Wanted: Coaching team. Must include running coach, sport psychologist, physiotherapist, nutritionist and doctor.
What runner hasn't wished for a chance to work with a team of experts who can answer all their questions, tell them what to do, maybe even push them out of the door every now and then? But the fact is that most runners train on their own. So we asked some of the UK's leading experts for their insights on how you can do a better job of preparing yourself for your next event – and how you can be your own team of experts.
Treat your training programme like your mobile phone contract – set yourself up with a plan that suits your specific needs and you'll reap the rewards. Look at several different plans, work out what the principles underlying their designs are, then construct one that synchs with your personality and lifestyle. "A programme you know you can stick to and enjoy is more likely to bring you to your end goal," explains Sam Murphy, author of Running Well (£14.99, amazon.co.uk). "Working backwards from your goal, incorporating all the other stuff in life you have to fit around your training – from kids to work – will help you identify what is realistic in your specific time frame." Get it down on paper, suggests Murphy. "Make it part of your everyday life by putting it on the fridge so you're constantly reminded of it."
Evaluate your progress
The hardest part of being your own coach is determining exactly how well your training is going. "You need a balance of objective structure and subjective comment," explains Phil Hayes, applied sport and exercise scientist at Northumbria University. "Pay attention to concrete figures, such as improved times, or running the same times at a lower heart rate. But also note how you're feeling out of 10 during those runs." Look for the signs of success: your long runs are leaving you feeling less fatigued; you feel less sore in the 72 hours after a particularly intense run. Next, identify one aspect of your training that needs some work for your next phase of training. Change only that one thing, says Hayes. "If you change two things and have the best season you've ever had, how will you know which change worked?"
Check your pace
While varying the pace of your runs is essential to improving, it's key to have the correct variation. "You need to make your recovery runs really easy and your hard runs really hard," explains Chris Frapwell, coach to GB Olympic marathon hopeful Dan Robinson. "Easy runs should be done as genuine recovery runs, but I see so many club runners doing them as steady runs – it puts you on a fast track to fatigue and over-training." Slow it down – use a heart-rate monitor, train with a plodder or take in some chilled, view-littered trails. "On longer, hard runs, aim for a pace that's about 80 per cent of your race pace. When it comes to the speedier sessions – such as mile reps or intervals – aim for 110 per cent," says Frapwell. "As long as you're hitting faster than race pace, you'll see the benefits."
Get to know you
Knowing yourself is key to improving your running, and that means knowing the you in the present, not just in the past. Don't base your training on your 10K pace from two years ago. "Using old times can lead to over-training, injury and lack of motivation, so it's in your interests to be realistic and up to date," explains Frapwell. "To develop as a runner, training at the right pace is essential. Base your targets on current fitness levels." Run a time trial of 2K as fast and as evenly paced as possible and use your average speed when doing your 400-800m intervals. Put your new times to use. "At the end of each interval training session, you should be just about able to keep up the pace – if you can, increase your duration by 10 per cent; if you can't, shorten it."
If you want to know why you're performing well - or why you aren't – it's crucial to keep track of your habits. "There's no single more important tool for a self-coached runner than a training log – but it needs to be done right," explains John Wood, City of Sheffield AC endurance coach. The rule of thumb: cover every base. "Include anything and everything that could affect your performance; not just miles and pace, but also things like how much you slept, what you ate, the weather and even your general mood before, during and after each run," adds Wood. "It'll help you identify patterns and the cause and effect of good and bad runs." And training logs don't have a ‘use by' date. "I have all my training diaries going back to 1984," says Karen Hancock, coach at the Serpentine Running Club in London. It's easy to become complacent as a more experienced runner and think you won't forget the lessons you've learned years ago, says Hancock. "Just flicking through them when I feel like I've hit a plateau can be enough to spark me into action and give me just the lift I need."
Become a coach
Every runner knows the benefits of finding a good mentor – be it a coach or a more experienced runner in your club – but the advantages go both ways. "Whatever your standard or fitness level, mentoring a beginner or someone less experienced than you can help you refine your own thoughts and understand your own running better," explains coach Richard Holt from Momentum Sports. "It also encourages you to become a better listener, so you'll actually end up getting more benefit from whoever's mentoring you, which is key to improving," adds Holt. Advise them on all aspects that your privileged external view can help with – running style, cadence and run scheduling – along with all the motivation you can provide. If your local club can't help you find someone to coach, try runningpartners.co.uk. Or you could just put a post on our forums.
Find more flexitime
Don't let your training schedule rule your life. "When times and results become the whole focus of training, it's possible to adversely affect other areas of your life, which in turn will negatively feed back into your running," says Julia Armstrong, leading performance coach and author of Running to Learn (Red Sail Publishing; £9.99, amazon.co.uk). It's crucial to work around this vicious circle. "Running is a hobby – it's not worth sacrificing your job or personal relationships for," adds Armstrong. Take your training opportunities where you can get them. "Your plan is just that – a plan. If you spot a training opportunity that will relieve pressure elsewhere in the week – such as running home from work or a partner being away – take it." Likewise, if your programme calls for a rest day, but you need to run hard to de-stress from work, do your tempo miles and rest the next day.
