medius, the sudden impact of landing places a rapid dynamic stretch on the muscle, the proprioreceptors sense this and tell the brain which then activates the muscle to protect it. None of this happens consciously.

The idea that you can train a muscle by consciously contracting it and then hope that the brain can now apply that strength unconsciously in a completely different environment is dubious at best.

A waste of time?

So if the position of the body in side lying based exercises is so different to running and the load is different and the speed of movement is different and the range of movement is different and the mechanism that turns on the muscle is different you can begin to see why the clam or side lying leg raises are basically ineffective when it comes to strengthening the gluteus medius in relation to controlling the pelvis when we walk and run.

The justification of doing these types of exercises is that they are a starting point to gain strength and you will need to progress it from there. I disagree with this also as the exercise is so dissimilar from running I feel there is little if any carry over into running. It would be like teaching someone to ski by telling them they need to spend time on a sled first. Yes a sled involves sliding downhill on snow but, the way the muscles are used in skiing is so different to sitting on a sled you can spend all day everyday riding a sled and you’d never be a better skier.

Yes side lying exercises do work the glute muscle but in a way so different to running that you could do you side lying leg lifts every day and still have poor control of your pelvis when you run.

The next question is ok if they don’t work what exercise does?

Unfortunately this is not an easy question to answer and there is no universal exercise that will strengthen the gluteus medius of every body who does it. The reason for this lies in understanding that muscles react to stimulus provided by the proprioreceptors. If the proprioreceptors aren’t stimulated then the brain wont have any reason to activate the muscle. Alternatively the muscle may be trying to do too much due to weaknesses in other muscles. It makes no sense to train the muscle up to cope with the weaknesses in other areas, a better approach is to address the weak muscles first.

For example the glute medius can be overloaded if a persons foot pronates too much or can be understimulated if the opposite foot doesn’t pronate enough, or if the person lacks mobility in the spine or any number of other reasons.

The point is that no matter how good the glutes medius exercise you perform is if it doesn’t address the reason your gluteus medius isn’t working properly in the first place it wont help.

A better alternative to side lying glute exercises

Whilst I am reluctant to recommend any exercise as ideally you should be assessed to determine why you have the weakness in the first place I feel it would be remiss of me and frustrating for you to tell you that clams and side lying leg raises are a waste of time and not give you a better alternative.

So here’s two different exercise , one for people with tight hips ( usually men) and one for people with weak hips ( usually females). These aren’t necessarily the best exercises you can do but they are ones that are relatively easy to describe and perform by yourself. If you aren't sure which one is best for you since not all men have tight hips and not all women have weak hips then try both andwhichever you find hardest do that one!

Tight Hips

Stand back to a wall, feet about 2-3 inches away from the wall, feet together, shoulders against wall, hands joined together, arms above head with arms ideally against the wall also but if your arms aren’t that flexible don’t worry just have them above your head as much as possible.

Now all you need to do is take your hands and reach to the side as far as possible such that your body bends sideways. Ensure BOTH butt cheeks and BOTH shoulders remain touching the wall.

Your movements should be relatively quick and your aim is to increase movement without hips or shoulder coming away from the wall. If you hips feel like they are moving side to side , great!

Try the same but without the wall behind you ensuring your body moves from side to side and there is no rotation. Imagine the wall is still behind you. Next step is to try it with one foot forward of the other.

Weak Hips
Stand on 1 leg with the same side arm as stance leg above your head and the opposite side hand on your hip. Lets say you stand on your right leg then your right arm will be above your head and left hand on your hip. Now take your right hand and reach sideways to the left as far as you can and at the same time use your left hand to push your hips to the right and then return to starting position. The speed of movement should be relatively quick but slow enough that you can control it.

Progress the speed as you improve. Use you other non stance leg for balance if you have to.To make harder start with standing on two legs arms in the same position as before and then step forward with your right leg and at the same time perform the same arm action as before.

*Isometric gluteus medius muscle torque and frontal plane pelvic motion during running
Evie N. Burnet and Peter E. Pidcoe
Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (2009) 8, 284-288

Part 2 and 3 of a post on training an endurance runner. This is aimed at Trainers not so much runners themselves but those of you with an interest in the scientific rationale and biomechanics that goes into designing a conditioning program should find it informative

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Training to improve Strength, Power, Endurance and Flexibility for a marathon runner

Part 1(of 3) of a post on training an endurance runner. This is aimed at Trainers not so much runners themselves but those of you with an interest in the scientific rationale and biomechanics that goes into designing a conditioning program should find it informative

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hardmoors 2010 lives up to its name

Saturday approx 3am Guisborough Woods, 49 miles covered, race time approx 10 hours

The darkness envelopes me as I run silently through the forest, only the beam from my headtorch illuminating the trail. It is cold but not uncomfortably so, five layers of clothing, two beanies and a pair of gloves are doing their job insulating me from the chilly temperature. The forest shelters me from the gale force winds that battered me over the moors and it is a welcome relief. As the clouds part , the moon shines and lights up the path ahead of me and at this moment I can think of no other place I’d rather be. I feel totally encapsulated in the moment, there is no before and after, only now, me, the forest , the trail ,the moon, nothing else exists or matters. The silence of the forest magnifies the effect particularly after the deafening howl of the wind only hours ago. Even the sound of my own breath is faint as although the pace is quickish (around 7 minutes per mile) it feels very comfortable. It is a wonderful state to be in and I revel in it for as long as I can because I know that in an ultra incredible highs are often followed by equally incredible lows.

Eventually a steep descent brings me out of my meditative state and forces me to focus on where I place my feet. It was nice while it lasted, now back to the job at hand. I was 25 minutes down at the last checkpoint and I have to make up time in this section if I am to have a chance of catching the leader. I know I must have made up some time over the last few miles the question was how much time. As I descend the last section I notice a pain in my left knee. It’s one I’ve had before but not for a long time and I know what it means. It will slowly get worse and worse until it makes bending my knee painful and running downhill impossible. Not good. I’m almost half way, will it hold out enough to get me to the finish. The problem is the finish is still another 62 miles away....

Friday 24 September 4.30pm Helmsley

As 29 ultrarunners stand around listening to race Organiser Jon Steele’s final instructions I look outside and notice it is raining, again. The weather forecast is showers and gale force winds of approx 40miles per hour gusting up to 70 miles per hour. Temperatures should just make double digits during the day and drop down to 5 degrees overnight minus the wind chill factor (which is quite a bit when its blowing 40 miles an hour) It will be colder going over the moors. Mind you if you are prepared to do a bit of looking around on the internet you can find a much better forecast, I managed to find one forecast that didn’t mention rain and another had no mention of gale force winds! Still it could be worse, the previous night it was similar except it rained almost non stop!

It’s the beginning of autumn in northern England and I am lining up to run the Hardmoors 110 ( now 114 miles as Jon decided that the 2009 version wasn’t hard enough and added another 4 miles to the route). The route departs from Helmsley just north of York and runs 58 miles across the Yorkshire moors to Saltburn-by-the-Sea and then a further 56 miles down the coast to Filey. I’ve got 36 hours to finish but am hoping do it in less than 24. Almost 4.5 marathons, back to back with over 6000m of ascent and descent , why would anyone want to do this? If you are asking that then you’ll probably never understand the answer.

Friday 5.00pm Helmsley

Jon counts down from ten and we set off in light rain through Helmsley. The initial miles are relatively gentle and I settle into a rhythm with last years winner Neil Risdale. The first few miles in an ultra are always the worse for me. You expect your legs to feel fresh as a daisy but they never do and then you start to wonder if you did too much training or not enough training, or it’s just not your day today. All these thoughts run through my head but Neil’s strategy last year was to set off quickly and try and lose the opposition so I figured if I was keeping up with him I must be doing ok.

