Mud, mud, glorious mud

Yesterday was the first race in my planned trilogy that will hopefully culminate with my first marathon.  It was the South of England Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill, London.

The Stone of Free Speech

Parliament Hill isn’t particularly near the Houses of Parliament, which as an ignorant northerner I had assumed for many years.  It is believed that it acquired its current name because Parliamentarian troops camped there during the English Civil War.  It was renamed Traitors’ Hill at one point, probably around the time that Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed and his  decomposed head displayed on a spike outside Parliament.  There is one slightly dubious link to the democratic process in the form of The Stone of Free Speech, which still stands in the fields (I leant against it as I did my pre-race calf stretches).  This was apparently a focal point where people gathered to listen as various political or religious enthusiasts expounded their views a couple of centuries ago.

The area is a combination of open fields and woodland that overlook London, giving a fantastic panorama of the great city, with many of the famous landmarks clearly visible, at least on a reasonably clear day.  It is also the most iconic venue in Britain (perhaps the world?) for cross country running, sort of like Wembley for football (soccer to some) and Wimbledon for tennis.  It usually plays host to the South of England Cross Country Championship for two out of every three years, and on the third year is the venue for the  English National Championship (the punishment it takes during these mass running events precludes the possibility of holding both in the same year) .  Unlike Wembley or Wimbledon, you don’t have to be especially good to compete there, as long as you are a member of an affiliated club.

The urban sprawl laid before
I had watched my son race there a couple of times before taking the plunge in the Nationals a couple of years ago, and doing surprisingly well, finishing in 1376th position out of about 2328 runners.  So I was keen to return to the venue as it held positive vibes for me, and the 15k route (3k longer than the Nationals) through the inevitable mud would be ideal preparation for the longer tests ahead.  However, I had an injury setback a week before the race (see my article Dogged by bad luck?) which put my participation in doubt. However, having refrained from running for five days, I did a late fitness test ( a 15 minute jog around the local cricket field) the day before, and decided to go for it.   
The race entailed three large laps (presumably about 5k or 3 miles long), starting with an uphill section (some of the “competitors” in the previous race were already walking at this point) and then it was up and down through various levels of absorption, from firm footpaths to six inch deep mud.  The challenge, as far as I could see , was to look for the better ground, like the jockeys do in the sprint races.  If this meant travelling a bit further then that was fine, and I didn’t usually feel that I lost  significant ground when I did go wide around a bend to avoid the deep mud.  Also, crucially, its taking less out of your legs, so you’re fresher when the ground gets better.  I also find that its best not to push it too hard up the hills and be ready to pick up the pace again when it levels out.  The aim is to even out the intensity of effort rather than the pace, an idea that the multiple Tour de France winning cyclist Chris Froome emphasised in his autobiography The Climb.  I often find that runners pass or pull away from me going up a hill, but I’m up with them again fairly quickly as it evens out (at other times they simply disappear into the distance).  I believe this is a good racing strategy,  but in training by all means push it up the hills, and the well paced uphill efforts in races will seem relatively easy.
The first lap seemed to take forever, and I can’t say I felt particularly great. But as I progressed into the second lap I actually felt slightly stronger (maybe the energy gel I had twenty minutes before the start had started to kick in), and I got an added boost towards the end of the second circuit when I saw, on a section where the course loops back on itself, that I wasn’t all that far behind my team-mate Gavin, who is usually much faster than me.  So from then on I continued to keep the pace going nicely, and actually had a bit in reserve as I came up to the last hill, meaning that I was able to stride out a bit for about the the last half mile, passing a few runners, and only being overtaken by a couple of young  guns who clearly hadn’t pushed themselves hard enough during the previous eight and a half miles.  At the end I thought to myself that I could do another lap if I really had to, though it would have be something really important, such as getting away from an axe wielding psychopath …. or a springer spaniel.

