December 2001

Coach's Column - (from Max Jones)

In the last VS News I was sharing my thoughts on the problem of how I should prepare myself before a race so as to deliver the maximum amount of red blood cells to my leg muscles and hence to maintain the highest rate of energy production and racing speed over the full distance. I have run a half marathon, a full marathon and the Abbey Dash since then : this is what I did and what the outcome was.

To Load or not to Load, that is the Drinking Question. Just to remind you of the question. It was whether I should "water-load" before the start, as I had before the Summer Handicap 10k, so that I would be able to maintain a constant heart rate and blood/oxygen supply throughout the race, give or take, despite the inevitable dehydration, through sweating, after the first two or three miles.

A Quick(ish) Half in Bridlington. The first race was the Bridlington Half. I drank two bottles of water, c. 600ml in total, 20 minutes before the start and I also poured over myself about another 600ml at the aid stations. The course was undulating, overall upwards, for the first 6 miles and then mainly downhill back to the Start/Finish. Based on my Handicap time, heart rate then and training progress since, I reckoned that 145 average beats per minute should produce a 1:45 time, i.e. 8 minute miles, in Brid.

By slowing down going up the hills and the striding down the other side, I went through 4 miles at an average of 144bpm and in 31:54, but then the next 2 miles were both 8 seconds over. I pushed on a bit after that, getting to average 149bpm over the next four miles and hence to 10 miles in 79:53. The last three miles were, er, 8:36, 8:25 and 9:03, although my heart was still pumping away at 148 beats per minute.

There were three possible explanations for that. The first that I was dehydrated, my blood had thickened to the extent that the volume of it which my heart could pump out each beat was much reduced ; the second that I had run out of carbohydrate and I was running on fat (which requires 10% more oxygen than carbohydrate for the same amount of energy output) ; the third that I had so damaged my leg muscle fibres in those first 10 miles – or, perhaps, between miles 6 and 10 – that their energy-producing capability had been reduced by 10%. Don’t know which, will try to learn more next time out.

Five Pints in Leicester. That was five weeks later, the Leicester Marathon. My original intention had been threefold : a) to persuade Lou Gilchrist to attempt the W65 WR, currently 3:35:49, before she turns 70, b) to pace her for the first 15 miles or so and c) to "hang on" thereafter to get to the finish myself in a time starting with a 3. Since the Brid ½, though, I had driven my resting pulse down to 45 by my regular 2-lap "flat out" training sessions, so I reckoned that the straight conversion from my chart from the average 146bpm for the Half to 140 for the full marathon should get me round in 3:35 (or at least to get Lou to 20 miles in 160 minutes).

Knowing how she hates hills, I took the trouble to ask the Leicester Race Director what the profile of the course would be. "There's one big hill, a 50m climb in 300m, and a few little ones", he said. Or that is what I thought he said. The week before Leicester, however, Lou ran a half marathon, on a foul day and over a hilly course, and it took her 1:49. When she rang to tell me "I can't run a marathon next Sunday, Max", I didn't attempt to persuade her otherwise.

I'm glad I didn't try . . . The Start was delayed 30 minutes because all the traffic had been marshalled to enter the Mallory Park Circuit by the back, single-track entrance. Lou would have been furious at that and she would have shot out much too fast when the starting flag dropped. Then the first mile marker was clearly in the wrong place – 8:42, followed by 7:53 – and then we were into the "little hills". They weren't more than 150m or so, but I had to slow right down up them to prevent my heart rate going over 143/144 – I had set the monitor at 138/143, so it would be silent at 138 to 142, average 140 – and then to speed up going down the other side to prevent it dropping below 137.

There were about 200 of us doing the Full and about 2000 the Half. Where they peeled off just after the 7th mile marker happened to coincide with there being a straight hill in front of us, stretching as far as the unbelieving eye could see. I throttled back, but I still averaged 140, finishing on 142, for the 8th mile in 9:18. I asked the marshal when I got to the top "Is that the Big Hill" and he said that it was. That was true only insofar that the later hills were not so long, but many of them were steeper ! The 9th was uphill again – 9:02 – then there were 3 miles at 8:45ish and then another hilly mile which I ran at an average heart rate of 138 and in 9:26. When I saw that at the mile marker, I said out loud to myself "Thank God Lou's not here. She would have been incandescent by now".

I was c. 1:53:45 at halfway - not marked as such - and, running by myself with only my Polar for company, I averaged 137/8/9bpm to 19 miles in times varying from 8:06 (!!) to 9:02 (yes, those two were consecutive so I guess they were both 8:30ish actually). I reached 20 miles in 2:54:42, so I reckoned that I would finish in 3:47 to 3:49, i.e. just under my previous PW, my first marathon in 1981 (except for the last two Londons when I had had to walk for several miles each time, as previously described in VS News).

