The talk at Ecclesall Library in Sheffield Libraries’ Multi Story Festival on April 6th seemed to go well, plenty of interaction and interesting questions (and a good few books sold). The photos show the audience, and myself answering questions and signing books. [For other book talks/events see here] I also called in at the excellent Outside shop in Hathersage and signed copies of my books there.
We went on to the Lakes for a spot of relaxing, and Wainwright bagging (below on Holme Fell), before going to Fred Holdsworth (Ambleside), Sam Read (Grasmere, left) and Bookends (Keswick) to sign their stock of books. It was gratifying to see that all three shops were stocking all three of my books, and say that Running Hard is selling well.
I have now been asked on two occasions to read an author’s manuscript, with a view to providing a cover or publicity quote. I don’t mind doing so, but also insist on my right to not do so if I don’t think the manuscript merits it. Recently I read Gavin Boyter’s Downhill from here: running from John O’Groat’s to Land’s End.
In the book Gavin admits to having had spells of deep depression, and also to suffering with hypermobility (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). He tells the story of seeking a major challenge and using his film-making skills to record it, and then write about it. Having made one (not especially successful) short film, he used an unlicenced quadcopter and a GoPro to make the film version of his JOGLE [see ‘The Long Run’ film trailer]. There are tales of some entertaining navigation errors, which are interspersed with good childhood memories. He also makes some personal points about running being ‘me time’ to him, and using it as a ‘brain reboot’, and his ‘life work’, as he approached his middle forties.
Reading another account of a JOGLE may not be to everyone’s taste, but I found it very entertaining. Gavin was not the first nor fastest (as he readily admits), but he did at least go down the Pennine Way and chose a pretty interesting route in many places. It is also very good on the problems faced by ultra running efforts such as this.
Originally I provided two possible quote which were something like: “Good on the realities of running (and filming on the go) a JOGLE, and also the great de-stressing benefits of it”, and ” Entertaining navigation mishaps are interspersed with good childhood stories”. They were combined in the one shown above (which is on the back cover), and also cut down to a single word quote on the book’s font cover. Happy to accept that the publicist knew best!
‘Downhill from here’ is published on 20 April. Info on the book launch at Waterstones.
Racing to the finish line and just being beaten into second place, the young athlete immediately burst into floods of tears.
As her coach, I went over to console her. “Don’t be disappointed,” I said. “There is no disgrace in coming second.”
“I am not disappointed,” she gasped through the sobs. “I am crying with delight. It is the first time EVER that I have beaten the girl who was in 3rd place!”.
I have been coaching for thirty years now (way more time than I was an athlete), and it has given me some great times, particularly since I ‘retired’ from running. My introduction to the possibility of being a coach was wrangled by a senior club member, playing on my guilt by suggesting I go on a course to see what it was all about. Strangely though, looking back now I don’t think I actually had any guilt. As an athlete I managed quite well, thank you, without a coach.
Let’s leave the ‘you weren’t good enough to NEED a coach’ argument there.
True as an assessment of my ability it was, I don’t actually subscribe to the view that you have to be at a particular performance level to benefit from advice on your training. What follows has been anonymised. Some of the people I have coached over the years may recognise themselves, but I have not named athletes as it is about the abstract rather than the particular on which I wish to comment.
I did the coach education courses, and was then thrown into the coaching mixer. So, let’s start with how athletes and coaches get together. In my case the first athletes I remember working with were the older young athletes who trained with my club down at the local cinder track. I organised group training for them and took one particular female athlete on in a more direct coaching arrangement. She became a good friend and although she has moved away we are still in touch. She also delights in quoting my aphorisms back at me, which can be amusing and can also be slightly embarrassing. You may think they aren’t listening, but some take it all in and treat it as gospel! You are the guru to them, at that age, so it is important to be mindful and not ‘banter’ too much with young athletes. There is certainly an art to coaching young athletes, and I honestly think that not all coaches are able to encompass that art.
