Saturday, 31 December 2011

Fartlek is underrated - try these sessions

This is the second of three posts on less-commonly-used track workouts, which I would highly recommend for any distance runner, including marathoners.  Note that these can also be done on road, and on trails if you fancy a mental and physical break from training.

Following on from my last post, which covered raw speed, speed endurance, and intervals, it makes sense to cover other aspects of so-called 'quality training'.  These sessions together make up the smallest volume of mileage, typically less than 15-20 % on a conventional training schedule.

Fartlek is Swedish for 'speed-play' as 90 % of runners seem to know.  However, considering the number of people that know what it means linguistically, just a minority seem to actually understand what it is, and what it does for you.

A basic summary of fartlek
Fartlek is effectively periods of intense running interspersed with easy running.  The periods of intense running usually vary in length, pace, and effort throughout the run.  Below I'll discuss the two main approaches to fartlek that we tend to encounter.

Unstructured fartlek
The first approach is the unstructured fartlek run.  It is a very simple idea; go out for an easy run, and at desired points up your pace to whatever you feel like, for however long you like.  There are no restrictions and the freedom of training how you want can be refreshing.

For this reason, unstructured fartlek is normally measured in time rather than pace; alternating from an easy pace to 800 m pace makes it difficult to glean anything useful from average pace.  I recommend trying this out on easy weeks to get away from hard training weeks, and on trails or hilly routes (see below).

Structured fartlek
The second approach is structured fartlek.  As fartlek evolved it made sense to coaches to keep a few factors contstant - typically the time or distance of each lift in pace.  This makes fartlek measurable and allows you to track progress.

This is why I prefer the structured fartlek: you can run 200 m at 5-10 km pace, 200 m easy, and cycle through that for 40-50 mins, giving you confidence at race pace and also training your body to adapt to a moving recovery.

You can build up from as little as 10-15 mins up to however long you like, and then focus on increasing the pace of the faster periods.  To avoid running too fast, increase the speed of the easy jog to give yourself a restricted recovery.

Suggested fartlek sessions
Here are some ideas for fartlek sessions at race pace:
  • 200 m at 5 km pace, 200 m at easy pace - for 20-40 mins
  • 300 m at 10 km pace, 100 m at easy pace - for 30-45 mins
  • 400 m at target 10 km pace, 400 m at a steady pace - run 8-12 km
  • 1, 2, 3, 5, 3, 2, 1 mins at 5 km pace, with 2 mins jog between each effort or equally;
  • 300, 600, 900, 1500, 900, 600, 300 metres at 5 km pace, with 200 m jog between each effort (take 100 m off each effort if you're slower than 25 mins for 5 km).
Fartlek and hills together
Fartlek can be integrated with hilly routes to give you a quality workout.  Run hard up the hill and jog down the other side for recovery.  This is valuable because fast downhill running is not recommended for long periods as it places stress on the joints.

Questions about fartlek?  Ask me on Twitter, or contact me by e-mail (see my profile).

Friday, 30 December 2011

Interval sessions are important - no, essential!

This is the first of two or three posts on track workouts, which I would highly recommend for any distance runner, including marathoners.

Interval sessions are fantastic ways to improve raw speed, speed endurance, running technique, anaerobic threshold, and VO2 max.  Here are some basic speed work and interval sessions to get you started.

Raw speed
If you want to improve your raw speed, you should be doing short intervals with long recoveries.  A full recovery ensures that you can get to near full speed.  If you are not getting your legs moving fast enough, you won't get the benefits of improved speed.  Sprinting is in itself plyometric, which means that you need to be minimising your contact times with the ground, and pushing off with near-maximal effort to stress the correct muscles and tendons.

A good session is 6 x 40-60 m and can allow you to focus on correct technique, and these can be lengthened to 100 m accelerations over time.  Doing too many reps will impair your ability to maintain a high speed.  This can be done before an interval session, whilst you are fresh, to get maximal speed.

Speed endurance
To improve speed endurance, there are two options; longer intervals, generally around 600 m - 1 000 m, with decent recoveries (anywhere from 4-8 mins depending on what time in the season it is, and the targeted event), or shorter repetitions such as 200s or 400s with 2-4 mins recovery.  Remember that the length of recovery depends on your level of fitness and the event you are training for.

