Running to Explore

Photo by Ben Mack on

For many of us, running is the best way to explore a new location. We take running shoes with us on holidays and business trips and make sure we pop out on our first day to navigate the local area. But how many people truly explore the roads and trails where they live?

In 2020 I set myself an ambitious annual mileage goal that significantly increased the frequency and distance I ran each week. When the first UK lockdown came in March 2020, we were stuck inside with only a single outside exercise session per day for liberation. Conveniently lockdown coincided with the release of the Routes function on Strava.

For Strava Premium members, the Routes function allows you to enter the distance you want to run, whether you want a flat or hilly route, and choose between a trail or road surface. An algorithm then calculates three routes from your starting point based on the most run paths by local runners. You can choose one of the routes or rerun the algorithm to get additional options. 

Once you have selected a route, save and star it to upload it to your Garmin GPS watch, and it will appear the next time you sync. You can load the course on your device and follow the audio instructions and map prompts for your run.

I used the Routes function for my runs each morning and discovered all the hidden trails in and around my local town. As the year went on and my routes got longer and longer, including a few 25-mile off-road test events, I began to rely on the Explore function to provide new exciting trails. During the summer, I got away for a break to the English south coast and another to Burgen, Norway and discovered some fantastic trails with the added benefit of not needing to carry a map. 

I use the Fenix 6X Pro Solar, and Strava Premium is around £70 per year, so it is not a cheap solution, but I bought the watch before the tool existed and signed up to Strava for other features, so it works for me. I have been told that Garmin has a similar function built into Garmin Connect, and there are much cheaper watches on the market if you need a more affordable option. 

Exploring the trails around my local area and running a different route most days allowed me to keep excited about running during the lockdowns and cancelled races. I guess a better option would be to join a club and learn the local trails and roads from other runnings in your area, but if you travel a lot and run at strange times (Strava had my average time at 7 am), this might be the perfect option.

Running. Getting into the flow

I don’t think I have ever experienced runners high, but I know that there are times during runs where everything clicks and running feels effortless. During these periods, all my muscles are relaxed, my whole body from my arms to my legs move together, my legs just turn over, and every movement feels like it is driving me forward. These times are few and far between, but they are what makes the training worth it.

I am two weeks into my running training for this year, and I have one goal; increase the frequency of this feeling. I assume that this flow state represents the most efficient and effective way to run and maximising the times when I feel this will make me faster. But the question is, what can I do to trigger this running sensation?

To improve my running flow, I perform pre-run dynamic stretching and post-run strides each time I run, short maximum effort hill sprints twice per week and one set of technique drills.

Pre-run warm-up routine

Before every run, I perform this short dynamic warm-up routine from @coachtommy.nrg on Instagram to get my legs moving:

  1. 10x Calf raises
  2. 10x Lunges
  3. 10x Squats (full range of motion)
  4. 10x Knee to chest
  5. 20x Leg swings on each side
  6. 30x Heel flicks 

Technique Drills

Once per week, currently on a Friday lunchtime, I perform technique drills from Pete Magill’s Fast 5K to work on my form:

  1. Skipping
  2. High skipping
  3. Long skipping
  4. Flat-footed marching
  5. High knees
  6. Bounding
  7. Quick feet
  8. Quick hops
  9. Butt Kicks

Each drill is performed for one repeat of 20 meters (on my driveway and down the side of my house), jog back, then stride the 20 meters, then walk back to the start for the next drill.

Very short, very steep, very fast hill sprints

Twice per week, I am performing hill sprints. I go to a steep hill (around the corner from my house) and run up it as fast as possible (maximal effort) for between 8-12 seconds. Walk down to recover and then repeat up to 10 times. Brad Hudson in Run Faster provides a progression:

  • Week 1: 1×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 2: 2×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 3: 3×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 4: 4×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 5: 5×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 6: 6×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 7: 7×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 8: 8×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 9: 10×8 sec hill sprint
  • Week 10: 8×10 sec hill sprint
  • Week 11: 10×10 sec hill sprint
  • Week 12: 10×10 sec hill sprint
  • Week 13: 8×10 sec hill sprint
  • Week 14: 5×10 sec hill sprint

Post-run strides

Strides are short, fast runs of around 10-20 seconds with at least 40 seconds of light running between to recover. I have started to add them to the end of each run down a wide ally near my house. I run for 20 seconds and then jog back to the start. Jess Tonn, a seven-time All-American at Stanford, has built up to doing six to 10 of them nearly every day, often logging more than 50 post-run strides in a week. I am running four days per week and follow a progression similar to the hill sprints for each run:

  • Week 1: 2x 20-second stride
  • Week 2: 3x 20-second stride
  • Week 3: 4x 20-second stride
  • Week 4: 5x 20-second stride
  • Week 5: 6x 20-second stride
  • Week 6: 7x 20-second stride
  • Week 7: 8x 20-second stride
  • Week 8: 10x 20-second stride
  • Week 9: 8x 25-second stride
  • Week 10: 10x 25-second stride
  • Week 11: 10x 25-second stride
  • Week 12: 8x 25-second stride
  • Week 13: 5x 25-second stride

Time to dust off the running shoes

After a two month break and on the first sunny weekend of the year, it is time to dust off the running shoes. My current project 4w/kg programme runs until the 1st of May, and I want to be ready to move to a running focus once this goal is achieved. Preparing to run will involve gradually prepare my body for an attack on the next step in the distance runners progression; a 40 minute 10k.

The first job is to lose some body fat and get down to a body weight that is more suited to running fast. Losing weight while maintaining power is key to achieving the four watts per kilogramme needed for project 4w/kg, so this is already on the schedule. Running is a series of single-leg jumps, and the lighter you are, the less force is needed to perform each jump. The less useless weight, the less effort to go the same speed, and so the same effort will take you faster. Carrying a bit of extra weight (3-4kg) over the winter has been healthy, and I have enjoyed eating everything in sight, but with the winter coming to an end, it is time to get a bit leaner. Weight loss happens in the kitchen, and I know all I need to do to get down to my target of 80kg is to clean up my diet and stop eating all the treats.

The greatest need for all athletes is strength. More and more strength.

Percy Cerutty

While I am losing body fat, I also want to build a runners body. I am already doing a heavyweight session twice per week as part of my bike programme. Still, the frequency of my gymnastics and core work, stretching, and general physical preparation could be increased. Percy Cerutty’s 100 sit-ups first thing in the morning and a range of strength and conditioning four-minute movement breaks focused on the hips, core, and hamstrings will support the weight loss to prepare the body to run fast. Kelly Starret, in his book Ready to Run, provides twelve standards that will help build the runners body:

  1. Neutral feet
  2. Flat shoes
  3. A supple thoracic spine
  4. An efficient squatting technique
  5. Hip flexion
  6. Hip Extention
  7. Ankle range of motion
  8. Warm-up and cool down
  9. Compression
  10. No hotspots
  11. Hydration
  12. Jumping and landing

Most importantly, runners run, so I need to slowly get back into regular running. 5k Masters record holder, coach, and author of Fast 5k, Pete Magil, suggests that all runners should start with a run-walk programme to avoid injury and build strength in the key muscles. Brad Hudson’s short and intense hill sprints can also improve running form and condition alongside the run walks. Finally, G. Walter George’s 100-up exercise can be done once per day to develop stride length in place of going out for a run. 

The plan

  • Monday: run/walk am, light rite of passage workout
  • Tuesday: bike am, weight session with 8-10 second hill sprints pm
  • Wednesday: bike am, run/walk and medium rite of passage workout pm
  • Thursday bike am, 
  • Friday: run/walk am, weights session with run drills and 8-10 second hill sprints pm
  • Saturday: bike am, heavy rite of passage workout and optional run/walk pm
  • Sunday: bike am

Daily core, stretch, and strength routine as 4-minute movement breaks

  • 100 Sit-ups first thing in the morning
  • Planks directly before I start work
  • 75-150 kettlebell swings
  • 100-ups
  • Light Deadlifts: five sets of 10 reps @40kg

The plan might look a lot written down, but the only two heavy workouts are the Tuesday and Sunday bike sessions. The other activities are lighter and should not affect the next sessions. In the current training phase, the strength sessions are there to maintain strength rather than build it.

The 100-Up Exercise

I have been searching for ways to increase the amount I move since I began working from home, and my walking reduced significantly. The best movement practices are short to fit between meetings or tasks, require little or no equipment, and can ideally be carried out without changing outfit. If the movement makes me faster at running or on the bike, then even better. 

The 100-Up exercise is a short movement practice that you can do daily to improve running form, strengthen muscles, including the heart and lungs, loosens the limbs, and increases your daily movement. It can be done anywhere and in regular clothes, making it perfect as a movement break while working from home.

