Thursday, 19 February 2015

Evaluating Fitness during the Training Cyle

Motivation for assessing training

When training for big ultra races you a often faced with many months of training building up to your A races, during this period one hardly races if at all, so you don't have any race data to assessing how your fitness is progressing.

Subjectively you might feel like you are getting fitter and stronger, but you might just as equally have a what feels like a couple of bad weeks and your confidence can be knocked.  When you stand on the start line for your big races it's good to know that your training has gone well and what finishing times might be realistic to aim for.

How your fitness is progressing will also influence what training might be appropriate to do next.  This post will outline a couple of ways I'm trying to by analysing my own training logs to provide answers to just how my training is progressing.

Evaluation runs

One way of assessing fitness is to run the same course at the same intensity over a period of weeks, months and years to see how your times/paces vary.  If your training cycle contains shorter races like regular 5km, 10km, half marathons etc. then potentially you could use these.

However, such races would typically be done all-out which limits how often you can do them in a training cycle.  Short races are done at very different intensity to ultra's, above or around lactate threshold, where as ultra's are done at competitively leisurely pace.  Ultra's also stress parts of your overall fitness in a different way to short races, from my own experience my 10km PB has only improved by around 5% over the last 5 years, but my ultra's have improved by nearer 20% during this period.

With the advent of heart rate monitors we have a the ability to both record and to monitor in real-time how hard we are running.  By running on a standard route and to a target heart rate it's possible to standardise the effort level between a series of runs. 

The evaluation runs provide three bits of fitness information:
  1. The faster our average speed we can run for a given heart rate the fitter are likely to be.   
  2. How our speed changes during an evaluation can provide another marker for fitness - the fitter we are the more stable the pace will be throught the evaluation.
  3. Finally one can also look at how quickly the heart rate recovers to a lower target HR.  The quicker your HR drops the fitter you are.
Ultra runner Thomas Bubendorfer (Diary of a Rubbish Marathon Runner) regularly uses this type of evaluation run during his training. The scheme he uses is:
  1. Target HR of 161 bpm (recommend to him my Mystery Coach), I would estimate this HR is around 15pbm below his average HR during 10km's.
  2. Warm up for several miles, then wind up the speed so the HR is around 161 when the evaluation section begins
  3. Four mile segments, each mile done on a flat half mile out/back section of road
  4. At the end of each mile a split time is recorded
  5. At the end of 4 mile evaluation you stop, and stand still timing how long it takes the HR to drop to 130 bpm.
  6. Jog home.
To see examples of Thomas' click here: Evaluation Runs

Thomas is a far more accomplished ultra-runner than me (he's got a place on Austria's 24hr team) so it's useful to follow his blog and training progress.  I have longed wondered about doing a similar evaluation run, but never got round to it - until this week!

As Thomas and I have a similar HR during 10km's I adopted the same target HR, this is really just co-incidence though, runners really should pick a target HR relative to the their Lactate Threshold/10km pace.   For this particular type of evaluation I believe it's useful to be a bit below Lactate Threshold so the four miles can be completed comfortably.  Chatting with Thomas these evaluations roughly equate to his Marathon race pace.

My first 4 miles @ 161 Evaluation Run

The route I chose yesterday was at the easterly end of Loch Venachar, going from the Car Park at the end of the Loch to the Gate House just before Sailing Club.  This is about as flat a bit of road as you can get in the Trossachs and is lined with trees and great views of the Loch and surrounding mountains.  It's a lovely place to run up and down ;-)

I don't have a convertional running watch like a Garmin, instead using my Phone to record GPS and hear rate and communicate this data to my Pebble Smart Watch using AeroPilot AeroTrackerPro Android Phone/Pebble app.  I haven't worked out whether I can record splits on it yet, but since it can upload it's recordings direct to Strava I used Strava's support for Segment to provide the time/pace and HR data.

The outbound leg was into wind, and the return leg down wind which made my first attempt at staying at constant HR rather difficult.  My heart rate varied between 164 and 158 on the first outbound leg as the accounting for the gusty wind was a particular challenge.  On subsequent legs I got better and judging it. 

