Jumat, 13 April 2012

Lesson 10: Four to the floor

So FINALLY i managed to get what Luis has been trying to tell me about the 4-beat kick all this time. Being a mathematician, I just couldn't understand how a 4-beat kick could make sense. If you have to coordinate the arms and the legs such that the pulling arm is on the same side as the kicking leg to facilitate rotation, then the only way to achieve a symmetrical 4-beat kick is to kick right-left-left-right, which doesn't make much sense. Luis showed me an incredible video of Sun Yang breaking the 1500m freestyle World Record, in which you can clearly see a 4-beat kick:

What is clear from the video is that it is NOT symmetrical. It is a combination of a half a cycle of a 6-beat kick on the side which he breathes to and half a cycle of a 2-beat ("Total Immersion style") kick to the other side. It means that there is a slight pause between each cycle of 4 kicks. It seems like it could be a good compromise for these kind of distances. According to a book I have on swimming, it says that studies show that taller swimmers tend to prefer a 2-beat kick as their longer legs would lead them to have too low a cadence if they were to employ a 6-beat kick, while more powerful swimmers with floatability issues tend to prefer a 6-beat kick in order to keep their legs up.

I think the point here is to have a kind of "toolbox" of different kicking patterns which you can reach into and use as appropriate depending on how tired you are or how fast you need to go to catch the feet of the guy in front. Even in a supposedly optimal performance like the one by Sun Yang in the video, you can see him seamlessly switching from one type of kick to another. He makes it look like second nature.

Senin, 09 April 2012

Change of plans

...and after
Thanks to the R souls who operate the AP-7 motorway, who decided allegedly at the last minute not to allow the ICAN Half Ironman to use their road this year, the bike route has had to be radically changed, as you can see above, from a relatively flat course to a very hilly one. This would be akin to changing a rowing regatta from taking place in a lake to the sea or moving a formula 1 race off-road. It may not seem like a big deal, but given that folks are willing to spend thousands on bikes that are specially set up to go on the flat (triathlon or time trial bikes) it would seem that it is for some. And that is not to mention the need to adapt your training to a more mountainous route and one that will take longer to complete.

Enough of my complaining. Hats off to those of you who are still competing. I just don't think I would enjoy it and I would feel silly riding my triathlon bike with a disc wheel up those hills. And, let's face it, my heart hasn't been in this competition since the beginning. I chose Marbella so my parents (who live in Malaga) would be able to come and watch and even they are not sure that they would be able to make it. Also, I think I have been following a strict structured training programme for too long. I'm fed up of having to do 99% of my training on my own, much of it indoors, and having to pass up the opportunities as they arise to go on a ride or a run with friends.

I was able to get my money back from ICAN and from the car hire (just) but ended up losing about 100 euros on the train. To be honest, I would have been happy for those 100 euros to have gone to ICAN, as I think they have been the losers in this story. Who knows? Perhaps there is more demand for hilly triathlons as most people have road bikes better suited for that kind of terrain. It's also a more Mediterranean style of cycling (although remember that drafting or riding in packs are still not allowed).

My first thought was to sign up for another Half Ironman: the agreement with my family had been to do one a year after all. I looked into the new 70.3 Ironman in Norway that looks great if not a bit remote. But then my wife reminded me that it wasn't the race itself that was the problem, just the training, and she wasn't happy about me spending another couple of months preparing. Then I got a brainwave: why not do the Lisbon International Triathlon again this year? That was nice and flat and around this time. In fact, I felt stupid for not having thought of doing it earlier. Then I found out that registrations had already closed. To be honest, it's a bit of a relief. I can't face doing any more 3-4 hour "brick" (bike-run) sessions.

So what now?

I've got the 10K race on the 22nd of April, that runs alongside the Madrid Marathon, and is my chance to qualify for the International San Silvestre. It's also the first race I will run in the 40+ age group. I'll focus these last two weeks on getting some speed in my legs. Although I have just come back from Asturias* and found that all the sea food, cider and wine has tipped me over 90 kilos... Then I'll have to see how I feel about things. I'm thinking of continuing to work on my swimming but to use running and cycling just to keep fit, at least until I start to prepare for another triathlon. I'll probably keep up some kind of weights programme as I do think this is important. Right now I'm not feeling the bug to compete, maybe I won't again, maybe I will... Whatever happens I want to keep on enjoying being fit.

* By the way, in some tiny village in Asturias a guy stopped his car and got out to ask me something... He said, "I saw you running the other day - who makes those shoes you were running in?"

Selasa, 03 April 2012


Guess where I am? Yep, waiting for my delayed flight home this time - hopefully it won't be as bad as last night's five hour delay... Got to the hotel at 4am so I'm feeling a bit worse for wear today.

This morning I received an email announcing the last minute unforeseen and unavoidable change to the bike circuit in the ICAN Marbella triathlon next week. If before it was slightly borderline as to whether a tri bike was the thing to pack now, at least, it's patently clear that a road bike wouldbe much better suited to the two 560m climbs which have been added to the route. Given that my only motivation for doing this event in the first place was to give my tri bike and wheels a spin, I am now feeling extremely lazy about going. In fact, the only reason I am still thinking about taking part is because I've spent 500 euros on train tickets for the whole family

After my meeting this morning (during which I had to put all triathlon related disappointment out of my mind) I went in search of a gym where I could change from Clark Kent into, well, TriMan. For 17.50 euros I got access to the changing rooms and gym but no towel; in the end I had to use a roll of paper towels to dry myself off after the shower. In spite of being tired and grumpy, I did as the Doctor Jonathan Esteve said and completed two sets of 8, 7 and 5 minute runs at 16.5-17 kph. At least my speed is still there in spite of all this triathlon training.

Senin, 02 April 2012

Week 5 / 7

I'm writing this in the airport, waiting for my very delayed plane (thanks to strikes in France, again). I'm off to Brussels for the day - thanks to minimalist running shoes I'm able to pack a spare shirt, toiletries and full running equipe in my briefcase.

Workouts this week worthy of mention, in no particular order except the order I did them in... On Friday I did series of 4 minutes hard on the spinning bike. The last one I really went for it and finished at over 170 bpm, which is very high for a bike workout. Amazingly, after just two minutes (my watch measures this automatically), my heart rate had fallen to 60 bpm! Normally my heart rate stays around 80-100 bpm for some time after a hard workout. This is due to a phenomena called EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption). I've seen one workout programme designed to give you a "six pack" based entirely on maximizing tho effect.

On Sunday I went for a long ride (120 km) in Ciudad Real on my triathlon bike. Without too much effort I was able to average 32 km without being sheltered by the peloton of a group ride. It was fairly flat and I managed to stay in the aero position most of the time. At one point I ended up going through a village - the one that Pedro Amoldovar is from, in fact (Calzada de Calatrava) - and almost collided with a bunch of people in cloaks and pointed hoods getting ready for the Semana Santa procession.

Normally I cut the week there, but the brick (bike-run) I did today was a left over from last week, which I had to jiggle around because of my trip o London the week before. As I took today off, I could afford to spend 3 and a half hours training although, to be honest, I would have rather spent more time with the kids. It was a pretty tough one with lots of medium and some high intensity, most of which I did inside. It's left me struggling I replace the fluids I lost in sweat and with a bit of a headache, which isn't predisposing me well towards the French and their plight right now.

If I'm up to it, I'll try to find a decent gym tomorrow and do my hard workout. If not, I'll run around Brussels a bit and see what I can see. I can always do the hard workout another day and better to do it when I can be sure to do it well.

Kamis, 29 Maret 2012

Lesson 9: Putting it all together

I had a great lesson today, even though it was straight after doing a mega weights session (300 kg leg press!!). We worked again on all of the aspects from the last few weeks (high elbows, the roll, the kick). Now I am using my legs more it doesn't feel such a hard slog through the water and, perhaps more importantly, I feel I have a more stable "platform" so I don't end up losing balance, compensating, compensating for the compensation etc.

