In-depth responses from Robert and Stuart

Tonight Katrina decided to do her 22 mile run in her build up to the London marathon after work because the weather forecast for Saturday was for lots of wind. She set off at 4.40pm and planned to do 3 loops coming back to the house after each loop so she could take some Lucozade or water.

I decided to join her for one of the loops to give her some company. Katrina had already run 11 miles when I joined her. We ran just over 6 miles together then while I came in for a shower and some food Katrina was off again for her final 5miles.  This is her last long run before the London Marathon and she’s going well!

The Hardmoors 55 results have been published. I finished 30th out of 269 starters (244 finished). I was also 5th MV50.  Shirley has sent me the splits from Osmotherley so once I have sorted them out I will post those. I will also update the all time personal best sheet as well.

If you have read this blog over the past few days you will be aware of my experiment of running to HR and how that went. A number of fellow runners have left comments and it’s been very interesting to see various viewpoints.

I was wondering whether my good friend Stuart Mills might comment and he didn’t disappoint. Stuart has a totally different approach to ultras summed up by the phrase ‘run as hard as you can for as long as you can.’

So Robert, who has helped me with my run to a specific HR, and Stuart have very different approaches to running ultra races and I love the fact that they see thing from a different viewpoint.

They are able to take the same stats, in this case my Hardmoors race and come up with differing opinions. Debate is always good and I really want to thank both of them for taking the time to comment on my post from Tuesday.

I’m sure many will have missed their comments so I thought it would be worthwhile copy and pasting their comments in this blog. It will make it quite long but no-one is forcing anyone to read it!!  But I suspect many will as it’s fascinating!!

First of Robert left this comment ….

Another great article John.

The Strava HR zones charts shows how daft these “zones” can be when applying them to ultra races. From your description of your race it sounds like you spent very little time any where near lactate threshold, staying aerobic pretty well all the way – basically in the “Endurance zone” but the strava chart suggests you spent practically no time there. It pretty well proves that these charts are useless for Ultra analysis.

The max HR formula of 220-age is pretty useless as well. The only way to work out max HR is to go an testing in an a physical session. A progressive hill run is a good way of finding roughly where your max might be.

However, your max isn’t particularly important to performance anyway. Far more relevant is your HR at lactate threshold as this gives us the point when you are transitionally away from aerobic to anaerobic. Setting your race heart rates as a % of the LT HR is probably the best way.

For the table that I prepared that list average race HR to time of race, listed above in the article, I derived this table my fitting a exponential curve to actual race data from John and myself. I used the equation for the fitted curve to then estimate the average HR for a range of race times. It not only allows one to have an educated guess at average HR to races between the ones we had data for, but also extrapolate beyond where we had data. In both our cases we didn’t have any race data for 24+ so it was a useful guide.

These curves won’t be set in stone though. If your fitness changes significantly between years then the target HR might change. For my case, over the last year I’ve changed my approach to training and now train every day and have seen big changes in my HR for a given pace (around 10bpm lower for a given pace than last year.) My LT is a bit lower, but not by 10bpm, my guess is that my target HR will likely be reduced by around the same amount as my LT HR. Before my next big race – the Fling I’ll do some tempo runs to explore where my LT might now be. My resting HR is probably lower too, which again might shift the curve a bit.

Another factor in play, is that if I’m fitter then I’ll be finishing the races quicker. The quicker you finish the higher the average HR you’ll likely be able to manage. I saw this with my 2012 Fling race where I finished in 10:46 with an average HR of 152, while in 2014 finished in 9:43 with an average HR of 154. If you look at the table then this difference fits quite well.

I’m hoping for a sub 9hr Fling this year, and if I can pull it off the chart suggests that I could do it with an average HR of around 155, but as my HR/pace is so different now. With my training logs I have estimators for how my training runs would extrapolate to race finishing times, based on the last month of training these suggests that an average HR of 148 would be enough for me to do a 9hr Fling. Does this mean I’ve got some leeway? If LT HR and race HR has dropped more than this though 9hr’s could still be out of reach.

