Sunday, October 30, 2011

Week 4 / 9

I spent half of the week on London, on a business trip. It was perfectly timed with the release of Steve Jobs' biography, which I picked up in a W H Smiths on arrival. On a number of occasions I was shyly asked if I was a "fan" by strangers; he really did reach out and touch a lot of people, either with his products, his entrepreneurialism or simply his flair and charisma.

Talking of gadgets, I mapped out an 18km run around London, passing through old haunts and favorite places but I was unable to load it on to my Garmin 310XT, for some reason: I've never had problems doing this in the past. I think that I will at last have to upgrade the MacOS, something I have been lazy to do in spite of having bought the upgrade ages ago.

Instead, I went on one of my random runs around the streets of London. I love doing this. While running in nature is undoubtedly more beautiful and arguably better for you, a forest is a forest and a tree is a tree, no matter in which country you are. I love glancing through the windows of peoples houses as I run by, watching (and having to dodge) the people walking in the street, looking at the shop windows. The time passes so much more quickly and you have to be as alert as you would be on a technical trail, if not more. Apart from having to stop for the odd traffic light which is a pain, the sudden changes of direction you have to make to avoid colliding with someone can put undue amounts of strain on your feet and lower legs, not to mention treacherously uneven paving slabs. (Not sure if you are reading this, Sergio...) In fact, I wasn't even supposed to do this run according to my training schedule, but I simply can't visit another city, especially a well trodden one like London, without going for one of my random runs.

After a rare night out (until 4:30am) I went for an hour run on Saturday morning - I didn't feel up to doing the series I had programmed so I switched training with Sunday. With the cool climate and flat route at sea level, I was flying! Very close to Marathon pace but for seemingly no effort. I just hope I'm not peaking too early!

On Sunday I went to the gym masquerading as my brother to do the 12 series of 1 kilometer with 20 seconds rest in between. I did these at 17kph (3:30 per km) without ever quite hitting my anaerobic threshold (which, actually, I was supposed to). I don't think I could have (safely) run much faster. While I was recovering outside the gym, someone came up to me and started talking to me. I couldn't hear what he was saying as I was listening to my iPod. I thought he was either going to ask me to go back and do a better job of wiping the treadmill down after using it or that he was my brother's personal trainer and he was going to bring me to justice. what he actually wanted to know was how fast I was going on the treadmill! He seemed genuinely impressed! In the afternoon I went shopping with my brother and I was amazed to see this selection of running shoes in J D Sports on the Kings Road - Vibram Five Fingers, Vivobarefoot... A month or two ago I would definitely have ended up buying some but I'm now on the next page with my Soft Star Run Amocs...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Race for fat people

I just saw this in a running magazine: it's a race for "fat people" (men weighing more than 90kg, women more than 80kg). With a small effort I can get back to 90kg easily but perhaps it wouldn't be too sporting because, at my height, I wouldn't be classified by many as overweight. It would be fairer to use the BMI (Body Mass Index - based on your weight and height).

Seriously, though, I have often thought that it would be great if a "heavyweight" category were introduced. For years in rowing I was just the wrong side of lightweight - being small in rowing is a distinct disadvantage. Having said that, had I managed to make the weight I would probably have been that much weaker and prone to injury so who's to say I would have had any more success than I did. Still, I do find it odd that many sports do have a weight categorization while running does not; you only have to look at the size of the people lining up at the front of any race more than 400m to see that size matters.

By the way, I have no illusions that I would be especially competitive in a segregated "heavyweight" category but I'm sure it would open up the sport to others who perhaps scrape by in less popular sports like rowing or canoeing. I expect that Great Britain would also pick up some more medals as it seems that, due to our size, we excel in those sports that involve sitting down.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Extreme aero bikes

Now something I have never really understood is why there seems to be no market for "extreme aero bikes" like those in the photos. Most of them never made it past the prototype stage and those that did (including the Hotta, which Natasha Badman rode to victory a number of times), are now only available second hand. The most recent activity seems to be in the form of the Cycpro bike but, as far as I can tell, that has also come to a dead end.

Let's look at the facts. According to Bloomberg, the average salary of an Ironman competitor is $161,000. To be clear, it is not talking about the average salary of the professional athletes but of the average salary of the so-called "age-groupers", or people who compete in triathlons as a hobby - in other words, what they get paid for not competing in Triathlons. And it's not altogether surprising why: just the race entry to the recently inaugurated New York Ironmman is in excess of $1,000. This, is of course, less than many Ironman competitors would spend on their front wheel.

The other fact is that the bike rules for Ironman distance Triathlon are much more lax than the UCI rules for time trials or the ITU rules for Olympic distance Triathlon. Here is an excerpt from the Official Bike Rules for the Ironman World Championship:

1) All athletes are required to ride road/triathlon bikes. Mountain bikes, beach cruisers and bikes with coaster-type brakes are prohibited.

