Rebuilding My Run (Again)

More than any other activity running defines my fitness. It was the sport I started with and whilst I occasionally grow tired of familiar routes nothing picks me up like a good run. Achieving my best run fitness back in July was an incredible high, then losing it with injury depressing. After four months of inconsistency I’m starting the rebuilding process.

Run Performance Management Chart - 2010 Fitness and all time low

The Performance Management Chart shows that in run fitness (CTL) terms I’ve gone from an all time high to an all time low. It’s dipped before, but this is the most protracted break I’ve taken in the last seven years. At my peak I had to run at least 10km at Ironman pace to produce sufficient stress to raise CTL, today a couple of kilometres jog would be sufficient.

Time out from training whether through injury or choice will put anyone in this position. Strong run foundations remain, but the lack of training increases the risk of injury. As fitness trends down the body ruthlessly disposes of adaptations surplus to requirements. Subtle localised changes in the muscles that all the swimming and cycling in the world won’t help. The aerobic engine can be at full capacity, but the chasis not up to the job.

Building to Kona I worked swim and bike hard in the absence of running resulting in improved swim and bike performance. Somewhere on the marathon my legs gave out, a training pace went from comfortable through challenging to impossible. My lungs and heart could shift the oxygen, but leg muscles couldn’t cope with the load. It was one of the more painful moments in my racing history.

Each race and subsequent recovery puts me in the position of rebuilding fitness, typically I’ve dived back in taking a week or two to return to ‘normal’. Older, wiser and nervous about a calf that stopped me running for four months I knew caution was required. A gradual increase in run volume and stress over the coming month, not a jump from nothing to eighty kilometres in a week.

There’s huge temptation to rush, I know how fit I’ve been and not being there makes me nervous. If I’m not running more than thirty minutes now how can I expect to run a three hour Ironman marathon in July? I see similar doubts amongst my athletes, concerns that they need to be training harder now for performance in the Summer. I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t train hard, but intensity has to be planned, let the doubts take control and it’s easy to push to breaking point.

Aware of my tendency to work too hard until fatigue tempers my efforts I’ve built limits into my plan. Initial runs were 3km so whatever pace I found myself at the opportunity to do harm was minimal. I kept the focus on posture, stable hips and good turn over doing my best to ensure I was running well, pacing was an after thought. Unsurprisingly I started too hot and ran above race pace, but the short duration seemed to do the trick.

From a fortnight appreciating that I was running again if only for fifteen minutes I’ve progressed to a full half hour. Even when it feels good I don’t go further or aim to set PBs, this isn’t about rushing just following the plan. Some may question the lack of intervals, hill work or long runs, but at this point thirty minutes is training. I’m forgetting what I was doing at my peak and concentrating on what’s needed now.

Effects of consistent, steady run training on fitness

A simple plan of consistent running predicts the fitness growth in the above Performance Management Chart. Starting with daily half hour runs and adding hour runs as the month progresses I could achieve a CTL I’ve raced from before. I won’t be in my best run shape, but I won’t be in a slump, all that’s required are regular steady runs.

There’s a hint of optimism with run volume increasing over the month. I’m not sure I’ll reach the point I can sustain it, but I’m reassured that through consistency I’ll start 2011 with a platform to achieve my goals. Once running is easy again I’ll worry about the details. Only then will I consider weekly volumes, duration of long runs, hills and perhaps the occasional interval.

At the moment it’s just good to be running again, performance can come in the New Year.

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  • Good to hear you are back running again Russ! I hope you can stick to your very sensible plan. I had a tendency, when I started to feel good, to keep stepping it up until it got uncomfortable again. By then it was too late and I’d end up back at the physio.

    The two things that have worked the best for me are:

    (i) Time (no-one wants to hear that!), and

    (ii) Self-massage on the calf every night, using the thumbs to get in there and work the sore spots. The calf-roller didn’t seem to be as effective.

    But as you know, I’m no expert – just a fellow sufferer looking to get his run back!

  • Annette Lee

    Although it doesn’t sound very nice, it’s always good to hear someone like you talk about the frustration injury brings. I’m into my second week of no running as a result of a bit of a mystery injury, with a HIM race just 7 days away and the prospect of pulling out altogether or just doing the swim/bike as a training day and then DNF, which isn’t very nice either. Perhaps I should read over your piece every day so that I don’t try and undo the good the doctor/physio/osteopath/masseur is doing, but I don’t like it and I’m no-where near as analytical about as you.

  • John –

    So far so good on sticking to the plan, onto 6th day of 30 minute runs and holding up. I didn’t mention it in the article, but have regular massage is part of the process too (with Aurelie at The Tri Touch for those near London, bit far for you John!) I’ve also identified and regular use the stretches that seem to hit the spot the most, I’m very precise about stretching after a run now. Self-massaging the calf is something I could work on though.

  • Annette,

    No running before Kona only did me so much harm! I’d not recommend it though. If you swim/bike the HIM, don’t take your run shoes into transition that way there’s no temptation just to finish the race. I know I’d find it hard to start and then not finish a race.

    There’s not much difference between what the fastest and slowest athletes should do when injured, whether we do it is what counts. I think we all tend to hope we’re a special case and can get away without going through a recovery and rehab process. Unfortunately when we try to avoid it it usually makes things worse!

    Hope the injury clears up soon.

  • Sean Stewart

    Hello Russ,

    I’ve been following (and enjoying) your blogs for a while now. I too have suffered from non-specific calf injuries for several years and have tried physio’, rollers, acupuncture etc all to no avail. A couple of years ago I got so frustrated that I decided to make my own calf-compression ‘socks’ by cutting the lower leg off an old wet suit – it was a bit small for me and this added to the compressive effects.

    They seem to have done the trick; they provide the support that I need whilst training, but unlike the commercially available lycra calf guards they also keep the muscles warm (very warm). When I race I use the lycra versions and they work well, but I am certain I wouldn’t get to the start line if I wasn’t using my neoprene version for my training.

  • Hi Sean,

    Thanks for the comments, interesting idea. I’ll admit I’ve not actually been running with compression that much (compression tights occasionally when that’s all that’s available to keep my legs warm). A very slow and careful build up of running (slower than in my predictions) along with a lot of time spent on gym work seems to be doing the trick. So far I’ve got the balance right and the legs seem to be getting stronger.

    I vaguely remember hearing about Chrissie Wellington wearing rubber shorts for a hamstring injury so there may be something in using an old wetsuit for that role, I happen to have a very old wetsuit which I’m not sure what to do with too.