I was pleased with my pace during the each of the legs, feeling pretty comfortable kicking out each mile at around 7min/mile pace.  At the end of the four miles I stopped and stood watching my Pebble report my heart rate looking for the point when it went below 130bpm.  For the first 10 seconds my HR hardly budged sitting hight 150's, this felt like an eternity but in reality was probably only about 10 seconds, then my HR dropped steadily down to 110bpm and then jogged off.

The final figures report by Strava (click here for the Strava page) for my 1mile Segments were:

    1st mile :  6:56 min/mile, average HR 161
    2nd mile : 6:56 min/mle, average HR 160
    3rd mile : 6:56 min/mle, average HR 160
    4th mile : 7:00 min/mle, average HR 161

Thomas uses a 3.5 sec/mile per beat correction when the averages are not 161.   would add this in, but... I can't help feel that the figures are just too consistent to be exact.  I strongly suspect that the GPS recording affected the time resolution of when I completed each section so wouldn't be surprised if it was being rounded by 4 sec/mile.

Having a manual split recording would be thing to do so I can press a button when I cross the turn about point and have a more precise time value.

Looking at HR data it looks like it took around 25 seconds for my HR to drop from 161 to 130.  Again using Strava for post analysis isn't idea so here a manual button press at when the HR crossed 130 would be best.

The figures should be roughly in the right ball park though.  And they are really encouraging.  Thomas typically sees pace figures around 6:35 to 6:55 mark so I'm actually quite surprised at how close my little legs got me.  Thomas's marathon PB is 2:55 so I'd guess I should be now capable of a 3:05 marathon, but not yet a 3hr marathon.

The thought of running for 3hrs at the same pace as my evaluation is rather daunting though.  I'm confident that I could knock out a half marathon at that pace right now, but a full marathon would be really tough.

Another really encouraging sign is how well I maintained my pace through the four miles.  Sure the method of using Strava and GPS data is crude but I don't expect it that it would have hidden a big slow down.

Finally the rate at why my HR dropped is pretty astounding.  Thomas is normally chuffed is his recovery time to 130 is around 30 seconds.  Again my method of analysis isn't ideal, and could easily be 5 or 10 seconds out, but even with adding 10 seconds it's very respectable.

All these figures suggest that might aerobic fitness right now is excellent.  My training is going well :-)

Easy paced evaluation runs

Doing a 4 mile evaluation on flat route at around marathon pace is certainly useful, particularly if your are training for a marathon as it'll tax your body at the roughly the same intensity as you run the marathon at.  However, we run ultra's at much lower intensity.

One approach you could take is to do the above 4 mile evalation at a lower target HR.  My average HR during 53 mile Highland Fling is roughly 15 bpm's below that of the marathons I've race at, so one could simply run the evaluation at 15bpm lower.  I do think that at such an easy pace the heart rate drift you'd get would be some much lower than at marathon pace, and the so little oxygen debt to clear that the pace variations over the mile segments would be smaller than the timing rounding errors of evaluation and the rate of HR dropping would also be less meaningful measure of fitness.  This would leave the average pace on a flat 4 mile road section at a given heart rate as the only useful measure.  However, I don't run any road ultra's, let alone anything that is flat.

To try and make easy paced evaluations a bit more representative to what type of terrain I encounter in most of my ultra's I have adopted route known locally as the Four Bridges, from my house it's 6.55 miles with ~420ft of ascent/descent with a mix of forest tracks, paths and around 2miles of road/pavement.  This route has been one that I typically run once most weeks during training and since I also record my average HR for each training run I've amassed quite a few runs.  I have also developed a way of normalizing all my other training runs to map them to what an equivalent pace would be on this Four Bridges loop.

Over the years my pace for a given HR has improved, and for this course I've long had the ambition of being able to complete the course at a HR of 140 at 7mph, over the last few months I have been inching closer.  Finally this Monday I did the an easy pace evaluation run (strava page for run) around this route averaging 7.08mph, which equates to roughly to 8:10 min/mile pace on the flat.
Sure this is not a fast pace, but 5 years ago I could hardly run at this low a HR and could only manage around 11min/mile pace. So this is another very encouraging sign that my fitness is continuing to progress.

