Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Ups and Downs of Training for the West Highland Way Race

I am now three and half months into my training for this year's West Highland Way Race, and just over have three months left to prepare myself to run 95 miles on the 21st of June.  Now in to second half of training I'm getting into the real business end of training, the first real test will come this Sunday (23rd of March) when I run my first race of the the year - the Loch Katrine Marathon, my second big test will be five weeks later when I run the 53 mile Highland Fling that covers the first half of West Highland Way.

Base building

The approach to training for the last few months is to tailor the conventional Aerobic Base Building phase that most Marathon training plans include to make it more specific to the needs of ultra-marathoning.  The goals for this phase has been to:

  1. Develop my ability to comfortably run at the slow pace that will be required on race day.
  2. Use fat as the primary fuel for running muscles at the ultra-marathon pace
  3. Steadily build my structural resilience to delay the onset of fatigue 
  4. Build ability to quickly recover from training and racing   

Previous years I've tried to steadily build up an aerobic base but have almost always been blighted by injury after a two or three months of serious training.  To lower this risk, this year I have built my mileage and intensity up very steadily, cutting weekly mileage and intensity the times when I have felt niggles building.  So far this approach has worked, and while I've had plenty of niggles from my feet through to my back so far have only a needed few days of rest, or easier week has been enough for the niggles to mostly melt away. Elements of training that appear to have helped are:

  1. Regular recovery runs (9 to 10min/mile) pace, with around 50% of volume at around this pace.
  2. Longer runs at an easy to recovery pace, 9:30 to 8:30 pace.
  3. Doing several modest length long runs per week, 
  4. No really long runs, longest so far this cycle has been an 18 miler.
  5. Following more stressful runs with recovery run days
  6. One faster run per week, but keeping pace to just marathon pace and distance at 8 miles.
  7. Regular use of foam roller and self massage to keep the muscles loose
  8. Eating well

Following this approach I have been able to steadily up the weekly mileage from ~35 mile per week in December, to ~45 mile per week in January and then averaged 56 mile/week in February.  In February in one week I pushed the mileage up to 62 miles, which was my longest weekly training mileage up to that point.

My plan for March was to aim for a weekly mileage in the mid sixties, but both calves had become a bit tight by the end of February, with a niggle in the left calf so I decided to put in a down week in the first week of March and only ran 42 miles, this seemed be enough to relax and heal my calves and last week put in a 65 miles, with three long runs of 14 miles, 18 miles and 15 miles each with only a recovery day in between.  There wasn't a prior plan to do all these so close together, but the weather was sunny for once and my body just seemed to be recovering really quickly so I just went out and enjoyed myself.

This week my calves, have been a little tight each morning, my quads have felt fatigued and my hip flexors a bit over stressed so I'll be taking the rest of this week bit easier than originally planned.  I do have the Loch Katrine marathon on Sunday so I'm figuring that I'll get better training effect from the marathon if I am rested properly and the niggles have melted away.   I really can't complain though, 65 miles in week is half marathon more than I ever been able to handle in a training week before.

So far in this training cycle my body seems to have coped really well with the mileage, my recovery from runs has been astounding compared to my usual aches and pains for days after a long or faster run, with niggles melting away with just a small easing back of mileage/intensity.  Times when I've thought I've over done it for sure a day or two later I'm back running smoothly.

In contrast to this excellent recovery the efficiency I've been recording via my Heat Rate (HR) monitor has improved on average, but no where near as much as I usually see when I'm well into training.  My resting HR has also been elevated right through from January to now.  I had a cold at the end of February that raised my HR into the mid 50's, and since it's come down each week but now sits around 46-48 each morning.  Just once in the last month has my HR go done to 45 where I'd normally expect it to be when I'm well into a training cycle.

With this much volume of training I had expected my resting HR to be down at 44 or below - where it was when I was at my peak last October just before the Jedburgh Three Peaks Ultra-marathon.   The only day when my HR was where I expected it to be I had my most efficient day in this training cycle, surpassing what I achieve back in October, but this was just one fleeting day.  A couple of days later I recorded my worst efficiency of this training cycle - my HR elevated my around 10 bpm for a given pace and using 20% more calories per mile according to my HR monitor.  Then two days later my HR was back down, but still not elevated compared to where I would have expected.

Below is a graph of my Effective Efficiency (calories per mile, adjusted for HR drift and hills) from December to mid March.  General trend is downwards, but it's very noisy, far more than I'd expect, and there are so startling spikes.  When I'm at my peak I usually see Effective Efficiency values in the 78 to 80 calories/mile range.  Something I've only achieved on one day so far.

Would the sporadic nature of my resting HR and HR for a given pace suggest that my sympathetic nervous system is all over the place?  Is it a sign of over training?  I'm torn as my recovery rates are really good, but clearly something is quite right.

