On Improving Running Performance

I’ve done pretty good in my running this year. The first 6 events I took part in, in wildly varying weather and underfoot conditions, resulted in me beating my personal bests over 4 distances and gaining my first ever 1st place at a 10km race whilst the last event, a 50 mile mountain trail event that was meant to be just a bit of fun, delivered an age group podium finish. This short article tries to explain the reasons for this relative success.

Here are a few finish line selfies to set the scene. Firstly, 5km in March in 18:35, over 2 minutes faster than my previous best time…

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Then, a week later, 8km in 32:31 (on one of those minus 15 Toronto days!), which was again 2 minutes quicker than ever before…uvs160409-002

Then a week later, 10km in 39:23 (previous best 41:35)…

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A marathon two weeks later in 3:09 (previous best 3:15)…uvs160501-005

Another 10k in 39:11 (here’s me with Canadian Olympian Eric Gillis after the event)…

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And finally, on another 10km run on a hilly course in 25 degrees Athenian heat, I took 1st place, my first ever victory in any race.

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Obviously I was pleased with all that but although like all runners I’d hoped for such improvement, when it actually happened it was something of a mystery to me. I had been quite consistent with my distance running during 2015, doing 14 marathons in 14 days in the spring and then 7 in a week in the autumn, but speedwork had never really featured much in my routine, mainly because I wasn’t succesful at it. I didn’t think I was doing anything very different in my training last winter, so how come I was running now faster than ever, at an age when many men are starting to slow down?

A few of my friends began to ask the same question so I decided to settle down here to try to work it out. It’s hard to pick out possible reasons for improvement when you’ve just made subtle changes to your lifestyle and way of thinking over a period of months or years as you don’t really know for sure what has worked and what hasn’t, but after a lot of thought here’s a few things I consider have played a significent part in me getting fitter, and faster.

Firstly, last October I stopped working for myself in a mostly sit-down job – spending 5 or 6 hours of each day at the computer – and got myself a manual job instead. When I was on the computer all day no matter how much stretching I did, and how many times I tried to set up my chair and desk for maximum health, I often had hamstring, knee and other leg problems. Since I’ve been spending most of my working day on my feet all these problems have dissapeared. There are no doubt medical reasons why this is so. I don’t know them, they’re very difficult for any doctor to work out, but suffice to say I’m happy that I’ve discovered that standing up and moving about for most of the working day seems to be far better for my legs than sitting down.

Now, diet has to be mentioned. Prior to becoming vegan in 2014 at the age of 46 I didn’t seem to be able to run and train as much as I can do at the moment. My average workout in those days was to run about 10 or 15 miles and then do a bodyweight session (push ups, dips, etc), 3 times a week, giving myself a rest day between workouts because traditional advice was that we need that day to allow our bodies to recover.

But I’ve discovered, after a little trial and error, that the rest-day for runners advice really only applies if you’re eating badly, or without much thought.

I’ve got much more interested in food last year and the knowledge I’ve gained from my extra reading, and the plant based diet I now follow, allows me to recover quickly from each workout and mostly I feel ready to run again the next day, even after a 40 to 60k run. And because I’m eating clean my body is far more sensitive to what it needs to help it replenish itself. So, if I’ve had a tough workout and I’m feeling sore in my joints, I understand almost immediately that I need to take on foods that will help ease possible inflammation. In real terms, that means throwing some pineapple and ginger in a blender along with a cup of water and a few ingredients to help it taste really nice, and perhaps some berries as they’re also good for inflammation. Simple. And if I’m sore in my muscles then a little more thinking is needed, but generally it means I need to eat some beans and lots of greens. So, a lighted cooked home-made chickpea and spinach curry might be the answer there, or even, if I’m not up to cooking, a green smoothie with a snack of home-made humus spread thickly onto pita bread.

I believe that because I’ve been training harder I’ve been able to adjust quickly to a heavier workout, or workload, when required.

For instance, this winter I decided to start to run to work. It’s 28km away and the first time I did it, it took me 2 hours 45 minutes. The weather was around minus 10 and that first run was tough. Added to that I had a physically hard shift waiting for me at work, so much so that 3 hours into it the whole thing of running to work and then actually doing work felt like competing in a Spartan event. I was exhausted and ready to give up on the idea of the run commute and just take the bus and subway like almost everybody else. But I ran in again later in the week and it was easier and the following week it felt like not very much at all as I’d gotten used to the mental effort involved, and also I had the diet to allow my body to adjust, recover and function as it should be able to.

