How It Is

I thought I’d chart “the state of the nation” for you, so there’d be no mistake.

Personal Threat Level

It’s almost the end of February. I’m in week six of a sixteen-week training program for the Elk/Beaver 50K. I’ve run on my treadmill for the past four months, and I’m feeling something akin to cabin fever. So now I’m running outside. But it’s really cold and windy, and I have to cope with icy streets and sidewalks. Sometimes I just feel old and grumpy.

All things considered, I’m doing OK.

Treadmill Love

NordicTrack A2550

It’s February. The snow in my front yard is thigh-deep and there are shoulder-high drifts at the end of my driveway. The temperature right now, with the windchill factored in, is -26C (-15F). A couple of weeks ago, the temperature got down to -38C (-34.5C). Just before that, we had a huge ice storm, which basically shut down life as we know it for a few days.

That means it’s treadmill time again!

At the top of my post is an image of my trusty ‘mill. It’s a four-year old NordicTrack A2550. There’s a nice review of it here. I bought it for about C$800, via an online sale at Sears. It’s a basic/mid-range ‘mill, and good value for what I paid for it.

I do a lot of running on the ‘mill between November and March. Five or six days a week, in fact. I’m not a cold-weather runner, and I usually have a race coming up in the early spring. So I start building my late season base on the ‘mill, and transition in late December or early January to serious training runs. Right now, I’m running about 60K a week (and ramping up steadily) for the Elk/Beaver 50K trail ultra in May.

To do that kind of thing, you’ve got to like running on the ‘mill. Many runners don’t, which I find puzzling. Here are some tips on how to get happy about running on a treadmill.

It’s different from running outside. Wishing it otherwise will only bring you grief. So accept it.

Find your groove. I run without music and without TV. I wear earplugs to muffle the sounds of the ‘mill and my big floor fan. I have two training plans (for my upcoming 50K and 100K races) on the wall in front of me, along with a print of palm trees against a tropical sky. Do whatever works best for you.

Change your pace as you go through your week. Fast, slow, hills, long, short. It’ll be better for your training, and it’ll keep you from going stir-crazy. Don’t be dreary.

Run minimalist. Barefoot if you can. If not, in as little shoe as you can. You’ll be a better runner if you do.

Use a fan – a big floor fan. You’ll be sweaty enough on the ‘mill, so you might as well make yourself as comfortable as you can. Embrace the sweat.

Setting your incline at 1% or 2% doesn’t offer any benefits, according scientific studies. Leave it at 0%. (Unless, of course, you’re doing hills. Then, do whatever is needed – hill repeats, playful hills, hard grinds. Go nuts in whatever way appeals to you.)

Do all of the above, and you may very well find that you enjoy running on a treadmill. At least while the snow, ice, and cold winds prevail. Later on, you can go outside.

Until then… more treadmill!

Update: Heart Rate-Based Training

Heart rate

Yesterday’s 90 minute barefoot treadmill run marked the end of week 12 of my 16 week training program for the Sarasota Half Marathon, which takes place on March 17.. The training’s gone well, so I’d like to offer an update. First, though, a little backstory of why I’m following a heart rate-based program.

The logic, as outlined in Benson and Connolly’s book Heart Rate Training, which I’ve mentioned previously, is, once you think about it, blindingly simple. HR training is the most user-specific training available to the ordinary (and elite, for that matter) athlete. It relies on your cardio-vascular system, which means that it reflects your overall state of stress 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. More to the point for training purposes, it offers immediate and consistent feedback about your stress level, intensity level, and your rate of adaptation to the training process. That means that, rather than relying on a pre-determined set of data for my training, it’s all been done on the basis on ongoing, daily, and very personal data. It’s all about me, and nobody else.