As I walked back towards what I thought was our club gathering point, I could see no sign of the stacked together kit bags etc. and became concerned that it had all been carried away in a mudslide.  But Gavin’s wife Lyndsey spotted my lost figure and called me over to where all the kit had been kindly moved to a marginally less muddy spot.  I then changed out of my spikes, put on my joggers and did a short warm down with Adam,  the third (actually first) member of our team.  This was when I realised that the groin strain I had noticed during the latter stages of the race was actually fairly painful.  I must have incurred this during one of the slips that are unavoidable in these conditions.  It was worth it though, and the confidence I got from today’s run (finishing 760th in 1:08:45, with Adam finishing 630th in 1:05:38 and Gavin 713th in 1:07:27) should outweigh what shouldn’t be more than a few days off training.


What is a proper running foot strike?

A barefoot running technique might be slightly alien to most of us, but if you introduce it gradually, then you could benefit by having fewer injuries and improved performance.  So why is that?

We evolved to run or walk in bare feet, and each running stride ended with the front or ball of the foot striking the ground first (forefoot strike).  However, a typical long distance running technique nowadays involves the heel striking the ground first (rearfoot strike), since the vast majority of us wear a shoe with a raised  and cushioned heel. ie. a  ‘heel strike running shoe’.

I have long assumed that cushioning in the heel and the shoe as a whole is a good thing for injury prevention, especially when running on what may be considered unnaturally hard surfaces such as tarmac and concrete.  However, research has shown (see link below) that the opposite is perhaps true, and that barefoot or forefoot strike running shoes could lead to less injuries, as the runner naturally adopts a footstrike which creates less reaction force from the ground.

So order the barefoot shoes, throw away your old trainers and get on with it.  Not quite.  It takes time to readjust to the barefoot style, so take it slowly.  First of all, if you don’t already do so, throw away the slippers and always walk around barefoot or in socks at home.  Then, when you get your barefoot shoes, wear them when out walking and for everyday use (go to work in them if that is acceptable).  Do this for a couple of weeks,  and then build up the running steadily.  I started out by jogging/walking on grass for about twenty minutes and built up my mileage and reduced the walking spells very gradually (this suited me as I was recovering from injury anyway).

Abebe Bikilas barefoot triumph

I have been running almost exclusively in my barefoot shoes for over three months now.  I did a few runs in my old heel strike running shoes as I was working on the assumption that it would perhaps be taking it too far to run a half marathon and then a marathon in barefoot shoes on the road.  But it didn’t feel right, having got used to the forefoot running technique (in contrast, running in bare feet always felt good to me, even when I rarely did so).   I have since researched further and have been given reason to believe that it might well be safe to aim to complete these races in barefoot shoes.  For example, a number of top British runners in the 1960s, inspired by the great Ethiopian Abebe Bikila’s triumph in the Rome Olympic Marathon, regularly raced barefoot on the track and cross country. One of them, Ron Hill, even ran and won the Beverly Marathon, on the road,  unshod.  I’m not suggesting that this is something I would want to emulate, and even the great African runners of recent years don’t actually race barefoot as far as I am aware, but having the added protection of barefoot shoes is a different matter.

Ron Hill wearing shoes on this occasion

With this in mind, and a half marathon scheduled in three weeks, I am gradually increasing my road mileage (I normally try to avoid the roads – see my post on What surfaces should I train on?).   A few days ago, I completed a steady run of just over an hour on the road with no obvious ill effects, and as my half marathon pb is just over an hour and a half, then I’m hopefully already two thirds of the way there in terms of time on the road.  A couple of days later I successfully completed a tempo run of about 2 miles on tarmac, again wearing my barefoot shoes,  so half marathon race pace shouldn’t be an issue either.  We will see how I get on, and if I come through the half marathon unscathed, then I will plan to do likewise in the full marathon, which is two months later.  Before then, I will be running a (most likely very muddy) cross country race next weekend, and will be wearing my new spikes, which should be fine as they have a low heel, not unlike barefoot shoes, and I have worn them in already.  I wouldn’t consider my barefoot shoes in these conditions, as the grip isn’t that good, and I have had a few slips when running off road in wet conditions.

My barefoot running shoes

My experiment with barefoot running shoes is yet to be completed, and my performances over the next three months should tell me more.  But the evidence so far looks encouraging in terms of injury prevention, as this has been a decent  injury free spell for me (notwithstanding my very recent encounter with a couple of spaniels – see my post Dogged by bad luck?)