Using logs to compare Historical Fitness

My next race is the Highland Fling which will be held at the end of April. I have run this 53 mile race twice before, first in 2012 when I completed it in 10hrs and 46 minutes, and then in 2014 when I completed it in 9hrs and 43 minutes.  I have all my training runs from these two years and this year all recorded in the same spreadsheet, and by applying a normalization for elevation per/mile and HR drift all my training runs can be plotted on graph of average HR for the run against equivalent speed that I would have achieved on the Four Bridges route.

The follow graph plots my training runs in Feburary 2012 in yellow, February 2014 in red, and my runs so Far this February (2015) in blue.
Training runs in February 2012, 2014 and 2015, normalized to equivalent Four Bridge Speed

What is immediately apparent is that between 2012 to 2014 to 2015 my pace for a given HR has improved.  The biggest improvement is between 2014 and 2015 - around 0.5mph, with just a modest improvement between 2012 and 2014 - around 0.25mph. 

This would indicate that my training over the last year has been twice as effective as all the training between 2012 and 2014.  Rather than seeing my year on year improvements tail off my rate of improvement has gone around four fold better than it was.

This graph doesn't tell the whole story though.  Between 2012 and 2014 I improved my Highland Fling race speed by roughly 0.5 mph, despite my training paces for a given HR improving by 0.25mph.   My best guess to the reason for this discrepancy is that the training data primarily maps general aerobic fitness, and isn't able to account for the effects of Metabolic and Structural Resilience.

In the Spring of 2013 I adopted a diet inspired by reading the Perfect Heath Diet
 book. This diet recommends a ratio of  50% Fat, 30% Carbs and 20% Protien in your diet, which is quite a shift from the high carb, modest protien and fat that I had previously.  As well as being generally being healthier on this new diet and better able to tolerate higher training volumes I'm convinced that the changing to using Fat as my primarily fuel has helped improve my Metabolic Reslience - now rather than running out glycogen stores half way through an ultra I find I can maintain my energy levels right through to the finish.

Since 2014 I have broadly maintained the diet so I wouldn't expect any dramatic differences in my Metabolic Resilience, but my training has clearly led to pretty remarkable improvement in my general Aerobic Fitness markers. What appears to be the key reason for this big improvement is training Consistently (blogpost: Consistency is the key to improving fitness)- and for me it now means training everyday (blogpost : 100 days later - joys of streaking.)  The remarkable thing for me is that improvements have not been about long runs, not hill sprints, not intervals, not tempo runs, not core work, not strength training it's *simply* getting outdoors for a training run everyday.

So looking forward can I improve my Highland Fling speed by another 0.5mph?  Go for a sub 9hr Highland Fling???

The big question for me now is whether I can build the Structural Resilience to run 53 miles over lots of rough terrain to average sub 10 min/mile pace.

I believe the best way for me to build this Structural Resilience will be via overall training volume and an emphasis on lots of feet of hill descents each week.  Going down lots of hills requires going up them, so this will no doubt help with Aerobic Fitness too.

I am not planning to do lots of really long runs before the Fling, as basically I don't need them as I get all the benefits of Aerobic Fitness, Metabolic Resilience and Structural Resilience via other less stressful training stimulus .  I may do a modest ultra run/race a couple of weeks before the Fling, but will be happy just string together lots of 8 to 15 miler's week in week out.  If you run everyday then in effect every day is back to back which takes the pressure off having to do big single runs, or even big back to backs.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

100 days later, the joy of streaking

Back in at the tail end of October after the a few days recovery after the Jedburgh Three Peaks Race I decided to take training easy but keeping getting out regularly to maintain fitness. Somehow I ended up running every day in November, it wasn't a planned effort, it just happened because I was enjoying just getting out everyday.  I continued running doing the Marcothon in December, and haven't stopped running everyday since.  Yesterday was my 100th day running everyday.

