Freezing Cold Runnings

Uuuuuuuuugh, January training is the worst. I think I lost my sense of humour in the midst of its terribleness. Let’s review.

A break in routine is a predictable disaster for anyone lacking in natural athleticism. And what I lack in athleticism, I lack in spades and spades. With a break from formal training, I crumbled quicker than mama’s New Year’s Day pie. (Chicken and leek, and v. yum.)

There were no organised sessions for two whole weeks over the holiday season, but you know what there was plenty of? Food. I ate so much food, I started turning it down – an unprecedented call. On the Wednesday after Christmas, I reluctantly went out for my traditional Worst Run of the Year™ and dragged my unwilling feet around a solid six miles before seeking solace in more food, more food, all the food… because it was an awful run, the likes of which I have not experienced since, oh yeah, exactly this time last year.

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New Year’s Day quarter marathon, an error in judgment. 

The thing is, I know that I can’t be running the worst I’ve ever run straight off the back of a string of PBs. I know that rationally. But whenever the momentum shifts in the wrong direction, it’s hard to adjust to. It’s hard to hold onto motivation and fight the tide.

The first session back wasn’t too bad. But the following week, when we returned to the athletics track, the temperature seemed to plummet and the timed reps came back to hit us. In the face. With an anvil. I mean, a 1000m rep at the start and the end? Really? These are not the reps we are looking for. Mentally, it’s as tough a session as I can ever remember getting on the track. I can do 1000m reps (sometimes), but when the longest rep is at the end, it looms over you, casting a dark cloud over even the merciful 400 metres. They call it the scorpion. Sting in the tail.

A week later, we’re back to hills, which – and it should tell you everything you need to know when I say this – now seems like the soft option.

Do I want to spend my evening running up and down a hill, with each run a lamppost further? No, I do not. Ideally, I’d like to spend it eating a perfectly cooked hamburger in 7Bone before bingeing as many West Wing episodes as I can until I fall into a peaceful slumber. However, with Parliament Hill looming, I’m eager to do it. I know it’ll settle my nerves and I’ll feel good about myself afterwards.

Hills sessions never run the same risk of bitter disappointment. It’s just a matter of grimly getting your arse up that hill as many times as you can in either eight or 20 minutes, but I’m not dependently counting. With timed reps, every second means something. A second down can’t be soothed by the next two or three attempts being one or more seconds up. You’ll always be thinking, ‘That one shouldn’t have been down. Why was I off the pace?’ I obsess.

So, in their own unique way, hills sessions are more relaxed. Rather like a trip to the spa.

At least that’s what I was telling myself at work as I counted down the minutes until 5 o’clock. I eventually left work fired up and ready for the session, thinking only good can come of this night. I’ll climb every mountain and ford every stream. Bring it on. #YOLO. All that jazz.

Long story short, on the way to training, I realised I’d left all of my kit under my desk at work. It was 6.20pm. Ten minutes. Given the traffic, there was no time to go back and get it. I was with my dad who also moonlights as everyone’s coach, so I couldn’t just go home. Without a sports bra and trainers, no matter how many people offered to see if they had any extra kit, it wasn’t happening. No hills session for me.

If you’re wondering how I handled this, I would say… hmm, not well.

Much in the same pattern as my training, my parkrun times have only slipped since my Christmas Day run. 23:21 went to 24:11… and then 24:30. That’ll teach you to start thinking about sub-23s, girl. (Don’t get me wrong, these times are nothing to sniff at – but, inevitably, losing ground is a disappointing shift in momentum.)

It’s tough. It happens every year, with spectacular consistency. I’m endlessly frustrated at my impeccable pattern of peaking in December – you know, the one month that really contributes nothing to the championship calendar – and then utterly crashing out in the New Year.

At least January’s nearly over. Hopefully 2017 will warm up soon and so will I.

The only thing standing between me and Feb now is Parliament Hill. No biggie. Except… real biggie. I’ll see you on the other side. Yiiiiiikes.

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A Healthy Obsession

Running-ShoesAfter you get past the first hurdles of taking up running, i.e. you manage to get into a regular rhythm of jogs without giving up, it becomes very easy to develop a preoccupation with stats and goals. I can personally attest to this. PBs, splits, handicaps, etc. all somehow become super interesting once you get broken in a little bit. The stats are addictive. It’s human nature to want to progress and after the initial training wheel phase, it becomes important to set attainable and specific goals to reach that damn fine potential you got going on. Often, pursuing those goals all comes wrapped up in weirdly fascinating personal data.

Runs can be long. Even a 5k, for me at least, uses up nearly half an hour. That’s a long time to keep your head in the game, so to speak. While the body is being tested, it helps to give your mind something to do besides wonder whether that really is a stitch coming on. Naturally, you get to thinking about times, and goals, and pace (and sometimes just what you’re having for dinner, to be totally honest). This is why, at race start lines, you often see a huge number of runners equipped with various forms of wearable technology. It’s the new black. In some cases, it literally is black. Would this be a good time for me to mention that unless the goth-vampire aesthetic is your vibe, I really think it’s boring when people go for black when there’s so much colour available in the market of wearables and kit? Whatever, though, you do you. (But seriously, spice up your life.)