At one point we did a quick test to see how fast I would swim 100m at what I perceived to be a "Half Ironman effort". Even with my crappy way of changing direction in the 20m pool, I did 100m in 1:32 which is not bad. Imagine if I were able to maintain that for 1,900m! Of course, as I keep saying, in the sea everything will be a different kettle of fish altogether. Probably the single most important thing I can focus on is simply looking where I am going.

Rabu, 28 Maret 2012

Lesson 8: Can I kick it?

Yes I can.

In the end we built up the 6 beat kick by going through a 4 beat kick, although it wasn't a "real" 4 beat kick. The exercise we did was to immobilize one leg (with a fin) and to kick twice with the other leg on the catch of the hand on the same side and on the "push". There are three phases in the underwater stroke: the catch, the pull and the push - the idea is to synchronize a kick with each of these, the most important one being the catch (this is the Total Immersion kick which initiates the rotation of the hips). Then we moved to doing the same with the other leg and then with both legs (right right left left). The last stage was to insert an extra kick from the opposite leg in between these two:

1 .right arm catch: right leg kick
2. right arm pull: left leg kick
3. right arm push: right leg kick
4. left arm catch: left leg kick
5. left arm pull: left leg kick
6. left arm push: left leg kick

At first I was a bit wooden and my legs started to get tense and tired but, after relaxing into it, it became almost second nature. It reminded me a bit of learning to juggle where you start combining sequences of coordinated movements and then there is suddenly an "aha moment" when it all begins to flow of its own accord. Another thing altogether is whether I can do this in open water with hundreds of other people in race conditions!

Luis still reckons that my kick is much less propulsive than it can be. The next step is to try to kick from the hips.

Selasa, 27 Maret 2012

Week 4 / 7

This week I was again in London which meant no swimming (except for the lesson I had on Tuesday) and no biking (I don't think riding 3 hours on a Boris Bike would be a good idea).

I did my hard run (8 lots of 5 minutes at 17-16 kph) on the hotel treadmill. Luckily they let me open the door which let in a bit of a cooling breeze, otherwise it would have been intolerable. In fact, even the easy run of an hour and a half which I planned to do the next day - while watching "Tremé" on my portable - I cut short to an hour because it was getting far too hot and sweaty. I noticed from looking at my reflection in the mirror while running, that I run with my head ever so slightly tilted to the right. I think this must be to compensate for my shoulder (grade 3 ACL separation): it's no wonder that I get more blisters on one foot than another and so on. All it takes is a slight asymmetry and everything goes out of whack.

On the Friday, I managed to get in a nice 80 minute run outside. As I have said before, my favourite kind of run is a random run through the city, preferably one in which I don't live. All the distractions - shops, people, avoiding cyclists and pedestrians - keep me entertained and I enjoy discovering new places or revisiting old haunts.

On Saturday I was "supposed" to do a 3 hour bike ride but there was just no way that I was going to get straight off the plane from London and do that after not seeing my family for most of the week. Instead I went for a 3 and a half hour ride the next day with my coach, Jonathan, followed by an hour long run. He said that we could leave from his house and follow a fairly flat course; when I realized that he lived in the Sierra mountains of Madrid, I was a bit skeptical but it was, indeed, quite flat. In fact, I felt the benefit of the aero bike for the first time since I bought it at the end of lat year. There was a nice long flat stretch along which we cruised at about 35 kph. Jonathan is in the process of moving from being a very successful and fast runner to a (hopefully fast) triathlete but he still has to get some more kilometers under his belt on the bike. As you will know from reading this blog, his approach is for the majority of the training load to be performed at below the aerobic threshold, the idea being that you train your body to rely more on the fat burning metabolism, but it does mean that you have to go slow at the beginning until your body makes the necessary adaptations. On the run I expected him to find my pace too untaxing but it turned out that we were both at or slightly above our aerobic threshold in spite of the fact that, were we to run flat out, he would absolutely trounce me. Anyway, a very enjoyable outing. I didn't eat anything during the whole time and didn't feel any the worse for it until I got in the car to drive home. I felt my eyes closing against my will and had to open the windows to keep myself from nodding off. Even then, at one point I drifted into another lane and another driver "beeped" me. Next time I will keep a Red Bull handy!

Rabu, 21 Maret 2012

Lesson 7: The kick

Finally we moved on to working on the kick today. From TotalImmersion I have a very pronounced 2 beat kick – that is to say, I kick onceper arm stroke, primarily to rotate the body. The idea is to squeeze a few moresmaller kicks in between, so that I will be doing what is called a 6 beat kick.You may wonder why I am talking about going straight from a 2 to a 6 beat kickwithout passing through 4. The reason is that a 4 beat kick means that everyother stroke your kicking leg is exactly the wrong one to help you rotate. Imight as well try to benefit from all that hard work to coordinate my kick withmy rotation that is the backbone of the Total Immersion technique. It's a bit like dancing a Waltz...

Week 3 / 7

The most significant thing about this week was that I finished the last series of The Wire, the series that has been helping me through my series (sorry for the pun) for the last few months. Oh, and the founder of Red Bull (the original Thai drink) died this week, which I think deserves a mention, as I am not sure what I would do without that invention, even if it is probably very bad for you.

During the week, the workload was pretty light, leaving a horrible workout of 70 minutes at CCM (15.5 kph) with a weighted backpack on Friday evening– in the end I cut it short by ten minutes and took the backpack off after 20 minutes – a three hour bike ride on Saturday and a tough “brick”on Sunday. All this while my parents were staying at home, which didn’t make itany easier to spend so much time training. The brick consisted of 2 hours onthe bike at various intenstities, mostly hard ones, and an hour running between 13 and 15 kph. All this I did indoors (again). At least I am training theboredom factor (although I admit that I am now watching the new series by thecreator of The Wire, “Tremé” which helps).

I’m really having second thoughts about this Triathlon lark. Even “just” a Half Ironman means spending so much time and energy training. Its not particularly difficult to do the training but it is difficult to stay awake on a Sunday afternoon or keep in a good mood if my lunchtime gets delayed. Maybe I should start taking in cereal bars and gels while I train, something I haven’t done since the days of 5 hour plus sessions from last year. I like tothink I am training my ability to derive energy from my fat stores (yes, I haveenough to go around). At the end of the brick on Sunday I started to fade big-time – for the last 15 minutes I had to go ever slower and slower just tokeep at a reasonable heart rate. Still, I suppose it all goes to a good cause.

It’ll be interesting to see how I feel after the Half Ironman. Will I be energized by the experience or simply non-plussed?I think that I could do with a break from structured training, that’s for sure-I’d like to be able to go out on rides with friends or run as hard or long as Ifeel like on a particular day. I don’t feel that I need competition in order to motivate me to keep inshape any more. To be honest, the main reason I am doing a Triathlon is becauseI feel guilty about having spent so much money on a Triathlon bike! Maybe I canfind a Time Trial in the UK next year – after all, competing in Triathlons usually entails traveling with bike, so why complain about the dearth of time trials in Spain?

Kamis, 15 Maret 2012

Lesson 6: Speed with technique

Today was the first time that I was able to get tired swimming while still swimming reasonably well. I've often said that I swim at the same speed whether it is for 100m or 3,800m...

I swam for a couple of lengths with a cadence that felt on the high side while Luis counted how many strokes per minute I was doing. Then he set the metronome to beat out the same rhythm and I swam 4 lengths timing the entry of each hand with a beep. Even though I was swimming with the same stroke rate, it felt more comfortable because my rhythm was less rushed. We then repeated this several times, aiming to increase the cadence each time. By the 4th set,we had got up to 63 strokes per minute but, at this pace, I was starting to struggle and getting quite tired. Still, at 60 strokes per minute which, for me is quite fast, I was able to swim quite effectively.

We again worked on my left arm, particularly the rotation and high elbow recovery.

I hope we can work on the legs at last, because this will definitely help with my propulsion. For long distances and especially with a wet suit it is arguable that the legs are better conserved for the bike. Even so, I'm quite sure that I am currently at the other extreme of barely using my legs at all - I move forward in surges which cannot be the most efficient

Selasa, 13 Maret 2012

Lesson 5: Rhythm

We started training with my little beeping device to help me control my stroke rate. It wasn't nearly as difficult as I thought it would be to keep in time with it. For the time being we are keeping the stroke rate down low (45 spm!) to give me time to get the technique right. The good thing about marking the strokes is that it helps me not feel rushed. In particular, Luis pointed out something which I was vaguely aware of myself: I tend to rush my right arm through the water.

