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Back to the drawing board

Updated: Dec 9, 2020

Kate joined our coaching group just six months ago, looking for some support with training for mountainous ultra distance races. But she has found that byproducts of the approach taken have seen her getting faster over shorter distances too, AND enjoying her running more than ever. Here's her story so far, although she (modestly) doesn't mention that she clocked up her first race win at a recent trail race in the Peak District. Exciting times ahead with a couple of tough ultras coming up later this summer.

I've been running for a few years but wanted a drastic change after constant pb chasing left me unhappy every time I went out and didn't run faster, even on my training runs. In my first year I always ran as fast as I could whenever I went out the door and ended up with a piriformis injury that took me out for six months and I still have to manage today.

I went back to the drawing board and have spent six months solidly working on my aerobic base i.e. low heart rate training. It took a lot of brain training and habit breaking to slow down. And also forget about what my Strava feed looks like to others. I'd fallen into a trap where I no longer ran for enjoyment and knew this wasn't right but I didn't understand why.

At the start of 2019 I began my coaching with Andy Brooks of Peak Running. Andy shared the idea of low heart rate training through the MAF model and it was a complete light bulb moment. Those two years of interval sessions, speed sessions, hard long runs, hill sprints... quite honestly felt like a complete waste of time and had left me with nothing but moderate success, an injury and frustration.

I had never known the concept of building my aerobic base, to have a solid foundation of fitness and strength. I find that completely bonkers given that it is the absolute fundamental of running. I had been with a club, ran with experienced people, had two other coaches previously and none had ever spoken to me about how significantly I needed to slow down to train sustainably and effectively. The heart rate training aspect gave me a specific, measurable target about how much I needed to slow down by.

In 2019 I started my new approach to training. At first I had to clock watch because I was so accustomed to going off fast. The other major aspect is Strava. People see your feed and think you are slow... that is a mental barrier for a lot of people. What I would say to that is bite the bullet and get some slow ones in there. It's like ripping a plaster off, you just have to do it and think 'whatever'. You don't need to justify how you run to anyone. The game changer for me was following professional athletes and seeing how slow they ran their easy runs, the difference between their hard runs and aerobic miles was so significant, it made me realise if they are running that slow I seriously need to as well! Beth Pascall ultra trail runner around 6 min/km for majority of training, runs at 3:53 min/km HM race pace, Robbie Simpson team GB mountain runner 5:50min/km training, 3:03 HM pace!

I moved away from racing every week, a watched kettle never boils! When I did club training I made sure I did what was right for me and didn't strive to keep up with the 'fast' group. The thing I loved most of low HR training was I got back to loving my running. I looked forward to going out, came back feeling good, motivated to train again the next day, have energy to do drills afterwards, you can even think straight when you run! Everything improved. I got stronger, felt fitter and lost more weight as I was in my fat burn zone rather than carb zone.

The real test came when I did a club league race a month ago. I hadn't done any races for months and I had no idea what pace I could run at. It was an 8k undulating course. To give a gauge, when hammering two interval sessions and a fast long run per week last year, I peaked at 46 minutes for a 10k pb. To my amazement, in this race I ran it as a 4:20min/km pace, it wasn't flat road so I would use that to estimate my current 10k time at 42 minutes. After ZERO speed sessions in 6 months.

After six months I don't feel like I'm at my peak, it's basically a step towards what I am capable of doing years down the line. Aerobic training means you keep building improvements month on month, not peaking, getting injured and having the painful and demotivating process of starting again. I would not have been able to break this cycle without the support of Andy and the training plan, I totally believe in it and have seen the results first hand.

For runners considering this method my top tips would be:

  • Take time to understand why this training works - when you learn about the physiology behind it, it means you buy into it more and realise why the other way of no pain no gain doesn't physically work

  • Get support from others - join a group like Peak Running with like minded people. It can be hard to break the mould if you run with people who are focussed solely on pace and pb bashing

  • Stick to your guns - try it for at least 3 months, don't race, let it be a nice surprise that when you have a solid amount of time doing this training that when you do go all out you are amazed at the difference!

  • Get back to why you enjoy running - did people back in the day run to always beat 5k times? No. Do people that paint as a hobby always have to beat their previous painting, or the person who paints down the road? No. They do it to enjoy the process. Understand what you enjoy about running, is it meditation after a busy day? A way to socialise? To trail run and be out in nature?

Run for the reasons why you love it and train to give yourself the ability to do this long into the future.


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