Before I started the program, I did a treadmill-based test to determine my maximum heart rate, which turned out to be 163 bpm. Every morning of the program I’ve determined my resting heart rate, which is between 43 and 46 bpm, depending on the day. (To do the latter, I use a nifty little program on my Android smartphone called Instant Heart Rate.) I track all of my workout, and the associated data re resting heart rate, weight, blood pressure, and length and quality of sleep with SportTracks. That gives me a comprehensive and easily-accessed reference library of how the training’s going. Of course, my trusty Garmin 210 is the backbone of the whole system, as it’s what shows me what my heart rate is.

Buikding endurance – and speed – following a heart rate-based program takes time. Not just weeks, but sometimes months. I’m fortunate in that I’ve built a strong aerobic base over the past year. I’ve also worked on speed in my previous training programs for various races and distances. But this HR-based program has made an enormous difference. It’s different from the others.

Here’s one graphic example of how that difference manifests itself. It’s not my data, but an image I downloaded via a Google search, and include here because illustrates very nicely a couple of points I want to make.

HR versus speed

The top graph shows the runner’s heart rate for a certain distance, in which she kept to a pre-determined heart rate. The lower graph shows the same distance and time, but with the runner following a pre-determined pace. Going for pace resulted in peaks and valleys of heart rate, which resulted, as one would expect, in feelings of fatigue. That inevitably affected her endurance, and would, in the longer run, mean less endurance and a lower running economy. Running to heart rate, on the other hand, mean that she adjusted her pace to keep at the pre-determined heart rate, and so conserved her energy levels, her power, and her strength.

Endurance isn’t everything, of course. That’s why, as part of my training program, I’ve included interval and tempo runs as well as the endurance-focused sessions. Such an ongoing heart rate-based program increases the size of the body’s capillaries and develops mitochondria, so that strength, endurance, and speed are all enhanced.

It’s all been good.

What’s the bottom line? Following this heart rate-based training program has 1/ built up my endurance, 2/ lessened my fatigue levels, and 3/ made me quicker. As an instance of the latter, consider the following: my current PB for the 16K distance (1:35:18, a pace of 5:57) was set in June 2008, at the Toronto 10 Miler. Yesterday, I ran 15.8K in 1:30, for a pace of 5:41. Yesterday, I was cruising, not racing. I wasn’t pushing hard, and I had plenty in the tank at the end of the run. Is it any wonder I’ve become a fan of heart rate-based training?

Wild Cards

Yesterday, I did my last training run for the Sarasota Half Marathon, which happens on Sunday. As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m very happy with how this training program has gone. I’ve been consistent and persistent, and the effort has had a good outcome. I feel ready to race.

However, as every runner knows, the best preparation in the world doesn’t guarantee the desired result. That’s because there are always “wild cards,” unforeseen events or conditions that can make the whole thing go sideways.

Here are some of the wild cards I’m looking at:

1/Transitioning from doing the whole training program barefoot on the treadmill to racing barefoot on pavement. (That’ll be an sudden transition, by the way. Given weather conditions here and the short time I’ll have in Sarasota before the race, I won’t have time to do it gradually.) I should be OK, because I’ve been supplementing my training runs with gravel bucket sessions, but I really won’t know if it’s been enough until I race.

2/ Travelling to the race. This will be the first time I’ve travelled any distance to race, never mind that I’ll have a three-hour flight to get there. (No changes in time zones, thank goodness). I’ll have two days after the flight and before the race to adjust, though, so I think that’ll be OK too.

3/ Heat and humidity. At the very end of my training program, I did five consecutive runs (three of them at race pace) as heat acclimatization runs. I wore a base layer, full-length tights, a heavy-weight long-sleeved top, and a winter running beanie, with the intent of producing a high level of heat and humidity right next to my skin. I hope it’ll work, as it’s based on solid exercise science. But I’ve never done this before, so, once again, there are no guarantees.

4/ Mile markers. I’ve been thinking in kilometers for decades, but markers on the Sarasota Half will be in miles, with no kilometer markers at all. I do quite a bit of visualization on my training runs, so have included “mile thinking” on the last couple of weeks’ runs. I hope that having done that, and seeing those markers in miles, will keep me from getting confused.

