Thursday, 21 May 2015

Lessons learned from the Highland Fling

Highland Fling 2015

In my race report I had plenty of photographs, but missed out the video of the finish that my wife Julia recorded, so include it here to give this post a bit of context.



The day after the Fling my legs were very sore, not quite post West Highland Way Race sore, but far more uncomfortable than last years Fling.  I was able to run in the days after the race but even a week after the race I had to keep to 10 min/miles on flat routes of 4 to 6 miles, any descents were particularly painful on my quads.

During the second week after the race my legs I was running more smoothly, and the pace was starting to slowly improve as my were my calves and quads.  Rather than general pain the discomfort was isolated to strained left calf, and a strained right quad, in each case it was just a bundle of fibres that were a bit sore to touch and when under load.  More recovery runs were required and by the end of the second week it was trying my patience a bit, but you can't will your body to repair, you just have to treat it right and wait for it to heal.

Finally at the start of third week the strained calf and quad muscles now felt healed up enough to start increasing the pace and distance. Now in the forth week after the Fling I'm into proper training again, I have done a hilly 15 miler, a 13 miler and 11 miler as well as 6 to 7 miler's.   In this period I've also passed through my 200th day of running every day.

Day #200 of runstreak: View looking down of Loch Lubnaig, during a long run up to Stank Glen

My HR for a given pace was been excellent throughout most the recovery period, just a couple of runs my HR was a bit high.  This suggests my base aerobic fitness hasn't been compromised by the race, which suggests I wasn't catabolizing my muscle tissue excessively during the Fling.  This in turn hints that amount of muscle discomfort that I experienced during the race and during recovery was most likely due to my legs not being recovered from the Great Tartan Skidaddle ultra two weeks before.

Another pointer to my legs being still fatigued when racing was the quad injury before the race, I'm sure this wouldn't have happened had my legs been fully recovered, and was an indication that my quads were still healing up when I did the hill run in the week before the Fling and over stressed the healing muscles.  While the minor injury showed that at least one bundle of fibres had been still been weak, I now believe my whole quads, calves and hamstrings were still a little compromised and recovering.  I was lucky that the minor injury healed in time for the race, but the rest of my running muscles weren't at full strength yet.

Analysis of Highland Fling Pacing

Looking at the three timed sections I was 46 second/mile faster to Drymen compared to 2014.  Between Drymen and Rowardennan I was 73 seconds/mile faster.  Between Rowardennan I was 46 seconds/mile faster.  Finally Beinglas to Tyndrum I was 26 seconds/mile slower.  This slow down meant that my first half/second half time ratio was 1.17 and quite a bit off my 1.08 ratio in 2014.

A significant component of my slow down was down to my guts protesting, I've had gastric stress before but it usually just slowed my eating and drinking, not caused me to slow my pace significantly.  I suspect the two culprits for the discomfort were the asprin/paracetomal combined pain killer tablets I took before Inversnaid, and possibly the muscle damage creating by products in my bloodstream that my liver would then have to deal with.

Despite slowing much more this year, I was still in the top 4% of strong finishers, which is an indication most runners are still going out waaaaay too fast, because if I have a bad day and slow significantly and still finish stronger than 96% of the field something is amiss.

The average first half/second half ratio for Men this year was 1.326, and for women it was 1.298, while the average for Man last year was 1.326 and women 1.313.  What does this tell us?  Men are pacing just as badly as last year, while at least the Women on average are learning how to pace better, even if it's only marginally.  It's a bit of bizarre co-incidence that the Men's average is identical up to four decimal place, that's what comes out of the spreadsheets analysis though.

Heart rate and efficiency

My average heart rate for the race was 149 beats per minute, five below the 154 I averaged in 2014 when I ran 9:43, and 3 below the 152 I averaged in 2012 when I ran 10:46.  Being able to run faster at a lower heart rate suggests that my cardiovascular system has improved significantly in just one year - far more than the two year period between the 2012 and 2014 races.  I believe the main reason for the improvement over the last year has been consistent training, rather any one particular type of workout.

However, while my overall efficiency was better, the efficiency difference between my race and my training was higher in 2015 than in 2014, with my race/training figures couple of % worse this year.  I simply wasn't as fast for a given heart rate as my training logs suggested.  While part of this might be down to a need for me to recalibrate my training logs in light of changes to my HR/pace figures, I feel that a significant chunk of this unrealized potential was down to high levels of muscle fatigue I experienced during the race.

Even at Drymen I knew my legs weren't as strong and smooth flowing as they had been.  I simply wasn't the same resilient athlete that raced the Great Tartan Skidaddle two weeks before.  During the race it really felt like every step I was having to put more effort in than normal, it felt that my running economy had been compromised, and the HR rate/calorie burned stats back this up - my running economy was around 2% lower than expected.

Lessons learned

The big lesson I've learnt is from this year's Fling race are:
  1. Don't race hard two weeks before an important race
  2. Don't ignore the early onset of muscle fatigue
My big mistake was not so much running a 31 mile race two weeks before the Fling as not sticking to my original plan of use this race as a training run.  Dropping the pace and running hard for the last 8 miles wasn't even necessary for the win as I won by 9 minutes.  I could have taken it easy and still won and would have recovered by better.