The only way to find out is to RACE 🙂

In terms of racing vs pacing by HR. If you finish with your fastest possible time then you’ll likely be as far up the field as you can possibly be. The only difference would be whether your pacing alters the attitude to racing of others around you. A tactically burst of speed can break a competitors will to lay chase. Also passing someone in a positive fashion rather than inching past them can also break the will to attempt racing to the line. A failed move where you exhaust yourself and are only pass by a small margin and then not keep pulling away could be fatal though, your competitor could see that race is still within reach and they could dig deep and re-pass you.

One way to use HR pacing tactically is to use it for the first half to three quarters of the race to get you most of the way to finish in the best possible shape and still running strongly. For many competitors you face you don’t slow down but they do will mean your relative speed of passing is actually really positive even though you might not have altered your speed since the start. Passing someone when you are looking really fresh, happy and committed could be enough for them to not consider trying to up their pace to keep up.

For those that are still running competitively in the last quarter of the race, tactics of changing pace could still be utilized even when pacing by HR. If you feel you need to build some distance between you and someone chasing you then rather than thinking just for a short distance ahead, think in terms of the next 10 minutes of race you’ll up your tempo a little just to put them under pressure. For this spell you could raise your target HR range to up your pace, but stick with trying to stay within this range, so you are still running as efficiently as you can on the ups, flats and downs. It might be the they’ll try and stick with your pace on the ascents but then struggle on the flats and descents if you keep the pressure on. Once you’ve lost the chaser you could then let the HR range drop back to a safer region so you don’t do too much damage to your prospects of keep a good steady pace up.

Another thing you can do is listen to your body, if you are feeling fresh in the last half of race and feel that it’s safe to push on harder moving the target HR range higher. Upping it by just a few bpm for a while would be one way of just testing the waters. Listen to your body, if it’s happy then stick with the higher range, if you are struggling then dial things back.

Stuart gave a different opinion ….

Hi John, Firstly well done on a good run at the Hardmoors 55 last weekend, which setting a PB by nearly 35 minutes, quicker than your 2014 time, clearly demonstrates that you ran well. However, I’m sure you won’t be upset by my following comments as I know you that through your running and your analysis one of your aims is to gain a greater understanding of ultra trail running and performance and hence always keen to continue to learn.

Now, I know you made the clear statement in your post above “I would never say to others that they should run like I do ” and this is my approach as well. I have my opposite approach “Run as fast as you can, while you can”. But I don’t tell runners to adopt this approach. I simply put my thoughts, and my experiences ‘out there’ to help make runners aware that there are different approaches. The difficult thing is trying to interpret which approach is best. Or in fact is there a best?

So, let’s get to my point, which you asked within your post, but then didn’t answer: “I suppose the question is could I have gone faster by ‘racing’ like Dave did?” Now, although you didn’t answer this question, from some of your comments there is some indication that YES you could have gone faster if you raced. Your comment; “I definitely did not feel I was racing the Hardmoors 55. In fact there were times when I was deliberately holding myself back even after 30 or 40 miles. I felt in good shape and could easily have been 10-15mins faster to the half-way point.” clearly indicates that you could have run much faster to half-way. So why didn’t you? Perhaps explained by your comment; “Robert pointed out that by going over my target by a few beats per minute meant that I was going into debt which I would pay for.” But is this really the case?

As you know from my racing approach I clearly believe that this isn’t the case. But I don’t want to get into a ‘pub chat’ on who’s belief is right and who’s is wrong. Rather I would just like to provide some numerical data which might clarify things, and this is where you may get upset, in that I suspect that you ran at least 26 minutes slower than you could have. So to answer your question “Could I have gone faster by ‘racing’ like Dave did?” Yes, by at least 26 minutes! Now with that statement best I provide the data to justify it!

Now before people start criticising me that running a half marathon on the road is different to running a 55 mile trail ultra, yes I know that there is a difference, so performances aren’t going to exactly match. But there isn’t going to be that much difference between two similar aged runners, with similar training and racing backgrounds. It isn’t like we are trying to compare a 20 year old 5km racer moving up to the half marathon with a 55 year old 100 miler ultra runner moving down to the half marathon.

I believe that John you are 56 years old and Dave Troman is 47 years old. So he is nine years younger than you, but I don’t think this nine year age difference ‘ruins’ the data that follows. In fact one could conclude that perhaps with Dave being younger one would expect him to perform better than you at a half marathon and therefore the gap between the two of you should be less within a 55 mile race.

