Thursday, 24 November 2011

Delamere Spartans Weekend – A Bit More on the Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model


Tonight is a quick recap on my visit to Cheshire last weekend, which involved two runs and a talk on trail running, as a guest of the Delamere Spartans running club In addition to reporting on my very enjoyable trip, I will expand a little bit more on my Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model, which personally I feel has a lot of merit, and helps to understand what factors contribute to fatigue during endurance running, but more specifically the model provides some guidance on what training is needed to perform well in endurance trail races.

Last weekend my visit up north provided an opportunity to run over some new territory. Originally the plan was to run the 34 mile Sandstone Trail with Lakeland 100/50 runners Dave Douglas and Steve Mee. Unfortunately leading up to our planned long run, both of them picked up a minor injury, so a quick change of plan. Now a relay event, with me being the baton, being ‘passed’ between Delamere Spartan runners, as we completed the off-road journey from Whitchurch to Frodsham.

With Andy at the Start at Whitchurch
At 9:05am I departed Whitchurch with Andy Ashton, a new recruit to ultra running having completed the Sandstone Trail race back in May in a time of exactly 6 hours. As I wasn’t aware of his current fitness I let Andy set the pace. The first few miles were flat as we ran along a canal path, and then across fields. We were going along quite well (GPS data indicating around 7:30 miles, click the following link to view on GarminConnect, a comfortable pace, therefore plenty of chat. We started discussing our approaches to training including training pace. I mentioned to Andy that my typical training pace was slower than what we were currently running at. Andy seemed shocked at the thought that I typically trained at a slower pace, so in order to not ‘work me too hard’ he therefore asked if I would like him to slow the pace down a wee bit. I thanked him for his concern, but reassured him that although I did typically run at a slower pace, it was because I chose to not because I had to, and that I was confident I would be able to handle whatever pace he chose to run. It doesn’t seem so ‘funny’ typing it up now, but at the time it was one of those moments on the run that you remember!

Before we knew it we had completed 10 enjoyable miles, where we were then joined by another Delamere Spartan runner, Paul. So for the next seven miles there were three of us running and discussing many aspects of trail running. The topic of performing to our expectations was raised, such as the fact that during racing, often the finishing time is quite close to the time predicted prior to the race. Was this due to being good at predicting/estimating our capabilities, OR was it due to our predictions/expectations determining the performance? It was reassuring to hear that Paul, like myself, strongly believed that the latter answer was the likely reason. I was therefore able to then expand a bit more on some of my more ‘radical’ ideas on trail running, being comfortable in knowing that he would be able to ‘take on’ my ideas as he was already thinking ‘outside of the box’.

From the left of the photo - Nick, Andy, Me and Paul at the 17 mile 'Baton Change'
At 17 miles, Andy stopped, but we were joined by Nick who was going to run with me for the remaining 17 miles. After a short break, and another photo shot, we continued along the trail. A few miles later, Paul left the trail to run home, so it provided an opportunity to discover more about Nick. He has been a runner for 20+ years, with a PB for a half-marathon of 1:18. However, he hadn’t broken 3 hours for a marathon! We discussed his training and racing, and based on a few miles of conversation I felt there were potentially two aspects that were holding him back. One, he tended to be a bit ‘hung up’ with his watch, GPS, heart rate monitor. I proposed to him that the fact he was running consistent half marathon times, quite a few minutes slower that he ‘wanted’, was that his watch was limiting him. It appeared that he performed loads better in off-trail races, when mile times are meaningless, compared to road races when he kept on checking on his split times. I suggested that he does a half marathon not wearing a watch, and away from home, so he would not be able to compare his race position to other runners, and so completely run the race by feel. He would then be able to simply enjoy the race, enjoy the actual journey, enjoy the feeling of running fast, without any worry about his split times along the way. He felt there was some possible merit to my suggestion, so he was willing to give it a go, and will keep me posted.

