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Improving Your Running Fitness

Jenny is a 38 year old elite marathon runner, mum, wife, Sports Massage Practitioner and running coach. She has represented her country 5 times in distances from 10km up to the marathon. She is passionate about using her running to encourage others of all ages and abilities and loves being part of the running community.
Jenny started out playing netball and trampolining but in her second year at university,  where she studied a degree in Sports Science,  she gave cross country running try. This is where her love for running began. A few years later she met Mike Gratton (a former London Marathon winner) who believed that Jenny had potential with her running. He coached her for a number of years and then Bruce Tulloh took over, helping Jenny to run 2:35 for the marathon. Jenny now lives in Girona in Spain with her family and is coached by Josep Carballude who has helped her to better her marathon time to 2:31.

Despite living in uncertain times at the moment with the COVID 19, restrictions upon exercise and no races in the near future there are still many ways to improve running fitness at this time and to find joy just from being outside running in nature. My running career has been far from smooth with many obstacles and injuries along the way but I have learnt something new from all of those experiences and have definitely become stronger (physically and mentally) and a bit wiser too.

Here are my top 10 tips.

1) Consistency : The biggest way of improving running fitness is to have a long period of consistent training without the interruptions of injuries, niggles or illness (easier said than done). This is where it is important to not only consider the running element of training but also recovery and nutrition which I will come to in point 2. Whatever level you are at with running, it’s important to start by getting a good base of steady running. Once this has been established, speed work/ intervals can be introduced. With no races or group training sessions taking place right now why not set some personal challenges with a 3km, 5km, 10km and 21km time trial.

Some examples of speed sessions could be a fartlek run (which means speed play), it doesn’t matter if there are hills or if it’s flat: 10 minutes easy pace, 1x6 mins fast (3 mins slow) 6x1 min fast (1min slow) 6x30 secs (30 secs slow), 10 mins easy.

Hill session: 1-2 mile warm up followed by 8x2 minute hill efforts (running fast uphill) walking/easy jog downhill and repeat 1-2 mile cool down.

Kilometre efforts: 3km warm up followed by 6-8x1km fast (2-3minutes recovery) 2km cool down.

2) Adaptability: This is where it’s important to be sensible. A lot of runners, myself included, like to follow a training plan to the letter or hit the prescribed mileage. In reality life gets in the way and it is important to adapt. For example if you don’t sleep, you wake up feeling exhausted and you have a hard session planned it would be more sensible to switch the days around. Run easy instead and do the hard session the next day. Rather than stressing the body more that could lead to injury or illness. Similarly if you have a really tight calf, would it not be more sensible to easy run or rest than just stubbornly train through it and end up being injured for 6 weeks.

Don’t get me wrong, success in running comes through a lot of hard work, but in order to keep the hard work and consistency going you have to be flexible. If you have a coach he or she only knows part of what is going on in your life, unless you tell them. If you are following an online plan then that won’t factor in the work/life/run balance. If you have done a 13 hour shift at work and not slept because you are stressed or your child has kept you up, this is where you need to take responsibility. I have found that prolonged lack of sleep and stress with hard training (also a stress) leads to breakdown.

3) Patience: this is with particular reference to the marathon. The marathon is a difficult race to conquer. Getting through the training and being on the start line injury free and in good health is a challenge and then for the race to go as planned is another challenge in itself. My first marathon in 2002 was 3 hours 39 minutes my best was in 2019 in 2 hours 31 minutes. There have been bad races, OK races and a handful of good ones. A number of times over the years I have questioned whether the marathon was for me but I am glad now that I persevered and have had some results that have represented the hard work put in and have reflected my fitness.

4) Bounce: When races or training sessions don’t go as planned it’s a good skill to be able to bounce back. If it’s a one off session just put it behind you. If it’s a marathon that really didn’t go to plan and you feel devastated. It’s ok to feel sad and grieve but then look back and learn from it, take away the things that went well, the things you would do differently and know that all the hard training has not been wasted. It can act as a spring board for the next training block or goal.

5) Joy: keep the joy in your running. My favourite runs are in nature, on the trails, often ones when I can explore. If you find yourself getting too caught up in how fast/slow you are running all the time and it’s taking the joy out of it do one or two runs a week without a watch. Especially at times like lockdown (here in Spain we haven’t been able to exercise outside for 7 weeks) or coming back from injury. I fully expect to have lost running fitness so I’m planning on just enjoying being out running, in nature, not get caught up in how slow I am compared to my fitness in March. I will myself some new challenges, discover some new routes.

6) Be inspired: Be inspired by other people’s successes rather than feeling jealous. This is what I loved about my running club in the UK (Bristol and West AC). Us girls pushed each other on to achieve great results. There was no bitterness if one of us won. It would spur us on. Social media doesn’t help at times. Follow people that inspire you and unfollow the people that don’t make you feel good.

7) Cross train/core/strength and conditioning: I’m sure we have all become experts at this in lockdown. The challenge is to keep is going when running or training normally. 2 times a week is good. The core and strength and conditioning really help to keep the injuries at bay as well as helping running technique, posture and efficiency. I have found as I have got older mixing in other sports helps. Swimming or cycling as a non impact option is good for your body.

8) Don’t get caught up on weight: Too many people get caught up with how much they weigh or ‘race weight’. Don’t obsess with weight it’s not healthy, as you train regularly your body shape naturally changes. You are far better off being a healthy and strong and having longevity in your running. Than following the downward spiral of eating disorders, osteoporosis and REDs.

9) Nutrition: nutrition is on the diagram earlier. Fuelling your body is so important. If you have been busy all day at work, not eaten properly and then try and do a hard session at the end of the day how do you expect it to perform its best? Snacking regularly is important. During a long run its important to fuel. In a marathon I take on 4 gels during the race to keep my glucose levels up. I have had to practice in training to be able to stomach them. Post hard runs or long runs it is also important to fuel even if you are pushed for time, a couple of slices of toast with peanut butter or jam or a glass of milk would be suffice.

10) Have other interests: life is not all about running, perspective is so important. Have other interests and passions. This really helps if you get injured or cannot run. Keep a balance of seeing friends and family too. Don’t take life too seriously, run with a smile and be kind to people, especially in these uncertain times.