2) No tandems, recumbents, fairings, solid wheels, wheel covers or any add-on device designed exclusively to reduce resistance are allowed. Any new, “unusual” or prototype equipment will be subject to an evaluation of legality by Ironman and/or USA Triathlon’s Head Referee.

Although the rules vary slightly from Ironman to Ironman, most of them do not even include point (2) so, as long as you don't rock up on a Mountain Bike (how uncool would that be? ;-) ) you can pretty much ride anything. Now I think they would draw the line at a tandem or a recumbent but I have seen some pretty wild looking bikes at the Ironman in Brazil and I myself used a wheel cover without any problems (many others had disc wheels).

Is it because people are worried that they might be turned away if they arrive at the start with a bike that is just a little too funky? Surely it would just be a question of giving away a few bikes to some top age-groupers to allay these fears and paying the WTC Ironman Corporation some cash for advertising would no doubt seal the deal. Why is it that we instead are willing to pay huge sums of money to mainstream bike manufacturers to buy what are essentially replicas of bikes that they have developed for the Tour de France with its restrictive UCI ruling? Could it be because these bikes have a more versatile fit?

Guru is a bike manufacturer which takes a slightly different tack. They (quite rightly) point out that most of the aerodynamic drag comes from the rider themselves and not the bike. So little good does it do you to have the most aero bike if your position on that bike is not optimal and you end up presenting a bigger surface area to the oncoming wind. They are able to offer made-to-measure carbon frames (which, by the way, are also very aero even if not the best of their class). OK, so my point is, if Guru have managed to have developed the technology to make bespoke carbon frames, why is it that no-one is able to bring to market a monocoque design like those crazy beasts in the photos, one that could be adapted to the dimensions of the rider and at a price affordable by the average Ironman? I can't help feeling that the answer is a very cynical one: that in the end we all get sucked in by the big brands and their marketing.

Media Maratón de Miguelturra (Half Marathon)

My next milestone is the Half Marathon in Miguelturra on the 13th of November. Miguelturra is a village a few kilometers outside Ciudad Real, in the heart of the Mancha (Don Quixote territory). Why on earth have I chosen this particular Half Marathon? Simple, because my parents-in-law live in Ciudad Real.

Actually I did this race a few years ago and it was a nice route with a good atmosphere amongst the runners, not to mention a stadium finish which is always exciting. I seem to remember getting a free bottle of Valdepeñas wine, some running shorts as well as some chicken stock in the runner's goody bag. I also remember people raising their eyebrows at my then outlandish and supposedly inappropriate-for-a-90kg-half-marathon-runner footwear - the Nike Lunar Racers. Of course, they are now old hat - just wait til they see my moccasins! Thing is, last time I ran it flat out in a time a whisker over 1:30. This time, I aim to run it at "Marathon pace" which, wishfully thinking, will be just under 1:30 with, hopefully, a lot of gas still stored in the tank.

I don't like running races at any other pace than my best pace for that distance. Another thing is to plan to run half of a Marathon at Half Marathon pace but I know that it is still going to feel pretty hard going at 4:15 per kilometer, probably (hopefully) harder than it will feel in the Marathon itself. The aim is not to go as fast as I can but to conserve as much energy as I can, get a feel for running at that pace and to see how my heart rate responds to the effort.

Week 3 / 9

My commute to work on foot
I must be one of very few people who was happy to see it raining this morning. Last week the temperatures started to drop and with it, my performance started to improve. I'd like to think it was the result of the altitude training camp in Morocco, but I've been told that you need to spend one or two months at altitude for it to have a noticeable effect. More likely it is a combination of the cooler temperatures and coming down off the peak of training from the previous weeks.

Pozuelo to Villafranca and back, cycle paths and tracks all the way
I did my aerobic runs comfortably at 13.5 kph (4:25 per km) and my medium intensity at 15 kph (4:00 per km). On Sunday, I did the 30km long run that I had to cut short last week. Using MapMyRun I managed to find a new out-and-back route from my house to Villafranca. It was more stoney than I would have and had a fair bit of incline, especially on the way back, but was all on cycle or off-road so next time I run it I may run alongside my eldest son on his bike. (By the way, someone had put up a fence at around 14.2 kilometers which meant I had to turn around early. Honestly, how can people be allowed to block off rights of way?) I tried out running at close to Marathon speed during the last quarter but it felt infeasibly fast. I had to remind myself that I had actually already run a Marathon faster than the pace I was going along at otherwise it would have been quite a demoralizing experience. Between now and the Marathon, I plan to run a Half Marathon at Marathon pace in order to get used to the rhythm.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Soft Star RunAmoc review

Softstar Original RunAmoc Lite
I said I would wait until I had notched up several hundred kilometers in these shoes before writing a review but I love them so much that I can't wait that long. Having said that, I have done well over a hundred miles in them, on tartan track, on the treadmill, on tarmac and trails (with anything between small stones and rocks) both with and without socks. Just as I suppose it is possible to fall in love with someone and subsequently find them attractive rather than experience "love at first sight", I now regret the harsh comments I made about their appearance after first un-boxing them. Especially as I received a very polite reply from one of the Soft Star "Elves" that makes the shoe after reading my initial review, saying that they had another, more conventional looking shoe (the Dash RunAmoc) if I was still "unsatisfied with their appearance".