There are two ways to run the Hardmoors – supported or unsupported. Supported runners have their own support crew who can meet them whenever they want supplying food and drink, unsupported are able to fill their water containers up every10-20 miles but must carry everything else. You are able place a drop bag at the 45 mile checkpoint and 75 mile checkpoint with spare clothes, food etc. I am running unsupported and Neil supported.

I run into the first checkpoint below the White horse just ahead of Neil who stopped for a quick top up from his support crew. Ascending from the checkpoint back up to the cliff top Neil catches me and we run together chatting. I discover Neil is a talkative type when he runs and I’m definitely not. I add a few words now and then to be polite but to be honest I prefer run lost in my own thoughts or lack thereof!

One of the attractions of ultras for me is spending hours lost inside my own head. It’s a strange place at the best of times and running an ultra drives almost all the other distractions out of it. All I tend to think about for 24 hours or so is monitoring my body for signs that tell me to slow down, speed up, drink water, consume calories, take salt tablets, watch where I put my feet , monitor how hot or cold I am and adjusting clothing to suit. Not much else goes on to be honest. I try and take in and enjoy as much of the scenery as possible but as soon as you start doing too much of that you’ll find yourself flat on your face having tripped over a rockr. In between all those thoughts there are wonderful periods of nothing, where no thought is going through my head and I am just running. I imagine its how it feels to meditate and although I’ve tried that I find it very hard to stem the constant avalanche of thoughts in my brain whilst sitting still. I don’t have that problem on a really long run.

Friday approx 6.30pm Sutton Bank 12 miles covered, race time approx 90 minutes

The route runs along the cliff top overlooking North Yorkshire. There is the occasional brief shower and the wind is starting to pick up but as the sun sets there is a moment of sublime beauty. The thick clouds part enough to allow a thin stream over sunlight through the centre. The cloud refract’s the light and creates numerous other beams of light around the edge of the clouds illuminating the fields below us in that golden glow of the setting sun. Moments like these make it all worthwhile. We follow the escarpment around and I notice that I am faster on the descents. Something to remember for later

As we leave the escarpment and head out onto the Moors it is getting dark and I stop to put my head torch on. The moors are a bleak place at night, particularly with a howling wind and driving horizontal rain. Thankfully the rain comes in brief bursts and doesn’t persist for too long. Neil drops back behind me sheltering from the wind, I should have thought of that. Descending from the moors, Neil drops behind, I’m not sure if he’s stopped to put on warmer clothing or not comfortable with the pace. As I leave the moors to briefly join a road there is a collection of cars waiting for their runners which I presume Neil will be stopping at. I leave the road and descend steeply , at the bottom of a descent I look back to see how far behind he is and cant see him. I now have the lead, the question is how long can I keep it for. I push on enjoying running by myself. I reccied the route a while back and am hoping I can remember the way without having to look at my map. Neil has run it at least 4 times before and lives locally so I know he wont have to stop and look at the map. For a few miles I am fine, recognising where to turn to follow the trail but I then come out onto a road and cant remember whether to turn left or right, I get the map out but before I can even find the right page I see a headlight in the distance, Neil will catch me before I figure it out so I wait for him.

Friday approx 8.30pm Osmotherly 24 miles covered, race time approx 3 hours 30 mins

We arrive into Checkpoint 2 together and I stop to fill my water bottle up whilst he continues. Neil has the advantage of a support crew which means he can replenish his supplies more often so doesn’t have to carry as much, I don’t have that luxury and as the checkpoints are infrequent I have to spend more time at them to make sure my water supplies are as full as possible. As I set off again I look for his head torch but he is no-where to be seen. The path follows a farm track to a gate where there is three options, turn right up the hill, go through the gate, or go straight ahead to the left of the gate, I’m not sure which way but am confident it’s not turning right, so I guess and open the gate and then realise it’s tied with rope and the way it’s tied Neil wouldn’t have tied it back like that so decide to follow the other path, it goes through two more gates then follows a fence line up to a small path into the woods. As I enter the woods there are several options none of which look like the main trail. Looking at my map it says to turn right so I do, the path I follow becomes narrower and narrower until eventually it opens out and beneath me is what looks like a 30 foot drop. Thats probably not the way to go – shit!

Ok Back track, I run the half mile back to the gate and reassess. Checking the notes again I definitely followed the right track , maybe there’s another entrance to the woods. I follow the path again checking the fence line for any other entrances. No, Shit, shit. What now. Dont panic. I run back to the gate again and get out my more detailed map and have a look. It tells me the same thing, I run back up to the woods entrance and decide to try a different approach. I know that very shortly I should come to some TV Masts right by a stone wall. There is a stone wall right next to me so I jump over it and start to run along it hoping to see the TV masts, I cant see anything and really don’t like running off piste so I jump back over the wall and go back to the gate again. Stopping for a second to fight off the rising panic about losing so much time due to a navigational error I calm myself and reread the instructions. Heading back up to the woods I enter the woods and this time instead of taking what looked like the main path follow a smaller track that is covered with foliage. As soon as I break through the foliage a larger track appears to the right just as the map says. Finally I am back on track.

I set off realising that I’ve probably lost 30 minutes plus run an extra couple of miles. I know I’m not going to make up that much time quickly but with 90 miles to go anything can happen and if I can make up even 20 seconds per mile I can catch him.

I settle back into a rythym as I run along a forest trail which eventual climbs back onto the moors. The course now ascends and descends very steeply a number of times before levelling off. I know the ascents are too steep to run and the descents are steep and on very slippery rocks which make it almost impossible to run. There is little chance of making up much time here, yet in the distance I see a headlight. I cant have made up the time already surely, but it is almost inconceivable that anyone else apart from runners in the race would be out on the moors on a night like this. Puzzled I continue on closing the gap quickly.

It is dark by now and the rain has picked up again, as I reach the top of the first climb the wind is driving the rain horizontally into my left side. One hand and one side of my face is feeling very cold. I have another thermal top and another beanie in my backpack which I may need soon. The trail levels out at the top which allows me to run which I hope will start to warm me up again. Unfortunately the wind increases making it feel even colder. Just before I start the descent I approach the runner in front, as I near him I recognise that it isn’t Neil but Martin who was running not far behind us. I am totally mystified by how he managed to pass me without me seeing him. Must have been when I was on the other side of the large brick wall I wonder.

Descending is not much fun , the rocks are very slippery and great care must be taken not to fall. As I descend I see some lights by a road, it must be the cars of the support crews of the other runners. Approaching the bottom I hear Jons voice call out in encouragement. I stop briefly to put on my extra thermal top and beanie. Another runners support crew asks me if I have any support crew to which I answer no, Jon informs her that I am hardcore! It is another 15 miles or so to the first drop bag where I have even more warm clothes if I need it. I hope what I have on is enough to get me there.

There are two more steep ascents and descents before I reach the plateau of Hasty Bank and Bloworth Crossing. Once I reach there it is around 7 miles of very runnable tracks all the way to the checkpoint at Kildale. If I can progess quickly over this I am hoping I might be able to see Neil’s head torch in the distance. (I find out later that when the Moon came out Neil turned his head torch off so I wouldn’t be able to see him!)

The extra clothing has helped and I set off briskly up the next climb. It is getting colder and my breath is condensing. This is actually a problem as the large clouds of water vapour obscure my view of the ground making it hard to see where to put my feet. I’ve never had this problem in an Ultra before!

The ascent is relatively straight forward, the descent not so. It is even more slippery than the previous one and I take great care almost slipping several times. This is followed by the final ascent to Wainstones and a checkpoint. There’s still no sign of Neil ahead. (I find out later that when the Moon came out Neil turned his head torch off so I wouldn’t be able to see him!)

