Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Embracing Wim Hof... (well, not actually - social distancing and all that)

 One of the most notable changes to have happened to me over the last 12 months has been a realisation that we are capable of so much more than we usually believe. A friend and fellow runner (one of these super fit types who does Triathlons) was talking to me recently about the Wim Hof Method. At this point, I am hoping you haven't just opened a new tab and typed in 'Wim Hof Method' into the search bar - because if you have, you probably won't finish reading this. If you've gone already, please do come back!

The reason Wim Hof came into the conversation (and I'll come back to him later) is we were talking about the statto stuff that I really enjoy learning about. If I tell you that two men with a combined age of around 100 were discussing resting pulse, VO2 Max levels, Max Heart Rate and Training Zones, you'll get the picture. If this stuff really doesn't interest you, maybe skip this paragraph, skim down the page for the name WIM HOF and then carry on! One of the things we were talking about was training zones - his Personal Trainer  (and no, I haven't) has been encouraging him to try to maintain heartrate at a much lower rate when running which, to my mind means running more slowly (which it does...but for longer). So instead of going out for a 90 minute run and blasting as fast as he can, he goes out for 90 minute run with the aim of not going over 140 bpm - this is his magic number for the end of the cardio zone and the beginning of 'Peak'. Seemingly the theory behind this is that building stamina and training your heart to work at a lower level will help you carry on for longer. I absolutely see this if training for a triathlon with all that entails, but not convinced yet that it's the best way for me - I'd be virtually walking! What on earth has this got to do with the Iceman (I can't type his name yet as those skimming will get cross)? It's where the conversation headed to next - via VO2 Max levels and resting pulse. I'm even boring myself typing this...but there's a point and I will get to it. I've noticed since September that my resting pulse has increased and, consequently, my VO2 max has declined slightly. Nothing worrying or dangerous as my resting pulse averaged 54 over the past month - but it was 47/48 last summer (I was running more and quickly, so was fitter). I mentioned that I felt the only way I could run more quickly was to increase my VO2 Max and reduce my resting pulse again (I have just glanced and as I type it is 54) to below 50 consistently. And that is when the big reveal came...

'Have you heard of WIM HOF? (In bold for those who are skimming - welcome back!)

My answer was no - but I was soon being filled in about a 61 year old Dutch man who has trained for many years and has earned the nickname 'The Iceman' due to some of his feats of endurance in the harshest of conditions, such as running a marathon barefoot inside The Arctic Circle. There are loads of documentaries around about him - You Tube is a good starting point. He is a holder of 26 World Records and builds his stunning achievements through a belief in a three point plan, which is known as 'The Wim Hof Method'. I'm not the kind of person to jump headlong into fads without doing my research. I've never been on a diet, none of this kind of thing ever makes sense to me, but a lifestyle change is different. So Step 1...buy the book. The Wim Hof Method, Activate your Potential, Transcend your Limits is the title of the one I bought, although there are a few to choose from. At this point, I am interested, but remain at heart a sceptic - and can't stop myself calling the book The Duckworth Lewis Method (there's one for cricket fans!)

There are 3 main 'pillars' of the method:

1) Cold 

2) Breath

3) Mindset

I'll talk about each one individually in different entries - starting today with cold. 'A cold shower a day keeps the doctor away' is the main phrase. In a nutshell, the theory is that we as a society view cold as our enemy, preferring warm comfort, and in doing so, we inhibit our vascular system, and to reignite this, all we need to do is to take a cold shower every day (at least 5 times a week anyway). Sounds punishing - cold is relentless and harsh - would I be able to handle this? What are the benefits? In theory, this will lower stress, anxiety, pulse rate and consequently improve my VO2 Max - which should in turn improve my running speed. The plan suggests that for the first week, aim for 30 seconds at the coldest setting on your shower at the end of a warm shower, after a week, go to a minute and increase this so that after a month you are up to 2 minutes. Day 1 comes...warm shower, then spin the dial down to the coldest setting. First response - sharp gasp and intakes of breath. This lasts for about 10 seconds or so, and suddenly I feel my body adjusting to this. 30 seconds was fine - no problem. Day 2...same, 30 seconds and out. By Day 3, I had started to wonder if accelerating through the programme would be a good idea, so timer at the ready, I turned it down to 0 and closed my eyes. Work through the first ten seconds, deep breaths and then...relax. Let the water envelope the body and enjoy. Of course, I'm loosely timing this, so I decide to glance at the stopwatch - 1:30! Excellent! At this point, I decide that a 4 week programme can become 4 days and moved to 2 minutes from Day 4. It is now Day 7 and I am sticking to two minutes for now. Eventually I will take this longer, but for now - 2 minutes is enough. So what has the impact been? Difficult to pinpoint whether the showers or the breathing are the ones having the impact, but resting pulse graph over the last 30 days looks like this:


