Tuesday, 25 May 2010

What Determines Performance in Ultra Running? - Part Two


Having just re-read my post from the other night, to summarise, it all seemed a bit simplistic, "Keep positive and everything will be fine and you will perform well in ultra running". So I thought I would add a Part Two post to expand a little bit on some of the aspects raised.

But first I will briefly mention one comment I received from a running friend, and one post I have read earlier tonight.

From my running friend:
"Just had a quick look at your blog on psychological stuff very interesting, my thoughts exactly, I think running is 90% in your head. I like to look back over my training diary having gained confidence from good training and very frequent 3,5,10k races and take that into marathons and ultras and rarely fail to meet my targets if im am fully comitted to achieving a certain result. The only time i struggle badly is when someone passes me in the latter stages of races and i go to pieces as i start to think i have run a terrible race as my mental state completly changes, its like someones switched my legs off, all in my head."

It is really pleasing to see that other people have similar thoughts to myself regarding the importance of getting it right "in your head".

The post that I read earlier tonight that I found interesting was John Kynaston's post on meeting Graeme Obree. http://www.johnkynaston.com/2010/05/meeting-graeme-obree.html

Having been a 'full time' cyclist for four years I was a strong follower of Graeme Obree, and have read his book and seen the movie about him "The Flying Scotsman". Both excellent, but as usual the book is heaps better. Well worthy of a read as it covers more than just cycling. What was so great about Obree was that he did things his way, always questioning the accepted norm, experimenting, and amazingly succeeding at the highest level. Setting a number of world records, and changing the style of bike riding, so much that everyone had to adopt his riding style, until it was banned. He then invented a new style "The Superman Position", set another world record, then bettered by Boardman using his style, which was then also subsequently banned. Absolutely amazing story. A truly great inspiration to not just all cyclists, but all athletes!

Well anyway back to what Graeme Obree had to say as summarised by John K:

"He had some interesting thoughts about the role of the mind and said that when he set out to break the one hour record he knew he could do it. He seemed to be saying that if you have the will to do something then you will achieve it if you have the right attitude."

So it appears that he also has the similar views to what I expressed in my last post. Maybe my ideas are the accepted norm! Well in that case sorry for stating the obvious, I'll try to add something new in this post as I expand things a wee bit!.

I think the key paragraph from my post the other night was:

"The true secret of ultra running is ensuring this positivity remains, and is not overcome by a negative 'state of feeling/being'. Although. I talk about the body and mind being inseparable, I do find that the initiation of a negative state can occur from either the mind or the body. It may start from within the body, due to muscle damage, cramp, dehydration, lack of glycogen/glucose. All of these will initiate a negative response. Two things are important here, trying to deal with the physical causes, but then as soon as possible return back to positivity."

I guess what is an even more important issue is developing strategies to help prevent these 'negative states' being initiated from the mind or body. How can this be achieved? What are they?

In answering these questions I will refer you to a well written article by William Sichel that I stumbled across on his website a few weeks ago as I followed him on his amazing 1000 mile race. Click the link to see what his thoughts are on "The Limitations to Performance in 100km and 24 Hour Events http://www.williamsichel.co.uk/limitations.php

If you have followed the link, and know some of my beliefs, you will see that I obviously don't 'on the face of it' totally agree with all of his ideas e.g. "6) The ability to pace the race effectively. This means to run as near even pace as possible although effort will be very uneven." But I really need to give this aspect some more thought. I will return to it in a future post.

It is difficult to try to list the sources of negative states being initiated in a ranking order, as all are important and can lead to negativity, which then subsequently decreases performance. However, since William ranked them, I will try to do the same.

Sources of Negative States Being Initiated from the Mind and/or Body in Ultra Trail Running, or in other words - Limitations to Ultra trail Running Performance

At the top of the list, but not really on the list, is the ability to remain within a 'positive state of being, a positive state of mind', while all of the many negative states from various sources are being initiated. It may sound simple, but it is extremely difficult. It all comes from changing one's mindset, and starts by changing one's terminology.

Some people may refer to it as learning to "deal with the pain", to deal with the "discomfort from the increasing fatigue". Both of these phrases are rather negative in expression. I tend to refer to it as "learning to enjoy the satisfaction as the body and mind work together, running to their absolute limit!" It is a positive experience, it is what I strive to achieve, running as hard and as fast as my body and mind will allow me. It is what I look forward to, in addition to taking in the surrounding natural environment of the trails.

However, sometimes things may go a little wrong, and make it extremely hard to maintain this positivity. So here is my list of "Sources of Negative States Being Initiated" for ultra trail running, this would differ for road running, and also differ for trail marathons:

1. So finally, at the top of the list has to be fuel. You must get the fuelling correct. Running intensity in an ultra, depending on it's duration, will be below lactate turnpoint, and the longer the race, significantly below. Hence fatigue will not arise due to lactate accumulation. However, the higher one's intensity, the more carbohydrate fuel will be used. The body has limited stores within the body in terms of muscle and liver glycogen. To help spare these limited stores, you must take on carbohydrate during the race! If you do not, then no matter how 'strong' your mind is, you can not maintain the same pace once your glycogen stores are depleted. It doesn't really matter what form or type of carbohydrate you take on. This will be dependent upon personal preference, experiences. There is lots of research suggesting a carbohydrate percentage concentration of around 6 - 7% is ideal. The key thing is that you must take on sufficient water in order to dilute the carbohydrate consumed to this approximate percentage level. I tend to use gels, cliff bars, but during last year's UTMB I pretty well got all the way around eating the flapjack and sultana/fruit cake provide at the feed stations, in combination with 50/50 ratio of coke/water (to ensure a 6-7% concentration as coke is around 12%).

