Sunday, 2 February 2014

Review of 2013 - Still on the Upward Learning Curve!

Hi,

Happy New Year!

I actually started this blog post shortly after new year, but it just wasn't flowing (Yes I know, some people suggest that none of my blog posts flow!)  So I waited until I had a bit more time to think before re-starting the post!  Hopefully the wait was worthwhile!

Looking back at my 2012 review which was titled “Nothing Special – Time for a Re-think”, the review highlighted the need to make some changes in order to perform to the level I felt that I was capable of in my focus race of 2013, the Montane Lakeland 100.  Well did the changes work?  To a certain extent the training I carried out prior to the Lakeland 100 improved my performance quite significantly over my 2012 Lakeland 100 race, i.e. a quicker time by around ninety minutes, but I still felt that I didn't quite ‘nail it’.  So there is still room for further improvement within 100 mile races for 2014.  Although, I didn't quite reach the extremely high levels that I expected from myself, I was still very satisfied with my race performance, and winning the event for a second time gave me a great deal of satisfaction. 

So, one question I have been asking myself recently is; “What do I need to do in my training this year, to go even quicker in 100 mile ultra trail races?”  I guess a good time to look at what I did last year, including looking at some numbers for the year.

First statistic: Total Mileage = 2389 miles. This consisted of 257 runs so an average of 9.3 miles per run, and with a weekly average of 45.9 miles. Comparing to the weekly mileage average for 2012 of 40.7 miles, I ran on average around five miles more per week.  But with the miles per run being nearly identical (9.3 vs 9.2) the increase in weekly mileage appears to be mainly due to doing more runs, i.e. having less rest (or injury) days.

2013 - 257 runs, 108 rest days, total 2389 miles, average of 9.3 miles per run
2012 - 229 runs, 137 rest days, total 2115 miles, average of 9.2 miles per run
2011 - 259 runs, 106 rest days, total 2217 miles, average of 8.6 miles per run
2010 - 260 runs, 105 rest days, total 2276 miles, average of 8.8 miles per run
2009 - 195 runs, 170 rest days, total 1783 miles, average of 9.1 miles per run
2008 - 199 runs, 167 rest days, total 1806 miles, average of 9.1 miles per run.

This mileage of 2389 miles was 274 miles more than 2012, and was my 3rd highest running mileage year since I started training in 1978, with my three previous highest years being: 3rd 2300 (1983), 2nd 2520 (1981) and 1st 2588 (1984), when I was aged 20, 18 and 21 respectively!

As mentioned my planned big change to my physical training for 2013 was to significantly up my weekly mileage to around 100 miles per week.  Well I managed this for five weeks, before the big mileage training was interrupted with a week’s skiing in February.  Upon returning from the skiing I never really got the opportunity to ‘bang out’ the big miles again as I had two lead up trail marathons, prior to my first key race of the year the Highland Fling at the end of April.

Although the two trail marathons, the Steyning Stinger Marathon and the Endurancelife Sussex Coastal Trail Marathon were both simply build-up races, whenever I am on the start line I always ensure that I am competitive and therefore aim to perform to a high level.  I don’t believe in ‘training races’, so trying to race to a high level whilst still trying to run 100 miles per week didn't seem a logical approach, so my weekly mileage dropped.  The table below breaks down my physical training into months.  The massive mileage during January really stands out, but I do recall that right up to the Highland Fling at the end of April, I was really pleased with my physical training, with there being less rest days than previous years.


Looking back now at the mileage numbers within the above table, I do recall thinking at the time last year that I had run quite a bit more miles than what the numbers above illustrate.  As what I actually ran was only a slightly higher weekly mileage during February to April than what I would usually run.  However, the thinking at the time that I had run significantly more than usual helped develop the confidence, which I still regard is probably the main benefit from increasing the mileage, or in this case simply thinking that I had increased the mileage!   The incentive to increase the weekly mileage was to ‘toughen up the legs’.  This false belief that I had actually run more than I thought has got me giving some thought to whether the benefits of the ‘toughening up of the legs’ is actually related to how much attention during the race one gives to monitoring / expecting the damage and discomfort of the legs!  Perhaps if one is less concerned about the possible discomfort that is likely to eventuate during the later portions of an ultra trail race, then less attention is directed to monitoring the legs, and the resulting less discomfort that is experienced after ‘toughening up the legs’ may actually be due to there being reduced monitoring for, reduced expectation of, pain!  