This has been inconsistent over time and much depends on what I am actually doing on the day - for instance the one where I am at 58, I had been on the phone most of the day, walking around. Not enough to register as active, but still enough to raise the pulse slightly. Over a 3 month period, the average has been 54, so when we take the last week (I am now on Day 7), I have been below this and for the past two days, have been 50 or below. We will see whether over time this is maintained. The other impact is on VO2 Max - this is estimated by my Fitbit taking into account all sorts of information - weight, BMI, Pulse when resting, sleeping, running etc. I think the estimated range this gives me is on the generous side. A week ago, it was 58-62, today I look and this has moved to 60-64, the highest it has ever been and certainly high for someone my age. Is this the showers? The breathing? Placebo effect? Who knows. For now, I am enjoying the new regime - it is far too early to tell what the impact on running and overall wellbeing is, but watch this space!



Tuesday, March 9, 2021

10k - My 'go to' run...what else works to increase speed?

 So, as training has started again, I am trying to evaluate the extent to which I am improving as a runner. This is at times hard to quantify as I am still quite inconsistent. Therefore building consistency has to remain a major priority in my training. My ideas around this come into a number of main headings:

1) Nutrition - making sure I remember what I have done when I felt good running. This is now a fairly well-established pattern and in honesty, it's not just about the 24 hours before a run and making sure there's enough fluid, carbs and protein taken on board, but is broader than this. I'll go into detail on my routines in a later blog, and of course, the quantity of fuel I need will vary from that of other people. This is all influenced by so many variables, one size certainly would not fit all.

2) Repeated runs - Familiarity can breed contempt as the saying goes, but in many ways, nothing beats running the same route if you are looking at 'landmarks' to guide you with regard to how a run is going. I have 5 or 6 main runs that I repeat, with different goals and strategies. I always have a time in mind, but each one has a landmark after 1km and 2.5km, so I know how I'm going and, more importantly, how I am feeling. This helps - if I'm slower than I should be, I try to put my foot down, if the time is good, it is also a welcome boost.

3) Negative Splits - I have been practising this for around 8 months now, but didn't realise this was a 'proper' training method and not just something I invented to keep me going! In a nutshell, these runs involve running for a set time in one direction, then turning for home and getting back in a quicker time. I did one of these last week, and ran in one direction for 30:30 - turn round and kick for home. Can I make it in less than an hour? Adding a layer of challenge motivates me to push harder and I find these to be great fun. Handy hint - make the first half 'uphill' to make the second half easier!!!

I'm going to talk about my 'easy' 10k that I do now. It's pretty hilly round Ribble Valley and most of my runs have an elevation of at least 120 metres - more in some directions, with 10% and greater gradients a regular feature. I regularly run up into hills as this really helps to build aerobic fitness, but when I do a timed 10k, the route I choose only has an average incline of around 1% on the way there and -1% on the way back. Over 5k, elevation of 87m is not too much, there's very few roads where I need to cross and therefore potentially stop and, as an added bonus, it is broken up into natural shorter sections, so more landmarks and less time to get fed up. I went out to do this last Friday morning - nice and early. A cold, crisp morning - no need for hats, gloves or anything daft like that, but definitely a morning for leggings not just shorts!