Nick’s second aspect I felt that possibly needed attention was that it seemed as if he was always wanting to train more or to train harder. The idea that harder is better! I passed on my ideas about training pace, the importance of running relaxed, smooth, within a rhythm, just flowing along. Focusing on no tension, no ‘fighting’, just ‘cruisey’ enjoyable running. One of my reasons for this is that running easy and relaxed develops one’s running economy, the most import physiological measurement for endurance running. Then to illustrate just how hard he was working, as we were both wearing heart rate monitors, I said let’s compare our current heart rates, with me expecting that his heart rate would be significantly higher, closer to his maximum, than mine. Well so much for my theory, when comparing heart rates, mine was mega high, around 20 beats higher than his! Really strange, I quickly concluded that my reading must be faulty, perhaps giving incorrect data due to also picking up his heart rate. (It wasn’t until Monday morning that I later discovered what the cause of my high heart rate reading was.) We continued running along at a good pace. Although I wear a GPS/Heart Rate monitor during races and ‘special’ training runs, I never look at the display during the race/run, so I didn’t check to see if the heart rate reading had returned back to normal, but I did find that the high reading was ‘pestering me’ a wee bit in the back of my mind!

At the 27 Mile Mark - Andy, Me and Nick

I did notice when we passed the marathon mark, I recall in around 4 hours 5 minutes, and then shortly after this we reached the next ‘baton change’. Well not actually a change this time, as Nick was running all the way to the end, but we were joined by another Andy for the final seven miles. Andy was a relatively new runner, recently getting into racing, having raced a 17 mile race along the Sandstone trail. He was however really keen to challenge himself and to run further. With the three of us running and chatting along, the pace slowed a wee bit. Then as we began climbing a small hill, the high heart rate reading finally got to me. How could it be so high when I was finding the running pace really easy, just basically cruising? Maybe I wasn’t really cruising, maybe I couldn’t pick up the pace? Amazing how easy it is for one to question one’s current state of fitness, to potentially lose confidence. So as we made our way up the short climb, I significantly upped the intensity to reassure myself that all was fine. Probably not the most friendly thing to do, considering Nick had been guiding me along the trail for the last 15 miles. I could see the top of the hill, and decided to work hard to the top, even though both Nick and Andy had dropped behind, hoping that they wouldn’t think too ‘poorly’ of me for leaving them behind! Anyway, I got to the top of the short climb, happy that I was able to easily increase the pace, and both Nick and Andy didn’t seem too upset with me, well at least they didn’t express it! A few moments later we were joined by Steve Mee, who had organised the whole weekend. Although he had a dodgy heel/achilles, he had decided to run out from Frodsham to meet us and then join us for the final 2 miles back to the finish. We dropped down into Frodsham, for a total of 34.11 miles in an overall time of 5 hours and 25 minutes.
Andy, Me and Nick at the Trail End at Frodsham

The next part of the weekend was my talk titled “Ultra Trail Running: Enjoying the Overall Experience - The Importance of TOTAL Preparation”, to take place in a local community centre which started with pre-race drinks at 7:00pm. The event had been well publicised so by the time my talk was set to start, the venue was pretty full with there being more than 60 runners present. The plan was to speak for 45 minutes about my 2009 and 2011 Ultra Trail Mont Blanc experiences, then a drinks break, before a further 45 minutes where I would explain some of my ‘out of the box’ ideas with the use of my Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model, which I introduced within my previous blog post.
In Action - Explaining the Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model
Following my previous post, Baz left a comment stating that my model sound similar to the "Anticipatory Regulation" mechanism or specifically the Anticipatory Feedback model proposed by Dr Ross Tucker in 2009. I hadn’t heard of this model, so I immediately searched for it within the literature. One advantage of working in academia is that we have direct access to nearly all of the scientific journal articles, so I was able to find and read the article. Due to copyright laws I am unable to paste the complete article, however, pasted below is his model.
Tucker 2009 Anticipatory Feedback Model
The overall article is quite interesting, and I find myself agreeing with most of his comments, i.e. it is sensations within the brain that cause fatigue, although I feel that his model has one fundamental flaw. His model is based on the idea that fatigue occurs, i.e. you slow down during endurance events, when your RPE (rating of perceived exertion) reaches maximal levels. It is surprising that his model is based on this concept, as there is research out there that shows that as the duration of the exercise to exhaustion increases, the RPE at exhaustion decreases, e.g. for an exercise duration of 94 minutes the RPE at exhaustion was only 87% of the maximum RPE value obtained for the same subjects during a maximal test, and for the duration of 45 minutes the RPE at exhaustion was only at 98% (Pires, et al, 2011). Whilst searching the literature I also came across another newly developed model by another well respected sport and exercise science Professor Guillaume Millet (2011).
Millet 2011 Flush Model