Possibly the above concept may seem a bit far-fetched, although the more experience I gain as I continue to race more trail races, especially the ultra races, the more I am convinced that the slowing down in pace that occurs during endurance trail racing is simply a result of one’s emotional state!  Which I guess answers my key question above:  “What do I need to do in my training this year, to go even quicker in 100 mile ultra trail races?”  Simple, just ensure I maintain an effective, productive emotional state during the latter portions of ultra trail races!  But how do I do this?  Well that is the real challenge of ultra trail racing, and in some ways the real joy of ultra trail racing, as one is always learning from each and every race! In terms of what I mean by one’s emotional state and its relationship to fatigue, a little bit is explained within my Race Focus Energy Fatigue Model article. 

So as I plan my training for 2014, the planning involves two aspects: (i) What have I learnt from 2013?  And (ii) What do I wish to achieve within my 2014 racing? 

Lessons Learnt from 2013
I raced six times during 2013, and following each race I reflected on my performance and attempted to summarise what I learnt within my race report which was usually written the following week.  As these race reports contain much of my thinking I won’t repeat it here, but within this review I will rather try to come to an overall conclusion. 

My placings in the six races were four wins, one 5th place and one 8th place.  Just because I win a race, it doesn't automatically translate that I am pleased with how I ran.  My win in the London to Brighton 60 mile off-road ultra was a prime example of this, where in reality I DNFed shortly after half way!

I was reasonably pleased with both of my early season trail marathon performances, so I was expecting ‘great things’ to happen at the Highland Fling, but it didn't happen!  Looking back now, the Highland Fling ‘non-race’ was my first big lesson I learnt in 2013   Heading up to Scotland, I had put too much emphasis on my physical training.  And as I was pretty pleased with what I had done, or what I had thought I had done, I therefore seemed to expect the top race performance to simply happen.  Without realising it, I had massively under prepared in terms of the Highland Fling non-physical training.  In relation to the three important questions I ask myself at the start of my non-physical training are:. What do I want?  Why do I want it?  How much do I want it?  I hadn't spent the necessary time getting the answers ingrained into my subconscious, along with the other mental strategies required to perform up to the maximum of one’s physical limits.  The visualisations were lacking, the race strategies were lacking, the excitement, the ‘buzz’ from the upcoming race, looking back now, was also lacking.  So the result on the day, a disappointing performance resulting in eighth place!

The Highland Fling race reminded me of the importance of the non-physical training in terms of influencing race performance.  Coinciding with this realisation, I had a frustrating injury that severely interrupted my physical training for six weeks.  Within my rather lengthy Montane Lakeland 100 race report I expanded on my non-physical training, but the question I am trying to resolve now is:  Was the improved performance at the 2013 Lakeland 100 a result of my high quality non-physical training?  Or was it as most physiologists would like to argue, simply a result of my increased mileage at the start of the year, followed by reduced physical training that allowed be to be fully recovered and therefore ‘fresh’ for the Lakeland 100, rather than the simple over-trained / run-down explanation for my below-par performance at the Highland Fling! 

Perhaps the relationship between physical training and ultra trail performance is that simple, BUT I THINK NOT!  Yes, physical training is hugely important, but as I plan my training for 2014, rather than looking to replicate the 100 mile weeks from 2013, I am paying increased attention to my non-physical training, which I feel relates more directly with an emotionally focused fatigue model!  I won’t go into detail now on some of my plans for my 2014 TOTAL training, but will definitely try to address these is a future blog post.