Rhythm is something that I have written about before, in the context of rowing and running. In swimming, I expect it is the same: for a given stroke rate, if you can work more quickly then you have more time to recover. At one point Luis told me to stop "using my brain so much and to use my intuition more". That's the thing about rhythm, it's something you feel. Just like a bunch of robots playing the drums sounds terrible, you can't be too mechanical about it. There were certainly times in the session today when I felt like I had a good, un-rushed rhythm. I felt like I was moving myself forward more effectively by not snatching at the water.

We also worked on my hand entry. Total Immersion has drilled into me entering my hand into the water close to my head. According to Luis I should be entering at about halfway between my wrist and my elbow of my other arm. You know me, I have to investigate this further... I never take anything as given!

Chrissie Wellington "A Life Without Limits"

I've just finished reading Chrissie Wellington's autobiography. The first thing that struck me about her book, compared to other sporting biographies that I have read, is that it doesn't talk about sport itself nearly as much as you would expect. In fact, it reads like the autobiography of a successful and interesting person, which is exactly what Chrissie Wellington is. After all, one of the reasons we read autobiographies (at least, I speak for myself) is in the hope that we might learn something. Certainly Chrissie bars no holds in her book and there is as much to learn from her successes as from her mistakes, which she has no squeamishness about revealing. In fact, I don't think I have read a book with less "squeam" than this one: Ironman is a discipline that reduces us to basic bodily functions.

I appreciated the tone of her writing which struck a perfect balance between singing her own praises and being self-deprecating. She comes across quite simply as unashamedly proud of her achievements, whether they were from her pre-triathlete professional life or winning the Ironman World Championships in spite of injury. Although I don't suppose many people would have bought her book had it not been for her accolades in the sporting world, she writes with such straightforwardness that she could equally be talking about winning a local swimming gala. Triathlon is a perfect breeding ground for obsessive attention to detail having three times the number of sports to fuss over (more, if you count the transitions); however, Chrissie seems very level headed about it all, even if she "loses it" at times when pushing her body to new limits. I think that this must be a contributing factor to her success (as well as the readability of the book). My own experience from the Marathon I ran recently tallies with this - I invested my mental energy in overriding my inclination to slow down rather than in  worrying unduly about other details.

Chrissie's story does read rather like a fairy tale. She came from nowhere to winning every single iron distance race she has ever started. Who hasn't had a dream in which you are inexplicably able to run faster and further than anyone else, with no discomfort or pain? Most of us meet our grim reality in the form of a time the we can't improve on, or a person that we can't beat. Chrissie gives the impression that these limits are all in our mind and never makes any reference to any of the genetic advantages that she must surely have. What is amazing to think is that, in this day and age, in the developed world, an off-the-scale athlete like Chrissie almost slipped by unnoticed; it makes you wonder who else might be out there. Sure, she was always a fast swimmer and a fast runner, but nothing really extraordinary: it is really the particular challenge of the Ironman that it seems she was made for. She herself attributes some of her aptitude for the distance to her capacity to endure boredom. I can relate to that.

I found the relationship with her one-time coach, Brett Sutton, very interesting, as well as all the dynamics with the other athletes in the team. It just goes to show that it's not all plain sailing, even if you are the best by a long shot. The chronicles of the three World Championships that she has competed in (and won) are worth the price of the book alone. Even for her, the goal she sets herself is to better herself, she is almost unconcerned with breaking records (which are only temporary, anyway). What really is amazing, is to read how she achieved this with a catalogue of mechanical failures, flat tires and injuries. Again, it begs the question of hoe much of our limits are a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having recently read "I'm here to win" by Chris McCormack, the male Ironman World Champion in 2010, it was interesting to contrast the different approaches and very tempting to extrapolate this to differences between men and women. Chris lifted the lid on the carefully orchestrated "smack talk" before major competitions, where he would try to ensure that all the other athletes were thinking more about him than about their own race. For Chris, the Ironman is a very strategic race in which you cannot afford to give an inch to your opponents. Chrissie's way of not giving anything up is different: never show them how much you are hurting... and smile! Chrissie talks about collaboration and, unlike Chris, regularly trains with people that she will be competing against. A famous example of the sort of collaboration which is rarely seen in a World Championships other than the Ironman is from 2008, when she suffered a flat tyre. Being a bit of a "muppet" (her words) she fumbled the CO2 cannister and let all the gas out by accident, leaving her with no way to inflate her tyre. As accepting outside help can lead to disqualification, she had no choice but to try to beg a spare cannister from another competitor. In the end Rebeka Keat obliged and Chrissie went on to win the race.

One of the themes in the book that she keeps returning to is that of "helping other people". One can't help reading a bit between the lines and sensing a conflict between this desire and the self-absorbed discipline of a professional triathlete. It is clear that Chrissie is building a platform from her success from which she can hopefully make a difference. The question we are left with is, can we look forward to more races from the Queen of Kona or is she already looking to other challenges?

Minggu, 11 Maret 2012

Week 2 / 7

I'm writing this while "watching" Alvin and the Chipmunks (3 - how on earth did they manage to get this far?).

On Wednesday I was suppose to do 3 hours on the bike - two of them easy and one medium. As it was a "school
day" and, especially as my wife was away and I had to look after the kids, there was no way I was going to be able to find three straight hours in the day so I did the next best thing: commute to work, spinning class at lunchtime and commute back.

Friday was a reasonably tough session on the treadmill: 20 minutes at 13.5 kph, 20 at 15.5 kph and 15 starting at 16 and finishing at 17 kph. Even though the amount of running I'm doing is much less than before, I'm still hitting the same speeds for a given heart rate.

I went for a three hour cycle ride (outside!) on Saturday morning. I still find the aero position tiring, especially on the bumpy roads around here.

The workout I was dreading all week was the "brick" (bike-run) of 2.5 hours that was set for Sunday morning. Dreading, because I knew I would have to do it all indoors because I had to look after the kids (which meant plugging them into the tv - not ideal for a beautiful Sunday morning). It wasn't too bad thanks (again) to The Wire which at least took the boredom out of it. After an hour at easy to medium intensity on the bike, an hour and a half at 13.5 kph was surprisingly easy, with my heart rate well below my aerobic threshold most of the time. I even wondered whether I should measure the treadmill again to see whether it has got even slower.

Jumat, 09 Maret 2012

Soft Star Sale!

(Disclaimer: I have nothing to gain by plugging Soft Star, other than helping ensure that they stay in business!)

Soft Star Shoes, the makers of my minimalist running shoes of choice, are having a sale. I just picked up a couple of pairs of shoes for half price - enough to last me to the end of the year and beyond. The second pair I bought seem to be lasting much longer than the first, which I got about 1,000 km out of before having to buy a new pair.

Kamis, 08 Maret 2012

Lesson 4: Fuhgeddaboudit

A combination of energy draining meetings and having to switch my training around so that I ended up doing my heavy weights circuit before the swim meant that I was not in the best frame of mind for a lesson. I suppose that there is always going to be a bit of "two steps (strokes?) forward and one step back". We did some drills to emphasize the body roll (hands crossed over chest, rolling from side to side while keeping the head looking down) as well as breaking the stroke at the point where the recovery hand is just by the goggles before initiating the catch with the other hand. The results weren't great so we wrote today's lesson off. To be continued...

Selasa, 06 Maret 2012

Lesson 3: Cadence

Another of the leftovers from having learnt the Total Immersion method is that I have a very low cadence (stroke rate). Obviously, speed can be thought of as the product of cadence and stroke length: Total Immersion puts the emphasis on eeking out the maximum glide from every stroke which is good, to a point. It is all very well being ultra efficient (which, by the way, is hardly the case for me) but when you are competing you have to get speed from both length and cadence. Add to that the fact that Triathlon swims generally take place in open water with thousands of other people thrashing about and it quickly becomes apparent that you are not going to get much out of

The idea is to coordinate the entry of the hand with the pull phase of the arm already in the water. The "pull phase" follows immediately on from the catch that we worked on last week. We practised this doing drills where we broke the swim cycle (with a "dead spot") just at the point after the catch, timing the start of the next stroke to coincide with the entry of the recovering arm. My cadence certainly increased but it started to spiral a little out of control.

