Saturday, 30 October 2010

Less is More?

You can tell it's darker evenings and the season's drawing slowly to an end  -  we all stop writing race reports and get philosophical, so here's a bit to shoot at if you like. It's not time yet for me to reflect on my year, still two or three outings left, plenty of time for the post mortem over the remains of Christmas, but I was interested in a comment on John K's blog a week or two back. He thought he had compromised his performance in the races he values by doing too many events overall; this year he ran five ultras where previously he concentrated on three. I guess those of us who also did several could all wonder the same thing.

It's difficult to find any accepted wisdom on this. I looked in the oracle, Doctor Tim Noakes' "Lore of Running" and found the following passages:  "My advice is therefore not to race marathons competitively more than once every four to six months. In fact, for the elite runners, it is best to race only one marathon every year," and "To reiterate the point I made earlier............I suggest that you race an absolute maximum of two marathons per year, or one marathon and one ultramarathon.........ideally there should be at least four, but preferably six, months between these races." And finally "Although you may be able to race two marathons per year, runners who wish to race ultramarathons regularly for more than a few years should limit these to one per year, with the possibility of running one other long race three to four months before, or four to five months after, the ultramarathon."

So a few points to JK's corner; but I think we should put the Noakes advice into some sort of context, in particular
1. I think he's generally focussing on athletes at the higher end of the performance range. I guess a two and a half hour marathon takes a bit out of you whoever you are,
2. It was written at least ten years ago, and thoughts on what is possible for the average runner must have progressed since then, and
3. By "ultramarathon" he is normally referring to his local Comrades event which is around 56 miles and although it has some hills it is on non-technical ground. So overall he's talking about races which are not too long and are run, in our terms, at a pretty fast pace.

I think the last is an interesting aspect because it prompts the question of whether a long or a short race (assuming both are endurance events) takes more out of you, so let's divert to this for a minute or two. I checked the best times I have done over the standard road distances in the past two or three years and they look like this:

Marathon 3-17-51
Half Marathon 1-33-57
10 Kilometer 42-35

If I plug my marathon time into a standard comparison calculator, my predicted half marathon and 10k times come out at at 1-34-55 and 43-03 so I think my actual times represent a statistically consistent effort. But how did the races feel? Well I'm a survey of one, but for me the shorter distances feel like much harder work at the time and normally take longer to recover from. In a marathon I can chat to other runners, enjoy the sights and after a good night's sleep I'm ready to run again the next day, but in a half I'm out of breath after 5 or 6 miles, by half way all I want to do is get to the end, and it's several days before I can run again. I've stopped doing 10k's, they just hurt too much. I think what happens is that so long as you have trained for the distance the longer races are kinder on your overall system  -  lower heart rate, shorter stride length, lower impact forces, etc.  This could translate into ultras. OK, so at the end of 100 miles you feel pretty whacked, but how much of this is due to sleep deprivation, less than brilliant nutrition, and so on? Physically, are you any worse than after (a much quicker paced) 50 miler?

There are plenty of runners out there completing a high number of ultras every year. Susan Donnelly and Rob Apple seem to knock off a hundred miler every other week in the summer, and nearer to home Jim Drummond has a similar record. This year John Vernon completed the LDWA Heart of Scotland (104 miles), the West Highland Way (95), the Lakeland 100 (104), the Grand Raid Pyrenees (100+) and the Hardmoors 110 (110), the last three in particular being very tough events. Look in the results tables of even just the UK ultras and you'll see plenty more examples. Ah, you may say, but these guys are going for a finish, not necessarily their best performance every time. Try harder and you won't do so many. It's tempting to agree with this view from personal experience. I set out this year with a similar programme to JV's; I was faster than him by 3,5 hours in the Heart of Scotland and by 5 hours in the West Highland Way, yet when it came to the Lakeland 100 I was forced to retire at 88 miles while John cruised on to a finish. Too much effort in the previous events? An easy conclusion but...............yes there has to be a "but". It could be that I just hadn't trained appropriately for the Lakeland event, or made some tactical mistakes on the day, or wasn't mentally up for it although I was physically OK, etc, etc.

