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Faith, Hope & Charity

At one of the sessions this week I was talking with Graham O’Donoghue about his training for London Marathon. He is targeting to break 3 hours. He was expressing concern about his ability to maintain the required pace, 4:15 / km, for the duration of a marathon. He has every reason to be concerned. Graham has been putting in some quality training sessions repeatedly at sub 4:00 pace. His ability to run at 4:15 / km is not in doubt. However his ability to sustain that pace for 3 hours is uncertain.

Unfortunately there is no dress rehearsal for a marathon. You arrive at the start line with hope and faith that the training you have done will yield the desired result. Since Graham booked his marathon place via a charity then it really is a case of faith, hope and charity.

Graham’s concern is endurance. You build up endurance ability by improving you running economy. That is achieved by doing approximately 80% of training (in terms of duration) at round 85% of race pace effort. So if your planned marathon pace is 4:15 / km you should be looking to do 80% of training at marathon pace + 20% = 5:11 / km.

So what exactly changes when you train at low intensity? High intensity training improves VO2 max, which is the amount of oxygen your cardiovascular system can take up. The more you can take up the more work you can do. But this is only half of the story. The other half is about how efficient your body is in transporting the oxygen to the muscles and in using it. Low intensity training improves your body’s ability to maximise efficiency in using oxygen.

This week another runner sent me a copy of his recent Aerofit scan. He is not a bad runner by any means but in Dubai marathon he ran out of steam in the 2nd half and was 22 minutes slower than over the first half. A lot of people are sceptical about the Aerofit scan, but a comparison of his results and that for another club member who has been running for much longer are very telling.

Speed. 13 km  / hour.
Oxygen uptake VO2 l/min. Runner A 2.0. Runner B 3.0
Heart rate bpm. Runner A 130. Runner B 165
Fat burning metabolism. Runner A 25%. Runner B Zero.
Kcal consumed per hour. Runner A 642. Runner B 912.

For the same workload, Runner B required 50% more oxygen, had a heart rate 35 bpm higher, was totally dependant of carbohydrates as an energy source and burned 40% more calories. His running economy is comparatively low. But the good news is that he has huge potential if he follows the right training.

The right training is one way to improve your body’s efficiency in usage of oxygen. Another way is to use drugs to improve oxygen carrying capability and hence delay muscle fatigue. This has been brought to the fore this week by the news that tennis player Maria Sharapova, the highest paid female athlete in the world, has tested positive for a banned substance, Meldonium. The drug enhances the capability of the body to transport oxygen to the muscles and is therefore an advantage in endurance sports. The drug was added to the banned list in January this year by WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) as it has been proved to enhance performance and it was found that a number of athletes were using it to gain an unfair advantage. Sharapova has admitted to taking the drug for medicinal purposes for 10 years and hadn’t realised that it had been added to the banned list. Some may think that she has been unlucky.

Others will question as to whether she knew all along about the performance enhancing benefits of the drug and that was the real reason for taking it. The drug is made by a company in Lithuania. Were they aware that a large number of users were taking it for performance reasons and not medical? Possibly yes. After all that would make it a large money earner while it was legal. Whatever the public may think the authorities will have to deal with the case according to codes of practice. In today’s climate that means increasingly that they need to apply the letter of the law. Being lenient in one case and severe in another leaves them open to charges of prejudice.

But to Sharapova, the judgement of the public will be of great significance. Much of her wealth comes from sponsorship. The sponsors give her money to promote their products. If she gets a bad name in the public eye then the sponsors will (and some already have) withdraw.

This brings up another facet about performance enhancing products. If a coach recommends that you take a certain substance, assuring you that it is legal, to improve your performance should you take it? I occasional take vitamin supplements and have taken magnesium-zinc tablets to try to overcome muscle cramp towards the end of a marathon. However, I have stopped taking the magnesium-zinc because it did not seem to help. I have had no cramp problems over the last 4 marathons and I think that this is mainly due to having built up resistance to muscle fatigue through a lot of low intensity training.

I couldn’t begin to give advice on dietary suppliants. I don’t have the knowledge. I do know that a survey carried out at fitness gyms in the UK revealed that 90% of performance enhancing products offered for sale over the counter contained banned substances. In my gym recently I overheard two people talking about a dietary supplement.  One asked if the supplement was available over the counter or did you have to discreetly ask for it. Fortunately most of the members of the gym are self obsessed body builders and we are unlikely to be seeing them on the running circuit.

I genuinely believe that improved performance for an endurance athlete comes from hundreds of hours of low intensity base training accumulated over several years. To a beginner this means that you can look forward to 7 to 10 years of steady improvement, regardless of how old you are when you start. Forget the magic potions, dietary supplements energy gels, salt tablets etc. Nothing beats hours of training and the satisfaction of know your achievements have been accomplished through your own endeavours.