Walter George created the exercise and published it in a short book in 1880. George was an English middle-distance runner born in 1858, a holder of the mile world record between 1880 and 1893, and with a personal best time mile time of 4 minutes and 12 seconds. He worked from 7 am to 9 pm each day with a one hour break for lunch, and needed a way to supplement his training and keep active whilest at work. He would regularly perform the movement throughout the day when he moved around his workplace, creating opportunities to do 20 to 40 repetitions. Walter George credited his speed and stride length to the daily practice of the 100-Up.

Percy Cerutty in ‘Athletics: How to become a champion‘ suggests that runners should ‘run on the spot at terrific speed’ as an indoor activity if it is not possible to get outside. Many articles and books about his athletes also comment on regular, if not daily, ‘running in place‘ for 10-15 minutes to improve form and stamina. It might be possible to create smoother running form and a longer stride length by merely adopting the 100-Up exercise as a supplementary daily activity.  

The 100-Up exercise

The 100-up has three stages; each stage needs to be perfected before moving on the next. The exercise’s primary focus is as a carryover to running, so perfect form is required; knee to hip height each time and return the feet to the line without moving forward or backwards. At any point, if this form breaks down; the exercise should be paused.

You will need two parallel lines for all three stages, eight inches apart and 18 inches long. My floorboards are a perfect width, but you could put some tape down, or find another marker if needed. Your feet start with the balls of your feet on each line pointing directly forward and each rep your knee should reach hip height. Arms should hang naturally and remain by your sides for the first two stages.

Stage 1: Preliminary

Start by slowly lifting one leg ten times, trying to control your balance while getting your knee to the required height and returning your foot to the starting position for each rep. Do all the reps on one leg and then repeat with the other—progress when you can perform 30 reps on each leg correctly.

Stage 2: Minor

Repeat the preliminary exercise but this time alternate the leg you raise each rep. Start with ten reps – five with each leg, and progress over time to twenty, thirty, forty, and eventually one hundred. Start slow and gradually get faster as your strength and balance improves—progress to stage three when you can perform 100-Ups correctly. 

Stage 3: Major – The exercise proper

The final stage is the full exercise. Start with your feet in the same position but raise your heels, so you are on the balls of your feet. raise your knees to hip high and alternate leg each rep but perform the movement with good pace. Use your arms to mimic the running form, with relaxed shoulders, lifting the opposite arm to the raised knee and brushing your rib with your hand with the lowered hand. Try 20-Ups the first time – ten for each leg and concentrate on your form. Steadily add more reps over time as your stamina improves until you reach 100-Ups.

A long term pursuit

Treat mastering this exercise as a long term pursuit and do at least one set every day. If you run and have a GPS watch, see if your stride length is improving over time along with your competency in this exercise. If you are not a runner, the 100-Up exercise is an excellent way to add extra movement into your day and possibly get you interested in starting running as you learn the correct movement from the comfort of your home.

Have a go at the 100-Ups progression and contact me on Twitter with your progress.

10 things I learned running 2000 miles in a year

You don’t become a runner by winning a morning workout. The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months, and (if you could finally come to accept it) years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials

John L. Parker

I was not really a runner. I had done some ultra-distance stuff on trails including a few Skyruns, but at 85kg+, I had survived on pure grit, and I was far more comfortable going long on a bike. The tipping point was during the 2019 Outlaw X, an end of season middle-distance triathlon in the English Midlands. Training had gone well. I treated the 1.2-mile swim as a warm-up for the bike, I controlled the cycle, keeping to my conservative heart rate target and flew along the rolling hills that resembled my training routes just 40 miles south of the race location. As I pulled into the transition area at Thoresby Park, a lean and sinewed cyclist pulled alongside me and thanked me for the 56 miles of pacing and disappeared into a sea of bike rack. The relatively flat and familiar roads were much faster than the hills around Marbella from my first 70.3 Ironman earlier in the year, I had completed the first 57.2 miles in under three and a half hours, and I was on for a much faster time. The question in my head was ‘Can I get below five and a half hours?’ 

In short, the answer was no. What followed was two hours and five minutes of leaner fitter, and more prepared athletes passing me as I shuffled along. I finished in under 5:35 which I would have been thrilled with at the start of the race and my half marathon time was not any slower than my training had suggested, but mentally the race took a toll. If I was going to commit time, money, and annual leave from work to travel around Europe for endurance races, I needed to take them seriously; I needed to make myself a runner.