Except it wasn't turns out that I did my accounting of days on months wrong and it was in fact my 101th day of running on the trott!

On my 101th consecutive run, heading back to Callander  looking west towards Ben Ledi


Benefits of Run Streaking

I log all my runs and keep track of effective number of calories per mile reported by my HR monitor.  This allows me to track how my efficiency changes over time and what type of training benefits my fitness most.  At the of November I analysed by training and wrote up my findings in a post:

Training Log Analysis : Consistency is the key to improving fitness

The findings were pretty clear, running more often was more critical to fitness than length of individual runs.  If one looks at the training of elite endurance runners you'll find that they training twice or three times a day everyday of the week, so the finding that run frequency is crucial to my own fitness mirrors that of top athletes.   With such a unequivocal result from my analysis keeping running everyday was an easy decision.

Fitting two or three runs in a day doesn't fit well with my work and family life but running everyday before lunch is something that has fitted in easily.  I work from home so starting work a little earlier and finishing a bit later, or doing a little work in the evening keeps the work hours up.  Running mid-day allows me to make the most of rather lack lustre Scottish winter sun.

Once you've decide to run everyday and fit it in with your daily routine your view of training shifts.  No longer do you feel that you have to push yourself in training runs, instead you take the pressure of training intensity and duration a little because you'll need to run tomorrow, so gutting yourself is not worth the risk.

Now three months into my experiment with running every day my fitness has shown consistent improvements.  The last three months have been the most efficient I've ever recorded and January was my most efficient month ever, and the first week of February has seen improvements.

Effective Calories Per Mile between November 2013 and February 2015

The importance and benefits of Recovery runs 

When running every day Recovery runs after harder sessions take on more active importance - you do such runs to aid Recovery not to tick a box.  Keeping these recovery runs nice a slow aids recovery so you body repairs quicker and gets more benefit from the workouts.

Doing lots of regular Recovery runs also helps improve your running economy at ultra-marathon race pace as the two paces a typically well aligned.  For me I race ultras in the 9 to 10min/mile range and this is pace range of my Recovery runs.  Improving running economy and comfort at race pace is an often over-looked but important factor in racing well in ultras.

With the change in emphasis in my training from more stressful runs done less often to doing less stressful runs more often has had big difference to my ability to shrug of injury.  In previous years I'd struggle to training for more than 3 months on the trott before a injury would sideline me for months.

I've now done just over three months of running every day and while I've had plenty of aches and few strains that felt that they might get worse and become injuries that would stop my running streak nothing yet has got beyond aches in the morning and few niggles when running.

The biggest issues injury wise has been a long standing issue of metasalgia and recent ankle strain due to having to run on frozen rutted icy trails.  Avoiding lots of steep descents and staying away from trails for the past few days it's been possible to arrest these niggles and calm them down without stopping running.

The joy of run streaking

One can take about the benefits to ultra-marathon training of running everyday but I don't just run to get fit, I run because I love getting outside into nature.  Running everyday you are forced out in good and bad weather, and regardless of you mood.

What I have found is that by forcing oneself to go out even when it doesn't seem like nice weather there can be some beautiful sights and thoroughly invigorating experiences that make you feel alive.  There can be many little surprises along the way, things that you would have never seen or felt had you been sat in front of the TV or computer screen, yet these moments can live with you and make you smile when you think back.

I've captured a few of these moments with my phone's camera over past 101 days.  They don't really do it all justice but perhaps it'll convey just a little of the joy and wonder that just getting outdoors everyday can bring.

Evening run with my daughter, looking east towards Keltie Bridge caravan park
Some days with Driech

And the next first snow of winter

Or windy and wet
And flooded

On one run during the heavy rains I passed through some serious flooding at Keltie Bridge - I waded in and video'd the experience.   It's end of day so the video quality is really poor, but it might capture a bit of what it was like wading into up to the top of my thighs.  While the camera on the Moto G is bit poor, the phone is waterproof :-)

Shortly after the floods were gone and the weather turned colder.