Like Tucker’s model, Millet’s model, titled the Flush Model, also has the point at which the maximum RPE is obtained as the point at which fatigue occurs. Again it is surprising that he uses this flawed concept! Maybe their lack of understanding of fatigue during endurance events is due to that maybe they haven’t raced a long ultra trail event. (Ross or Guillaume, if by some chance you are reading this blog, please leave a comment to let us know whether you have run a long ultra trail race). Also if any of you readers out there know these two guys, please forward them the link, as it would be great to get some feedback from the ‘world leaders’ on this topic, not from just an amateur blogger like myself!

I think every runner who has run an ultra trail race will confirm, that during the latter stages, even though they are running at nowhere near maximal levels of RPE, they are fatigued, they cannot run any quicker, barely any faster that a walk/very slow jog, even though there is a strong desire to run faster. So the idea that it is the attainment of a high RPE that causes fatigue is clearly flawed, hence why my model has a different concept that causes fatigue during endurance events, i.e. Race Focus Energy (RFE). It is once you have depleted your ‘tank’ of RFE, that you are then unable to maintain a running pace that is above your RFE threshold, hence why you have to resort to a walk/very slow jog.

So during the second half of my talk last weekend I attempted to explain my new RFE fatigue model. Although, now becoming a repeated occurrence, I again ran well over time, with my predicted finishing time being far too ambitious! However, even with the longer than expected duration, the audience appeared to retain focus on my content, so hopefully they were able to take it all on board. To aid those runners present last weekend, and to help explain my model in a little more detail, I have pasted below a number of the key slides from the presentation (slightly modified, i.e. with a bit more text). If there are aspects that are confusing or need explaining, please leave a comment / zap me an e-mail.

Group Run Sunday Morning Delamere Forest

The final event of the weekend was an easy group run within Delamere forest on the Sunday morning. At 9:00am a group of seven runners met and we cruised along at an easy pace for a little over an hour, providing another great opportunity to chat to keen runners, and to discuss different ideas about endurance running. One of the great things about endurance running, especially ultra trail running, is that so little is known, and it is always a process of continued learning from oneself and from others. As I boarded the train for the long journey south, back to East Sussex, I felt rather tired, but it wasn’t until early the next morning, when the mystery behind the high heart rate reading was resolved.

Yes, I awoke early Monday morning being violently ill. Strange as it may seem, but being quite ill, having to spend the entire day in bed, was quite reassuring. Having such a high heart rate during Saturday’s Sandstone Trail run, which I thought was a run at a pretty comfortable pace, was a little bit concerning. It was beginning to ‘nag’ at my self confidence. Not having done that much running since the UTMB back in August, I was aware that physiologically my fitness may be down a wee bit, but it still amazes me, just how easy it is too let ‘technology’ erode one’s self confidence. Saturday’s run felt easy, but I wasn’t aware that my body was already in the process of trying to deal with some form of illness, hence the elevated heart rate, which surprisingly resulted in me questioning my current level of fitness. The first sign of negativity, and if you know from my previous posts, negativity is the cause of poor performance. Good thing I was ill on Monday then!

