Thursday, 14 February 2013

How to train for the West Highland Way?

No this isn't a "this is what you do" sort of a ramble, much more along the lines of "what can I try next?" because although I've now done this particular event six times, I've come to the conclusion that I really have no idea what the best preparation for it might be.

The West Highland Way was my first "long" ultra, back in 2007. I didn't do it very well that year but I managed to finish, and in subsequent years I improved, albeit in fairly small steps, to my best time to date of 23 hours 34 minutes in 2010. Since then I've had two further finishes but both over the 26 hour mark. Disappointing, but on both those occasions I was thinking mainly of bigger races to come so I just turned up at Milngavie expecting a nice day out in a reasonable time without having to think too hard about it. But although there are for sure bigger, tougher races out there, 95 miles on foot is still something of an undertaking and I think I've paid the penalty for taking it a bit too lightly. So I've decided to give it the respect it deserves again and make it one of only two events that I will make my "targets" for the year. June 2013 will be three years since that PB, but I believe that if I can get it right I still ought to be able to achieve a "same day finish" (ie under 23 hours) before Father Time catches up with me. So that's the target nailed up, a bold enough step to start with, now, how to get there?

I looked back over my diaries to see what I had done over the meat of the WHW training period, ie from January to the start of the race, over the past five years:

I thought I might get some pointers from this, but each year looks very similar. I've never followed any sort of formal training plan, I've tended just to go out on outings that seemed attractive at the time, made sure I did a reasonable number of longer runs, and aimed to get to around a thousand miles in the bank by the start of the race. Last year I did some speed work earlier in the year, don't know whether it helped or not. Last year was also the only year I didn't do a spring road marathon. This was mainly because I got a bit bored with road running, but I suspect the discipline marathon training brings in running a fair amount of miles at a quicker pace than you normally go at in ultras actually sharpens you up for longer distances as well.

The two main conclusions I've been able to draw from looking back are (1) whatever I've done has consistently produced a reasonable time in the Highland Fling, and (2) I don't convert my Highland Fling times into good WHW times as well as many other runners do. I put forward an empirical model in a blog back in March 2011, derived from a lot of actual results from many runners, to predict how a runner might perform in one classic race based on his actual performance in another. Using this my Fling times over the past 3-4 years should put me in the 22.15 - 22.30 area for the WHW, yet my actual times have been nowhere near this, so what is going wrong?

Well, reading between the lines as they say, I suspect it has been a combination of two things. In my earlier runs on the WHW I was very poor at managing hydration, fuel, and electrolyte balance, all things that you can get away with being wrong for 10 hours but not for 24. I've learned the game much better on these now. Then for the past two or three years I have definitely been looking beyond the WHW at the Lakeland 100, the UTMB, the Tor des Geants, and so on. These are all races where above all you need an ability to keep climbing hills, your ability to keep running on the flat bits is of far less importance, so on reflection from around March-April  each year I've probably put too many hours into long days in the hills at a moderate pace (which I really enjoy) and not enough into running on trails. For what makes the WHW stand out from many of the other long classics is that it is very much a runner's race, not just for the guys at the sharp end (they run everything anyway) but for any average performer wanting a reasonable finish time. The ground is mostly easy underfoot, the climbs are modest and gentle, there is nothing to stop you running for most of the way. And yet I have never run a step beyond Kinlochleven, and never achieved much more than a shuffle beyond Glen Coe. I need to learn to run further!

Participation in ultra running has really exploded over the past three or four years, and one result of this is that where in the past you struggled to find any training advice at all, now you are spoilt for choice. So I decided to follow a pre-set plan to get you to a 100 mile race in six months, a bit more discipline in my game plan for once. What is encouraging is that many of the suggested plans have a lot in common, so they must come from some sort of consensus on how to do it. I picked mine because it seems to have the right amount of miles for me and I can probably do it without getting injured. It really differs from what I have done in the past in how the miles are built up, because the main focus is on a long back-to-back each week. This is currently 20 miles on day 1 and 12 on day 2, but it builds gradually up to 30-20 in May. There is a rest day on either side of the back-to-back, then you run three consecutive much shorter sessions mid-week, in which you have the option of upping the speed a bit. Finally, there is a really easy week on every fourth week, again something I've never done consciously before.