I've bought a gadget to help swim with a more appropriate cadence. Actually, this time it was coach Luis' idea, not mine, even though any excuse to buy another gadget is a good one. It hasn't arrived yet but it is a small device you place in your swimming cap that beeps every so often, like a metronome.

I've found precious little information on the internet regarding swim cadence or stroke rates suitable for an Ironman or a Half Ironman but, judging from videos on Youtube, the faster swimmers are going like the clappers. Recently, I read an interesting article in Triathlon Plus magazine with a rough guide which I found very useful:

30-45 strokes per minute: extremely slow stroke rate, certainly over-gliding with a long pause.
46-54 spm: low stroke rate, probably due to dead spot at front of stroke.
55-64 spm: moderate stroke rate that should probably be higher in open water swims
65-74 spm: good rhythm for open water
75-94 spm: very fast stroke rate. Most elite triathletes swim at 90 spm
95-120 spm: extremely fast stroke rate for 1:05 /100m pace

The article also makes the point that you should increase your cadence for open water swimming to account for the chop and wake from other swimmers, otherwise you are likely to come to a complete halt in between strokes.

As I have been saying lately, I think Total Immersion has helped me instil some good habits but I have gone too far the other way. Now it is time to put some speed back into the equation and, while doing so, hopefully not lose too much of the efficiency and length.

Senin, 05 Maret 2012

Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome

I felt crap for most of the weekend, no doubt because I was fighting off some kind of virus that had already affected half of my household. It was something very similar to when I ran the Marathon in Valencia. These days I rarely seem to actually get "ill" (touch wood), that is to say, with tangible symptoms - but, every so often, I notice that my energy levels are very low and training even at low intensity is like doing a hard workout. It doesn't happen frequently enough for me to worry that it might be "all in my mind" or an excuse to get out of training but it does remind me of something that happened to me when I was 20. I wonder if there are some psychological scars left over from that time.

Summer 1992, Saturday of Eights Week, Oxford. It was the last day of Summer Eights, the biggest inter-collegiate rowing event of the calendar (the Oxford-Cambridge Boatrace being inter-University). All the "Blues" were back in the college boats after their victory over Cambridge. That year I had decided not to try out for the Blue Boat after my experience the year before but rather to focus on my academic work. The Summer Eights is what is known as a "bumps race". Around 160 crews of 8 rowers and a cox (who steers the boat) take part on the narrow tributary of the Thames known as the Isis. As it is too narrow for the crews to race each other side by side, instead they all start equally spaced by 1 and a half boat lengths and must try to catch ("bump") the crew in front before they are themselves bumped. The competition takes place over four evenings so that crews may advance 4 places in the rankings that year (or even more if they manage to perform an "over bump"). If a crew bumps the crew ahead on each of the 4 occasions, then the crew members are entitled to get their "oars" -  an oar with the details of the crew and their weights painted on the blade. (If you ever go to the Cambridge Blue pub in Cambridge, on the street where I used to live, you'll see a blade of mine hanging there. It was too big to move to Spain!). The male and female crews that finish at the top of the rankings on the Saturday are crowned the Head Crews and get to burn their boat and have their names chalked up over an arch in the college quad. (Strictly speaking, they burn a crappy old wooden boat - it wouldn't do to burn one of those nice expensive plastic boats they race in.)

On the Saturday of Eights Week, the Pembroke Men's First Eight in which I was rowing was at number two on the river, just behind Oriel who rather boringly tended to be in first place most of the time in those days. If I remember right, we had bumped up a couple of times but failed to catch them on the Friday night. We decided to try something new: "hatchet blades". Hatchets - with an asymmetrical blade that supposedly gripped the water better - had just started to be accepted and, indeed, Oriel and some of the other top crews were already using them. We had been offered to try them in a tune up race we in Nottingham but the Captain had decided that we shouldn't scupper our chances in that race by changing something at the last minute. A wise choice had it been an important race but now, here we were, with the same dilemma. This time we chose to try them out for the very first time.

What the others in the crew were not aware of is that I had blacked out during the day. It is the only time I have ever fainted. I just put it down to nerves. But when I was in the boat, pulling for all I was worth, I could tell something was up. I felt incredibly weak and it seemed that all I could do was just move up and down the boat with the rest to avoid spearing the guy in front in the back with the handle of my oar (or being speared myself, for that matter). I felt like I was letting down the others, not to mention myself. That evening I felt an exhaustion I had never felt before, like I could hardly keep my eyes open.

A few days later I tried rowing again, this time in an Oxford City Four that was headed for Henley Royal Regatta. This time I couldn't even row easy ("light pressure") and I had to ask them to row me back to shore. I went to see a doctor whose words I remember exactly: "If I were a betting man," he said, "I'd say you've got Glandular Fever". Glandular Fever or Mononucleosis is also known as "The Kissing Disease" as it is easily passed by saliva. I don't know where I got it from because my girlfriend at the time was fine (maybe she was immune) but it's something that could even be transmitted by sharing water bottles which was common enough.

A test confirmed the doctors prognosis but the symptoms soon made it clear beyond any doubt. I spent at least a week with my glands completely swollen and almost unable to swallow food. It wasn't nice but it was nothing compared to what was to come.

Some people seem to bounce back right away - in fact, the same thing happened to another guy in the crew some months later (no, we didn't kiss) and he was able to resume training within weeks. I felt listless, lethargic and suffered from panic attacks where my heart rate would start racing for no reason as well as sudden, non-negotiable needs to sleep immediately. The panic attacks made me susceptible to blow ups, where I would fly into a rage. I discovered that smoking a cigarette helped calm me down and this is when I started smoking albeit it one a day to begin with. I found that the fatigue would come in waves and I was convinced that their was some psychological element to it, as if just worrying about it happening was enough to make it happen. This didn't make it any less real or any easier to deal with (if not completely the opposite).

It took months and months to get better - even a year later I was still suffering from it. I was now starting my final year at University which would determine 100% of my final results. My mum did me a great favour without knowing it at the time: her suggestion that I should take a year out of University to recover made me very determined to finish my degree on time, but it wasn't easy. The only long lasting casualty was my fitness. I felt cheated of all the hard work I had done to get so fit and I couldn't bring myself to go through it all again. With hindsight, I think that this attitude was very immature and self-pitying. On the other hand, the way that I had got to that point was through gruelling training which I saw as a necessary evil, thriving only on winning competitions. As soon as the reward was removed and I no longer had a coach cracking a whip over my back, it was easier just to slip into a more "normal" lifestyle. In any case, it would have happened sooner or later. It is a classic pattern: as soon as the results no longer justify the investment - something that comes to all but the professionals at some point or other - you drop out and focus on other aspects of your life like building a career and a family. So I shouldn't kid myself that things would have turned out much differently had it not been for Glandular Fever.

Now with what I have read about fatigue and Tim Noakes' Central Governor Theory - that fatigue is something manufactured by our brains, not something physiological - it is interesting to think about that kind of post viral fatigue I suffered from all those years ago. It seems like it is something psychological but, equally, it is just as insurmountable as the fatigue you feel while you are running the last few kilometres of a Marathon. The question is why is the brain telling us to slow down and what can we do to temper it?

Minggu, 04 Maret 2012

Week 1 / 7

I'd forgotten how time consuming Triathlon training was compared to Marathon training. Even "just" for a Half Ironman, there were weekend sessions along the lines of 3 and a half hours on the bike followed by a two hour run. I told Jonathan that I wanted to do the bare minimum (in terms of time) to be able to complete the Half Ironman but without worrying too much about the time. The basic shape of the training is a couple of weights sessions a week, a couple of swimming sessions (that I have decided to make purely technical for the moment), a couple of hard sessions of series on the bike plus a medium intensity run, a long ride and a "brick" (bike + run) at the weekend. So, notably, no running series which I am convinced is what has made me so much faster lately. Given that I am (perhaps unwisely) trying to get a qualifying sub-38 minutes time in a 10K race the weekend after the Half Ironman, I think I will have to slot some in towards the end.