So finally the data. You recently ran the Inverness half marathon in 1:26:19 which is 86.3 minutes. You finished Hardmoors 55 in 9:35:40 which is 575.7 minutes. Dave finished Hardmoors 55 in 8:24:07 which is 504.1 minutes. He therefore ran 71.6 minutes faster than you, which when expressed as a percentage of your finish time, he ran 12.44% quicker than you.

Now if we assume that this percentage difference between the two of you EXACTLY translates to the same percentage difference in your finish times for a half marathon, then if Dave was to run a road half marathon and run it 12.44% quicker than you, his half marathon time would be 75:36. Now I don’t know what Dave would run for a road half marathon at the moment, but I would buy him a bottle of Scotch Whiskey if he is able to run 75:36. Taking a calculated guess at what I think he could achieve for a road half marathon, I would suggest a sub 80 minute time could be possible. To keep calculations simple, let’s say he can run four minute slower than the equivalent finish time, so assume that he could run 79:36.

John, perhaps you could ask Dave to provide details of his most recent half marathon finish time. Or if he doesn’t run half marathons, probably better to ask him for a ‘guess’ at what his absolute best finish time would be.

I am therefore suggesting that in fact there isn’t a 12.44% difference in performance level between the two of you. And the only reason your Hardmoors 55 finish times resulted in Dave running 12.44% faster than you was due to your even HR pacing strategy! Where does the “you ran at least 26 minutes slower than you could have” come from. This is based on your half marathon finish time of 86.3 minutes, so every minute equates to 1.159% of your finish time. Now as I am guessing that Dave can’t run the equivalent performance half marathon time of 75:36, I am suggesting that his performance level is four minutes slower, that equates to 4 x 1.159 = 4.64% So if my guess is right re Dave’s performance level, or you could interpret it as running ability, or physiological fitness, then Dave should have ran only 7.80% quicker than you (12.44 – 4.64). So have actually underperformed by 4.64% which equates to 26.7 minutes. Yes if you race to your true potential as demonstrated by your recent half marathon finish time, you should have broken nine hours ten minutes, over 26 minutes quicker. You would have been right on the heels of the Mens 50 category winner Neil Ridsdale who finished in a time of 9:09:08. Now wouldn’t that have been exciting, racing for a win in the Mens 50 category!

It would be good to get Dave’s comments on his half marathon guess, which may in fact be slower than 80 minutes. So this would indicate that you underperformed even more! Sorry about this John. I hope you aren’t too upset with my above logic. I hope my maths is correct. Because assuming the maths is correct, then how does one explain your under-performing. Maybe I have got it wrong, it wasn’t you under-performing, but Dave over-performing. Why did he over-perform? Perhaps he adopted a better pacing strategy and raced the Hardmoors. Simple really, racing is quicker than running!

Hopefully this lengthy comment will not exceed comment word limits and will submit okay, so best I stop this comment here. I welcome your response John and response from others, to help me understand why at first glance it appears your run was a good run, but yet you under-performed!

To conclude. John, you set out and achieved what you wanted to achieve at the Hardmoors 55 last weekend, as you state within your post “I definitely did achieve my objective of having a great day, running a time which far exceeded my expectations finishing strongly with a smile on my face”. I think the key word here is “EXPECTATIONS”. Were your expectations set far too low?

Keep up the thought provoking blog posts John. They are excellent in encouraging us to really think about many trail running aspects and how they relate to performance. Thanks, Stuart

Then Robert responded …..

Wow Stuart, an impressive ability to just make stuff up but put specific figures to it anyway.

The thing to compare is not two different runners against each other when you actually have one runner who’s done the same course two years on the trot. You can indeed look at whether there is correlation in half marathon times vs Hardmoors 55 time, but the most useful thing is to compare it based on John’s half marathon times in 2014 and 2015, and look at the Hardmoors ratio in 2014, 2015.

