If you have been following me for a while you’ll know that my two main races for the year – the Wellington Marathon and the WUU2K ultra marathon, are typically slog fests that see me struggle to make it to the finish line before everyone goes home.
I train hard and run hard on the day, but it just never seems to work out. I get massive cramps in my calves, I get IT band syndrome, my lungs give out, my core collapses, I roll an ankle etc, etc, etc.
I never seemed to have a good race where I feel I have run well and put in a good performance, until this year. So what changed? How did I manage to turn this around and have two really good races?
I probably need to qualify a ‘good’ race for me before we begin. For me it’s not so much about smashing my fastest time (although that would be cool) it’s more about how well I run during the race, and how well I cross the finish line. And by how well I mean- was I actually running the runnable bits at a reasonable pace (not just shuffling along praying for the sweet release of death).
For both of my last two races I feel I ran well for most of the distance. I still walked a bit (more than I wanted) but I also walked a lot less than previous years. And when I ran, I actually ran, like a real person running, not a little old man slowly dying.
So what changed? What did I finally get right?
I changed two things this year 1 – training 2- racing strategy
TLDR What works - Not being stupid - Running twice a day - Periodization - Lots of hill work - Soaking in bath salts before a race
So let’s look at training first.
Previously my goal in training was to run as long as possible. To really crank out the miles, run more than everyone else, run harder than everyone else, to really put in the effort. I understand hard work and my body tends to respond well to it. But it also takes its toll.
I was constantly sore, constantly dealing with planta fasciitis, sore ankles, sore knees, sore back, sore lungs. My calves would cramp as soon as they spotted a hill in the distance. I just wasn’t getting anywhere, so it was time to change my training strategy.
So at the beginning of the year I mapped out some new training blocks, starting with bulk mileage.
For one month I tried to run twice a day (morning and evening). 20kms in the morning and 20kms in the evening. Weekends were off, with no running at all to allow for recovery. As things turned out Wednesdays were often either a short day with only one run, or a missed day with no running, due to work commitments, weather etc.
If I skipped a day I didn’t panic or try to make up the time. I just accepted the extra rest and moved on.
In the first week I succumbed to my usual habit of trying to beat my previous time each time I went out. I quickly realised this was not sustainable, and decided to just do my circuit aiming to finish in under two hours.
I managed to keep this up for the whole month (although the last few days were really hard) and by the time it finished I was more than ready for a break. I was exhausted.
So I took a whole week off with no running or training at all.
The next month was dedicated to hill work. Every run was a hill run. Again I ran every week day, but only once a day this time.
About 2kms from my house is a hill that has a gradient that is just steep enough to run. Any steeper and I probably wouldn’t be able to run it. It goes for just over 1km, then flattens out briefly before climbing for another km.
So I used the first 2kms as a warmup, and when I got to the bottom of the hill I set off at a steady pace and tried to hold that pace all the way to the top of the first climb. Once there, I took just long enough to have a quick drink and then turned and headed back down again.
But not slowly. I ran down as if it was a downhill section in a race. I pounded down to the bottom as quickly as I reasonably could. Then I repeated the process until the day’s session was completed.
Then I’d run once more to the top, and carry on up the second climb. This would take me to the top of the hill and the road that would eventually lead back to my house after another 4kms or so.
The first week I ran three hill repeats on the first climb. The second week I built up to five hill repeats on the first climb. The third week was three hill repeats going up to the top of the second climb – so 2kms up and 2kms back down, three times. And the fourth week was five repeats of the full climb.
For each session the last hill repeat was a max effort job. I went as hard as I possibly could so that I was staggering to a stop at the top of the hill looking like I was about to have a heart attack at any moment. In fact there were some days when I was sure I was having a heart attack as I staggered to the top and reached for my water.
By the end of the month my quads were rock hard and I was running up and down the hills with relative ease.
Side note – in the Wellington Marathon there was a section where I was running down on the return leg. I noticed that I was running downhill and realized that meant I had been running uphill the last time I passed this way. I hadn’t even noticed that I was running uphill at the time, and certainly hadn’t slowed down for it at all.