A few insights into my diet would be;

  • I take Salba Chia seeds on a daily basis in my breakfast smoothie. I’ve been using Salba Chia for 2 years now; chia are important as they give you what scientists would consider a life-extending ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 and Salba are the only chia seed on the market that are nutritionally consistent. Other chia seeds might give you lots of vitamins and energy one day but not the next, which isn’t very good, especially when you want to be sure that on race day you’re in control of your nutrition. With Salba Chia the energy benefits are consistent; day in, day out they deliver and I think that my steadily improving race results attest to their quality.
  • I eat a lot of bananas, berries, pineapple, ginger, avocado, limes, kale, spinach, chard, beetroot, courgette, carrot, sauerkraut, red cabbage, cashew nuts, peanuts, dates, lentils, chickpeas, brown rice, sweet potato, Salba chia seed, turmeric, olive oil, black and cayenne pepper, apple cider vinegar, oats, cacao, dried fruits and black molasses, and I always try to buy my apples, spinach and celery organic. For sweetener I use either maple syrup, agave, black molasses, stevia or organic turbinado brown sugar.
  • If I need bread, I use either storebrought wholemeal roti or I make my own using chickpea flour mixed with water, chia (to bind) and raw onion (then you press the mixture into flat rounds and fry them off). Frying isn’t supposed to be that great for you but eating has got to be enjoyable as well as good for you, and I love these roti I make.
  • I eat a lot of my food raw now – I spiralize my beets, sweet potato and courgette and often have them with a sauerkraut and red cabbage salad or just a whole lot of spinach – but I also take a brown rice and lentil kichuri with me to work in my backpack and eat half of it after I get there. Then later, on days when the lads order in pizza for dinner (I work the graveyard shift), I do my very best to skip that and instead have the rest of the kichuri and a snack of nuts, or a salad. I know that many would turn their noses up at that and I would have done in the past but since I’ve stopped eating because I felt I should and instead tuned into when my body is actually feeling hungry, I’ve adopted a different eating pattern. Now it’s a case of a fruit smoothie when I wake, a plate of some sort of beans and perhaps some grain or spiralized veg at about 10.30, then the kichuri around 2.30, then the snack in the early evening. All the time I don’t think about when I should be hungry, I can concentrate on when I actually am hungry. Big difference, I’ve found out. Try it.
  • Remember, changing your diet is going to be a slow process and the first 3 weeks are going to be tough. It’ll take around 21 days for the bacteria in your gut to change, and it’s these bacteria that control your cravings. They need to eat too, you see, so if you’ve got bacteria that needs to eat lots of white sugar, for instance, and you stop eating white sugar, then you’re going to feel a craving for that sugar, for about 3 weeks until the bacteria dies off and new bacteria, created by the healthier foods you are now eating (hopefully healthier, anyway!) takes over. Get used to the fact that you are not in control of your cravings, only of the bacteria that creates the cravings, and you are on the right path to improving your health and understanding more about your own physical existence. If you’d like the know more about this, google ‘Microbiome’.

This ability to understand more about what I am capable of and the food I need to fuel myself best is, I think, due to me getting really interested in food and exercise far more than I was and for that I have to thank, first and foremost, Scott Jurek for being an inspirational vegan athlete who has an easy to understand – and like – manner that’s best discovered through his great book, Eat and Run. There’s also the great book ‘Born to Run’ that introduced me to Scott, and the authors new book ‘Natural Born Heroes’. Both excellent reads and very informative for anybody interested in health and fitness. Then there’s Rich Roll, himself a decent athlete but more than that, for me, he uses his podcast as a conduit through which he channels all sorts of excellent health and diet information that otherwise I wouldn’t be party to. Everybody should listen to his podcast; it’ll change your life, for the better (link at the end of this article).

And then there’s my friends in Toronto – Tim, Pamela, Trevor, Jason and more – with whom I continually exchange information and support; if you want to get healthier then do as I did and seek out vegan athletes in your area. Regular vegans are fine but if they’re not into sports then they’re best left for talking about animals rights and environmental issues with rather than health, about which they might well understand as little as the regular meat eater does. There’s as much junk in the vegan freezer section as there is in the regular freezer and you only have to look at the vegan community on Instagram to see how in love with donuts and comfort food many are. Don’t misunderstand; I have much admiration for all vegans and those who act to help animals and the environment, it’s just that being vegan doesn’t mean you know anything about nutrition. Being a vegan athlete, however, means you possibly know more about food and what it can do for you than the average doctor, probably because our role models such as Scott and Rich who I mentioned above are so well informed and broadcast their message in ways that everybody, no matter their level of learning, can understand and use.