Unfortunately I don’t see a record of half in 2014 for John on his race page:

The closest relevant races was the were John’s 1:26:59 at the Aviemore half in October 2013, and the 1:27:36 in Inverness half in March 2013. These are pretty close % wise to John’s 1:26:19 at this years Inverness half. Clearly John’s basic aerobic fitness is better this year, but not by a significant margin over 2013, only 1.5% at most. In 2014 John had a really good year of training and racing too, so I believe it’s unlikely that the difference in aerobic fitness is more than a 1 or 2%.

Compare this to the two H55 times, 10:10:25 in 2014 vs 9:35:40, which is 6% faster.

2% fitter and 6% faster….

Last year John ran harder in the first half in the HM55, this year he ran harder in the second half.

So last year he ran closer to the “run as fast as you can as long as you can” model, which this year he took an approach of even HR and intensity.

We don’t have to make anything up, John has provided us with all the evidence, you can choose to ignore or accept that just perhaps part of John’s improvement could be the pacing strategy.

Not only did John go 6% faster he enjoyed the second half of the race when he was running so well more. Faster and more fun.

I have no doubt that John could go faster though. If John had been more focused on competing he may well of been able to go faster throughout the whole day, if John had pushed on just a little more, with a slightly high HR zone it would have been tougher for sure, but if he could have kept the pace up as he did then he could have gone faster. It’s a big gamble. For every extra BPM high of average HR in a 10hr race you can probably make around 6 minutes faster. For John to be able to go another 6 minutes faster still then he’d need to have run at an average HR of around 141.

We know from previous races that John’s average HR of 141 would equate to around a 7hr race. This is two hours lower than 9hr race so would be a big ask.

These figures do assume that John’s running economy wouldn’t go down with running harder. We do know that faster your run the greater your incur muscle damage and the greater your deplete glycogen, so have to burn more fat subsequently, which in turn requires more oxygen and higher heart rate, which all together makes your running economy worse as fatigue builds up through the race. The faster you race the faster your running economy goes down, so the HR for a given pace would fall, so to keep the required pace up John may to achieve a 9:10 HM55 would need an average HR above 141.

If you then deliberately go out faster, this debt in muscle damage and glycogen depletion just gets worse and the average running economy goes down and HR for a given pace goes up. So with a “run as fast as your can for as far as you can” would require John to reach an even higher average HR. How much higher? I don’t know as there isn’t enough science available yet to quantify. My guess is that it could well be several BPM.

So.. quite quickly we are requiring John to run harder than he’s ever been able to manage before but without blowing up.

I actually believe John could run a 9:10 H55, but not this year, and certainly not with altering approach to pacing. The way John would need to be make progress from here if he really really wants to go significantly faster is in improving fat burning further, and improving general aerobic fitness (which is already pretty stella 🙂

If you do want to look at Dave as comparison, he will likely have a different fast fibre/slow fibre mix to John, he also has a different year on year training history, achieved different levels of performance. My guess that Dave’s best performances fall into a different set of race distances to John.

Well all excel at different distances. you can’t compare Linford Christie to Mo Farah at the 100m, or 10k, or Mo Farah against Yiannis Kouros at the 24hr. Different athletes have different strengths at different distances.

All really interesting stuff! I respect Robert and Stuart so much and again thank them for their help. I remember once chatting to Stuart for one of our whw podcasts and it was clear that Stuart gets a lot of buzz and energy from leading a big race, arriving at checkpoints when they are not quite ready etc.

I do feel I get my buzz or energy from running the second half of a race stronger than those around me. In 2011 and 2012 I had a couple of tough years when I had some death marches to finish races.

I decided in 2013 to change my approach and one of my key aims is to enjoy the race and finish strong with a smile on my face. It has really helped and maybe I could go a little faster but would I enjoy it as much??

I do wonder though for the sake of another experiment whether I should try Stuart’s approach for the Cateran 55 in 7 weeks time?????

Any comments on the above welcome but try not to criticise the person!

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9 Responses to In-depth responses from Robert and Stuart

  1. Dave Troman says:

    This is really interesting! Two well thought out opinions. Somehow, you need to test both sides of the coin John. That would be a good blog post. Purely for the record, no sides taken, I haven’t raced on the road for over 6 years, but I think my half marathon time would be over 80 mins now, possibly nearer 85 mins. Now there’s a challenge for me 😉

    • Thanks Dave. I hope you didn’t mind getting brought into this discussion!! BTW I can’t believe your half marathon would be nearer 85mins! I reckon you would be 80mins at the least.

