‘Next Saturday, I’m going to get up early and try out the Parkrun,’ I said to my girlfriend as we walked towards town having managed to get out of the house suspiciously early for a weekend.
‘Categorically, definitely, absolutely. No matter what.’
When we lived in London, I’d made it to Finsbury Park Parkrun a few times, using the run to the start line as a warm-up, and the run back as a cool-down. I could do the same here, but with the run to Milton Country Park being a bit longer.
‘Yep,’ I closed confidently, ‘this is happening.’
I fumbled with one arm out of the covers to turn off the irritable buzzing alarm. It was 7:30am, and dark.
As if on cue, the wind roared over the roof of our house, pummelling the window with a sharp spray of rain. I could feel the winter chill on my shoulders; I shrugged the covers up to my chin while I stared at the dark ceiling, willing myself to get up.
7:30am on a Saturday is not a time I usually see. There have been occasions where it has made appearances (for example, sitting in an airport tucking into a generally dreadful veggie breakfast with an ineffective stunted cutlery set, while marvelling at the number of people liberally sloshing down a lager or wine since that culturally signifies ‘first day of holiday’), but these are strictly limited. Weekend and lie-in are synonymous.
It’s the best part of five miles to the start line, so I needed to leave maybe 45 minutes to get there. I had to get out the door by 8:15.
Another pebble-dashing of rain blustered against the window.
I needed some breakfast, a hot drink of some sort. I now had 35 minutes to get out the door. The bed was still warm, and comforting, and considerably more inviting than the lashing gale outside.
Barcode, I realised. I’d need to print out a barcode to take with me, have breakfast and a hot beverage. Don’t forget your barcode, hashtag DFYB, and all the other variations you see echo through Twitter on a Friday.
Safe in the knowledge that I would be breaking the cardinal rule of Parkrun, I closed my eyes, settled back in and enjoyed another couple of hours’ sleep.
I’m walking towards town with my girlfriend, with the fierce wind dying down and the winter sun setting. ‘Definitely next week. Categorically, absolutely, definitely. No matter what.’
Six weeks of regular running. Three, and sometimes four, runs a week. Sunday long runs that can actually be justifiably called ‘long runs’. It may not sound like much, but this has been my first regular structured training for a year (and maybe a bit longer).
The routine – and actually, the pleasure – of getting out regularly has been both a distraction, and an opportunity to focus. The churn of work (the sheer bloody energy required at times to inch projects forwards) had eaten into my running routine to the point where scrappy commuter runs and perfunctory Sunday sessions were all that remained.
And then – with the atomic-clock regularity of publishing, two years after I joined the company in the wake of a restructure – a restructure was announced. I’m fortunate to work in a business where going freelance is comparatively straightforward and established, but even so, awaiting the dread day of trying to spot your name on an org chart gives time for speculation, gallows humour and idle ‘what if’-ing.
When everything’s up in the air, you control the controllable.
A six-mile sunset stretch through the beautiful Grantchester meadows, looping back to the office via the smooth tarmac of the guided busway twice a week. A tempo run over flat ground, run hard.
A languorous Sunday trot either down the river – picking off the rowing coaches on their bikes, calling out to the crews of eights that they need to push through the next bend – or over the Gog Magog hills – dodging loose dogs and small children being supervised by sloe-picking parents.
Occasional recovery runs between mid-week sessions, just stretching the legs, working through any residual stiffness.
Running has been my sanctuary, and if nothing else, this period of uncertainty has been my prompt to fall back in love with running. I’ve had time to decide that if I need to go freelance, I’ll be able to use running to structure my days. Heck, I could perhaps take a Leadership in Running Fitness course and run lunchtime sessions in Cambridge. Or take some time to write a new running book I’ve had in my mind for the last few weeks. Maybe I could even give the blog a proper overhaul, and actually make a real go of it. The opportunities spooled endlessly before me.
And so there was something a bit weirdly deflating about finding out that I still had a job. (Don’t get me wrong – I’m glad to still have a job, and my bank manager is glad I’m in permanent employment, and it makes it easier to sleep at night.) Staying in gainful employment will be significantly helpful with the mortgage payments, but rediscovering running is (like the Barclaycard ad) priceless.