So pasted below are a few slides that illustrate my Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model. I however recommend that you read the relevant section within my previous post titled Beachy Head Marathon Illustration of the Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model  that contains a bit more commentary, if you haven't already previously.  Following the slides are my responses to a number of questions that I have been asked either via comments, e-mail, or during last Saturday night's presentation.
The Overall Model with the RPE-RFE Arrow Pointing Up or Down

The RPE Portion of the Model

The RFE Level Portion of the Model

The Muscle Activation Portion of the Model

A Summary Slide Illustrating the Integration of the Body and Mind (Physical and Mental)

The first question I will respond to is a comment left by Paul to my last post:  "How do you ensure your RFE is as high as possible when you may be going into a race with 1 or 2 individuals who have shown some fantastic race form and are on paper more likely to perform at a higher level?"

Remember the RFE Fatigue has three key aspects to it to improve performance: (i) ensuring your RFE tank is large/full prior to the race and topping it up during the race, and (ii) reducing the level of RPE for the required running pace, and (iii) reducing the demand of RPE on RFE.

For (i) the key aspect is to focus on yourself.  Your goals should be worded/structured in that they are something you have control over.  Having a goal of winning a race is not a good goal as it is largely out of your control.  If Killian Jornet or Liz Hawker turns up at your race, you are not going to be able to achieve your goal.  So the goal should be something like 'performing to your best'.  Yes, very vague, but you then need to define what your best means, either in terms of remaining totally focused and positive throughout the race, or in terms of prior to the race, based on various bits of positive evidence you can access, your expected finish times for the overall race and for each leg.  Please note that although it is useful to formulate these positive split times / race time prior to the race, if possible I would encourage you not to focus on them during the actual race.  The split times / race time strategy is there in order to allow some information about the likely demands of the race to enter your sub-conscious level.  I have become to realise that having these times ready at your conscious level and focusing on them during the race in the majority of times leads to negative thoughts.  Either that you are going slower than expected, or that you are going faster than expected, so then slow yourself down, or maintain the same quick pace but are then waiting for / expecting to 'blow up'!  It takes quite a bit of confidence to not focus on the split times as you have spent quite some time and effort formulating them.  However worth giving it a try.  Try not to look at the times during the last few days.  You will find that you are not totally running blind as during the race you will recall the approximate time that you were scheduled to pass the checkpoint, however, without the knowledge of the exact time, the negativity seems to be 'kept at bay'.

Phew, a long response to part one of my reply, and I was hoping for an early night tonight!
Both before and during the race it is possible to top-up your energy tank, but also possible to top-up your opponent's energy tank, simply through expectations.  If you have this expectation that your opponent / fellow competitors are better / more capable than you, then you simply thinking this will be 'picked up' by them.  You don't have to say anything, they will just feel your thoughts, the way you look at them, the way you position yourself around them, the way you run next to them or behind them.  Even though on paper, it may appear that they are more capable than you, as mentioned in the above paragraph focus on yourself, focus on what you are planning to achieve. 

I will have two examples to illustrate this boosting / not boosting the RFE tank of fellow competitors.  The first example is based on my experience at the IAU World Ultra Trail Champs earlier this year in Connemara Ireland.  On paper I was the fifth ranked member of the five man Great Britain team.  On the UK Athletics website, the team was even listed in ranking order, with me at the bottom, rather than I think the more acceptable alphabetical order!  However, preparing for the race I focused on my capabilities, my strengths my race goals.  Not focusing on the fact that I was fifth ranked GB. Then I clearly remember just prior to the start, leaving the rest of the GB team, wishing then well as I headed off to the front of the field, ready to do my usual rapid race start.  The feeling I sensed from my other team mates boosted my RFE tank.  It felt as if even though my planned fast start was most likely perceived as foolish, they seemed to respect my determination or foolishness to give it a try.  Either way I interpreted their subconscious response as a confidence boost, and if you have seen the video of the race on You Tube (refer to one of my previous posts), you will see that my fast start paid off, with me finishing 15th overall and first GB runner across the line.