So I felt like I learnt loads from the Highland Fling, which helped contribute to a strong performance at the Montane Lakeland 100.  My second big learning experience came from my disappointing performance resulting in a fifth place at the Beachy Head Marathon.  This realisation of the ‘damaging’ effects of ‘fighting’ / ‘battling’ during a race, I feel were quite enlightening!, and really helped to explain some of the 'mystery' of endurance trail running performance.  I am therefore reminding myself of this lesson and keeping it to the forefront of my mind as I carry-out my non-physical training for the upcoming 2014 race season!  This therefore leads nicely into the second aspect involved in my 2014 planning.

Race Expectations for 2014
Firstly my race schedule for 2014.  With this being my seventh year of ultra trail racing, it is my most ambitious in terms of racing, including for the first time, two 100 mile trail races within a single calendar year!  So the 2014 race schedule is:
2nd March – Steyning Stinger Marathon – 26 mile
5th April – Centurion South Downs Way 50 – 50 mile
26th April – The Fellsman – 61 mile
14th June - Petzel South Downs Way 100 - 100 mile
26th July - Montane Lakeland 50 - 50 mile
29th August – Ultra Trail Mont Blanc – 103 mile
25th October - Beachy Head Marathon - 26 mile

I start and finish the racing season with familiar trail marathons, having raced the Steyning Stinger four times and the Beachy Head Marathon twelve times, but the intervening five races are all ultras of 50 miles or more, all being new events to me, apart from the UTMB where come the end of August, I will be on the start line in Chamonix for the third time!

Which event excites me the most is hard to say, but I guess heading back to UTMB for the first time since 2011 must top the list, but only slightly ahead of racing the South Downs 100, on my ‘home patch’, and taking on the challenge of the Fellsman with its huge tradition and history.  What do I expect from myself during these races?  Now this is an extremely hard question to answer, and I continually struggle with this question.  Getting the answer ‘right’ I would have to say is THE ABSOLUTE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF TRAINING! FULL-STOP!  No matter how many miles you run, what nutrition/hydration strategy you implement, what equipment you purchase, and what pacing strategy you adopt.  If you don’t know what to expect from oneself, what you want, what you belief you are capable of achieving, then you are never going to perform to your BEST!  One real problem is that one never really knows what their best is.  So one can never really assess whether they have achieved their best!  I am going a bit around in circles here, but hopefully I have made it very clear, it is the non-physical training that influences ultra trail running performance substantially more that the physical training!  And the longer the race, the greater the influence.

Within the above paragraph I mention a few key topics related to trail running performance.  It just so happens that Great Britain 24 hour runner Robbie Britton has also been giving these topics some thought.  Go to the Run 24/7 website to read his interesting articles on speed training, nutrition and pacing.  In researching his pacing article, Robbie gave me a quick call, simply to get a quote or two from me on my pacing strategy.  Well about an hour or so later, Robbie finally managed to ‘escape’ from the quick call after managing to convince me that he probably had more than enough UltraStu material on pacing, and more importantly his evening meal was getting cold!  Robbie nicely summarises the various topics and encourages all runners to give the topics serious thought and to question their approach.  It is nice that Robbie has highlighted some of my ideas in order to present the contrasting pacing approaches. although I think an UltraStu blogpost on pacing is probably well overdue.  Hopefully sometime this year!  The one sentence I particularly like from Robbie’s pacing article isIn my opinion the longer the race goes on, the less influential genetic factors such as strength, fitness and body type, commonly benefiting male or younger athletes, become and more emphasis can be placed on the subjects of these blogs, nutrition, hydration and for this one, pacing.” although he hasn't mentioned THE key subject – SELF EXPECTATIONS!  Hence, with my two focus races for 2014 being long at 100 and 103 miles, my training plans include reduced emphasis on developing my strength and physical fitness.

Although I have highlighted my racing schedule, running wise, I have a lot more happening during 2014.  Firstly, my Run Coaching, which I commenced doing last August is giving me great satisfaction.  The ten runners I am coaching have a great number and variety of races during 2014, and I am finding that being involved with their preparation gets me emotionally involved with their race performances.  So although I am only racing seven times in 2014, it feels like my race calendar is busier that ever, especially as I look forward to hearing how each of my athletes get on, and helping them learn from each of their races.  Just a quick side note, as indicated on my Stuart Mills Run Coaching blog page, unfortunately I am currently unable to take on any new athletes.  

