Tuesday 31 January 2012

Hill training for endurance running

Last part of Parliament Hill - killer!
Looks easy.......Isn't.

Another part of the marathon des sables training plan is to add in more hill training sessions.

I've been trying to do a few hill training sessions here and there, but only now have I set them in to the training plan to run them at least once a week specifically, and at least once a week minimum into a run too.

Why is hill training good for endurance running?
First and foremost, it adds strength to your legs. Running uphill targets quads, calves, hip flexors and calves. Running downhill (often neglected) targets hamstrings. So hill training is a great way to improve leg strength in a running specific way (as, in case you hadn't clicked, you are running as you are training!)

By improving strength, you are also improving your running economy (how efficient you are, and how well you use your oxygen when you run). Therefore, you should be getting faster, and crucially, increasing the resistance of your muscles to fatigue.

By running hills, you are effectively training your muscles to be able to run for longer before getting tired. And this is the key to endurance running - being able to long periods of time (fast if you are really good!) without getting tired.

More specifically why is hill training good for marathon des sables?
Marathon des sables has A LOT of hills, or more appropriately, sand dunes, which must be the big daddy of all hills, as they move under your feet. Tres difficile!

You're running marathon des sables? You are going to be running many sand dunes! You want to be okay running over sand dunes? You gotta practice running over sand dunes. Simples!

The other week I did my first hill training session on the treadmill. I set the machine to:-
3-5% incline
3 minutes at 10km pace
2 minute rest
Repeat 4x

This felt okay to me - a bit hard but doable. Maybe I wasn't challenging myself enough?

So last week I had a MONSTER session. I reckon even Rocky would have been proud (maybe).
5 minute warm up on stepper.
Not sweaty.
15 minutes on stepper at level 8/9 effort carrying 10kg weight in bag.
Very sweaty.
15 minutes targeted strength exercises - lunges onto balance ball, one legged squats, side lie glut med lifts.
A little sweaty.
15 minutes on treadmill. 10% incline. Run 3 minutes at 8.5kmh. Rest 1 minute. Repeat.
Overly sweaty.
10 minute stretching routine.

And feeling on top of the world.

Of course hill training is not only done in the gym. In fact, there are HUGE amounts of variation in hill training, from short bursts of speed up really steep hills to prolonged tempo runs up slight inclines over a longer distance.

As I'm training for marathon des sables I'm not aiming to sprint up sand dunes, merely hobble up them, so I'm focusing on sustained slower hill sessions; increasing the distance and pace I run at, and decreasing the recovery period, over time. I'll also definitely be concentrating on the stepper with a pack - it's a fantastic, targeted workout for the marathon des sables, and is also very easy on my poor old joints.

Hill training will be done both in the gym, as I can control the environment but also outside. London has a wealth of great hill training spaces which I use a lot including:-
Primrose Hill
Hampstead Heath
Ally Pally
Queens Woods
The steep and not so steep section in Richmond Park

I think hill taining is a good plan for any beginners trying marathon des sables but also hill training is good for anyone training for any distance over any terrain.

It challenges your body in a different way and uses different parts of your muscles therefore improving overall performance and technique.

Plus it mixes it up a bit and keeps the motivation going. Always good if you are anything like me and suffer a bit from a lack of motivation for running sometimes.

This weekend?
The Big Dipper sand dunes in Wales. I want hills? I got hills!

Monday 30 January 2012

Gaiter conversation

So I've just attempted to get my gaiter velcro stitched onto my trainers and the conversation went like this:-

Me: Ok I have a wierd request for you. I need to get this velcro *holds velcro* stitched onto this trainer *holds trainer*. Is this something you could do?

Lady in shoe repair shop: *takes shoe and Velcro from me and looks confused* You want to do what?

Me: I need to sew the velcro onto the outside of the trainer.

Lady: Why?

Me: Well I'm running across a lot of sand so have to wear these *pulls out gaiters* and they need to be secured to the shoe.

Lady: Running in sand? Why are you doing that? *picks gaiters from me and looks at them in suspicion*.

Me: Ummm well....it's a race in the Sahara and you have to try and protect your feet.