The training went reasonably well this week: I did series of 10 by 4 minutes and 8 by 5 minutes at my anaerobic threshold on the bike. I don't feel safe doing this on the road so I do it on the turbo trainer or on the spinning bike. The medium intensity run was only half an hour after a 20 minute warm up and this I did without too much strain at 15.5 kph. These days I am finding it hard to motivate myself to train outside, especially when I can watch an episode of The Wire when I train indoors. On Saturday afternoon, after the second set of series on the bike, I started to feel quite ill, with no appetite and no energy. I think I was fighting off a virus that has laid half my household ow this week. I felt better when I woke up on Sunday so I set off on my 3 hour cycle ride. But I noticed that my heart rate was some 10-15 beats higher than it would normally be riding at that intensity. If I stuck to my prescribed heart rate of 123 bpm, I would have to go along at a crawl. I took this as a sign that I was still not 100% and decided to bin the session. It's always hard to do this because you immediately feel better and then spend the rest of the day wondering if you should have continued after all. Having said that, I think it was the right decision. Hopefully I will be better tomorrow and I can commute to work on the bike to compensate a little.

Lesson 2: High elbows

This time the focus was on keeping my elbows high during the recovery, with my forearm hanging down vertically towards the surface of the water. I tend to have more problems with my left arm - probably because it is the weakest and perhaps also because I breathe to the right. I found that I had to really think about rotating the shoulders (and hips) and almost doing a "monkey"gesture to ensure my hand cleared the water. We focussed on making sure that I was pulling my arm from the water using the elbow - otherwise I tended to drag it out of the water making a bit of a splash - and also on finishing the stroke completely.

We also went over the Early Vertical Forearm from lesson one. Rather than tilting the hand downwards, the idea was to think of "reaching over a barrel" - this rotation causes the elbow to rise up and you end up moving your body past your hand rather than scooting water backwards. A drill to get this point home was to lie in the water in the "superman" position and make little figures of eight with my hands: this little movement (the catch) was enough to move me forward, albeit very slowly.

Next week we will work on turning the 2 beat Total Immersion kick into more of a 6 beat kick.

Selasa, 28 Februari 2012

Lesson 1: High elbow during the catch (Early Vertical Forearm)

I promised I would write some more about swimming, so here goes.

I had my first swimming lesson in a long while today. According to Luis, my swimming coach, I've improved a lot in the last couple of years which is always nice to hear. I keep my body in a nice straight line and don't scissor kick (so much) any more. So today we worked on some other aspects, namely the pull.

I normally pull myself through the water by reaching down to the bottom of the pool in a circular movement, much like a water turbine. What I should be doing is keeping my elbows up, anchoring my hand always in the same horizontal plane and lifting my body past my hand. The exercises we did were based on accentuating the "catch" by tilting the hand downwards at the wrist and then pulling directly backwards; hand paddles helped to make it even more explicit. I definitely noticed that I was more effective at transmitting my work into forward movement which is, I suppose, what it is all about. When I was doing it right, my forearms were vertical during the pull. This way, the forearm as well as the hand act together as a bigger paddle.

I always have troubles keeping my elbows up both in the water as well as during the recovery. I guess that it feels more natural or even efficient to be lazy about it. If one imagines being a soldier hauling himself through a tunnel just wide enough for his head and shoulders to fit through then it seems obvious why the position of the elbows is important (I expect this is why the style is called "crawl"... doh!). Swimming is all about making your profile as small as possible (with the added difficulty that you haven't got a floor to grab or to support you).

Of course, you should know by now that I have a gizmo to help me with keeping the elbows up. I actually bought it ages ago thinking that it would help keep my elbows up during the recovery, but I think the idea is actually to keep your elbows up during the pull. You wrap these weird looking things (mine are in Japanese to add to the weirdness factor) around your arms and find that, if you don't keep your elbows up, they fall off. Maybe I will dig them out again.
I remember this whole subject coming up in my Total Immersion class, just under two years ago. We were encouraged instead to put the arm in the water already pointing down at about 30 degrees so that it was already primed to "catch" the water and to help keep the hips up. We were told that keeping the elbow high during the catch (the Early Vertical Forearm or EVF) was something only elite swimmers could do effectively without getting injured... I found a whole discussion of the Total Immersion take on the Early Vertical Forearm here.

I get the feeling that there is no one single school of swimming technique that gets it all right: I think I am going to have to mix and match. If I can just get that feeling of working together with the water rather than against it, I might actually end up liking swimming...

Senin, 27 Februari 2012


As you can imagine, I was a little stiff for a few days after the Marathon, having to walk downstairs one step at a time, etc. Whenever I read articles in running magazines about what to do after a Marathon and how to "recover", I thought "I don't care about what happens after". But I've started to think of it more in terms of "adaptation" instead of "recovery": that is, your body has to rebuild itself after the damage inflicted and hopefully does so in a way that is better suited for future battles (the training effect). Thought of in those terms, you might as well try to reap as much of a reward for the hard work as possible.

The day after I decided to do a really light swim for 15 minutes, pedal easy for another 15 and walk on the treadmill with an incline for the last 15 minutes. Just enough to keep the legs moving but without any chance of inflicting further damage. On Tuesday I did 45 minutes on a spinning bike and 60 minutes on Wednesday. On Thursday I thought it might be a good idea to do some weights. When I am training normally, the pattern seems to be speed-weights-speed-long-weights. Even though you often feel stiff after weights (usually 48 hours after), it seems more of a recovery session - or should I say "adaptation session". I often feel tired going into the weights session but feel less so the next day. I like to think that the muscles are ready to rebuild themselves after a speed session and the weights remind them to build themselves strong. It's probably a load of crap but there may be some truth in there somewhere. Anyway, the weights session was good and I was able to run for an hour the next day without any problems. At the weekend I went for a 2 hour ride on the tri bike.

More than physical recovery, it has been mental recovery. I've enjoyed a week of making up my training as I go along and eating (and drinking) without worrying too much about my weight. Amazingly, the day after the Marathon I was several kilos heavier than I had been in the run up (must be all that pasta) so now, you can imagine... Anyway, I think it is good to start a new training cycle with a bit of excess weight: in the end, I'm sure it helps maintain energy levels and avoid injury. In any case, my body has to "reconfigure" itself for the triathlon. After all these months of focusing on the Marathon, the modest arm muscles I grew for the Ironman have fallen off.

Now I am just waiting for my training program to take me through to the Half Ironman in Marbella on the 15th of April.

Selasa, 21 Februari 2012

What now?

I sort of feel as though another chapter has been closed: first there was the Ironman and then there was "breaking 3 hours in the Marathon". So much so, that I sent my second volume of blog posts off to Blog2Print to be converted into another book.

I was thinking about what I said the other day about tending to chip away at what I am worst at and I realized that it wasn't completely true. What I am worst at is swimming. There is a kind of barrier for me, below which I am just not even interested in trying to get better, I am so bad. You can only do so many things in life so you have to draw the line somewhere. I'd love to be able to play the drums, for example, but I've never got above that barrier to entry. In the Marathon I very nearly got stuck there, at one Marathon at just under 4 hours. It was the challenge of the Ironman that contextualized the Marathon and made it seem an attainable goal.

Swimming, on the other hand, is just above learning to ski on my scale of things to master. I can see that it must be great fun to be able to ski well, but I can't be bothered to go through the "being crap at it" bit, during which it really doesn't seem so much fun to me: I liked it more when I was completely out of control. I should be good at swimming because I have good aerobic fitness, I am tall and I have big hands and feet. I can even learn good technique if I put my mind to it (as I did in rowing). I just have to want to.

A friend of mine commented that I rarely, if ever, post anything about swimming. It is a third of a triathlon, after all. On the one hand, the benefit of swimming faster in the scheme of an Ironman or even a Half Ironman is marginal at best but, it has to be noted that almost all of the best triathletes started off as swimmers. Perhaps that answers to some extent the original question that prompted the creation of the Ironman event: who is fitter - the best runner, the best cyclist or the best swimmer?

