Category Archives: Running tips

The sports drinks don’t work

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lucozade

Not all Lucozade campaigns have been equally inspired…

Anyone running the recent inaugural Hackney half-marathon will have seen that in addition to the regular water stops, the event also offered free energy drinks to all runners after eight miles. It was not just an act of generosity on the part of the manufacturers but a commonplace piece of advertising, of a par with Lucozade’s launch of two Brazilian flavours to tie in with the World Cup. And while Lucozade is not one of the official sponsors of the tournament in Brazil, anyone watching could hardly miss the images of footballers drinking vast quantities of other, branded sports drinks left conveniently just beyond the edges of the pitch.

Sports drinks are big business: Lucozade’s sales in the UK are running at around £450 million per year, or around £9 per adult in the country. But if you are a runner; will a sport drink boost your performance?

I was encouraged to try sports drinks by a physiotherapist who I was seeing for chronic stiffness in my calves. “It’s muscle cramps”, he explained to me, “if you are short of sodium in a particular muscle, it stiffens. So it must be that what you need to do is increase your salt intake. That’s what the sports drinks are for.” From the moment that I received this advice, I doubted it was suitable for me: in my early thirties I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and also found to have (modestly) high cholestrol. Most of the men in my family have had heart disease, for anyone with this history, increased salt really isn’t what your body needs.

Running is ideally a low-tech sport; part of its appeal is precisely that it doesn’t require an apparatus of equipment or clothing. You can take part happily without enabling anyone else to make money from you. Every time you come across a “running gadget”, whether it is Nike’s cushioned heels which originally launched the jogging boom, energy gels, foam rollers or whatever, scepticism is right. If we’ve always needed sports drinks, then why did we wait for a Lucozade or a Gatorade to invent them: why wasn’t there an equivalent years ago?

But energy drinks are becoming more pervasive, and it’s hard to resist the micro-advertisement effect of watching other runners gulping down a sports drink immediately on finishing a race.

Sports drinks’ selling point is their capacity to replace lost electrolytes (i.e. salt). “Electrolytes help to replace the sodium lost in sweat”, Lucozade website tells you, “which you are sure to do when exercising moderately. Lucozade Sport helps to replenish these lost stores and help you to retain fluid.”

Of course it is right that people sweat on either moderate or extreme exercise. I run in a black cap and I can see for myself the salt I’ve lost at the end of my daily 45-60 minute runs. It forms a permanent white band around the inside of the cap’s rim.

But, as well as losing salt, when you run your body is also losing water. If a person is losing both salt and water while running, so long as they drink water to compensate, there is no reason for their salt levels to become unbalanced. As it happens, a typical runner has not lower but higher salt concentrations in their body at the end of a long run. If that sounds unlikely, the authors of this website claim that in research studies done on runners at the Comrades ultra-marathon in 2005 and 2006, the sodium levels in runners’ bodies were higher at the end of the event than the start. The sodium in an energy drink would not assist these runners; rather, it would throw their bodies modestly further out of balance.

The Comrades marathon is a 56-mile race through the hillsides of Kwa-Zulu Natal. If the people running that distance have no need for energy drinks then you can pretty sure that they are quite useless for the typical 30-miles-a-week-or-less runner.

The answer to my physio’s suggestion is a simple thought experiment. When a person is short of salt they may indeed suffer cramps, but the cramps they suffer will not be specific but spread throughout the body. Now think about where a runner feels cramps, typically in their lower legs, not throughout their body. This is a sign that the runner is tired in the muscles they have used the most. But if the cramps are just in the calves, it’s not a sign of salt loss.

I am not suggesting that sports drinks are wholly useless. They contain a fair amount of sugar which the body burns during exercise. But for a low cost alternative try adding a table spoon of generic cordial to your water bottle when you run. It will be a tenth of the price, taste nigh on identical, and it will do you as much good.