Lady: *Looks baffled* No no I can't do that for you. No one has asked me this question before. In the Sahara? A run? Are you sure? Why are you doing this? It's hot there you know.

Me: Ummm...it's fun? Or something? Ok *takes back stuff from suspicious baffled lady*. No problem. I'll try somewhere else.....

Any advice for stitching the gaiters effectively let me know...

Sunday 29 January 2012

Back to back running for marathon des sables

Park runners, Richmond Park

Now having successfully got a number of ultra distances under my running get, albeit slowly, I've started upping the game of the back to back runs for the great marathon des sables.

So this week I've managed 3x 15 miles Friday, Saturday, Sunday.

Brain says yey! Legs say nay! (though I have just had a massage which was Ammmmmmaaaaazzzziiiinnnngggg).

Friday, I shuffled from North London, down to the river Thames, turned right, headed to the iconic Battersea Tower along the not-so-iconic Nine Elms main road - yuck!, span around, ran back to the equally lovely Tower Bridge (ah! thoughts of London Marathon came fondly back), high fived a couple of beefeaters, then headed back to Chancery Lane and to work. Boo.

Any burgers to hand sir?

Day 1 actually felt the hardest. I think this was because I was running to work, but also because I was carrying a pretty heavy bag too. It felt fine to begin with but around mile 11, my shoulders really began to feel sore.

Time taken: Two and a half hours.
Lots of thoughts about burgers after Tower of London (beefeaters, beef, burgers...)
Burgers eaten: None.

Saturday, I upped the shuffle to A JOG, with two laps around Richmond Park. Oh, it was refreshing to be running somewhere a bit different. And also to not have to think about where I was going. Round and round in a circle. Happy days.

Two sleb spots: Ben Shepherd (mental note: maybe got a bit too over excited about that in front of boyf) and Andrew Marr (not so excited, but excited nonetheless).

No Nell McAndrew - though I have seen her there before. Nor any Kenyan runners. Oh, how I love seeing them in Richmond Park. Even though they make me feel like a huge heffalump, stomping along as slow as you like while they bound gracefully past like gazelles on springs.

Nor, disappointingly did I see Benson the dog.

Not Jesus Christ Benson

Day 2 felt great, because it was somewhere different and I had no pack to carry, plus I saw Ben Shepherd.

Time taken: Two hours fifteen (fifteen less than Friday possibly due to speeding up after Ben Shepherd).
Lots of labradors seen, but none named Benson.

Sunday, back to marathon des sables shuffle pace. Down to Regent's Canal, along to Regent's Park, sneaked across West London into Hyde Park, along Rotten Row (sand and dog poo avoidance practice), high fived Her Madge, then ran back again.

Day 3 was a little tough mentally - I am just finding the long runs a bit boring sometimes, as I've done the routes again and again. However the last 4 miles or so were better as I sped up to challenge myself, which gave me something to think about, instead of moaning to myself about the fact that I was bored.

Time taken: Two and a half hours, with negative splits, but lots of negative thoughts.

So pretty pleased with that. My legs are feeling tired, but okay. I could run again tomorrow, though I'm having a rest (from running day).

I'm trying out 20x3 in a couple of weeks time. This weekend is the sand dunes. Gulp! Weather forecast says it's minus 10 but sunny. Small mercies I guess.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

10 mile hilly running route in north London

An alternative view of King's Cross
The other side of King's Cross - yes really! Camley Street Nature Reserve with St Pancras in the background

I'm adding more tempo sessions and vary my training for marathon des sables a little, so this includes some "shorter" runs of between 6-15 miles at fairly fast (for marathon des sables) yet comfortable pace that I can maintain.

I've run this route fairly often to get to work. It usually makes me start the day with a big smile as it's a really lovely run through some of the best parts of London.

It starts in Crouch End, takes the Parkland Walk up to Highgate Village, down to Hampstead Heath, back up to Parliament Hill, onto some roads from Hampstead to Chalk Farm before heading back into Primrose Hill and Regent's Park for one lap, onto the Regent's Canal heading east towards King's Cross and onto work (boo).

It's a really good route to get in some offroad practice and spice up the hill sessions a little. There is the long incline up to Highgate, Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath and the gawd-awful-yet-rewarding Primrose Hill.