I can honestly say I have never ‘asked’ to coach anyone, but equally can say that I have never directly turned anyone down. Having said that, some coach-athlete relationships have not worked – you should always be big enough to recognise that, and talk about it, and act appropriately if and when it happens. This also applies to an athlete outgrowing a coach. If you can see it happening (or anticipate it) then start a conversation with the athlete, and jointly work towards brokering a new arrangement that will be of benefit to the athlete.
As a coach I think it is important that you learn your trade and also develop your own style. You need a certain confidence in yourself to do that, particularly if you end up leaning towards a style that doesn’t match those you have seen before as an athlete.
There are many styles, including, for instance, coach as friend, advisor, or svengali.
My experience took a serious turn when the second group I worked with – Seniors this time – attracted a very experienced, but ageing, athlete to it. He, being married to an Olympic athlete, had been there and done that. Prior to those first sessions he was all mouth in the warm-up, and was forever asking me why he was being asked to do this and that, and what was the point of the session. All perfectly valid questions, but not ones I necessarily had the experience to answer at that time in my coaching life. It turned out that this was just nervous energy oozing out of him. After a couple of tough 400m reps, and being burnt up by his younger/fitter training mates, the Mouth was squeaking like a mouse.
I was very much finding my way, coaching-wise, with the previously mentioned first group of young athletes, but was beginning to ‘get it’ by the time the Mouth turned up. But it does remind me of the quote that is attributed to that great athletics coach Wilf Paish:
Every athlete you coach is an experiment of one.
I certainly know I was ‘experimenting’ in those early days, and have apologised to several of those very athletes when talking with them much later about it. Even much later in my coaching career there have been experiments that have been consigned to the bin marked failure.
I can remember working well with a young middle distance athlete, who also competed at high jump and wanted to move to 300/400 metre hurdles. We had successfully worked towards some very good middle distance performances, and I somehow felt I was the right coach to take on hurdles and then also high jump with her. In both cases I was not. My powers of observation, and my ability to break the two events down into their components were both limited. I found I could not then work on those components in isolation either. On one occasion the very presence of the high jump bar in a training session brought on an ‘I can’t do it’ impasse, which I couldn’t resolve. It made me realise we should quietly dissolve the hurdles/high jump relationship. Several years on, we still have a fruitful middle/long distance coaching relationship, although maturity is bringing more self-reliance to the athlete. In many cases (but certainly not all) that move to self-reliance has been the aim of my closest coach-athlete relationships – usually unstated, it should be noted.
As a coach you may have your own style, and way of doing things, but let’s not forget that you have to make allowances for differences in athletes and their way of doing things. A quote I can still remember (but not by whom) from a very early coaching course in the late 1980s was “know your athlete”, and that is SO true. Over the years I have got to know many athletes, and they have shown a huge range of positive, and some negative, personality quirks.
Let’s just look for a moment at some of the negatives. There have been those that won’t listen, or more likely appear to listen and then won’t act. This can be particularly frustrating when an athlete gets injured, pays to have physio or some other treatment, and then doesn’t take on board the advice they have just paid to be given.
How many athletes do we all know that regularly over train, despite being told that, despite breaking down, and despite being tired when it comes to competition? Then there are those that lie about what they do.
Surely the relationship is all about trust.
Equally, however much you want them to have done better in training, don’t ever lie to them when feeding times back to them.
Have you had an athlete who asked you for coaching/advice, and then went off, either overtly or covertly, to ask everyone else under the sun for their advice? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind someone seeking advice from a number athletes and coaches, but be honest about it and let everyone know that you want to use them as a sounding board, and are in fact setting your own training plan.
Finally, I have memories of athletes who just wouldn’t take their running seriously enough, and seemed to be wasting their obvious talent. Equally, I have known ones that were TOO serious, and had seemed to have forgotten the pure pleasure of training. Now I like a spot of analysis, but as an athlete it can get too serious and everything can be analysed to death. I came across an athlete recently who freely admitted that they needed a coach who would be hard on them, and swear and shout at them if necessary. It was admitted that this could produce shouting and swearing back from the stressed athlete. I knew straight away that I could not work with that (kind of) athlete, if asked to. A quote from coach Dan Pfaff gives a good feel for my take on all of this:
Know your athlete, know your coaching style, and find unique ways to get the best out of them.