2. Closely following at number 2, but really part of number 1. Do NOT get dehydrated! Ensure you take on sufficient water, (but not to the extremes that can lead to hyponatraemia, which has lead to death in marathon runners!) This is where the carrying of a backpack with a bladder is really beneficial in long races. Yes, carrying the extra weight of water on your back will affect your running economy/efficiency, but if you get your water, carbohydrate/water ratio wrong, then it doesn't really matter how efficient you have been running, it is pretty well end of a good performance, and may be even end of the race!

3. Stay 'within the now' whilst racing. Focus on enjoying every moment, staying confident in that your preparation has been sufficient for the realistic goal you have set yourself, and feel assured that the fast, but comfortable pace you have started at, is correct. Listen to your own 'deep and inner beliefs', and ignore the comments, views and actions of others if they are in conflict with your well thought out and planned strategies. (Quite a few topics that need expanding there, but not tonight!)

4. Muscle damage, muscle soreness, stiffness, cramping etc. As the duration of the race progresses, your muscles will get damaged, your running economy decreases, i.e. there is an increase in intensity, effort, heart rate, in order to run at the same pace. This is fact, clearly demonstrated in loads of research. But how can you help decrease the rate at which your muscles get damaged? This is all to do with running technique! Running is a skilled event. Unfortunately, as mentioned in some of my earlier posts on running economy, it takes years of miles for the legs 'to harden up', to be able to take the pounding of long distance running. Not only is it the legs 'hardening up' but it is also your running style improving, becoming more relaxed, more smooth, more flowing, more cruisey. However, you want to describe it, it is about running in rhythm. Running with your mind and body as one. Running with positivity, running with joy! I think now is an appropriate time to 'throw in' another one of my strong beliefs, but I will not explain it now. It would take too long! As a certain Jo, once said to one of my work colleagues "You will have to just trust me on this one, until the time is right to explain!" Hopefully I will be able to explain it in a post in the not to distant future. Well anyway here is my belief:

"To run faster in ultra trail races, train slower! Your training pace should enable your running to be relaxed, smooth, flowing, cruisey, and in total rhythm, with positivity and joy. For the vast majority of your runs, do not train hard!"

5. There isn't one! Ultra running performance is pretty well largely determined by the above four factors.

On my closing note I would like to draw your attention to the following, that both within my list, and also within William Sichel's list, there is no mention of VO2 max, and I only barely refer to lactate threshold / turnpoint. Therefore:

"In order to address what training is appropriate, one must first consider what limits performance!" Stuart Mills, 2010.

Enjoy your training,


Saturday, 22 May 2010

What Determines Performance in Ultra Running?

Hi again. Welcome back

I have just written the title to tonight's post, but at the moment I am not really sure what I will end up writing. Over the last few days I have been reflecting on my race performance in last week's 33 mile Marlborough Downs Challenge, whilst at the same time beginning to prepare mentally for my next race. Way back in my post titled "Is More Always Better?" http://ultrastu.blogspot.com/2010/04/is-more-always-better.html I introduced the importance of the mind, the importance of attitude in determining ultra performance. Hopefully tonight I will expand upon this, without confusing you the reader, or confusing myself!

Within the "Is More Always Better?" post I stated that Ultra Running Performance is largely determined by "The need to have a strong self-belief in your preparation / your ability". Although I frequently read the physiological and biomechanical research in relation to endurance performance, I very seldom, if at all, read any psychological research. So this post lacks any official research, it is simply my thoughts, possibly supported with a few examples.

The question I often ask myself is "What makes me slow down during an ultra race?" I can part explain the answer physiologically and biomechanically in terms of the eccentric muscle damage affecting my running economy, or becoming dehydrated. Both of these factors contribute to a rise in heart rate for the same running speed, known as 'cardiac drift'. There could also be nutritional issues, with their being a depletion of glycogen/reduction in blood glucose. However, thinking back to last week's race and other ultra races I have ran, I think a major aspect, which is often overlooked, is one's 'current state of mind' during the race. I will try to explain.

I used to think that the mind and the body were separate items. The mind would instruct the body what to do, the body would respond, and inform the mind that it could or couldn't do what was instructed, i.e. it would send messages back stating that it was sore, tired, injured, exhausted etc. However, now I belief that the two are heavily intertwined. It is not possible to separate the two. It is not just the body that gets sore, tired, injured, exhausted. The body and mind together experience these feelings, as well as experiences the positive feelings combined, such as joy, powerful, strong, floating, energy, etc.

Lets try to look to some sporting examples to illustrate how performance is influence by a combination of body and mind. I seldom follow football, but with the World Cup starting next month, and having two teams to cheer on (England and New Zealand, (yes NZ have made it for only the 2nd time ever!) I have taken a larger interest. Looking at the Premier League table, Chelsea recently finished top winning 27 out of their 38 games. The interesting statistic which is relevant to this post is that at home, they won 17 out of 19 games, and away only won 10 out of the 19 games. To further highlight this interesting statistic, Fulham won in total 12 out of their 38 games, however, 11 of these wins were at home. They only won 1 game away! The relevant question is, why is there such a big difference between home and away performance. Is it not the same teams they play, the same ball, and pretty well the same sized pitch!