Friday approx 11.30pm Wainstones Checkpoint 32 Miles covered, race time approx 6hours 30 mins

The route is relatively straight forward but I stop every now and then to make sure I am on the correct path. At the top of the rock pinnacles known as Wainstones there is a marshall all set up with a small tent and lots of warm clothes. It is a very cold, wet and windy place to camp for the night and I thank him for helping out with the race.

Finally I can settle into a good running pace again. The only danger is the route is regularly broken up by open drains just waiting to trip someone up. Spraining an ankle up here would not be good. My legs feel relatively good for having covered 40 miles and I am starting to feel confident I am having a good day.

All of a sudden a bright light appears and I wonder if someone is catching me, I turn around and see the clouds have opened up and the moon is making a very bright appearance. It is still very cold and windy but the rain has temporarily stopped and the presence of the moon makes it a beautiful and surreal place to be.

A few miles on and the path takes a sharp left and heads to Kildale, a small town nestled at the bottom of the embankment. At the turn is another checkpoint and another person camped overnight in the middle of nowhere, I say a quick hello and a thankyou and push on straining my eyes to try and pick up signs of a head torch in the distance but with no luck . The next 6 miles are basically flat and then steeply downhill along a road so I push hard trying to make up some time. There’s a fine line between pushing hard and pushing too hard and as it’s a long way to go I err on the side of caution keeping the pace sensible ( around 8 min mile pace). The rain competes with the moon for space in the sky and the wind is consistently deafening, it will be a relief to drop down into Kildale to escape it for a while.

Kildale approx 2am. 45 miles covered, race time approx 9 hours

Kildale eventually appears and I head into the bright lights of the Village Hall, the first of the checkpoints where I can pick up a drop bag. I don’t ask how far Neil is ahead as I don’t want to know, I am happy running my own race. I spend a few minutes sipping some coke, topping up my water and fuel supplies before heading out again.

The next section involves a steep climb up to a monument for Captain Cook, a steep runable descent then another steep climb. At the top of this is a one mile out and back section to the top of Roseberry Topping, a hill with panoramic views overlooking Yorkshire ( not at 2 am in the morning though). I am hoping to catch sight of Neil on this section. The out and back bit takes around 30 minutes so if I see him heading back as I head out I’ll have some idea. As I approach the start of the out and back I am nervous since if I don’t see him he’s put time on me and my chances of winning start to drop considerably. No sign of him yet as I turn left onto the trail towards Roseberry Topping, almost as soon as I do though Neil appears ahead of me making his way back up the climb. We exchange greetings then get back to the job at hand. I reach the top of Roseberry and check-in with the Marshalls who inform me I’m 25 minutes down. I’ve no real idea if i’ve made or lost time on Neil as I don’t know how much time I spent lost but guess it has to be around 30 mins. I know Neil finished the second half very strong last year so figure I need to make some headway over the next 10 miles.

The next section through Gainsborough woods and into Skelton and Saltburn is very runnable with some good downhill trails where it might be possible to make up a bit of time. I decide I need to push on a bit more and see if I can eat into that lead before we hit the coast. After a few miles I reach Guisborough woods and a potentially tricky navigational section. I’ve studied this part of the route in detail as it was mentioned that it is an area where people got lost in previous years. There is a checkpoint at the end of the tricky section which I reach without difficulty. The next part of the course through the forest is a place to let the legs stride out and make up some time.

Saturday approx 3.30am Slapewath race time approx 10 hours 30 minutes

My knee sends me a warning sign that it is not liking this steep descent, I ignore it and run down to the a main road, crossing it near the deserted Fox and Hounds Pub before ascending around the back of a quarry on the other side. At the top of this ascent is a farm track which runs all the way into Skelton. I run steadily down trying to preserve my knee but notice it feels better running faster so keep the pace up. Passing through the town of Skelton quickly, I follow the trail through a wooded area all the while on the lookout for Neil, still no sign, maybe I haven’t made any progress on him after all. Some of the very steep sections really bother my knee and I am starting to really worry. Upon a moments reflection I decide that worrying about how it might feel hours from now is pointless , at the moment I can still run ok albeit with a bit of pain, but it isn’t affecting my running yet, so I put any other thoughts out of my mind.

Saturday September 25 approx 4am Saltburn 58 Miles covered. Race time approx 11hours

Finally I arrive at Saltburn and make my way down to the seafront where some poor guy has been sitting in a car for god knows how many hours waiting for runners to come along. The town is deserted as you would expect for this time of the morning and the wind is whipping the sea into a frenzy of white-capped waves. The checkpoint is located in a carpark which overlooks all of this and is not a great place to spend a night.

I say hi and he checks me in. As he does I glance at his clipboard and notice that Neil checked in at 4.07. I watch as he writes my arrival time in as 4.11. I’ve made up 21 minutes in the last 10 miles! The race is well and truly back on. The Marshall warns me that the winds are forecasted to INCREASE as I approach Filey, great!

The race follows the cliff top coastal path for the whole 56 miles to Filey. It drops down into various small towns and gullies along the way before regaining the height on the other side. The descents and ascents are on the very steep side and are often very steep wooden stairs built into the gully walls, completely impossible to run down or up. There are plenty of good running trails but also plenty of hills that are just too steep to run with 60+ miles in the legs. It is essential to preserve your legs on the steep ascents and descents so you are able to run as much as possible on the other sections. The key to finishing an ultra quickly is having the ability to be able to run despite having covered 60 or more miles. Even running slowly you’ll cover 6 or more miles an hour ( 9km/hr) whereas as soon as you start walking the speed drops to 4 miles an hour at most. My goal was to run everything that was possible to run. Even the uphills that weren’t ridiculously steep I aimed to be able to use a run/walk strategy, running parts until the effort level increased then walking till I recovered and then commence running again. I was really hoping my knee would let me do that.

Forgetting all about my knee I climb the path south from Saltburn and head along the coastal path. Before long I see a torch light ahead and know it can only be Neil. This is a massive physcological boost and the pain in my knee dwindles to almost nothing. I make time on him quickly and as I reach him he stops to let me go through, he knows I’m running faster than him and lets me go on my way without trying to stay with me. I turn around every now and then to see where he is and find that the distance between the two of us is slowly increasing.

Despite what it might sound like my goal isn’t to win races, merely to get the best performance out of myself on the day(s) that is possible, I’m enough of a realist to know that there are plenty of better runners out there than me to not get carried away with myself. In this race in knew that if I had a good day I’d be competitive at the front end of the field but I’d rather come third and put in a great performance than come 1st with a substandard one. Having said that I’ll use whatever I can to motivate me to push myself as hard as possible and having Neil to race against was certainly helping me push myself along. Neil was obviously going through a bad patch when I was going through a good patch. I know in races this long that can change very quickly.

Saturday Skinningrove approx 5am 60 miles covered Race time approx 12 hours

I reached the first little town of Skinningrove , passing through it around 5 in the morning, the sea battering the jetty and winds whipping the sea into a frenzy, it was a deserted and forlorn little place. I notice my knee doesn’t like running on the flat road through the town ( I say town but it must have had half a dozen houses at most and a collection of fishing boats). The flat road means that every step loads my knee in the same way as opposed to the trails where every step is slightly different. Fortunately there isn’t much flat road for the next 50 miles!.

I continue on up out of Skinningrove and along the path, the sun is making an attempt to rise which is very welcome. It doesn’t bring any warmth but does mean I can take my head torch of. Progress is slow as there is much ascent and seemingly little descent, some of the ascent is runnable and I push on whenever possible. I’ve realised that a very slow run is significantly quicker than a walk except for very steep or long ascents. So I try and keep a shuffle going uphill for as long as possible. I pass through the town of Staithes, so pretty in the summer sun of my recce, now it is a windy cold deserted fishing village.

