Running Uncategorized

Being comfortable with modest gains

My recent Spine ultra has had a big impact on my regular running. In this post I look at how I have started my road back to normal running.

Following any ultra (like the Spine Race I participated in a couple of weeks ago), I know my general running will be significantly negatively impacted. The first reason is pretty obvious: my whole system is a bit tired, and my body does not want to run. Another reason is that I am stiff; for example, it is harder to put my socks on in the morning; this also means the running muscles are stiff and don’t respond in the way I’d like them to. The final challenge is mental. During the Spine race, I spent nearly four days moving at a slow, steady pace. I feel like I have a metronome in my head that sets my ‘natural pace’. After an ultra the metronome has been reset to a slow pace. If I run without concentration, the metronome takes over, so after an ultra, I have to think about my cadence and effort much more than I usually have to.

I finished my effort to run the Spine on Thursday, 18 January. For the next eight days my running just focused on recovery. If I were not a streaker (I have run every day for more than five years), I would not have run at all for a few days. Because I am a streaker, I ran very slowly for 3 to 4km a day (3km is my personal minimum for a ‘run’.) By day six, I was running a bit further and a bit faster, but not far and by my standards quite slowly.

This weekend was the next modest step up in my return to my ‘normal’ running.

Redhill Runners
Redhill Road Runners at ParkRun (Wayne is at the back with his hands up)

On Saturday, one of my clubmates, Wayne, was running his 250th ParkRun, so this motivated me to get up a bit earlier than I might otherwise have done and run the Forest Rec ParkRun with him and lots of my club mates. Before I was prepping for the Spine Race, a 5km ParkRun would take me about 23 minutes and my strategy would typically be to run the first half at 140 heart beats a minute (bpm), and the second half at say 145 bpm (wearing my chest strap to monitor my heart). This strategy is based on knowing that I can normally sustain 140 bpm and 145 bpm for 20 to 30 minutes without distress*.

However, for this week’s ParkRun I stepped my plan back, aiming to start running at about 130 bpm and if I felt comfortable, I planned to step up in the later part of the run. This plan worked pretty well, I kept my heart rate to about 130 bpm until about the 4km point where I sped up and my heart rate increased to 135. My average pace for the run was 5:51 minutes per km, but over the last km my pace was 5:19 minutes per km.

The result of this run was that I ran the 5km in just under 29 minutes, about 6 minutes slower than I would have run it 8, 12 or 20 weeks ago. I finished well behind some people I would normally be competitive with. How did I feel about this ‘slow’ ParkRun? I felt pretty happy about it. I had expected to run it in about 40 minutes, and I would have been pretty happy with that. My run was a clear, first, good step at getting my running back to normal.

Today, I took another step back to normal, I participated in a local cross-country race. The race was two 4km laps of a local park, with some steep ascents, tricky descents (a vertiginous drop, through trees, over roots and fallen logs), and mixed terrain surfaces. All the participants were in their club vests, with more than ten local clubs taking place. I used the same plan as I used for the ParkRun, and ensured that I started at the back of the field. The plan, once again, worked pretty well. Because the course is two laps, it is much easier to check on the stats. On the first lap, my heart rate averaged 129 bpm; on the second lap, it averaged 135 bpm. My average pace on the first lap was 6 mins 33 seconds per km; on the second lap, it was 6 mins 16 seconds. Again, I finished amongst the slower runners and well behind runners I would normally be competitive with. Once again, I was delighted with how things turned out. I set a plan, I ran to the plan, and finished feeling comfortable.

When I talk to other runners, they often seem to beat themselves up if they are not as fast as last year, as fast as their friends, or as fast as some arbitrary comparator. However, I remember reading a comment years ago that ‘there are thousands of people who would love to be able to do even your slowest run.’ I know and appreciate that I am lucky to be able to run at all. I know that running in the way I ran today is going to enable me to run faster next month and hopefully faster still the month after.

I try to focus on my goals and my plans, and I try not to worry about comparisons. If I plan to do something and I fail to try to do it, I am not happy with myself (but even then I don’t beat myself up). If I set a plan and meet it, I am happy. If I set a plan and I try, but I fail to get the outcome I wanted, I use it as a learning opportunity. Was the plan wrong? Or was there an unforeseen issue? If I try and fail, then my planning needs to improve; I am not going to blame my running for my error in planning.

The title of the post is ‘being comfortable with modest gains’. I set myself some modest targets for this weekend. I met them, and I am happy with them. I am not where I want to be; I suspect it will take another two months to return to where I was in October (and another two months to get where I want to be), but I am comfortable with that.

*Heart rates. As one gets older, one’s maximum heart rate falls. Roughly, your maximum heart rate is 220 minus your age. This formula indicates that at 153 beats per minute means my heart is running at 100% of its maximum (I suspect my personal max is closer to 160 bpm), which is only possible for things like sprints. When I run at 145 beats a minute, I am running at about 90% of my maximum (or Zone 1 as the fitness people would call it). My heart rate numbers are not going to be your numbers, unless you happen to be in your mid-sixties.

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