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The Glory of finishing Second

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No analogy captures better the essence of running than that of the professional musician: a person who plays and plays in a restless search for the perfect performance. It’s not just the time that counts or the position in the race but the joy of the activity itself. This, I’ve argue before, is part of the difference between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, the latter was content to decline, just loving to race competitively, whereas Coe was haunted by the shame that he might race and not win. The exaggerated urge to come first is the sporting equivalent of a society convulsed by Thatcherite dogma. In the wrong circumstances, a running victory can be a profoundly destructive experience. The relentless urge to win is a needless and self-destructive expression of unease with self.

This notion of the futility of winning is delicately illustrated by the recent story Iván Fernández Anaya, a Basque athlete who finished second in a cross country race six weeks ago at Burlada in Northern Spain. Abel Mutai, who came third in the 3000 metre steeplechase at the London Olympics, was just approaching the line. As he left the track, to cover the last few metres, which were run on grass, Mutai clearly believed that he had already crossed the finishing line. He checked his watch, and slowed down almost to walking pace.

Anaya, who was about ten metres behind, caught up with Mutai, and (as you can see in the above video clip at about 30 seconds in), ushered him towards the line, pointing him in the direction of the actual finish. The two athletes were close enough so that Anaya could have sprinted past and won – but chose not to. “[Mutai] was the rightful winner”, Anaya said afterwards, “He created a gap that I couldn’t have closed.”

I recall a cross country race in my teens where I caught another runner at the final water jump. Bundling him up, I dragged him with me across the line. I was a track athlete and trained the whole year; he by contrast was someone who had relied on sheer strength and determination to carry him round. He had run a fantastic race; me a mediocre one. I didn’t deserve to finish ahead of him, and 20 years later am still glad that we crossed the line together.

Anyone who has run more than a couple of dozen races will have faced something like this choice.

Hat tip to Ben Hiller and Jeff Jackson

Run like a Kenyan

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The disease proves easier to diagnose than the cure. Brits just run wrong. We sleep too little, we run at the wrong ages of our lives. We run too little beneath the age of 10 and too much above the age of 40. Our diet contains too much fat. When we run, we over-rely on heavy running shoes to protect our heels, throwing our entire legs out of balance. We take too little interest in the top athletes; where we do develop world-class runners, they fail to inspire imitators in the younger generation. We leave runners to run alone, when we would run better in groups. Our running culture is thin; running is not revered.

“Despite all the advances in training technology, nutrition, physiotherapy”, Finn writes, “the increase in the quality and quantity of races, the introduction of prize money, in the West we’re stuck on a conveyor belt going the wrong way. In 1975, for example, 23 marathon runners were run in times under 2 hours 20 minutes by British runners,  34 by US runners, and none by Kenyan runners. By 2005, however, there were 12 sub-2:20 marathon performances by Britons, 22 by Americans, and a staggering 490 by Kenyans.”

Finn, a Devon-based contributor to Runner’s World (the first name was the gift of hippie Irish parents), spent 6-months in Iten in Kenya, reducing his personal bests from 1 hour 30 for a half marathon to under 3 hours for a marathon; an improvement of about 5%. This is pretty amazing, in someone in their mid-late thirties who had been running consistently for 10 years.

As the book progresses Finn’s personal journey towards improvement is merged into a second story, that of a group of runners who race with him including Christopher Cheboiboch (previously second in the New York and Boston marathons), and their joint attempts at glory in Kenya’s Lewa marathon.

How did Finn manage to improve so sharply? Finn took his whole family, including his children, with him to Iten. He exercised with other Kenyan runners, took part in races, and immersed himself in the local running culture. He changed his running style, slowly, from a heel to a front-foot strike and changed his running shoes. He ate the carbohydrate-rich local diet, shedding 5 kg in the process. He appears to have avoided injury (there are no direct references to any injuries in his book, beyond the most passing, and enough runs are described to make it seem most likely than he lost no more than a few weeks at a time to any of the classic runners’ complaints).

Reading Running with the Kenyans, I couldn’t help but think that some of this at least could be reproduced without needing to relocate to Iten.