I feel like I am the only person alive at times, the whole world is asleep, and in conditions like this who could blame them. It is a very surreal feeling running as the sun rises knowing that you’ve run throughout the whole night. Seeing and feeling the gradual changes that occur as the earth spins around it’s axis you gain a different viewpoint of day and night. Normally night brings the end of the day, you sleep and wake up and it is a new day. Running throughout the night doesn’t give you that break between days, one day rolls into the next and you are still running, the earth is still turning, nothing has changed. You begin to lose a sense for what it feels like not to run, as if your life started when you started running , nothing before existed, there was only you, running and with so long to go all you can see in the future is you, running. I almost feel like the earth is a giant treadmill and I am an insignificant ant on its surface trying to keep up, when I jumped on this treadmill and when I can jump off nobody knows.

Saturday approx 7am Runswick Bay 70 miles covered , Race time approx 14 hours

The next checkpoint is at Runswick Bay and I leave the cliff top to ascend to a road where the checkpoint is located. The marshalls there inform me that the sea is looking at little rough and the beach may not be passable. The route goes along the beach for a short section before heading up through a small break in the cliffs. I run down to the beach to see the sea in a white water frenzy crashing heavily against the cliffs. If my life depended on getting through I think I could have made it but the thought of getting saturated by freezing cold seawater and then running another 44miles didn’t appeal to me at all. Upon discussion with the marshalls it was decided that I will wait until the tide turns and it is safe to cross. The race instructions did mention that this was a possibility , I just didn’t think it would actually happen.

Around 20 minutes later Neil appears and being a local he decided instead of waiting he’d try and find a way through. I wasn’t keen and neither were the marshalls so I remained in the car whilst Neil pushed on ahead. The time I would spend in the car would be deducted from my race time anyway. Every half an hour we check the tide until finally 1 hour and 40 minutes later it looks safe to go. Now you might think that the situation is now in my favour – a nice rest doing me the world of good. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was now very cold, even standing outside the car for a minute reduced me to a shivering wreck. The marshalls had in their kindness switched the car on to turn the heaters on to warm me up. I had enough warm clothes to stay warm when running but sitting around doing nothing is different. I gingerly set off along the beach and immediately noticed my other knee ( the right one) is very sore. Thats the other problem of sitting cramped up in a car for that long , everything starts to seize up. I try to run a bit then the pain gets too much and I walk again hoping that it will improve as I warm up again.

I make my way past the cliffs and head up the small break in the cliffs ascending via the staircase before resuming the cliff top path. Running is possible but it really does hurt, the left knee seems the least of my worries now. Once again I try not to think how this will feel after another 44 miles. It’s 9 miles to the second major checkpoint at Whitby. I resolve to get myself there and hope that the knee pain will have settled down a bit so I can run the remaining 35 miles to the finish. By alternating running with walking 5-10 strides I find I can keep the pain to a manageable level without losing much time. This strategy keeps me going to Sandsend. From Sandsend the route follows the road for a mile and a half before turning off and heading along the cliff top walk into Whitby. I am running along the road up a slight incline feeling pretty ordinary, it’s the worst I have felt the entire race. I know it’s just a low point and I will eventually feel better but that doesn’t make me feel any better now. I feel like I am running on the spot.

Just at this moment a car pulls up beside me, I look to my right and there is Jon , head out the window telling me I am looking great. It couldn’t come at a better time. I know Jon’s probably just saying that, I probably do look like shit but praise is one of those things that no matter how unlikely the compliment is it still makes you feel better. I reason that Jon is an ultra runner himself and if he says I am looking good I cant be doing too bad. I continue on running a little bit extra before the pain in my knee forces me to walk again. The walking breaks are literally only seconds long, just enough to relieve my mind from dealing with the pain.

My legs (apart from my knees) are still keen to run which is great after having covered more than 70 miles, so my mind is having this internal dialogue – just keep running – but it hurts – just keep running – but it really hurts – just keep running – but it really hurts and I’m making you walk – no you aren’t lets get running again- but it hurts – just keep running etc etc

I make my way along the cliff top path into Whitby central hoping that the swing bridge that allows you to cross from one side of Whitby to the other is not up. It happens every half an hour when the tide is in to allow fishing boats access to the upper harbour. If it’s down I lose time standing around waiting for it to open again. I’m in luck, the bridge is down allowing me to cross over then ascend the 199 steps to Whitby Abbey. Jon meets me at the top of the steps and guides me in to the checkpoint in the Youth Hostel.

Saturday approx 10.30am, 79 miles covered, race time approx 16 hours

I discover Neil passed through about an hour ago – which means I’ve made up around 40 minutes in the last 9 miles, despite feeling horrible. It is a comforting thought. I am ahead in the race but because Neil didn’t wait at the checkpoint he is ahead on the road. The first thing I ask Jon for is pain killers , I normally carry some nurofen with me for just this sort of thing but somehow forgot this time. He hands me a packet of prescription strength codeine , fantastic! With any luck this will deaden the knee pain and I’ll be back in business. My drop bag contains a bottle of Coke which I throw down in an effort to boost my flagging energy levels. That stop at Runswick bay really didn’t do me any favours at all. I don’t rush at the checkpoint, grateful to be out of the cold and wind for a few minutes and spend the time composing myself, getting my head back together after the last 9 horrible miles and get focussed on the remaining 35 to the finish. With the coke finished it is time to go and I set of again with renewed determination to finish in a good time. I was hoping for under 24 hours but with these conditions and losing 30 minutes getting lost I’m not so sure anymore. All I can do is my best I think and decide not to try any time calculations until I reach Scarborough approx 14 miles from the finish.

It is 11 miles to the next checkpoint at Ravenscar, I set off in hope that the pain killers will kick in and I’ll be able to run without having to stop every half a mile or so and walk a few strides. Gradually I notice that I am running both faster and for longer before my knee starts to bother me. It still hurts make no mistake but its a pain that you can ignore without it consuming you. My mood starts to pick up and I feel like I’m making good time for several miles. Every now and then the knee yells at me and I have to walk a few strides but it is happening less frequently and is not slowing me down much. The left knee is competing with the right knee for attention and I cant decide which is worse. Neither is enough to stop me running , yet but with over 30 miles to go I’m still worried if they’ll hold out till the finish.

The weather is still very windy and but that has meant that the frequent showers come and go quite quickly. It is still very cold and I’m still wearing five layers, I occasionally take 1 beanie off and in a few rare moments both only for the wind to pick up again necessitating putting both back on again.

I arrive at Robin Hoods Bay and head down the 30 degree decline down to the sea, it is far to steep for my left knee to cope with ( my right knee doesn’t mind it all surprisingly) and I walk the steepest sections wondering what the bemused tourist are thinking of the sight of me.

Saturday approx 12.30 am, Ravenscar, 90 miles covered, Race time approx 18 hours.

Ravenscar is the next checkpoint , I arrive and check in to be told Neil is only a minute ahead of me. Somehow I’ve made up almost an hour in the last 11 miles. It fills me with confidence. I only have 24 miles to go which if I can do in less than 6 hours will get me a sub 24 hour finish.

I set off looking for any sign of Neil in the distance but despite running a fairly steady pace I cant see him. It doesn’t really matter as I know my lead is around an hour and 40 minutes and I figure that I’d have to lose 4 minutes a mile for him to have any chance of catching me.

As long as I can keep running at any kind of pace that wont happen. The focus now is on finishing in a quick a time as possible. The time it took me to calculate this can be measured in miles not minutes! My brain although normally good at maths is struggling after 90 miles of running to think about anything other than running!

The path goes down and up a series of very steep stepped descents and ascents that are hell on the knees and the average speed. At the top of one of these I spy Scarborough in the distance, it looks such a long way away yet I know it can only be 6 or 7 miles.