Not only that but it's very scenic - Parkland Walk, Hampstead Heath, Regent's Park and Regent's Canal. Extra miles could also be added on by looping around Finsbury Park or Highgate Woods first, or by running onto the three big central London parks instead of heading down the canal.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Strength training for runners; strong is the new skinny!

I mean how good does Jessica Ennis look? Enough said.

Yorkshire Track and Field Championships-Jess Ennis
I mean she even looks good after landing in a pile of sand for god's sake!

Okay, so I figure my legs should be pretty damn toned with all this ultra and even non-ultra running malarky...but they are not! So how do runners tone and strengthen their legs? What exercises are good for runners and what are not?

At the gym the other week a personal trainer came over to me, just as I was pulling a puny weight on the lat pull machine, asking me what I was training for. And there was the moment of clarity. What on earth was I doing pulling on a resistance machine for my arms and back, with no idea how many reps or weights I should have it on, and why I was doing it.

I have little time and plenty of other core areas to work on including my POOR, NEGLECTED, UNTONED LEGS! So with a bit of googling, some chat with the other 'alf and some thought about my problematic areas, and what endurance runners should focus on to improve their strength, I came up with my own plan.

1) Quads (particularly VMO - vastus medialus oblique)
Squats, squats, and more squats. It was a fair revelation to me that doing a one legged squat is near on impossible for my right leg at the moment.

The key in this exercise is to keep your pelvis aligned squarely, and your knee aligned over your foot. You do not want your knee shifting left or right during the movement, nor do you want the knee to fall over the toes.

Start with double legged squats and build up to one legged squats, followed with holding a weight. Even better, use a swiss ball against a wall, and roll down. This means you are also challenging your balance and core muscles also, making the exercise even more dynamic. To help target the right muscle, give it some feedback by tapping the muscle, on the inside of your knee.

Once you have this exercise nailed, try a jumping squat, for added weight. Or do squats on a flat balance ball, for an extra challenge.

2) Hip abductors - gluteus medius
I try to think of the VMO working in unison with the glut med - one of the primary stabilising abductor muscles of the hip.

Glut med is often neglected, along with the VMO, as other muscles - the glut max and vastus lateralis (the other part of the quadricep muscle) - are usually stronger and more dominant. This can result in poor alignment of the hip and knee joint, which can lead to knee and hip pain in runners.

For glut med, I lie on one side with my knees bent and hips rolled slightly forward. Then, keeping the heels together, lift the top knee upwards. Hold at the top and slowly lower. This exercise is a killer for me too so I know it's a goodun!

3) Quads/gluts
Lunges, lunges and more lunges! Another key exercise is the lunge. Do the exercise slowly. The key is to keep alignment as well as feeling the burn in the muscles. This exercise will also help maintain and strengthen the crucial quad/abductor balance.

A similar approach can be taken by adding weights, jumping, or lunging onto a flat exercise ball.

4) Hip flexors
Another reason why people suffer from hip pain is their deep hip flexors (ilio psoas) are often inactive or weak. The bigger quad muscle often takes over the role of hip flexor, so it's key to make sure you are correctly isolating the ilio psoas and letting it shine in it's role as hip stabiliser.

Lie on your back with your knees and hips bent. If possible try and palpate your deep hip flexors to hep you feel the movement. Slowly lower one leg to an extended position, keeping your lower back as straight as possible. Return to the starting position and change legs. When confident in this, do with both legs at the same time.

5) Hamstrings
Lie on your back with your feet up on an exercise ball. Lift your behind from the floor, and hold. Slowly lower. Progress to one legged raises.

Again I generally don't have a problem with my hamstrings (other than they are tight, but that's another blog post!) but it's important to strengthen all key areas of the leg.

6) Calves
Now luckily this is one area I don't have a problem with, but it's still important to challenge all the leg muscles. Plus this exercise is great for balance and stability too.

Stand on a low platform with your hell hanging off. Lift slowly, keeping your balance, and lower. Start with both legs, progress to one legs, then add weights. Finally do the same on a flat balance ball for extra stability challenge. This exercise is also amazingly good for trail and off road runners who need strong, flexible ankles to run on changing and difficult terrain.

