Monthly Archives: February 2013

Core strength

Strong core?

Strong core?

So what has core strength got to do with running?  Very little I thought, which shows how little I know. Boy, how wrong was I? Someone reminded me of the images of all those runners you see on the telly in the latter stages of the marathon who look kind of slumped in the middle, just managing to get one foot in front of the other.

Apparently the slumping is inadequate core strength for the miles needing to be covered by the legs. It makes absolute sense – midriff-slumping isn’t going to do a lot of good for anyone’s running stride. Presumably everything sort of just crumples in on top of the hips and pelvis.

In my mind’s eye my deportment is as upright, core-tight and controlled as 1990s Olympian etc. Michael Johnson. Please no one hold up a mirror to that particular misapprehension. It’s got to be good to aspire though, surely, and it feels as though his is the sort of running posture I should be aiming for.

Now whilst, frankly, I really will just be happy if – no, when – I manage to get over the finishing line, I can also see that this core strength stuff makes a lot of sense, really good sense, actually. Indeed there are more and more things I read about that make good sense. Maybe these mags and websites are onto something after all.

So now I’m thinking I need a core strength programme to go alongside my running programme. Forget stomach crunches and a flat tummy, just get me solid muscle (ok, how funny am I?) round my middle. Apparently it’ll stop me slumping half way round and reduce the risk of lower back pain, to which we already know I’m susceptible.

I used to think jogging was jogging. Then I got my head round running being running. Now there’s all these extraneous stuff around running to make running more than running.

Digging a little deeper, oh pun fully intended, it’s the deep transverse abs that need conditioning (yes, okay, obviously any foetal abs I have all need conditioning). If the body is twisting side to side, I’ve read, with the unilateral motion that is running, i.e. one side then the other, then it makes sense to have muscles that minimise any lateral rotations. Apparently the deep transverse abs are ones to cosy up to.  Actually I’m also thinking they’re probably quite useful for tennis too. Lots of rotation in that game, at least the way I play it, randomly chasing balls for which I’m out of position to hit. Anything that tightens them up has got to be good for risk-reduction.

I perhaps foolishly admitted to some friends the other day that I do my core strength programme, about 20 mins, (a) in front of the telly and (b) with a glass of wine to hand – it’s not an aerobic activity after all, surely there’s no harm in an occasional glass of wine while exercising?, and (c) with my long-suffering little dog on hand to ‘help’.  She’s not allowed on the furniture, so I always sit on the floor to play with her.  Ergo sum … if I’m on the floor, I must be there to play.  She has no respect for my living room gym work. Though she’s very cute trying to help and just beginning to understand not to get quite so close. I guess pain (hers, accidental) is a deterrent.

Kit-wise, I have a big ball, I have a 5kg (quite heavy enough thank you) kettlebell, I even have some wrist/ankle weights. The exercise I’m liking the most at the moment is trying to balance on my knees on the big ball (obviously the picture in the book shows someone standing – on their feet – on the ball. I’m not to stupid as to think I might reach that stage – clearly the ceiling is too low, ark ark). I’m rather suspicious I’m not doing it right because (a) it doesn’t seem to take a huge effort, and (b) possibly more relevantly, I can’t get onto my knees for more than about 5 seconds (probably nearer 2 seconds in reality).  What am I doing wrong? Am I supposed to be engaging my core or something? Doh.

A simple one that’s surprisingly tough is lying on my back, knees bent (sharply according to the instruction), feet flat on the floor.  Push lower back into the floor. Then ‘simply’ raise and lower one leg after the other from the knee to parallel with the floor. Apparently it’s supposed to mimic a running motion. What it is, is heavy duty on the abs.  I’m thinking (only thinking, mind) I should add my ankle weights into that mix.

This probably all sounds as though I’m doing a programme all the time. Actually, I’m still building it, picking and choosing from a selection of mag and online exercises (possibly making too careful a selection). I’ve really only done it half a dozen times in the last month.  Yes, I know, I need to pick up the momentum. What can I say? I have a day job too. At least I recognise it’s important. Which is a big part of the challenge – there are too many important aspects of the running that aren’t actually the running.

