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The tempo trap

October 20, 2012

Back when I started running – back when all I had was a digital stopwatch and a pair of very tatty old running shoes – I would run the exact same route two or three times a week. I kept a close eye on the time in which I covered the 11.5km circuit around Abingdon, gradually bringing the time down over the weeks and months.

Not the most exciting of running schedules, perhaps, but it was effective in keeping me motivated. I could chart my progress as minutes dropped off the time.

To an extent, I’m trying a similar approach with my training at the moment. There are various different routes in my schedule, but one of the key runs is a weekend 9-mile tempo run along the Lee Valley towpath. It’s an out-and-back route, and my aim over the winter months is to gradually chip away at the time it takes me to run it.

Since it involves running along the towpath, there is relatively little time spent on roads, which means that I can dictate the pace. However, at around the half-mile (and consequently the eight-and-a-half-mile) mark I have to cross both Seven Sisters Road and The High. Both are busy roads, and both crossings involve waiting at traffic lights.

Now, as a matter of principle, I don’t stop my watch when I reach a crossing. Waiting at the crossing gives me a chance to recover, and often means picking up the pace once I’m back on my way, which would result in a skewed split. Obviously, including the wait in the split also skews the results – especially if one day I end up waiting at the crossing for ages, but the next time I’m able to cross without waiting.

Which is where the trouble comes in. Two weeks ago, I ran the distance in 59:15. This week I ran the distance in 59:07. I know – because I thought to actually check – that I spent about a minute overall waiting at crossings this week. I don’t know how that compares with the previous week. Clearly, if nothing changes, traffic is going to affect the results over the weeks.

If I don’t mind changing things up a little, there are two options open to try to make things a little more even between weeks:

  • Run a bit further up the road to where Seven Sisters Road and The High merge and cross just the one road. Unfortunately, this still involves two sets of traffic lights, but it might be a little better.
  • Run a bit further still and use the tube as an underpass, which would mean avoiding waiting for traffic lights entirely (unless the tube was down at the weekend, in which case I would have to revert to traffic lights).

The problem with either of these options is that they would invariably affect the distance. I like the round figure of 9 miles, and the turnaround spot is also rather neat (it’s at a lock, so it feels a logical place to turn), so it seems a pity to have to adjust the route to make the timings more accurate.

However, if I’m to accurately judge progress, the route must change. Road crossings are a fact of life in London – Home Run routes try to avoid them as best they can, but even so each contains at least one major junction – but if you’re looking for an effective tempo run, they should be effectively cut out.

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