5/ Pace band. I’ll wear a paceband for Sarasota (marked in miles, of course), so that I keep to the pace that will (hopefully) get me to my goal finishing time. I’ve never done that before. I’ll also wear a watch, which I don’t usually do for races, because I’ll need it to make use of the paceband. I’d much prefer to follow a pacer for my goal time of 1:50, but Sarasota won’t have one for that specific finishing time. I usually go by body feel for my pace, so this will be quite a departure for me.

On the plus side, I’m well trained, I’ll have time to rest before the race, and I’m in a good head space for this one. Sure, there are wild cards. There always are. That’s part of the fun.


The effort I’ve put into this training program is paying off. It’s now only two weeks and a bit before the Sarasota Half Marathon, and I’m into speedwork. That’s never been my strength, so I was facing it with some trepidation.

Turns out I didn’t have to worry. This morning, I did an 8.2K workout, starting with a 2K warmup at my target steady pace (6:01 mins/km), then moved to a 1.6K at a 4:45 pace. Followed that with a 1K recovery segment at steady pace, another 1.6K segment at the 4:45 pace, and a 2K cooldown at the steady pace.

And you know what? The fast bits weren’t as hard as I’d feared. Not easy, mind you, but I ran inside myself for the duration. Breathing hard and sweating buckets by the end of the set, but feeling strong and happy. Next Wednesday, I’ll do another speed workout, and will make it three segments at the 4:45 pace.

The other nice thing about this morning’s workout was I finally sorted out how to keep the Breathe Right nasal dilator strip from lifting off with all the sweat. The answer was simple – before applying the strip, I wiped the bridge of my nose with some witch hazel. Bingo! Problem solved! I’m going to wear a strip at Sarasota. Can’t do any harm, and may do some good.

So, my long runs are going well (have a 20K run coming up on Sunday), my recent tempo runs have been very enjoyable, and now I find I can do speedwork. I may turn out to be a runner after all!

(I actually considered doing a short barefoot recovery run outside this afternoon, as it’s 5C and sort of sunny. Decided to be cautious, though, which I think was the right decision, as I’m really feeling the effects of the morning’s speed workout.)

Prep, Test, and Try

Only about three weeks until the Sarasota Half, so I’m going to throw in some final tweaks to get myself ready.

Prep: It’s going to be hot and humid in Sarasota, so I’ve decided to do some heat acclimatization to prepare for that. Following the advice of Dr. Timothy Noakes in his book The Lore of Running, I’ll do five runs in the week before the race in some heat – two at my target steady pace and three at my target race pace. I’ll wear my usual cold weather kit (wind briefs, under vest, tights, long sleeve jersey, and winter beanie) while running indoors on the treadmill. My training room’s one of the warmest rooms in my house, and the heating vent is directly on top of the treadmill, so it’ll certainly be warm enough to do the job.

Test: The next thing is a bit of an experiment. On some of my next few runs, I’m going to wear a Breathe Right nasal dilation strip. Some preliminary research I’ve done via Google Scholar suggests that such strips offer little or no benefit, but that research has been done for football players (not runners) and for healthy individual in stress tests. On the possible up side, I have mild chronic sinusitis, so the strips might help. Also, elite marathoners Paula Radcliffe and Meb Keflezighi wear nasal dilation strips, and there may be something there for me to learn.

Try: Very simply, I want to try to get some road time before I go to Sarasota. I’ve done all my training for this half on the treadmill, and added regular sessions in the gravel bucket to keep the soles of my feet conditioned. Obviously, though, running on the ‘mill isn’t the same as running on pavement (for one thing, the hamstrings don’t get as much of a workout). We’ve had days recently when the temperature is high enough to run barefoot outside, but my schedule hasn’t allowed me to run then. I may just have to suck it up and do the needful.