7) A note on resistance machines
Now apparently there is lots of evidence that using these machines are not the best for runners as they are done in a static position, not a dynamic (like running). However I do find them useful for judging how strong your legs are to start with. For example, I found that my adductors are super strong. I can manage 15kg 3x15 fairly easily, yet 15kg on the quads machine is a killer for me.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Country to Capital ultra race review

This is what running is all about! Early morning Country to Capital Ultra Race

Country to capital 45 is a yearly ultra race organised by GoBeyond Ultra. It begins in Wendover, Bucks and ends in Paddington, London. The first half covers 20 miles or so of rolling countryside and villages taken out of tourism brochures. The last 25 miles runs along the Grand Union Canal back into London.

As this was my first official ultra race I have nothing to compare it to, but I thought it was really well organised and a very friendly race.

The only thing that threw me a little was you need basic map skills as you are given a map which highlights the route. There are no sign markers anywhere. Fine - if you are Mrs Speedy Ultra Runner. A little bit scary if you are Mrs Back of Pack Ultra Runner. On the plus it does mean you can go to the loo in peace knowing hordes of runners are not about to come past.

The race is nicely broken down into six checkpoints, one every 7.5 miles or so, where friendly stewards cheer you on and give you water supplies and cake. At the half way point pork pies and sausage rolls await the meat eaters. Alas! us vegetarian runners had to make do with salt and vinegar crisps and jelly babies. (N.B. I have discovered a previously unknown talent - hoovering crisps up on the run - who knew?!)

Welcome respite at checkpoint 3, Country to Capital Ultra
No I don't want a sausage roll but thanks for offer!

The big difference I found with this ultra race compared to sub-marathon distance races was the friendliness and banter between runners and with the stewards. This may have been because I wasn't trying for a time, I just wanted to finish the race, so I was able to take the time to have chats with people. That, plus the fact I was running at a snail's pace - proper MDS shuffle! - you are able to talk, which also helps!

Amusingly, towards the end it felt a bit like being in sports day at an old people's home. For about two minutes you could hear "pff pff pff pff grunt, sniff, pff, pff, groan, cough". Then gradually another runner would come into your line of sight, shuffling slowly past you, small nod and grunt hello, before edging forward over the course of another two minutes by a few metres or so.

This would repeat about 10 minutes later with you then overtaking said runner when they decided the shuffle had to come down a gear into a painful penguin hobble.

Along the way I met a couple of other people who are running the marathon des sables this year. We had the usual banter about kit and training. It was very reassuring to talk to others and find out what they are up to, and where they are at with training. It seems we all seem to be doing around the same things, which makes me feel okay about what training I am currently doing for the marathon des sables.

I also met a lot of other ultra runners who are doing some pretty insane things. One runs these 24 hour transcendence races, another - a triple ironmen (he was 50 but looked about 30). Respect.

How did I feel during the ultra race?
Well, strangely I felt great mentally - which for anyone who has read past posts has been a bit of a trouble spot for me. I think the breakdown of the race into checkpoints really helped. Also, I just refused to think about the race as being 45 miles. I just didn't think about it at all. Having rewards, such as taking a walk, listening to music or eating some food was also key to keeping me sane.

Physically, it was a different matter. I've been a little under the weather of late - only a cold - plus I had stupidly pulled my thigh muscles in a particularly strenuous yoga session (I mean come on!) the day before, so I just felt rather nauseous and tired throughout the whole thing.

One lady at a checkpoint suggested perhaps I had taken on too many sugary foods or electrolytes, which I think was probably true. Hydration is always at the forefront of my mind but I often forget you can over hydrate as well, which is an important lesson to remember.

In all honesty it was bloody hard and actually made me a little worried and daunted about having to do that after three long days, in hot temperatures with all your kit on your back. But I'm going to keep positive. After all the marathon des sables is 90% mental strength!

And after it had finished (and still now) I feel like I'm glowing - I (little old me!) ran 45 miles. Me! Whenever I feel a bit crap it's something to remember to give myself a pat on the back for, no matter how slow I was.

And I so want to do another one so it can't be that bad. Next time I just want to overtake that 70 year old first.