When all the training is done, eventually a challenge has to be met – a race. What can you as a coach achieve at this stage? How can you help the athlete? I well remember a coach standing face to face with, and only inches away from, an athlete as she stood on the start line for a race (in front of all the other athletes) and saying to her “if you don’t get a PB then you needn’t come back to training with me again”. Was that helping or hindering the athlete? Was it some kind of personal psychology that the coach knew would produce the desired effect? You decide. I also recall being a team manager once and talking to an athlete new to track running about how she planned to run the 3000m she was going to do shortly (her first ever). She replied that her coach had said “just run like fook until you can’t run any more”. Again, probably not a technique out of my personal playbook.
I actually think there is not much that the coach can do to affect the outcome, come race time. All this shouting, suggesting that the athlete should be further up the field, should be picking it up now, making the big effort, or whatever, is rarely witnessed by athletes I work with. Being there, and making some mental notes on how things went, ready to feedback later is usually the extent of it.
Getting that feedback right is also a tricky art.
I believe that a few positive words afterwards, regardless of the relative level of perceived success is usually sufficient. Having said that it makes sense to find the time to have a frank, and two-way, discussion with the athlete at a more relaxed time and place at a reasonably short time after the event. Whatever the result, I always look for some positives for the athlete to take forward – which of course is not an easy task if things have gone particularly badly. But it IS always possible. Again, if you know your athlete you will know when they will respond to some constructive criticism (on tactics say), and also know how to motivate them to achieve the desired improvement.
So, the race is run, do you expect thanks? You shouldn’t. But sometimes at the time of a particularly fruitful spell athletes will want to thank their coach. I have had presents of wine, a meal and beer. One of the best ever was a framed photo of athlete and coach, jointly holding a coveted county trophy. But what topped it off for me was that it included one of my quotes quoted back at me.
Fantastic though all those gestures were, I think that there is a way of acknowledging what is after all a team effort that is simpler than that. For me, I am happy with a high five or a hug, with the athlete saying something on the lines of “we did it”.
Maybe even a few tears of happiness.
Sharing a ‘moment’ with friend Neil Walker, after helping him prepare for his successful Bob Graham Round quest, and helping support him on the day.
This material is reproduced from the Barnet & District AC club magazine, and first appeared (in a slightly different form) in Like the Wind magazine.
It is traditional at some athletic clubs to do a track session once a week. This photo-essay describes one such session that I coached at Barnet and District AC earlier this winter, at Allianz Park stadium, Hendon (formerly Copthall stadium). My thanks got to the athletes for agreeing to be photographed, and to my friend Dave Woodfall, whose photos they all are. [Click on any of the photos to view larger versions]
It was a mixed group of Senior athletes, whose events range from 800m, through 10k, to the marathon, taking in triathlon on the way. We started with warm-up and drills. Being Seniors they do their own drills, usually in a group, and here I am checking on any ongoing injury issues, or race results since I last saw the athletes. The session was a mid-winter one, consisting of 2 x 1200m, 2 x 800m, followed by 5 x 400m. A tough one, but one that many ‘enjoy’, partly I suspect because of the variety.After a briefing on how the session works we got going on the first long rep. There is usually nervous banter as the athletes line up, although some have already gone awfully quite in anticipation of the efforts to come.
As they come through after the first lap I call out the elapsed time on my stopwatch, whilst out of the corner of my eye trying to see who is going well on the night (and perhaps who is not). Alex is going well.
The Andies are also going well at this point, with the others chasing hard. A variety of styles, knee lifts, arm carriages and other indiosyncracies will be seen. Someone new to the group may get some style feedback, but most of these are too far gone to change!
[Memo to self: have a word with Danielle about that left arm!] Calling lap times, and probably churning out clichéd encouragement – which is unlikely to have any more depth and meaning than ‘well done’.
After each rep they may be some discussion of how it went. And apparently I often share previously heard anecdotes or give a piece of trivia to work out (got to keep minds active). Others may be off somewhere being/feeling sick.The next rep, and it looks as though Alex doesn’t trust coach as he is stopping his watch too. When the athletes are spread out I try to call the time, and then write it on my sheet (the back of on old race number) before the next athlete comes by.