Still no Neil in sight and I wonder if he’s suddenly found a new set of legs. Further along the path I spy a box containing sports drink and various foods just off the path. Looking up I see a red Car parked at the end of a nearby road, it’s Neils sons car. I must have passed Neil somewhere along the trail. All I can guess is he stepped off the path to relieve himself and thats when I passed him.

Scarborough approx 2.30pm 101 miles covered, Race time approx 20 hours.

Finally I descend to the Scarborough foreshore. Its 4 miles around the headland on the main road to reach the final checkpoint. The promenade isn’t that busy , the wet and windy conditions put paid to that but the road around headland is closed off for the Yorkshire Rally. There are people everywhere having a look at the Rally Cars and none of them want to make way for me. It is very frustrating and after the peacefulness of running across the Moors at night or along the coast at dawn it comes as a rude shock. Finally I reach the end and start heading up to the final checkpoint.

The phone rings and it is Jon, wondering where I am. I tell him and he says a few things which I cant hear as the howling wind drowns out the sound. I reach the final checkpoint and the Marshall tells me that Jon told him to tell me “ to run my legs off”. If I had the energy I would have told him that it’s taking all I’ve got just to keep running let alone go any faster.

Its only 14 miles to go and I have around 4 hours to go to break 24 hours. Unfortunately there are more steep descents and ascents to take up valuable time. I make a quick phonecall to Catherine to tell her where I am and start getting a bit emotional. I know I am going to win but I want more than that, I want a fast time. It wont be a race record, the conditions and getting lost put paid to that but anything under 23 hours will be good. Inspired by talking to Jon and Catherine I push the pace for a while as the next section is quite runnable. This comes to an end as I descend an endless series of steps. It’s the last one I think and I gingerly make my way down eventually reaching the bottom. No more steps. I know there will be a climb back up but going up is better than going down.

I know that once I climb back up it wont be long before Filey will come into view. The climb back up is steeper than I remember and goes on for longer than I remember , thankfully it isn’t stairs this time just a very steep path. Upon reaching the top I look for Filey but with no luck, it cant be much further though. I continue climbing past a caravan park noticing that the wind which was very strong has picked up and is starting to make running difficult, every now and then it blows from behind and pushes me along which is great but it is mainly a very strong cross wind.

Jon calls again to ask where I am, I tell him but wonder why he’s calling. Finally the path levels out and I start running again, I remember when I did the recce thinking that the last few miles are very slightly downhill and should make for good running. This is true except where the trail narrows to a single track the wind is so strong that I am blown sideways out of the track and towards a fence, I put my hand out to stop myself falling and just in time realise it is a barb wire fence! A quick stumble and I regain balance and continue on cautiously. I learn to time my running in between the big gusts of wind slowing to a walk when the wind gusts. It’s ok when the track widens as I have a bit of room to play with but on the narrow tracks with barb wire fence it’s not much fun.

Cliff top near Filey , approx 4.20pm approx 110 miles covered, Race Time approx 21 hours 40 minutes

Eventually the fence ends and FIley comes into view. Finally after 110 miles of running I can see my destination. I haven’t dared think about Filey for it has always seemed such a long long way away and the thought of covering that distance is almost too much for the mind to comprehend but now I could see it not that far into the distance. I am inspired and try to pick up the pace without much success it has to be said.

I meet a walker coming along the other way who seems a little surprised to see me. He asks where Neil is, I reply he’s a bit behind, not sure how far though. Obviously a friend of Neils who thought Neil was leading. He is nice enough though – suggesting I run in the fields instead of the trail so I have room to be blown sideways without worrying about being blown over. There are barren fields about a metre or two off the path that make for easier running. I follow his suggestion and although anybody watching me who didn’t know it was windy would think I was drunk with the amount of weaving too and fro I was doing , it did allow me to continue running without having to walk every now and then for fear of being blown over.

I can see the end of the headland now and know that the turn off into Filey can only be half a mile or so away. I see a figure standing on the trail in the distance and as I approach I see it is Jon. He’s come out here and waited for me to get there so he can run the last few miles in with me. I am thrilled to see him and give him a big high five. We turn from the cliff and with the wind at our backs head into Filey. I give Catherine a quick call as we run to tell her I am only a few miles from the finish, and then set about enjoying the last few miles with Jon.

It is starting to seem real now, I will finish, I’ll finish in less than 24 hours and I’ll finish first. I hurt all over, both knees are really sore, my legs in general are trashed, even my abdominals are sore from trying to stabilise myself against the wind but you wont find too many happier people around. There are two more lots of stairs to go, bugger I’d forgotten about those. I’m running what feels like a pretty good pace with Jon ( it probably isn’t!) but as soon as we hit the stairs I slow to a crawl. I don’t care anymore the euphoria is starting to overwhelm everything else. Finally we reach the seafront and then turn up the main street.

Ealier that day there was a 10km fun run in Filey and as we run past a family the Mum tells one of the kids to watch out or they’ll be swept up by the 10k runners. I laugh and think “if only you knew”, Jon takes it one step further and goes back and tells them exactly how far I’ve come. I don’t get to see or hear their reaction unfortunately.

I cross the railway line thankful that the boom didn’t suddenly come down and make me wait for a train All that remains is the run up the road to the School Gymnasium where the race finishes. It is a cruel finish as there is no sign of the school until just a hundred yards or so from it and then once at the school you have to run to the far gate to enter the gym but finally I see two figures standing at the entrance, an official and Catherine, I cant control my emotion any more and pump my fists in the air, tears welling up in my eyes. I run past them and then into the Gym where my race is done.

Filey 5.10 pm 114 miles

There are a few people in the gym who applaud me and say congrats. It all seems a bit surreal, Catherine makes it into the gym and I am very happy she is able to share the finish with me. We sit and chat, she has a goody bag of food she’s prepared for me including a home baked banana cake but unfortunately my stomach isn’t up to much. I try a few Pringles and a cup of tea which goes down ok.

Almost as an afterthought I look at my watch and realise I’ve finished in 22hours and 28 minutes. It was a time I thought might be possible in good conditions if I didn’t get lost, to achieve it in atrocious conditions and losing 30 minutes to getting lost I almost don’t believe.

The next morning I find out that of the 29 starters only 11 made it to the finish, last year there were 23 starters and 21 finished. The conditions really took their toll.

I’ve now won two of these types of races both in appalling conditions , particularly for an antipodean who loves the hot conditions, yet it’s not about winning for me. The whole experience is the attraction of it. The moments of sublime natural beauty, the short periods of blissful meditative running, the ability to rise above physical pain and continue to push yourself, the total application of the mind to one all consuming goal, being out in the elements be they good or bad and finding ways to keep going despite them and of course the indescribable joy and emotion of crossing the finish line these are some of the reasons why I do these races.

How is it possible to run that far? It is possible because some people dare believe it is possible. Why would you want to? To have an adventure, to challenge yourself to do something that to many is inconceivable, to enjoy being out in nature and the feeling of being part of it rather than just watching from the outside, to see the sun set and then rise again and knowing that you’ve run the whole time in between, to be able to focus the mind so intensely that it can block out the thought of running another 50,60,70 miles and just focuses on the next mile, the ability to control your body in such a way that you are able to tell it what to do rather than the other way around and for so many other reasons that are so hard to explain.
They say that you experience life the fullest when you live on the edge, for me running an Ultramarathon is my edge!

Whats next? I don’t know but I feel like I’m only scratching the surface of what is possible. I’m looking forward to the next challenge already whatever it may be.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Crunching your way to a weaker core

New post in my Personal Traing blog on how crunches can weaken your core. Have a read here

Friday, 17 September 2010

Barefoot Running – passing fad, valuable training tool or the only way to run?