Thursday 12 January 2012

My marathon des sables race foods of choice

Here are the food choices I carry with me on a race and the food I will be carrying for the marathon des sables:-

Dried mango – very tasty, and surprisingly thirst quenching too.
Geo bars – same nutritional value as Cliff bars, but a fraction of the price. Very good as well.
Fruit and nut mix – high calories and healthy.
Honey roasted peanuts – a post-race treat. Oh! I could eat a super size pack of these and not feel ill.
Bombay Mix – I don’t like this quite as much as the other food choices as they aren’t natural, but they are very tasty and have a high calorie count so good for a bit of variety.
Almonds – one of the superfoods. High in nutrients and really enjoyable. Apparently the elite runners survive the whole marathon des sables week on almonds and nuts!

I’ll be carrying Expedition Foods with me for my main meals. These seem to be recommended time and time again. I’ve ordered some online already and tried them and they are surprisingly okay for freeze-dried food – though not sure I’ll be saying that after a whole week of eating them!

(Actually this is a complete LIE. I may try and smuggle in a pot noodle, as being a vegetarian the 2 options I have - woo - are going to wear a bit thin after, um 2 days)

I also tried carrying Pop Tarts, but won’t be taking these as they just crumble into pieces big time and are a bit sickly after a while.

For shorter races I used to take energy gels but I can’t stand them anymore so these will not be coming with me either.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Entry into the tough 2 month ultra race training period

With Christmas now well behind me, there are no more excuses not to be training for the big ultra race. There are now only 12 weeks to go and the last few weeks need to be dedicated to the “taper down” period, which gives the body time to rest and recover, ready for the big marathon des sables ultra.

The plan over the next 2 months is to do a couple more “biggie” ultra races at the weekend – I have a 45 mile race on Saturday, the “Country to Capital” race, and a back-to-back 33/33 mile ultra race in the South Downs in February. Maybe more importantly than that, I’ve allocated some weekends to training in the sand (managed a full MILE in the sand over Christmas – exhausting), and just getting out of the city to go hiking with a big pack for a few days.

I’m hoping the long walks will also give my poor joints a chance to recover as well as they are taking a fair beating at the moment.

Also, I’ve been advised by Karen Weir to focus a little more on quality short, fast runs. Now that I like the sound of! So I’ll be spending some time in the gym on the treadmill doing speed and hill reps too.

Finally, I’ll be doing more yogic stretching and core work and sitting a lot in the sauna (my favourite way to pass some time, though possibly without the fat, hairy male mascot who generally is seen hanging out in most saunas near you).

I'll be updating my training page shortly to hopefully help others who stumble across this random chat about marathon des sables training. I'll also update it post race to tell you what worked and what did not.

To be honest, it’s actually great fun doing all this. I just wish I could give up work for the next few months and concentrate on training for the marathon des sables only, but alas that will never happen!

Monday 9 January 2012

Amersham marathon

Last Saturday I ran the Amersham marathon. What’s this I hear you cry? Well, it’s a fantastic informal “race” organised by a friend who is also running marathon des sables this year.

The Amersham marathon has been going for five years now and basically involves about 20 or so people who follow the organiser and complete a marathon in the beautiful Chess Valley, on the edge of the Chilterns.

People can choose to run the full marathon, join in at the half way point to run the half marathon, or with 10k to go. This year five of us ran the full distance (which actually ended up being 28 miles according to the Garmin) and then we were joined by another three at halfway.

All in all it was a brilliant run. It started early doors at 7am to ensure we finished by lunch time (v. Important) and mainly followed the Chiltern Way, through glorious rolling farmland and woods. Pretty much all of the route was offroad. At this time of year it was m.u.d.d.y – which was great for me, as it gave me a chance to run in difficult conditions, AND with hills.

My tactic for the race was to keep the PMA going throughout, as I’ve been having trouble of late with having negative doomlike thoughts, “can’t do it, I’m bored, my knee hurts”, those sorts of thoughts – sure you’re familiar with those old chestnuts if you run!

Anyway because I was running with 4 others, all male, I thought I can’t whinge. I have to be on my best behaviour, so I kept any bad thoughts wrapped away...and it worked!