The second example is from chatting with Jono Wyatt (multiple world mountain running champion) and kiwi Kim Rodley who lives in Austria, who both happen to be running club mates from my running club back in New Zealand, Hutt Valley Harriers.  I recall back in 2004 whilst staying with Kim for a week while at the same time as Jono, chatting about the pre-race atmosphere at the races that Jono raced at within Europe.  At the time Jono, I think had been unbeaten in an uphill only mountain race for around 5 years, and Kim commented how it appeared that all of the other competitors simply looked up to and treated Jono like a 'running god'.  Not only this, Kim really noticed how come race day Jono's confidence will dramatically rise, even if his confidence had been a bit down due to less than ideal training.  Around 2003/2004 Jono was spending quite a bit of time training and racing whilst staying with Kim, as Kim's location was ideal. within the Leutasch Valley in Austria at around 1200 metres altitude. So Kim observed this boost to Jono's RFE tank immediately prior to the race on many occasions.  One day I remember discussing this phenomenon with Jono.  Although he didn't directly agree with the description of 'god like' status he was being given my fellow competitors, he did acknowledge that the manner in which the fellow competitors responded to his presence was definitely aiding his performance.  I remember thinking way back then, that perhaps his massive unbeaten streak was perhaps partly due to the fact that the other competitors just expected to be beaten by him, and at the time back in 2004, I was your typical runner who thought race performance was all to do with physical genes and training.  So unfortunately those 'out of box' thoughts disappeared for and didn't resurface for around another 3 - 4 years, when I started spending more time questioning the whole running performance aspect!

I could go on a bit more about how during the race your expectations can be sensed by other runners, but I think time for the next question, this time via e-mail from Neil in South Africa.  His questions follow: 
"While I think I understand your model, my question relates to your mileage. I note that compared to other ultra runners your mileage is relatively low. Do you have any particular reason for this? I.e. belief that it is better/best?  Do you believe that if you ran more mileage that you’d be a better/stronger runner?  Lastly (in this regard) how do you do your mileage? Do you train in different (HR) zones? Or always fast or slow?"