Barefoot Running – passing fad, valuable training tool or the only way to run?
Barefoot running was relatively unheard of until Chris McDougalls book “Born to Run” was published. Since then there has been an exponential increase in the number of runners shedding their shoes and experiencing running without the cushioning and support of shoes. Claims of miraculous cures of long term injuries, regaining the love of running and improved performance have been made from its converts.
The barefoot community is not without it’s critics though. Shoe companies and Podiatrists particularly have been quick to advise that it is not the cure for everything and must be approached with caution.

Understanding a few basic principles will help you decide whether ditching your shoes is a good idea for you.

What does the foot do?

The action of your foot arch collapsing is called pronation, lifting your foot arch back up again is supination. When we land our foot is meant to pronate. It does this to absorb the shock of landing and store energy in the structures of the arch of the foot and Achilles tendon. As we move towards pushing off our arch springs back up (supinating) using the energy it has stored and locks into a stable joint which gives our Achilles tendon and calf muscles a stable base from which to work as we push off the ground. The action of pronating and then supinating is critical to the function of the foot. Problems occur when we do either too much or not enough.

Your feet are also very dense with nerve endings and provide the brain with a large amount of information about what is happening to it when it hits the ground. This then allows the brain to give precise instructions to the other muscles in the body optimising movement. Think about how it feels walking in ski boots – your feet get very little feedback through the boot and therefore you are much less stable as the brain is unsure what is happening. What happens in your feet greatly affects what happens in your knees hips and even lower back. Many knee and hip problems have their origin in the foot.

What controls how much pronation and supination occurs at the foot?

There is an ideal structure to the foot. With this foot type the muscles supporting the foot have the optimal lengths and positions to control the pronation and supination of the foot. Some of us are lucky enough to have an ideal foot, unfortunately many of us aren’t.

Those that aren’t fall into two categories. Feet with a bony structural abnormality and feet that are affected by weak or tight muscles. Since you cant change your bone structure those with this problem will always have to compensate for that. Those with muscular problems may be able to train their muscles to restore proper foot function over time.

How does this relate to running barefoot?

If you have a normal foot then running barefoot will come relatively easy for you and as long as you slowly increase your mileage you should be able to handle it with few problems. Those with muscular problems should be able to run barefoot but will take a lot longer to adapt to it as the body needs time to strengthen the necessary muscles to cope with increased demand on them. Those with bony abnormalities will struggle to run barefoot but given time may be able to partially adapt.

How well your feet can adapt depends on how big the abnormality is and how much demand you place on your feet. If you have a small abnormality and you run 20 miles a week you may adapt quite well, if you have a large abnormality and run 100 miles a week you may never develop sufficient strength to compensate.

What are the benefits of barefoot running?

Barefoot means the foot gains more feedback from the ground which gives the brain more information from which it can determine the muscle activation at the knee and hip joints. This can improve performance and reduce injuries.

Barefoot runners gravitate to a mid to forefoot landing with the foot landing under the pelvis. Whilst there is debate over whether a mid to forefoot or heel strike landing is more effective there is no debate on the fact the foot should land under your pelvis.

Barefoot running improves the flexibility and strength of the foot and ankle muscles. With no support or heel lift from a shoe the muscles of the foot have to go through more of a stretch every time the foot lands and have to work harder to stabilise the foot.

The question is does any of this improve performance or decrease the risk of injury? In the next few years we should start to see some detail research to confirm or deny this but at the moment we don’t know. The initial studies are far from conclusive and both the barefoot and the running shoe groups are claiming it helps support their case.

What are the potential dangers in running barefoot?

If you change anything about the way you run without giving your body time to adapt you run a high risk of suffering an injury. Most of us need to wear in a new pair of shoes, this applies even more so with barefoot, if you do to much too soon you will become injured often trading one set of injuries with another.

The obvious dangers of running barefoot on broken glass etc can be overcome by wearing vibram five fingers or similar. Many people are concerned with running on concrete and you are likely to cause yourself an injury unless you give your body time to build up the natural cushioning in your feet first. Your body has fat pads under your feet specifically designed to cushion the blow of landing but when we wear shoes these pads reduce so you need to give it time to build back up first. Running on dirt paths or grass first before trying concrete gives the foot a chance to adapt.
If you have a bony abnormality it will take a long time for your foot to adapt and it may not be able to adapt well enough to run the mileages you want to run.

Why should I bother at all if there’s no conclusive evidence to support barefoot running?

If you are running such that your foot lands under your pelvis, you rarely suffer injuries and you can wear lightweight racing shoes then you probably don’t have that much to gain. Most of us don’t fall into that category. If by adding one barefoot run a week or doing your warm ups in barefoot you can gain greater foot stability and strength which may allow you to race in lightweight shoes then it could make a big difference. Normal shoes weigh around 350grams so if you run for an hour taking 90 strides per minute it means each leg ends up lifting 1890kg! If you can wear a lightweight racing shoe that weighs 250g then you’ll end up carrying 500kg less.
If running barefoot changes you from a heel striker that lands with your foot forward of your pelvis to someone who lands with foot under your pelvis then you will certainly see an improvement in your times.

How do I know if I have a normal foot , a weak foot or one with a bony abnormality?
If you have a moderate foot arch, wear neutral shoes and suffer very few injuries then your foot structure is probably pretty good. If you have very low arches or high arches then you body has to compensate which can cause injuries. Determining if it is a bony abnormality or a muscle weakness is not easy and involves a detailed foot assessment but in either case you will need to approach barefoot running with caution and slowly build the mileage up.

Can everyone run barefoot?

Certain foot types will have a much harder job coping with the demands of barefoot. For example If your foot pronates excessively then this will place more load on the muscles that are attempting to control the pronation compared to a well functioning foot. Can the muscles adapt eventually? Is it too late after 20+ years of wearing shoes to retrain the foot to cope with running barefoot? If the same person had never worn shoes would they be able to cope with barefoot running?

All of these are unanswered at the moment. It would be interesting to have a look at the feet of people who have been barefoot all their lives compared to those who wear shoes. You cant change what you are born with but if we never wore shoes would our feet adapt. It makes sense that the majority would have to adapt to some degree. The question for those who have worn shoes is, is it too late for some feet to adapt? Hopefully more research will start to give us some answers.

What should you do?

My personal opinion is that barefoot running should be treated as another way of training, just like speed sessions, long slow runs, etc. Use it to improve technique and strengthen the feet and progress very slowly. If you find that you adapt quite quickly then you may consider doing more of your runs barefoot. If you find it is taking a while to get used to then proceed with caution and restrict running barefoot to 1-2 times per week. A recovery run or warm up is the ideal time to run barefoot.
As you adapt to running barefoot you may have a wider range of choice of shoes. If you can handle barefoot then you wont need highly supportive, cushioned running shoes. You can base your running shoe choice on other factors like weight, tread or even looks!

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Is running with a hand held water bottle slowing you down?

On my run today I noticed another runner carrying a water bottle in one hand and an ipod in the other. What struck me about this runner was the total lack of upper body movement as he run, no arm movement, no upper body rotation, nothing.

Once the runner had disappeared from sight I imitated how he ran to see what effect it would have on my running. I found it quite difficult and unnatural to completely immobilise my upper body and the effect on my lower body was dramatic. Immediately my stride length shortened significantly and my pace slowed to a shuffle, I had no push off, no knee lift, all feeling of fluidity disappeared. I felt like a poorly constructed robot.

Try it yourself and see the effect it has. If you run holding a water bottle notice if the arm you hold the water bottle in moves less than your other arm, if it does then it is affecting the way you run making you less efficient and setting up possible biomechanical asymmetries leading to injuries. Get a hip holder for your water bottle or a camel back.

Studies have shown the energy cost of running with a camel back is far less than running with a hand held water bottle.

For those of you who want to know why read on....

Keeping your upper body completely still you effectively turn off your core muscles and significantly reduce the load on your hip flexors and glutes.

Let me explain - as your leading leg travels forward (say right leg) and your left leg goes behind you your arms go the opposite direction - ie right arm goes backwards , left arm goes forward.