If you are aiming for 800 m, you might want to opt for a session such as 8 x 200 m, with 3 mins recovery.  Running at approximately 85-90 % effort should leave you tired, but able to complete the session faster than 800 m pace.

Preparing for heats
Often you will need to race twice or more in a day.  This is more common with track, so events such as 800 m place a big demand on your body both physically and mentally.  To prepare yourself, running two 800 m efforts at a few seconds slower than race pace will help get you used to these conditions.

Take 10 or more minutes between the two efforts to allow a fast pace during both efforts, and ideally run it in a group to replicate race conditions.  Warm up before each repetition as your muscles will cool down soon after an effort.

Soon I will write about fartlek sessions and tempos, plus tempo intervals.  In the meantime, I would appreciate feedback which you can do via the comments, on Twitter, or via e-mail (see my profile).  Thanks.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Helsby half-marathon (Four Villages)

Recently I ran the Helsby half-marathon course with a friend.  If anyone is running the Helsby half-marathon and would like to view the course or elevation stats, they can do so by clicking here (Garmin Connect Web site).

The course is mostly a gradual uphill until around the ten mile mark, which is the highest point.  It's then a steep downhill which levels out not far before the finish.

I was lucky enough to get a number-swap a couple of weeks ago, so I am just waiting for confirmation of my place.  I can't wait to race my first half as it will be a new experience for me.

If you are running it, I will see you on race day!

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Yazoo as a recovery drink

It’s very easy to go out and buy a protein shake, an energy drink, a box of energy gels, or another exercise-related meal or drink.  There is, however an ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein, and also an ideal window in which to use it.

What are my options?
There are high-end, formulated recovery drinks such as ZipVit or Torq (which I use), but a good alternative can be found in local supermarkets and online.  The main advantage of formulated drinks over a drink such as Yazoo is the extra components you get.  These vary depending on the specific drink, but ribose, L-glutamine, and amino acids are all used to speed up recovery.  The general idea is to save the muscle being broken down; by providing the ingredients necessary for recovery, you recovery faster and can train harder the next day, and induce more adaptation from your muscles (see my post on periodisation).

What’s the alternative?
Yazoo, however, has the basics of a good recovery drink.  It is low in fat (which can slow the absorption of the drink through the gut wall), has near-enough the ideal ratio of carbohydrates to protein, which is about 4:1, and sits quite well after a hard session.  I know this because I used to use it, and being readily available and cheaper than most sports drinks, it was the post-workout drink of choice.

How much do I need?
I found that 500 ml of drink was just right for me.  Any more is probably too much and will leave you feeling a bit ill.  If you don’t have enough, then the benefits will be limited.  I would experiment with servings to see what suits you.  You may prefer to go straight to a formulated drink that is specifically designed for recovery, and these usually have estimated servings based on bodyweight.

When should I drink it?
There is a window of 15 to 30 minutes after a session when the body will recover more quickly if the recovery drink is taken in that time.  Within about two hours of a session, a full meal is important, with a carbohydrate to protein ratio of about 2:1.  It is usually better to eat a meal rather than taking bars or other recovery foods, as they can become a bit boring.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The basics of periodisation for runners

Periodisation seems to be accepted by almost everyone as the most effective way to train.  If not done properly, athletes will not peak at the right point in their training plan, and will either stagnate or get injured.  The best thing you can hope for with periodisation is having the fastest times set during the competition phase in the most important races, and a year-on-year improvement in performance.

Hard-easy principle and supercompensation
The hard-easy principle is based on the idea that a hard session followed by an easy session allows for the body to recover and adapt to the stresses being put on it during periods of intense training.  Theoretically, fitness is at a low hours after a session, but as the body recovers and adapts, it overcompensates; in other words, it becomes stronger.  This phenomenon is called supercompensation.  Unfortunately, this newfound fitness does not last forever; within a couple of days it is lost.  The only way to maintain or improve fitness is to induce these adaptations again – preferably by another hard session.

A macrocycle is a training plan that lasts a year, and works towards a competition or target.  It is usually broken up into phases: a common method is to have a general preparation phase, a specific preparation phase, a competition phase, and a transition phase.

A mesocycle is usually around three to six weeks and breaks the training down into smaller blocks.  For example, a large phase such as the general preparation phase would most likely concentrate on building the mileage to a target late on in the winter.  Mesocycles can manage that change more easily, and also schedule in cutback weeks (or easy weeks).