What about another example, not football based but a mixture of activities including racing performances. Lets look at the performance of the host nation of the Commonwealth Games: New Zealand hosting the Games in Auckland in 1990, and England hosting the games in Manchester in 2002. In both situations, the host nation performed significantly better than in the Games either side of their host games.

New Zealand
1986: 8 x G, 16 x S, 14 x B = 38 medals
1990: 17 x G, 14 x S, 27 x B = 58 medals
1994: 4 x G, 16 x S, 20 x B = 41 medals

1998: 36 x G, 47 x S, 53 x B = 136 medals
2002: 54 x G, 52 x S, 60 x B = 166 medals
2006: 36 x G, 40 x S, 34 x B = 110 medals

So you can quite clearly see that being the home team results in a massive improvement in performance! This occurs because the mind and body are interlinked. Racing / competing at home results in improved performance largely due to the positive energy the athletes / players receive from their supporting fans, friends, family. This home support makes the individual feel happy, to feel good, to feel comfortable, but most of all to feel positive. And it is this positive feeling, this positive attitude, this positive energy that then leads to a positive successful performance.

So let's get back to ultra running! and "One's 'current state of mind' during the race".

Firstly let's look at how one's training recently completed affects performance. Quite often, following a consistent period of 'good quality' training, performance in ultra racing improves. Common sense suggests that this improvement in performance is due to the good quality training completed. I however suggest an alternative answer. As a consequence of the period of good quality training, one feels more positive towards their runs, feels more positive overall and happy. There is also an increased confidence, an improved attitude in relation to racing, that actually causes the improved performance. With it being very little to do with the 'improved body'! Similarly the opposite happens following periods of poor training, leading not to decreased physical fitness, but leading to a poor attitude, low confidence, a negative 'state of mind'!

So the secret is to be able to be positive, to be confident. But this has to be at a 'deep level'. It can not be superficial. You must truly believe, must truly experience the positive energy, the positive confidence. And this must continue, must OCCUR DURING the ultra race.

If you have been to my blog before, you will know I am a firm believer of the pacing strategy "Run as fast as you can, while you can". So far the focus of the discussion has largely been on the physiological effect of a fast start. However, the secret behind a fast start is to obtain, to enhance this positive energy. As long as you have a strong belief in your ability, in your race approach, then a fast start generates enormous amounts of positive energy. This positive energy is largely generated from within, because you are running fast, the absolute joy of moving over the ground quickly, running quicker than you have previously run, running substantially quicker that your usual training pace.

But you also get positive energy from everyone you come across during the race. Have you noticed that people are often a reflection of yourself. Well if you are racing along, with bundles of positive energy, everyone; i.e. marshals, spectators, friends, family etc., you meet, will reflect this positive energy back to you, with added 'interest'. If you are running feeling in a negative 'state of mind', your low levels of positive energy will be further drained! Think back to how your support crew responded to you in recent races, did they reflect your energy levels, think about their response at a deep level, not what they superficially tried to portray?

So during my race preparation I focus on generating this positive state of feeling, a positive attitude, a positive confidence. And during the actual race I do my utmost to maintain high levels of positive energy. To help achieve this I try to race "being in the now". To take on board, to experience everything that is happening around me, at each and every moment. I try to appreciate the scenery, the terrain, the spectators, the other competitors. Some people use 'distraction' strategies, I try to do the exact opposite!

I find that my positive 'state of feeling', or 'state of being' corresponds to a positive mind and a positive body, remember they are not separable. The true secret of ultra running is ensuring this positivity remains, and is not overcome by a negative 'state of feeling/being'. Although. I talk about the body and mind being inseparable, I do find that the initiation of a negative state can occur from either the mind or the body. It may start from within the body, due to muscle damage, cramp, dehydration, lack of glycogen/glucose. All of these will initiate a negative response. Two things are important here, trying to deal with the physical causes, but then as soon as possible return back to positivity.

The negative state may start from within the mind, disappointment at being down on race schedule, disappointment that other runners are performing better than you, focusing too much on others rather than yourself, forgetting to appreciate the joy of running, forgetting to appreciate the excitement of racing, of running fast, not appreciating the beauty of the surrounding trails, the surrounding environment. This is why I find ultra trail running so much easier than road racing, the enjoyment I get, the positivity I experience by being in the trails. Running the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc was a prime example. You don't get a much more spectacular environment than on the mountain trails of France, Italy and Switzerland. Hence my performance , which I felt was equally as spectacular to match the scenery, to match the atmosphere, the amazing overall experience.

So what happened last week in the Marlborough Downs Challenge. Having reflected on the race, the actual finish race time (3:55, an improvement of 15 minutes on my 2009 time) and race result (3rd) were both good. However, the disappointment that I experienced ,was in that I did not maintain a positive energy throughout the race. There were moments when I became less positive. The first situation, originated from my tight chest. However, I quickly dealt with that, and positivity returned. But at around the 25 mile mark, a negative state developed, because I failed to stay 'within the now'. I started to get distracted, I started thinking about other races, thinking about the Runfurther Ultra Series as a whole. As I got distracted away from the present, I was no longer receiving the positive energy, the joy of ultra racing along the Marlborough Downs. It wasn't until I returned to 'being in the now' when I returned my focus to the actual race I was currently performing in, that my running performance improved, the enjoyment improved, and the last 3 miles were back to normal!