The first thing to note about these shoes (which, strictly speaking, are in fact moccasins) is that they are extremely comfortable for wearing about the house. I have always gone around barefoot in the house for as long as I can remember (in spite of having trodden on a nail on one occasion and getting a massive splinter from wooden floorboards on another) and yet my feet seem to feel even more comfortable with these shoes on, even if I have my feet up. I can't really explain it. I think it may be something to do with the quality of the soft leather, or the breathablity that the hundreds of tiny perforations provide. Leather shoes make me think of sweaty, stiff and clunky work shoes but it stands to reason that millions of years of evolution can come up with a material that is tougher, more waterproof, more breathable, flexible and quicker to dry than any synthetic material we are capable of inventing.


I've said it many times before but it's a fact: I've got very big feet. In the RunAmocs, according to the measurements I took, I am a size 12A, which is the biggest standard size they do. If you go up to 13A, you have to pay a little more (which is fair enough - at least the size exists) and you can even send in a tracing of your foot and have custom shoes made exactly to order. (You can even customize the colours if you so desire.) In my case, the fit is perfect. The toe box is very generous giving my toes plenty of room to splay out. As I mentioned in my initial review, the "bagginess" of the shoes is a little disconcerting at first. Many other people have also commented on this. The reason it feels weird is that the sole of the shoe is free to move around slightly as your foot is in mid-flight and you have to trust that the sole will be in the right place at the right time when your foot hits the ground. At first, there is a tendency to try to grip the sole with your toes which is a thoroughly bad idea but, once you realize that the sole sticks firmly to the sole of your foot while your foot is preparing for landing, you begin to relax and even appreciate the extra ventilation that is provided as a result of the bagginess. Some people have also commented on the importance of getting the tension of the drawstring right. To be honest, I haven't had an issue with this. There have been days when I have pulled it slightly too tight and been left with a red, slightly itchy impression around my ankle; other days it has been on the loose side and the shoe has flopped around in mid air more than usual. Neither of the two extremes bother me that much. The proof is that these are the first shoes I have ever been able to run sockless in without incurring any blisters. I should qualify this by saying that the part of my sole around the forefoot is quite leathery itself, rather like a Hobbit's foot but less hairy. Nevertheless, I usually get blisters at the ends of my toes, under my big toe or in random places on the top and sides of my foot where the uppers crease or have seams; with the RunAmocs there is no possibility of this happening. One aspect I appreciate is that there is a piece of hard leather that comes into contact with your foot and, over time, molds itself gently to the contours of your foot.

Ground feel

I chose the thicker 5mm "trail" soles so the ground feel is ever so slightly worse than that of my Vivobarefoot Evos, for example. However, there is a clear trade off between ground feel and ground hurt, and it is certainly the case that I also feel the small stones and sticks on the trail much less than I did with the Evos. For the mix of roads and trails that I run on, I definitely made the right choice, although Soft Star do offer a thinner, "street" sole which is only 2mm thick.


As I've just mentioned, the protection offered by the soles is much better than other minimalist shoes that I have tried. I recently gave the RunAmocs a run for their money in Morocco where I had no choice but to run on trails that were more rocky and treacherous than any I had previously attempted. Here I reached the limit of the shoes and had to slow down although I was able to continue to run without injury. I think that minimalist shoes are simply not appropriate for this kind of terrain. I'm sure there are people that are able to run barefoot over such terrain but that is not really the point. That takes many years to develop and has to be constantly maintained to the point that, given the norms of the society we live in, it would have to be a lifestyle choice. The uppers give excellent protection against grazing against rocks although, unlike the Evos and most running shoes, the sole doesn't wrap around the foot: the sides and top of the foot are only protected by the leather upper and the generous size of the sole.

Here you can see the wear after 100 miles or so

So far they seem to be withstanding admirably the paces I am putting them through. My other shoes have tended to show signs of wear on tear on the uppers by now - partly because they are more tightly sized and partly because they are made of flimsy synthetic materials. As these are made of leather, you can actually clean and polish them as you would any other pair of leather shoes. The soles are made by Vibram and seem to be quite durable, as you would expect. The little nodules on the bottom are starting to wear down in the places where I make ground contact but I think I will get many more miles out of them before I think of replacing them.


This is where the shoes really come into their own, in my opinion. If I could get away with it, I'd wear them around the house, to work and for running. Even just being able to use them equally on roads as on trails is enough for me, as many of my routes are over mixed terrain. I would even consider using them both for training and for competition.