A microcycle typically lasts a week to ten days, and is planned so as to reflect the phase in which it falls.  A typical microcycle would incorporate a tempo or fartlek session, an interval session, a long run, a rest day, and several easy or recovery runs.  There are lots of variations on this, particularly on easy weeks, which usually include a drop in mileage and intensity.

Conventional periodisation or reverse periodisation?
An athlete would usually start by working on the aerobic base through the winter, i.e. by doing easy miles and long repetitions at the track (mile repetitions are common throughout this period).  They would then drop their mileage and progress to shorter, faster repetitions through the spring, and emphasise speed and recovery through the competition phase (i.e. the summer for most athletes).

Reverse periodisation works the opposite way; the athlete would first focus on maximising raw speed and speed endurance, and over the winter the speed would be maintained and the length of the repetitions increased.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Dynamic stretching before workouts

How many people out there actually use dynamic stretching as part of their workout routine?  And how many people out there should be doing it?  It’s hard to say, but almost certainly anyone doing intense speed sessions, fartleks, or drills.

Aims of the warm-up routine
Some of the main aims of a warm-up and stretching routine before workouts are:
  • to increase your range of motion
  • to warm your muscles and elevate your core temperature
  • to get your aerobic energy system ready for the main session
  • to maintain weekly mileage (i.e. to keep your proportion of easy to hard miles constant).

Another key benefit of warming up correctly – which is not highlighted enough – is the ability to spot injury concerns before they put you out for a few weeks.  On countless occasions I have felt a niggle during the warm-up; imagine the difference in scenarios between me feeling a twinge at 8 minute/miles as opposed to 5 minute/mile pace.  By throwing yourself into a speed session, you are potentially going to risk a pulled muscle because you haven’t had chance to diagnose it.

We must also not forget the mental aspect of warming up.  I believe that a gentle warm-up gives you the opportunity to think ahead to the session and what you are trying to accomplish.  You should know yourself what the aim of the main session is.  Everything from the pace, who you’ll be running with, and your energy levels or injury concerns can be considered in the 10-30 minutes prior to the session.  If you’ve been working that day, time to switch to running and focus can only improve your training performance.

What sort of dynamic stretches are necessary?
Any warm-up for a track session, tempo run, fartlek, or any other moderately intense session requires running-specific stretches.  Often, this are exaggerated movements designed to increase the range of motion in the relevant muscles.  An example routine would be:
  • Light skipping (forwards, left, right) – skip gently and gradually move up onto your toes, making use of the movement your ankles to push into the air
  • Lunges (forwards, backwards) – stand straight with legs shoulder-width apart, take a large step forward, and allow the knee of the trailing leg to come close to the ground, but not touch it.  Do not allow the front knee to get ahead of the toes.  Bring trailing leg forwards or backwards depending on your direction and repeat on opposite leg
  • High knees – jog for a few metres and then lift legs to approximately waist-height and aim for height rather than distance.  Start off slow and get progressively faster, but stay light on your feet
  • Kick-backs – jog for a few metres and then bring heels deliberately higher, without kicking yourself.  Gradually increase the speed towards the end, but stay light on your feet
  • Side-skips with clap (left, right) – whilst side-skipping, bring your arms in a circular motion from your sides to above your head.  Try to time these with push-offs for a synchronised jump and clap
  • Shoulder shrugs (backwards, forwards) – in a circular motion, shrug your shoulders backwards, aiming for a full range of motion.  There is no need to do these quickly.  Repeat in the other direction
  • Arm swings (backwards, forwards) – swing your arms backwards in a circular motion, aiming for a full range of motion.  Repeat in the other direction
  • Strides – these are short repetitions where you should aim for a nice running technique with good posture and form.  You can either do these at a moderate pace for a short distance, e.g. 40-60 metres, or gradually increase the pace over a longer distance until you are running quickly but comfortably for the last 10-20 metres.  Do four to six prior a few minutes before the main session.  Remember, this is just the warm-up.

So, what is static stretching for?
Static stretching is useful because it allows the muscles to return to their normal length after a run.  The aim is to reduce the risk of injury.  Static stretching should be preceded by a gentle cool-down run to allow the body’s core temperature to return to normal.

Hopefully this post will encourage you to stretch before and after intense sessions, and to review your current pre- and post-workout routines!