My other tactic to help to keep the demons at bay was to break down the race beforehand, so I worked on a 10/10/7 split, again which worked really well. The lovely Karen Weir also suggested splitting races up into time periods, rather than miles, which I will try next Saturday at the “Country to Capital” race. This means rather than focusing upon how many more miles to go, you focus upon doing 40 minutes, then reward yourself with a short break (and also in my case some food), and carry on and so on.

What I am now experiencing frequently on long runs is that I find the second half easier. This was also the case with the Amersham marathon. I’m hoping this is 1) because mentally I know I’m past the half way point, so the race is easier to deal with and 2) because my body is hopefully getting used to the endurance side of things.

It’s fairly reassuring to know this. I feel I can cope okay with around 30 miles now. So I have the “horizontal” aspect of endurance down, I just need to work on the “vertical” side of it – being able to get up day after day and run for a long old time!

The Amersham marathon also reconfirmed one of the things I love about running. Most other runners are pretty decent, down to earth people. A bit of random banter with a group of like-minded people in the English countryside – what could be better?! Good times.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Footwear for marathon des sables

I can't really write anything about running routes for this post as I've been well and truly lazy over the festive period and have run an outstanding one mile (in sand mind you) in the past two weeks. My justification for this is to rest my niggly injuries - left hip and left knee, and to start again fresh in 2012.

So here we are. No more excuses. Except I need to buy the footwear I am going to use in the marathon des sables pretty quickly to make sure I wear them in in time. There are only three months to go!

A quick google revealed these shoes to be the shoes of choice for the desert race:-

Roclite 295 - for runners who like more lightweight shoes. Lots of flexibility though I would worry it doesn't give enough cushioning over miles and miles of stony ground. Here's a good review from irunfar

Roclite 315 - trail shoes with more stability. A review from Runner's World and another blogger - seems a bit varied - some like this shoe, some thing it's a bit clunky. Seems the heel is rather low which may or not be a good thing.

Roclite 319 - trail shoes with high stability. These are highly recommended by Likeys - an amazing store for all things desert (likeys also has a really useful kit list with their recommendations as well). Here's a blog review. Seems to be pretty good though I'm a bit worried it's a bit of a heavy shoe.

Here's some other advice from inov-8 about footwear too with some further info on gaiters.

New Balance M1100OR - the official MDS shoe. Ugly and I can't really find many reviews which rate this shoe either.

Brooks Cascadia - Scott Jurek swears by these shoes (though he does also get sponsored by Brooks so...). Look nice though! Anoter good review from irunfar who rates them highly

UK Gear PT03 Desert - looks a little chunky to me though what do I know. Here's a forum thread. Seems to viewed favourably.

UK Gear PT1000 NC - Another Likeys recommendation. Look nice too though mental note to self - it's not about fashion, it's not about fashion!! This shoe is supposed to last 1000 miles. I'd be happy with 150.

Montrail Mountain Masochist - Recommended by irunfar. Looks cool. Review here suggests maybe better for dry trails. Good for over pronators too.

Overall it looks like things to consider are:-
Whether you are wearing gaiters or want them already sown into the shoe (and most things I have read suggest separate gaiters are superior)
Weight/cushioning - weighing up (ho ho) between having a lighterweight shoe or protecting your feet from the rocky ground. Personally I'm used to a pretty bog standard shoe with some but minimal cushioning so am contemplating this one at the moment.
Width - seems that a wide shoe is preferable given your feet swell considerably.
Road or trail shoes - the majority of posts seem to say trail is best, though there is a huge difference between trail runs in wet muddy conditions and in the desert, though I do agree that trail is best here.
Height - low versus high back. Some people like high backs, some low. I would suggest check your current trainers and go with that height if it is going okay for you already.
Size - at least 1 size bigger than your normal shoe size, maybe 2. I reckon I'm going to go for 1.5!

Finally here are some great forum resources for other footwear for marathon des sables discussions.

MDS Forum - Footwear
Runner's World

And for me?
I'm going to try out the Brooks Cascadia as I run in Brooks, but also the inov-8 315 and UK Gear 1000PT or Desert if I can find them anywhere to try on.

Next? Gaiters and bag. Watch this space! My bank manager is going to love me.

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