Remember good times
The biggest obstacle standing between most runners and better running? "Focusing on the negative," says David Fletcher, lecturer in sport and performance psychology at Loughborough University. "Runners tend to think of what’s stopping them achieving their next PB – injuries, work, limited time – rather than remembering how they achieved their last milestone achievement." The first step to a new and better you? Admit your negativity. "It's a painful process, but an essential one," says Fletcher. Detail perceived problems after each race and consciously think of a word or colour to associate with those thoughts when they reappear. Or try this: "When negative thoughts hit, say the word 'Stop' out loud while visualising a red traffic light," says Fletcher.
Get running smart
You need to master the mental side of running if you’re going to meet your full potential. "But how many seriously sit down and plan this side of the training programme?" asks Fletcher. Don't practise a mental technique just because someone tells you to – do it because it will enhance your performance. Identify areas that need working on, such as self-confidence, and pinpoint the techniques or strategies that'll help you improve in those areas. For instance, 'choking' happens either because you’ve placed huge importance on a particular race, or you fear failure. "Take emotion out of the equation. Think logically, reminding yourself about all the prep you’ve done," Fletcher says.
To avoid long-term sick notes, plan recovery from injuries as carefully as you do your training. "Have a clear week-by-week timetable with your physio or doctor on how you should recover," says Neil Tucker, a musculoskeletal physio at Pure Sports Medicine. "Find out how long rehab will take, what you need to do and whether there is any other complementary training you can do to minimise the negative effects of rest." With Achilles injuries, a rehab programme in which you stand on a step and lower your heels, progressively adding more resistance, takes 12 to 16 weeks, says Tucker. "You can start light running at about week eight. Do anything before that and you’ll be back at square one in no time." Can’t give up the run? Aqua jogging has been proven to help maintain the fitness levels of injured runners.
Boost your stretching
Want to feel better quicker? Try reciprocal inhibition stretching. "Simultaneously stretching opposing muscles – like the biceps and triceps – to induce a deeper, better stretch, can reduce delayed onset of muscle soreness by up to a third," explains Gemma McCartney, running tutor at Lifetime Training (www.lifetimehf.co.uk). After a run, turn your hamstrings stretch up to 11 by lying on your back and getting a partner to push your straight leg back towards your head for six seconds. Squeezing your quads – the opposing, or 'antagonist' muscle to your hamstrings – at the same time will stretch your hamstring further. "This induces neuromuscular tension. Your brain responds by relaxing the hamstrings more, giving a deeper stretch," says McCartney. Hold until the tension eases. Repeat three times.
Get your three Gs
"Glucosamine, glutamine and glycerol are the three most important supplements a runner should consider taking," says nutritionist Penny Hunking from Energise Nutrition. Glucosamine shores up defences to relentless pounding. "It enables the body to manufacture glycosaminoglycans (GAGs). They are a vital part of the skeletal structure, and can protect against joint damage, relieve symptoms and speed healing."Glutamine, the most abundant free amino acid in muscle cells, can help prevent muscle breakdown and suppress exercise-induced immune depression. Researchers at the University of São Paulo recommend taking 5g straight after a training session, and then another 5g two hours later. Glycerol is a naturally occurring substance that provides the backbone of fat molecules. "Taking 1.5g per kilo of body weight before a race can help you retain an extra 600ml of fluid, which helps you regulate temperature, increase energy and avoid heat stroke," says Hunking.
Double your daily A.C.E.
Runners' bodies react to strain by releasing damaging free radicals. "These are neutralised by vitamins A, C and E," says Nathalie Jones, sports nutritionist with Achilles Heel. "Anyone putting in serious training should double their RDA of these vitamins." Up your A intake to about 2mg (green leafy veg and dairy), C to 500mg (peppers and strawberries) and E to 100mg (nuts and seeds). "Vitamin C speeds up the repair process in muscles, connective tissues and cartilage," explains Hunking. But too much can irritate your stomach lining, while A and E can be stored in toxic levels if taken at levels significantly higher than these.
Recognise the signs
"Disturbed sleep, a higher resting heart rate, increased rates of perceived exertion and even depression can point towards overtraining, as your blood sugar levels become volatile and unstable," says Dr Mike Bundy, specialist sports doctor at Pure Sports Medicine (www.puresportsmed.com). To discover if you’re over-training, try the orthostatic heart rate test, developed by Finnish sports physiologist Heikki Rusko. Lie down for 10 minutes at the same time each day (morning is best), and record your heart rate. Stand up and note your heart rate again after 15, 90 and 120 seconds. Well-rested athletes demonstrate consistency between measurements. But Rusko found a marked increase (10 beats per minute or more) in the 120-second standing measurement of athletes on the verge of over-training. "This kind of change can indicate that you haven't recovered from a previous workout, are fatigued or otherwise stressed. Rest for one more day before performing another workout," says Bundy.
Look after your engine
Exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, but it isn’t a panacea. "Know your numbers and keep them at a healthy level," says Bundy. That means: blood pressure should be at/or lower than 120/80; HDL (good) cholesterol above 50; LDL (bad) cholesterol lower than 100; triglycerides lower than 150; and blood glucose level lower than 100. Get a check-up (blood test, blood pressure check and a sounding of your heart) with your GP every year to stave off potential problems. For extra protection, try resistance training – Harvard researchers found that lifting weights 30 minutes a week is enough to reduce your risk of heart disease by 23 per cent.