Thankfully this week my HR has been reasonably stable so far, a half marathon test run I did on Monday was one of my most efficient in this training cycle, with HR drift being very modest.  Fingers crossed things are settling down in time for my biggest challenge this year so far.

Plan for Loch Katrine Marathon

The Loch Katrine marathon will be my fourth marathon, but only my second road marathon.  My marathon PB of 3:32 I did on my first marathon race back in 2010 during a very hot Edinburgh Marathon.  This Sunday's marathon I'll just run as a training run so the actual finishing time is not critical, but... it would be great boost to get close or set a new PB.

My fitness for distance running is now so much better than it was back in 2010 that I should be capable of time in theory of around 3:05 to 3:10 on flat course.  Loch Katrine marathon is very hilly though, I know of estimates of 1800 to 2200 foot ascent/descent so it'll not be far off the challenge presented by the Kielder Marathon than I did in 3:36 back in 2012.   I estimate the hills will probably take 10 minutes off the time I might be able to achieve on flat marathon, so 3:15 to 3:20 might be possible if I had training specifically for the marathon or was planning on racing it.

My plan isn't to race though, my plan is for a tiny 6 day taper, do the marathon without pushing into the red, then have an easy week and be back into full on training at beginning of April in prep for the Fling at the end of April.  To dial down the intensity I have decided to aim for lower average HR than I'd usually see in a marathon - normally I'd see an average HR for 168 to 170 in a marathon, for Loch Katrine I'm currently looking at 161 as my target.  I have a spreadsheet that I plug in the stats for all my runs and have column for estimates of how each run would map to what I could achieve at different races, and the figures currently point to a time around the 3:25 to 3:40 mark being possible at around a HR of 161.

As trail on Monday's half marathon run I used the MARCO to give me an idea of what pacing and HR progression to use during the race for a target time of 3:30 and average HR of 161. During my run I followed the HR guide for each mile segment - progressing from the suggested HR or 145 through to the 161 HR at mile 13.  The MARCO pacing guide for this mile segments suggests progressing from 8:15 pace to 8:01 by mile 13.  The pacing I saw though was 8:30 for the first mile, and 7:30 for the last. So I started too slow and finished way too fast.  The whole second half of my run was too fast, and I ended finishing 4 minutes ahead of the schedule.

The discrepancy with the MARCO calculator probably isn't too surprising - it was a hilly course which will complicate things and all humans are different, and physiologically I was in totally different place - a half marathon training run rather than the first half of marathon race.  However, even we've these factors it would seem that my starting HR needs to be higher to avoid starting so slower, and at least on this training run I saw far less HR drift than the MARCO calculator assumes, keeping to it's HR profile had me running 30 seconds a mile too fast for the last four mile. It felt too fast as well, with my quads feeling fatigued from the previous weeks high mileage and my hip flexors complained in the last few miles, I'm glad that I'm not attempting to run 3:15 right now.

Having a high HR for a slow pace at the start isn't too encouraging, but a lower HR drift is very encouraging so a bit like my up and down resting HR/sporadic efficiency I seem to be getting mixed signals about my fitness/possible over training status.  I'm hoping a five more days of easy paced running will settle things down and allow me to see a clearer picture of my fitness.

Come race day on Sunday we'll find out for sure just how well my body is responding to training.  I haven't done any marathon specific training, I haven't attempted to reach peak aerobic fitness, I've just been building on the key ingredients I'll need come the 21st of June when I line up at 1am to run the West Highland Way.  Even without any specific training for the Loch Katrine Marathon I'm still hoping that I now have the capacity to run a solid marathon and have a stab at an new PB, with the proviso it's the actual training effect that is most important right now so will need to be done without pushing on too hard.


  1. It is likely that your somewhat higher resting HR than in previous periods of training at a lower total training load does indicate that you a little more stressed this year (and hence have higher sympathetic tone) but the fact that there is a gradual overall downward trend as your training progresses indicates that the stress is settling rather than building up.
    There are many possible causes of the day by day fluctuation. Although I do not know exactly how you calculate efficiency, i t appears to me that what you call efficiency is a normalised measure of beats / mile after adjustment of altitude gain, total duration, and perhaps other circumstantial variables. However there are many factors that affect beats per mile that are probably not precisely corrected in your adjustment.

    The energy consumed by your muscles per mile during running can be expressed as the product of the following factors:
    1) heart beats / mile
    2) cardiac stroke volume
    3) proportion of cardiac output directed to muscles
    4) fraction of oxygen content of blood extracted by muscle.
    5) Metabolic conversion factor which relates energy generated per unit of oxygen.

