Bournemouth Marathon 2016: An Experiment In Heart Rate Training

Introduction

My target marathon for this autumn is Bournemouth. It’s an event that I’ve had my eye on for quite a while. It’s relatively local to me and some club mates ran some of the races last year (it is a full festival of running with 5k, 10k and a Half Marathon all over the same weekend). I’ve heard nothing but good feedback about it. This will be my fourth marathon, and the first time I’ve run one in the autumn.

As I have previously blogged about, this is my next step towards my long term goal of achieving a London “Good For Age” time. I’ve never run London before, and I’ve been rejected by the ballot 5 times already. This seems to be the only way to get a place unless I wanted to raise an inordinate amount of money!

Those familiar with my journey will know I’ve lost a significant amount of weight over the years, bringing it down from 22 stone to 14 stone and it’s only really been running which has helped keep the weight off. My marathon times have come down with it, going from 3.59 in Paris 2014, to 3.20 in Manchester 2015 (Albeit a short course!) and this spring I ran Manchester again, this time in 3.13.

My target for Bournemouth is 3.09 as a springboard to a 3.04 in April, and the intention is to run the same Pfitzinger & Douglas Advanced Marathoning 18 week, up to 55 miles schedule, which I have slightly modified, as I used in my previous 2 marathon campaigns.

But this time, with a twist.

Previously I’ve always trained to Pace Zones. I use the McMillan Calculator to work out what paces to run at and roughly translated them to the P&D prescribed training intensities based upon target marathon pace. This time I am going to use the technique they actually prescribe in the book – training to effort and heart rate.

Why train to Heart Rate?

Heart rate training is always something I’ve wanted to experiment with.

The theory behind it is simple- by running at a given heart rate over a period of time, your body should adapt to running at that level of effort for the pace you are running and therefore as time goes on you will be able to run faster whilst maintaining the same heart rate.

hrchart

Obviously, it is a bit more complex than that. Mix in to that basic principle a balanced training plan over a range of scientifically established intensities int he way that P&D have put together, and in theory I should find that as time goes on I get progressively faster for the same reward. More bang for my buck.

But why now?

I’ve been hearing a lot of good things and listening to sound advice from a wide range of sources that may explain some of my recent and previous training troubles.

One of the topics I heard on a recent Marathon Talk episode was about how when the Brownlees are training “Easy” they really do train easy. Tom recalled an anecdote from when he went out for an easy cycle with the world champion triathletes and came back feeling reasonably fresh, whereas if he went out for a cycle with a local club they’d be forever pushing the pace. I am certainly a victim of this trap. I am always trying to run faster and faster and end up feeling totally fatigued.

One of our club members, local legend Fred Fox, told me recently how he has been trying to run to heart rate for the last few months, trying to stay in the aerobic zone. He found on recent marathons that he was finding it easy to negative split, and he even ended up running too fast now as his body has increased in base fitness!

From my personal experience and reflecting on my previous training, I can see that in some sessions I just didn’t have enough juice in the tank to do them justice. Interval training is a good example. I can’t remember ever reaching anywhere near the VO2 Max that the book recommends – I was always too tired.

Last Summer I ended up injured, jaded, and chronically over-trained for trying to push the envelope too far. This year, it has taken a good 5 weeks post-Manchester to feel back to “normal” and return to a level of fitness near where I was just before the race. It’s not been quite as bad but for a while I did worry I would push myself over the line again.

All of this suggests, to me, that I’m trying too hard. By slowing down and training to effort levels more suitable to the programme as it is designed, I should be able to execute it with a better degree of focus on the quality, and reap the rewarded improvements. As I get progressively fitter, my training pace should naturally increase, rather than my old methodology of training at a stale pace until I run another race to adjust my pace zones.

Fears

This switch in training is quite a scary step for me. I’m changing my entire training paradigm for 18 weeks. That’s a long time to commit to anything, so it’s scary to think that the potential rewards are complete unknowns, if rewards at all! Especially as I am so desperate to get that GFA time. It’s really quite daunting.

What if after 18 weeks its a disaster and I end up actually running slower? That would be very tough to take, as that next step to GFA in spring will be too far away – which means it would be another year before any potential GFA time would count. It would be a total waste of 18 weeks training.

I’ve tried allaying these fears a bit by reviewing the last campaign and reviewing some key stats. For example, in Manchester 2016 I can see that my heart rate was within the zone that the book advocates as “Marathon Pace”. If anything it tells me that actually, I could have a little bit more in me. My “Marathon Pace” zone is 149-165bpm.

mphr

Yes, all my eggs are in the one basket, but if I am going to do this I am going to do it to the letter. Train easy, race hard.

Desired Outcomes

It’s all very well trying this experiment but what would constitute it being a success?

  • Completing all (or at least, more) sessions – On previous campaigns I’ve had to abort LT sessions, cut long runs short and haven’t performed well in the intervals – the 3 x 1mi session always beats me. being able to complete all sessions would be a big indicator of success as it means I will be recovering better.
  • A Marathon PB – I’m in significantly better shape as I write this today than I was the week before I started training last time around. If training this way results in a slower performance it can only be deemed a failure.
  • Faster Post-Marathon Recovery – Last time round it took a long time to recovery. I felt absolutely battered. Whilst this is much less measurable, I will know if I feel better in the weeks after the race.

