Saturday, 12 February 2011

"Train Hard, Race Easy"

I never got this, I'm bit slow on the uptake no doubt,  but the penny's hovering even if it hasn't dropped completely. You'll have to stay to the end for the punchline.

Ultra races have hills. Well some don't, I suppose. I ran the Thames Trot from Oxford to Henley last year, I don't think I'll do it again, it was certainly flat enough to put me off ever thinking about any of the canal towpath events. No, for me, ultras have hills. Even so, some are real runners' races, like the West Highland Way, where a three hour marathon will probably stand you in better stead for a good finish than a regular bout of Munro-bashing. The hills are there but they're not huge and there are long gentle bits in between. Then there are the races that are mostly hills, where they come at you in a steady and relentless succession. To get round these there's no alternative, you have to go out and practise hills, lots of them. These events come later in the year on my programme, the Lakeland 100, the UTMB, etc, so it's been my strategy to work on getting distance at a reasonable speed up until around April, then start  hill training after that, when the days are longer and the weather generally better. It hasn't worked, so this year I started on the hills much earlier, after a longish break from running in September.

I'm lucky in that both Snowdonia and the Lakes are near enough for a day out so that's where I usually trained. Now in races I never run up hills. I might jog extremely slowly up the odd gentle slope but in general I reckon that if I can still run the downs and the flats for most of the race, that's the best use of energy. So I've never run up hills in training either  - well if you're not going to do it for real, why bother practising? Just have a good day out, put in a reasonable amount of height gain and it must be doing you good. 

Well during the winter, weather, time pressures, or general laziness meant that I didn't get out to the mountains every week. But I have a good enough local hill, from the car park to the summit is around 900ft of ascent, and my favourite loop gets up in just under two miles and down in two and a half.  My loop used to take an hour, give or take, walk up, run down. Sometimes I would do three or four laps. But then one day I did it with a heart rate monitor, something that I usually only use on tempo runs because I'm not over technical about these things. Can't remember why, just did it. I noticed that my heart rate never approached any sort of elevated zone. Doing the hills was probably helping with muscles but I was getting no other training benefit at all. I was working harder on recovery runs around the lanes at home.

So I started to run the uphill section of the loop. At first it was painfully slow, I could probably have walked faster, but over the weeks I got into it. My lap times on the hill are nearer to 45 minutes now, and I can break 40 if I only do one lap. The big learning for me was that although I am getting pretty knackered as I get near the top of the "up", by the time I have had nearly 20 minutes of running downhill I'm ready to go again. Like I said, slow to learn what everyone else already knows. Measurable progress is encouraging in any form, so even now the weather is starting to improve, I shall still go and do a few laps of "the hill" occasionally.

My last two significant runs have been a six mile tempo at 7.07 pace (still can't get to the elusive 7!) and a 30 mile trail run at 11.15 pace.  If you've followed my blog a while, no prizes for guessing which I found tougher, but the trail run, as well as being the most enjoyable, showed two interesting effects.  It was my first long run of the year (this time last year I'd already done a 34 and a 50, but I'm happy starting a bit more gently this year, the summer's still a long way off) along a trail I know quite well. There is about 4000ft of ascent over the section I ran, no big climbs but sections that definitely slow you down, up 300ft down the same, that sort of thing.

I've been playing around with training without fuel, so I ran the first 20 miles on just water. I didn't feel particularly bad, but as soon as I started eating (two gels between 20 miles and the end) I felt supercharged, and definitely ran the last 10 miles fastest. Not sure what to make of this, does it mean that practising the fat-burning is doing some good or does it just demonstrate that it's a complete waste of time?

But the clear and biggest positive was the hills. After running my 900ft up on "the hill"  regularly, all the little hills on the trail just felt as if they weren't there. Now I'm far from thinking that this is going to make a big difference to my performance in the events this year, but it's a real psychological leg up. And as so many wise people have said, get your head right and the rest is easy.


Ali Bryan-Jones said...

It makes a lot of sense to me, and running hills is supposedly one of the best ways to improve general running efficiency too. Plus if you can comfortably run uphill at say 10 minute mile pace, think how easy the same pace will feel on the flat.

Brian Mc said...

Makes sense to me. I could never manage big mileage weeks regularly but could always find time for shorter (1 hr) hill rep sessions. I am sure you can trade distance for ascent and still get the same outcome.