So I'm thinking that I might try to make swimming faster my next goal. The next competition I have lined up is ICAN Marbella Half Ironman in April. I'd like to turn up in good enough shape to comfortably finish it and to put my new bike through its paces, but I don't care about beating my best Half Ironman time (which I did on a much flatter course). Rather than plough up and down the swimming pool on my own, doing exercises the point of which I don't appreciate and no doubt am doing incorrectly, I thought I would focus on technique and do all my swimming sessions with a swimming coach present. I'm lucky enough that my work has a gym with a swimming pool and good coaches available, so I should really take advantage. I've long been jealous of those people who seem to effortlessly glide up and down the pool so why not try to be one of those people?

I promise to post more on swimming as I find out more...

Some photos from Seville Marathon

Senin, 20 Februari 2012

Seville Marathon post mortem

As you can see I was 50th in my age group (I would have been 20th if I had been born just two months and a day earlier) and in the top 200 overall out of 5,500. Not bad!

Here you can see how my Marathon times have been improving. To make it a little bit more realistic, I've added in a dotted line to show what my expectations at the time were. The disappointments and surprises have got smaller and my overall time has got faster.

The dotted line is what I was aiming for; the solid line is what I achieved
I didn't go by GPS during the race but it is a reasonably good tool for post race analysis. I've plotted two graphs here: one is of my average heart rate per kilometer (against the theoretical optimum) and the other of my average pace per kilometer. To conserve brain power, I decided to follow a very simple strategy in the race. I ran the first half keeping my pulse as close to 163 bpm as I could and then I tried to maintain the same pace for the second half, knowing that my pulse rate would naturally climb as a result of fatigue. What is interesting to see is that my pace started to go a bit off the boil in the second half and in just the same places where my heart rate was a bit below the theoretical limit. Once I decided to grit my teeth for the final 7 kilometers, my pace started increasing every kilometer as did my heart rate over the theoretical limit.

Now this theoretical limit is based on my maximum pulse rate (191) and statistics gathered by my trainer from optimal (personal best) performances of hundreds of runners. Alternatively, you can base the same analysis relative to the anaerobic threshold which, in my case, is at 178 bpm. This paints a different picture as you can see below.

So I think there are two potential sources for a little improvement. The first is to go back to running to my heart rate in the second half of the Marathon, as it is a more reliable (and immediate) guide than pace. The second is that, while I don't know if I could realistically maintain 169 bpm for the first half of the Marathon without paying for it dearly in the second, given the way I finished the race yesterday, the graph above does make it look as though there is some margin to push a bit harder a bit earlier. I can't say that I could have run the last bit of the race much faster but the fact that I held it together and was able to work at that cardiovascular level without any muscular problems gives me the confidence to think about "starting the race" earlier than 7 kilometers before the end.

Article on Minimalist Running Shoes in SporTraining

The article I wrote on Minimalist Running Shoes will be out any day now, in the latest edition of SporTraining. What could be better than to have one of my heroes on the front cover.

Minggu, 19 Februari 2012

Seville Marathon 2012 / Maratón de Sevilla 2012 - race report

The hotel was surprisingly quiet at 6:30 when I went down for breakfast. I had what I usually have for breakfast plus a couple of gels and a red bull for good measure... It doesn't make sense to me to eat something "special" on race day. I had time to go back to my room and watch an episode of The Wire before going down to meet my friends. I started to get slightly worried when I realized that they were still faffing about with their bags with only ten minutes to go before the start, so I took my last couple of pre-race gels and started running on the spot to warm up. It turned out that the Marathon was actually starting at half past nine, half an hour later than I had thought! Even so, I didn't really get much of a chance to warm up and we had to fight a little to squeeze in near the front of the start. In the end, the start was so chaotic that I lost all contact with the others so might just have well done my own thing!

The first couple of kilometers were a bit fraught but I figured that there were plenty left to be able to make up some lost time. I concentrated on keeping my heart rate at the magic 163 bpm level for the first half of the race. This got me to the halfway point in a time of 1:27. It was nice, for once, to know that the balloon marking the 3:00 Marathon pace was safely behind me. The first half went by almost without incident but, just as I passed the 14 km marker, I felt a worrying twinge in my right hamstring. It had been bothering me ever so slightly in the last few training sessions and I thought "OK, so you are going to be the f€&@er that bites me at 35 km". I decided not to waste precious mental energy thinking about it until then.

I felt pretty good at the Half Marathon point considering I had 21 km at about 4:05 per km in my legs. I thought to myself that this second half would only hurt as much as a stand-alone Half Marathon. Then something unexpected happened: I caught up with David Serrano. Serrano was debuting in the Marathon but there were high hopes for him to run a fast time (sub 2:50). He told me that he had already hit a bit of a wall and that he was going to play it safe. I wish I had been that sensible the first time I ran a Marathon: it is to much to ask to be able to run what you are capable of on the first attempt. I decided to press on at my own pace - when I slowed at the 35 km mark, perhaps David would be there to help pull me along. I took heed from what he said and decided to run the second half a little more conservatively, just in case. I never really found a group to run with and I am really picky about who I tail: not too slow, not too bouncy, not too heavy footed. I found one guy whose rhythm I liked but he seemed to find my presence behind him annoying as he started weaving from side to side, as if we were in contention for a place on the podium. Once my heart rate had steadied I made a push and left him behind (I would have been a good wind break for him, had he kept up).

Kilometer 35 was approaching and this time I was ready for whatever kind of obstacle it was going to serve me up. I thought that this was going to hurt as much as a flat out 7 km race and switched to my locomotive breathing style. I don't know how fast I was running because I had stopped pressing the lap button on my watch and I didn't even care to know what my pulse rate at this point was. I didn't even care too much what time I did, I just wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. I remembered a phrase the taxi driver the night before had said, "Para presumir, hay que sufrir" - "In order to boast, you have to suffer".

By this point in the race, it was showing 18 degrees on the thermometers. Even so, I had almost enough to drink with my two little bottles of isogels - I only took a small cup of Aquarius (pronounced here "Aquario") on two occasions. I didn't need any salt tablets or a mega carbo-load before as it turned out. Good to know for next time.

My pulse started to creep up an my breathing became more labored but muscularly I felt on top of the situation. I was passing a steady stream of people and working out in my head that all that was left was the equivalent of one series of 15 minutes at my anaerobic threshold and so on.

Finally, we entered the stadium and all that was left was half a victory lap an then my prize: a sub 3 hour finish time. As the clock came into view I realized that I could get just under 2:55 so I made a final effort and then it was over. Very chuffed with the result. More than the time, it was the satisfaction of a perfectly executed training plan and race strategy: in the end the second half was only a minute slower than the first.

Sitting outside on the grass, waiting for the others, I inspected the damage. My feet looked okay and the Compeed plaster - although it had stuck to the sock - had protected my foot from the beating. Practically no blisters, just a cut on a toe from a neighboring toenail was all.

Back in the hotel, I went for lunch in the restaurant with views of the finish line. I found it inspiring to watch all these people, each with their own story, their own suffering and their own supporters, struggling past. Now I feel I have tamed the Marathon (for now) I can see the beauty of it.

Limping with both legs

2:54 in Seville Marathon! Broken 3 hours at long bloody last! Race report to follow soon...

Sabtu, 18 Februari 2012

Seville Marathon 2012 pre-race report

I've been continuing to get blisters on my foot this week, even after running only 30 minutes, so I decided to take action, risky action. The problem seemed to be coming from an island of hard skin that was causing the neighboring skin to ruck up. I decided to do something that is not usually advisable two days before a Marathon: I peeled it off. The skin underneath was too virgin to stand up to the rigors of a full Marathon, so I stuck a Compeed plaster on top and - touch wood - it seems to be holding up.