It would be impossible to accurately quantify if this method would be MORE successful than training to pace zones. However, the increase  in finish time for Manchester 2015 to 2016, with an injury plagued second half of the year between races, was 10 minutes (Adjusted to compensate for the short course). So in 2016 I was 5% faster. 5% faster again would be a 3.03 marathon!

Just writing that makes me question my maths. The law of diminishing returns does dictate that it won’t be that simple, but still – you never know how the training will go. Ultimately, a 4 minute improvement (Which is what I’m actually targeting) is a mere 2% improvement in performance! I’m all for “marginal gains” but I’d like to think that if this were to be a success I could take more time out of the race than that.

Time will tell!

Training Plan

The plan itself is taken from the Advanced Marathoning book.

Its the “Up to 55 miles per week/18 week” plan, with my  own added modifications, however it is essentially the same (A couple of tune up races aside) as the one I used for Manchester 2016. This should provide a good metric of comparison and make my final result a bit more of a trustworthy and robust answer to the question “was it worth it?”.

As I tend to respond better to volume (thanks to my yo-yo dieting) I usually accelerate the ramp up in my long runs, and I like to do 6 x 20 + milers. Whilst this doesn’t fit with the book, it does fit with what I did previously, so would still make my experiments results valid.

First up, my training zones, for clarity. My Resting Heart Rate (RHR) is 38, and my Maximum Heart Rate (MHR) is about 188.

MHR% (Book) My Equivilent BPM
Long/Medium-Long 74-84 139-158
Marathon Pace 79-88 149-165
General Aerobic 70-81 132-152
Recovery < 76 < 143
Lactate Threshold 82-91 154-171
VO2 Max 93-95 175-179

The book explains that less experienced marathoners should go for the lower end of the range, and elites should go for the higher end of the range. As my pace/effort control is so abysmal, I’ll just try and stay somewhere between the two!

The hardest part of training to heart rate would normally be having to keep an eye on an HR monitor whilst running, which is especially difficult when the sessions are a bit more complex. However, with most modern Garmin’s you can pre-program all workouts in a training calendar and sync it to your watch. That way, the watch will tell you when you are training too heard or too easy.

So yes, I painstakingly put all my sessions into Garmin Connect. it will be worth it in the long run!

Mesocycle 1 – Endurance

This is all about building endurance, increasing training volume and building a solid base to start from. Its during this phase that historically I have been most prone to overdoing it – which is stupid when you think about it. What happens to a building if you mess up the foundations? Hopefully training to heart rate will prevent this.

mesocycle1

There is a 5k race I may participate in here, and if I do I will adjust the training plan accordingly. In the purposes of integrity for the experiment I will likely not run this race. The same is true of the club track session that is planned. I may assist instead of participating.

Mesocycle 2

This phase focuses on “Lactate Threshold” running. This is the stage I always struggle with. Running “comfortably hard” is something I don’t enjoy too much. I’m hoping by having the previous phase a little easier, and running my LT sessions to heart rate it will make these a bit more beneficial and I won’t have the same dread going into them.

mesocycle2

Again, I will likely not participate in the track session or race but have them in my calendar so I can support the club either way!

Mesocycle 3 – Race Preparation

Usually by this point I am feeling pretty good, and actually feel that I peak at the end of this phase – about 3 weeks too early! Hopefully the new training intensities will prevent this. Also, as I previously mentioned, I always struggle to get my heart rate up in my VO2 Max sessions, so it will be interesting to see if I manage it this time round with “easier” training.

mesocycle3

This is also where the Tune Up races mess up the plans a bit. The books asks for tune up races on alternating Saturdays ranging from 8-15k. No chance of finding anything around here! I like to run a tune up Half though, so I balance this by running a hard parkrun and a hard half marathon instead. Again, this is inline with previous campaigns.

Mesocycle 4 – Taper and Race

Last time by the point I reached the taper I really was feeling pretty exhausted – as I probably should have to some degree. but I also ran my “tune up” half 3 weeks pre-marathon. That can’t have helped. I shan’t make the same mistake this year. I already mentioned that I feel like I “Peak” during phase 3 – hopefully I can time that right and hit the race well.

mesocycle4

Mesocycle 5 – Recovery

Having learned my lesson Post-Manchester, all I’m planning here is 2 complete weeks off, followed by 3 weeks of nothing more than running at a “recovery” effort.

Meanwhile I’ll either be licking my wounds from a failed experiment or anxiously planning the final phase of my “Mission: GFA”.

And as this falls in the first week of October, you never know, I might actually get in through the ballot! (Ha! Fat chance!)

Execution

With all that said, its nearly time to execute the plan. My mind is back in the game and I’m feeling pretty focussed. I’ll post my usual weekly updates and of course you can folow my progress on Strava.

Wish me luck!

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