Well, hopefully you have been able to follow my above 'mutterings'. I feel I have truly honoured the title of Millsy's Mutterings with this post. What is the take home message? As, with the discussion on ultra pace judgement, it is likely that everybody will have a different approach, with no one method being superior to others. What I think the important message from tonight's mutterings is, is for ultra runners, to take 'one step back', and try to look at how they approach ultra races. What is your 'state of feeling', 'state of being' during ultra races. Try to reflect on those races that you gained most enjoyment from, possibly these being those races that you performed the best. Was anything different in terms of your positivity, your attitude, your self confidence?

Time to sign off with a self quote that hopefully summarises the above: "Ultra Trail Running is significantly enhanced through maintaining a 'positive state of being' as one remains 'within the now', experiencing the overwhelming joy of running within the surrounding natural beauty". Stuart Mills, 2010.

May your ultra runs be enhanced through positivity,


Sunday, 16 May 2010

Marlborough Downs Challenge - Race Report

Hi All

To those of you new to my blog, here is my Marlborough Downs Challenge Race Report. While you are here on my blogsite, why not have a quick look around. I tend to 'mutter' on a bit, but if you are into ultra trail running, there may be something of interest to you.

The Marlborough Downs Challenge was the sixth race of the Runfurther UK Ultra Running Series. It is advertised as 33 miles, however, the detailed route description states 32.2 miles, and my Garmin GPS trace shows 32.39 miles. Whatever the distance, it is a great course, with some amazing views, that is if you remember to look up after struggling up the 4 or 5 tough hills.
Click the link to view the course, the elevation, my mile splits, heart rate etc. on the Garmin Connect website: http://connect.garmin.com/activity/33421164

The race has been a regular in the Vasque/Runfurther series, and as with a few of the series races this year, it was a sell out field with 164 entries. I had run the race last year for the first time, finishing in fifth place in a time of 4 hours 10 minutes. However, last year I felt that I hadn't really performed to my best, so this year I was hoping to run the course substantially faster!

Prior to the race, I spent quite a bit of time looking at the detailed route description, together with the ordnance survey map, and also looking at my GPS race route from last year, displayed on Google Earth. So after extensive 'research' of the course profile, my planned finish time for 2010 was 3:52:30. The race record had been jointly smashed (an improvement of over 12 minutes) by Allen Smalls and Matt Giles in 2009, and stood at 3:53:41. So my planned race schedule was pretty ambitious, but I considered realistic! Well that was what I had convinced myself on paper!

The race started in the grounds of Marlborough College. The college buildings and surroundings are rather impressive, so it was a fitting setting for what promised to be a great race.

If you have read any of my previous blogs you will know that I really enjoy racing, and with this race being one of my target races for the year I was pretty 'hyped up'. I had also been publicising my race philosophy of "Run as fast as you can, while you can" on my blog, so I really had to put it into action!

The horn sounds at exactly 9:00am and probably around 140 runners set off. The course is flat for around 250 metres before a steep climb. As I turn the sharp right hand turn to start the steep climb, I notice that I am already around 50 metres ahead. Obviously, no one else seems to share my start fast philosophy, with everyone else probably thinking, who is that 'fool' ahead, sprinting off so fast!

I find running at the front of the race quite an experience. I seldom look behind, unless by chance on sharp corners/bends in the course. So I am unaware how close behind me the other runners are. Whether they are close or distant doesn't really matter, as I try to run at a hard, fast pace, what I feel I can hold for quite a few miles, knowing that I will eventually slow. Sometimes it works, and I run the entire way on my own. Occasionally it doesn't.

After around 4 -5 minutes of puffing and blowing, I find that my breathing hasn't really settled. My chest is feeling quite tight, and I'm beginning to think maybe I should have done some quick hard stuff in training. I'm beginning to think "Why do I do this? Why do I start so fast?" But then I am reminded why, as I pass through the first check point at 2.2 miles, as I receive the warm greeting and positive energy from the marshals. My ego is satisfied, I am 30 seconds up on schedule, and although a tight chest, I am loving it! (See my previous post on Motivation)

Running through the woods, although I don't look behind, I sense that the runners are not too far behind. Breathing is still a bit uncomfortable, so I decide to ease of the pace a bit, to be ready, assuming I will shortly be caught. So I will be in a state to run with the runner or runners that catch me, rather than not being able to stay with them. As I suspected at the top of the steady climb coming out of the woods at around 5 miles, I am caught by a runner, James Bellward.

We run together side by side, for the next 4 miles, passing through check point 2 at 6.4 miles. I was meant to take on a gel, but with my chest only just returning back to normal, I decide that trying to consume a sickly gel isn't really wise. With the next checkpoint only 2.5 miles further along, I am happy with my decision. There is a steep climb shortly after CP2. James tests me out a wee bit by attacking the hill quite hard. I hope that it is just an over enthusiastic spurt, I allow him to move a few metres ahead. Thankfully he then eases off after the climb and we continue running together side by side. No chatting apart from the occasional, "You think it's this way, thanks for holding the gate, etc."

As we leave checkpoint 3, where the 20 mile event leaves the 33 mile course, we both head off on the 20 mile route. The marshals quickly call out, and as we turn to come back to the 33 mile course, I get a real shock, two runners are right there at the drink station and a third runner isn't too far back either.