The most exciting thing for me about endurance races is the challenge of not knowing when I start if I can complete it. The Tromso Skyrun in the very North of Norway, at 57km long and with 4800 meters of elevation across some of the wildest mountains in Europe was a race that I knew I would need to commit to fully. In the Hamperokken Skyrace, I had a challenge that would force to become a runner. I set myself the target of running 1500 miles by the start of August before I lined up on the start line and a further 500 miles for the remainder of the year for 2000 miles in total, and signed up for six months coaching with the Skyrunning and obstacle course legend Jon Albon.

The Tromso Skyrun and all the other races I had signed up for were cancelled, but on Christmas Day, I completed the 2000 mile challenge. My final run was the seven miles and 500 meters of accent up to my local hill and back to my house in under an hour, cutting my best time from the previous year by over 12 minutes. I also completed a solo half marathon time trial on the 20th December in one hour, thirty-five minutes, and nine seconds, cutting down my PB from the start of the year by over 20 minutes. But more importantly, I am now a runner.

10 things I learned running 2000 miles in a year in a new tab)

  1. To run high mileage, you need to run at least six days per week every week. Know your daily target average and get it done.
  2. Spend time every day taking care of your hotspots – the niggles, pains, and tight areas you get while you run. If it starts to hurt, deal with it.
  3. Have a big scary audacious goal, then have a plan to achieve it. If you can afford to get a coach, they will accelerate your progress and help you avoid injury (Jon Albon is fantastic). If not, pick a programme and follow it, trying to execute each workout perfectly.
  4. Train all your running muscles to get faster, even if you are training for an Ultra. Train very short, very steep, very fast hill sprints, tempo runs, durations over 90 minutes and everything in between. 
  5. Run your quality sessions on the road and for everything else explore the trails. Use the Strava Explore Routes function to find new and exciting trails every time you go out.  
  6. Only buy premium running gear, your body will thank you. Premium stuff lasts, I have a Helly Hansen Lifa from over ten years ago, and it is still going strong. Focus on running shoes, running shorts, and a great watch (headphones too if you run with podcasts or music), the quality of the rest is less variable.
  7. Fuel to recover. Drink lots of water each day, get consistent amounts of protein, and eat more carbs on heavy training days. Drink a recovery shake and eat a piece of fruit straight after hard sessions.  
  8. Running is a full-body activity so get your whole body strong. Do sit-ups when you wake up, then another set before bed, practice the deadlift and overhead press, and work towards a 1.5x bodyweight deadlift and ten pull-ups. It might not make you much faster, but it will make you healthier, less prone to injury, and much more confident in your body.
  9. Read books by and about runners for motivation and make to make it part of your life. I recommend everything by Percy Cerutty including his biography Why Die, The Golden Mile by the legend Herb Elliot, From last to first by London Marathon winner and Olympic bronze medalist Charlie Spedding, and the novel Once a Runner by John L. Parker.
  10. Be a part of a running community or have a few running friends to do some group training runs and races. Create a Whatsapp group with some runners to keep you motivated and suggest a yearly run streak.

I have transformed my running this year, not only am I faster (not yet fast), but I look and feel far more fluid when I run. I do still, however, have several things I need to work on. I am terrible at doing my core strength exercises, and the community element has been challenging this year, two things that should be easy fixes. Fast runners are lean, and I love sugar, I will have to start eating like an adult if I want to be fast. Finally, I can make myself suffer in an effort on a bike, but I don’t feel I can push myself as hard when running. Developing more mental strength when running, losing some excess weight, doing my core work, and running with others can get me to the next level on my distance running journey.    

You can find out about Jon Albon’s coaching on his website. There are cheaper coaches, but Jon is a world-class athlete and self-coached, so you are getting a lot for your money. 

Let me know on Twitter if you have any questions on anything in this post.

The greatest miler in history

I finished the biography The Golden Mile: The Herb Elliott Story today. His mental and physical training would best be described as character building. If you like to run, think that modern methods are a little tame and want to read about how the best athletes trained in the ultra-amateur era of athletics, this book is a must-read. Once you are finished with this book, pick up a copy of Why Die: The Extraordinary Percy Cerutty ‘Maker of Champions’ to learn more about the famous Portsea camp and Cerutty’s coaching methods. 