The long run

Apropos of snow and ice

Apropos of snow and ice

This was one of the first bits of technical language I got to grips with. The weekly long run. Arguably the most critical part of marathon training. You’ve just got to put in the miles.

I’m not sure I’ve quite got the right definition though. None of the training schedules I’ve seen – and pretty much taken little notice of because they all look so complicated and rigid and lacking any recognition of real life getting in the way – have a run of more than 20 miles. At all.

I’ve never run 26.2 miles before. How do I know I can do it, unless I do it, beforehand? I understand enough about running a long way to know the head-game will be crucial. I just think I need to run 26 miles in practice before I get to April 21st. Training coach Lou at athletics club says I’m wrong (barmy). I know I should listen to her. And I do about lots of other things … but not that one. Yet. Maybe.

Anyway I seem to be defining my long runs as more than 15 or 16 miles, and preferably above 20 miles, though certainly not every week.  I have adopted the part of these schedules that says to build miles up over a few weeks, then drop them back in order to build them up again. That bit makes sense to me. So I’m not ignoring them altogether.

In December I did my first 20 and 23 milers on consecutive weekends. Both very slow and with stopping to map read as they were both in the New Forest. Actually I thought they went pretty well. With the second one I couldn’t believe I’ve been out ‘running’ for more than four hours. It didn’t feel as though it was four hours.

I realised later that on both those runs I’d emptied my head, or my head had emptied itself (not something I envisage taking a long time). There was nothing in my head but putting one foot in front of the other. I’d probably done an hour or so of imaginary conversations, reflection on events of the past few days, planning of things to come in the next few days, work lists, things to do around the house, things to do when I get my life back. Then there was nothing. Clearly I only realised this after the event!

I was kind of hoping this empty head syndrome was to become my friend over the next few months – time passing without knowledge of it doing so.  I even tested the theory on a 19-miler in the January compacted snow/ice. I had plenty to think about and plan: loads of work deadlines in the subsequent 7-10 days; planning the next few weeks’ workload; reflecting on conversations with friends; all the sort of stuff that needs dedicated head space.  Guess what? After a while – empty head. Now there are those of my friends who would argue this is my normal state of affairs, and I love them dearly, but occasionally I’d beg to disagree.

I’d been thinking I might even be pre-occupied by the snow/ice. But I have some urban crampons – rubber contraptions that fit to the sole of the shoe with hard wire coiled around the rubber mesh.  Brilliant things. I did my 19 miles with not so much as the faintest slip, and they were OK on the road where there was no ice or snow.  Got home, took the dog up to the park in my wellies. Even proper wellies with a solid, walking boot sole. It was the most I could do to stop myself going A over T. Really.

I was beginning to like my new pal empty head on these long runs. I went for 23.5 miles the following weekend.  Don’t ask me why the half, it’s just how mapometer measured the roads. Mapometer. There’s a brilliant thing.

Oh how l longed for empty head that session. My new best buddy had abandoned me. Not that after a while there was much of intellect, reflection or planning going on in my head, just that my head was still firing, still conscious, and I needed to keep telling myself to keep running, and that everything was fine and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

I guess this is where the mantras come in (later post, I’m thinking. I’m amassing a small collection). But on that day I focused on ‘rewards’ for finishing … the hot, soaky bath.  None of this ice-cold bath-sitting for me, I tried that after walking a marathon about four years ago, it’s okay as long as you don’t move, at all, because you just go numb, but it’s an ugly thing, and no reward. And with the running I seem to go cold as soon as I stop, so I reckon a cold bath is not the right recovery strategy (excellent counter-argument, I feel). Stretches, then long, plush, lush, soaky bath. Just have to try to not fall asleep while I’m still in. Don’t succeed very often, even though I am aware one can drown in just a few inches of water.

Other rewards? The surprising big one for me – is this the strongest, most powerful reward ever – just stopping? Not running. The idea of not running. Ooh, I can not run once I’ve finished running.  How can that be an incentive to keep running? It was though, on this occasion.  I’ll definitely remember it for when I need it next. I hope it’s just as helpful.

