Sunday, 30 November 2014

Training Log Analysis : Consistency is the key to improving fitness

Today I wrapped up a running every day this November, and also marks the 12 months from when I began training for the West Highland Way Race back on the December 1st 2013.  These past 12 months have been real breakthrough for me in  a range of different ways:
  • First year that I've avoided serious injury 
  • Was able to train consistent training month after month.  
  • Settings Personal Bests in all but one race this year - from 10k to 95 miles.
All these aspects on my year are inextricably linked - by avoiding injury I was able to training more consistently, and by being more consistent my fitness and robustness became protective from injury.    With consistent training fitness built and the PB's.

Training Log Analysis

Being a scientific type I'm drawn to analysing my own training and performance to see how what I can learn from it and become a better runner.  The first step to analysis is collective as data on training and racing, and with modern phone with GPS's and running app's that enable one to track every run conveniently - the one I've used over the past four years has been SportyPal.  While these app's provide an online means of tracking training and racing they don't provide any scope for in depth analysis.

To do the training/racing analysis I've had to logged my Heart Rate, Calories (estimated by HR monitor), Route, Pacing and Elevation/Descent details into a Spreadsheet and from their can compute various parameters, such as Effective Efficiency - how many Calories I used per mile.  Different routes have different amount of ups and downs, and running longer introduces HR drift, and adrenalin during racing also affects the HR, which in turn affects the HR monitors estimate of Calories used, so I've come up with a formula for normalizing the Calories/Mile to give an Effective Calories/Mile so that two different runs can be more directly compared.

This approach allows me to compare all runs and races throughout the whole year using a single metric to see how my fitness might be progressing.  Using just a single metric is huge simplification, but looking at my logs for training and racing there my race performance do broadly follow the ups and downs of my Effective Efficiency.  This metric is an effect a proxy for my Aerobic Fitness.  Being able to compare all runs means I can analyse trends and relationships - and tease out how different changes in my running affects my fitness.

Year on Year Trends

Follows is a graph showing how my average monthly mileage has progressed over the past five years:

Average Monthly Mileage Progression

The key change in being able to do a higher monthly average was avoiding serious injury.  All previous years I've had several different injuries that have knocked me out for lots of consecutive weeks or curtailed mileage to try and allow injuries to heal.  Almost all these injuries were overuse injuries of different types - running too far or too fast too often without sufficient recovery.

What I have learnt this year is that recovery shouldn't mean inactive, rather the opposite - active recovery has the bed rock of my running this year.  I have ran far more recovery runs and far less stressful runs like tempo, sprints and 2:30hr+ long runs.  Shifting my training to include far more recovery runs is reflected in the average speed of my runs:

Average training run speed Progression

My slowest average speed has been 2014, the closest I've come before is 2010 when I experimented with Maffetone style low Heart Rate Training, that year keeps things slower helped keep the mileage up, but didn't prevent injury entirely as I still was training more to a fixed plan rather than just listening to my body and deciding upon runs based on whether I felt my body was capable of doing it comfortably.

While my average training speed has got slower my racing speeds have all increased, in particular my ultra speeds that are now 20% better than they were back in 2010.  A key lesson from this is:

Running slower on average doesn't make you slower on race day.

One can see the affect of getting injured more clearly when we look at the month by month mileage that I've been able to do since January 2010. 

Monthly mileage from Jan 2010
In 2010 I only managed two months over 150 miles before I seconded to injury.  In 2011 I didn't even manage to get over 110 miles in any one month.   2012 was my first year I tackled the Highland Fling and my training went pretty well, and was able to build to a 200 mile month, but for the rest of the year things become more injury dominated.

In 2013 I tried to recapture my success in the spring of 2012 and did two high mileage months on January and February but ended up injured in March and subsequently had to pull out of the Fling.  I got to marshal just before Drymen which meant I didn't go completely to waste :-)

 During this period I started reading about different diets and late spring adopted a diet based on the Perfect Health Diet - a paleo inspired diet, which entained reducing the amount of carbs, especially from sugars and grains, eating more healthy fats (mono-unstaturated and saturated fats, avoiding omega 6 polyunsaturated fats) and more healthy proteins, and lots veg and mineral rich foods.   A diet higher in far, lower in carbs meant that my body shifted from primarily carbs for fuel to fats for fuel, something I could feel through the day with feeling more even energy levels, and this also became apparent when I started to race.

My injuries didn't settle until a month before the 2013 Devil O'Highlands race so I had to quickly ramp up the mileage and then race.  Despite doing hardly any training I ran far better than I had ever imagined finishing in 7:17 - and hour faster than I was expecting.  I believe the change in diet was a big factor in running a good race and finishing really strongly.  Another factor was racing by heart rate.  Curiously the theme "listen to your body" appears even in my racing now as racing by heart rate ensures you can never ignore how you body is responding to the demands of the day.