I had been thinking about running the Strathearn Marathon in June as my last long run before this years West Highland Way Race.  Running it as proper training run shouldn't risk the big race, but the discipline required not to run harder than I should would be through the roof.  I've done the Loch Katrine marathon twice now and felt so fresh both times that I couldn't help myself charging home at 6:40min/mile pace for the last three miles.  These antics are dumb in hindsight.  By avoiding any races I can at least avoid temptation to let rip.

Had I not raced the Great Tartan Skidaddle Ultra as hard as I did I'm pretty sure I would have gone comfortably under 9hrs.  Despite the discomfort during the race my energy levels were excellent - my aerobic fitness had enough spare capacity to cope with the loss of efficiency due to my legs being trashed.  Had my legs not been trashed I wouldn't have risked the pain killers and without extra stress on my body due to dealing with the by products of muscle damage and likely would have few stomach issues as well.

Had I raced fresh I feel that I should have been able to match Anders Lindell all the way to the finish and achieved at time around 8:50.  Ander's first half/second half ratio was 1.10 and was 2nd strongest finisher, but even with this strong finish was a little off how strongly I finished last year.  It's a bit frustrating to know that I have this capacity for a faster Fling race in me, but will have to wait another year to finally put it away.

The reality is that due to incomplete recovery from the Great Tartan I wasn't in the shape to run 8:50 at this years race. I likely wasn't in the shape to run 9 hrs, I simply screwed my chances by racing too near to the big race.

During this year's race I paced the first leg relatively conservatively to Drymen, but then allowed myself to target a higher HR zone (150-155) from Drymen onwards.  The effect of this is apparent in the splits going from being on average 46 seconds/mile faster on the Dymen leg, to 73 seconds/mile for faster for the Dymen to Rowardennan leg and went from being dead on 9hrs pace to sub 9hr pace.

In hindsight this pace in the middle of the race was faster than I should have pushed on at.  Had I stuck to 145 to 150 HR range I would have gone through Rowaddan around 6 minutes slower would have stayed closer to 9hr pace.  This would have meant lower stress on my legs, less damage and a bit more spare capacity for my body to consume energy, fluids and deal with the accumulation of muscle damage by products.  For sure I would have finished stronger and been a much more comfortable bunny.

Had I not pushed on so much in the middle of the race could I have run 9hrs?  I think I would have got closer, it's impossible to know how much closer.  My next opportunity to race the Fling will be in 11 months and I'll be different runner again, hopefully with another year of good training behind I will be able to easily beat 9hrs, just as I comfortably beat my 2014 time this year.

One of the biggest positives of this year's Fling race is that despite running the perfect race last year and running sub par race this year - my base fitness has moved on so much that it more than compensated for racing pre-fatigued and getting the pacing a bit off.  I didn't have a bad race this year, but it wasn't close to wringing every ounce of potential out myself as I did last year which leaves a bit of lingering frustration.

That's racing though, you can't get it right every race.  If you don't get everything right then you just need to take the lessons to heart and avoid making them in the future.

Looking forward

My next big race is the 95 mile West Highland Way Race on the 20th of June, my biggest training run will remain the Highland Fling, so it's now I'm focused on being as close to 100% fit on the start line as I can manage.  Once I'm racing I also need to maintain the discipline to race the perfect race, no getting carried away during the middle of the race like I did during the Fling.

My aerobic fitness is clearly far ahead of where it was at this time last year, this will help both by basic running pace and my ability to metabolize fats as the big race progresses.  Better aerobic fitness should also make it easier for my body to digest food and drink.  Improved fat burning and digestion should really help with maintaining pace at the end of the race.

The other big factor will be structural resilience, at least year's West Highland Way Race this was my Achilles heel - I sustained a calf injury going into Kinlochleven that forced me to walk a good chunk of the remain 14 miles race and blew away my chance of sub 20hr time.

This year my aerobic fitness will enable me to run faster, but faster also means more structural stress on the body.  If I don't increase my structural resilience in line with my aerobic fitness it will again be the weak link in the chain.   This year's Fling was also compromised by lack of structural resilience, but in this case due to racing too close to the Fling.

To build resilience my plan is to incorporate more hills runs, including a series of runs up Ben Ledi.  It's just short of Munro and will provide a great stimulus to toughening up the calves during ascents, and quads during descents.  I will also add some calf raises and squats in between training runs to help provide some strength specific work for these crucial muscle groups.

To help with fat burning capacity I have started doing most runs after a 16 to 18hr fast.  It's quite simple to do, just eat dinner as usual at around 6pm, then skip breakfast the next day, then run in the hour or two before lunch.  Running fasted will ensure that my insulin levels are nice and low so my body is already in a fat burning zone prior to the run.  Running fasted better creates the conditions that the body is under later in an ultra marathon, and reduces the need for really long training runs to achieve the same aim.

The first day I skipped breakfast I was a bit hypo-glycemic at lunchtime, but kept the routine up and haven't had any problems since.  I have now done a hilly 15 miler, and 13 mile and 11 mile back to backs fasted without any problems with energy problems and all my shorter runs were fine too.  It's amazing how quickly the body can adjust to fat burning if you've previous done lots of training fasted before. 

As we get near the big race I'll provide more details of my training and plans for the big day.

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