Another idea as to why I might be improving in my running is that, thanks to Achilles Canada, earlier this year I became a Guide Runner for a blind guy called Geza. Now Geza runs pretty fast and since our regular running route is about 10k and he likes to run it as quickly as he can that means that whenever we run together, I get a decent speed training session (we usually finish the hilly, paved course in about 48 minutes). Often I don’t feel up for a fast run and if I were on my own I probably wouldn’t do a fast run, or even run at all, but I know that Geza looks forward to our runs so I don’t like to disappoint and I try to give it all I can.

I’d tried to do some more structured speed training last July – fartlek style – but after 2 sessions it resulted in a semi-pulled hamstring that dogged me for the rest of the year so I’d given up on that sort of training as the stop/start element of it didn’t seem to suit my body. It also seemed too regimented; I’m not a technical sort of guy so having to count reps, or even seconds between fast and slow bits, didn’t seem like fun to me, or even achievable on days when I was already mentally tired from work or other aspects of life. I know I can run faster if I adopt a more scientific approach to training, but I’m interested in hitting that sweet spot between doing the best I can and enjoying my training, not just in running fast.

So add that speed session to my 3 times a week 28km slow runs to work, and you have a routine that some would say resembles zone 2 training, although I couldn’t say for sure as the mere thought of zones gives me the fear.

I have delved into yoga and meditation. Many athletes don’t stretch, and some coaches actually believe yoga to be bad for a runner. I’m not sure of the science behind it all, but I do know this. When I first tried to meditate I sat there with eyes closed, thinking, what can I concentrate on? Ok, my breathing. Let’s try that. So I did. I managed to concentrate on it for about 3 seconds, then my mind wandered. And I thought, if I can’t even concentrate on one thing for 5 seconds, what chance have I got of really harnessing my mind towards the end of a race so that I am in complete control of my body when I most need to be? None at all. So I started to meditate every day, never trying to achieve some great spititual state but instead just trying to master my mind to the extent that I could concetrate on one thing for minutes at a time without it wandering off and doing it’s own thing without my permission.

And as for the yoga, a simple, half hour routine especially designed for runners that I found on Youtube earlier in 2016 and now do 3 or 4 times a week has helped me a lot, I’m certain. Before I did yoga I already knew a lot of runner’s stretches that’d been given to me over the years by doctors and experienced athletes and coaches but I didn’t do them as often as I should as there was no ritual or routine surrounding them and without that, everyday life seemed to edge it out of my day. When I saw this yoga video, I thought, oh, it’s the same stretches I know I should do, all wrapped up in an easy to follow routine. The only big difference is that with yoga it’s not just about the physical stretch as about maintaining concentration on posture and breathing, so you get 3 benefits instead of the 1 you get with simple stretching. The video I used to learn the stretches can be found Here

I’ve changed my running style slightly, insomuch as before I’d just try to always make it a controlled fall forwards. But that only works for so long before my muscles get tired, at which point now I’ve started to engage different parts of my body to give the tired bits a rest. So, for instance, if my calves are tiring I’ll lean back slightly and start to use my glutes and torso much more, it’s a far more aggressive running style and I can only keep it up for a km or so, but that time gives my calves a rest and then they’re ready to re-engage.

Almost finished! I can’t discount that a very disrupted personal life has encouraged me to focus more on my fitness. I had very little happiness at home, and no chance to change that situation, so I turned my efforts to something I could change; myself. During the past year I’ve also settled into life in North America and the type of conversation I’ve been exposed to here, both via the podcasts and the local runners, has been a step up from what I was used to in England. Sure, we have a great tradition of fell running in the UK and there’s much to be admired, but the expression of our running heritage and also, the sort of nutrition you need to keep on doing what you’re doing, in everyday conversation is just not at as high a standard as it is in North America, I’ve discovered. Most of my fellow runners in the UK are still at the stage of laughing about how many burgers they eat and how many pints of beer they drink after a race (sure, there are people like this in Toronto, but they’re in the minority). Even Mo Farah said recently that he can’t wait until he retires so he can eat more and get fat. He was just saying that to fit in, I’m certain, but, taking seriously, what more can you say to that than, ok Mo, get fat, get unfit, become unable to play with your kids, drink and eat badly then wonder why you’re feeling your age…

So for anybody in the UK looking to learn more about running and fitness, look across the water, and for those already in North America don’t overlook what’s on your doorstep because you people really are leading the way when it comes to health and fitness; the links below will give you a stepping stone but there are so many more great resources for you to learn from.