Finally when we look at 2014 we can see first 6 months of the year during my build up to running the West Highland Way Race I managed a block of consistent training - every month of 150 miles, and four of which over 200 miles.  The only dip in the mileage was in July directly after the WHWR when I was taking it easy recovery from a calf injury incurred during the big race.

Once this was healed up I got back into serious training and doing over 200 miles in August, a bit less in September of October when I dipped into over training and started to get a serious of minor injuries that knocked me out for a week at a time.  The over training was caused by too many tempo runs and races - two 10ks, two ultra and half marathon.

Since my final ultra in October (the Jedburgh 3 Peaks) I have been taking things easy - no runs longer than 13 miles and no runs faster than 8 min/mile pace.  I have however ran every day so the mileage has racked up - 2011 miles the 30 days of November is my second highest mileage ever, and it was a doddle, just a few niggles here and there, but no injuries, just feeling stronger as each week progressed.

The only little interruption has been having a bit of cold this last week, but it has stopped me running, just led to slightly elevated heart rate when running.  I haven't ignored this though - I've taken things even easier this week with more recovery paced runs (9 to 10 min/miles.)

If we now look at the effect that all these ups and downs in mileage, or consistent higher mileage achieved this year we can look at my Effective Calories Per Mile:
The overall trend year on year is greater Effective Efficiency (less Calories per mile reported by HR monitor), but it's far from smooth graph - with big spikes upwards when injury strikes and mileages severely affected.  My good block of training in the spring of 2012 is reflected by a block of better Efficiency, but then when injury hits I loose fitness quite rapidly, and for the rest of 2012 and 2013 is up and down like a yo-yo.

The Autumn of 2013 was a bit revelation - boosted by my diet changes and more relaxed attitude towards getting the mileage in with training I had a great series of races, Devil O Highlands, River Ayr Way and finally the Jedburgh Three Peaks. After doing better than I expected in these races it finally felt like I was getting ontop of how to eat, train and race ultras so I entered the West Highland Way Race.

With the knowledge of lots of training ahead I decided to take November most off from training, only running when it was sunny and only to play.  It was fun but with only covering 57 miles in November 2013 my aerobic fitness was knocked back significantly.  If you look at the 11/12/13 column in the above graph you'll see my Effective Efficiency went from 83 Calories/Mile to nearly 89 Calories/Mile.

Once I started training in December 2013 I fully expected to regain the good fitness that I had in October 2012 but it wasn't to be.  My training went well but improvements in Effective Efficiency were slow coming, but they came average month till April.  At the end of march I ran a blinder at Loch Katrin marathon and set an new PB but in the recovery week afterwards strained my calf and then had to back off for doing higher mileage and just stuck to shorter recovery runs for another week.

With this break in the consistent mileage, and then the taper for the Highland Fling at the end of April I found my Effective Fitness values getting worse.  I still ran a great Fling though - knocking over an hour of my 2012 time.  After the Fling I got a good block in training in and fitness improvements returned.

In June I taper for and ran the West Highland Way Race, then took the rest of June off.  Another great race, but with the lower mileage and possibly the effects of pre race nerves my Effective Efficiency got a little worse. 

In the second half of July my calf injury sustain in the big race had healed and consistent training was possible again and with it my fitness marker was back to improving.   In August I got back to doing a 200 mile both, doing tempo runs and sprints as well lots of recovery runs all in prep for the Killin 10k where I did another PB.  Efficiency was also up.

With only 3 weeks between the Killin 10k and River Ayr Way Challenge (41miles) I had to recovery, training and then taper.  This turned out too short a time to squeeze all the training in and I ended injured from a 20 mile long run on week before the RAW so had to take most of the week off.  My Effective Efficiency suffered as a consequence.  I also feel my actual RAW performance also suffered a bit as well.   I still did a half hour PB, but it was 15 minutes slower than I expected.

After the RAW I had three weeks to recover, train and taper for the Great Scottish Run (Glasgow half).  Training looked to be going well and ran a great Trossachs 10k with another PB 8 days before the half, but ended with a niggle that turning into an injury that I had to rest up the week before the race.  This time my race went pear shaped from mile 11 onwards and really struggled home.  My average heart rate was a crazy 176 for the race, 2 higher than it'd had been for my 10k but despite the huge effort missed out on a half marathon PB (by four seconds).  I suspect I had a virus that day that compounded my wayward taper.

After half marathon the rest of October things came back good, my Effective Efficiency values improved steadily through the month and came close to matching what I saw in October in 2013.  Given the fitness markers were around the same I expected a similar time around 6:28 I achieved in 2013, but ran a perfect race finishing in 6:06.  What a way to finish my racing year :-)

Having lots a lot of fitness by taking last November off, and taking such a long time to get back to that level of fitness I decided this year to just keep training, but take things easy.  This approach has really bedded in the fitness gains I've seen over the year, with this month being best Effective Efficiency figures I have ever recorded, with a pretty big improvement from last month - from 82 Calories/mile in October to 78 Calories/Mile in November.