Camp activities followed a fairly regular pattern. A typical day went like this: 7 a.m.: A five mile run before breakfast in any direction our whim took us, followed by a dip in the ocean. 8 a.m.: Breakfast of uncooked rolled oats (without milk) sprinkled with wheat germ, walnuts, sultanas, raisins and sliced banana. Perhaps a few potato chips to follow. 9 a.m.: Swimming and surfing or outdoor chores like chopping wood, painting and carpentry. Noon: Training and lectures at Portsea Oval, followed by another swim. 2 p.m.: Lunch – fish and fresh fruit. 3 p.m.: Siesta. 4 p.m.: Weight lifting. 5 p.m.: Ten mile run along dirt roads ending once more at the beach. 7 p.m.: Tea and a general discussion led by Percy on a wide variety of subjects. 11 p.m.: Lights out.

Herb Elliott

Herb Elliott, the 1500m gold medalist at the 1960 Olympics, is regarded as one of the greatest middle-distance runners of all time. The Percy Cerutty athlete saw running as the ultimate expression of the human body and embraced his coaches methods of natural eating, long runs in the mountains, sprints up dunes, sea swims, and weightlifting to develop extreme levels of strength and conditioning. Besides his physical abilities, mentally Elliot was a highly intelligent savage who through reading philosophy and embracing suffering, cultivated both unwavering confidence in his running performance and a will to win that saw him unbeaten in the mile and 1500m in his short adult career.

Most athletes imagine themselves at the end of their tether before they’re even seventy-five per cent exhausted. I was so determined to avoid this pitfall that if at any time I thought I was surrendering too soon to superficial pain I’d deliberately try to hurt myself more. In apparent conflict with this self-inflicted scourging was Percy’s theory that running should be a free expression of the body; that my body in motion, in the words of the song, ought to be doing what comes naturally. I trusted that my intelligence and enthusiasm would produce a happy compromise between this theory and my striving for perfection through pain.

Herb Elliott

While reading this book, I found my mindset changing towards heavy training. I started to see my quality sessions as an opportunity to push hard and embrace the pain a little more, driving with my arms and lengthening my stride when it started to hurt. I have begun heavy deadlifting and overhead pressing again on the journey to a double bodyweight deadlift and bodyweight overhead press, the standard that Percy Cerutty set his runners. And I have picked up my old copies of Stoic philosophy books and started to listen to Classical music from time to time including Beethoven’s Tempest III Allegretto when I need some inspiration.

Running programme duration

I have just completed my final hard weeks of training in the sharpening phase of my half-marathon plan and now have two weeks of taper before my time trial on the 20th December. I am 25 miles ahead of my target 2000 miles for the year, and blogger Geek in the hills has suggested instead of taking half a week off after my virtual race, I should aim for 2020 for symmetry. We shall see.

With two weeks left of my current plan, I have started to think about what next. In last weeks Sunday Runday post, I talked about creating a plan, and the week before I talked about picking a peak race. This week I wanted to cover step two of programme creation and talk about plan durations and start dates.

With any plan, you want to prepare for an event to improve fitness significantly. The peak race must be far enough in the future to prepare for optimal performance but not too far away to lack urgency and motivation to train for it. Suppose your goal race is significantly in the future such as the end of the summer next year. In that case, you might want to commit to a more immediate goal, such as the next step on the distance runners progression and start the preparation for your goal event later in the year.

Choosing the ideal programme length depends on two things, your current level of fitness and the distance of the peak race. The fitter you are, the less time you will need to prepare so the shorter the duration. More extended distance events such as the marathon require more preparation time and so longer plans. Maintaining a base level of fitness at all times and never dropping training completed will allow you to skip the first few weeks of most programmes. The longer the peak event, the longer the recovery period after so remember to take at least two weeks of rest at the end of the year to recover.

Aim to peak three and no more than four times per year.

Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald

Optimal training plan duration by peak-race distance*

5k: 12-16 weeks

10k: 14-18 weeks

Half-Marathon: 16-20 weeks

Marathon: 18-24 weeks

*Running Faster, by Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald

Spring in the UK starts on the 21st March next year and the start of the road Marathon season begins towards the end of April with the London Marathon (it has been moved to October again this year). If we start training at the start of winter (20th December this year), we could peak for a 5k in mid-March, or a 10k in April towards the end of April, a half marathon in May, or a marathon in June. These lengths could be shorter if you carry fitness into the new year but allow you to have an enjoyable festive season too.

Pick up a copy of Run Faster by Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald and contact me on Twitter if you have picked a peak event for Spring next year and have started training already.