  2. Andy Cole says:

    Can’t resist this one. Just need time for a think then watch this space….

  3. In the interest of the debate it would entaintaining for the rest of us for you to attach the Cateran Trail with a “run as fast as you can for as far as your can” approach.

    You do however have lots of races in the past where you’ve gone out much faster, suffered and had a death march in the second half. Reading posts you’e written about these races and how it affected your subsequent races, both mentally and physically. It’s not pleasant reading about someone suffering for their spot.

    Contrast this to the beaming smiles from the HM55 report. A big PB, lots of smiles, quick recovery and joyful report.

    Some runners match the amount of suffering to how much they put into the race, the more suffering the faster they must have gone. The “run as fast as you can for as far as your can” is the perfect strategy for this as you exhaust yourself early in the race and almost guarentee later suffering. Amount of suffering for a given finishing time is maximized, for a masochist it’s perfect day out.

    It may be that people who enjoy the suffering won’t be as negatively affected by it during the race and subsequently in training and racing. This might be something that is a mix of both pychology and physical make up of person. One person might thrive on stress, while others breakdown physically and mentally.

    While it’s nice “tabloid media style” to label pacing by HR/intensity vs “run as fast as you can for as far as your can” as two opposite strategies there is lots of area between.

    You can pace by HR using various approaches - aiming for constant HR through the whole race, aiming for progressive higher HR, or start with a high HR and get progressive slower through the race.

    If you look at Stuart’s races where he’s published a his HR for the race you’ll see it goes from high HR to much lower, the drops sometimes are steady, other times it’s big drops, sometimes there is rally as he gets his race focus back. If you matched Stuart’s HR profile then you’d be running like Stuart, just at the pace you can manage.

    Even if you did adopt an over HR profile that matched Stuart’s but stuck to a band around this target HR for each mile pacing to this HR band would likely be more efficient than as you’d be easying off on the ascents more but picking up speed on the flats and descents more - you’d avoid digging so deeply into glycogen stores, raising your temperature too quickly etc.

    One approach you could take for the Cateran is to aim for a higher HR range than you did for the HM55. This would be a more aggressive approach, it’d be taking a higher risk of struggling in the second half, but if you could keep things together you pace would be higher. Maintaining the intensity was pretty easy for you in the HM55 in the later stages, but if you did go out with a higher HR range then you’d need to be prepared to dig deeper sooner.

    If you picked a HR range that is too high there is no way you’ll maintain the intensity to the finish, just in the same way the Sturart’s fails to maintain his intensity. This doesn’t bother Stuart because it’s all part of his plan. Stuart is an extrondinary athlete so probably cope far better in the second half despite a crazy first half, I suspect he’s fat burning capacity and resilience against the catabolic effects of cortisol are sky high so doesn’t see as detrimental effects as others would with this strategy.

    Personally, John I dodn’t think you are that similar to Stuart physically and mentally, you are two very different types of athletes. You are naturally far stronger at shorter events than longer events - compare yourself to Debbie for instance - you’re 10k and half marathon times as far ahead, but get to 50 miles and you’ll struggle to keep up. You’re fat burning and structural resilience just doesn’t match up to that of the Elite’s like Debbie and Stuart can manage.

    If your resilience isn’t as naturally good then you have to adopt strategies that stress your body less, becasue if you don’t you’re performance will suffer much more. You already know that pacing by HR is less stressful mentally and physically, it plays to your strenghs (your great displine) and doesn’t push you on areas that you a naturally less strong.

    If you want to run fast and get a PB at Cateran just do what you did at HM55. You already know you’ll smash it. If you want to be more competitive, and risk more discomfort for it, then consider upping the HR range you target. If you do then work on physical and mental side of how you hold things together in the second half and keep the intensity up.

    When I race using HR as a guide I get myself to 3/4’rs the way through the race running, eating and drinking as efficiently as I can so for the last quarter I’m in a place physcially and mentally that I can maintain or increase the speed if there is still something left in the tank. Upping the intensity late in the race is easier if you are catching folk, you spot another runner and reel them in. Anyone who hangs on you try and loose by maintaining the intensity, don’t accept loosing a place late in the race. You might be racing but be smart, if they respond to you by surging ahead there is good chance that they’ll burnout and not be able to maintain the effort. If you keep the intesnity up then you’ll eventually catch them again and when you do this time they’ll be a spent force.