To add some interest I've also entered a number of events between now and the WHW race, but I've made sure that these fit in with the overall scheme of things, and I plan to treat them as training outings rather than with the aim of getting a best time. For example the Wuthering Hike at 32 miles comes on a day when the schedule says 25, so I'll just balance this by doing 6 miles the following day instead of the 13 called for. I've also gone back to doing a spring road marathon again this year, at Blackpool in early April, but again I don't propose to go particularly quickly because there is a 15 mile trail run planned for the day before.

So how is it going? Well, early days yet but I think I'm getting into the swing of it. For the back-to-backs I'm currently doing a trail run on Saturday with a bit of undulation (normally around 2000ft total) but making sure that it's all runnable (and all run!), and a road or towpath outing on the Sunday. I may substitute a second trail run on Sundays after the marathon in April. The midweek runs are short enough to be done with a bit of speed (although they do get progressively longer as the weeks go by), and the two rest days seem to ensure that you go into each "block" of runs feeling fresh. The one thing that feels a bit strange is the "easy" week. I've only done one of these so far and it feels a bit like tapering - you feel you should be out there doing something!

Will all this work? Well, who knows, but it's good  to have a bit of a structured project on the go, and if I can make it to the Lochaber Leisure Centre in the last few moments of Saturday 22nd June, it will all have been worthwhile.


Anonymous said...

Andy, you pose an interesting dilemma in that in the "old days" there wasn't really any advice around, so you just had to kind of work it out for yourself. And nowadays there is so much comment and advice flying around that...... you just kind of have to try and work it out for yourself!!!

One opinion I have heard is that the H Fling and the WHW are too close together to perform @ one's peak in both. Okay, the sharp end youthful whippersnappers may be able to perform supremely at both, with the c 7 week gap between; but most mere mortals are not fully drecovered from the Fling by the time WHW comes round. This is just an opinion, and of course masses of people do both the Fling and WHW in the same year. But, for most folk, if you want to perform at your peak 100% best in WHW (whatever time that might actually result in), should you do the Fling 7 weeks beforehand??? I'm not giving any answer to this, just posing the question as something to think about.....

Andy Cole said...

This year Murdo I'm going to take your advice. I will run the Fling but plan to finish it knowing that I could be good to go again the following day if necessary. What effect this will have on my time I don't know, but I'm guessing maybe an hour, compared with going for the best time on the day.

John Kynaston said...

Another great post Andy. Another podcast Maybe??

Will you be posting the plan?

I'm doing back to back runs at the weekend for the first time as most of the plans I've looked at do recommend them so fancied seeing if it helped.

Robert Osfield said...

I'm still consider myself a bit too inexperienced to tackle the WHR, so am just doing the Fling and Devil this year. Like you and pondering the best training strategy and back to backs will be part of my approach.

I've begun reading up on Arthur Lydiard's approach, and for what I've picked up the use of back to backs are done a bit different - with tempo runs followed by long runs. I believe the approach is fatigue a wider range of fibers and get them all working aerobically.

I'm curious, what factors caused you to walk the most in the final stages of previous WHR races? One thing I'm still trying to get my head around is the interplay hormones, aerobic fitness and diet on fat burning, and how critical fat burning is. To me it looks like at reasonable amount of anecdotal evidence is emerging that amount of fat, carbs and protein in your diet during training have an effect. Although I haven't seen a good scientific study that is directly relevant to ultra runners to confirm it, increasing the proportion from fats and reducing carbs does look to be beneficial to ultra runners once adapted to the new diet.

Stuart Chalmers said...

Fascinating reading this blog entry after knowing that you achieved a PB.