So now you have a diagonal stretch from your left hip to your right shoulder. This places a tension on your hip flexors and abdominals. This tension places a load on the muscles, tendons and fascia which when released acts like a rubber band pulling your left leg forward and right arm forward. As you drive the left leg and right arm forward your left arm and right leg travel backwards which loads the opposite diagonal ( right hip to left shoulder) and the cycle continues.

Your gluteal muscles are loaded by the rotation of your pelvis. As your right foot lands your pelvis rotates to the right placing a stretch or load on your right gluteals which when released helps you drive off the right leg.

So the rotation and arm movement of your upper body effectively loads the muscles in your lower body.

Notice that the faster you go the more arm swing you have - sprinters swing their arms a lot more than marathon runners. Sprinters use more force so the greater arm swing place a bigger stretch or tension on their muscles allowing them to generate more force.

Muscles work most effectively when they are placed under a tension first, if you dont do this then then amount of force the muscle can generate is greatly diminished . Take an extreme example - say you want to jump vertically as high as possible. TO load or place the muscles of the hip and leg under tension the first thing you do is squat down which is quickly followed by your vertical jump. Now imagine how high you could jump if you werent allowed to squat down at all - you'd be lucky to make it off the ground.

This is what happens if you dont move your arms when you run - you greatly reduce the force the glutes, hip flexors , core , hamstrings and quads can generate.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

A Long Weekend

When training for an ultra there's always that worry in the back of your mind that you haven't done enough. Your longest run in training is 50km so how the hell are you going to run 180km in a race? It's a very rational fear but running an ultra is not a particularly rational thing to do. I have been feeling good in training but still had a few niggles which seem to come and go quite randomly throughout a run. I was worried that although they might come and go in a 50km run they might come and not go once the distance increased.

A chance to recce the route of the Hardmoors 110 ( it's a 114 mile race along the Cleveland way - used to be 110 but the organiser felt it was a trifle too easy so added another steep hill and 4 miles to it!) came up and I thought it's about time I found out what kind of condition my body is in and see if it can handle a heavy mileage weekend. The plan was to run from Helmsley to Carlton Bank on Friday afternoon a distance of around 30 miles, then to Robin Hoods Bay on Saturday ( 53 miles) and then the remaining 27miles to Filey on Sunday morning and hopefully catch the 12.22 train back to London.

Unfortunately I had to carry all my stuff for weekend as I was by myself and staying in different accommodation each night so not only did I need enough fuel for 3 hard days of running I had to take some dry,clean clothes to wear at night and some toiletries which meant my running backpack was stretched to the brim and weighed a ton. Oh well - all good training!

The weekend went surprisingly well, only missed a few turn offs in the route costing my a couple of extra miles, it only rained heavily twice for around 10 minutes at a time and the sun even came out on the last day. Felt strong all the way to the finish and all the niggle's I was worrying about ended up fine , although picked up a different niggle on the last day - hopefully nothing major though. Scenery was beautiful - easily enough to take my mind of how long I had to go each day!

It took me around 6 hours friday, 12 on saturday and 5 on Sunday. Sunday morning was interesting - the day started with a steep climb which was walked, when I reached the top and it was time to start running again I set off gingerly wondering if the legs would obey but to my surprise they set off on command and maintained it all the way to the end. Kind of like going on a trip with an old car that looks as if it will break down any minute, you are surprised when it starts and even more surprised that it gets you to your destination with no problems at all!

(A niggle for those of you that are wondering is an awareness that something isn't quite right in your body but it's not enough to stop you running - ignore them and you can end up injured , manage them and usually you can continue to train)

Taking a week off this week to recover and hopefully back into training next week - 7 weeks to go till race day!

Sunday, 25 July 2010

A Hard Weeks Training

Well it’s been a while since my last blog. I’ve been very busy trying to get a website up and running which will hopefully be out in a few months.

For a change I thought I’d take my educational hat off and just tell you a bit about my training. I am often asked as to what kind of training I do, how many miles, intensity etc so I thought I’d share a fairly typical week with you. This is week 3 of a 4 week cycle. I base it on a 3 week increasing in mileage program with week 4 an easy recovery week. So for example I may do 50-60 miles (80-96km) in week 1, 70-80 miles(112-128km) miles in week 2, 80-100 ( 128-160km) in week 3 and then drop it down to 30-40 miles ( 48-64km) in week 4. The basic structure of each week is the same but I change the location and interval times to progressively harder each week.

Monday – Barefoot and Running Technique

30 minute barefoot run ( Vibram 5 fingers) including running drills and strides on grass. The barefoot running I’ve been doing for a while but I’ve just started doing the strides as a means of developing running technique and efficiency
Total 3-6 miles ( 5- 10km)

Tuesday – Hill Repeats
6 x 5minute hill repeats with 45 second recovery followed by easy run back down the hill. Total recovery is around 5 minutes. These are run as pretty much all out efforts with the aim of keeping the time consistent. My first repeat is usually the slowest and the next 5 are all within a few seconds of each other
Usually do 30 minute warm up and cool down so total session is 2 hours and around 16 miles ( 26km)
This week's hill was Highgate west hill which is 1km long.

Wednesday – Easy Run
2.5 hour run in Hampstead heath, sticking to trails, very easy pace but very hilly.
19 miles ( 30km)

Thursday – Plyometric and Core training
45 minutes of lunges , jump lunges and dynamic core work
Yoga Class - I try and do this every week but work has a habit of getting in the way and I'm managing about every second week.

Friday – Threshold Session
30 minute warm up followed by 40 minutes hard. An easy 30 minute run ( 15 out and 15 back) brings me back to where I finished the 40 minutes hard. The aim then is to get back to where I started the 40 minutes in less than 40 minutes. The pace for these runs is around 3.50min per km or 6.10 per mile. 30 min run followed by run home completes the session to a nice round 40km

Saturday - Long Hilly Run
This week was 50km in 4 hours 55 with 1600m of ascent descent. Run up and down the west side of the Heath from the athletics track to Jack Straws Castle 10 times. Here's the profile of the run. I try and run the uphills easy as possible and then make use of gravity and run the downhills a bit faster

Total Mileage for the week 144km or 90 miles.

Keep in mind not every week is like that the preceeding two weeks would be less and next week less and I'll only reach this kind of mileage in the 2-3 months before a race. My body cant handle that kind of mileage and intensity week in week out like some. I could of course reduce the intensity and therefore increase the miles but I feel there is more value in keeping the intensity and reducing the miles - even for an ultra runner.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Training in the Heat

Here's an article on Top Tips for training in the Heat that I wrote for the July edition of Running Free Magazine. It's on page 26.

If the article on core training piques your interest take a look at

Monday, 21 June 2010

Barefoot, Shoes, heel strike, midfoot, forefoot , whats right for me?

There is a lot of discussion about the merits of barefoot vs shoes, heel strike vs forefoot/midfoot going on at the moment and it’s getting very confusing for many people to work out what is right for them.

So with that in mind I’d like to separate the fact from the fiction for you and discuss some of the research out there in plain English so you can make an informed decision on what is best for you.

Before we start talking about barefoot or not there is one thing I want you to remember when you read about various studies proving a certain claim.

Fact: No study or research is 100% true
Although many researchers claim to have proved something the reality doesn’t support this. There is very little that is 100% true.

For example a study may “prove” that running with a certain shoe (or barefoot) improves running economy. Therefore we should all wear this shoe because surely improving running economy means we can run the same speed with less effort and therefore run faster with the same effort.