  4. Mike Anthony says:

    Hey John.

    An interesting debate. One thing I think is worth considering is that Stu’s strategy cannot be reduced as Robert put it to a simply run as hard as you can for as long as you can approach. I think credit has to be given to the fact that there are and has been many top elite runners who have learned to run with an understanding of instinctual control of effort, indeed this was once considered the art of running.

    I was listening to an interview with great British Runner Steve Jones the other day. Steve held the marathon WR in 1985 at 2:07:13 and was discussing how we broke the record. Steve said that on the day he had no indication at all that he could run that pace, he expected closer to 2:10. What Steve did have however was an approach of running by feel and running with the intentions to do his absolute best, no doubts whatsoever. Steve discussed how at half way he would likely have backed off or crumbled having seen he was well above pace if he had not practiced and believed in his approach. Whats interesting then is that whilst that marathon record no longer stands at world level, it is STILL…30 years later, the British record for the marathon. Run entirely by feel and from the front.

    Steve actually said he believes that if he had run to gps or with a pacer there is no way he could have broke that record that day, and also states that this is one of the key reasons he cites as to why British Marathon running is in such a poor state so that even 30 years on, with the level of science, technology and comfort runners are afforded no one has yet to take the British Record. It is the limits set within oneself.

    Now think about that for a second. Firstly whats your self belief like John? You felt you could have run around 10:00 on a great day but as we know, you gave up your autonomy of pace to the technology and got closer to 9:30. But remember, in effect your race time was going to be determined by the information on a watch rather than your own judgements and decisions. In this instance the watch gave you a favorable result which is great. But had you gone out and run by feel (assuming you had learnt to do this in training), do you really think it would have been possible to run that time when you only believed you could hit 10 hours on your best day? I don’t think it would, you might have dipped under it but your lack of self belief would not have allowed such a result, it was to opposed to the opinion of your capabilities as a runner. And I think this is what Steve is talking about, YES running by feel can lead to stellar performances that one could never anticipate but ONLY if ones self belief is built to be capable of accomodating that performance also. What allowed Steve to hit halfway at above marathon wr pace and then continue on to hold it was the fact he had removed all limits from himself in training and racing. He had no watch, he had no pacer, and he accepted that ANYTHING was possible. He truly believed in himself.

    Steve now trains his athletes in this same manner, no gps, going out with total belief and confidence and they have had some great success. Now going back to your racing. You say you would like to try Stus method and I think that sounds great on paper. But some respect has to be given to it also. Because if it was a simple as just going out as hard as you can until you can no longer than we would all be top class runners surely. No, of course, that is a brainless model. It assumes running is purely physical when we know sports has a huge psychological component as Steve described in relation to his marathon wr. Similarly there is a definite skill in play there, you have to be able to listen to the feedback of your body accurately and trust its information to run by feel. It is my belief this is a lifelong learning. For you to do it in 8 weeks may not be an honest representation of what some runners spend a lifetime perfecting such as Stu or Steve Jones for example. Of course this doesn’t mean its not possible but if you did I think having someone to guide you like Stu would give the best result. Perhaps Stu would coach you for this one off race and help you develop the skills needed. Remember however, the psychological component is between you and yourself and I believe if you go into a race with the kind of lower expectations you did for the HM55 and are choosing to run by feel there is little chance of you really surpassing them like you did this race. The reason you were able to in this race was because you gave up your autonomy to a watch and thus, in my opinion, got a closer representation of where you truly are as a runner without your self belief holding you back. To truly get to your optimal performance however you would need to run without the watch, have practiced running by feel enough so you have faith in yourself to do that (remember what Steve said about doubts), and also have a real honest self belief you are capable of a really good time…something which your estimation prior to HM55 shows you are perhaps not able to do yet but with coaching and work on your self belief you could perhaps find.