Preparation - Wednesday - start adding more Carbohydrate to my diet. Instead of my usual breakfast of Greek Yoghurt and fruit, have a toasted muffin and also a mid morning carbohydrate snack. Apart from this, Wednesday is a normal day. Thursday - back to usual breakfast, but add more granola than I would normally have (about 50g rather than 25g). Normal meals again, then before bed, a 500ml drink - (SIS Go is my preferred one) - this adds electrolytes as well as carbs, so a quick stretch in the morning and I'm away...in theory. Friday morning - up early, coffee, flapjack, about 300ml water and I'm off. 10k is a 2 gel (both isotonic) run - one after about 1.5/2k, the next just after half way. That's plenty - if I've struggled with sleep, I'll chuck a caffeine pill down prior to setting off and that  prevents fatigue toward the end. 

Stretching. Is it me or is stretching a bit overrated? I see people on videos warming up for longer than the period they exercise for. For me, the muscles I use most need a decent stretch - calves and hamstrings are the main ones. I also try to remember to do some back stretches as well as occasionally I get pans in my lower back when out and about. I'm not fully committed to a major stretch and often do take shortcuts here - but I know I need to do the basics before flying out of the door. 

So...the 10k itself. My plan - and this works for me on this route.

1) Get off to a fast start. The first 300m or so is uphill - about a 15m elevation at and average gradient of 6.1% (onthegomap.com is great for this information) so this isn't easy. I can get up there in around a minute, and then I have half a km of graduated downhill, then it flattens out. After 1km I'm back on the flat and always aiming for below 4:30.  This is where landmarks are important. The first glance at the watch is outside the Post Office - usually around 4:30 - needs to be nearer to 4:20 for a fast run. The fastest I've done for this is 4:08, but on that run, I ran out of steam towards the end. The reason I want to set off quickly is that I know that once I am into a stride pattern and pace, I find it difficult to shift through the gears, so if my cadence initially is below 170, I'm in for a slow run. 

2) Know the pitfalls of the route and overcome with nutrition. The next 2km is slightly uphill - about 50m over the 2k, nothing too tough, but always the slowest in this run. This is where the gels come in. A nice refreshing sweet flavour (Fruit Salad and Blackcurrant are delicious!) gives me a boost as I head into Barrow and if I reach Whiteacre Lane in around 13:30, I know I'm doing ok. From this point until the 5k mark, there are a few ups, a few downs, but again, not too strenuous.

3) Take advantage of the easy sections! On the flatter parts, I can get back down to the 4:40 mark per km - turn and come back, the knowledge of the route helps as I know those 2 slow kms from the beginning become the quicker ones, although rarely as quick as the first one. The last 600k or so involves a longish uphill drag with a great 300m downhill to finish, so the run really is all about muscle memory and me knowing how hard I can push up the hill - and balancing that with ensuring there's enough energy to sprint the last section. This is where I love technology - I can often find the highest cadence in my run is those first 300m and the highest maximum speed is pretty much always the last 300m...down a pretty steep hill in fairness!

4) Don't lose the rhythm! When I am tired, or just lazy, my cadence (steps per minute) can go down to 164/166 and really needs to be 170+. It's about setting a pace and sticking to it, even on hills - just shorten the stride, but maintain the rhythm - slow down once and it's hard to get back up.

So last Friday I tackled this run - I had in my head that my PB was 47:58, so aim was to get as close to 47:00 as possible, but below 47:30 would be great. In truth, I didn't start well and it was only 3km in that I found a consistent rhythm - nonetheless, the times looked ok and as I turned round at the 5k mark, I was just below 24:00, so definitely similar to my best. This is where knowing the route helps as the next 3km when pretty quickly - and as I got home and confirmed the time, the trainers were telling me that the time was 46:52 - over a minute off my best! I was delighted...until I checked and my previous best was 46:58, so while this was a PB, it was only 6 seconds faster than a previous run! Typical! Enjoyed it very much though and starting to think about maybe taking on a longer run soon. Looking at different ways of training and potentially trying to run for longer at a lower pulse rate, I usually work 80% in the peak zone and have been told that to build stamina, this may be something to strip back... let's see. 

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Starting Again...

