Motivation for assessing trainingWhen training for big ultra races you a often faced with many months of training building up to your A races, during this period one hardly races if at all, so you don't have any race data to assessing how your fitness is progressing.
Subjectively you might feel like you are getting fitter and stronger, but you might just as equally have a what feels like a couple of bad weeks and your confidence can be knocked. When you stand on the start line for your big races it's good to know that your training has gone well and what finishing times might be realistic to aim for.
How your fitness is progressing will also influence what training might be appropriate to do next. This post will outline a couple of ways I'm trying to by analysing my own training logs to provide answers to just how my training is progressing.
Evaluation runsOne way of assessing fitness is to run the same course at the same intensity over a period of weeks, months and years to see how your times/paces vary. If your training cycle contains shorter races like regular 5km, 10km, half marathons etc. then potentially you could use these.
However, such races would typically be done all-out which limits how often you can do them in a training cycle. Short races are done at very different intensity to ultra's, above or around lactate threshold, where as ultra's are done at competitively leisurely pace. Ultra's also stress parts of your overall fitness in a different way to short races, from my own experience my 10km PB has only improved by around 5% over the last 5 years, but my ultra's have improved by nearer 20% during this period.
With the advent of heart rate monitors we have a the ability to both record and to monitor in real-time how hard we are running. By running on a standard route and to a target heart rate it's possible to standardise the effort level between a series of runs.
The evaluation runs provide three bits of fitness information:
- The faster our average speed we can run for a given heart rate the fitter are likely to be.
- How our speed changes during an evaluation can provide another marker for fitness - the fitter we are the more stable the pace will be throught the evaluation.
- Finally one can also look at how quickly the heart rate recovers to a lower target HR. The quicker your HR drops the fitter you are.
- Target HR of 161 bpm (recommend to him my Mystery Coach), I would estimate this HR is around 15pbm below his average HR during 10km's.
- Warm up for several miles, then wind up the speed so the HR is around 161 when the evaluation section begins
- Four mile segments, each mile done on a flat half mile out/back section of road
- At the end of each mile a split time is recorded
- At the end of 4 mile evaluation you stop, and stand still timing how long it takes the HR to drop to 130 bpm.
- Jog home.
Thomas is a far more accomplished ultra-runner than me (he's got a place on Austria's 24hr team) so it's useful to follow his blog and training progress. I have longed wondered about doing a similar evaluation run, but never got round to it - until this week!
As Thomas and I have a similar HR during 10km's I adopted the same target HR, this is really just co-incidence though, runners really should pick a target HR relative to the their Lactate Threshold/10km pace. For this particular type of evaluation I believe it's useful to be a bit below Lactate Threshold so the four miles can be completed comfortably. Chatting with Thomas these evaluations roughly equate to his Marathon race pace.
My first 4 miles @ 161 Evaluation RunThe route I chose yesterday was at the easterly end of Loch Venachar, going from the Car Park at the end of the Loch to the Gate House just before Sailing Club. This is about as flat a bit of road as you can get in the Trossachs and is lined with trees and great views of the Loch and surrounding mountains. It's a lovely place to run up and down ;-)
I don't have a convertional running watch like a Garmin, instead using my Phone to record GPS and hear rate and communicate this data to my Pebble Smart Watch using AeroPilot AeroTrackerPro Android Phone/Pebble app. I haven't worked out whether I can record splits on it yet, but since it can upload it's recordings direct to Strava I used Strava's support for Segment to provide the time/pace and HR data.
The outbound leg was into wind, and the return leg down wind which made my first attempt at staying at constant HR rather difficult. My heart rate varied between 164 and 158 on the first outbound leg as the accounting for the gusty wind was a particular challenge. On subsequent legs I got better and judging it.
I was pleased with my pace during the each of the legs, feeling pretty comfortable kicking out each mile at around 7min/mile pace. At the end of the four miles I stopped and stood watching my Pebble report my heart rate looking for the point when it went below 130bpm. For the first 10 seconds my HR hardly budged sitting hight 150's, this felt like an eternity but in reality was probably only about 10 seconds, then my HR dropped steadily down to 110bpm and then jogged off.
The final figures report by Strava (click here for the Strava page) for my 1mile Segments were:
1st mile : 6:56 min/mile, average HR 161
2nd mile : 6:56 min/mle, average HR 160
3rd mile : 6:56 min/mle, average HR 160
4th mile : 7:00 min/mle, average HR 161
Thomas uses a 3.5 sec/mile per beat correction when the averages are not 161. would add this in, but... I can't help feel that the figures are just too consistent to be exact. I strongly suspect that the GPS recording affected the time resolution of when I completed each section so wouldn't be surprised if it was being rounded by 4 sec/mile.
Having a manual split recording would be thing to do so I can press a button when I cross the turn about point and have a more precise time value.
Looking at HR data it looks like it took around 25 seconds for my HR to drop from 161 to 130. Again using Strava for post analysis isn't idea so here a manual button press at when the HR crossed 130 would be best.
The figures should be roughly in the right ball park though. And they are really encouraging. Thomas typically sees pace figures around 6:35 to 6:55 mark so I'm actually quite surprised at how close my little legs got me. Thomas's marathon PB is 2:55 so I'd guess I should be now capable of a 3:05 marathon, but not yet a 3hr marathon.
The thought of running for 3hrs at the same pace as my evaluation is rather daunting though. I'm confident that I could knock out a half marathon at that pace right now, but a full marathon would be really tough.
Another really encouraging sign is how well I maintained my pace through the four miles. Sure the method of using Strava and GPS data is crude but I don't expect it that it would have hidden a big slow down.
