Monday, 24 February 2014

This Is Your Six-Week Warning

In a sudden flash everything has become very real.

Forty-one days to go and I’m starting to forecast what the weather might be like and what kit I should wear. I’ve devised a fuelling plan – before, after and during - and have spent this morning browsing the internet for affordable post-marathon deep tissue massages.

This weekend’s training run was 16 miles, and as I trotted across the virtual finish line a terrifying thought dawned upon. I’m going to run a marathon. There’s no way back. 5.8 weeks to go. That's forty-one days; only 980 hours; a mere 59,040 minutes.

So far my trek to the starting line has been littered with obstacles.Both of my illiotibial bands suffered stubborn inflammations almost as soon as I commenced training last autumn, and as they recovered, my right sciatic nerve flared up, turning even sitting still into an arduous and painful ordeal.

As that eased, and I delved into training anew, soft tissue in my right foot swelled up and bruised unexpectedly, stalling my regime once again and restricting my training plan to cycling and swimming. But the last few weeks have finally brought some relief.

I’ve clocked up 90 kilometres over the last four weekends, and - coupled with my shorter runs and hill intervals - I’ve hit around 150 kilometres. That’s equivalent to the distance between London and Bournemouth, a third of the distance between London and Dublin!

I’m doing well to balance my calorific intake – and when I say balance, I mean eat enough to satisfy a lion’s appetite.

One of my colleagues is torturing through the faddy 5:2 diet, and when I realised that the energy I burn on one long run is equal to three times what she eats in one day, I didn’t think twice about eating both brownies...and another for good measure.

I was afraid that at this point I might start to get bored. I’ve read about training fatigue and the mental hardship of lacing up every weekend and not coming back until three hours later, but – touch wood – my mind’s still feels fresh.

The secret, I've learned, is to keep routes varied.

This Saturday I chose a circular, starting with a loop of Hyde Park. Then I picked my way from Chelsea all along the Embankment, through a dormant concrete-kingdom City and across Tower Bridge onto the bustling Southbank where I navigated an assault course of gormless tourists and toddlers.

The previous weekend, I headed to Richmond Park – deserted but for runners, cyclists and rollerbladers – and completed at least half of the 25 kilometre workout without so much as touching a slab of concrete, just squirrels and trees for company.

I’m still savouring each run. Often I’ll set aside Sunday for the long one. Come Friday evening, though, I’ll be so keen to head out that I end up running on Saturday instead, and then basking in post-workout bliss for the lazy remainder of the weekend.

I enjoy it so much, that a number of times I’ve caught myself wondering what it will be like once The Marathon experience is over.

It’s been such a dominant project – a hobby if you may – over the last weeks and months, that I’m sure there will be a void when I cross the finish line. I’ve developed training routines and habits that I’ll no longer have to stick to, freeing up weeknight evenings and Saturday morning.

Deep down inside though, I know how I will fill that void: I’ll choose my next challenge. Another marathon? Perhaps. But maybe I’ll turn to triathlon or opt for another avenue all together: learn a language, write a book.

Either way, in six weeks time, when my weary toe finally crosses the finish line, pulling a battered and bruised body behind it, I will inevitably be crossing a starting line too;  a new chapter, a new challenge, and a whole endless score of new exciting opportunities - further even than 26 and a bit miles.  

(Image courtesy 

Monday, 17 February 2014

Higher Powers: How Altitude Training Works

Even for the most avid runner, a week of skiing in the French Alps should conjure up images of ankle deep powder snow, miles of untouched piste and cups of steaming hot chocolate.

It should not, by any means, inspire a fear of falling fitness levels due to a week of missed training sessions, cheese and chocolate binges and perhaps one or two après-ski sessions which were not, let’s face it, necessary.

In fact, if you’re preparing for a marathon or a similarly gruelling physical feat, the benefits of an Alpine getaway could actually span far beyond mogle-toned thighs and a sun-kissed complexion. The explanation is a little tricky and technical, but bear with me on this one!

The higher up the mountain you go, the lower the barometric pressure in the atmosphere drops.

What this means in plain English, is that it becomes more difficult for blood cells to bind and carry oxygen to the tissues that make up our organs and muscles. Experts refer to it as a decrease in hemoglobin saturation - or the percentage of hemoglobin molecules able to bind to each oxygen molecule – which in turn inhibits performance, reducing muscular strength, energy and endurance.

Doesn’t sound particularly great, I know, but fear not, for as I have written time and time again, the human body is a remarkable machine and our kidneys are masters of monitoring even the slightest change in chemical composition.

As soon as oxygen delivery falls, specialised cells within the kidney release a substance called erythropoietin which crucially triggers bone marrow to hike production of red blood cells.

This facilitates greater hemoglobin saturation, delivering the necessary amount of oxygen to organs and tissues, enhancing performance, endurance and strength and putting us back on track.

All still sounding a bit technical? What I’m really trying to say is that spending time up a mountain makes our body more efficient.  Mitochondria, the energy source in our cells, become more efficient and studies have also shown that high altitude training can lead to an improvement in the in the ability of muscles to tolerate lactic acid - the byproduct of anaerobic metabolism – too.

It’s no coincidence that 95% of all medalists at the world championships and the Olympic Games since 1968 have either lived or trained at altitude, according to Runner’s World.

So next time you clip into those bindings, strap on your helmet (because I know you wear one!) and soak up the gorgeous view, please take a minute to banish any thoughts of missed training sessions for good. For what altitude alone is doing to your body, is – in my eyes – far more impressive than anything a spinning class, treadmill or energy drink will ever be able to achieve.

Happy skiing!