The shoes are very flexible as you would expect. Having a relatively thick sole for a minimalist shoe, they are slightly less flexible in the sole than the Evos, for example, but the roomy uppers mean that the toes can bend upwards (the technical term is "dorsiflex") without meeting any resistance whatsoever. Part of the protection given by the sole is by virtue of it dissipating any sharp pressure points over the whole surface - this kind of rigidity you want but not at the cost of not being able to flex your toes. In fact, the only structure that the shoes have other than the sole itself is a small rubbery insert in the heel which keeps it from collapsing completely.


I''ve talked about the fit but there are other aspects to comfort. Firstly, they are very breathable and airy so your feet are kept nice and cool. Either my feet sweat less as a result or the leather wicks away sweat more effectively - either way, the shoes are usually dusty dry after a run. The exception is when I run on the treadmill. On the treadmill there is no wind chill to cool you down so you tend to sweat a lot more and your sweat falls directly onto your shoes (partly because of lack of wind and partly because of lack of lean while running). Even so, the shoes dry out very quickly and don't become stiff and crusty with dried salt (sorry) unlike other shoes that I have known. They also still smell of leather which is not just a bonus but an indication that they are not going to rot away any time soon.


The grip on the soles is about as minimal as it gets: just enough to prevent you from hydroplaning on a puddle of water. Actually, this is just how I like it because I don't believe in running with an active push off (which would rely more heavily on traction). On the other hand, most of the trails I run on in Spain are dusty with stoney patches and I rarely have to cope with mud. I'm not sure that they would perform well either running uphill on wet grass or through marshland or bogs. People tend to use spikes for those kind of conditions.


They are clearly very light compared to regular running shoes and they still compare favourably to minimalist trail shoes. The 5mm trail sole does make them weigh a little more than the thinner, 2mm version. What is perhaps a more significant aspect of performance is the response of the sole. Being very hard it has a very sharp response like the Evos but quite different from the spongey feel of the Vivobarefoot Ultras. When I run on tarmac my footsteps are virtually silent - this is definitely a good sign.


These shoes have quickly become not only the "ultimate minimalist all-round running shoe" that I was looking for but also my "favourite shoes of all time". Sometimes you buy something that gives you so much pleasure that you want to buy it again, even though you don't need it and you know that the pleasure will not be the same as a consequence. I'm already thinking of buying another pair with the thinner 2mm street sole, or perhaps with the more funky stylings of the Dash model.

WARNING: As mentioned on the Soft Star website, these are minimalist running shoes that require a certain period of adaptation for the muscles, tendons and bones in your feet and lower legs if you are not already accustomed to them.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Mean green lean machine

Since I boasted on my blog that I was aiming to get down to 82 kilos for the Marathon, my weight has stagnated somewhat around the 85-86 kilo mark. I tried knocking off an extra 100 calories a day but eventually I gave up counting calories altogether. I think that it was probably a more useful exercise when I was having to cope with the kind of training volume I was undertaking for the Ironman because, more often than not, it was a question of making sure I was eating enough, often enough. Coupled with the fact that the latest firmware update on the Garmin 310XT now awards me around about 25% more calories per run, I decided instead to go by gut feeling (sorry). On the days when I have no training I have to consciously hold back and the rest of the time I eat according to hunger. Simple. People have been doing it for millions of years before the iPhone was invented.

(By the way, I was surprised that the other runners on my training camp in Morocco were so careful about what they eat that they made me feel like a glutton. I'd assumed that they weighed around 60 kilos because of their frame, their metabolism and the amount of training they did.)

But, being an obsessive sort of person, I need to have feedback to know that I am going in the right direction as well as to encourage me. The problem with weighing myself is that, although bathroom scales are now very accurate, my weight fluctuates tremendously during the day and during the week due to how hydrated I am at any particular moment. The said bathroom scales can also measure body fat by impedance: by shooting a mild current through your feet it can make a guess at your body composition based on how much resistance you offer. This seems to be even more sensitive to how hydrated you are. The results are so random that it is almost impossible to see a trend. Short of having my body fat measured professionally in a "bod pod" or by submerging me in a bath of water, the next best thing is to use a pair of calipers. I picked up some from Amazon for about 10 euros. They measure body fat in the most crude and obvious way, by measuring the width of your skin folds.

There are several formulas to estimate your body fat, all based on taking skin fold measurements from several key points around the body. A commonly used one is the Jackson Pollock formula. More information and a calculator are available on this website.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Good news...

I saw the urologist this morning - thanks to the doctor I saw last night, I managed to get a slot right away - and he said that the blood in my pee was nothing to worry about and that I could carry on with my training, perhaps reducing a bit the intensity this week. It was definitely worth getting it checked out though, because there are a number of nasty things that it could have been due to, which have been ruled out. Looks like I have no excuse no but to carry on with the hard slog!