Finally the rate at why my HR dropped is pretty astounding. Thomas is normally chuffed is his recovery time to 130 is around 30 seconds. Again my method of analysis isn't ideal, and could easily be 5 or 10 seconds out, but even with adding 10 seconds it's very respectable.
All these figures suggest that might aerobic fitness right now is excellent. My training is going well :-)
Easy paced evaluation runsDoing a 4 mile evaluation on flat route at around marathon pace is certainly useful, particularly if your are training for a marathon as it'll tax your body at the roughly the same intensity as you run the marathon at. However, we run ultra's at much lower intensity.
One approach you could take is to do the above 4 mile evalation at a lower target HR. My average HR during 53 mile Highland Fling is roughly 15 bpm's below that of the marathons I've race at, so one could simply run the evaluation at 15bpm lower. I do think that at such an easy pace the heart rate drift you'd get would be some much lower than at marathon pace, and the so little oxygen debt to clear that the pace variations over the mile segments would be smaller than the timing rounding errors of evaluation and the rate of HR dropping would also be less meaningful measure of fitness. This would leave the average pace on a flat 4 mile road section at a given heart rate as the only useful measure. However, I don't run any road ultra's, let alone anything that is flat.
To try and make easy paced evaluations a bit more representative to what type of terrain I encounter in most of my ultra's I have adopted route known locally as the Four Bridges, from my house it's 6.55 miles with ~420ft of ascent/descent with a mix of forest tracks, paths and around 2miles of road/pavement. This route has been one that I typically run once most weeks during training and since I also record my average HR for each training run I've amassed quite a few runs. I have also developed a way of normalizing all my other training runs to map them to what an equivalent pace would be on this Four Bridges loop.
Over the years my pace for a given HR has improved, and for this course I've long had the ambition of being able to complete the course at a HR of 140 at 7mph, over the last few months I have been inching closer. Finally this Monday I did the an easy pace evaluation run (strava page for run) around this route averaging 7.08mph, which equates to roughly to 8:10 min/mile pace on the flat.
Sure this is not a fast pace, but 5 years ago I could hardly run at this low a HR and could only manage around 11min/mile pace. So this is another very encouraging sign that my fitness is continuing to progress.
Using logs to compare Historical FitnessMy next race is the Highland Fling which will be held at the end of April. I have run this 53 mile race twice before, first in 2012 when I completed it in 10hrs and 46 minutes, and then in 2014 when I completed it in 9hrs and 43 minutes. I have all my training runs from these two years and this year all recorded in the same spreadsheet, and by applying a normalization for elevation per/mile and HR drift all my training runs can be plotted on graph of average HR for the run against equivalent speed that I would have achieved on the Four Bridges route.
The follow graph plots my training runs in Feburary 2012 in yellow, February 2014 in red, and my runs so Far this February (2015) in blue.
|Training runs in February 2012, 2014 and 2015, normalized to equivalent Four Bridge Speed|
What is immediately apparent is that between 2012 to 2014 to 2015 my pace for a given HR has improved. The biggest improvement is between 2014 and 2015 - around 0.5mph, with just a modest improvement between 2012 and 2014 - around 0.25mph.
This would indicate that my training over the last year has been twice as effective as all the training between 2012 and 2014. Rather than seeing my year on year improvements tail off my rate of improvement has gone around four fold better than it was.
This graph doesn't tell the whole story though. Between 2012 and 2014 I improved my Highland Fling race speed by roughly 0.5 mph, despite my training paces for a given HR improving by 0.25mph. My best guess to the reason for this discrepancy is that the training data primarily maps general aerobic fitness, and isn't able to account for the effects of Metabolic and Structural Resilience.
In the Spring of 2013 I adopted a diet inspired by reading the Perfect Heath Diet
book. This diet recommends a ratio of 50% Fat, 30% Carbs and 20% Protien in your diet, which is quite a shift from the high carb, modest protien and fat that I had previously. As well as being generally being healthier on this new diet and better able to tolerate higher training volumes I'm convinced that the changing to using Fat as my primarily fuel has helped improve my Metabolic Reslience - now rather than running out glycogen stores half way through an ultra I find I can maintain my energy levels right through to the finish.
Since 2014 I have broadly maintained the diet so I wouldn't expect any dramatic differences in my Metabolic Resilience, but my training has clearly led to pretty remarkable improvement in my general Aerobic Fitness markers. What appears to be the key reason for this big improvement is training Consistently (blogpost: Consistency is the key to improving fitness)- and for me it now means training everyday (blogpost : 100 days later - joys of streaking.) The remarkable thing for me is that improvements have not been about long runs, not hill sprints, not intervals, not tempo runs, not core work, not strength training it's *simply* getting outdoors for a training run everyday.
So looking forward can I improve my Highland Fling speed by another 0.5mph? Go for a sub 9hr Highland Fling???
The big question for me now is whether I can build the Structural Resilience to run 53 miles over lots of rough terrain to average sub 10 min/mile pace.
I believe the best way for me to build this Structural Resilience will be via overall training volume and an emphasis on lots of feet of hill descents each week. Going down lots of hills requires going up them, so this will no doubt help with Aerobic Fitness too.
I am not planning to do lots of really long runs before the Fling, as basically I don't need them as I get all the benefits of Aerobic Fitness, Metabolic Resilience and Structural Resilience via other less stressful training stimulus . I may do a modest ultra run/race a couple of weeks before the Fling, but will be happy just string together lots of 8 to 15 miler's week in week out. If you run everyday then in effect every day is back to back which takes the pressure off having to do big single runs, or even big back to backs.