The course continues along the high ground following an old ancient road called the Wansdyke. There are some amazing views in all directions. Looking ahead and to the right, the monument, which we pass at the 23 mile mark is visible on top of a pretty big looking hill. It reminds me, that we still have a long way to go, and also of the major climbs in the second half of the course.

There is now a group of four, having been joined by Allen Smalls, last year's winner and course record holder, and Mark Cooper. Werun pretty quietly together, apart from the occasional checking of direction. The course has the occasional direction arrow during the first few miles, especially within the woods, but it is made quite clear withinthe course information that the race relies on self navigation. I prefer it this way as it adds an extra skill to the event, as you have to take on the added responsibility of knowing the course.

We continue running as a tight group with Allen and myself tending to be the main leaders. We have a nice descent as we drop down towards the canal. As we cross the canal bridge onto the canal path, I decide to have a bit of a break from leading and allow Mark to go to the front. The canal path is reasonable narrow so we run in single file. Mark leading, I am on his shoulder and Allen and James behind me. We follow the canal for exactly 3 miles. Mark is setting a good pace, not too hard, probably just a fraction slower than I would have set if I was leading. The good thing is that I'm having a break from leading, so I just relax stay on his shoulder, no need to check whether I am running too fast, too slow. Just simply running, enjoying the experience, and keeping an eye out for dog poo!

After about a mile (GPS lap time shows 6:42), I sense that Mark is a bit fed up with leading. He slightly slows down, I simply slow down as well. I am enjoying running relaxed on his shoulder. He then picks up the pace, quicker than before, to try and stretch us out. The next mile passes in 6:29, it feels right on the limit of comfortable, but not quite! He then slows the pace down again, and then slows a little bit more, encouraging us to overtake him. We all stay behind him in single file. I consider maybe I should relieve him from the front, but we then turn off from the canal to immediately reach check point 4. The bunch stretches out a bit as different people take longer to quench their thirst, as it is a warm sunny day, pleasant, without being too hot. Shortly after the checkpoint the group reforms.

The path now heads north out of Divizes, as we reach the first of the major big climbs on the way back to Marlborough. Immediately Allen Smalls who has been having an enjoyable ride along the canal path at the back of the group, attacks hard up the hill. James manages to stay with him, but Mark and myself drift off. I am not overly worried, as it is quite clear that they have really upped the intensity. No doubt, well rather hopefully, they will ease off back to a comfortable pace that I can run at.

At the top of the steep climb, as we pass through a small plantation, Allen and James are running together, around 100metres ahead of Mark, with me trailing around 50 metres behind Mark. Opps! They don't seem to be easing off, decision time??? As we have a slight descent down to the next checkpoint at 18.6 miles, I take chase. I run the 18th mile in 6:16, passing Mark, who appears to decide to play it safe, with it being his first ever ultra, and lets us speed off into the distance. Mark manages to run on well to finish in fourth place.

As we start the next steep climb, shortly after the checkpoint, I have nearly rejoined Allen and James. This section of the course I have inspected thoroughly on google earth as I went off course last year at this point. As we pass through a gateway, there is no clear path to follow and it is not possible to see the next gateway as we have to crest the brow of the hill. Allen and James veer slightly off to the left. I try to visualise the course from the maps/google earth, I think we should veer slightly to the right. Do I follow the leaders, or take the gamble to gain some ground, but then maybe could lose some more. I decide to follow my instinct, and head to the right. As we crest the brow of the hill, I am relieved that I am heading in an exact straight line for the next gate. I reach the gate slightly ahead of the leaders, and am so happy with myself that without realising it, I have increased the pace, and now Allen and James appear to be struggling!

Right, I immediately think, here is my chance to increase my lead. So I blast it down the hill over a few fences, keep the pace on for a bit longer as the course flattens out, and hope that the small gap I establish of around 70metres is enough to dispirit them. Checkpoint 6 at 21.1 shortly arrives where I briefly stop for my third gel of the day, and two full cups of water, as it is continues to get warmer. As I depart the checkpoint James departs with me, and I see that Allen isn't too far back.

James and I start the long climb up to the monument running side by side. It is quite a tough climb. James seems happy to let me set the pace. I slightly ease of the pace, he also eases of the pace. Great I think, he is finally weakening. I try to re-pick up the pace, but not with much success. I am also weakening! Allen joins us, and slowly moves past us. I manage to stay with Allen, James also tries, but he starts to struggle, then all of a sudden he is gone! Allen and I pass the monument, then pass the white chalk horse, and descend together down the other side. With nine miles to go, it is now down to the two off us. For James, like Mark, this also being his first ultra race, he really struggles over the last nine miles and loses over 40 minutes to finish in eleventh place. Welcome to the joy of ultra running James!

I am beginning to now feel a 'wee bit' tired, so I let Allen lead. The 25th mile passes in 6:38 as we are met by the leading runners in the 20 mile event as their course rejoins with ours. (They started at 10:30 am). Not only am I beginning to tire, but my right hamstring is beginning to 'tweak'. On occasions this year it has tended to get tight, so Luke the physio at the excellent sports injury clinic "Sportswise", has been using me as a pin cushion during the year, as he uses acupuncture to help relieve the tension.

Decision time again? Do I dig deep and try to stay with Allen, or do I play it safe and ease off briefly and hope the hamstring relaxes. The brain at times is quite amazing, the moment it has an opportunity to get me to slow down, it takes advantage of the situation. The hamstring has never really got too bad, but all of a sudden the brain is telling me; "That I must slow down. If I don't it will seize up, and I will have to walk the last 6 miles to the finish." Thereby destroying any hope off earning good points for the Runfurther series. "Let Allen run away, he will only gain at most a minute, you will still get loads of series points. Don't take the gamble, don't blow it now. You can't beat him, he's the record holder remember!"

