DIARY: Post-Marathon Evaluation

Today was a good day. Most pains from the marathon are receding, only the shadow cramps in my left leg remain slightly, along with overall minor soreness all over the place. Good news is that my heel pain, now ongoing for 5 months, seem to have got better! Maybe I pounded the nerve to dust, here's hoping...

Emma Strikes Again
Emma got me the final result today, and as I look forward to the challenges ahead, there's no better starting point than to look through the results. As I do, I'll look at how they have moved over the year, and I'll try to explain what it means, and what other interested runners can get out of it, and apply for themselves in order to improve their running.

Lindie Naughton has a good simple explanation of the term "VO2 max" in her new book (which I highly recommend btw), I won't steal it here, but instead will just say that it's the measurement of your body's ability to take in oxygen. The more oxygen you can take in, the more aggressively your body can burn Fat and Carbs.

To find a person's VO2 max, you must stick a mask on them and let them run themselves into the ground. Only once you workout at the highest intensity (for you) are you seeing the max intake you have.

VO2 max is measured in litres of oxygen per minute, but another figure is often preferred where you convert the litres into millilitres and divide them with your body weight.

There's been great news for me on this front, I'd go as far as saying exceptional. Normally you will never see huge improvements in your VO2 max, because, let's face it, your lungs and heart are not going to grow much after you leave childhood.

The heart is a very trainable muscle, however, and making sure your lungs are not pollutted with smoking and other dirty gases, will, of course, lead to a heightened VO2 max. Other things include training the diaphragm (I train my Diaphragm using the PowerBreathe every morning and evening) as this muscle enables you to take stronger breaths.

Likewise, any kind of breathing exercises, such as those practiced in yoga will up your VO2 figure. Emma, for instance, had problems getting her altitude machine (e.g. breathing thin air) to affect me even at a simulated altitude of 6000m because my breathing is very disciplined. Long deep breaths followed by powerful exhalation is key, but so is varying your breathing rhythm to fit intensity.

From the start my VO2 max was quite a bit above average (59.9 opposed to the average 45 figure), but this last test has shown a huge increase to 73, well under the world record 96, but in the category considered solely the realm of professionals. On the other hand, we are mountain runners, and as Askwith's doctor told him in Feet in the Clouds: "Your vitals are out of this world for a non-professional athlete." Mountains turns your heart into super-engines , simple as that.

Body Composition
When I decided to quite the drink and leave my sedentary lifestyle behind I was your average skinnie-fattie: weighting about 73 kilos (my max was 77 in the days when I thought weight training was a lifestyle, oh the waste) but with an ungainly 18% body fat (a good bit for a naturally skinny guy).

In April during my first test, three months of light training and hard mountain races had reduced me to 72 kilos and 15% body fat (now within the recommended average). Then hard training set in, and I dropped a further 2 down to 70 while body fat now decreased a good bit all the way down to 12% come July.

Finally, just before the marathon, I had dropped down to 68 kilos and my body fat percent down to 10%. If you want to be really serious about mountain running, there's no doubt that you need to drop below 10%, but as a male athlete you should attempt to stay above 6% as the speed gains from further losses are negligible and some of the fat is quite useful for fuel in long distance events (and the risk of muscle atrophy at extreme weight gains are high, so are injury risks as male's need some of the fat as a protective layer around the musculature).

The Good Exchange - Fat for Muscle!
My net loss of almost 6 kilos, and 8% of body fat in just 10 months is bordering on being too much, but luckily, I've stricken just the right balance, as our tests shows my "engine" has increased, meaning no muscle has been lost.

On the contrary, our results show that while I packed less than 16 kilos of muscle in January, my new much lighter self actually packs an astonishingly increased 20.4 kilos of muscle! Who needs a gym when running can cause you too lose 6 kilos all the while increasing your muscle bulk with 4 kilos! That's a net 10 kilo shift in a positive direction, no wonder speed will increase!

So if you're looking for cheap speed, here's a lot to be had. Bad news for me, of course, there's very little to gain from weight loss now, and while more muscle gains will be useful, increases from this side will now take much longer to manifest. The main gain has been had. What else can you increase?

Lactate Tolerance
Of course. Lactate or lactic acid as it's sometimes referred to as (this is a misnomer as I have alluded to before). Lactate doesn't actually cause you too slow down, but it shows the rate at which it happens in tests.

When we first tested me back in April, my lactate readings where poor all over the line. I was your classical jogger, or fun runner if you will, a "sandwich runner" if you're cruel: decent lactate production at low speeds (10-12km/hour), but atrocious exponential growth as soon as it increased much above this.