One of the things that I’ve noticed about my running data – background here – is that I seem to be an unusually bouncy runner. So, I thought I would experiment with tweaking my running style to see what impact that might have.
For the past week and a bit, I’ve been consciously monitoring my vertical oscillation. (My default running screen shows distance covered and vertical oscillation – I get pace feedback as my Garmin clicks off each mile, but that’s about it.) My approach to this has been as follows:
- shorter strides, landing my leading foot earlier than I would naturally
- leaning further forward – moonwalk-style (i.e. angle from the ankle) not hunched over from the hips
- varying arm swing from minimal to maximal, with little to no clarity on how/whether it affects my gait.
It felt a bit unnatural at first – the motion of running was slightly speeded up, which my body wasn’t used to – and after the first run using this style (potentially a strategic error to introduce on a Sunday long run) I really felt the change in style in my quads for the next couple of days. But I’m coming round to this style, and it seems to be having some advantages. My feet are much less sore in the morning, for one thing, which suggests that I might have been placing too much pressure on them through over-striding.
Anyway, a look at the data from these runs shows a few unsurprising changes in my running form. My cadence has increased, dancing around 180spm (about 10% higher than previously), and my ground contact time has decreased. My stride length on my less bouncy runs has decreased by about 15cm (about 11% shorter than previously).
Based on this, you’d think that the pace wouldn’t be wildly different, and you’d be about right. I was shaving off a second or two per mile from my usual mid-week 6-miler, which was probably more a result of my body adapting to several weeks of consistent training than anything in my running form.
Then, on Friday evening, I needed to get a run out of the way before heading to a work do. Having got changed and about to set off, I bumped into our group director, who wanted to check I was still coming to the pub. I assured him that ‘I will do – I’m just going to knock a quick one out, get changed and head over.’ (Not a brilliant choice of words, as I was reminded by various colleagues who had been informed of my whereabouts.) That aside, I wanted to push on with a decent effort, but couldn’t quite contain the bounciness of my gait.
While the run was bouncier than I’d been managing for my other runs this week, my cadence wasn’t much slower than for the more controlled runs. So, while this effort may have been more wasteful than my previous runs, a faster turnover (accompanied by a longer stride) massively improved my performance for a pace that felt the same effort as previous runs. Interesting.
However, there’s probably more to this since my VO2 Max has been going through some changes recently.
My running VO2 Max reading has gone from 50 four weeks ago, up to 55 by the end of this week. This may well have absolutely nothing to do with my recent tweaks in form, and an awful lot more to do with some – long overdue – consistent training weeks and some focus on effort. Either way, it feels good to be recovering a bit of form.
Back when I started taking running more seriously, I invested in a Garmin 405cx. This was back around the time the iPhone was first launched, so everything had suddenly started having some kind of touch sensitive element. The ‘innovative’ touch-sensitive bezel was a pain, and the crocodile clip charging cable was easily knocked out of contact (resulting in ‘surprise – no battery!’ moments).
But being able to see my running route, the elevation, pace-per-mile, moving time and relatively accurate distance covered was a revelation. It meant I could get monitor improvements, see areas of weakness, and generally keep a decent log of my running data.
After around a year of having no running watch (after the dodgy old Garmin charging connectors gave up the game), it was time to invest in a sparkly new bit of kit. I opted for the Garmin Fenix 3, with HRM chest strap. Gone is the slightly weird space-helmet aesthetic of the 405. The Fenix is a chunky beast of a watch, but can be worn day-to-day without looking like you’re wearing one of those Swatch wall watches off the 90s.
I’m finding the range of data it collects fascinating.
Wearing a heart rate monitor, heart rate data is a pretty obvious thing to pull out. But it quite clearly highlighted that my runs were pretty much all at the same level of intensity, which was a bit unexpected. I had thought that I was running two fairly hard tempo runs a week, and one easy long slow run. Yet, my heart rate was high for the longer run, which meant I was over-egging it, and going into my first tempo run of the next week without having really recovered.
The lower average recording was from a short treadmill session where I tracked myself on heart rate zone to target recovery.
My average pace is slow at the moment, but it’s gradually improving as I get a bit more targeted. The penultimate activity was a recovery run, and the most recent was a ruck-sack commuter run, so both are a bit slower than average. However, this probably reiterates what the HR data indicated – all quite mono-pace!