The technology available for tracking training is vast, ranging from fancy gadgets like my mother’s beloved Garmin watch to the free app I have on my phone to boss me about. The reason they’re all so popular? The technology is invaluable. It does wonders for managing health goals. Oscar Insurance, a health insurance company in New Jersey and New York, is just one example of a company promoting and using this kind of technology to help members manage their health and fitness. All Oscar members get Misfit bands that they can use to set personal activity goals, sync with the company’s mobile app to keep track of their progress and then get cash rewards at the end of the month for reaching their goals.

In the case of my Runkeeper app, I can have it set up to give me a playlist and interrupt my music to tell me my pace at certain intervals. It allows me to obliviously listen to the whole TSwift catalogue and the app will let me know if I’m on track, pacing my runs for me while I’m getting in some much-needed music therapy. The times keep pushing me on to race my previous bests while my music offers a valued distraction from the aching in my, well, just about everywhere. It’s a great system. Added to the help it gives during the run, all of my times and splits get logged and recorded to enable a wealth of resources when mapping out future fitness ambitions. It’s perfect.

Alongside the pacing, informing the training is the creation of personal goals to enable steady progress. Those goals have varied from a simple 5k personal best to being able to run a new distance to trying to match up split times, or more recently to get a 8.0+ handicap improvement through the last annual year (check!). Tracking my runs is always integral to that; it enables you to become your own personal trainer. Or, in the cases of some of the technology, the recording of the nice lady announcing your times becomes your personal trainer. I talked in a previous blog about my quick burst of progress through the end of 2014, culminating in my ‘Best Improved’ title in December. This was a direct response to recognising an attainable, specific goal and pushing hard for it. Along the way, I was constantly checking my graphs on runbritain.com, looking to see how my progress was coming along in terms of the statistics. There is nothing more motivating than seeing results, and being able to chip away at my times little by little allowed me to keep my streak of success going strong.

Ultimately, running comes down to what works best for each individual, I think. I’ve been keeping fit through my training for over a year now and, after my initial progress, I found that I plateaued for a long period of time in mid-2014. The best answer to that was goal-setting. By the end of last year, I felt unstoppable, smashing PB after PB and far exceeding the goal I had initially set myself. I think it starts with one attainable goal, and then comes the momentum. Once you have the big mo, you’re set.

Thursday Night Lights

photoVery recently, I started attending an athletics track session to complement the Parkruns I’ve been rocking on the reg. There’s something terribly intimidating about running on the track. The definite white lines and the precision of the stopwatch are harder to hide behind than the absentminded jogging jaunts I’m used to. The fact that the track is located inside an army camp only makes the whole lark a little more intense (like, do I need to worry that if I got too good, I’d get called up?*).

To give some perspective of fitness, if the group I train with were placed in some dystopian YA novel wherein only one can survive, I have two potential paths: either I’m dead before they finish reading out my name, or I’m the reclusive one who survives till the end by sheer fluke, having hidden in a cave for the duration. The latter circumstance would only be possible if the cave had a decent wifi connection (or at least some 3G), otherwise I would get caught while trying to climb a nearby tree for signal. I may have digressed. I’m the slowest is the point. By quite some margin.

However, I declare buoyantly, all I had to do to succeed was complete the session. As with anything you do for the first time, I had nothing to beat. It’s become apparent to me that one of my primary motivations is the intent to avoid appearing pathetic in front of other people. Typically, this requires the presence of other people. While outside of the track I often run with my mum, she’s so used to seeing me look pathetic that this stopped taking effect a while ago when it’s just the two of us. At track, there’s quite a crowd. No one wants to collapse, crying, onto the ground in front of that many people, so I focus my weary head on getting those reps over with sharpish.

The session, intended to work on speed, involves doing several reps of different distances with set goal times per 400m (e.g. 100 second laps). On 1,000 metre reps, I trail 150 metres behind, wheezing my way to the finish line as I wave my hand to gesture that the group should go on without me (either with the next rep or, if I’m feeling particularly winded, life). To any casual bystanders, my attempt to “go hard” would probably resemble anyone else’s recovery lap if it weren’t for the desperate breathlessness and raspberry shade of face. It is not my purpose to compete with anyone else, I just want to improve my leg speed. Week one went exactly as well as it should have. I sucked by anyone else’s standards but rocked by my own. I went. I ran. I conquered.

I think that just about sums it up.

I think that just about sums it up.

The talent of my peers at the Thursday night sessions negates my use of the word “peers” there, and makes it wholly impossible not to look pathetic. As looking feeble (think pre-serum Steve Rogers, right) in the short-term was unavoidable, very quickly I had to decide whether or not I wanted to make the long-term commitment to come each Thursday for my weekly exercise in humiliation with the intent that little by little, I get a tad closer to not pathetic. I know what you’re thinking; I’ve set myself a high bar. But what can I say? I’m a dreamer.

In truth, the benefits of attending the track sessions are hard to dispute. While my body is telling me (loudly and repeatedly) no, my times are telling me yes. Since I began coming at the beginning of September, I’ve seen improvements in my Parkrun time every single week (taking off around 1 minute most weeks), reducing my 5k PB from 33:09 to 28:29. Before I began the track training, I’d set myself a goal to get under the illusive 30-minute mark, and it certainly helped me achieve that.

I started attending track sessions at the beginning of September and my improvement since has been pretty sizeable.

I began attending track sessions at the beginning of Sept and the effect is plain to see.

I guess it turns out exercise is good for you after all. Who knew?

 

*I feel like maybe not but it’s going to niggle.