After the 1200s and 800s there was a longish recovery, which allowed some story telling, jokes and what looks like a motivational speech from Alex here.O to the 400s now, and the gaps are too small to record times, so I yell them and then have to scuttle round asking them to repeat theirs to me (‘I wasn’t listening’ or ‘I forget’ sometimes coming back at me).
Nick brings the group home. We don’t have team training kit – they all have their t-shirt bounty from last week’s Watford half marathon. In this (and previous picture) you can see Karen (l) and Joe (r) testing each other.
Feel the strain. After each rep the first thought is probably to get some air into the lungs, and then to add one to the number of reps done. Most work on the addition principle rather than subtraction (ie how many done, not how many left). Remember ‘adaption comes in the recovery’.
Nicky is a very dedicated trainer, who dashes off towards the end of the session most weeks to go and coach her hockey club colleagues. Loving the look of concentration on her face. She is in the zone.
Kat has joined the group to improve her running for her triathlons. These track sessions, together with the hill work I know she has done with Horwich RMI Harriers will surely reap benefits as her tri season unfolds.
Giving feedback to Alex (left) and to Karen (below) is an important part of the coach’s role. Then it is off on the warm down for them and home for me to email formal feedback to all (incl. their rep times).
It is just possible that Karen is anticipating the next session and asking what it will be. It is also possible that I won’t remember, and have to ask someone else if they have read my advance notice!
[Next post: The dark art of coaching]n
A magazine editor* approached me the other day, asking if I would write a piece (1000 words-ish, he said) on marathon training. ‘Something that people who are new to marathon training can benefit from reading. It could be about your experiences as a marathon runner or coach, or both’, he said, generously. I have taken that brief fairly liberally.
I have been coaching for 30 years now. I took my first Assistant Club Coach course in May 1986, when I was still a bit of an athlete. In the ensuing three decades I have worked with innumerable people on their marathon training. This has ranged from being a sounding board for the athlete’s own ideas, through mentoring and guiding more specific training, right through to ‘setting schedules’ in a very small number of instances. I freely admit that I may well have screwed up with some people (ignorance, experimentation), but would be disappointed if there weren’t a couple of people who, if asked, didn’t say,
actually Steve’s coaching and advice significantly helped me achieve what I did at the marathon.
Looking back in my notes from that first coaching course, I see that by page 5 we were in to double periodisation, but we are not going there in this piece. It will just be my take on some of the basics of getting to the start line of a marathon un-injured and fit as is possible, bearing in mind individual parameters. I will also highlight specific mistakes I may have made in my own marathon training over the years.
Already as I write this I am wondering why I said yes to the editor. I originally thought I would maybe go with the basic principles of marathon training, but there is really no such thing. It does SO depend on where you are starting from (how much training history you have) and how far you want to go (what level of performance are you hoping for).
OK, lets start with, how long do you need to build up to a marathon?
The pat answer is several years, which is hardly helpful for anyone planning on running a marathon in Spring 2017. That is simply because it takes a considerable amount of time to accustomise your body to the mileage that is required over an extended period of time to give you the background to train HARD for a good marathon.
So, any shortcuts then, Steve?
Not really. The easiest mistake to make is trying to run much higher mileages than you normally run in too short a time. Therefore, the first rule of thumb is to build up the total mileage you run AND the length of the longest runs at a very gradual rate. If you have a reasonable base fitness (most people in a running club should have), then you can consider something like an 18 week build-up, counting back from the marathon date. A guideline is to have no more than a 10% increase per week. So, if you are currently running 25 miles per week, and your longest run is say 6 miles in week 0, then the most you want to do in week 1 (of the 18) is probably 27 miles total with a long run of 7 miles.
Already I am making some assumptions that will not hold true for all potential marathoners. You might be thinking,
OK what mileage do I need to aim for, and what longest run do I need to do?
Again, no one answer. Just getting around a marathon can be achieved off quite low mileages, and a lot of willpower.
