In 2007 I visited a running shop to purchase my first pair of running shoes. The guy that helped me asked whether I was doing any races and I said no, I simply wanted to run to lose a bit of weight. To make conversation I asked whether he was into racing and he mentioned he was an ultrarunner. That was the first time I had heard the word and I asked him to explain. I left the shop totally amazed that there were people out there prepared to run more than a marathon.
Fast forward to May 2014 and here was I in Richmond, starting my first 100-miles ultramarathon, The Thames Path 100, a point to point race from London to Oxford.
At the end of every season I always ask myself, what can I do differently this year to help me achieve my goals and last year I found myself asking myself the same question. I have had this book which I won in a raffle sitting on the shelf for over a year ‘The Big book of Endurance Training and Racing’ by Dr Phil Maffetone, so two weeks without training I had plenty of time to read. Dr Maffetone during his time as a coach developed a formula to help athletes develop their aerobic system by training with a heart rate monitor; he called it the 180-formula. In simple terms, you only need to do some simple calculations and find out your personal heart rate range to exercise at and develop your aerobic system and improve your ability to burn fat as fuel. The book itself is fantastic, it also talks about the importance of management of overall life stress and how that affects you aerobic development, the problem of chronic inflammation, our addiction to sugar, etc. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.
The Maffetone Method as it is known, made a lot of sense to me when I read it so I decided to give it a go. What Dr. Maffetone doesn’t have in his book are training schedules, as it is up to the individual athlete to decide and with a bit of imagination I came up with my own training plan for the Thames Path 100 using Dr Maffetone’s ideas. In the first few weeks the Maffetone method really hurts your pride, the reason being that to maintain your heart rate within the range you find using his formula, is generally very slow and in my case was 90 secs/mile slower than my usual long run pace. I took that as a challenge and decided to stick with it. Below is the plan I came up with using the Maffetone method:
Most weeks were very similar for me, generally three bike rides, three runs and two to three swims and bit of strength and conditioning work, volume slightly increased each week with every fourth week being a recovery week when volume was reduced. I believe that training doesn’t have to be complicated; it’s the consistency of training each week that will get you places.
I would say that I completed 90% of that schedule. I listened to my body and added extra recovery or shortened sessions if I felt the need. In the blue area where bike sessions are missing is where it coincided with the start of Ironman Sweden Base training (my next challenge) and where I started to add more cycling volume and more power based training specific for Ironman like FTP intervals and Sweet spot sessions, the long rides got steadily longer too.
Returning to Maffetone, my frustration with running slow soon disappeared, my paces in training got faster until it reached my usual levels, albeit this time with a much lower heart rate.
For those of you who have read my previous blog posts will know how much I go on about the ‘metabolic efficient’ way of eating, if you haven’t heard about it then you should read this post. It’s so simple, basically you manipulate your daily nutrition by combining fat, protein and a source of fibre into every single meal and over time your body will adapt and become more efficient at burning fat. I have been eating in this manner for the last eighteen months with great success and plan to carry on eating like this (whether I’m an athlete or not) for the rest of my life. Some of you may already know that you can get lab tested to find out precisely what percentage of fat/carbs you are burning at different running paces and wattage on your bike. Since I haven’t had the luxury of getting myself metabolic efficient tested yet I did some ‘testing of the waters’ in training during some of my long runs and rides. To give you an idea I only used sport nutrition products for bike rides that were longer than 3h30min and runs that were longer than 3 hours. In training I managed to run well for nearly 30miles with no food at all except water and electrolytes. And during my 50mile run recce of the Thames Path I consumed precisely 150cal per hour during the 9 hours it took me.
Going into Thames Path 100 I knew I was a fat burning machine aka metabolically efficient and my aerobic system was well developed. Running at the 10min/mile I intended to start the race at would be way below the top of my aerobic range. Yet it’s a long way and a distance I hadn’t covered yet so I treated it with great respect.
The race – obviously a race that long has become a bit blurry in my memory, but we were lucky that the weather was great, sunny but not too hot and no rain forecast. I had recced the night portions of the race and was confident I was not going to get lost this time. The first 51 miles went without a stress; I made it to Henley at mile 51 in 9h38. My race strategy was to keep moving, whether it was running or walking I just wanted to move. I more or less ran to each aid station, quickly got the food I wanted to eat, filled up my bottle and carried on walking and eating, then started running steadily again.
It soon got dark after the halfway point and I started to really enjoy the night sections and quickly moved through those aid stations, always catching people up and being complimented on how fresh I looked, I just grew in confidence. After leaving the mile 77 aid station I had my first low point of the race, my neck was very sore and my legs felt heavy, from what I remember it was a section with lots of long and wet grass that made running very tiring and taxing. It seemed to take ages to get to the station at mile 85. Until that point in the race I hadn’t touched caffeine and thought it was what I needed. At the aid station at 85 miles I asked for a cup tea, I drank that and ate a peanut butter sandwich and scoffed some coffee beans covered in dark chocolate. It didn’t take long and I was running again and well. Every now and then I would spot a head torch in the distance and that just spurred me on to gain another position. I felt like I was absolutely flying during the last 15 miles, with enough drink and food on me I didn’t even stop at aid stations at miles 91 ant 95. I absolutely loved every step I took during those last 15miles. I didn’t realise it at the time but those last 15miles were my fastest! My goal coming into this challenge was to finish within the 28hrs cut-off and hopefully under 24hrs. I reached Oxford and before I knew it I was entering the recreation field where the finish line was, I must have had the biggest grin on my face. The marshalls confirmed I had finished in 20h07min and made it into the top 20. I’m so proud of that, this is beyond my wildest dreams.
I was unaware at the time but I love how I steadily improved my ranking with each aid station.
Referring back to metabolic efficiency, American Dietician Bob Seebohar who developed this concept has the 2nd edition of his book available from here, and soon to be launched as an e-book I highly recommend reading this alongside Dr Maffetone’s book.
So, what’s next for me? As I said earlier, I have Ironman Sweden in August, so I’ll be focusing on biking this summer and then in October I’m doing the Winter 100 miler here in the UK to finish off my season….after that….maybe talking to my lawyer…as my wife will surely have filed for divorce by then.