    In the long run, beyond this experiment if indeed you do go ahead its a question of what you want from your running. To risk failing and getting it wrong (which Steve Jones did in numerous races because when you run on the edge you sometimes will go over it) but then potentially have a performance in which you get every last bit of talent out of you or to give up this endeavor to a watch and have lots of pretty good solid performances but with the knowledge that you may never have truly got your absolute best. Something which you now know is perhaps way above the level you once did. I say that with no judgement, its an individual choice and each runner has to choose.

    • MIke, when I say “run as fast as you can for as long as you can” I am quoting how Stuart has described his approach many times. So rather than doing it a diservice, I’m making sure I’m consistent with Stuart and not mis-reading anything in to it.

      I believe Stuart himself does have a more subtle approach to his race pacing than the “run as fast as you can for as long as you can” would at first seem to suggest. Rather than go out at a full sprint Stuart typically heads off at nearer 10k pace.

      In Steve Jones case, when he broke world marathon record he probably didn’t head off at 10k pace and hang, I suspect he went out between half marathon and marathon pace, which outwardly might have seemed highly risky, and it was, but when things did come right he pulled off some amazing races. Other times he crashed and burned.

      These days the marathan world record is far more highly contested, it’s quite a bit quicker than it was in Steve’s day and the margin for getting pace wrong is much smaller, and much more is actually known about how to race marathons. Modern marathon world records have all be set with very even pacing. What you do hear about is the successful marathon world record attempts, for every successful attempt there are dozens of uncessful attempts where the athletes set off at the right pace for a world record but couldn’t hang on.

      Doing what Steve did these days to attempt a world record would just not work. Marathoning and sports science have moved on.

      I do however agree on racing by feel and not worrying so much about splits. Pacing by HR is essentially pacing by how your body is doing, it might be a device doing the listening to your body, and very accurate one, essentially high fidelity body listening device. John’s pacing wasn’t dicatated by his watch, it was dictated by his heart, and his heart rate at any given time relates to the level of effort. So pacing by HR *is* pacing by physical feel, just not physcological feel.

      In my experience with pacing by HR and hence effort level is that it automatically gets you to run faster on days when your body is working well, firing on all cyclinders. On these great days your heart rate for a given pace is lower, so if you are pacing to a heart rate zone then you naturally end up having to run faster to keep in the zone. It might be quite a subtle difference in speed over a short section, but when you go 50 miles this small differences can lead to big changes in actual peformance.

      In last years West Highland Way Race I went through the 60 mile mark and was starting to feel the effort and as I headed up onto Rannoch Moor part of me wanted to slow down, walk the uphills more. However, checking my watch it was clear that HR was actually staying nice and low despite the asents, and in reality my body was actually coping just fine and there was no excuse to slow down. In my head I wanted to slow down, in my perception I was working harder than I really was. With my excuse for slowing down and walking kicked to touch I just got on with it and ran most of the hills to Ski centre. Sure I was a bit tired, but I knew that my body was in a good place and with that knowledge my mind was able to stay focused and positive to.

      • Oops just reread my post and it should have read Steve’s 2:08 in my original post when referring to his record breaking run, he broke it initially at 2:08 and then broke his pb again with the 2:07:14 but that initial record was the wr and the one that had a huge impact on running because of the way Steve run it. Particularly the last half which some people believe paved the way for the standard achieved in todays marathon running.

        And apologies Robert yes I know Stu said that first and I can see now you understand he has a little more depth to the comment, I think Stu likes to be blunt for impact but obviously he means that strategy within reason and with lots of getting to know oneself first which is why I was reiterating that to John and readers. It is not as simple as just go out balls to the wall and see what you get!

        Anyways moving on. Yes the marathon has moved on with all the technology etc etc but not in Britain apparently. 30 years of low achievements and in my opinion low aspirations given the gulf we allowed to open up between us and the worlds elite. Do I think that the marathon wr got were it did because of technology? No, that is just the natural progression of athletics, times will drop and obviously in Steve’s day athletes could only compete with what was there so if the record back then was what it is now many more athletes would have been around 2:04-2:05, its just the nature of competition, case in point Roger Bannisters 4 minute mile. Within a year of it been broke it was been run sub 4 by numerous athletes and nowadays the top kids in college are running 4 minute miles but that doesn’t make the original feat any less important of any less of the Everest it was in its day. Its just that humans are limited by what we conceive as possible. When Steve broke the record it was a massive achievement of both physical and mental effort, perhaps the greatest British distance run we have witnessed in the past 30 years (of course Radcliffe has to be thrown in the hat too).

