Do you know how to run a sub two hour marathon? Just get used to running at 5:40/km right? What if you can only run two and a half times a week because you have dodgy knees? Oh, and you only have eight weeks to go from a 10k runner to a 21k half marathoner. It’s going to take careful selection of runs, managing and caring for the knees and body, extra cross training and a little finger crossing. Here’s how.
Managing My Knees
First things first; I am a Sport Rehab. Specialist of 15+ years’ experience so fixing knees is a big part of my daily case load. Early on I developed a passion for knee rehab that was fuelled by and has helped my own rehabilitation massively. It took me a long time to make a safe return to running (the subject of a fascinating, upcoming blog). I do still have to manage the training stress and how my knees react. I judge day by day how my knees feel, from when I get up, descending the stairs and on the morning dog walk. I have come to accept that my training plan must be fluid and changeable and I have learned to adapt things to suit the best interests of my knees. Never at the expense of long term health. If I have a hard run planned and I know my knees will react negatively, I’ll happily switch to an easy run or non running training altogether. If I wake feeling amazing, I may do the opposite. It is not a cop out or a failure, it is simply adjusting the programme to suit my body. I apply the same philosophy to all of my athletes. Try it, it is very powerful. As you see from these pictures, I love to run off road where the more forgiving surfaces cause less damaging impact than concrete and also challenge and develop better foot, ankle, knee and hip stability.
What Runs To Do
In general I put a strong emphasis on building the aerobic base. In this age of high intensity obsessed training, it is often forgotten that what governs your endurance performance above all else is your aerobic fitness. You can do all the intervals in the world, but you can only do so much with a limited aerobic system. You can put a turbo booster in a Smart Car, but that does’t make it a racing car. I maintain a 65-75% easy, aerobic training to my programme. This not only builds a big aerobic engine, it increases my ability to use fat at higher intensities, sparing precious glucose/glycogen on race day. Also, it inflicts less impact stress and actively aids recovery from other training. These runs are performed around 180 heart beats minus my age in years.
Aerobic Runs @ 180 – age = Target BPM ♥
Once the half marathon was confirmed, I needed to increase my ability to run longer without risking breakdown. I knew that my cardio vascular and metabolic fitness far exceeded what my joints would allow, but with the right training I could close that gap by improving the resilience of my knees and run further. So, I came up with the concept of the Broken Long Run. Not to be confused with the Split Long Run where a 20 miler is split into two parts either a number of hours or a full day apart. It is instead a long run broken up into shorter sections with very short breaks. The Broken Long Run allowed me to run a greater total distance or duration that would challenging me, but I knew wouldn’t damage my knees. It allows very tight focus on strict running form throughout, something that is key to injury prevention and running efficiency. For example, I wanted to progress my long run to fifteen kilometres; I knew 6-10km was fine, so I estimated that 3 x 5km would be manageable, comfortable even. The breaks would give a brief (three minute) rest to the joints and stabilising muscles whilst I assessed any issues before continuing or reevaluating the plan if necessary. This has proved to be a very effective way to increase my long runs and avoid injury.
The other key runs were my one kilometre interval sessions. These are a classic long distance training session for building speed, VO2 Max (your ability to take in and use oxygen) and strength. The best intervals to improve your VO2 Max are between three and five minutes at an intensity that you can imagine holding for around ten to fifteen minutes. Rests should be the same duration as the hard interval. I like to walk during my rests. You should not feel destroyed at the end of each interval and you should feel just about ready to repeat the same effort when it is time to go again. This guarantees that you spend the maximum amount of time in your VO2 Max boosting zone during this session and that your running movement is of the highest quality. The result is therefore, bigger fitness improvements and very low injury risk.
Interval Runs of 3-5 min with 3-5 min rests
Having a high lactate threshold means that you can run harder and faster before fatigue causing blood lactate accumulates, forcing you to slow down. Combining this with and a big aerobic engine results in fast race times. Threshold runs are very stressful on your whole body and the sustained higher speeds can cause trouble to creaking joints. This is where cycling comes in. I put the bike to good use for heavy threshold training of up to two hours. Occasionally on the same day as a weight training session or following an easy run. These bike sessions were a powerful weapon, allowing me to push the intensity and condense my sessions in a short training window.
Threshold Rides @ 88-92% HR Max ♥
(The 220-age formula for HR Max is no longer considered adequately reliable. If you have recorded your heart rate for a very hard race, like a best effort 5k you may take your maximum achieved HR from that. You can also go out and perform 4-6 repeated one minute steep hill “sprint” efforts with jog downs and record your max HR).
Finally, weight training and yoga/calisthenics inspired total body exercises were vital for a strong, resilient and well coordinated athletic body. I programme big, compound movements like chin ups, kettlebell swings and squats, cable wood-chops and whole body pulls along with hanging leg raises, advanced plank variations and hand balances like the crow pictured above. I have always loved training this way, but above all, two of these sessions a week help to build a stronger, tougher body, increased power and muscular strength and are a perfect way to train your posture and stability from head to toe. I wouldn’t give up these sessions for the world. Sessions are rarely longer than 30-45 minutes, plus 10 minutes of cool down.
Recovery & Self Care
I always say that a training session is only as good as the recovery that follows. You apply a specific stress in training and then you allow your body to react, recover and come back stronger. It can take 48 hours or more to fully recover from some sessions, so training often overlaps with recovery, but that’s okay. Programming easy runs for the day after a hard session accelerates your recovery. This also results in a training stimulus greater than the sum of it’s parts so it’s win win. As a rule, I walk for 5-10 minutes after a run then relax into static stretching. I perform three 30 second stretches to calves, hamstrings, quads, hip flexors and glutes as a minimum. I often wait for 30 minutes before drinking if it has been a hard session, allowing blood flow to return to the gut. For the same reason I tend to wait for an hour before eating. This is what feels good for me, but there is also plenty of research that your gut works best after a rest, especially from intense workouts. I foam roll daily on all of my lower body and absolutely love my peanut roll, a recovery game changer that will also be the subject of a new blog post. In line with current sport science, I take a hot shower for recovery rather than an ice bath, but I will apply ice for acute swelling if my knee has reacted badly. I eat a whole food diet that suits the demands of the day. This is something that I will explain in detail in another upcoming blog post, so keep an eye out for that. Finally, I do my bet to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night and if I can I will happily take a nap of 20-40 minutes. Guess what, I have an article coming out on how sleep is good for absolutely everything, so trust me for now and look forward to more info very soon.
Have you overcome illness or injury to become fit and healthy? I would love to hear about it, in the comments below or by direct email or social media.