To say the least I'm chuffed to bits finishing the year where I've ran some amazing races feeling strong, relaxed and fitter than I have ever been in my adult life.  The broad conclusion from looking at the training logs and my race performances:

In 2013 I fixed my diet.

In 2014 I fixed my training.


Detailed Analysis effects of training in past thirteen months:

The last thirteen months have seen me go from a month off through various higher and lower mileage months, with my Effective Efficiency generally trending in the right direction but with ups and downs along the way.  When deciding how to further improve on my training I want to learn what types of training improved my fitness most.

Two simple questions of training are :
  1. how often each month is it best to train?
  2. how much time each month is it best to train?

1. How each month is it best to train?

To answer the first question I've taken the looked at the ratio of efficiency to ratio of % of days run between consecutive months.   A ratio of 1.05 on efficiency delta relates to 5% improvement in Effective Efficiency, while a 0.5 ratio of % of days run relates to a halving of the number of days run.  A ratio of 1.0 for either axis relates to no change of that parameter.  When I plot these ratios I get the following graph:

Vertical Axis is Efficiency Ratio, Horizontal is % days run ratio


There are several things that jump out from the graph:
  1. The graph shows that 9 out of 13 months I improved my efficiency
  2. All 4 months where efficiency got worse I reduced the number of days I ran
  3. Two months I reduced the number of days a modest amount and still improved efficiency
  4. All 7 months where I increased the number of days I ran I improved my efficiency
Apart from the December outlier that sits on the right side of the graph where I returned to running last year all the other 12 months fit surprisingly well along a curved line where increasing % days of month than your run increases efficiency.

The above results suggest that the more times your run each month the better. Perhaps this one of the key reasons when Elite athletes typically find it best to run twice or more a day?

2. how much time each month is it best to train?

To answer this second question I used a similar approach plotting a graph of Ratio of Effective Efficiency vs Ratio of Total amount of time per Month of consecutive months.

Vertical Axis is Efficiency Ratio, Horizontal Axis is Total Time Ratio

The plot is far more noisy with no clear progression.  Grouping the months by which ones I saw an improvement/worsening results we can say:
  1. Of the 9 months out of 13 that improved on Efficiency, 4 months I reduced my total time running, while 5 months I increased total time training
  2. Of the 4 months out of 14 that I saw worsening Efficiency, 2 months I reduced total time training, while 2 months I increased total time training
If one draw an averaged curve through the points we'd see a slight improvement in efficiency with increasing total amount of time running, however, the range of values above and below this curve is very wide.

The level of noise on these figures may well be influenced by the nature of the months that I ran lots of time - the months when I ran long ultra's like the Highland Fling and West Highland Way Race.  These months I reduced the number of runs I did but increased total time.  I was tapering, racing and recovering all of which do have an influence on my efficiency figures.

Given these possible influences it may be that increasing training time will have a stronger positive influence on efficiency.  However, such a correlation is clearly much weaker than the correlation between running more often and improving efficiency.

Conclusions

My experiences over the last 5 years and the analysis presented in this post together paint a picture of work works best for me:
  1. Training to a pre-prescribed training plan can easily lead to injury so be very wary about trying to match others, or a fixed training schedule
  2. Injury leads to time off training which significantly impacts fitness
  3. One should train as often as can make time for:
    1. Every day is great (can be difficult possible for amateurs like myself)
    2. Double is even better (something only Elite's typically strive for)
  4. Training more often is more important more time on feet
  5. Training every day is more important that training fast or long
  6. If training slower allows you to run more often then train slower!
  7. If training with less long runs allows you to run more often then train shorter!
  8. Avoid injury, listen to your body, you can only improve when your body is ready for it
  9. Training effect and training volume depends entirely on how well one recovers from training and racing - put extra effort in making sure you recover as best you can
    1. Eat well
    2. Sleep well
    3. Make sure you relax quickly after bouts of mental and physcial stress
    4. Take hot baths after training
    5. Only Take cold baths after racing
    6. No static stretching
    7. Self massage (foam roller etc.) can be beneficial

With the Macothon starting on the 1st of December (tomorrow as I write this) is a challenge where you run at least 5km every day for every day in December.  My experience and analysis of training logs all point to how beneficial training everyday even if it's a modest distance at modest intensity can be - exactly what the Marcothon promotes so lace you trainers and join us!


7 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your great year of traning and racing.

    Very interesting analysis.

