When I was on the hill last weekend for my Ivybridge Everest quite a few folk asked me how I trained for such a thing. My answer was initially quite trite. It was simply “well, I didn’t.” Obviously I didn’t wake up at the end of November one day and go from couch potato to 54 miles with 6244m of climbing in just four weeks. I was relying on what a coach would call my base fitness. I didn’t train specifically for the event because I didn’t give myself enough time to do so. It was a challenge. I wanted to see how far I could get with what I had. I got my answer and simultaneously had the best day in the hills of my life thanks to my epic supporters. You can read more about that in my previous post here.
Anyway, more about base fitness. How could my base fitness allow me to do what I did. I’ll try to summarise how I go about my training. It really is quite simple, but I will have to start at the beginning. I’m not going to tell you what to do. I am going to tell you what I did. If it helps then that is great 🙂
A few years ago I was going through a rough patch with depression, an eating disorder of sorts, and was generally a bit of a mess. Like many forms of depression my life looked good from the outside. I had (and still have :D) a wonderful wife, two great kids, an amazing job and a some good friends. Not many friends, but the kind that matter. None of that made a difference when the depression hit. I had to do something to start climbing out of the well, so I did.
Step 1: Is their a form of exercise you can tolerate? Identify it. Figure out what you like about it and structure it so that you do more of what you like which is now coincidentally more of what makes you fitter. Find the time to do it, and push yourself a little so you get fitter and can do more in the spare time you have. It is an ever rewarding cycle if you get it right. It becomes one of the corner stones of your life, and you end up living it. You aren’t doing a fad, this isn’t temporary. It becomes a part of you and you don’t have to think about it or push yourself to do it.
Hmm. I couldn’t think of a step two, although diet does matter as does your work/life/exercise balance. I guess that does give us a step two, although I don’t know quite how to phrase it to apply to someone else. Here is what I did, take from it what you can.
Step 2: Food. My eating problems turned out to be simply that my stomach couldn’t tolerate products with dairy or egg in them. Once I figured this out, and it took months because normally you only eliminate one thing at a time and I had trouble tracking it to two. When I stopped eating dairy and egg several things happened:
- I stopped getting mouth ulcers, a problem I had suffered with since childhood
- My ectopic heart beat vanished. It had been quite the cause for concern over the recent couple of years and even had me at an expensive and private cardiologist at one point
- Cake and junk food were suddenly removed from my diet. I lost two stone.
- Most importantly I no longer felt on the urge of vomiting all the time (the cause of the depression)
Stopping eating dairy and egg wasn’t easy. I had to find other sources of protein and calcium, and on occasion the junk food was hard to resist. I finally figured out that the physical problems weren’t worth the transitory joy of chowing down on that Big Mac or that slab of cake, or that pasty etc etc. I did have to learn that lesson over and over for a while though as my brain/stomach kept saying “maybe it wont be that bad this time.” It always was THAT bad though.
The plus side is that as long as I keep doing step 1, step 2 now takes care of itself. Like I said, take from that anything you can. I would focus on step 1 though.
Step 3: Family and work. Both super important. Following step 1 with the support of my wife and kids means that I am much better at both family and work. Finding the balance takes effort. If you start getting obsessed channel it positively and work it around your family and employment. Don’t do step 1 at the expense of your family and work. EVER! I first entered Ironman Wales for 2013 (I entered in Sept 2012) I withdrew my entry in January 2013 shortly after Sam (my wife) was diagnosed with Leukaemia. I re-entered again in Sept 2013 for 2014 and as soon as Sam was diagnosed with relapsed Leukaemia she turned to me and told me not to cancel my Ironman entry. She wanted me to do it. I almost withdrew anyway as I didn’t know if I could support her through Leukaemia as well as the kids, do my job and still train. With the support of my close friends and family I did it, and had one of the best days of racing in my life. You can read about that here. Sam was waiting at the finish line.
Implementing step 1
Steps 2 and 3 you will have to figure out for yourself. There is no way around that. But I can help you a little with step 1 by taking you through my thought process at the time. Bear in mind that I was two stone heavier than I am now. I was depressed and I was unfit. Here are some questions and the way that I answered them in trying to find a sustainable way to get fit and make myself feel good.
- What do you like doing that is outside and could help you get fit? I like standing on the top of hills and looking at beautiful views.
- Is there a hill with a good view near by? Yes. Western Beacon.