In addition to the run coaching, I am organising my first trail race in 2014.  For the last nine years I have been race director for our village 5km road race, the Kings Head Canter, which has been great fun organising, as each year, race day is a great occasion, with around 250 runners enjoying themselves.  On Sunday the 25th May 2014, it will be the first staging of the Weald Challenge Trail Races.  There are three race distances: a 50km ultra, a trail marathon, and a trail half marathon.  All three races start and finish in the same place; Chiddingly, East Sussex, and all three races follow the long distance footpaths of the Wealdway and the Vanguard Way.  On-line race entry and further race information can be found on the Trail Running Sussex website.  With still four months until race day, there are already over 100 hundred runners entered.  So it is looking like it will be a really successful event.


And finally, as many of you are well aware, I do like talking about trail running.  Well on Saturday the 8th March 2014 I have been invited by Cannonball Events to do a talk up north at Todmorden.  In addition to the Saturday night talk and meal, there is also the opportunity to join in with a 22 mile run during the day, that follows the route of the 51 mile Calderdale Way Ultra that takes place on the 7th June 2014, which looks like an excellent event.   Within my talk, that includes plenty of opportunity to ask questions, I will expand upon some of my perhaps 'out of the box' ideas that has enabled me to get close to achieving 'my best' during ultra trail racing over the last few years.  If you are from up north, and wish to chat in person about my ideas, then click this link to book a place and for specific details about my talk and run. It would be good to meet many of you in person. 


Well time to sign off with some words that directly follow on from Robbie Britton's observations regarding long race performances highlighting the reduced influence of strength and fitness, and thus reinforces the importance of the non-physical training.  

"As one begins to get that little bit older, so no longer able to perhaps classify themselves as young, (I guess I have now just entered this category), then in order to continue to maximise ones performance, it is all about training those aspects that provide the largest contribution.  Therefore in order to improve performance, one must understand what actually determines their performance.  What did you learn about trail running performance last year?."  Stuart Mills, 2014

All the best with your running and racing during 2014.

Stuart

PS Around two weeks ago I went to place my vote for the top male and female ultra runners, and the top male and female performance during 2013 on the UK Ultra Running Award website.  I clicked on the Male Ultra Performance of the Year category and there at the very bottom of the list was my name.  Quite a pleasant surprise seeing that the UK Ultra Running Award panel felt that my Lakeland 100 win was worthy of making such a prestigious list of ultra performances.  I then see the word (VET) after my name, and realise that it is most likely due to my not so young age that I made such an impressive list.  




Yes, it is nice that my Lakeland 100 performance has been recognised, but being that little bit older than my fellow competitors near the front of the race, now aged 51, for 100 mile ultra trail races I don't see it as a disadvantage.  Yes a gradual decline in strength and fitness has occurred during recent years, however, I feel this has more than been compensated by  my experience and  increased wisdom and understanding of what factors actually contribute to ultra trail running performance.  So please don't vote for me this year just because I am an oldie.  Hopefully next year you can vote for me simply due to one of my 2014 race performances, without the word (VET) needed.  

So I didn't vote for myself.  Who did I vote for?  It was a really tough decision.  Ricky Lightfoot's IAU World Trail win immediately stands out, as does Ian Sharman's Grand Slam performances, but in the end, perhaps a less obvious choice, I voted for Paul Giblin for his amazing win in a course record time of 15:07:29 at the West Highland Way.  What makes this one performance so special?  Well the race has been going since 1985, with the present course now being slightly longer due to it being lengthened in 1991.  Paul's winning time was not only over THIRTY minutes quicker than Terry Conway's 2012 course record time, which was recognised as being pretty impressive, due to it beating the previous course record of Jez Bragg.  But by taking over 30 minutes off Terry Conway's course record, which is quite unbelievable, Paul's winning time is the quickest time ever, regardless of the course, from a substantial history of 28 years of racing!  Voting closes on the 14th February, so still around two weeks to get your vote in.

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