How It Is

I thought I’d chart “the state of the nation” for you, so there’d be no mistake.

Personal Threat Level

It’s almost the end of February. I’m in week six of a sixteen-week training program for the Elk/Beaver 50K. I’ve run on my treadmill for the past four months, and I’m feeling something akin to cabin fever. So now I’m running outside. But it’s really cold and windy, and I have to cope with icy streets and sidewalks. Sometimes I just feel old and grumpy.

All things considered, I’m doing OK.


Treadmill Love

NordicTrack A2550

It’s February. The snow in my front yard is thigh-deep and there are shoulder-high drifts at the end of my driveway. The temperature right now, with the windchill factored in, is -26C (-15F). A couple of weeks ago, the temperature got down to -38C (-34.5C). Just before that, we had a huge ice storm, which basically shut down life as we know it for a few days.

That means it’s treadmill time again!

At the top of my post is an image of my trusty ‘mill. It’s a four-year old NordicTrack A2550. There’s a nice review of it here. I bought it for about C$800, via an online sale at Sears. It’s a basic/mid-range ‘mill, and good value for what I paid for it.

I do a lot of running on the ‘mill between November and March. Five or six days a week, in fact. I’m not a cold-weather runner, and I usually have a race coming up in the early spring. So I start building my late season base on the ‘mill, and transition in late December or early January to serious training runs. Right now, I’m running about 60K a week (and ramping up steadily) for the Elk/Beaver 50K trail ultra in May.

To do that kind of thing, you’ve got to like running on the ‘mill. Many runners don’t, which I find puzzling. Here are some tips on how to get happy about running on a treadmill.

It’s different from running outside. Wishing it otherwise will only bring you grief. So accept it.

Find your groove. I run without music and without TV. I wear earplugs to muffle the sounds of the ‘mill and my big floor fan. I have two training plans (for my upcoming 50K and 100K races) on the wall in front of me, along with a print of palm trees against a tropical sky. Do whatever works best for you.

Change your pace as you go through your week. Fast, slow, hills, long, short. It’ll be better for your training, and it’ll keep you from going stir-crazy. Don’t be dreary.

Run minimalist. Barefoot if you can. If not, in as little shoe as you can. You’ll be a better runner if you do.

Use a fan – a big floor fan. You’ll be sweaty enough on the ‘mill, so you might as well make yourself as comfortable as you can. Embrace the sweat.

Setting your incline at 1% or 2% doesn’t offer any benefits, according scientific studies. Leave it at 0%. (Unless, of course, you’re doing hills. Then, do whatever is needed – hill repeats, playful hills, hard grinds. Go nuts in whatever way appeals to you.)

Do all of the above, and you may very well find that you enjoy running on a treadmill. At least while the snow, ice, and cold winds prevail. Later on, you can go outside.

Until then… more treadmill!

Update: Heart Rate-Based Training

Heart rate

Yesterday’s 90 minute barefoot treadmill run marked the end of week 12 of my 16 week training program for the Sarasota Half Marathon, which takes place on March 17.. The training’s gone well, so I’d like to offer an update. First, though, a little backstory of why I’m following a heart rate-based program.

The logic, as outlined in Benson and Connolly’s book Heart Rate Training, which I’ve mentioned previously, is, once you think about it, blindingly simple. HR training is the most user-specific training available to the ordinary (and elite, for that matter) athlete. It relies on your cardio-vascular system, which means that it reflects your overall state of stress 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. More to the point for training purposes, it offers immediate and consistent feedback about your stress level, intensity level, and your rate of adaptation to the training process. That means that, rather than relying on a pre-determined set of data for my training, it’s all been done on the basis on ongoing, daily, and very personal data. It’s all about me, and nobody else.

Before I started the program, I did a treadmill-based test to determine my maximum heart rate, which turned out to be 163 bpm. Every morning of the program I’ve determined my resting heart rate, which is between 43 and 46 bpm, depending on the day. (To do the latter, I use a nifty little program on my Android smartphone called Instant Heart Rate.) I track all of my workout, and the associated data re resting heart rate, weight, blood pressure, and length and quality of sleep with SportTracks. That gives me a comprehensive and easily-accessed reference library of how the training’s going. Of course, my trusty Garmin 210 is the backbone of the whole system, as it’s what shows me what my heart rate is.

