That is January done and dusted with just over 200 miles, same mileage as December. Over the last couple of weeks I have noticed myself becoming fitter. I am generally feeling better and I am managing to complete my workouts better.
I have noticed that I am also running defensively less often and beginning to attack my runs more. By attack, I don’t necessarily mean I go any faster, but I find myself running with a more erect posture, a brisker, more positive foot strike, more tensioned, springier push off and a slightly more aggressive attitude to the run.
For me, as an old fat bloke turned wannabe runner defensive running is when you do your run, all the time trying to minimise the hurt, with half an eye on making sure you will make it to the end. It is running with a squishy core, and soft knees and feet trying to dampen the impact when you hit the ground. It is almost trying to cover the ground while doing the minimum of actual running. Even when trying to run fast there is a sense of keeping the rev counter below the red line. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for this: unlike the racing snakes of this world, there is indeed a chance you might not make it to the end and as a heavier runner there is also the issue of having to lug more weight around than your body is built to carry, as well as the greater forces when you put your feet down. A further reason is that for many of us who train on our own or with people of our own ability we never get pushed out of that comfort zone.
The human body can generally do much more than we think it can. We will all be familiar with tales of superhuman strength when someone lifts a car or other heavy object to free someone trapped underneath. Similarly with athletic endeavour, I think the progression is not always linear, sometimes you will have that breakthrough which takes you on to a new level in the same way as Piaget’s model of cognitive development. As runners I suspect too many of us don’t push ourselves hard enough often enough.
I can think of a few examples from my own sporting life where I have experienced that transition: as a school boy I was a half decent rugby player. I was fit, and had a reputation as a brave and hard tackler. Mid way through my third year, I was asked to play for the school 1st XV. This was a wee bit daunting, because although I was prepared for the hurt which came with playing with much bigger and older boys, what I wasnt prepared for was the difference in the speed at which the game was played. Every decision was made more quickly, and while individuals were a bit faster than me, it was the pace of the game which left me struggling to get anywhere near the ball. And yes, when they tackled, they tackled with a whole new level of aggression.
Similarly as a rower, moving from a novice boat into a seat in the 1st Eight, despite having the physical attributes and the appropriate level of of gym performance, I was woefully unprepared for the sheer power, intensity and work rate required to row in an elite boat.
In both of these examples it didn’t take very long to make the transition to working at a completely different level of physical performance. A few sessions isn’t enough to make any significant physical adaptations, so the main adaptations were mental, greatly increasing the aggression, intensity, or assertiveness of the performance and being prepared to work much harder.
I have seen similar things in my racing as well, where a couple of times, especially in half marathons, I have made a big leap in my PB beyond my training level, and that then becomes the normal level of performance
I ran both assertively and defensively this weekend. On Saturday I ran 21.5 miles on the road as a marathon Long Run. My cadence was high, foot strike was crisp and I was very concentrated on running well. As it was, I had a good run, kept my heart rate low, and was only 30secs a mile outside marathon PB pace. Sunday was off road, ultra training and I dreaded every footstep as I tried to force my tired legs to run another 20 miles. I was a bit crumpled in the middle at times and I was reluctant to push through my legs in case I ran too fast and tired myself out. The irony was that when I did stretch out over the last few miles, I ran much better and with less effort than while trying to run without running at the start of the workout.
I suppose the logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is that once you have the basic skills and capacities, if you want to really improve, you have to play with the big boys.
Footnote: Running back to back 20 milers reminded me just how hard ultra running is and that to succeed, I need to approach the runs like an ultra runner, not like a marathon runner who runs ultras, because therein lies a whole heap of unnecessary pain, angst and disappointments.