Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Kicking off the sub 3 hour marathon training with some Yasso 800s

Sihlhölzli Track in Zürich
My energy and motivation having been returned to me in the last few days (after weeks of having lost them), I decided tonight was as good a time as ever to kick off my sub 3 hour marathon training plan.  This is my next big aim, the next check box on my sports achievement wish list to be ticked off.

There is a workout that is often talked about in the world of marathon running, and love it or hate it, most experienced marathon runners have at least heard of Yasso 800s.  Yasso 800s are meant to be a fairly good predictor of marathon times, a benchmark workout if you like.

Yasso 800s are named after the Runner's World race services manager Bart Yasso.  One of his key marathon training workouts was running 800m in the same time that he was hoping to do the marathon in (but with hours replaced by minutes and minutes replaced by seconds) then jogging slowly for the same amount of time, and repeating this 10 times.  When he was able to do this, he considered that he was in shape to do the marathon within his target time.  Everything is easier with an example.  So let us say that Bart decides he wants to run a marathon in under 3 hours.  He goes out and runs 800m in 3 minutes, then jogs for 3 minutes and then he tries to repeat this 10 times.  When he manages this, he considers that he is in sub 3 hour marathon shape.  If Bart decides that he wants to run a marathon in under 2 hours 30 minutes, he goes out and runs 800m in 2 minutes and 30 seconds, then jogs for 2 minutes and 30 seconds and then he tries to repeat this 10 times.  When he manages this, he considers that he is in sub 2 hour 30 minutes marathon shape.

It seems that this workout can be used to predict marathon times fairly accurately across a wide range of runners (from a 2:09 marathoner to 4 hour plus marathoners).

Critics of the workout say that it is not the most effective marathon workout that one can do, and that with limited training time you are better off focussing on other more marathon specific workouts.  They also say that the workout tends to predict times that are 5 to 10 minutes faster than what most people actually achieve in the race.

Nevertheless it is an interesting benchmark workout to get some idea of how prepared you are for a particular marathon goal, and having never done it before I decided that tonight I would try it out and see how I performed.  I did my laps at the Sihlhölzli track in Zürich, a public 400m running track.  Luckily I had the track pretty much to myself.  After a short warm up I started doing my Yasso 800s.  Since I don't normally do track work, pacing myself was the main issue.  The first few 800m laps I was coming in somewhere around 2 minutes 50, when I was meant to be aiming for bang on 3 minutes.  As I did more and more repeats I got a little better at arriving at the finish close to 3 minutes.

In total I managed 6 repeats of 800m at sub 3 minutes pace.  I think that if I really pushed myself to failure I could have managed one more sub 3 minute lap, but I still have almost 3 months left to go before I need to reach my peak, so I decided not to push myself too much the first time doing this new workout.  Bart usually starts doing the workout a couple of months before his race.  He starts with 4 Yasso 800s and then adds one more on each subsequent week until he reaches 10.  So it seems I am well on track for my goal so to speak (excuse the pun).

Aside from the running workouts, I will also need to focus more on my diet.  I weighed myself this morning and I was 78kg.  This is around 5kg heavier than I was at my peak earlier this year.  Chocolate is getting the better of me and I will need to ration it carefully to bring my weight back down.  I have a book called Racing Weight gathering dust on my bookshelf that I think deserves another read.  It talks about the importance of nutrient timing and also has an interesting section with sample diets from some of the world's top athletes.

I have also started taking some supplements to help me with my training.  The doctor suggested that my iron count could be a little higher, so I am taking iron pills as well as a general multivitamin.  In addition I have started taking creatine.  Whilst creatine can cause some weight gain due to water retention, it is of benefit to endurance athletes in terms of improved training ability and quicker recovery between workouts.  Studies suggest that the improvements it offers in terms of training quality more than make up for the weight gain that it may cause.  Creatine occurs naturally in meat, but since I am a vegetarian I am not getting much in my diet, so supplementation may be of particular value to me.  Some studies also suggest that creatine supplementation can improve memory in vegetarians (who often have a lack of it).  I used to take creatine when I was bodybuilding, so I am already familiar with it.

I have to say that Yasso 800s are a tough workout, so I am off now to get some well deserved rest.  If you have never tried them before, and are currently training for a marathon, go out and give them a try and let me know how you get on.  I would be particularly interested in knowing if you have used Yasso 800s in the past, and whether they accurately predicted your race time or not.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

St John's Wort in the form of Rebalance® - my miracle cure?

Last week when I was at the doctors for a follow up appointment for my navel infection, the doctor asked me if my energy levels had recovered.  As some of you may recall I have been waking up extremely tired the last few weeks and finding it really hard to motivate myself to train.  In addition, my performance dropped and my legs ached each morning regardless of how much I had rested in the days beforehand.  This was the reason I pulled out of Trail Ticino.

When I informed the doctor that my energy levels were ever so slightly better, but still not normal and that the aches in my legs were ever present he started enquiring as to whether it was possible that I had been overtraining (or overreaching as he called it).  I told him I did not believe I had been overreaching as I had been doing much higher mileage earlier this year.  I had also taken some time off training recently, in the hope that my body just needed some rest, but with no improvement in my symptoms.