At the end of the second month I took another week off to recover (and was grateful to do so). And then when I returned, I continued with the hill circuit, which gave me a good mix of uphill and downhill along with some flat running as well. I typically did about 16kms per run and I tried to run every weekday. I sprinkled in a few other runs and some treadmill time as well.
My taper for the Wellington Marathon was quite a bit longer than I had planned. Work got in the way a bit and I ended up skipping some runs. But that just meant I was a lot hungrier to run on the day.
I had planned on doing a bunch of strength and mobility work, but there are only so many hours in the day…
So the one month training blocks worked really well for me. I’m going to shorten them down a bit though to keep things fresh.
So the next block will be two weeks of running morning and evening (once the weather clears up a bit). That will be followed by hill repeats for two weeks, and then back to the slow circuits for another two weeks.
I’ll also be doing a bunch of strength work and mobility work, mostly around my ankles, just to round things out a bit.
One thing I noticed after my week off in between training blocks, was for the first run back, my legs felt like lead. I felt clumsy and slow and lethargic. Usually the second run was the total opposite. I was fast, the running was easy and I felt really good.
I used that experience to NOT have too long off before the race. I typically took a few days off and then went for a short and easy 5km run just before race day, so that the race would be run number two.
That brings us to my new racing strategy
My old strategy that saw me complete every race, but not at all well, was to go out hard from the gun and just keep going for as long as I could. That was typically 30kms. After that I’d just grind out the remaining distance, running and walking (more walking than running) until I got to the finish and collapsed.
It’s not a smart strategy, but then, no-one ever accused me of being smart. Part of the problem is that’s just my personality. I do this with everything I try. I go at it full noise and give everything I have, right from the start.
But there is a better way.
For the Wellington Marathon this year I decided to start really, really slow. Then build up to a comfortable running pace and then just hold that pace for the rest of the race. And that’s what I did.
I started slow and over the first 5kms built the pace up to my goal pace. I was running quite a bit slower than I wanted, but I didn’t worry about it. I just took my time. It seemed to work really well, and although I walked a bit at around the 37km mark, I was still able to get back running again after about 500 metres and run all the way to the finish.
My finish time was a bit faster than last year, but not outstanding. Nothing to write home about. But what was different was how I felt after the race. I didn’t feel overly fatigued or exhausted. In fact I felt really good.
I was a little stiff the next day, but nowhere near as bad as I had been in previous years.
For the WUU2K ultra marathon my strategy was similar. Instead of pushing hard over the first half of the course to try and ‘bank’ as many miles as I could, I took things really easy. I walked way more than I had in previous years in the first half of the course. So at the halfway mark I was still feeling like I could run, and run well.
Even towards the end of the day when I was presented with runnable terrain I was able to actually run it without dying or cramping.
In fact in both races this year I had no issues with cramping at all. That may be due to the change in strategy or it may be due to something else I tried, and will continue to do I think.
You may have heard of having a soak in a bath full of salts as a recovery aid after a long run or a race. I’ve done it myself and it does seem to work for me. Whenever I do this, the next day I feel a lot better than I feel when I don’t have a good, long, salty soak.
So I thought – what if I had a good long, salty, soak BEFORE the race? Would that load my muscles up with all the salts they need to not cramp whenever I have to go uphill?
So for two nights before both races I had a good long soak. It can’t do any harm right? And it didn’t. As I said previously, this was the first time I had no issues whatsoever with cramps. Not even a hint of cramping.
Given that in my first ultra my calves cramped so badly that I couldn’t actually move – just metres away from an aid station – which was the final cutoff point, and I had just a few minutes left before being cut. I never want to feel that sort of agony again.
That’s what I changed, and it seems to have worked out really well for me. So I’ll continue on and evolve the strategy. But I think I have finally found what works for me. If you think this might work for you, give it a crack and let me know how it works out.
Do you have other training or race strategies that work well for you? If so let everyone know in the comments section.
If we all share, we all grow.