    I agree consistency is the most important feature of training. You raise a very interesting issue regarding the stronger relationship between effective efficiency and month by month increase in number of runs than between EE and increase in time spent running. I suspect this reflects that fact that EE is most likely to increase when the ratio of training load to recovery is optimal. Since both high volume and high intensity can be stressful, relatively short, low or medium intensity runs offer the best prospect of a favourable ration of training load to recovery. I would predict that if a substantial proportion of your runs were short high intensity runs that you would not see the favourable effect on increasing number of runs per month.

    I wonder whether it is possible to assign a score for each week that reflects training load (taking account of both volume and intensity) and opportunity for recovery (not necessarily rest). I would be interested in testing the hypothesis that such a score might be a strong predictor of improvement in fitness. There are credible measures of training load. The challenge is to find a good measure of opportunity for recovery. I once hoped that resting HR or HRV would be satisfactory measures of recovery, but have found that neither is sufficiently consistent.

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  2. Hi Canute,

    Looking at the data in a more fine grained way (day to day/week to week) does reveal other aspects to the affects of my training but it also adds more noise to the data. Part of the noise is the influence of weather on my HR stats - when it's hot I initially see a reduction in my efficiency. Catching a cold or other ailment also influences the data. Finally stressful training runs have an influence on the efficiency for that particular run and subsequent runs. All these different influences make it more difficult to get any clear and consistent relationship - at least with my crude analysis so far.

    One aspect that I didn't go into in my post is the influence of volume of training at different intensities and the influence that is has on efficiency at that intensity. In my data I have see a year on year shift at the intensities that I'm most efficient at. I also see affects when re-introducing training at different intensities - initially these new intensities my efficiency is lower but over the weeks things improve. While I've spotted these patterns in my training logs I haven't yet attempted to plot it in a way that we can glean whether there are any consistent relationships.

    My guess is that there are whole range of metabolic, neuromuscular, heat adaptations etc that can work at different time scales - these all ebb and flow as we add or remove different aspects to out training/racing. The activity of the immune system/nervous system also big influence.

    Recording more data to track more of these various influences - such as resting Heart Rate, Heart Rate Variability, Temperature/Weather conditions, whether one is well/unwell, feeling stressed or relaxed etc. would all give us more to work on for looking at the various influences they have on the data we record as allow to look teasing out more relationships to help our understanding. I does take more work to record all this data day by day, and obviously requires more sophisticated analysis than I'm presently doing (or have time to do as hobby.)

    Wit the data I have already I will have a bash at looking at the influence of training intensity on my efficiency, if I can glean anything useful that is amenable for presenting to others than I put together another post on it.

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  3. Really interesting post Robert. I love the way you have analysed your training to work out what works best for you. Great stuff.

    I wonder what you will learn in 2015??

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    1. "I wonder what you will learn in 2015??"

      I can't say what I'll learn, but perhaps the first step is to ask what I/we as a community don't yet know that would be useful to explore.

      At a personal level I want to keep improving my training and racing. I haven't yet managed to combine long runs/back to backs or high intensity training for extended periods without getting injured. This might not be something I learn, but rather develop the resilience to absorb tougher training runs. Perhaps my ligaments, bones, muscles etc. all need learn as well as my mind :-)

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  4. Only just got around to reading this, but really interesting stuff. I too found in the second half of 2014 that training at really slow paces doesn't stop you achieving race results somewhere almost as good as when you go for a lot of high intensity stuff. I'm definitely coming around to believing that getting out every day, even if some days are just a three or four mile jog, has a lot of merit and I had already decided before reading your post to move from 4 days with recovery to 6/7 days but with similar overall mileage. I have always been an advocate of regular long runs (20+ every couple of weeks) but your comments on this are interesting so I might have a think about this aspect. I like to do events so I get to one a month on average (some only 30 miles or so) so I may try avoiding long runs in between. One often has to do recces to make racedays more straightforward, but again I had already decided that these can be done as long walks which need no recovery time. Have a good 2015!

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    1. Your suggestion of walking the recce of routes is great one, the ability to recover so quickly that it doesn't interrupt the rest of your training would be really valuable.

      Looking at my own training experience doing big training runs or races can force an extended period of very low mileage, especially if one is injured. Even a week completely off and I see a small step back in fitness, two weeks and my aerobic fitness and fat burning capacity certainly are compromised. A month off I'm not back to square one but it feels like it, it takes many months to get the fitness back.

      Given this I now feel that one should avoid high injury risks, it's better to back of an run short and slow every day for a week till a niggle disappears than keep trying to follow some fixed training plan. Races up the injury risk, and require recovery time, but if one can go into races fresh and with no niggles, race sensibly then it's possible to get back into light training quite quickly afterwards. Being able to get back running, even if it's only recovery runs for several weeks after a race seems to aid recovery and make the most of the training stimulus that the race provided.

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