Anyway, I'm now rather sceptical that you can decide to turn in a less-than-best performance in an ultra on any given day. I suggested to John K that he might consider concentrating on his "main" three races for best performance but do others for training, or for fun, or for whatever else but not flat out. His reply was interesting, along the lines of "I've tried to do that but once a race starts it's a race and I end up going much faster than I would in a training run". On reflection I think this is a fairly astute recognition of reality. My own plan this year was to run the Thames Trot 50, the Hardmoors 55 and the Heart of Scotland 100 for training, the Lakeland 100 just to finish, and other races for the best time I could get. I didn't feel any less exercised after the "training" events than after my "target" races, in fact the Lakeland 100 was for me the hardest as I didn't finish. So it does seem for me at least (and clearly for JK) that once I commit to an event I aproach it with all the tools I have in the bag at the time. It's easier to plan an easy day at say a road marathon where the effort is very even and predictable, but much less easy to plan and execute an "easy" ultra. I would be interested in other views on this.

But there are also runners at the sharp end completing multiple events successfully. I'm sure Richie Cunningham has done more ultras than me this year, and last year Jez Bragg got around the Lakeland 100 in 24 hours just two weeks after his third place in the Western States; these guys are clearly not "easing off" much!

One last point before I try to make some sense of all this. I'm pretty convinced after running 20-odd ultras in the past 4 years that you can have a tough race on the day without doing any medium term damage to your fitness. Since I understood what the game was about I have had three DNF's (two UTMB's and the Lakeland 100). In all cases I was fine after a sleep, sometimes in as little as a couple of hours. I think poor tactics (pacing, managing stops, nutritional, etc) played a part but I'm also wondering about the oft-quoted adage "50% of running ultras is in your head". I went into these events without the absolute certainty in my mind that I was going to finish, so I didn't.

So what is my conclusion?

Well , I think the starting point for running multiple ultras per year is that you have to train for the effort involved in the event  - ie you have to be able to cope with the distance, height gain, ground underfoot, etc. Many people complete an ultra without getting to this stage  -  you may disagree with me here but I think if you're still hurting physically a week or so later then you didn't put the appropriate work in beforehand. You compensated with a lot of mental strength and I really respect that, but you're not going to repeat the effort three weeks later.

If you've ticked that box then I think that the only thing that stops you setting out again is if you genuinely feel fatigued and "not up for it". I don't believe that one or two disappointing results proves that you're doing too much; so many things can happen on the day to produce these that I think you have to move on from the last event and not let it bother you.  If I get to the end of my plan this year I will have run an average of one event per month (a half marathon, two marathons, and nine ultras). I've been pleased with some and disappointed with others. I'll review the year at its end but at the moment my feeling is that I may cut one or two out next year because I want to spend a bit more time climbing, but in general it works for me OK. Would I do better if I cut the number of races dramatically? I believe not, but I'll never know because I enjoy the events and that's not what I'm going to do!


UltraStu said...

Hi Andy

Some interesting thoughts, which I tend to agree with on the whole.

You refer to Tim Noakes. Yes, he is a pretty clever guy, and often thinks 'outside the box'. However, as you highlighted, his comments may no longer be 'correct'. In fact were they ever! Although I have seen him present at conferences and read quite a few of his scientific articles on sport and exercise physiology, I haven't actually read more than a few pages of his book. The question one really needs to ask is what evidence did he base his comments on? Was he refering to the elite, who are quite different to everyone else!

You state above that running is 50% in your head. Well for ultra running , and especially when you get into the long races, 50 miles plus, (the longer the race the higher the percentage), I would say that it is more like 90% in your head. Yes, one needs to have a 'few miles in the legs', but apart from that, as long as one gets the nutrition and hydration correct, how one performs is largely down to one's self expectations. As long as one is getting enjoyment from running the ultras, while actually running them,then really one can race ultras quite frequently. Although performance may not always be up at the same high consistent level. As a word of caution though, I do believe that the body and mind does take a note of just how much one does during the year and eventually will tell you 'enough is enough'! via lack of motivation, overall tiredness or an injury.

All the best with your remaining races of the year. For me, my next race is March. Five ultras and 2 marathons between March and October this year, is enough for me in one year.

See you at a race next year somewhere.


John Kynaston said...

Great post Andy.

I will be doing my yearly review sometime soon!

Having attended Jack Black's seminar last week I was really interested in your (and Stuart's) comments about the role of the mind.

I thought it was very significant that you went into the UTMB and Lakeland without that absolute certainty of finishing.

I think that's one of the reasons I'd rather do less races but be 100% ready for each one so that I do start knowing that I will finish.

But the great thing is there is room for you and your 9 ultras a year and me with my 4!!

Another thing that has struck me is that I love my training runs. I don't need to do a 'race' to motivate me to train.

I'm just as happy doing a 40 odd mile training run as using a race as a training run.

Anyway good to read your thoughts ... keep them coming. We are learning from each other.