Not sure where to start, so I will just type!  Firstly my mileage is low relative to other ultra runners as I believe my RFE Fatigue Model clearly demonstrates that ultra trail running performance is determined by so much more than physical training.  I was recently asked approximately how much time do I spend of my training doing traditional physical training and how much time do I spend doing other training, what most people classify as mental.  I try not to separate the two, as I see it all as TOTAL training, but if I had to, I was say it would be around a 40 : 60 split, with the 40 being physical.  So on paper it appears that my weekly training mileage is low, typically around 40 miles per week.  If you take into account that this represents only 40% of my training, then in reality I am equivalent to a 100 mile a week mileage trainer, which I think would make some other runners feel more comfortable, as I sometime sense that sometimes other runners feel uncomfortable in the way that I seem able to perform on such limited training.  Hopefully now, taking on board all the other training I do, to contribute to my TOTAL training, there wont be a sense that somehow I am 'cheating the system'!  What does this other training consist of?  Well I haven't got time to explain tonight, otherwise I'll never get to bed, but mainly research on the race and on myself, including extensive visualisations of all possible race expectations.
Would running more mileage make me a better/stronger runner?  I have given this quite a bit of thought over the last two years.  As much as I believe my ideas are sound, it does take a lot of confidence to not just follow everyone else.  No other ultra trail runners, performing at a level similar to me, appear to be doing such minimal physical training.  So in some ways, during the last two years I have 'conceded' that maybe more is needed, with my weekly mileage leading up to each 100 mile key race in 2009, 2010 and 2011 increasing from 34.5 to 46.3 to 51.7 miles per week respectively.  Has my performance improved?   I would clearly say no.  I would consider my 2009 UTMB result easily my best performance out of my key race for the year over the last three years.  So the intention for next year, is to reduce the weekly physical training.
Why is physical training not so important then?  Well if you look at my RFE Fatigue model, you will see that physical training only inputs into the model in one place, this being to the left of the model, as being one of the key factors that determines one's rating of perceived exertion (RPE).  Yes, RPE is a key component of the model, and the lower the RPE due to improved physical fitness the better the overall performance.  But when you look at all of the other factors / variables within the RFE Fatigue model you become to appreciate, that this physical fitness just isn't the 'end all' factor determining ultra trail run performance.
Then if one looks a little bit 'deeper' into what physical training actually achieves, hopefully you will begin to understand why I train the way I do.  Simply put, there are three physical variables that contribute to physical fitness: VO2 max, lactate threshold, running economy. (Search around my blog to see detailed posts on this topic).  A quick review of any literature will clearly show that VO2max initially improves during the initial years of endurance training, reaches a level, and then stays constant regardless of what further training one does, and more importantly regardless of how much better the running performances become.  Paula Radcliffe is probably the best example to illustrate this.  There have been some really interesting articles written by Professor Andy Jones, her physiologist for nearly 20 years, now at Exeter University, but formerly from Brighton University.  He has demonstrated that over the years her VO2max has not changed at all, even though her performances massively improved, to record the absolutely amazing 2:15 marathon time back in 2003!  So to summarise, it doesn't really matter what physical training you do, your VO2 max wont change much, as long as you keep on doing sufficient training.
The second component, wont take long to explain; i.e. lactate threshold, this has absolutely nothing to do with ultra trail race performance, as the race intensity is way below all athlete's lactate threshold for the vast majority of the race.  So not even worth typing any more words on this aspect.
The third and final variable is running economy.  Now what is the best training to improve this?  Well within the literature, apart form the fact that running economy continues to improve year after year, therefore indicating that it has something to do with the total number of miles every run, very little else is actually known regarding what training is most beneficial.  If anyone is able to highlight an article that does, I will welcome reading it.  So the interesting point is that the more miles you have totally run the better your running economy.  This would seem to suggest that you should then perform mega mega miles per week, the more the better.  However, not that easy, as this is likely to overstress the body and mind, and deplete the RFE tank prior to the race.  My approach is to let my increase in running years be an advantage.  Having been a runner for 34 years, I am getting close to 40,000 miles in total.  Whether I run 2000 miles a year (40 miles per week, or 5000 miles a year (100 miles a week), within that actual year it wont make much difference to my overall mileage, i.e. 42,000 versus 45,000 miles.  I guess the difference is around a 6% difference, but I doubt the increase in running economy is still linear with mileage increases after this many miles run.  As with most variables, the curve has probably pretty well plateaued out!
Just one last aspect to finish on, the pace/intensity of the miles I run?  Well as highlighted above, very little is know within the literature on what intensity is most beneficial for improving running economy.  My 'gut feeling' and that is all it is, simply a gut feeling from 34 years of running, is that running economy is best improved my running relaxed, rhythmically, easy, within a flow, with minimal tension, no forcing, no fighting.  Hence why the majority of my runs are just this, usually around 8 - 8:30 minute mile rate.  This isn't every run, I do do the occasional quicker run or sections of runs at 6:00 minute mile rate.  But this is more a technique requirement, needed to remind myself how to actually run fast.  And remember if we are talking about fast, for ultra trail running, a pace of 8 minute mile rate for 100 miles will win every ultra race, beating everyone including Killian Jornet or Liz Hawker! So in terms of race specific training maybe my easy relaxed rhythmical training pace has some actual merit.  Definitely worth giving it some thought.
Well, yes another ultra effort!  Just remember that you can log reading this blog post in your training diary.  Hopefully heaps more effective than 'fighting' repeatedly up some hill, or 'red lining it' on some tempo run!
Time for a quick signing off quote.  "Never accept the normal as correct, always question rather than follow!"  Stuart Mills, 2011.
Hopefully my Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model is a little clearer.
On a final note, I would just like to thank Steve and Mitch Mee and the runners from Delamere Spartan Running Club for making me feel so welcome and organising such an enjoyable weekend last week.  If any of you are ever down in East Sussex. please give me a shout and I will repay the hospitality.