The logistics of this Marathon couldn't be easier. Seville is just a couple of hours away from Madrid by train - I took it as a good omen that the train departed from platform 7 and my seat was 7a in car 7. My hotel is actually in the Olympic stadium where the race finishes (although it would have been nice at the price I'm paying if they had reserved the room with a view of the track as I had asked for...). Just as I was checking in, a group of huge guys in sports kit came in - I thought, these guys don't look like Marathon runners. In fact, they weren't, they were a rowing crew from Czechoslovakia.

The expo, just around the corner (if the girl in reception hadn't sent me the opposite way round the outside of the stadium!), is noticeably more "cutre" (naff) than the one in Valencia. I bought some Wright socks which will hopefully put an end to this nonsense with the blisters (don't worry, I won't wear them for the first time in the Marathon!). Annoyingly, the t-shirts in my size had already gone - after 27 editions, you'd think they would have worked out the system of asking people to specify their size in the inscription form. In fact, as it is a vest rather than a t-shirt, medium may be a better size for me after all.

Anyways, it's all about the race tomorrow, these are just details but they are the sort of thing that make the difference between people choosing to run one Marathon or another. I hope the event itself is a little more professional.

So now I'm off to meet my recently acquired friends for the Last Supper of pasta (which I won't be eating again for a while). Then it's bed and... Well, you just have to log in again tomorrow to see how it went; I have to do this thing!

Jumat, 17 Februari 2012

A day off

As the kids are off school for half term, I thought I would take a day off work to spend some time with them (and to tear them away from the telly). For most other kids in Spain, half term doesn't exist, so it was a good opportunity to hit the slopes just north of Madrid, which are normally so crowded at weekends it's a wonder why anyone bothers going there at all. We spent most of the afternoon sledging and I began to get quite tired from schlepping up the hill and from the thinner air at altitude (about 1,800 meters). Still, it was probably good training.

While I was driving home I remembered an episode from my training for a Half Ironman in 2010. It made me realize just how crazy I was, all the more so for not thinking much of it at the time. We had a long weekend break in las Palmas (in fact, it was while we were there that I learned of my friend Neil's death). Determined to stick to my training one morning while my wife was working, I hired a bike-rickshaw and set off with the kids on the back seat and me pedaling at CEXT (pulse rate of 123 bpm). You can imagine that we were going along quite a lot faster than those bikes are really designed to go. At first it was fun, I suppose, and we were all laughing. But at some point, the top corner of the rickshaw frame caught a low hanging tree and stopped us dead in our tracks - my eldest son banged himself on the saddle and got a nasty shock. If that wasn't enough, I got into a game of chicken with a hoodie on a BMX and ended up in a swearing match with him which he sensibly backed out of, pointing out that my behaviour wasn't appropriate in front of the kids.

Reading back over what I've just written makes me feel quite embarrassed about it and I very nearly deleted the whole post. I've come to realize that if you have to make that sort of effort or sacrifice to squeeze your training in, it isn't worth it. The problem I find is that it is easy to fall a little bit further into that trap each day without realizing it, rather like what happened to me some weeks ago when I got all stressed out about my training and decided to cut back. Now if I had some gadget which told me I was pushing it, I might actually listen.

Rabu, 15 Februari 2012

Lactate test

What better way to spend the evening of Valentine's day than to do a lactate test? As last time, the protocol involved running 4 series of a kilometer around the track at a prescribed pace. Rather than relying on a GPS watch, the trick was to make sure I passed a cone every time the watch "beeped". The first two kilometers were run at 14 kph (conservative Marathon pace) and the second two were run at 15 kph (ambitious Marathon pace). Even if the numbers don't mean a lot to you (they don't to me), it is interesting to see the improvement since the test I did just prior to running Valencia Marathon:

Pre Valencia (November 2011)

Speed (kph) Lactate (mmol/L) Heart rate (bpm)

14 1.7 155

14 1.7 158

15 2.7 167

15 2.9 166

Pre Seville (February 2011)

Speed (kph) Lactate (mmol/L) Heart rate (bpm)

14 1.2 153

14 1.4 149

15 2.3 159

15 2.2 160

Pre Getafe (January 2011)

Speed (kph) Lactate (mmol/L) Heart rate (bpm)

15 3.2 158

15 2.2 159

16 3.9 166

16 4.4 170

 Just judging by my heart rate, there is a clear improvement: I ran the second set at 15 kph with virtually the same heart rate as the second set at 14 kph last time round. My lactate clearing abilities have also improved for what that's worth.

With all that, Jonathan reckons that I can aim for a pace somewhere between 4:05 and 4:10 per kilometer but that, in any case, I should keep a close eye on my heart rate.

Selasa, 14 Februari 2012


Rest in Peace Sushi, you were a good dog. I tried to go running with you but you would pull me along for the first half and then I would have to pull you along for the second. You had a muscular physique that would put anyone but the fittest human being to shame and it was so sad to watch you waste away. You were so noble and never complained once for your suffering. This Marathon is for you.

Maratón de Sevilla 2012 / Seville Marathon 2012

Without wanting to sound like I'm blowing my own trumpet, I'd say that if I was asked in one of those typical job interview situations what my greatest strength was, I'd probably say that it is my determination. (Of course, they usually ask you what your greatest weakness is and there is always a way to make a weakness sound like a strength, like the classic "I'm a perfectionist". In the same way, being sheer bloody-minded has it's downsides too.)

The Marathon is not really my bag, my cup of tea, my "thing". You can see that just by looking at me. I've got the frame of a sprinter, not a long distance runner. I have more explosive power than endurance. I weigh too much. But I have a tendency to plug away at things I am (relatively) bad at, the idea being that it will help me be even better at the things I am much better at. In my Maths degree I found functional analysis baffling so I took the advanced course (which I struggled even more to understand) and, in the end, I got my best scores on the functional analysis paper.

After my first Marathon I said "Never again"; the second one was a complete surprise running the second half 7 minutes faster than the first; the third was again a disappointment (not counting the Ironman Marathon). There seems to be a oscillatory pattern developing here. I've come to realize that I needn't expect a complete meltdown (like in my first Marathon) nor is it realistic to expect that I will fly to the finish line without a hitch along the way. A friend summarized it in the best way I have seen:

"Running a Marathon is about enjoying X kilometers and suffering the last 42.195 - X kilometers as little as possible; training for a Marathon is about maximizing that X"

Unlike the last Marathon I ran (in Valencia), I am not going into this one expecting that I won't have to fight like a demon at some point (hopefully close to the end). I may lose a minute or two but, as my experience in Valencia showed me, once the finish line was psychologically in view, I was able to increase my speed again. They say the Marathon is 90% mental and this is what they mean by it. I didn't hit a wall - or at least not a hypoglycemic wall - but the central governor in my brain simply decided that enough was enough and that I had better have a good reason to say otherwise. That time I didn't, not until I realized that I was still able to get a personal best time even if it was no longer possible to break the three hour barrier. This time I want to make sure I have a damn good reason and be ready to state my case when the time comes to negotiate. I've come across several accounts of Marathons which don't appear to tell much of a story when you look at the splits - perhaps the second half was only a couple of minutes slower than the first half - but when you read the chronicle, you realize that most people have to struggle at some point. Arguably, if you don't then you simply didn't run it fast enough. The trick is to judge it exquisitely so that the struggle is one that you can win.

So I'm ready to fight! I'm also in the best shape I have been in for a while. My training has gone perfectly and I have surprised myself at how fast I have managed to run my series and some of my long runs. I have also learned that I will have to concentrate very hard to make sure my running technique is good for as long as possible and that I am keeping good pace. If I let my mind wander then I will become less efficient and I will start to run more slowly without even realizing. Where I am not going to invest my mental energy is in calculating how many gels I need to take in the carbo-loading phase (I am just going to eat lots of pasta) or how many salt tablets I am going to need (I'll just drink lots of Aquarius).

This Marathon is going to be mental.

Senin, 13 Februari 2012

Blistering barnacles!