Here and Now

I’m just about to begin my fourth-last week of training for the Sarasota Half (out of an 18 week program). In many past training programs, when I got to this point, I felt stale, sometimes stale enough to bail out of the program and just run. Not this time, though. I’m still sussing out exactly why.

The point is – and it’s a point I’m celebrating with all that I am – is that I feel very good, and very happy to be here and now. I feel strong. I’m on target for my pacing at all the required levels (steady, tempo, and LSD). I feel remarkably fresh mentally, for all that I’m in the middle of a Canadian winter. I’m injury free. I’m ready for Sarasota!

I’ve got one more Wednesday hill session before I move to a couple of Wednesdays of speedwork. My Sunday long runs will go up to 18K and 20K. In the last week before the race, I’ll do a short (6K) Sunday run, and then two short runs (10K and 6K) at race pace (5:13 mins/km) before flying down to Sarasota.

For now, though, I’m happy to be right here. Believe it or not, I’m actually looking forward to the remainder of my training program!

Still Here

I’m still here. Honest.

I’ve been very lax about posting lately. No solid reasons for that, just a whole bunch of excuses. It’s winter, and I tend to get low in spirit and energy in the winter. I’ve had a couple of periods of dark depression, during which I could barely get through even the essentials. Walking our two greyhounds four times a day takes a good deal of my time. And I have all the usual stuff around work and home to keep me busy.

But I’ve also been training. Running five days each week, barefoot on the treadmill, doing steady, tempo, hill, and LSD runs. On my rest days, I’ve done stretching, planks, breathing exercises, and time in the good old gravel bucket. I’ve stuck to the plan I created in November and that I started following at the beginning of December. It’s been worth it – I’m running more strongly, more smoothly, and with a renewed sense of confidence.

The Sarasota Half Marathon happens on March 11. I’ve already registered, booked my flights, and made my hotel reservation. My goal – a lofty one – is to do it in 1:50. That’s a full seven minutes quicker than my current PB for the half! If my training continues to go well, I’m confident I’ll have the strength and quickness to do the needful. Of course, there are always factors I can’t control. One is that I can’t be sure that my soles will be adequately conditioned to race barefoot on a 21K pavement course after running all winter on the treadmill. Another is that I’ll go from Canadian March weather to the warmth and humidity of a Florida early spring with precious little time to acclimatize. (I’m flying down on Thursday afternoon and racing on Sunday morning.) Then there’s always the unforeseen – sometimes you do all the right things to prepare, and the race goes sideways anyway.

Never mind. I’m doing well so far, and I plan to keep on doing well. The darkest days of winter have passed, I’m getting better at this “go faster” thing, and race day is approaching.

Sounds good to me. Sounds very, very good.

Moving Right Along

My training for the Sarasota Half Marathon is coming along nicely. Much more smoothly than I thought would be the case, in fact. Sarasota is only 59 days away, and I’m now in my second week of tempo and hill set sessions. That sequence will go on until mid-February, when I’ll substitute speedwork for the hill sets. I’m really happy with how things have gone thus far.

Reflecting on the past month and a half of training, I’ve learned a few things about myself.

Discipline Though I’m very fond of routine (partly as a result of having Asperger’s Syndrome), I’m not nearly as keen about discipline. In the past, I’ve gone off the rails of a training program because I’ve been unable to hold myself to its requirements. That hasn’t happened this time. I’ve done what I’ve been told, and have kept the type and pace of my runs without deviation. I have, though, upped some of the distances of both steady and LSD runs, because I think that can only do good. Harder to do has been not running on rest days, or going out for a short run when the weather’s been unseasonably good. All treadmill, all the time, doing the needful.

Cross-training My training program calls for two rest days a week. I’ve been filling those spaces with a set of exercises that include stretching (upper and lower legs, plus opening my hips), plank (regular and side) and breathing (using my nifty Sport Breather). Right now, I’m up to 20 minutes of stretching, 4 minutes of plank, and 15 minutes of breathing; will probably hold to that for a while, and increase the numbers later.