Buikding endurance – and speed – following a heart rate-based program takes time. Not just weeks, but sometimes months. I’m fortunate in that I’ve built a strong aerobic base over the past year. I’ve also worked on speed in my previous training programs for various races and distances. But this HR-based program has made an enormous difference. It’s different from the others.

Here’s one graphic example of how that difference manifests itself. It’s not my data, but an image I downloaded via a Google search, and include here because illustrates very nicely a couple of points I want to make.

HR versus speed

The top graph shows the runner’s heart rate for a certain distance, in which she kept to a pre-determined heart rate. The lower graph shows the same distance and time, but with the runner following a pre-determined pace. Going for pace resulted in peaks and valleys of heart rate, which resulted, as one would expect, in feelings of fatigue. That inevitably affected her endurance, and would, in the longer run, mean less endurance and a lower running economy. Running to heart rate, on the other hand, mean that she adjusted her pace to keep at the pre-determined heart rate, and so conserved her energy levels, her power, and her strength.

Endurance isn’t everything, of course. That’s why, as part of my training program, I’ve included interval and tempo runs as well as the endurance-focused sessions. Such an ongoing heart rate-based program increases the size of the body’s capillaries and develops mitochondria, so that strength, endurance, and speed are all enhanced.

It’s all been good.

What’s the bottom line? Following this heart rate-based training program has 1/ built up my endurance, 2/ lessened my fatigue levels, and 3/ made me quicker. As an instance of the latter, consider the following: my current PB for the 16K distance (1:35:18, a pace of 5:57) was set in June 2008, at the Toronto 10 Miler. Yesterday, I ran 15.8K in 1:30, for a pace of 5:41. Yesterday, I was cruising, not racing. I wasn’t pushing hard, and I had plenty in the tank at the end of the run. Is it any wonder I’ve become a fan of heart rate-based training?

Wild Cards

Yesterday, I did my last training run for the Sarasota Half Marathon, which happens on Sunday. As I’ve said in previous posts, I’m very happy with how this training program has gone. I’ve been consistent and persistent, and the effort has had a good outcome. I feel ready to race.

However, as every runner knows, the best preparation in the world doesn’t guarantee the desired result. That’s because there are always “wild cards,” unforeseen events or conditions that can make the whole thing go sideways.

Here are some of the wild cards I’m looking at:

1/Transitioning from doing the whole training program barefoot on the treadmill to racing barefoot on pavement. (That’ll be an sudden transition, by the way. Given weather conditions here and the short time I’ll have in Sarasota before the race, I won’t have time to do it gradually.) I should be OK, because I’ve been supplementing my training runs with gravel bucket sessions, but I really won’t know if it’s been enough until I race.

2/ Travelling to the race. This will be the first time I’ve travelled any distance to race, never mind that I’ll have a three-hour flight to get there. (No changes in time zones, thank goodness). I’ll have two days after the flight and before the race to adjust, though, so I think that’ll be OK too.

3/ Heat and humidity. At the very end of my training program, I did five consecutive runs (three of them at race pace) as heat acclimatization runs. I wore a base layer, full-length tights, a heavy-weight long-sleeved top, and a winter running beanie, with the intent of producing a high level of heat and humidity right next to my skin. I hope it’ll work, as it’s based on solid exercise science. But I’ve never done this before, so, once again, there are no guarantees.

4/ Mile markers. I’ve been thinking in kilometers for decades, but markers on the Sarasota Half will be in miles, with no kilometer markers at all. I do quite a bit of visualization on my training runs, so have included “mile thinking” on the last couple of weeks’ runs. I hope that having done that, and seeing those markers in miles, will keep me from getting confused.

5/ Pace band. I’ll wear a paceband for Sarasota (marked in miles, of course), so that I keep to the pace that will (hopefully) get me to my goal finishing time. I’ve never done that before. I’ll also wear a watch, which I don’t usually do for races, because I’ll need it to make use of the paceband. I’d much prefer to follow a pacer for my goal time of 1:50, but Sarasota won’t have one for that specific finishing time. I usually go by body feel for my pace, so this will be quite a departure for me.