After this the doctor started asking me questions regarding my general mood and state of mind.  He asked me if it was possible that I was depressed.  This is something that I had been wondering myself, but it is always hard to know if the extreme fatigue makes you feel like you are a bit depressed or if being depressed causes you the fatigue.  It is a little like the chicken and the egg situation.  Also there is no reason at all for me to feel depressed, so I had been dismissing the idea.  However, I had been reading up on the subject of fatigue, muscular aches and depression, and I found many articles stating that they are intrinsically linked.  Depression apparently is very capable of causing physical symptoms such as muscle aches and fatigue.

When I told the doctor that it was possible I was slightly depressed, but that I could not be sure, he suggested that I take a natural medication called Rebalance® 250 made by Zeller Medical and see if that improved my energy levels and eliminated the muscle aches.  I started taking the medication last Tuesday, and on Wednesday (Swiss National Day) I was feeling extremely ill.  I wondered if I was experiencing some the side effects of the main active ingredient of Rebalance® i.e. St John's Wort, as whilst most people have no side effects, others suffer from nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, mild stomach upsets and a dry mouth.  I seemed to be experiencing all of those and I spent the whole of Wednesday in bed (luckily it was a Public holiday).

The doctor had told me to take 1 tablet in the morning and 1 tablet in the evening, so I decided that maybe the dose was too strong and I opted from Thursday onwards to take only one tablet per day.  Since then I have experienced no more side effects and my energy levels have slowly been returning to normal.  My mood is now much better and I no longer feel lethargic and overly tired in the mornings.  I also have a real desire to get out there and start training again, in preparation for the Lucern marathon in October.  The muscular aches in my legs disappeared just as quickly as they had arrived, and physically as of the weekend I feel healthy again.

So did I have a virus that recovered by itself, or is St John's Wort a miracle cure?  Numerous studies have suggested that St John's Wort is just as effective as antidepressants at treating mild to moderate depression, and it is also used to treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), sleep disturbances, anxiety and agitation.  Whilst some people experience mild side effects, it is generally considered safe.  The main danger is that it can interact with other medications and alter their effectiveness.  For this reason some countries such as Ireland and Germany have made St John's Wort available via prescription only.  If you are taking other medications it is best to go and check with your doctor first before taking St John's Wort.

Have any of you had similar positive experiences with St John's Wort?  Or have you tried it and found it to be ineffective?

Monday, 6 August 2012

Trail Ticino DNF rate over 90%

This small band of runners contains 5 preterhumans, who completed Trail Ticino 2012.  The other runners are actually human!

Trail Ticino is a ridiculously hardcore single stage trail race held in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland.  The full course covers 117km with 8,500m of elevation gain (almost the height of Everest), and it must be completed in a time limit of 31 hours or under.  2012 was the first year for the full course.  There is also a half course for those who are not quite as crazy (but most definitely still crazy).  Last weekend I went to Airolo to support one of my friends (Steven Artist who I shared a tent with in the Marathon des Sables 2012) who was running the full course.

My friend and Marathon des Sables 2012 tentmate Steve

Sixty six runners were pre-registered for the full course on the organisers' website.  A few more registered in person the evening before, or the morning of the race itself.  Some of the pre-registered runners did not turn up at the start, for one reason or another.  One of those who did not start was me.  I decided that I was not 100% fit and healthy and that the event was just too extreme considering my less than perfect state.

I would have estimated, looking at the starting group on Saturday morning at 8am that it was around 50 strong.  All the runners looked like they had plenty of experience and many were sporting Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc T-shirts.  Most were middle aged males, but there were also a few female runners.  There was also one runner who looked like he was in his late 60s.

Of those who started only 5 people would end up finishing the race.  That is the highest DNF rate I have ever heard of, at over 90%.  My friend Steve was one of the 90% who did not finish, but he made a fantastic effort and covered around 80km.

One of the reasons for such a high DNF rate was the weather.  There were heavy thunderstorms on Saturday night in Ticino, and the race was abandoned several times, and then restarted.  Running on mountain passes in the dark in bad weather is not the safest thing to do, and this was the main reason that Steve chose not to continue, after he had been sheltering in a mountain refuge for several hours with a large group of other Trail Ticino participants.

Another factor Steve told me that made the race just too tough and into the realms of ridiculous was the fact that there were no flat sections at all.  You were either running uphill, which is extremely tiring on your muscles and lung-bursting, or you were running downhill, which is also tiring on the knees and quadriceps.  In most races you at least have some flatter sections on which you can recover from the uphills and downhills.

It will be interesting to see what happens next year and if the organisers try to run the race again.  In my opinion there are two ways the organisers could go from here.  Either they could decide that the race was just too hard and go with only the half course next year, or they could try to use the DNF rate as a selling point to attract the most hardcore ultra runners on the planet.  If I were the organiser, I would go for the latter choice, baiting people by claiming that it is a race only for super-humans, and that normal people are not able to complete it.  They could even try to claim it was tougher than the Marathon des Sables as the selling point, because the DNF rate of the MDS is less than 10%.  The MDS and Trail Ticino are certainly different beasts, but Steve has attempted both (and completed one), and he thinks that the Trail Ticino is harder than the MDS.

What would you do if you were the organiser?