Light The Winter Solstice has passed, and the days are getting longer. I find that makes a tremendous difference to how I feel, both physically and psychologically. No point in doing all this hard work and still feeling dark, gloomy, and unresponsive, is there? I’m still using my SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) light for 20 minutes each day, and will keep on doing so for at least another six weeks. And I’m sleeping well -I started using Hammer Nutrition REM Caps about a month ago, and they’ve resolved some long-standing sleep issues. I sleep deeply, and I wake up rested. Wish I’d known about them earlier.

My only concern in all of this is that all of my runs right now are being done on the treadmill. That’s mostly because it’s winter, but, even on the couple of days when it’s been possible to run outside barefoot, I’ve been on the treadmill. I run first thing in the morning, and it’s dark and cold then. Also, it’s far easier to stay to my target paces on the treadmill than it is to approximate them outside. The downside of that is that the soles of my feet aren’t going to be as well-conditioned as I’d like them to be for Sarasota. So I’m doing gravel bucket sessions two or three times a week, and hoping that the weather in early March will allow me to get out on the roads. I may just have to tough things out in some cold weather.

So Far, So Good

I’m now almost at the end of my first month of training for the Sarasota Half Marathon on March 11. It’s been the usual early training stuff – two tempo runs, two steady pace runs, one LSD run, and two days off each week. I’ve kept to the schedule, except for a couple of days when I’ve moved a rest day because of personal or work requirements. It’s been more or less an ongoing workout, because I’ve got an ambitious goal for Sarasota – a finishing time of 1:50, a full seven minutes faster than my previous PB for the distance – and that means that all of my runs, including the long runs, have been done at a much quicker pace than I’ve done previously.

It’s been an interesting experience. For all that I’m a lazy runner (heck, I’m a lazy person, if the truth be told), I’ve enjoyed pushing myself. I’m a bit surprised that I can do the speeds I’ve been doing, and can only hope that exercise-based science is correct, and that I’ll be able to build my strength, endurance, and speed even further. Starting next week (which, coincidentally, will be the first week of the new year) I’ll trade one of my weekly tempo-paced runs for a hill repeat session. I’ll start with only a few repeats, and build gradually through all of January and part of February. In mid-February, I’ll swap the hill session for speed sessions, at a pace I can now only imagine. If I can keep at it, I’m going to be a much-improved runner.

As always, the realities of a Canadian winter mean that all of my tempo, hill, and speed sessions will be done (barefoot) on the treadmill. I’ll try to get outside for at least some of my LSD runs (not barefoot, obviously, but in my Invisible Shoe huaraches and Injinji socks), but I have to be being realistic – those, too, may have to be done on the treadmill. I’m OK with that, but doing long runs on the ‘mill requires a sort of attitude adjustment. Not better, not worse, just different.

Lately, I’ve also managed to do, on a more or less daily basis, a short routine made up of stretching (legs, hips, and some upper body), plank (I can now hold the plank position for a steady two minutes), and some breathing exercises (“strength training for the diaphragm,” if you like). They don’t do anything directly for my intended running prowess, but they keep me from feeling creaky.

And I definitely feel creaky these days. It’s partly because it’s winter. I always feel old and somewhat decrepit in the cold months. It’s a combination of sensitivity to the cold, SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and my deep yearning to be nearly-naked in the sun. It’s also, though, simply getting older. My wife says that I’ve aged dramatically in the past six years, and I think she may be right. During that time, I’ve broken a hip and suffered two bouts of cancer, and survived 14 months of physiotherapy for the hip and two sets of radiation therapy for the cancer. The costs have been psychological as well as physical, and the wear and tear sometimes shows.

Never mind. I’m holding up well, all things considered. And I keep telling myself that summer is on its way.