        Similarly things are not so much different. Back then the elite athletes liked to be paced its just Steve actually used to overtake the lead pacer in races around mile 3 or so! I know HR strategy has been used by some greats. The person who I most admire and consider the greatest ultrarunner of all time (obviously debatable) is Ann Trason and I know she used to pace by HR up until halfway in 100’s then go by feel. She said this strategy used to ensure she didn’t go out too hard in the early miles but freed her up to lay it all on the line as the race progressed.

        In todays marathon most athletes are not concerned with running their absolute best, they are concerned with winning the field or achieving their best for there country etc. This is very much tied into sponsorships and prize money. Back when Steve run those times he was willing to lose it all for a chance at touching excellence. Not many go out with that approach now, particularly in the marathon elite but I think there are many reasons as mentioned, for that.

        I like this debate but could never see how pacing hr for an entire race can give a person anything but a sub maximal performance, it might increase some or maybe even many athletes chances of having a great performance, but for me it would not be truly satisfying to feel I had the stabilizers on. Id always question what could have been. I do believe though there is no right or wrong, just what works best for you, your goals and what you know about yourself.

      • If you are familiar with Kenyan marathon running elite you’ll know that there are dozens of established and up and comming athletes all vaying to win races, attract sponsership. Often youngest go all out on sucidal pace for a marathon in the small chance they might pull it off. Very, very occassionally there are new athletes of enough class that they pull it off. So I believe there still is alot of do or die type pacing going on.

        The reason why you don’t see it so much is that the real top elite’s know much better how to pace when they are chasing records. Go read the great anaylses of pacing of recent marathon world records at :

        As for Steve’s performance being equal in quality to Paula’s records, ummm not even close. Steve’s best in minutes adrift of the current world record, while Paula’s is minutes ahead of the next fastest performances. She’s was in a different league when she was breaking records. She did he record with negative splits. She not only had the physcial and mental resilience she also was a master of pacing. Steve just wasn’t the complete package in this way. If he was his record wouldn’t be so far adrift.

        I do agree on the relative poor state of UK marathon performances.

        As for how to get the absolute best performance when ultra-marathoning, in reality no one ever does this in a ultra, there are so many variables at play during every ultra, every mile you are rolling the dice when you have to come up 6 every time. The probability of throwing 6′ all the way to finish is vanishing small. Essentially it never happends. All you can do is get as close to your theoretical best on any given day.

        As actual race performnce is to an extent probabilistic, the better chance you give yourself of rolling high numbers on the dice the faster the race will be. When pacing by HR you give yourself the ability to skirt very close to your maximum witout going over it, it gives you that ability to roll consistently high numbers. The lower you set your HR range the slower you’ll go, but also the likelhood of nothing going wrong increases so finishing in a certain time goes up. As you increase your target range your potential finising time goes up, but the probability of nothing going wrong goes down - so the finishing time might be faster but the probability of actually doing it goes down.

        If you take a high risk approach with pacing in a ultra, the probability of actually achieving the desired peformance goes down. You see this with Stuart’s perforance. The odds on him having a great race can be quite low some years. Sometimes he pulls off a stella peformance and wins a really big race. But there is also DNF’s and poor peformances that you have to take into account. Bad races are contagious - they hit your training afterwards, they hit your confidence.

        Contrast this with a more conservative/reliable pacing approach, where the risks are lower, more races you run well and achieve near to you maximum possible performance. Good performances build upon each other - you recovery quicker, you get back into training quicker, your confidence builds making the likelhood of smashing your next race higher.

        With John’s performance we can see this in action. His peformance at ultra’s are just getting better and better. He outwardly is pacing conservatively, he even doesn’t sense he’s competing in the same way, but where it counts - his finishing times are just getting faster and faster.

        I too use this “conservative” pacing approach and I’m also seeing race on race, year on year improvement. I’m getting older, but getting faster. Part of the reason is learning from experience and then running smarter.

  5. Pingback: Weekend Runs | John Kynaston's ultra running diary

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