Monday, October 17, 2011


The blood in my pee resolved itself so quickly yesterday that I assumed it was a one-off, something to do with a long run at the end of a long, hard week. But as I was running today - just a light aerobic run of an hour - I sensed that something was not quite right and refrained from peeing on route, just in case. Back at the gym, my fears were confirmed as exactly the same thing happened, bright red just as it was yesterday.

The concern is that my kidneys are not working properly for some reason or that I have internal bleeding from a muscle tear. Although from what I have managed to ascertain grubbing around on the Internet, Exercise Induced Hematuria (EIH) is fairly common, there could be a more sinister underlying cause. In any case, I don't think it is particularly conducive to my Marathon preparation to be throwing away all those hard earned red blood cells.

I'm in the hospital right now doing a series of blood and urine tests. Hopefully they will be able to figure out the cause and advise accordingly. The doctor who attended me looks like a fellow Marathon runner and he was certainly sympathetic to my desire to get back to the trails. In fact, when he asked me which Marathon I was running he seemed to be consulting a calendar in his head. I asked him if he was a runner and he said yes. He asked me - if it were no indiscretion - what my time was and he looked genuinely impressed. I suppose I spend so much time with other, much faster runners that I forget that it is pretty fast and would have even seemed so to me a year or two ago. If I am honest, I'd been looking for an excuse to back off a bit on the training, even half wishing for a dose of gastroenteritis. But when the doctor wished me luck I remembered my goal. Tomorrow I have an appointment with the urologist, so we'll see if they spot anything because, so far, everything is normal. I just hope that is a good sign.

More soon....

Week 2 / 9

This week was the mother of all weeks. Nowhere near what I was doing in the Ironman days but certainly the highest running mileage I've done (or nearly done). When I describe it, it sounds like an excerpt from the training diary of a professional: altitude training on Monday, double sessions on Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday, series of 20-30 minutes on Friday and a (potentially) long run of 30km on Sunday.

These are the weeks when you find out your limits and, specifically, what bit of you is going to break first. In that sense, apart from the peeing episode, I'm pleased to report that I am holding up to the strain muscularly in spite of a slight niggle in my left hip which I believe was provoked by training with a tight calf muscle a few weeks ago. Psychologically I am fairing less well as the constant sensation of tiredness makes me feel very slow and it is hard to believe that I ran a Half Marathon in 1:22 only a few weeks ago. But, with experience, I am able to recognize this pattern. It's important to keep your eyes on the prize and realize that, in the meantime, you'll be stressing your body to the point that it really doesn't feel good anymore. It's a question of faith in the plan. With that in mind, I'd say that I definitely feel as though I have obtained a training benefit from this week that my body will hopefully make some useful adaptions to over the next couple of weeks; could it have been more effective? From the warning signs, I don't think so.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Bloody hell!

I'm counting on the fact that my wife won't read this, at least, not until well after the event, otherwise she'd be sending me off to the hospital.

This week has been a tough one - had I finished the long run this morning we'd be talking about almost 140km. Just over halfway through the 30km run this morning, I was starting to struggle a bit and getting bad tempered with the cyclists invading my lane (a sure sign I was running low on energy). Eventually I decided to make a pee stop as an excuse to stop for a moment. I usually check the colour of my pee to see how hydrated I am. I was shocked to see that I was pissing bright red blood!

Alarmed, I rang not my wife nor my doctor, but my trainer. He reassured me somewhat by saying that it had happened to him but that, in any case, I should stop, go home and drink lots of fluids. If it continued to happen I should go to the hospital to get it checked out.

Looks like I'll have to do that long run some other time...

Friday, October 14, 2011

But seriesly...

Lately I've been having some serious problems with doing series, to the point that it has almost become a mental block for me. A number of weeks ago the series were cut short by some kind of gastroenteritis - by the way, only myself and Youness have so far avoided the virus out of the 9 of us that went to Morocco and both my kids and my wife have had it this week! Then I had a problem with my calf muscle and, last week, the jump to doing 40 minutes at my anaerobic threshold was simply too much. In Morocco, the excuse was the altitude. Don't get me wrong - I have been doing the work, just not quite to my satisfaction and not without it leaving some psychological scars.

Today I tried to do the series (30 minutes followed by 20) on the treadmill (too hot) and then outside (also too hot) before postponing them to after work. I think I have found the solution: I finally managed to get them done running at home on the treadmill with a large fan on full power and a slasher flick on in the background. Somehow seeing people hurting more than me made it easier...