Product reviewSAGUARO Unisex Minimalist Trail Running Barefoot Shoes Aqua Water Sports Shoes

If you’re interested in trying barefoot shoes, but don’t want to (or can’t afford to) spend huge sums of money to find out if they suit you, then I would definitely recommend these great value Saguero minimalist shoes.  I personally like the ample width of the shoe, as I  have relatively broad feet for my size, and right from the off they felt comfortable.  I worried that they were perhaps too comfortable and would perhaps become loose, but the drawstring type lace tightening mechanism works pretty well and ensured that my feet stayed firmly in place.

Sizing seems to be pretty standard, as  I bought a pair matching my normal shoe size, and they are a perfect fit.

I tried them on a variety of surfaces, including grass of varying levels of dampness, muddy footpaths and roads.  The grip on the shoes is moderate, and I had to be very careful on very wet grass and slightly muddy footpaths, coming to grief on more than one occasion.

As explained above, the shoes can work on the road, but I did suffer stiff calves when I tried to go beyond a few miles,  especially over undulating routes.  This may be a feature of any minimalist shoes, and it obviously depends on how familiar you are with the process of running in this type of shoe.   I wore them when walking around and going about my day to day business before attempting to run in them, and I’m sure this is good advice for anyone, as is the the suggestion to at least start by running only on forgiving (and not too slippery)  surfaces .

Durability is OK.  I am seeing significant signs of wear after about three months of wearing my barefoot shoes for most training sessions (a very rough estimate would be 350 miles),  but the price means that even if they only last about four months, or 450 miles, then that would represent decent value.

So, if you are looking to try minimalist running shoes and don’t want to break the bank, you can’t go far wrong with these.

SAGUARO Barefoot Shoes Men Women Road Trail Running Shoes Indoor Gym Fitness Trainers Outdoor Hiking Climbing Walking Shoes Quick Drying Water Shoes, Grey, 7.5 UK

Update – read my recent posts Second thoughts on barefoot racing? which explains why I am probably going to make a compromise on my intention to race the half marathon and  marathon in barefoot shoes.  The later post Gone with the wind?   explains how I actually ran the half marathon (sort of) in minimalist shoes and this experience made up my mind that it would not be wise to wear them for the full marathon.

Dogged by bad luck?

Early this morning I forced myself out of bed in order to do a hill training session.  This involved a 15 minute warm up jog to the hill, a steep grassland slope about 200 metres long but which feels much longer.  My aim was to complete ten of these efforts, each interspersed by a recovery jog that takes a slightly longer but less steep route back to the start point. As I completed the recovery phase following my seventh effort, I was met by a pair of excitable spaniels who ran towards me (or more specifically my legs), and invaded my personal space in what could be generously described as an energetic and friendly  manner, but less generously might be seen as an intimidating and aggressive manner.  The owner, who seemed (and I’m sure was) a  nice enough guy, said something along the lines of “Don’t worry, it’s just their way of saying hello”.  I’m sure that this was most likely the case, but when they get so close, with teeth prominent, ears pricked and hair up, there’s  just a little part of me that thinks one of them might just take a wee bite.  I dealt with this by slowing even further to a walk to ensure that they didn’t think I was running away and see this as a fun game (with me the game).

I knew there was a chance that we would meet again as I looped back and began my next hill sprint, but was hoping that my new friends would have moved on by then.  Unfortunately, the reunion came just as I reached the end of the very steep section, and was about to move onto the moderately steep bit, where I would endeavour to stride out as far as the lactate in my legs would allow.  Determined not to be hindered, I kept going as the dogs approached, but approach they did, and it was impossible not to alter my stride as otherwise I might well have tripped over one or both dogs.  Just after this brief interaction, I felt a twinge in my left hamstring and perhaps wisely decided to abandon this particular training session and walk home  before I did any further damage. I had been tempted to turn around and point out to the gentleman that his failure to control his mutts had potentially undermined months of preparation and sabotaged my hopes of completing my first marathon in the foreseeable future.  Thankfully, I thought better of this, and the prompt decision to curtail the session, along with a spell on the massage roller, has hopefully ensured that I won’t be out of action for more than a day or two.

Friend or foe?