I have all of these thoughts going through my head. Running ultras isn't usually this brain demanding. However, this is the first time I have ever been in this situation, running with another runner at the front of the race, struggling to stay with him with a few miles to go. For all of the six ultra races I have won over the last two years, I have always been in total control, able to set my own pace. Now I am really being tested. What do I do?

I give in! The 'slow down part of my brain', convinces me that this is the wise thing to do. So I let Allen run away from me. Maybe the phrase "let him run away from me" is a bit exaggerated. I probably didn't have a choice. But at that moment in time, that's what it felt like, as if I had decided the race was over!

As I continue running through Avesbury, I get another shock, Paul Fernandez comes running past me. I had forgotten about the other 140 runners. Opps, there wasn't only two of us racing. Allen is probably only around 100 - 150 metres ahead. Paul looks determined and is in the process of chasing him down. Me, I have lost my determination and I simply watch as he runs past.

I start the long climb up to where the course crosses the Ridgeway at 28 miles and then after a brief descent and a further climb reach the final checkpoint at 29 miles. I take my final gel of the day, followed by two cups of water and head gently downhill towards the finish. After running pretty slowly for the last 3 miles, both Allen and Paul are quite a way in the distance. I then remind myself that I didn't come to the Marlborough Downs Challenge to jog. I came to race! So I snap myself back into action, knowing that I have no chance of catching the two in front, but at least I can still run hard to the finish. So the intensity increases substantially from around 157ish bpm for the last few miles, back up to around 163bpm. I run the last three miles strongly in 6:45, 6:44 and 6:51. These three miles were slightly downhill so the quick mile rates are a bit assisted.

I cross the line in 3:55:04, finishing in 3rd place. Allen is standing there very relaxed, looks like he has been there a while. He maintained his lead and has set a new course record of 3:51:33. Paul looks like he has run 33 miles, and after making a strong charge towards the end, has to settle for second place in a time of 3:53:27.

So I finish the Marlborough Downs Challenge with mixed emotions. Initially I am really disappointed with myself, for 'wimping out' for three miles, from the 26 to the 29 mile mark! But then, I am pleased for the way I ran the last three miles hard and strong. I look at my time. only two and a half minutes slower that my very ambitious planned course record time. It has taken two exceptionally good ultra runners to beat me, both breaking the previous course record. So within a few minutes of finishing, the more upbeat I get, the more positive I feel about my race performance.

I really enjoy the post race environment within Marlborough Leisure Centre. As part of the entry fee, we receive an absolutely excellent meal, lasagna, salmon, salad etc. All finishers also receive a top quality crafted mug, and there are quality prizes for the top finishers as well as spot prizes. There is a really positive energy within the hall, as everybody is chatting and sharing their experiences of the 33 mile course or the 20 mile course.

Well, to those of you that have persevered and managed to reach the the end of my race report, you obviously have some endurance qualities. Apologies for the race reports length, but as I started recalling the race, the memories of my thoughts during different parts of the race became stronger. Hopefully you have found my perspective to ultra running, being up near the front, interesting.

I would just like to finish, by thanking everyone involved for putting on such a great event: the organisers, the marshals, the cooks, Marlborough College, and Marlborough Leisure Centre. I for one will be back next year for the Marlborough Downs Challenge, as I continue to challenge myself both physically and mentally around the course! Hope to see you all there.

May you all enjoy the challenges of ultra trail running,

Photographed after the race with training partner Kev (121) who finished in 6 hours 48 minutes after going 'slightly off course' and running around 38 miles!

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Marlborough Downs Challenge - Quick Update

Hi All

For those of you interested in the results of the Marlborough Downs 33 mile Challenge that took place today I thought I would simply report the male results now, tonight, so 'hot of the press'. Actually I have just remembered the woman's winner as well. I will write a full race report probably tomorrow, but I'm just a wee bit tired tonight!

It was another great race, superbly organised, with warm conditions. There were 164 entries, I guess around 130 - 140 would have started. I ran pretty well, but 'wimped out' when it got to the 'nitty gritty' part of the race!

Allen Smalls won for the second year in a row, in a new record time of 3:51:35 ish, beating his joint course record shared with Matt Giles from last year of 3:53:41. Paul Fernandez finished second in 3:53:30ish, and I finished third in 3:55:04. It was a really good race with the lead changing many times throughout the race. But Allen just had that little bit extra today.

Women's winner was Kate Bailey in around 4:20, and I think next in was Sarah Rowell but there maybe could have been someone else in front of her, in around 4:35. Sorry for not being 100% sure in remembering the women's 2nd place.

That's all for now. Time to read how other's got on in their ultras today.

From a tired, Stuart. To tired to sign off with a quote!

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Motivation: Why do I do This? - Marlborough Downs Challenge


I finished last week's post commenting about Motivation, and stated that this week's post would be titled "Motivation: Why are you doing this?" I will briefly comment about motivation before focusing on this Saturday's 33mile Marlborough Downs Challenge.

The Motivation title, isn't mine. In fact the title comes from one of my running partners and work colleague at the University of Brighton. Jim Wallis, in addition to lecturing at the University of Brighton, and running the odd ultra trail race or two, is a sports psychologist. He provides sports science consultancy to a variety of sports people including William Sichel, the World class ultra-marathon runner.