Runs with friendss Craig and Rob
Or witnessing man-made destruction of forest
And regular route churned up by forestry trucks

But one bright day can lift ones spirits in an instant
Stuc a'Chroin and Ben Vorlich with their heads in the cloud and snow
Yule log made my daughters added a bit of festive post run treat

Recovery run at first light brings it own reward

A Christmas  presents - glasses, top and shoes as modelled by my youngest daughter Ellen :-)

Run streak means an afternoon run even on Christmas day

But what better way to try out your presents before the sun quietly slips away.
Away from home and visiting relatives provide new opportunities to explore

Using strava to explore new routes, and storm the castle to set some strava segment CR's

Back home and exposed to the full force of nature is when you feel most alive

River Teith in full spate

What better way catch up with friends, Neil and I head out for a run

Top of the Callander Crags look west towards Loch Venachar and snow storm

Windy days means bad weather clears more quickly!

My show to the left and big-foots shoe to the right.  Feeling more like a hobbit every day...

Recovery run, but everyone has to take a photo to remember it ;-)

Had to replace broken HR monitor,  replaced with  Pebble and Wahoo Tickr and Aerotracker Pro phone app
Pebble screen is nice an clear and with 5 day better life will cope with whole West Highland Way Race this June.
Storms lashed the Trossachs, one run I had to clamber under/over/around 15 fallen trees

Wet and windy storms were replaced with wintry storms

And then lots of snow, took me 40 minutes to clear the road in front the house.
But 12" of snow didn't stop me getting out for my run
Perfect reason to done my X-Talon 190's and gaitors

Deep snow made for a tough run, 11 min/mile pace at a HR of 160+, and 40% Calories per mile than normal!

Through January my eldest daughter was doing prelims and took to placing post-it notes around the house to help with Spanish vocabulary, this one seemed to sum up quite a bit of my life!
Exploring the new path to the north of Loch Venachar brought some amazing views.
As the wintry weather continued the roads and trails turn to rutted ice

But the views were well worth heading out into the freezer (Loch Venachar looking west)

The whimpy camera on my Moto G phone failed to capture how spectacular the sunset was

Sun finally slips behind Ben Gulipen

More snow turns Ben Guilpen into a winter playground, fast descents in fresh snow is glorious!

But when out running every day you also see the saddest of things. This hare was knocked down during my run - it wasn't there on the way out, but 20 minutes when I return it lay twitching. A red kite was circling not far away so I'm sure in it's death it will sustain other wildlife, but still it really tugged at the emotions - one of natures greatest runners the victim of mechanised transport.

Nature has it's way of being enchanting

When the new Bracklin Bridge was being built it looked so large and incongruous, but in place amongst the rock and trees it fits in, adds some something to this very natural location

Between Bracklin Bridge and Scout Pool bridge you get great views of Stuc a'Chroin and Ben Vorlich, except... when it's completed whited out!

As January progressed and February began the local trails had become horrible mess of rutted ice, which after 2 marathons worth of such trails over a three week period my right ankle was starting complain. Rather than stopping my running streak I switched to training mostly on roads in February.  Still icy in many places but at least the ankle started to settle.  An the views even form the roads can be rewarding.

5 miles into a half marathon, 4 miles of which was on icy roads and trails, but those views more than make up for it.

This highland cow watches me several times a week, I'm sure that's a bemused/incredulous expressing as he chews his food.  This great looking highlander is one I used for the new "Trossachs Mountains, Trails and Lochs" strava club
After many weeks of cold strong winds each day the wind dropped and left Loch Venachar as calm as a mill pond.
At the loch's edge a bizarre stack of ice collected, perhaps a combination of wind, nightly ice formation and loch level changes had created it

Whatever the history of this natural conundrum the result was mesmerizing

What I thought was my 100th consecutive run, the sun shone once again

These photo's just capture a fraction of all that I experienced and witnessed over the course of the past 101 days of running every day. Spectacular, invigorating, challenging and uplifting.

And looking at my training logs I look to be the fittest that I've been in my adult life, and still over two and half months training left till Fling, and four and half till my A race for the year the West Highland Way.  Should I run streak all the way there?