Keep those knees up boy

I've been thinking about what Jonathan told me about my running technique during the training camp in Morocco. The best thing to think while running is about running. Jonathan pointed out that there is a small pause in which my foot shoots out as if to kick a football just before I land slightly ahead of my center of gravity. He said that I should try to lift my leg up and forwards to get the foot in a better position for landing. I've been playing around with this while I've been running this week and the perception I have is very similar to one I had when I first started running POSE. I can only describe it as a feeling that I am preparing myself to sit down. I also notice that my foot tends to land flatter and the heel touches the ground very lightly. I feel that I am picking up the ground more quickly but the proof will be to film myself in slow motion while running. I now have several "cues" to think about while running:

- to extend the hips (or "punching it forwards" as I call it)
- to get my legs up under me ("sitting down on the job")
- to lean from my ankles ("run tall")
- to pick up the ground quickly ("sharp catch")

As you get tired you unconsciously cut these corners because you obtain an immediate energy reduction; however you end up going more slowly and you have less time to recover before the next step so it is a very short sighted strategy.

There is a big debate over which muscles we use while running. The POSE Method makes much of a study in which it was demonstrated with electrodes that the quadriceps cease to be activated once the mid-stance has been achieved (body in balance over point of contact of the foot) implying that there is no active push off in running. This is very counter-intuitive and, as Jonathan says, would suggest that runners are wasting their time doing so many squats in weight training. The POSE Method maintains that there is no active push off and that your foot should be lifted using your hamstrings and not your hip flexors. It's a pretty bold claim and it is what really separates the POSE Method from the other running schools that have popped up more recently. Does this mean that you should not extend your hips while running? What about the convention wisdom of lifting your knees? Should your foot fall "dead" or should you actively grab the ground as your run?

To my mind, this is all to do with the interplay between energy and momentum (I should really say between potential energy and kinetic energy, we think of energy in running as our cost and momentum as the consequence of expending it) and the difference between active muscle use and passive muscle use.

As Dr Romanov himself says, in order to measure how well someone runs, you must have an ideal to hold them to, even if it itself is unattainable. The POSE Method aspires to an infinitesimal contact time in which case it is clear that to position your foot to land under your center of gravity all you need to do is lift it up directly under your butt with the hamstrings. However, when we take our foot off the ground in the real world, we must overcome the angular momentum that we generated by leaning forward to gain forward propulsion in the first place. I have no scientific evidence to back this up but I believe that this means that we must use our hip flexors to stabilize the leg and that this accounts for our perception that we are lifting our leg up vertically when, in fact, it is lagging behind our body. Similarly, I think this accounts for my perception that I am "sitting down" while running when, in fact, my legs are not in front of my center of gravity (as they would be if I really was sitting down). This is similar to if you try leaning against a wall and then suddenly standing up straight: you feel like you are leaning in the opposite direction when you are actually perfectly upright. So, hamstrings or hip flexors? I believe that we should focus on actively using our hamstrings and on the perception we have when we are correctly landing under our center of gravity (passively using our hip flexors).

When we extend our hips (and stand up on tip toes, for that matter), I don't think of it as pushing off but rather translating potential energy from our elastic muscles back into momentum, like a spring extending as it bounces off the ground. In any case, what is the difference between pushing off and leaning forward? If you are standing still, the difference is that you may let gravity pull you forwards as soon as you are out of balance. When you are running, the forward momentum throws you out of balance as soon as you hit the ground. Again, it is another question of active versus passive muscle use.

If you let your foot fall dead then it will be moving forward with respect to the ground when it lands, causing a braking effect. In the POSE ideal of "zero contact time" we would be able to instantly accelerate the foot to ground speed on touchdown but, as this would require an infinite amount of energy, it wouldn't be terribly efficient even if we had the physiology to do so. The analogy in rowing is the "catch" when you put the oar in the water. Ideally it should be not moving with respect to the water at the instant it is placed in the water (you can tell if this is the case by checking that there is a symmetrical splash on either side of the blade). Matthew Pinsent once described this to me as it being like trying to catch and accelerate a spinning fly-wheel without braking or jarring it. One of the things I most like about the POSE Method - again, a concept that sets it apart from the others - is that the focus is on "take off" and not on "landing". I believe that you cannot effectively control how you land because it is something that must be exquisitely orchestrated by the proprioceptive system. In other words, I believe that the landing should be passive but that we should focus on the perception of picking up the ground quickly ("sharp catch").

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Englishman in Midelt

Youness and Jonathan
Youness' neighbours
The kind of stones found on the trails
Youness' dad
Is that an aero wheel I see there?

Jacobo, Diego, David, Jonathan, Youness, Rafa, Alfredo and myself
Just like my Vivobarefoot Ultras!
The map for the treasure hunt
Hunting for treasure

Ifrane - looks like anywhere but Morocco
The training ground for the elite
Youness bumps into a fellow runner, also based in Spain
My Run Amocs stood up to the trails beautifully
I thought that I was suntanned until I had a shower...