It's not the speed that causes the production, of course, it's the intensity, after all when I run 12km/h my heart is pounding about 148 times per minute. A guy like Garry Crossan or Ronan Guirey would probably run closer to 16km/h to have his heart work out at that rate. At that rate, though, our readings most likely wouldn't be all to different, it's just that he clocks out more mileage at that rate.

So the less lactate your body produces at a given speed, the longer we can maintain it. This is how Emma pecked me in as a 3:20 finisher in the marathon even before the race. She knew how much lactate my body would be able to take within 3 hours 20 minutes, so all she had to look at was the speed at which I produce a tolerable amount over that period of time.

Again here, we've seen great improvements, especially in the low zones. The 12km/h speed tells the best story: in April my heart had to beat 173 times to produce that speed, in July it only had to beat 163, and now, it's dropped by a whopping 15 beats down to 148bpm. With a good winter training now, I may be able to throw off another 10 beats come the new season.

Building Your Heart
As Michael McGovern told me the other day, you have to start working on your "foundation". This is really what Emma's training is all about. For all the specialised training we do, it's mostly about doing an atrocious amount of low paced running to force the body into changing into a "running machine". The specialised high intensity training is just polishing the chrome.

When my low zones drop the high zones naturally follow. Let's look at my body at 15 km/h for instance: At this intensity my heart needed to beat 193 times per minute in April (my then max), in July it was down to 189 beats (and my max increased to 196), now it's dropped down to 174bpm, so a total decrease of 19 beats per minute (less than 25 beat decrease at 12km/h, but there is a noticeable coherence here).

Adding Speed
The story is the same all over, at 13 km/h there's been a drop of 16 bpm, at 14km/h likewise 16 bpm. Add to this that I can now produce speeds of 16 and 17 km/h on the treadmill, something beyond me in April and July (17km/h). We basically seem to be adding a kilometre to my max speed for each three months. This will invariably slow down, but I expect to hit 20km/h within a few years.

And the Lactate?
Yes, the lactate is a big part of this story. When running 12km/h in April I produced 4.19mmol/l of lactic acid per minute, in July it dropped to 2.36 and then further down to 1.3 just before the marathon.

This is more than a 300% drop. We've seen less progress at the top speeds (at 14km/h I used to produce 7.05, which dropped to a disappointing 6.66 by July, before finally picking up and going down to 3.6 by October). There's improvements over the full spectrum, but the aggressive Winter work will focus on creating a bit more movement on the top speeds (14-17km/h) where the improvement has been good but not spectacular.

Fuel Tank
The way you burn fuel is also hugely important for your performance. Unfortunately, we've not been able to measure my carbohydrate burn since April, so cannot measur the improvements on that front just yet.

On the fat burning side, there's been great improvement, however. In April, all fat burning stopped once I reached a speed of 12km/h. This is a problem as it forces the more aggressive and oxygen heavy carbohydrate system into play. Today I'm still burning fat even when I run 17km/h (in fact, I burn more fat now in this zone than I did when running at 12km/h in April!).

The Conclusion
Emma works! Well, that's the easy one, but it has to be remembered that Emma provides a solid framework within which to work. Any person, regardless of fitness or talent, will improve if they stick rigorously to a well laid out plan, only the level of improvement will wary.

Are the results unusual? I cannot really tell, only base my assumption on the fact that Emma says "your body is responding extremely well to the training" and "you've outdone expectations", in other words, things are progressing faster than she would have anticipated.

Is this because I stick to the plan like a soldier, or because there is, as Mike Long put it "a latent talent" (hidden by a decade of drinking and partying). I don't know, and I am still not sure I believe that talent holds a candle to hard training. And is it even worth believing? Not really, because that automatically excludes anyone "not talented" from greatness, and what kind of attitude is that to life?

There are many other unknown factors as well, such as the infamous "plateau". If you are, in fact, carrying around a "latent talent", and all you do is activating the talent through your training, you will invariably plateau the moment you have used up the size of your talent? Correct?

Again, I don't know, but I don't believe it. I think it's just a matter of taking more precise and/or more extreme training measures into play. What I really think these training results show is the ability for the human body to adapt to anything if done over a reasonable period of time (which is how Mike Stroud and Ranulph Fiennes survived 90 days crossing the Antarctica eating 8000 calories per day but using 12000 calories per day. Thought impossible, but the human body adapted, and Mike Stroud is not an exceptional man from a genetic point of view).

The tests come highly recommended, though, and you only need to look at the portfolio of athletes they work with to know that using science will almost certainly guarantee you improvements. Only downside? Well, you'll still be the person who has to put the work in! ;-)