Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Playing the long game

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Last weekend I made a breakthrough; one that was a long time coming and one frankly at times I felt I’d never achieve. OK, so in the grand scheme of things going sub-19 minutes for a 5km running race isn’t all that ground-breaking, people do it every week. But for a triathlete who started off barely being able to run a 23-minute 5km 18 months ago, it was a pivotal moment.

But this blog isn’t going to look at the ‘moment’ itself, so much as the journey to get there.  Specifically, while you can train hard and intelligently, the one thing you can’t control – yet is perhaps as important as any other element – is time.

For the purpose of today’s story, I’m going to just use the Saturday morning parkruns I often race at Lydiard Park in Swindon.  Why?  Because, weather aside, it’s the same course each week and therefore a good benchmark of fitness and speed.

In October 2010, my coach Mark Shepherd decided a weekly blast at the Swindon Parkrun would be a good way to test my running ability, give a good indication of how training was working for me and give my aerobic system a good clear out.  So on 23rd October 2010, I ran my first 5km running race (first outside of a triathlon, that is).

My time was 20:24.  Hardly a poor result, but far from where I know I need to be in order to be competitive on the age group sprint triathlon scene.  There was very little strategy to my race, other than to go out hard and try to sustain it to the finish!

A week later and I ran the same course again.  This time clocking a 19:57 – a near 30-improvement.  Dead chuffed, I thought that if you could continue the trend, I’d be running sub-18 minute 5kms in just a couple of months!  My run training was obviously going very well indeed.

And then the next time, on 13th November 2010 I ran a 19:54.  Hmm, hardly another 30 seconds improvement.   And then on 8th January 2011, 20:00.  Hold on a second, aren’t I meant to be getting faster?!  My training hasn’t changed, but suddenly my improvements have faltered.

Two weeks later (22nd Jan), feeling a bit disappointed with the last two results I gasped and wheezed my way over the line in 19:21.  Wow, where did that come from? A full minute faster than my initial benchmark time in October.  Maybe all this run training malarkey (remember I was still in base training at this time of year) is doing some good after all.

For various reasons, I then didn’t run Swindon again till the 23rd April, when I clocked a 19:34. What?! Three months training under my belt and I run 13 seconds slower?!  I might have had a little sense of humour failure at this point… Why bother with the structured training if you can’t see the results on race day?

This disappointment may well have played a part in my reluctance to run another parkrun till 11th June, when I posted a new PB of 19:18.  OK, so we’re back on track.  Not the kind of improvement I was hoping for, but an improvement nonetheless.

And so finally we come to the 30th July 2011 and a whopping new PB of 18:52. Nearly 30 seconds faster than my previous PB. Mega chuffed and faith restored that training is indeed making a difference.

So why the long ramble?  Well, mainly to share the biggest single lesson I’ve learned from all these damned parkruns: namely that the path of training and racing is rarely smooth and linear.  Ups and downs are par for the course, as are periods of stagnation (or plateauing if you prefer!).  The positive side, though is that improvements can come when you least expect them!

As someone who only came to triathlon in early 2010 and who has made substantial progress since then, I had become accustomed to relatively large performance gains in short periods of time.  But the law of diminishing returns has to take precedence at some point and these improvements a) slow down and b) demand much more effort to be achieved.  It’s not ‘fair’ but that’s life.

In real terms, it has taken me nearly nine months of solid training and racing to knock just 90 seconds off my 5km running time.  And being honest with myself (and definitely not meaning to boast), I’ve probably improved faster than most people who started at the same level.

So finally we get to the point of today’s blog: patience, faith and persistence.  You need to have patience to see improvements in your race-day performances – don’t fool yourself into thinking that early stage gains are representative of what you should expect month on month, or race on race. 

You need to have Faith.  If you have a coach, have faith in the plan they set you. If not, have faith in your own ability to see the bigger picture and make small steps towards the overall goal.  You might get frustrated –like I have – with an apparent lack of progress, but don’t judge overall performances on just one race or training session.

Persistence.  I’ve just shown you it took me around nine months to find 60 seconds of running time. That’s something like 0.2 seconds improvement per day overall – hardly jaw-dropping!  Yet… at the same time, you certainly notice the minute difference in finishing times.  So even if progress feels painfully slow (or even like it’s going backwards on occasion), have the guts to stick with it and you will be rewarded – it might just take a little longer than you originally planned!

And just to be clear, I’m not meaning to preach.  I write the advice above largely because I need reminding of it myself on a regular basis.  My coach will testify I have thrown my toys out of the pram on more than one occasion.  Yet there are times (like now) when I reach a milestone and can then take a somewhat more objective view.

It seems that triathlon really is a sport to be measured in months and years, rather than hours and minutes…! 

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Matt Fisher runs - so it's all his fault! He pretends to be a triathlete, but really he is a husband, father and company VP. But he has raced for the GB Age Group squad a few times and is a two-times qualifier for the IM70.3 world champs