Another reward was an humungous glass (in moderation) of refreshing white wine. I’d even put a bottle of something nice in the frigo in readiness. And this was fine to keep me going, but once I’d stopped running, a glass of wine was almost the last thing I wanted. Even my enticing little dry Vouvray. I just wanted litres (or so it felt, probably just one and half, maybe) of juice and water. And a hot, plush, lush soaky bath.

The intellectualisation of exercise

Blending wine - an intellectual exercise

Blending wine – an intellectual exercise

Whoever thought exercise could be intellectual? I’d been looking for ‘a big challenge’ for a couple of years, actually. My last big challenge was more than five years ago, which seems to be becoming the gap of habit.

A PhD had been among the contenders, I’d even had a few conversations about that one.  Learning French properly (or Italian from scratch) was another. Always something academic though – for the intellect I guess. Somehow I didn’t manage to get my head round either of these ideas, possibly because my previous two big challenges had also been academic.

Then the ‘big challenge’ bus syndrome happened last summer:

  1. I signed my first book contract (actually quite academic).
  2. I agreed, one slightly pissy-eyed evening, to do a triathlon – an introductory sprint one (400m swim, 24km bike, 4km run) – not an Olympic-sized one.
  3. The marathon bucket-list thing got the better of me. I’d been jogging for a few months by then, I must have been up to 30-40 minutes.

Who’d have thought a marathon, and a sprint triathlon, were going to be the intellectual ‘big challenge’ that was missing from my life? That was a bit of a learning curve in and of itself.

In case you’re wondering, the triathlon came first. I was baited (clearly not entirely unwillingly) once too often and thus I agreed.  I would just say that at the time of commitment I neither owned a bicycle nor could I swim. Evidently this will be my first triathlon, as the marathon will be my first race (of any length).

Bicycling has been considerably easier to solve than swimming. In fact, cycling is rather easy – it’s a bit like falling off a bike really. Once you get back on it all comes back. And I now own a bicycle, thank you very much James, for having done all the research. They do say imitation is the highest form of flattery, so you should still be feeling supremely well flattered! Loving the bike, by the way, great research. However, panicking in water is not a great starting point to learning swimming. I know there’s a post about that trying to float its way into my consciousness.

All this exercise and learning about it, the technical language, what to do, what not to do, how to prepare, what to do straight after exercising – it all requires huge intellectual input (or is that just me?). The whole learning curve thing is great: how to adapt to what I’m asking myself to do, the methodology of how to go about achieving those goals. Do I break them down into smaller chunks?  Do I randomly sit (or run) at one end of the task and chip away at it until I reach the other end? How do I find and access the knowledge, skills and psychological resources I need to complete my big challenge(s). I reckon half of achieving big projects is the head-game.

All this running also appears to be the perfect foil for my day job, which is totally computer-sedentary, arguably even more so now I’m writing a book. Don’t get me wrong, I love my work; and I love being able to say ‘I’m writing a book’ (how utterly, utterly cool is that?). It’s also a huge intellectual undertaking in its own right, and very rewarding, but it uses different parts of the brain from the part that tells me to keep putting one foot in front of the other if I want to finish.

It occurred to me the other day that me doing the marathon is pretty much like me studying for my Master of Wine (MW) (one of my previous ‘big challenges’ a long time ago) – the nearly all-consuming intensity of it, the analysis of information and performance, the gap analysis of what’s missing, the competitiveness (sometimes just self-competitiveness) and drive to complete, finding out what the hurdles are, where they are, how to get over them.

Big challenges are good, if a bit, well, challenging. I guess my friend J would call them growth opportunities. No argument from me there.