What you have to realise is this study may have been conducted using treadmills. Running on a treadmill isn’t the same as running on the road or trail or track. The study may have only looked at a 12 week training period so there is no proof that after 6 months or 1 year the effect will still be noticeable. The study may have been conducted on elite runners so there is no proof the same result will occur for age group runners. The study may have been conducted on 25-40 year old men so will the same result hold for women or older men. The participants may have been running 40 miles a week so will runners who run 20 miles or 80 miles a week still see a benefit. Just because running efficiency has improved over a certain time on a treadmill doesn’t mean that race performance in a marathon will result

It is very difficult to design a study to prove anything except under certain conditions . Using the example above we could say that the study shows that runners with runners with a VO2max of 60-70, male ,aged 25-40 ,running 40 miles per week using a certain shoe for a period of 12 weeks will see an improvement in running economy on a treadmill when running for 10 minutes at the fastest pace possible of on average 5%. Thats all it may proves.

That doesn’t mean we ignore it , we add it to all the other studies done and it gradually leads us to form an educated opinion on what may be the best type of training for runners.

With this in mind I have rated the following points as fact, fiction, fact? and fiction?. The question mark indicates there is still some debate going on or it is my opnion only.

So with that out of the way lets look at what people are saying about the barefoot, heel striking fore foot debate.

Fact : We have evolved to run landing on our mid/fore foot depending on the pace.

If we believe the theory of human evolution then it follows that we are designed to run landing on our mid/fore foot. Assuming that running was a necessary activity for humans to do then if running heel first was more efficient then we would have evolved in a way that made more biomechanical sense to land heel first. The foot is designed to absorb the load of running whereas by landing on our heel the shock goes straight into the knees and lower back. There is no argument from anybody that when you run barefoot you will tend towards landing on your mid/fore foot. Shoes have only been around for 40 years so it is very unlikely that we have evolved to run landing heel first. However this only applies to running barefoot, what happens when we run with shoes on may be different.

Fact : Landing on our mid- fore foot places more stress on our calves and less stress on the knees.

Whether we run barefoot or with shoes there is no denying that landing on our mid/forefoot increases the load on our calf muscles and Achilles tendons. These muscles absorb the landing forces instead of the knees

Tip: If you start running barefoot or trying to land more on your forefoot you will need to slowly introduce this to avoid overloading the calf muscles.

Fact: Elite runners all land with their foot under their centre of gravity (i.e hips)
There is some research that shows that 75% of elite runners land heel first (more on this later) but the thing all elite runners have in common is their foot placement is directly under their hips. Landing with your foot in front of your body applies a braking force with every step, placing more load on the whole body particularly the knees.

Fact: Shoes offer more support to the foot.
There is no argument that running shoes offer the foot more support. The argument is whether this is good for the foot or not.

Tip: If you move to a less supportive shoe or to barefoot , significantly reduce your mileage to give your foot muscles time to strengthen up and take over the load that the shoes were absorbing before.

Fiction: Running shoes decrease running injuries
There has been no study that proves running shoes decrease the risk of running injuries . In fact there have been several studies that say the opposite. This is not to say running shoes are the cause of injuries merely that the incidence of running injuries has been shown to be higher with people using more expensive running shoes.

Fiction: All runners should throw away their running shoes and start running barefoot.
The research suggests that running barefoot is the way we have evolved to run and that people who run this way have greater running efficiency and fewer injuries. However there is no proof of this yet. There is a big change on the demand on the body when you start running barefoot and unless you do this slowly to give yourself a chance to build up the necessary strength it is likely you’ll swap one set of injuries for another. Changing your running technique takes a long time and not many people are prepared to reduce their mileage for 3-12 months (or more) in order to give their bodies time to adjust.

Fiction We should ignore all this barefoot, landing on your forefoot talk
There is no doubt we have evolved to run landing on our mid/fore foot. By adding in some barefoot (or minimalist shoe) training you could benefit. The question is how much. The barefoot purists suggest you throw away your running shoes, drop your mileage to about 1 mile three times a week and slowly build back up. Many of us simply aren’t prepared to do this but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it totally. Incorporating some barefoot running as part of a warm up or adding 1 run per week barefoot and slowly building up the mileage is a good way to get some of the benefits of barefoot without dropping the mileage right down. Of course doing it this way the benefits will take longer to become apparent.

Fiction?: Everyone can run barefoot.
It is my belief that not everyone is biomechanically able to run barefoot. In evolutionary terms those whose feet where in such a condition as to prevent them from running properly would have died from lack of food. However we haven’t had to run after our food for many years so some people will have feet that biomechanically wont be able to handle running barefoot. If we didn’t put our feet in shoes from a young age the foot muscles may have developed as we aged but we cant go back and have those years again. We are stuck with where we are at so my belief is there are some people that for whatever reason their feet are in such a condition that it would take many years of barefoot for them to adapt if at all. These people are better of wearing shoes. How do you know if you are one of these people? That is a difficult question and one that needs to be addressed on an individual basis as it depends on how much running you are doing, what your foot problems are and the strength and flexibility of the rest of your body.

Fact? Landing on our mid- forefoot is a more efficient way to run.
If you watch Olympic level athletes on the track almost without exception they land on their forefoot regardless of distance. The situation gets a bit muddier when we start to look at distances longer than 10km. On study showed that 75% of elite half marathoners landed on their heel. This study is often quoted by the anti barefoot camp as it “proves” that the majority of elite runners land heel first. Unfortunately it isn’t that simple. All the study proves is that 75% of elite runners land heel first at the 15km mark ( this is where the video analysis was set up) of a half marathon. What the study didn’t measure was which part of the foot absorb the force of landing. As running shoes have a higher heel than forefoot it is possible that the heel did hit the ground first but the landing impact didn’t occur until the midfoot or forefoot hit the ground. Both sides have been debating this study for a while and until there is a study designed such that elite runners can run over a pressure pad under race conditions the argument will continue.

In the meantime it makes biomechanical sense to land midfoot-forefoot and anybody brought up without shoes runs in this way so it appears to be the way we were designed to run.

Tip: Increase your running cadence to 88-92 steps per minute. Doing this will shorten your stride length in front of you and teach you to land with your foot under your hips.

Fact?: Running barefoot will teach me to run landing on my mid-fore foot.
One of the benefits of barefoot running is the change to a mid/fore foot running style. Thats not to say you cant achieve this with running shoes, just that it happens almost automatically barefoot and requires conscious thought with running shoes.

Fact? Running shoes increase torsion loads in the knees, hips and lower back compared with barefoot running.
A study measured the torsion ( twisting effects) placed on the knee and hip during running and found running shoes place more torsion on the knee and hip. This is an expected result as the foot absorbs a lot of the torsion affect of landing ( as it is designed to do). If the foot is placed in a shoe then it takes away some of the movement of the foot meaning the torsion is transferred up the leg to knee and hip.

Fiction. Highly supportive running shoes are the best shoes to get
Studies have shown that the more expensive the shoe the more likely you are to become injured. The theory is that the more supportive the shoe the less work the foot has to do. Since the foot is the first part of the body to hit the ground it sends a lot of signals to the brain to tell it what is happening. If the foot is encased in a supportive shoe then these signals are distorted so the information the brain uses to activate the rest of the legs muscles is faulty which leads to injuries. There are studies being undertaken to prove or deny this theory at the moment but it makes sense from a biomechanical point of view.

Fiction The less supportive and more natural shoes are the best shoes to get.
A less supportive shoe like Vibram 5 fingers or the vivo barefoot terraplana shoes will offer no support for your feet placing them under a far greater load leading to potential calf problems unless mileage is dramatically reduced and you give your feet time to strengthen.

Although nothing has really been proven one way or the other there are some things we can base our decisions on.
Running with a heel strike appears to be the least optimal way to run. Research suggests that landing with the mid or forefoot is a more natural and more efficient way to run. Quickening your stride rate or running barefoot promote or more natural landing pattern.
If you want to run barefoot or with minimalist shoes ease into it very slowly or incorporate one or two very short runs per week into your training.