TRAINING: Tracking the progress

Before starting my Snowdon previews on Monday (tomorrow will be all about the Europeans), I had my final serious session to worry about.

I had scaled down my original plan a bit moved the extra volume forwards and instead taking less of a risk with my session.

Friday evening had contained only a brief easy 32-minute hill run and I followed that up with another 33-minute hill run Saturday morning with Aoife. After having breakfast I headed back up to the Charlesland track in Greystones/Kilcoole for my redesigned session: 2x1 mile @ 10k pace with 2:00 float followed by 3 sets of 5x15seconds peaking sprints (full out sprints) with 30 sec floats.

I warmed up for another kilometre as the morning's run was almost a few hours away and did my dynamics stretches before starting off. I didn't make any readings on the watch focusing instead of running by feel and ensuring I didn't work so hard that I would need serious recovery. This was a tune-up session only.

The first still felt reasonably ardeous as my legs were clearly tired after the week and the two hill runs it had done within the last 16 hours so I decided to ease off further on the second one, still not looking at the clock. My target pace was prescribed as 4:04min/km (06:33min/mile) which was conservative. 3:45 would be acceptable as this is my real current 10k pace (06:02min/mile) but I was eager not to put in a race level effort on the day.

When I stopped and checked the result I had to check my watch (and still doubt it somewhat!) as I had covered the first mile in 5:25 (3:22min/km pace) and the second in 5:56 (3:41min/km). What makes this so outstanding for me is that its only 4 seconds short of my 1 mile PB!

I've done 3 1 mile time trials. First back in 2007 (5:45) then in February (5:52) and my last in March (5:21), so I feel quite confident that I have a shot at breaking 5:00 (3:05min/km pace is required for this).

Luckily, as I continued with peaking sprints I got proof that I can easily master that sort of pace.

Peaking Sprints
This exercise is fantastic and liberating because it allows you to run so fast that the only part of your lower leg ever hitting the ground is your toes. This is my favourite form of running because it feels like you're afloat. The impact forces on your feet should be higher due to the increased speed but because lower ground contact time allows your lower leg to reuse more energy from the spring effect generated when it hits the ground it feels much lighter.

I'm not a sprinter and seem to have little or no fast-twitch fibres, yet I was happy enough with my sprints. I did 95-98% sprint efforts for 15 repeats total and generally ran around 85m per 15 second repeat with my best being 94m (2:40min/km pace) and my average pace being 2:57min/km. Being able to run at those speed without maximal exertion in a pre-fatigued state gives me great hope for my maximal achievable speed. Also, not long ago I couldn't even record speed sub 2:50min/km and now I can.

There's certainly no neuromuscular or biomechanical constraints, indeed I believe today brought my closer to an explanation on why I have failed to perform in the hills this season despite what looks like significant improvements in general running ability.

At this stage my form looks to warrant a goal of 1:24 for the National Half-Marathon in Donegal in September and it would be good if I could have a go at breaking 37 and 18 minutes respectively for the 10k and the 5k. So why am I running relatively so much worse in the hills at the moment? The problem is strength.

A small heart or lungs could potentially limit an athlete's ability. From the earliest tests with Emma in 2007 it was clear that my lung capacity and heart rate are at a level where they will never hinder me in any meaningful way. Plenty of world champions have indeed shown comparable measurements. Ergo, the reason they were better is simply that they had other advantages. Any person blessed with a decent size heart and good lungs is unlikely to face a "bottleneck" in performance from this source.

It's now understood that muscle damage is the main cause of fatigue as the body starts shutting down motor units to prevent catastrophic muscular damage from occuring (Ross et al. 2009). Seb Coe already highlighted how important muscular development is in his book "Better Training for Distance Runners" commenting on what it takes to create a top-class 1500m runner:

"Third, athlete and coach will have realiszed that extended sprinting is a strength game, manageable only through a long-term plan of progressive overload, total-body strength development using weight training."

Why am I comparing hill running to 1500m running you ask? Well, because I will argue that hill running is a strength game too and it is one of the reasons you cannot transfer 100% from road to hill and vice-versa. For a well-rounded athlete with both strength and speed (or a modicum of both) the transition will be easier since he will rely on both factors to generate his speed.

I believe my problem stems from the fact that I rely almost solely on biomechanics and neuromuscular adaptations to run fast and very little on strength. Indeed I have no doubt that if you compare leg strength between me and runners 20-30 places behind me in the hills you would find, on average, that my leg strength is poorer.

As Aoife likes to point out: "Your legs are like twigs". "Like Kenyans", I'll gleefully reply before being shot down with "no, not muscly". Strength tests have always confirmed the same and its quite clear that there is only one solution for the Winter training if I want to have any chance of using my running ability effectively in the hills: A strict programme of static weight training followed by controlled application of plyometrics. Only by "biting the sour apple", to borrow a Danish phrase, and doing training I dislike can I overcome a fundamental disadvantage.

I must keep in mind, however, that while I seem to have been given good biomechanics, effective neuromuscular coordination and a strong physiological engine (blood, heart, lungs etc.) my muscle fibres could be of such poor quality that they will always hamper me to some degree. I am hopeful this is not the case but it will certainly be hard work.

But until then, this training has given me a real buzz and gives me consolation that while its not yet visible in the hills, I keep improving and should have an exciting cross-country season ahead of me.