On the plus side, I’m well trained, I’ll have time to rest before the race, and I’m in a good head space for this one. Sure, there are wild cards. There always are. That’s part of the fun.


The effort I’ve put into this training program is paying off. It’s now only two weeks and a bit before the Sarasota Half Marathon, and I’m into speedwork. That’s never been my strength, so I was facing it with some trepidation.

Turns out I didn’t have to worry. This morning, I did an 8.2K workout, starting with a 2K warmup at my target steady pace (6:01 mins/km), then moved to a 1.6K at a 4:45 pace. Followed that with a 1K recovery segment at steady pace, another 1.6K segment at the 4:45 pace, and a 2K cooldown at the steady pace.

And you know what? The fast bits weren’t as hard as I’d feared. Not easy, mind you, but I ran inside myself for the duration. Breathing hard and sweating buckets by the end of the set, but feeling strong and happy. Next Wednesday, I’ll do another speed workout, and will make it three segments at the 4:45 pace.

The other nice thing about this morning’s workout was I finally sorted out how to keep the Breathe Right nasal dilator strip from lifting off with all the sweat. The answer was simple – before applying the strip, I wiped the bridge of my nose with some witch hazel. Bingo! Problem solved! I’m going to wear a strip at Sarasota. Can’t do any harm, and may do some good.

So, my long runs are going well (have a 20K run coming up on Sunday), my recent tempo runs have been very enjoyable, and now I find I can do speedwork. I may turn out to be a runner after all!

(I actually considered doing a short barefoot recovery run outside this afternoon, as it’s 5C and sort of sunny. Decided to be cautious, though, which I think was the right decision, as I’m really feeling the effects of the morning’s speed workout.)

Prep, Test, and Try

Only about three weeks until the Sarasota Half, so I’m going to throw in some final tweaks to get myself ready.

Prep: It’s going to be hot and humid in Sarasota, so I’ve decided to do some heat acclimatization to prepare for that. Following the advice of Dr. Timothy Noakes in his book The Lore of Running, I’ll do five runs in the week before the race in some heat – two at my target steady pace and three at my target race pace. I’ll wear my usual cold weather kit (wind briefs, under vest, tights, long sleeve jersey, and winter beanie) while running indoors on the treadmill. My training room’s one of the warmest rooms in my house, and the heating vent is directly on top of the treadmill, so it’ll certainly be warm enough to do the job.

Test: The next thing is a bit of an experiment. On some of my next few runs, I’m going to wear a Breathe Right nasal dilation strip. Some preliminary research I’ve done via Google Scholar suggests that such strips offer little or no benefit, but that research has been done for football players (not runners) and for healthy individual in stress tests. On the possible up side, I have mild chronic sinusitis, so the strips might help. Also, elite marathoners Paula Radcliffe and Meb Keflezighi wear nasal dilation strips, and there may be something there for me to learn.

Try: Very simply, I want to try to get some road time before I go to Sarasota. I’ve done all my training for this half on the treadmill, and added regular sessions in the gravel bucket to keep the soles of my feet conditioned. Obviously, though, running on the ‘mill isn’t the same as running on pavement (for one thing, the hamstrings don’t get as much of a workout). We’ve had days recently when the temperature is high enough to run barefoot outside, but my schedule hasn’t allowed me to run then. I may just have to suck it up and do the needful.

Here and Now

I’m just about to begin my fourth-last week of training for the Sarasota Half (out of an 18 week program). In many past training programs, when I got to this point, I felt stale, sometimes stale enough to bail out of the program and just run. Not this time, though. I’m still sussing out exactly why.

The point is – and it’s a point I’m celebrating with all that I am – is that I feel very good, and very happy to be here and now. I feel strong. I’m on target for my pacing at all the required levels (steady, tempo, and LSD). I feel remarkably fresh mentally, for all that I’m in the middle of a Canadian winter. I’m injury free. I’m ready for Sarasota!

I’ve got one more Wednesday hill session before I move to a couple of Wednesdays of speedwork. My Sunday long runs will go up to 18K and 20K. In the last week before the race, I’ll do a short (6K) Sunday run, and then two short runs (10K and 6K) at race pace (5:13 mins/km) before flying down to Sarasota.

For now, though, I’m happy to be right here. Believe it or not, I’m actually looking forward to the remainder of my training program!