UPDATE to Sports Bra: Oh no, those warnings of chafing have come true. I have my first chafing injury (injury, hmmm). Actually my second, just in the same place, only I didn’t realise what it was the first time. This is not about to get too personal for public consumption, well I don’t think so, it is my tummy button that’s chafed. I can now navel-gaze with impunity. Remarkably sore for a part of my body from which I’ve only previously lifted lint. And when in street clothes, it’s right under my belt buckle; actually that is sore. I think it must be the buckle of my hydration rucksack that’s doing it, which of course I won’t be wearing on the big day as there’ll be water stations, hurrah; it’s not much fun carrying around a couple of extra kilos when I start a long run.

On joining an athletics club

I just can’t convey how weird it is to say, to admit, to own the fact that I have joined my local athletics club. Now there really is a sequence of random words I never imagined constructing into any sort of sentence – ‘I’ve joined my local athletics club’. It makes me wryly smile in a disbelieving sort of way, like I must be kidding myself, or going off on some weird fantasy/nightmare. It’s just so … inconceivable. It simply doesn’t fit with anything I know about myself.

But here it is.  I’ve joined WADAC.  Winchester and District Athletics Club. To imagine I might do something that even vaguely constitutes ‘athletics’ is indeed inconceivable. I did used to be sporty, big into my sport, several lifetimes ago, but ball sports, not running-for-no-purpose (hugghhh, sacrilege?). Athletics is what you watch on the telly on a rainy/cold/bored Saturday afternoon as a work/play/chore avoidance mechanism. Athletics is what you get into with gusto and feigned knowledge once every four years at the Olympics. Athletics is not what I do. I’m still getting my head round running rather than jogging. Athletics is for runny-type people.

And speaking of which … Update to “When DOES jogging become running?”:  I ran for the first time on a running track last week. Oooohhh … spongy, yet solid, bouncy yet bold, firm yet flexible, Really quite a pleasant sensation.  A bit like extra-thick bounce on a new pair of running shoes. Tried it again last night at training. There’s another crooked smile, me going to ‘athletics training’. It’s all just so out of character … or maybe it’s in my ‘new’ character (that’s got to be another story, if it’s real).  Anyway, I’m altogether liking the spongy-solid, bouncy-bold running track thingy, and I’m also thinking of the grovelling gratitude of my knees, hips, ankles, oh, all of me.

It just makes me momentarily half-smile, with a frisson of flight/fight adrenaline from being so far outside my comfort zone. And then the moment of half-realisation is gone, and it’s just running stuff. And me trying to get myself in enough shape to complete the marathon. So my lungs don’t burn too much, so my legs don’t become like the jelly babies I’ll probably be cannibalising, so my mind doesn’t break its chains and go awol – I guess that last one is the ‘chimp’ I keep reading about in those running magazines.

They’re a lovely, friendly, welcoming bunch of people at WADAC. Alan got me started off, after a couple of tentative emails from me. They’re SO helpful, and enthusiastic, and wanting you to do well and achieve what you can. No judgement. Encouraging. Supportive. I’d been to a couple of group runs before Christmas, like an inverse ‘try-out’, i.e. me figuring out if I should cross that line and ‘join my local athletics club’, rather than them figuring out if I was good enough. They’re more than welcoming. Actually they seem to do lots of different things. Group runs. Mile or kilometre repeats (I can’t remember, just remember running hard to try to keep up). Other running stuff.

Early in January, I went down for the first time to join a ‘proper’ training session, in fact it was the beginning of a marathon training programme, I think, so I was lucky to link up with that (or maybe London features large in the annual training schedule). Anyway, as soon as I’d introduced myself, the lovely Lou was giving me the third degree and it took me a few seconds to catch up to the fact that she was just trying to find out where I was with my  running so she could offer the appropriate level of  guidance. Within a nano-second I was having an intense one-to-one coaching session (talking). Brilliant. Thanks Lou. I’ve since found out she’s a three time iron-man woman. Respect.

And here’s some new jargon. The other day a WADAC someone said to me “see you at the track”. How weird is that? They surely couldn’t be talking to me? Really funny. Not ha, ha. And there’s a thought. This is something I must remember when head hasn’t emptied on a long run and I need nice thoughts to keep me moving (the empty head post has nearly finished gestating, it may be next) … see you at the track!