- How can you get there? I’m not fit enough to run it and it is too steep for me to cycle. It is a four mile round trip though and I’m pretty sure that I can walk it in under 90 minutes.
- Can you spare 90 minutes? I have to. I need to do this for my health, my life, and my family.
I walked up Western Beacon every day for months. It wasn’t long before I was jogging on the flat bits and the downhills and it wasn’t much longer after that when I could run up it too. I think I started in around October. In May the following year I was at a friend’s house and there was a half marathon nearby. I turned up in shorts, a t-shirt, some shoes and my analogue watch. It didn’t even have a second hand. I buried myself on it and finished in one hour and forty five minutes. I was chuffed with that, but still had a lot to learn. My nipples were chaffed and bleeding so badly that I looked like I had been shot twice in the chest.
Now in my quest for hilltops and good views I have seen some of the best that the UK has to offer. I’m not boasting (well, I sort of am!) I’m trying to show you what you could achieve from mild beginnings. I’ve done Scafell Pyke and Bow Fell. I’ve done Ben Nevis via the Caern Mor Dearg arete. I’ve done Helvelyn via striding edge. I’ve done the Yorkshire Three Peaks. I’ve done much of the Devon and Cornwall coastal path. I’ve run 82 miles in 24 hours. I’ve done all the Brecon Beacons (before lunch!) I’ve stopped on a cliff top at 3am, turned off my head torch and simply stared at the stars. I’ve done the Original Mountain Marathon and the Saunders Lakeland Mountain Marathon. I’ve had my arse handed to me by the Highland Mountain Marathon and been owned by The Plague ultramarathon. I once ran 54 miles along Dorset’s Jurassic Coast dressed as Superman.
I’m not quick. I’ll never win anything. Bit if you see me out there then I am undoubtedly having a good time. A frown is my natural expression, so don’t be put off by that 😉
Figure out what you love that is good and healthy. Then do more of it. Build on it and never look back.
In the beginning
Don’t be ashamed of going out. Never be ashamed of running, walking, cycling or doing something to improve yourself. You don’t have to make excuses. When I look at you. When I see someone over weight or unfit out and putting one foot in front of the other, dressed in lycra (hopefully multicoloured!) I am proud. I see potential. I see someone trying to improve themselves. I see future company on the hillside. If someone shouts at you, or you think they are laughing at you then that is their problem not yours. It says far more about them than it does about you. Unfortunately there are always arseholes but you don’t have to let them get in the way.
Just in case you are the cynical and judgemental sort, and you’ve somehow read through this far, I’d like to point out that this is an utterly sincere article. Do not let my occasionally flippant use of the English language put you off from getting out there, enjoying yourself and finding out what our beautiful country has to offer.
I almost forgot!
I almost forgot to tell you what to do if something gets in the way. The short answer is identify it understand it and learn how to beat it. Here are a couple of examples:
- Knee injuries. Running can damage your knees, but not if you do it right. As my mileage increased I joined a group video analysis session on a track which helped me sort out my posture and technique. I did this for a couple of years in a row. Please note that this is not the gait analysis that your shoe shop will use. it was more useful than that. When an old knee injury (from skiing) flared up I went to a consultant orthopaedic surgeon who told me to give up running and wear heel lifts. I didn’t like that so I went to see another one who told me that running wouldn’t cause any more damage, but I would need to see a physio to help me resolve the issue. I went to see one of the leading physios in the country in patellofemoral pain. It only took one session because I followed her instructions and didn’t need a follow-up. I now run longer and further than ever with no knee pain. Humans were built to run!
- Brain problems. Last year I dropped out of The Plague after just 18 miles. I often train longer than that, and couldn’t initially work out why I couldn’t continue. It turned out to be head issues. I spent a month studying exercise psychology at the laymans level and then competed in a race where I ran 82 miles in 24 hours.
- Other injuries. I have a cross trainer in my garage. If I am tired out, or have a niggle, but still want to train then I use that on an easy setting and watch something on Netflix to pass the time. It gets me through.
Unless it is what gets you out the door I can strongly recommend forgetting about being fast. That is mostly because training to be fast is hard and tedious work. It hurts. It’s dull and it requires masses of recovery time. Unless speed is your sole motivation then focus on enjoyment and let the speed come with the fun. As you get fitter some speed work will happen naturally when you are trying to beat Strava records or are running up a steep hill. Ignore the get fit quick articles in the “beginners” magazines and focus on sustainable enjoyment.
Done. Ranting over. I hope someone found it useful/interesting. 🙂