ARTICLES: The Professional Approach

Long ago, or what seems like long ago (it really isn't), I remember thinking to myself: "To beat the pros, you need to train like the pros, and think like the pros." Even then, though, I knew you that beating the "pros" (or let's call them "top runners") would not be guaranteed. 20 years of training of the best quality, and I still wouldn't be a Haile, perhaps not even a Garry Crossan.

That's the way of running, luckily there's much more to settle for than that.

I've only become aware over the last week how far I've strayed from the policies that gave rise to my own success in 2007, crowned with the marathon performance that I guess was the trigger for my fellow Crusader's voting me "Newcomer of the Year". No matter what I may or may not win in the future, that's probably the prize I'll cherish the most in years to come.

Why? Simple. You have full control of your level of improvement, but not over your actual results. You may never run a 4-minute mile, no matter how well you train. But if you train well, you'll get better, and people will see you improve.

The Amateurish Approach
I'm noticing a lot of young runners taking up hill running for the first time this season, like I did last year, and many have great potential.

I can't honestly claim that everything was according to plan in 2008 (I certainly over-raced, clocking up 45 races, and I certainly did not recover properly between the hill running season and the marathon).

Apart from that, though, I was happy. If a session was in my programme, I did it. If I did 5 minutes less than scheduled, I did 5 minutes more the next day, and vice-versa. I was like a clock-work, a robot.

That has gone out the window, mostly, of course, due to injuries constantly hampering me, but more so, because I've made the mistake that characterises amateur runners: Rushing back and forgetting the big picture.

Truth is, professionals don't do that. They have very specific targets, and as much as they may love to go out and do a race they like, they won't do it if they jeopardise the overall target. The big picture always comes first. My conversation with Mark Ryan was an eye-opener.

Choose Wisely
"Running 38k with a taped ankle is madness," he told me referring to Three-Peaks.

"You could have done one of them, maybe, but certainly not both," referring to me racing the Wicklow Way Trail and Three-Peaks within a 3 week period.

"You need consistency, look at this guy from my club, I've known him three years, and he's never been injured. And he keeps getting better." This is when the penny dropped.

If you do a race and you feel good enough to get back in training Friday, fine, it's no big deal and you can do a race here and there, or even every Wednesday. But if you're knackered for days after that race will cost you 3-4 quality sessions. Sessions that are guaranteed to be better for your progress than the race.

"Track runners often take a break after the Summer season, then start right back into heavy training for cross-country in Autumn, and two weeks later, they get injured," Mark said. I recognised this pattern as that of my own over the last 7 months, it was crystal-clear.

Consistency and Adaptation
I never thought of this in that way: Even if you can now take in 70km or whatever mileage in a week, if you take a few weeks off, your body won't automatically be geared into going back to that training level.

Think of it this way: Your body has not forgotten how to run 70km per week (or 120 or 150), if you've done so before, but you do need to give it a few weeks of reminders of what it was.

"Yeah man, you need to do your own thing, man," Mark said, and I knew what he was saying. It wasn't the injuries really that kept destroying my races. It's the fact that I'm not race fit, that I haven't trained properly for 7 months.

No doubt my body would love to do a race a week (it did last year during Summer), but not if I don't remind it properly how first. And that's the "forgotten step". In a way, my injuries mean, I need to teach myself to re-adapt.

I find it very easy to be positive about this, because it's an easy choice: Push on aimlessly, and I'll create an injury I'll carry around always (your body basically never forgives you certain things), push on slowly and focused, and the body will remember, and it will rebuild, and then eventually, it will start improving again. In it's own time.

The First Step
Less than 40 minutes is a waste of time. This is a mantra many of us runners carry around, because we're used to more.

"20 minutes isn't a waste of time if you can do 25 tomorrow, and then 30 minutes the day after," and again Mark was right. And I took the first step today. 25 slow minutes (believe it or not I managed only 4.55km in that time), but I felt little pain and discomfort.

I did a much longer dynamics warm-up than normal, I did a long stretch after, and I'll make this my habit from now on. So I'll push on a little bit every day again, and see where it takes me.

There's probably no great wisdom in this article, but it still took me a while (and some help) to figure out, so perhaps other injured runners out there can take it to heart and move forward with something else on their mind than the fear of relapsing into injury.