Yup, another picture of my foot, I'm afraid. That's a "Finding Nemo" plaster, by the way, so you can pretty much work out that we don't use plasters of that size very often in our household. This blister is really proving to be a pain in the foot. I think that what is happening is that, as one blister dries out and becomes a patch of hard skin, it causes the neighbouring soft skin to bunch up while I run, causing another adjacent blister. It's been nearly two week's of lancing and draining the blister and then drying it out with talcom powder. I'm starting to get a bit worried now as the Marathon is just round the corner. The blister itself isn't a problem as such: I'm more worried about subtle changes to my running gait that can occur even subconsciously in an attempt to protect the sore spot - I've already noticed a slight strain in the tendons of my other foot, no doubt due to compensating.

If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know by now that I always get some silly little worry into my head in the days running up to a big event like a Marathon. Not wanting to tempt fate, I'd say I'm more relaxed about this one than any other I have run - for example, I just realized I have run out of salt tablets and it's probably not going to be possible to get any before the race. My reaction? Bah, they probably are just a placebo anyway - when was the last time I got cramps? In any case it won't be very hot in Seville. So you see, I'm quietly confident but it would be nice just to know that the skin on my foot will hold out for the 42 kilometers.


I found out at the weekend that my favourite restaurant is closing. Juan, the owner, is retiring and with him goes the restaurant. My only hope is that Antonio, his long serving second in command, will be able to come up with something that is even just close, in the new restaurant he is opening round the corner.

As its name indicates ("Gamboteca"), it's all about the prawns... Of course there are other things on the menu, but the typical thing to order is a starter of grilled prawns and prawns al ajillo (deep fried in oil with garlic and chilli) and then to have slices of tenderloin which you cook yourself on a sizzling hot plate. Very simple but very delicious... The key is in the freshness of the ingredients which, as they do an almost wholesale trade in prawns and beef, you can be sure that what you are eating has not been near a freezer.

This is something I often ask my English friends: you see two restaurants, side by side, one has a long, elaborate menu and the other has only three or four items. Which do you choose? Most of my friends go for the one with more variety. But if you choose prawns from that menu, say, then how likely is it that those prawns have had to be frozen? How can they possibly anticipate that you are going to choose prawns that day, out of all the things on the menu? It's either that, or throw the unordered prawns out every night, which makes them very expensive. Which brings me to one of my gripes about food in the UK: prawns are considered to be expensive for this reason - but the thing that gets me is that they are thought of as a kind of "elite food" like caviar and so are just simply expensive whether or not they are fresh. Far better, in my opinion, to go to a restaurant that does a few things and does them well. In fact, I think the whole idea of ordering is bizarre: much better to just let the chef decide, as would be the case if you went to dinner at a friend's house. When I order in a restaurant, I think about how they are able to offer the food on the menu - are we far from the sea? Do enough people order for them to cover their costs? Are those fruits in season? Are they using sauces to hide the freshness of the food?

Unfortunately, the whole organic food movement has had a counterproductive consequence in that, in order to obtain organic food, it may be necessary to have it shipped from far away. Having said that, things are getting better. I've noticed in my recent trips back to London that there is a trend towards locally produced food, in season. On the other hand, probably the best (and most expensive) restaurant that I have been to in New York (Milos) has to go to the lengths of writing an essay in the menu to explain that, just because the food is simply prepared, it doesn't mean it isn't worth the shedload of dollars you are dropping on it. At the end of the day, food gets better as people's understanding of it gets better. It's a cultural thing.

There are so many good places to eat in Spain but Gamboteca will be missed. Not only is the food so good, but the service is how it should be. Only the second time we went, Juan recognized us and welcomed us back. Considering he's been working there for 20 years, that's pretty impressive, not just as a feat of memory but because he cares. Being the owner, he could quite easily leave the mundane task of waiting the tables to someone else. There is a tendency to hold professionals (doctors, architects - probably not bankers any more) in higher esteem than waiters, taxi drivers or supermarket attendants. For me it is not so much a case of what someone does but whether he or she has pride in what they do. A number of years ago, shortly after having moved to Spain, I went to the supermarket to buy some cheese. I explained to the man on the cheese counter that I wanted it to make a fondue. He spent about twenty minutes adding a dash of cheese here, a sprinkling there, sifting the concoction, smelling it - like it was a work of art. I watched, transfixed by the spectacle of someone who so clearly enjoyed and took pride in his work. If you stop and think about it, it is actually something quite rare. They say we should follow our passions but most of us stumble somewhere along the way and make do with what we have. I admire those people, like Juan, who love what they do and transmit that to you by doing it.

Kamis, 09 Februari 2012

Week 9 / 10

Hang on a minute, how can it be that time of the week already? Well, the fact is that my work is done now and there really are no more interesting (read "hard") workouts between now and the Seville Marathon a week on Sunday. It's a bit like organizing a wedding: on the day there is nothing you can do except cross your fingers, everything has already been set in motion. (As you may remember, I got married in Seville.)

I have to say that I rarely get DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) or "stiff muscles" these days but this week has been an exception. I think that the point of having the long run on Sunday following the hard series on Saturday was to make sure I ran on fatigued legs. In a Marathon, as your legs get tired, certain muscle fibers fatigue and you end up recruiting more and more muscle fibers to replace them. Normally we recruit only a fraction of all the available muscle fibers. So I think the idea is to make sure that I train these "fibers of last resort" before taking them out for a spin for the first time at the 35 km marker in the Marathon. It is also for this reason that it is important to do weights.

My weights sessions are carefully calculated not to make me bulk up but rather to increase my resistance. The number of sets, repetitions, the amount of weight and even the speed at which I lift and lower the weight are all meticulously prescribed. On Tuesday I did a session of 6 sets of 8 repetitions at 75% of my maximum - the maximum being what I could lift once and once only. To give you some idea, 75% is about as high as it goes (I seem to remember having done a session of 85% x 4 reps). In my case, this equates to a leg press of 260 kg, calf lifts of 87 kg, leg curl of 65 kg and leg extension of 98 kg. To work out these numbers it wasn't necessary to actually try to lift my maximum weight - instead a mathematical formula was used which relates weight to the maximum number of times it can be lifted to failure. It's only a formula, but my perception is that it is pretty spot on.

After my mega weights session I was even stiffer on Wednesday (particularly in the glutes which makes sitting down a bit of a pain, literally). Wednesday was The Last Hard Training Session Before The Marathon: two lots of 30 minutes at just below anaerobic threshold. As I had a work call at 9pm (a conference call with NY and Sydney!) I started the session quite late. When I train hard and late, I tend to go to sleep quite easily but then I wake up at around 2am with my mind buzzing with activity. Last night was no exception. I was very pleased with how the session went: Jonathan had said to "enjoy it" which might seem hard for anyone but a hardened runner to understand how anyone could "enjoy" running at 16 kph (16.5 kph according to the treadmill) for a total of an hour on the treadmill, but enjoy it I did. My pulse for the first half only got up to 165 bpm which is only a smidgeon above the pulse rate which I plan to maintain for the entire Marathon; in the second half, it crept up to 172 bpm by the end, still some way off my anaerobic threshold (178 bpm). It felt easy. Maybe it was helped by the fact that the heating is broken in the house so it was nice and cold. I've recently got hooked on The Wire so I watched an episode from the first series to take my mind off the discomfort. Although I am pleased to have found a solution to doing these series that, previously, I found very difficult to complete (too hot, too boring, too easy to stop), I have come to realize that there is an aspect I am not training by running them on the treadmill and that is the mental aspect. The treadmill forces you to keep up the pace and, as you get tired, you find yourself having to make a correspondingly greater effort. If you run outside, you have to concentrate on maintaining the same pace by being aware of how you are naturally slowing down over time. I noticed this last week in the third set of my three series of 20 minutes hard running: the sun had gone down and I was not aware that I was running significantly slower than the first two (and at too low a heart rate).

Without wanting to tempt fate, I have to say that the preparation for this Marathon has gone perfectly. The only "hiccough" (hiccup for American readers) was getting stressed out about having too much work work and too much training work. Here you can see how the training load has been over the last 9 weeks (bearing in mind that we are still halfway through the 9th week). The top bar chart represents the "objective load" or TRIMPs (TRaining IMPusles) equivalent, the middle bar chart is my "subjective load" based on my perception of each session and bottom chart shows how much time was spent in each zone (I = below aerobic threshold, III =  above anaerobic threshold and II = in between).