Now, I like dogs on the whole and can see their attraction.  They often look cute, they are loyal (for example, aggressively scaring off perceived threats such as runners minding their own business)  and they provide companionship and someone who appears to listen without answering back.  I also agree that it is much more enjoyable and beneficial for both hound and owner if they are able enjoy the countryside without being constantly attached to each other by a leash, even one that could double as a measuring tape for the javelin.  But if you are going to do this, then the mutt needs to be properly trained, in order to  learn that it is not socially acceptable to get up close and personal with people who are not familiar to them.  I could make one or two suggestions as to how you might go about doing this, but I think it’s safest to advise that you seek expert assistance if you own a dog that exhibits elements of antisocial behaviour.

Training update – energy gels promising?

Saturday 11th January

Just starting to see the first real signs of coming into form. Yesterday, I was out working from 8.30 to 3.30, and didn’t manage to eat in that time, but I was pretty keen to get out and do some useful training before it got completely dark.   So I decided that I would do a tempo run, over a route that is mostly country footpaths with a final section on the road, and which takes about forty minutes if going at my usual steady run pace.   Given that there was a serious chance I would be lacking energy due to working and not having eaten for seven hours, I decided to try taking an isotonic energy gel, plus a cup of tea, as soon as I got in, even though I would have to set off just ten to fifteen minutes afterwards and it might not have kicked in by then (I believe they take 15-20 minutes to start to work for you).

So off I went, getting into a fairly rapid rhythm and working hard for the first mile or so, knowing that there was a decent downhill stretch to recover.  This was followed by a tough uphill section, then a shorter up and down bit, before the finishing stretch on tarmac, which is a fairly flat mile and a quarter.  In spite of pushing it quite hard on the previous undulating sections, I felt particularly strong and energetic during this final phase, and wonder if the energy gel was starting to kick in at this stage.  My finishing time of 34 minutes 43 seconds suggests I must have been doing something right, as my previous best time for this route was 36 minutes flat.

I took another one as I began my ten minute warm down jog, in order to aid my recovery and see how I felt about taking one as I was running.  I did find that I had to slow right down to take one, but I guess that we are talking about something in the region of ten seconds, at the most, being lost for each gel taken, and if you weigh that against the prospect of hitting the wall, that is a small price to pay.

I do worry that the energy gels are a bit heavy and awkward to carry, especially if you are going to take 6 to 8 during the race.  Unfortunately, the race I am entered in only has water available on the course, so I will need to carry my own fuel, unless I can get my wife to meet me at a couple of strategic points (not much chance of that).  Iv’e started looking at the different options for carrying the gels and will try one or two of the methods on my long run tomorrow.

Update – Sunday 12th January

I decided to try the method of attaching the gels to the waistband at the side of, and inside, my shorts, using safety pins.  I attached two 60ml gels by each hip, and this worked very well.  Being at the side meant that they weren’t interfering with my stride to any noticeable degree , and the fact that they were attached meant that they weren’t bouncing around.  As I was wearing boxer briefs similar to the one in the photo (right), there were no chafing issues, which perhaps might be the case had I worn simple briefs.  It was tricky to attach the sachets, trying to avoid puncturing the part which contains the gel, but I was able to do it, and the advice to rip off the sachet when ready to take one worked fine (though the effect on the pin varied, with one pin bending, another remaining in place, and the other opening up without bending).  As a good environmentalist I inserted the empty gel packs in my pocket after use, and generally found that I wasn’t having to slow significantly as I carried out my feeding procedure.

So I was able to carry four 60ml gels in this manner, and I’m fairly sure that another gel could have been attached by each hip without causing any significant restriction.  However, I am more worried that the extra weight might create just a little too much downward force on the shorts, which could lead to an awkward situation, or more likely to having to tighten the strings of the shorts to an uncomfortable level to avoid it.  Will try this out though and, if its no good,look at carrying the extra two gels in my hands or on my arms (perhaps tucking into wristbands like the ones sported by Rafa Nadal in the photo?).  I’m pretty confident that six gels will be enough for me if I ensure I am fully carb loaded before the race, but I will continue to research this.