Interestingly as we run together we seldom talk about psychology. Although I am firm believer in it's importance, I do not read about it, I am not really interested in the underlying theories. I have a semi-understanding of what makes me tick, and how my mind works, but I don't really want to do know what it all means, in terms of theory. This is in quite contrast to physiological, nutritional or biomechanical aspects of running. Quite often as we run, the three of us, (The third runner, is Rob Harley, also a colleague at the University of Brighton, but a sport and exercise physiologist, but only a one-off ultra trail runner!), we discuss physiology, nutrition etc.

So it came as a bit of a surprise when I read Jim's monthly newsletter, that he writes for Julia's website. (Julia is a friend I mentioned way back in post number 2. Not only is she very uplifting and thoughtful on many aspects, she is also an ex-international marathon runner and also runs the odd ultra run or two, Yes there are quite a few ultra runners out there!)

Anyway back to the story! Yes I got a wee surprise when I read Jim's newsletter item titled "Motivation: Why are you doing this?" Here is the link, so take a quick read, it's pretty short compared to my rather lengthy posts. http://www.juliaarmstrong.com/index.php?id=709

Jim describes me as "the typical ego runner. Driven my outcomes and places from an early age." If you have read my post on my first ever marathon, 30 years ago then this was a true description back then. Yes, I raced because I loved the excitement, I still do, however, back then the result used to have a big effect on me. I always wanted to do better. So I trained, I ran in order to get better. In some way I always wanted other people to think of me as a good runner. So I could therefore consider myself worthy of the praise! I needed these external indicators of success or esteem.

Have I changed from the 17 year old, running my first marathon? I would say yes. It appears that Jim agrees, as although he describes me now as "an exceptional ultra runner. Ego fully satisfied and in full working order." He then makes the following comment: "What is intriguing ... is his desire to run every day, any distance, with any level of runner. The capacity to switch from single minded commitment to hitting outcome measures, but revel in the humanistic value of running and all of the intrinsic rewards that it brings".

Like I stated above, we do not talk about psychology on our runs, but I would say Jim's psychological assessment of me isn't too far off the mark. I really do love the racing, however, the race result isn't the sole factor. For the last three years I have raced seven races each year, and am planning to race only six times this year. I however run probably around 5 - 6 times per week. It is this frequent running every week that brings me most of my enjoyment from running.

Come race day though. I get doubly rewarded, as I get the intrinsic rewards from the joy of running, but in addition I tend to finish near the front, so I also get my ego orientation satisfied! What is really surprising and what I have only began to realise, is how ones motivation influences performance. I will try to explain, but as I stated above, I am not a psychologist, and none of what I say will be supported by any research, it is solely based on my own interpretation of my experiences.

Since I ran my first trail marathon in 2001 and my first ultra trail race in 2008, I have won pretty well two-thirds of these events. Prior to 2001 I had only ever won one marathon. Why the difference between 2002 - 2010, and 1980 - 2001? I think that prior to 2002, my ego motivation was dominant. I was still 'needing' external indicators in order to have self esteem. What changed? Hard to say, but apart from getting older and wiser, my wife and I started a family and our first son Robert was born in 1999, and then Christopher was born in 2002. With the arrival of two young boys many things changed, with one of them being I guess, no longer the need "to be driven by outcomes, tangible rewards and external indicators of success and esteem." However what was strange, was the moment I no longer 'needed' the external success, the external success in terms of winning races came! How the mind works and how it is totally intertwined with the body, they are not separate things, is totally mind boggling" Hence I'll leave it to the psychologists to try and figure it out!

Enough of that confusing stuff, lets get onto this Saturday's race.

The Marlborough Downs Challenge is part of the Runfurther Ultra Series. http://www.runfurther.com/ The Marlborough Downs Challenge website shows that there are a total of 164 entries for the 33 mile course. I ran the race last year finishing a 'disappointing' fifth. That day my ego motivation wasn't satisfied. So that day I didn't get the double reward, however, I still enjoyed the event due to the intrinsic rewards, so I am back again this year, to race!

How will I get on? Well, how I run is largely within my control, but the place I finish isn't. I am looking forward to running fast, to running really hard, puffing and blowing, with a high heart rate. One reason that I look forward to racing so much is that I am a really lazy trainer. Seldom do I run faster than 7:30 mile pace. I probably have only one key training run a week, the rest of time I just cruise, chatting away with whoever I am running with, just enjoying the relaxed running. So come race day, no talking, no cruising, just the chance to run hard. I have aims based on what pace I think I can run over various terrain, I am a bit like John K and have time split targets along the course. But if I achieve them or not during the race, in some ways I don't really care!

I feel as though the ego motivation is getting less and less in me, only appearing occasionally. Jim may conclude otherwise. To those of you running the Marlborough Challenge this Saturday, if I get a chance to chat to you after the race, you can make you own conclusion. Ego or mastery motivated? More importantly though, how are you motivated?

To sign off, I will leave you with a quote from Dean Karnazes's UltraMarathon Man book. "Running is about finding your inner peace, and so is a life well lived. Run with your heart." pg 38.

May you experience the intrinsic love of running,


Thursday, 6 May 2010

Running Economy - Eccentric Muscle Damage / Technique

Hi, welcome back.