 Hello everyone, and welcome back to the blog!

Some time has passed since the last update, and I have been trying to maintain fitness while relaxing and not punishing myself. As it is now pretty much a year since I begun the blog, and started running, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on where I'm up to and share with you my targets for the year to come. 

As I type, I have had confirmation that I have retained a place in The Great North Run this September and I am increasingly optimistic that this will take place. This time last year I entered, and put an estimated finish time of 2:15 on my application. I had no idea what to expect, having never run further than 5k in my life, and not having done that since 1986 - and training began. For me, having some fitness built up already meant I was basically learning to run, pretty much from scratch and my first 5k clocked in at just short of 31 minutes. This gave me a real platform to work with - If I aimed for 6 minutes per km and could do pretty much this, maybe I could get get close to 2 hours. That was my thinking back then. As I trained, I encountered all sorts - mental blocks, exhaustion, self-doubt (yeah, pretty much every blog entry covers that for the first 4 months!), a small number of injuries. I even bought some proper running shoes! For those of you who have been reading throughout, this is old news I know, but as I start the new year, there are a few things that I now need to remind myself of:

  • Older is not necessarily wiser - I am still going out chasing PBs and striving to go faster, further and to improve - sometimes, it is ok to just go and enjoy a run!
  • Science is important - I had two runs last week - equal distance (10k) but the harder 10k was quicker and felt easier - all about hydration and nutrition. I need to remember to put fuel in the tank
  • I can run the distance of a half marathon - I did it in September and did so in a half decent time (given my age and lack of experience) so I can do it again
  • Discipline is important - If I want to improve, I have to work hard
  • It's not about me - this was only ever about helping others. Shelter is my nominated charity, and I know they need our help now more than ever. https://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/graemelucas1
Visitors to the giving page will currently see a picture of myself and my good friend Pete. We tried to keep this ticking over the winter months with a 2800 sit ups in February challenge. Between us, we got slightly competitive and managed 12400 in total, and our friends have managed to bump up the quantity of money in the pot by around £300, which is ace. I'll get that updated in a few weeks and get back onto the running! 

So...targets for the coming year are fairly simple:
  • Stay fit! Obvious one, but injury free and fit are two different things. When I have a strain, I need to rest or I will break. 
  • Do the run and give it my best. I have a time in mind - but I know now that on some days, I simply don't go as quickly as others. If I have a slow day in September, or it's hot, or windy, the time could alter by a good ten minutes. I'm not dwelling on that. If it happens, it happens (but I'd love to go quicker than last year)
  • Enjoy it more - I genuinely enjoy running now - reading back to last year, it was a slog and a strain and quite often I barely made it through a run! (See this example from my first ever 10 miler! http://www.thegreatnorthrunadventure.com/2020/04/ten-milespleasure-and-pain.html) On Tuesday, I went out, set myself a challenge based on 'how far can I run in an hour?' and loved it. No doubts, no issues, no pain - just enjoyment. I need to remember that and keep the thoughts close. If anyone is interested, I managed about 12.3km in the hour. I can't go faster than that...even over a shorter distance, it appears 4.45/4.50 per km is my upper limit. Again, I'm fine with that. I'd love to run 4:30 and get 10k down below 45 minutes, but I don't think I ever will. I am blaming two things - short legs and old age. It won't be through lack of trying!
Anyway, that's the overview of where I am at right now, feeling good about my running, need to invest in some shorts that can hold a phone without it bouncing around. A few people have pointed out that going so far without any means of communication isn't the smartest of moves, so I am listening. Currently considering how to keep the blog fresh rather than more repetitive tales of the same runs in similar times and over the coming weeks am going to try and do a regular update, with each one being on a set theme. Ideas for these are coming to me all the time, and I am open to suggestions!

  • Nutrition - Before and after
  • Hydration
  • Developing stamina
  • Improving speed
  • Recovery - linked to nutrition
I am still on Instagram and posting images on there whenever it seems appropriate, so please do give me a follow - I get a boost from 'likes' and reposts! www.instagram.com/greatnorthrungraeme

Thanks for reading - take care, stay safe and look after each other.