If you do the 10% per week maths from 25 miles a week through to 18 weeks you would be doing 100+ miles by the end. There are several reasons why this should not be the case. Firstly, you need to taper down in the last couple of weeks. This means doing less training and having more recovery. Secondly, it is pretty well established that continuously increasing the load you put yourself under is a recipe for injury. Your mileage has to be handled carefully.
One way is to follow several weeks of increased mileage with a low mileage recovery week. I like to think of it as a sawtooth pattern – the long side of the tooth being increasing weeks, with the short (down) side of the tooth as the recovery. If this is envisaged as a sloping saw then the trend is upwards, with recovery (low mileage weeks) every now and again, followed by further build-up to a new level, starting each increase from a higher level.
Ok, I’m doing more miles, but what longest run do I need to do?
Again, sorry but no one answer. I don’t recommend running 26.2 miles in training. A simple rule might be to make the longest run equivalent to the time you expect to be on your feet in the marathon. As you will be running slower than the race in training this might be something around 22-23 miles. This might seem daunting, especially if you are expecting to run something in the 3-30 to 4 hour timeframe. But you do need to let your body know what it is in for. So time on your feet is important. If you are a ‘novice’ marathoner that long run might be a one-off. But for faster/experienced marathoners I always try to plan in at least six 20+ mile training runs.
One of those 20 milers might be a race, which I recommend being run at ‘potential marathon’ pace – ie not as fast as you can run 20 miles (in theory). Depending on your instincts I like to see marathoners doing a couple of other longer races too, maybe a half marathon and a 10 miler. But remember every race is potentially taking you away from training – a small taper and the need to recover needing to be accounted for. So the races must have a point – pace judgement, confidence, variation in training even.
In some ways those two points above can be considered the most crucial to get right. I could write a whole lot more, but think I will just mention some things you should and shouldn’t do.
Firstly, when planning your running week make sure you alternate hard days with easy days – you can’t train full tilt every day. It is definitely worth seeking regular training partners. The long runs will be hard, and will go so much better in company. Arranging to run with someone will make it happen – even on a cold and wet winter’s day, you won’t want to let that friend down. Also don’t shy away from hills in training. Although you may well want as flat a marathon as possible, the discipline of training ever hills will be good for your muscle development. It is also very important to get your food (and drink) intact right, and to ensure you get enough sleep. When you are in maximum marathon training it might be the one time in life you can eat to your hearts content!
Feel an injury issue bubbling under? Don’t try to run through it. Have a break now and get back soon, rather than causing more damage. If possible get an expert to look at the issue (there is usually one in most clubs). In fact, why not have what is called a ‘maintenance massage’ BEFORE you get injured. One way of getting injured is to run in worn trainers. So, make sure you have several trainers that you can alternate and that are all giving you good support.
Should I be just concentrating on long runs?
Well you all do some speed work at some point in the week don’t you? Well then, keep that going. If you don’t, you risk becoming a long-slow runner. Similarly with core work. Don’t stop doing it. And if you don’t do it, then start now. Having said all that, I do recommend trying to fit in a second ‘long’ run in mid-week. Once you get up to 15+ miles for the long run this can be in the 10 miles range, complementing the long run, and nicely giving you a good proportion of your mileage in just two sessions.
What, you say, does this all mean for me?
Let’s take four hypothetical marathoners and I will give a few thoughts on what training path they might take to get a result that reflects their potential, and not suffer like this guy did – Jim Peters, who fell just 150m from the finish line of the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver (and never fully recovered from the experience).
First time marathoner: very difficult to settle on a plan. It SO depends how much training you normally do. The important thing is to spend a good period of time building-up, probably over more than my suggested 18 weeks. Ensure you gradually build both the intensity and the volume of the training. In some ways it is a ‘finding out’ situation. You are unlikely to do your eventual PB in your first marathon. Use the event to see what level of training you can reach – without breaking down physically or it disrupting your domestic life too dramatically. Keep a diary so you have a record of what you have done and can adjust another time, perhaps with a coach or advisor to give an impartial view.