If you are on my blog for the first time, a warm welcome to you. Unfortunately though, my posts often follow on from a previous post or two. Sorry for this, but often I get useful feedback form the comments left, which make me think and therefore requires further expansion in a subsequent blog. So you may wish to read some of the earlier posts to 'get into the flow'.

The aim of tonight's blog is to 'tie up a few loose ends' on "running economy" first introduced in the "Is More Always Better?" post and expanded within the "Running Economy" post.

Firstly I will briefly recap on "endurance fitness" which is related to three factors: VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy. Within the "Running Economy" post I proposed that for ultra running, it is running economy that is most important, mainly due to the intensity one runs at during an ultra race, which is way below VO2 max pace, and even significantly below lactate threshold pace.

Although my blog consists of my ideas, wherever possible I will try to acknowledge the source of any material that helped me formulate my ideas, however, quite often I can't recall where I read the interesting bit of information. (As this isn't an academic paper I wont list the full reference within the post, but if anyone would like the full reference, so they can read the original paper, just send me an e-mail.)

With regards to running economy, Midgley et al (2007) conclude that the enhancement of running economy may be due to the cumulative distance the runners has covered over the years of training. They state this may be due to: (i) the continued long-term adaptations in skeletal muscle, or (ii) a slow but progressive long-term improvement in mechanical efficiency.

Looking at skeletal muscle adaptations first, mention is made of increased musculotendous stiffness which increases the storage and return of elastic energy, thereby improving the overall efficiency of running as less additional energy is required. One would also expect that as the number of miles ran increases the muscles, tendons etc. become stronger, more resistant to damage.

A recent study by Lucia et al (2010) found a link between running economy and muscle damage, with reference to Zerisenay Tadesse the current world record holder for the half marathon (58:23 set in March 2010). They believe his running economy is the most efficient ever reported, in terms of the amount of oxygen required to run at 17, 19 and 21 km/hr. What is interesting is that they also found that his levels of serum activity of creatine kinase (an indicator of skeletal muscle damage) measured following a half marathon, was extremely different to typical values indicating "minimal muscle tissue damage, suggesting an extreme ability to minimise eccentric muscle damage".

Eccentric muscle damage occurs during an eccentric contraction, which happens on every foot strike as the muscle e.g. quadriceps, lengthens at the same time as it is contracting. So it therefore appears that if one has very good running economy, then they are likely to have less muscle damage, and hence therefore able to continue running at a good pace for a longer duration, i.e. during ultra races. The muscle damage will still occur, which will lead to a decrease in running economy as the duration of the race progresses, however, for those runners with good running economy their rate at which this decline in running economy occurs will be lower.

Now lets look at the second issue related to the improvement in running economy over the years; a slow but progressive long-term improvement in mechanical efficiency. Running is often not thought of as a technical event, however, if you watch people run, they all have slightly different styles, with some appearing 'smooth', others appearing 'inefficient'. For most activities, the more one practices, the better one gets at the movement. I also believe that this occurs during running. Yes, some runners have a more natural efficient running style, but over time, I would suggest that all runners will become more efficient at running as their technique gradually improves to become more efficient, to have less vertical oscillations of the body, to have less eccentric damage. Hence, why running economy continues to improve over the years, (e.g Paula Radcliffe - see Running Economy post) as the total distance ran increases.

So, is it possible to do specific training to improve running economy, or do you just have to be patient and wait for it to slowly improve over the years?

One easy way to improve running economy is to simply loose weight, as the lighter one is the more efficient they are. The location of the mass is also very important. Ideally you want to have light legs especially the lower legs and feet. My size 7 feet are therefore an advantage, which I further utilise by always racing (including UTMB) in lightweight road shoes, rather that heavier trail shoes!

With regards to trying to change one's running technique, I haven't read much on this, there are a few articles on the 'Pose' technique of running, and there is lots of current interest in 'Newton' running shoes, or the barefoot running sock type shoes. When I get some time, I'll do some reading and get back to this aspect.

In relation to actual training, there has been some research that suggsts strength training via heavy-weight training or plyometric training may improve running economy. But to summarise from Saunders et al (2004) little is known on how to train to improve running economy, with there being relatively few documented interventions, that manipulate physiological or biomechanical variables, that have shown to improve running economy in distance runners.

Interestingly, shortly after reading that strength training may be beneficial at improving running economy, I was on William Sichel's website, as I followed his progress during his absolutely awesome 1000 mile race in Athens and discovered that he includes loads of strength training within his ultra training. On this webpage link, http://www.williamsichel.co.uk/training.php I encourage you to take a look at his training that includes: running carrying extra load in a weight vest or dragging a weighted sled. He also does plyometrics and "spends a lot of time in the weight room using extremely heavy weights"!

So do I do any specific strength training - weight training/plyometics? NO, and that is a definite NO!

Although, I am quite a competitive person, and I love racing. At the 'end of the day', I am a runner, and I love running. Yes, I may perform better if I did some specific strength training, but the race result isn't the motivation for my running. Yes, it is satisfying and rewarding to finish near the front end of the field, and I always aim to run as hard and as fast as I can, BUT as I signed off in one of my previous posts, and to sign off from this post:

"It's journeys that bring us happiness, not the destination." The journey of run training, not weight training!

Well, I seem to have gone off the topic a bit there! I can see what the topic for my next post will be: "Motivation: Why are you doing this?"

Until my next post. Enjoy the running, racing and everything else that brings you happiness,