A tale of two 20s and a move to the Darkside

Originally posted on April 28, 2013 by Chris Baynham-Hughes

Avid readers of this blog (you know who you are… Mum!) will have noticed my change in tack this year. Last year my training pretty much consisted of getting out and running 10 miles for ~5 mornings per week. Aiming for the 50 miles per week and getting out, switching off on the trails worked well for me but I definitely hit a plateau performance wise and had a tough decision to make: Continue to just run to switch off from daily world and to quieten the confusion in my head, or to try something new in an attempt to break through to a new level.

The VO2 max test was a firm step towards breaking through to the next level. It came with a more scientific set of training sessions which were designed to help me achieve the following:

  • multiple gears – at the time I had one speed, it wasn’t slow, but it wasn’t fast either; I had no kick and was definitely a plodder*
  • Increase default speed – If I’m going to plod then I might as well plod quicker!
  • Improve my technique – less so from the plan, but various parts and the approach should help me work on key elements

* see Marc Laithwaite’s excellent blog for the details here

The plan pretty much breaks down into five sessions per week and, depending upon the race I have planned and how important it is to me, I’ll either include a race or I’ll substitute a session for a race. The five sessions are broadly:

  • 2* Treadmill session
  • 1* Interval session
  • 2* base run

The Base runs alternate weekly and are best performed as close to back to back as possible. One week they will be 2* 1 hour or 2*1.5 hour, the next week it will be significantly longer; e.g., this week it was supposed to be 2*4 hours and they build up to 1*8 hours + 1*6 hours.

The Interval sessions vary from warm up + 4*5 minute efforts with a recovery between each one to the same format, but 3*7 minutes or 2*11 minutes.

The treadmill runs are a pyramid and increase in difficulty each week. They are based upon your 10K pace, mine is set at 15kph for now. The format for week 1 was:

Session 1:

  • Warm up (4-6 mins at 10k – 4kph, then every minute increase by 1kph until at 10 k pace)
  • 5* (40 seconds @ 10k pace + 2kph, 20 seconds active recovery – 1% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • 5* (30 seconds @ 10k pace + 3kph, 30 seconds active recovery – 1% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • 5* (20 seconds @ 10k pace + 4kph, 40 seconds active recovery – 3% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • 5* (30 seconds @ 10k pace + 3kph, 30 seconds active recovery – 1% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • 5* (40 seconds @ 10k pace + 2kph, 20 seconds active recovery – 1% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • Collapse

Session 2:

  • Warm up (4-6 mins at 10k – 4kph, then every minute increase by 1kph until at 10 k pace)
  • 5* (20 seconds @ 10k pace + 4kph, 40 seconds active recovery – 3% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • 5* (30 seconds @ 10k pace + 3kph, 30 seconds active recovery – 1% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • 5* (40 seconds @ 10k pace + 2kph, 20 seconds active recovery – 1% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • 5* (30 seconds @ 10k pace + 3kph, 30 seconds active recovery – 1% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • 5* (20 seconds @ 10k pace + 4kph, 40 seconds active recovery – 3% incline)
  • 2 minute walk
  • collapse

After that it gets harder, with increases in the kph differences and increases in the incline.

With the exception of the treadmill sessions these are meant to be performed at specific effort levels which one can tell by looking at their HR monitor.

Since getting the plan I’ve been trying to follow it religiously. The first issue I came up against was that I simply couldn’t get my heart rate into the zones prescribed. Trying to get my heart rate to go 160 is something I find incredibly difficult. So getting into a zone of 165-171 is pretty much impossible. I also noticed that my HR monitor was giving me dodgy readings. I would have little dips, so I concluded that it must be my HR monitor rather than my ability to work hard enough.

I’ve found out a lot about HR monitors since, how the Polar straps are much better (more sensitive) than the Gramin ones and how you can make a Franken-strap from a Garmin softstrap and a Polar Soft strap – simply buy both, take the transmitting unit from the Garmin strap (comes off via press studs), take a stanley knife to the rubber surrounding the press studs on the polar strap and hey-presto, a soft, very comfortable HR strap which gives accurate readings. Happy to post pictures and more detailed guidance if people want to know how to do it. Once you’ve forked out once, new straps are ~£15 on Amazon as you keep the central Garmin unit and just put it on the new straps. Result. Of course, none of this has changed the underlying problem – whilst I was getting dips in my HR incorrectly, the zones I can get into have not changed.

I found this discouraging and I was also struggling with the constant beep of my watch or the need to check where I was. I was feeling the benefit, but the sessions were becoming more pressured and I was moving away from the reason why I run. I took the executive decision to switch to a perceived effort model. Now I realise this has huge flaws vs. the HR model, but for now it makes sense. I’ve put the perceived effort to be 1 notch above where it should be and I run much harder than I would have previously. The result is a better quality, enjoyable session which doesn’t feel like a chore. Any programme of training needs to be something one can make peace with and sometimes getting to the real end point requires the additional stepping stone.

Some of you out there may wonder what a mountain lover like myself is doing on a treadmill. I too have catcalled about the use of treadmills – why on earth would anybody want to get on one when they could just go out, no matter what the elements are doing – get out and feel alive!

The first time I actually understood the use of a treadmill was when a top marathon runner (sub 2:35 PB) explained he did almost all of his training on one – proves my point I thought, road running doesn’t float my boat either, so makes sense that the mentality is the same… then he explained; you see you can’t fake the pace on a treadmill. You can’t subconsciously ease off, adjust for the distance and back off a bit – do that and you end up falling off and having the largest sanding belt mark you’ll ever experience on your face.