Improving, yet still a novice at the event: by natural progression most people will improve on their second or third marathon just by being fitter, better prepared and having a better understanding how to run the distance (which is quite an art in itself). This is the time that increasing the mileage is probably appropriate. You may well surprise yourself how much training you can do in any given period of time. Experiment with training twice a day now and again. Monitor the effect, is it actually counter-productive? Are you doing any/enough speed work? What is this track training all about – try it. You now need to know your current capability well enough to know what pace to set yourself for the marathon. Make sure you fit in a 20 mile race as a pointer for this. Run it at your expected marathon pace. Two reasons: feel what the pace is going to be like, and get feedback on how it has gone. Arrange it to be a good few weeks before the marathon. Then you have time to build in further training, and a good result is taken onwards to the race.
Have done a respectable time, but now want to go for the big one: Look back at your previous training. Is the balance right? Are you turning into a mileage monkey? As I found to my cost, the adding of more miles doesn’t always equate to better race times. Can you train smarter? It might be a good idea to cut down on mileage and increase the quality. Can you perform better if you give your body more recovery time? Organising regular preventative massage is worth considering. Don’t wait till you are feeling tight all of a sudden. One way of having both the ability and confidence to run a faster marathon is to train to improve your intermediate times. Reducing your half marathon PB might be a step towards bringing the marathon time down. Also aim to get your long rep times down in your speed sessions.
May be at or near your peak: now, you may still be able to set a better mark, but in order to do so many things have GOT to come together. You are looking for minute improvements in your preparation and performance. Analyse what you have done in the past and see how you can train even smarter. Get a coach/advisor to help you filter the good/bad practice. Possibly start the build-up earlier or from a higher point than you might have in the past. You should now know what optimum training level will keep you the right side of that thin line – between fitness and injury. Monitor your body. Give yourself good recovery, and your legs a regular massage. Work on the psychological aspect of preparation, and in particular of your approach to the actual event. Do you associate or dissociate in races? Do you need to try to improve this aspect of your preparation?
There are loads of books out there that might help you tweak your physical and mental preparation. Looking along my book shelves, I see several that helped me back in the day. “Winning without drugs” by David Hemery and Guy Ogden, “Challenge of the Marathon” by Cliff Temple, and “Training for peak performance” by Wilf Paish, are three in particular that I remember digging into a lot. All classics, but all probably out of print now.
There is so much more I could say, but let’s close with some very quick thoughts on my own marathon efforts. I improved from 3-05 in the very first London marathon in 1981 [photo left], through three years of higher mileage which allowed me to improve to 2-49, 2-46 and 2-43, before peaking in 1985 with 2-34-53.
Looking back through my diaries, and doing a few sums, made me realise three things. Firstly, that I never did particularly high mileage in my marathon build-ups (an average of 55 miles/week in 18 weeks build to the 1985 PB).
Secondly, that I now seem to be advocating much higher mileages than I ever did myself for people that I advise on their marathon training. And thirdly, that there are lessons to be learned from what I did to try to take my time down even further than the 1985 result, which was tantalisingly less than 2 minutes from the Club Record at the time. In simple terms I tried to do more miles, and hard ones at that, and became injured, meaning I didn’t start in 1986, and had a poor result in 1987, at which point I moved to other events, particularly fell running (which this blog is more often about).
* This material (in slightly different form) first appeared in the Barnet and District AC club magazine in Dec 2016, and is reproduced with permission.
The Summer 2016 issue of The Fellrunner has a fabulous picture of Jasmin Paris, taken on the last summit of her 15 hrs 24 mins Round.
It also has an article by me on the performance and its implications. A version of the article was originally submitted to another publication, but was not accepted.
When compiling the piece I contacted Jasmin and she kindly allowed me to see a preview of her account of the day (also in the same Fellrunner issue), and also supplied a couple of photos from the day, with an OK to use them at my talk at Keswick Mountain Festival.
The Fellrunner policy is that ‘copyright of material published in this magazine remains with the authors or photographers who produced them’, so I have reproduced the full article here. [The scan is in two parts, click on each to enlarge to a more readable size]
Footnote: this amazing record, plus Nicky Spinks’ double BGR, and Rob Jebb’s 2nd fastest BGR will all be added in a new chapter when my book ‘The Round: in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ goes to paperback in January 2017.