We met up in the airport a good couple of hours before the flight was due to leave (of course, the flight was delayed a further hour, but that's another story). I hadn't seen Jonathan, my trainer, since before the Ironman so I took the opportunity to give him the book I had made of this blog - it was also a good moment because at least then I didn't have to worry about my bag being overweight! He seemed pretty chuffed by the gesture. On the flight I was sitting next to a man nearing retirement age who started at one point to rave about the current Spanish government, the crisis and 11-M (the terrorist attacks that took place in Madrid just before the last general election). I managed to steer him onto a more upbeat topic before civil war broke out on the plane - that of food. He asked me if I knew any good Spanish restaurants in Morocco. I can't help wondering what he made of his trip.

We arrived after much ado in Casablanca, tired, and somewhat dreading the long journey by car that lay ahead. We were traveling with Youness, an elite Moroccan athlete (1:03 in Half Marathon), to his home town, Midelt, at an altitude of 1,500 meters. Just as well that we changed our plans and stayed in a "colourful" auberge in the old part of Casablanca, giving us some time to recover.


We set off for Midelt in the morning and arrived in time to go for a short run. I'd been worried that I'd get left behind as I was the slowest of the group by quite some margin but, in everything but the quality work, we ran at more or less the same speed for the aerobic runs. I literally put my foot in it within the first few minutes: I stepped in a hole covered with grass and my leg went in up to my waist! Miraculously I was completely unhurt. The trails were quite a bit more unstable and stoney than the ones I am used to running in and around Madrid. I'd taken three pairs of running shoes with me - the Vivobarefoot Ultras, the Vivobarefoot Evos and the Soft Star Run Amoks (which arrived last week in the post) - but I ended up only using the Run Amoks as they had the toughest sole. They handled the terrain admirably. Of course they attracted a fair amount of attention from the other runners in the group (Youness was particularly worried that I might hurt myself) and even from Moroccans who seemed to appreciate the simple design and the fact that they were made from leather. I ended up wearing them the entire trip as they were so comfortable and, amazingly, they still smell of leather. What was also remarkable about them is that I didn't get a single blister from them and I was even able to run without socks, something I have never been able to get away with.

After the run we went to the local public baths - a Haman - and washed ourselves in the traditional Arabic way. No-one said anything to us at the time but we must have made quite a racket.

We had the first of many incredible meals at Youness' family house that evening. The hospitality of Youness and his family was second to none. We were really made to feel at home and we ate like kings. Youness insisted on us giving our sweaty kit to his mum for washing so that, in the end, I actually only used a small amount of the clothes I packed. But it was meeting his family, seeing his wedding photos and playing with his nephew that made it unique. I always jump at the opportunity to go to another country where I have some sort of connection: Midelt isn't a particularly special place but Youness and his family made it special. Midelt is just large enough to have a hotel but small enough that the tourist industry is not booming there and so we were able to carry on as if we were the same as any other local.

Youness talked about his growing up in Morocco and his progression as an athlete. Hearing all this in context really made it all the more impressive. Youness makes a living from winning races but this puts a tremendous amount of pressure on him. As Jonathan put it, were Youness a football player of equal ranking, he would possibly be in either Real Madrid or Barça, and would be enjoying quite a different lifestyle. In athletics, once you go below the very top of the pyramid, the possibilities to make a living from it drop off dramatically.


Sunday was the day of the series - in my case I was tasked with running 5 bouts of 8 minutes at my anaerobic threshold. I was paired up with Rafa and Youness joined us although, for him, it was an easy trot. I really started to feel the altitude - it felt like I was sucking in the air through a straw. I couldn't get my pulse rate up quite as high as it was supposed to be because it felt like I was drowning and I certainly couldn't run as fast as I would have done in Madrid (at "only" 600 meters above sea level). I found that going up hills was what really separated me from the other, lighter runners. Rafa and Youness soon disappeared off into the distance and, after completing the job, I ran back to the car with Jacobo, who was suffering from a prior injury. I was a little disappointed with myself because I felt that I had neither hit my heart rate nor my pace target but I was definitely very tired and my lungs felt like they had had a good workout.