Having stuck to the 2 sessions per week thanks to Mark Browse’s (10 Bridge clinic) generosity (see previous post) I’ve actually found I love the session and have seen real benefits from them. I definitely plan to continue to do them and this is how I have moved to the darkside. As of Tuesday I will actually own a treadmill (gotta love ebay for a bargain) This enables me to do the sessions when I want and also allows Laura to pop out if she wishes as I can babysit at the same time. I’m also seeing differences in my technique as the motion is pure repetition. All other elements are removed so one can concentrate on their technique. By locking in the feeling of good technique it makes it easier to transition to the trails. All in all, it’s not quite the devil’s work that I thought it was.

So back to the subject of this blog post, a tale of two twenties. This weekend saw most of Laura’s ex-uni house mates down for the weekend. So how on earth was I going to fit in two four hour runs? I compromised and planned to run the Peris Horseshoe on the Thursday and then run 6-9 am on the Saturday. Tin came out with me on the Thursday and had warned me to flog my legs in advance as he’d be doing that on the bike. With only 2 weeks to go to Transvulcania I figured that made sense anyway.

Monday saw me finally break the hour barrier by 20 seconds on my new morning run. Lots of climbing and top quality trails. Intensity all the way, but a good substitute for the interval session – the efforts are shorter (they are the hills) time wise, but more intense and more frequent over the hour duration. On the Tuesday I got most of the way through my treadmill session before an unfortunate incident with a territorial personal trainer that doesn’t understand the word patronise, but that’s a whole different story. Wednesday was a 4 mile border league race which had me under 6 minute miles average for the first time in a long long time (5:56). Hence I felt I was ready for a longer and slower day, albeit with plenty of climb. My estimation was that the 20 miles would take us 5-5.5 hours followed by a day off and then a cheeky 20 miles on the Sandstone trail.

The reality was a little different. Firstly things look different in the snow. Secondly, complacency isn’t good in the mountains. Thirdly, when you can only see 15-20 feet it’s easy to get disorientated! At the top of Elider Fawr the rocky stumble was in very poor visibility and a world away from the snow covered top I’d encountered a few weeks earlier. As we came off the top I felt we were descending too much too soon and thus thought we were on our way to the road and Crib Goch. A quick turn sorted that out and we hit the trail again – phew! A good 40 minutes later we got to the fence line… hang on, there isn’t a fence line on the Eastern flank!

The GPS track is a tale of comedy and woe. A spider of loops and criss crosses over the long peak of Elider Fawr. I pride myself on knowing where I’m pointing but this time I was put in my place as we’d actually been going around in circles. We’d been getting progressively wetter and colder and we had to stop to put on more gear. We managed to get out of the wind and re-group mentally. Second time around we got straight off and followed exactly where we’d been 50+ minutes earlier and skirted around the ridge to Y Garn, running faster to generate some heat.

It was no big deal, Martin and I both wanted to catch up and test kit configurations out pre-Transvulcania, so the purpose of the day was less about speed of traverse or recce of route, but it was frustrating and embarrassing. As such to do it again would just be careless. Coming off the top of Y Garn it started to look a bit unusual. Coming off a top I thought it would be impossible to get wrong I checked the GPS track. I navigated us around to the GPS and we continued our descent. It finally looked familiar again, only it looked a bit too familiar.

Since I don’t use my GPS as a guide I’d inadvertently followed the wrong end of the track and was going back the way we’d came. Up and over again we found our path. A quick double check with some walkers confirmed we weren’t on our way down to Llyn Ogwen (my original fear which had resulted in us not picking up the path correctly first time) and we were off to Glyder Fawr.

Now finding the red spot path has never been simple in my book. So we stuttered our way down until finally picking up the path and arriving at Pen-y-Pass a full hour behind the schedule we’d set in the snow a few weeks previous. Shocking!

The second half went smoothly and we soon got to the ridge line and the top of Snowdon. Nothing to see we had some home made ginger bread men I’d made with Rhys (my 3 year old) the weekend before and called it a day – opting for the path that follows the rail line rather than the proper route back. We arrived 7 hours after we’d started and didn’t even have time for a monster omelette and chips (hopefully with peas too this time) at Pete’s eats. Still, cracking day out, outstanding and amusing company and confirmed kit choice for Transvulcania. Mission accomplished.

Friday I spent stiffening up (leg wise) whilst sat behind a desk so as I started off I knew my second 20 of the week was going to be a struggle. So what was the real difference between the two? Well  as I left the sun was coming up, there was hardly a cloud in the sky and peace had descended everywhere. I made my way along the Sandstone trail and started to get a bit of speed going. I bumped into Jeff along the way and spent 1.5 hours getting to know him and the miles flew by. Three hours later I had a good 20 miles under my belt (fuelled by 600ml of water before leaving and about 100ml on the trail, no food). I felt I could have run another 10 or more if I had wanted to… just one of those great days. I won’t lie, the ascents gave my thighs a reminder of the Thursday, but it certainly loosened them up. A nice end to a good training week!

Back to it tomorrow and time to pack for the first major race of the year. I have no expectations of performance, just want to enjoy the razzmatazz of a big European style race, drink in the incredible views, catch up with other ultra running friends and generally get as far away from the confusion and inputs of everyday life. If Laura and the boys were coming too it’d be perfection wrapped up into one neat little package!

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