Finally, I improved my overall body strength over the winter. For years I have been doing my age in push ups every day. When I was in my late 20’s I heard an old soldier say that he had this same routine and it impressed me as a decent idea, and nothing that I’ve heard since has dissuaded me from thinking it worth doing, as long as you counter the effect that push ups have on your chest and shoulders by doing plenty of back stretching. At 29 it wasn’t too much exercise to do but now at 48 doing that many push ups a day is a test that helps improve my core strength, which is vital towards the end of the race and you get the feeling that, as the Kenyans like to say, the ‘road is coming up to meet you’. In other words, your core is fading and you can’t keep your torso and head upright so you start to bend forward, head down, staring at the road as you try to power through the final parts of the race.

And regarding the age in push ups every day thing, it’s a routine that can only benefit anybody who adopts it, I believe. I’m looking forward to my 100th birthday, when I’ll be knocking out that many push ups every day and feeling on top of the world…

So, that’s all to say that I have always have a bit of core and upper body strength. But it’s been increased this winter as my friends have invited me into the gym once or twice a week where we put in a hard 2 hour all body workout. I leave there exhausted and in the final quarter of the races this year I’ve felt incredibly strong and this, I think, has got to be down to the power I can offer my momentum from my core and torso that I couldn’t do before.

So there are a few ideas that I hope are plain and easy to understand. If you think my race results this year signify that I’m onto a way of thinking that’s worth investigating more, then try to;

  • Improve your diet by learning as much as you can about it through leading athletes that perform across decades into middle and old age, rather than athletes who become a champion for a couple of years when they’re in their 20’s and then fade away into middle age obesity. It’s easy to hit top form when you’re 20 and have few commitments other than keeping fit. Far more worthy of your attention are those who maintain and improve their fitness from youth through into middle and old age, alongside taking care of all the pressures – family, personal growth, regular job – that most of us have to face up to.
  • Run mostly long and slow. And once a week, short and fast.
  • Occasionally run with people who rely on you to put in a performance in some way. It’s a great motivator, and if you’re working with disabled athletes you’re doing something great for them and your community as well as learning lots yourself that you couldn’t have possibly anticipated.
  • Get to know more local athletes, preferably vegans (to paraphrase the President of the American Association of Cardiologists, ‘there are 2 types of cardiologist; vegans, and those who didn’t yet read the data’. The same can be said of athletes).
  • Do yoga, and try to meditate daily. You really feel the benefit of focusing your mind towards the end of the race.
  • Learn to run well in different styles so you can switch between them if needed during a race
  • Put in a bit of time in the gym to strengthen your legs and core, and when you’re there work your ass off.

Good luck, here’s some links to help you on your way.

Scott Jurek

Rich Roll

Brendan Brazier

Salba Chia

Born to Run 

Natural Born Heroes

Update; I now live nearer work and am on the day shift. I run 18km per day to and fro, put in a 20 minute gym session most days and then a big run at the weekend. At the moment this seems to be very effective. 

I also just ran the North Face Endurance Challenge, a 50 mile trail event with a great deal of elevation. I finished in 8 hours 31 minutes, getting 3rd place in my age group and 13th overall, which I was happy with. Here’s me after the race with the great ultra runner Dean Karnazes.

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The key to this success for me was eating sensibly during the race, making sound decisions every minute and keeping concentration, and some advice I had from a good friend, Maria Polyzou, the Greek marathon record holder, who said to me the day before the race;

‘I’ll tell you what I learned, running all these years, and what a great teacher in India once told me … The body never gets tired … only the spirit gets tired … If you do something where the vista is large then you will naturally weary somewhere in the middle of the road … If you see the task or race as something that you enjoy, and enjoy it with your whole soul, you will not feel tired. Concentrate on your finish point, and always keep in the mind a positive thought … You must understand that you will feel fatigue only when you have some negative thought !!!! If you feel this tiredness coming then just quickly change your thoughts to something else positive, and you will not to go down physically !!!’

This may sound a little new age, but at every stage of the 50 mile race when I felt fatigue I remembered this, and I’m 100% certain now that it’s true. 

Happy running! And as Maria would say, keeping going, nothing is impossible!

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