That evening Jonathan and Youness organized a treasure hunt. We were grouped into pairs (I was again paired with Rafa) and our task was to find 7 pieces of coloured card hidden around Midelt and to bring them back to the hotel. On the back of the cards were written some questions related to athletics and any wrong answers would incur a time penalty. I don't know if I have ever done anything quite so absurd as running in a pair of skimpy shorts through the middle of a small Moroccan town in pitch black, looking for bits of coloured paper with another runner who happened to be deaf. There were times when I was worried that Rafa might get hit by a car as he was running down the middle of an unlit street but shouting a warning was of no use: I had to sprint ahead to catch him up. Between the two of us we managed to get well and truly lost. We had a lot of trouble finding one card in particular - it was supposedly hidden in an olive tree outside the Haman. There we bumped into Diego and David who were also in the same predicament. I was able to explain to some locals in my limited French what we were trying to do and, finally, between all of us we managed to find it. We realized that the third pair - Alfredo and Claudia - had gone off without managing to find the card! However, we still had to find the card at the local sports center. We asked directions from several people and this is where I think our ability to speak French put us at a disadvantage: later we found that we had been only meters away from the sports center before someone sent us in completely the wrong direction! One guy very sincerely offered his bike for me to use but I refused - after all, this was a running camp, not a triathlon camp. People were shouting "courage!" to us as we ran by. What moved me most, though, was finding the first card in the Jaima (or tent). At first I ran into the tent without thinking and then realized that I should have taken off my shoes first. There were dozens of children who helped us find the piece of card and then started to run with us - what an adrenaline rush! I told them to tell the others that it was elsewhere... For the last two questions Rafa and I split up: I went to the market where I saw Jonathan, Youness and a rather smug looking Alfredo. Alfredo's expression changed when I mentioned that I had seen the card that he and Claudia had missed. When I got back to the hotel, Rafa was still looking for the card that was hidden in a hole in the wall. Rafa went off in search of it but I couldn't believe that Jonathan would have hidden it so far away. Doubling back I finally found the little piece of card - it was almost impossible to see in the dark - and now all that was left was to catch up with Rafa again! In the meantime, Alfredo had run back for the missing card and now it was down to who answered all the questions correctly - which was us!


After all the excitement from the previous night, we left Midelt for Ifrane which is where the elite Moroccan athletes train at an altitude of 1,700m. Ifrane looks like no other Moroccan town I have seen. As it is a ski resort and an imperial city, it is very well kept and in a mock-European style. We headed for the running track where we bumped into several top athletes in training. We warmed up on the track while Jonathan filmed us in slow motion and then we hit the trails for the rest of the 1 hour 40 minute run that was programmed that day. In parts the trail was extremely rocky and my Run Amocs were not quite up to the job - to be honest, I'm not sure if any of my shoes would have been - even the others, in their "normal" running shoes were complaining of sore feet. In these patches I ended up lagging behind a little but at least it was nice and shady in the forest. This time I was sure to take my Camel Bak hydration pack because, at altitude, you lose water through perspiration more quickly than at sea level. In fact, I drank my liter deposit dry some time before finishing the run. The others were able to run without water but I'm either not trained to do that or not able, I'm not sure which. By the end of the run I was actually quite tired. The day before had been hard, what with the series and the treasure hunt (during which we were running quite fast at times).

That afternoon we left for Fez where we could relax and enjoy being tourists for a while. I love the Medina in Fez, it is like traveling back in time. I find it hard to think of a place I have been which has quite this same transporting effect. The Medina, or old city, has a circumference of 14 kilometers. It is packed so tight and the streets are so higgeldy-piggeldy that there is almost no more light during daytime than at night. Sometimes you glimpse through a window or a doorway an artisan cramped over some elaborate carving or beating out a piece of metal. And the smells... At least no-one could tell that I hadn't yet had a shower since my run.


In the car back to Casablanca, Jonathan showed me the videos of me running, as well as those of some of elite runners that he also trains. Although my technique has improved dramatically since I took up the POSE Method, there are still some vestiges from my heel-striking days. I tend to kick out my foot just before landing, as if there were a football there. Apart from there being a slight pause before I pick up the ground, I also land a little in front of my center of gravity. This much I know from the wear patterns on the soles of my shoes. He suggested that I try to lift my leg upwards and forwards with the hip flexors so that it is better positioned for landing. He also said that I should try to "grab" the ground with an active landing so that my foot meets the ground at 0 kilometers per hour relative to the ground. He knows that these two points go against the holy book of the POSE Method but I now feel I have consolidated the basic technique to a point where I can make some little tweaks. As I have said before, I believe that the real value of the POSE Method is in helping you develop a good running technique by yourself, something that requires a certain dogmatism if it is going to work.

At one point we got stopped by the police for going at 131kph in a 120kph zone and a combination of Alfredo's excuse (we were late for our plane) and my translation helped us to avoid a 10 euro fine (my GCSE French has paid off at last!); Youness, who was driving the other car, was not so lucky. He used the same excuse but also added that we were athletes... "So you like to go fast?" is what I imagine the policeman who fined him was thinking.

After a long journey we started to disperse and go our separate ways in Madrid. As we were waiting for the train we saw an advert on a TV for a race in Madrid in which Youness appeared (he looked like he was winning). The trip was a great success and an experience I will never forget, along with my other memories of that wonderful land, Morocco. Thank you Youness and Jonathan!

Thursday, October 6, 2011


On Friday I'll be flying to Casablanca in Morocco. From there we'll be going to Ifrane (the "Swiss Alps of Morocco") which is where many elite Moroccan and non-Moroccan athletes train and to Midhelt, the home town of our guide, Youness. We'll also visit Fes, which is one of my favourite parts of Morocco, with its amazing souk. Stay tuned and I'll tell you all about it when I get back.