    If you assume that your mechanical efficiency remains constant, the product of these 5 items will remain constant.

    When you begin training the biggest early change is increase in stroke volume as blood volume increases, thereby stretching the heart and promoting more powerful contraction (Starlings Law).

    Over a sustained period of training, there should be an increase in fraction of oxygen extracted by muscles (due to increased capillaries and to increased mitochondrial enzyme activity). This accounts for a substantial portion of the gradual decrease in HR as you get fitter.

    Since fat combustion requires more oxygen to produce a given amount of energy , increasing the proportion of fat in the fuel mix produces a tendency for heart beats/mile to increase but this effect is usually small and gradual, and is a beneficial adaptation for an ultra-runner, for whom fuel efficiency is more important than efficiency of oxygen use

    Thus predictable monotonic increases in items 2) and 4) during training produce predictable decrease in beats/mile, while increased utilization of fats produces a small trend in the opposite direction.

    However the proportion of cardiac output directed to muscles ( item 3) can fluctuate quite wildly according to various physiological processes – eg increased vasodilation in the skin in hot weather; increased blood flow to deal with inflammation anywhere in the body; increase in whole body metabolism due to hormonal changes or cytokine changes; increased flow to gut to digest food. The fact that you are training near to maximum capacity probably increases the likelihood of fluctuations mediated by hormones and cytokines. But provided you are recovering well it is probably reasonable to assume that these are transient features. Your strategy of allowing extra recovery when signs of stress occur appears to be working well.

    Good luck with tomorrow’s marathon.

  2. Thanks for the comments and thoughts, and best wishes. It helps give more ideas of what might be going on with my body, and what to do to adjust training/recovery.

    One aspect that I didn't mention in my post was that stress levels outside of training have been fluctuating up and down. My sleep patterns have also been fluctuating up and down. I also at times struggle with insomnia, and through this period have struggled to get a regular 6-8 hours of sleep most nights in the past three months, The insomnia is certainly partly down to stress, but also seems to be correlated with some form of hormonal interaction that I haven't been able to settle - my body quite often seems prevented from shutting down not due to mental process but blood chemistry.

    For the estimates of efficiency, I need to publish the model, but it'll require a proper write up. As I do lots of different routes of differing lengths I have to build in factors to account for elevation profile and heart-rate drift, the model I've tuned to fit my training/racing logs are able to smooth out my "Effective Efficiency" quite while so day to day fluctuations tend to me down to the physiological factors rather than the nature of a specific run. Periods when my body seems more settled I do get far more flat "Effective Efficiency" values, so the ups and downs in the above graph are primarily down to what's going on in my body in response to training and general health/stress.

    My marathon went very well yesterday. Finished in 3:26:50, a PB but almost 6 minutes, and apart from the last three miles was run as a training run with very controlled pacing averaging around 8:00 min/mile pace for a very undulating course. My average HR was 157 well below what I was expecting, and well below the around 169 value I've seen in my previous slower and less hilly marathons. My "Effective Efficiency" was just over 80 calories/mile, which was one of the best I've seen in the last four months and during a race too, where I'd normally see elevated levels due to the effects of Adrenaline.

    The half marathon test run I did at the start of hinted that my HR drift was pretty low, the race totally cemented that. My takeway is diet and training approach have been very successful at adapting my body to metabolising fat right from the start of race through to the end. This is exactly what I was hoping for. Other elements like structural resilience were a bit of problem yesterday though and am feeling the effects of having run a road marathon today. I will do a full write up of my marathon this week, will take a few days for it all to sink in as it was a real breakthrough performance a bit like my Devil race last year where I exceeded my expectations.

  3. Congratulations on the marathon PB; especially on achieving it in a relaxed manner

  4. Congrats on the marathon. How has the fasting you blogged about a while back panned out ?

    1. Thanks.

      I haven't been fasting for most days in the past two months. I got a cold back at the end on January and decided to eat breakfast as to avoid my Cortisol levels rising too often and risk suppressing my immune system.

      Through February and March I have been teetering on the point of over training with pushing my weekly mileage higher than I ever done before, the extra mileage risks pushing my metabolism too often into a Catabolic state where it breaks down muscles rather than build them. To help push things back towards an Anabolic state where my muscles are building up I've added breakfast on most days. Breakfast is low GI so as not to spike my insulin levels, and contains a source of BCAA's to help support protein synthesis and avoid my muscles being broken down whilst running. Scrabbled eggs is a good natural source of BCAA's, and certainly a lot tastier than the powdered BCAA's that I tried for a few weeks.

      Once my body settles down a bit more - i.e. no big spikes in my effective efficiency, I'll look at adding fasted runs in. If I don't run one day I'll miss breakfast and typically fast till lunchtime.