And this is where we get into some of the more interesting data… Garmin has a set of performance bands for measures such as cadence to make them a bit easier to interpret. So, my average steps per minute are pretty meh, but this report’s perhaps more useful when used by activity.
The colour banding shows the different zones used by Garmin. But this chart shows quite clearly how my running style changes from warming up (about the first 8 minutes or so of the run) to getting into my stride. Short quick steps at first, then slower leg turnover for the rest of the activity.
But, for the same run, my ground contact time achieves a much higher score…
If I’m spending comparatively little time in contact with the ground, but not stepping particularly quickly, surely it follows that I’m expending a lot of energy somewhere?
Yep. So, my average of 10.7cm vertical movement per stride is in the poor end of the spectrum – I appear to be improved by having a rucksack weighing me down! In essence, I’ve got some way to improve my running efficiency.
After each run I’ve found myself spending the evening poking around the stats and data it has produced. I’m just going to have to work at being less bouncy as I run.
The nice folks over at Bio-Synergy sent me a pack of strawberry flavour Essential Sports Fuel to try out.
Over the years, I’ve tried quite a few different recovery options. My long runs in the build-up to the Paris Marathon ended with a pint of generically tropical flavour luminescent liquid; I’ve gulped down supermarket milkshakes after races; I’ve finished three-hour training runs to get home and cook up a four-egg omelette before even sitting down.
Like most powdered recovery drinks, Sports Fuel can be mixed with water or milk. I tried it with both. (Separately, not together – that would be weird.) It needs a really good stir, but it actually tastes like a good old-fashioned strawberry milkshake. It’s coloured with beetroot extract too, so lacks some of the synthetic garb that you might sometimes expect.
Sports Fuel is available in Strawberry or Chocolate flavours. Should you be in the mood for a full complement of nutrition, Bio-Synergy provides a sports-specific selection, for whether you’re interested in running, cycling, swimming, triathlon or even water sports (snarf).
Cambridge and the surrounding fenland has a justly-earned reputation for being flat, but within easy reach of the city outskirts the Gog Magog hills make a natural destination for the long Sunday run.
Wandlebury Country Park sits on the summit of the hill, a small wooded estate riddled with interesting dirt tracks, a few of which wend their way to Roman Road. After the romantic and myth-laden origin of the hills’ name, Roman Road comes as something of a disappointment. It is, after all, a Roman road; a dirt trail that stretches unerringly straight for around 5km over undulating ground. It makes for a nice route extension, and endlessly improves the aesthetic of a run.
Now we’re in late summer – I’m refusing to say ‘autumn’ just yet, despite a particularly cool snap this weekend – the hedgerows that line my weekend trail routes are laden down with all sorts of wild crops. Blackberries, elderberries, rosehips, apples, cherries and sloes weigh down branches, plump gems glittering richly in the early afternoon sun.
I’ve often thought running was one of the best ways of getting to know an area and picking out things we might like to visit later, so having found a stretch of bush particularly laden-down with sloes, we returned armed with tupperware boxes. And so, apropos of nothing, here’s the recipe we’re using to make our first ever batch of sloe gin.
500g of sloes
350g of sugar (we used 150g caster sugar and 200g of jam sugar – purely because that was what we had, rather than out of design)
1 litre of gin
We pricked the sloes all over, one-by-one, listening to the radio for a half-hour or so. You can freeze the fruit, which will split the skins, but that felt like cheating somehow. Once we’d pricked the sloes and put them into a big sealable jar, we poured over the sugar (briefly thought that those jam sugar grains looked particularly large, but they’ll probably dissolve just fine) and then emptied a large bottle of gin over the whole lot.
Having sealed the jar – and checked carefully that it actually was properly sealed – we shook the mixture until the sloes just settled at the bottom of the jar with the grains of sugar and the gin had turned a disappointing thin brown. This jar will continue to be shaken on a regular basis until early November, when we’ll strain out the damsons and decant the (hopefully) delightfully purple gin into bottles.
I’ve not tried making sloe gin before, so the next two months will either be for nothing when the concoction ends up a disappointing petrol alternative, or a worthwhile endeavour when the resultant batch is extremely palatable. And so we end on a cliffhanger…