Here finally is the author being interviewed about the book:

The physiology of middle- and long-distance runnning

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The press coverage of the London Marathon focuses on two familiar stories: one is the triumph of Kenyan athletes, not just Wilson Kipsang in the men’s marathon, but Mary Keitany in the woman’s event. Behind their victory is a familiar story of Kenyan success: conventionally explained in terms of the pervasiveness of role models and of non-competitive running, and of the knowledge of running as a route out of poverty. The contrast is with Britain, where the avarage age of marathon runners is increasing, and the times of elite marathon runners are worsening and not improving.

The second story is the partial success of the Brits: including top-finishing British woman Claire Hallissey, who took 2 minutes off her personal best in running an Olympic qualifying time of 2 hrs 27 (9 minutes behind Keitany), and will almost certainly be picked as the third choice for the Olympic marathon squad. Compare Lee Merrien, who ran 2:13 in the men’s race (again, 9 minutes behind Kipsang), outside the 2:12 required to join Scott Overall in the men’s London 2012 team. It seems almost inevitable therefore that Team GP will have just 1 runner in the Olympic men’s marathon.

A number of friends have criticised a piece I posted here a month ago, arguing that middle- and long-distance runners have different builds and a different psychology.

With that in mind, it’s interesting to look at the records of Hallissey and Merrien.

I haven’t been able to find a record of Hallissey’s weight or height, but looking at a database of Hallissey’s top times, I see that she runs shorter distances often (she had her annual bests recorded for 800 metres over 5 of the last 9 years), but also relatively poorly. Her all-time best over 800 metres is 2 minutes 18 seconds. (This was the 307th best time run by a British woman that year, in other years Hallissey’s times would put her around 600-700th in the UK rankings).

In other words, she is a light runner with a very high proportion of slow-stretch muscle, and a relatively low-proportion of fast-stretch muscle. This shouldn’t be surprising, it explains why she is good at the marathon. (Presumably, she would be even better still at ultra-marathons). But it’s a very different physiology from a middle-distance runner, who needs a much more explosive finish, and who necessarily has a much higher proportion of fast-stretch muscle.

Lee Merrien is a more complex runner. Aged 32 (33 in a matter of days), for a long time he was ranked only as a middle-distance runner. Indeed his early times over 800 metres were dramatically faster than Hallissey’s: including a 1 minute 49 in the 800 metres. (There’s a 10% gap between their best times over the marathon but a 25% gap between their best times over 800 metres). But he’s been gradually shifting to longer distances: his best times over 800m and 1500m were reached when he was 27, he got his 10k pb at 29, and he’s just had his best time for a marathon.

Merrien’s height is recorded as 181 cm / 5’11”  and weight: 65 kg / 143 lbs.

While this isn’t as spindly as Kipsang, this is definitely a much lighter physique than say Steve Ovett (2 cm taller and 5 kg heavier at his peak).

Merrien is alos relatively lighter than Alberto Junatorena, Ovett’s nemesis at the 1976 Olympics, who was 9 cm taller and a full 25 kg heavier than him.

Natural middle-distance runners do just have a heavier build even than a reconditioned runner like Merrien who started off in the middle-distances before joining the marathon club relatively late in life.

Surviving the London marathon

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Just in case anyone reading this blog has an entry for the London Marathon on the weekend, and hasn’t been overwhelmed yet by the volume of free advice that can be obtained in magazines, on other blogs, and all over the web (in almost all cases by people who’ve run considerably further than I’ve ever managed), I thought I’d offer my own tips:

  1. If you really haven’t trained, it’s not too late to pull out. Sorry, this is probably the last thing you want to be told, but there’s a reason Phidippides died running 26 miles. It’s long and it’s brutal, and if you haven’t trained enough it will hurt
  2. Carbo-load; I know there’s a lot of hype about it and it sounds incredible, but it works
  3. If you end up using sugar as an analgaesic, go for artificial sugar (it takes longer to dissolve)
  4. Motivate yourself incrementally: almost everyone who runs their first marathon, irrespective of their fitness level (well, with the possible exception of Jade Goody), “should” find it possible to complete a marathon, even if theircardiovascular fitness is atrocious, by reducing their intensity to a pace they can sustain. If you are nervous about the distance, time your first mile, and then fix in your head the thought “I just ran a mile in ten minutes. It didn’t hurt. I can run the next mile in the same time.”)
  5. Motivate yourself negatively: by which I mean, focus on finishing. “I’ve done a quarter of the distance – it was ok, I’ve only got three quarters to go.” Particularly in the second half of the race, and especially at around 18 miles in or so, you should be able to motivate yourself by counting down the miles to go. “It’s only 8 more miles; I know what 8 feels like.”
  6. Don’t think that just because someone looks like a joker, they’ll run like a joker. If you’re relying on someone in a costume to pull you round the course – don’t be surprised if they’re a multi-marathon runner, with a planned negative split, who after running 10 miles at 10-minute a mile pace, will suddenly drop down to 7-minute pace or less.  Some runners dress like idiots because they are idiots. Many more dress like that because they’re brilliant runners and they don’t care.
  7. Enjoy it. And if you enjoy it a lot (and you haven’t completely knackered yourseld), run again. 

Infection – the runners’ paradox

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In common with probably 90% of part-time runners in the UK, I spent much of last week coughing up the insides of my lungs. It is one of the small ironies of regular exercise that it seems to make you more and not less prone to illnesses such as coughs or flu.

I appreciate that this is counter-intuitive. Over the last thirty years, I’ve become more and more conscious of the messages around me telling me to exercise. There are far more private gyms than there used to be. Health insurers market themselves as offering cheaper rates to those who exercise regularly. And there is of course far more sport on television. Hell, there are even many more people wearing sports clothes on the streets.

In common with everyone who reads this blog, I am well aware that increased personal exercise reduces stress, weight, cholesterol, blood pressure and heart disease. Yet I am also aware that the periods of my life in which I’ve done the most exercise have also been the ones in which my body was most prone to break down (as one friend put it to me recently: “I was really enjoying my running before the injury struck, but isn’t that always the way?”).

More than that, I know that runners aren’t just prone to knee and shin injuries; we also seem to suffer far more routinely from chest and lung infections than most other people.

The best evidence is that while running does all sorts of long-term good to runners’ bodies, an exercise session immediately diminishes the effectiveness of our immune systems

One study of 2300 marathon runners found that 13% contracted an illness in the week following the race. (Of those who pulled out of the marathon, only 2% were sick in the same period).

This picture has been corroborated by detailed studies of smaller cohorts of athletes; whose immune systems (i.e. blood lymphocyte percentages and immunoglobulin levels) appear to have deteriorated precisely in response to intense exercise).

It’s not hypochondria; it’s a real condition.

Circuit training; gingerly

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Nearly a year after I restarted running, I’ve been trying to build up to a style of training that suits my current fitness. There are two parts to this:

First, by any runners’ standard I am shockingly unfit. I feel overweight (5’10, 170 lbs or so). I have suffered repeated tendon injuries over the past few months, which took me out of action for nearly eight weeks on each side of Christmas. And as I try to build myself up to running again, I live in constant fear that I will re-tear my achilles.

Second, despite all that, I think that I have retained some fast-twitch muscle, going back to my teens, or going back maybe to some relatively intense gym work I was doing 2-3 years ago. My best evidence of this is my most recent 5k time (at the end of October last year) – just under 23 minutes. In age terms, this is no worse than my half marathon time of 7 years ago: 1 hr 41.

Given that this was the first time I’d run 5k, even in training, for 5 years, I was delighted by how fast the time was.

So how to develop this base fitness, without running too far and injuring myself again?

Inspired by recent research that even very small bouts of exercise, so long as they are conducted at very high intensity, can be as fruitful as long runs at a gentler pace, I’ve been experimenting with a form of fartlek that is based on the sort of track running I used to do in my teens.

I’ve found a small park near me with a circular area, just 100 metres or so in circumference. I run laps of it, building up my sprinting distance until I am running at a relatively high intensity for the entire “circuit” (and then recovering to a very slow jog in between).

I am running gingerly: I keep the number of circuits low and I am even now going at a “slow” version of my top pace. But my plan is to build these up – slowly – until I can run maybe three sessions of these mini-circuits mid-week, then break for a day or two before a longer weekend run.

If it works; I’ll report back on progress.