TORQ Energy 45g Gels – Mixed Flavours (8 Pack)

SIS Go Isotonic Energy Gel Pack & Go Energy Mini Bar Pack (Mixed Flavours)

Carb loading before the marathon

Carb loading before the marathon, to a greater or lesser degree, is something that all competitors should consider.

On the day, the priority is to maximise your energy stores in order to maintain a reasonable pace for the whole distance, and this means ensuring that you have as much glycogen as possible stored in your muscles and liver.  Carb loading, which simply involves eating a higher proportion of carbohydrates in the last 2-3 days before the race, can go some way to helping you to achieve this, providing you have done the training beforehand.

Some experts suggest that carb loading can be even more effective if you go through a depletion phase. This begins with a long run a week before the race, which depletes the glycogen in your muscles.  Muscle glycogen levels are kept low by following a low carbohydrate diet for about three days after this, before the final carb loading in the last 2-3 days.   This can be a risky strategy, however, and others suggest that depletion runs (typically a long run, first thing in the morning, without breakfast) are more useful in terms of training the body to burn fat more effectively, and these are best completed in the early phase of training.  The reasons for this are:

  1. Your long runs in the early phase are short enough to be able to complete in the fasted state (perhaps 10-15 miles).
  2. You need to practice your race day nutrition routine during the longer long runs (perhaps 15-20 miles) that you carry out closer to race day.

When I trained for my one and only half marathon, most of my long runs in the last 6 to 8 weeks before the race were completed in the fasted state over approximately the half marathon distance.  This, along with other work such as hill training, intervals and tempo runs, and a sensible recovery schedule, resulted in a very pleasing performance of 1 hour 32 minutes and 21 seconds. This time may seem impressive to some and unimpressive to others, but I definitely achieved close to my peak performance (it compares very favourably with my 10K and 10 Mile best times), so my preparation was effective.

I actually plan to run this same event again in February, prior to my debut marathon in April, and intend to follow a similar training routine, with the aim of getting another good half marathon time.  This then gives me about 9 weeks to build up the mileage on the long run and establish a nutrition strategy for the 26.2 mile event, hopefully in the knowledge that I have well developed fat burning mechanisms to help me keep going reasonably strongly for a ‘double half marathon’.

Trying out your carb loading schedule, including the foods you actually consume, prior to at least a couple of the long training runs, is strongly advised.  For example, many experts suggest sticking to more processed carbohydrates to minimise any possible negative effects of fibre on the guts.  However, others will argue that you should stick with what you are used to, so if you normally eat wholemeal bread, for example, then you should continue to do so during carb loading.  So the only sure way is to experiment and see what works for you.  For example, I like porridge oats and value its healthy and nutritious properties, but have found that it feels heavy on my stomach if eaten as my pre-race breakfast.  Perhaps I will try flapjacks as an alternative, probably in addition to bananas and possibly toast and marmalade.

It is also strongly recommended that, as well as water, you take on carbohydrates during the race.  These may be in the form of energy gels or drinks, or sweets such as jelly babies.  You might even want to eat a ripe banana immediately prior to the race. Again, the key is to experiment on your long training runs and see what works best for you.

I have just bought a pack of isotonic energy gels of different flavours, and I took one of these (and water) after about 9 miles of my 13 mile training run today, to see how easily I can take them while running.  My hands were cold so I found it hard to open the sachet but I just about managed it. It was a bit like sucking on a sachet of hotel shower gel, and the taste wasn’t much better, but if it does the trick that’s not important to me.  Medicine doesn’t have to taste nice (though I used to love the cough syrup I was given as  child).  I can’t say I noticed any effect, positive or negative, on my energy levels during the last thirty minutes of my run, compared to when I just carried on without food (or water), though I would probably need to go further to notice any benefit.

My isotonic gels contain 30ml of gel with 22g of carbohydrate in each, so if I choose this option I will be looking to take one every half and hour during the marathon.   Since these isotonic gels are quite heavy, especially if I am going to be carrying six of them, I am now going to order and try some non-isotonic energy gels.  These will be lighter since they aren’t trying to provide water, which you can get at the drinks stations.  The possible disadvantage is that they may be a bit sticky and harder to take when running, so watch this space and check out my post Training update – energy gels promising?