Then the course got "undulating". The 21st was 9:35 and the 22nd, with a 150m steep hill to the marker, was 10:25. I knew then that it was a matter of survival, not time, I turned the bleeper off on the HRM and I didn't look at it again until I got home. All the miles of the next four were switchbacks, all well over 10 minutes and at heart rates of 132, 129, 128 and 130. The last mile was on the Circuit, the 385 yards of it uphill (!!) to the finish. As I came round the corner at the 26-mile marker, I could see that the finish clock started with a 3. I averaged 134bpm for that stretch, finishing at 142 and in 3:59:42. Aaargh !, as Charles Schulz's Peanuts cartoon might have had it.

The winner's time in AW was 2:34, "10 minutes slower than his PB set in April 1999". Geoff Oliver, who took all my British M65 long track ultra records last year and who regularly runs 3:00 or thereabouts in London, managed only 3:27:06. The first woman ran it in 3:18, the third in 3:40. It was positvely not a world record breaking course. I lost 8 minutes over the last 6 miles. I was going up and down stairs half a tread at a time up to the following Thursday and I could manage 2 miles only, in 18:24, for my first run on the Friday after the marathon.

So, in relation to the post-Brid questions, what did I deduce from that evidence ? The weather, overcast and cool, was kind and, so far as the organisation of the race was concerned, its only good feature was that there were aid stations every 3 miles – i.e. better than Championship standard – with carbohydrate drinks at each one and, most unusually, at all but two of them the plastic cups were full. I had had a good carbounloading/reloading routine in the previous week and I had also drunk my 600ml of water before the start.

Those facts, coupled with the 8 x 250ml CHO drinks on the course, meant that I don’t believe the loss of the eight minutes was due either to dehydration or to carbohydrate deficiency. More probably, I guess, there was so much damage done to my quads and hamstrings going down and up the hills that c. 15-20 % of the muscle fibres there were torn and producing no energy. Only that, I reckon, would account for the increase in mile times over the last 6 miles, the drop in heart rate and the pains of the following five days.

On the Wagon for the Dash. In the following week, i.e. the one leading to the Abbey Dash, I was back to sub-32 minutes for my 2 x 2-mile laps, but there was one unusual feature. My resting heart rate at mid-day just before going training was way up in the high 50s, instead of the mid 40s it had been prior to the marathon. I had expected it to go up when I wasn’t running at all for four days, but not for it to stay up. Initially I had assumed that my RPR had increased because I had lost so much blood in that 26-mile run, but that began to seem less and less likely to be the cause as last week wore on.

Gradually it dawned that a more probable explanation was that I was, in effect, overhydrated for an optimum racing result in a 10k. It so happened that there was an answer on the Q & A page in New Scientist recently to the effect that the Rajah-recommended fluid intake of 2 litres/day is based on some American "Daily Recommended Dose" – of three litres, in fact – but that only ½ a litre per day is required, quote, "to flush out the poisons through the kidneys". So, after an RPR of 58 on the Friday before the Dash, I decided another little Experiment of One was called for.

On the Saturday I had had my half a litre "ration" at breakfast, I drank nothing else all day and I ran 4 miles to get rid of another half litre (and I didn't urinate more than twice all day !). On the Dash morning, my RPR was 47, the lowest it had been that early in the day for a month. The outcome was that I ran it in 47:19 – on my watch from when I crossed the Start line and despite a 5:02 first kilometre behind the Fun Runners, that’s 81.65% age-graded, worth 33:02 Open Class – on an average of only 150bpm instead of the 156bpm which would have been necessary on a straight comparison with the 146 I had averaged to run 1:47, 79.0% age-graded, in the Bridlington Half.

That also means, I believe, that I am now in the position where for the first time ever the power of my heart to deliver enough oxygen is no longer the main factor limiting my production of energy and hence my running speed over the ground. So, if I restore my partly atrophied thighs to their former glory by reverting to training sessions on the local 200m, 1 in 10 hill or by working out on the exercise machine – Maureen remarked when I was on her table some weeks ago that the right leg quads, i.e. where my knee has hurt for the last year, are much less bulky than those on my left leg – I should be able to get back to my previous 85% age-graded self by, say, the Brass Monkey. That would take me back to less than 100 minutes for the half marathon for first time for 3 years.

Summary and Drinking Recommendations. On the basis on these race experiments, it seems that the axiom should be "Hydrate for a Marathon, Dehydrate for a 10k" to get my blood thinness/thickness to the optimum levels for each race. I’m sure there will be many paths to the achievement of the best results, as there are in most of Life's activities, not just that of drinking nothing after breakfast on Saturday for a Sunday morning 10k. For example, I guess the same effect could be achieved by determined partaking on the Saturday evening of a product notorious for its dehydrating property, i.e alcohol. To be scientifically valid – and much more fun than getting a prescription for a diuretic – the study would need to be properly structured, probably of around a year’s duration to cross-check the results in several races, and supervised by someone with a Ph D who has a keen interest in the theory and practice of endurance running and a good, working knowledge of the properties of alcohol.

If such a person were available and willing, it could be an interesting research project. It might be difficult to recruit sufficient volunteers, though, from a population of road runners warned for years to keep off the booze before racing!