Tuesday, 20 May 2014

My Achilles heel

For a couple of months now I have been putting up with some degree of Achilles Tendinosis. I have a small amout of swelling on the inside of the achilles on my right leg, its tender to touch or to massage and I get some tightness and soreness when I start running which usually eases off as I continue to exercise.

I've been managing the condition while continuing to run, averaging about 40 miles per week. By "managing" I mean largely ignoring the problem to be honest with a few attempts at massage and contrast therapy along the way.

However, since finishing the Marlborough Downs Challenge I decided to take a week or so off running to let the various niggles that have built up subside and to start attacking this tendon issue. My next race is the Plague on the 16th August. At 100k this will be the furthest I've ever travelled (I hesitate to say "run") and so I need to be fit and healthy to do so. This is therefore the last possible chance I have to rehab the Achilles and ease back for a couple of weeks if I am to allow myself time to recover suitably before August.

In the first instance, I have been religiously apply a friction massage, rubbing across the tendon, twice a day for one minute.  

Yesterday I had a physio appointment with Ian Leigh and was treated to a very painful deep tissue massage, confirming my suspicion that the cause of my Achilles problem was firmly rooted in some very tight calf muscles, mostly the Soleus. After happily digging his thumbs into every trigger point and knot he could find, Ian applied a couple of magic wands to the Achilles itself - first Ultra sound and then Laser.  Both of these treatments, through different means, aim to stimulate the tissues to promote healing.

Following this treatment I received a series of stretching exercises, aimed at lengthening the Soleus and some strengthening exercises, to build up strength in the tendon itself.

Finally I left with advice to get, and use, a foam roller - something I keep meaning to do but have never committed to.

Oh and Ian also suggested experimenting with KT tape to support the Achilles while I continue my rehab, sending me off with a length of tape to get me started. I'm going to run today without the tape and then tape up tomorrow so I can see if I feel any difference.

Today will be my first run for ten days and I can't wait. I am also keen to take recovery as seriously as any other aspect of training and was up this morning stretching before breakfast. 

Over the next few weeks I will update the site with my progress and supply a bit more detail on the various methods and what has worked for me

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The Marlborough Downs Challenge

This weekend I ran the Marlborough Downs Challenge. I'd made it clear I wanted to run it in under six hours, which would have been a significant improvement in pace for me. For anyone wanting to avoid the rest of this post and just find out how I did I managed 6 hours 40 minutes, had a bit of a nightmare, but pulled through. If you want to hear more then read on:

Simon & I had travelled up the night before and camped just outside Marlborough, reasoning that it was just a bit too far to get up there on the morning of the race. The forecast earlier in the week had shown heavy rain; thankfully by the weekend this had been downgraded to strong winds and heavy showers. Small mercies, eh?  Well it certainly rained on Friday night, kept me awake in fact, but soon enough it was morning and the sky was clearing as we ate breakfast and wandered across town. 

The race registration was in the leisure centre and the start was to be in the grounds of Marlborough college, a private school of some repute don't you know, situated just across the road. While hanging around at registration I was surprised by a tap on the shoulder from Martin, another short-listed runner from the Trail Team weekend up in the Lakes. Turns out this was his local patch. Thinking I could follow him round I asked what time he was aiming for - "about 4:15" - err ... okaay ... well good luck with that! Having picked up our numbers we headed over to the start line. 

Entering the grounds of the college, about to get started

Before long we were off. After a steep start and a good few bottle necks we were in the open with room to move as we headed over farmland in beautiful warm sunshine. Trying to keep a reasonable pace I nipped past a few people, feeling good and enjoying being on the go. Soon we passed the first checkpoint and entered a beautiful wood filled with Bluebells. Not long after that we got our first taste of just how muddy our day was likely to be. The muddy conditions combined with a good long hill slowed us all down; the heavy clay sucked at my ankles and soon drained the energy from my legs. 

A sunny start

Running through the bluebell woods

So it was good to break free of the mud and get up on the downs. The views were incredible but so was the wind which buffeted and generally caused a nuisance for the next few miles. Soon we joined the Wansdyke, a series of medieval defensive earthworks that run for many miles and make an indelible impression on the land. The ground was undulating but thankfully dry and firm underfoot. 

View from the downs

A sky indicative of things to come

On the Wansdyke Way
Eventually we dropped down through fields and farm tracks towards the canal that would take us into DevizesIt was about now that I realised things were not going quite to plan. I'd been exchanging places for a some miles with a few runners, including one woman who had completed the course six times and seemed to be aiming for a similar time to me. This was great as I could forget about navigation for a bit and just settle into a rhythm; unfortunately as we reached the canal I found I was struggling to hold onto the pace.  Reluctantly I dropped back. As the canal wore on I felt more and more tired; this was meant to be a nice easy section of unchallenging, flat terrain but my legs just felt weak, like jelly. I was prepared to feel crap sooner or later but I wasn't even half way round - this was a real worry. Of course the worse I felt the more negative thoughts appeared in my head and, by the time I left the canal, I felt awful.

The canal

At this point Simon came past. To be honest I was surprised he'd caught me up so quickly and this only added to the downer I was in. Simon hung about for a bit as I told him how I was feeling but it was obvious I wasn't going to keep up with him and soon he was off ahead. Not long after this was one of the biggest climbs of the race. Now normally I march up hills without too much trouble but I could barely walk up this one.  I just couldn't work out what was wrong. Getting to the top of the hill my calfs promptly cramped up and this led me to think about salt intake. I necked a tablet and waddled on. Shortly I was caught by another runner - Nigel it turned out, from Bolton - suffering similar trouble to me. We chatted and matched each other's pace and this helped me take my mind off the problems I was having. Before long I started to perk up a bit and, no longer trying to keep to a particular pace, I found myself enjoying the day again. 

Heading up Cherhill in worsening weather

The weather soon took a turn for the worse. Heavy rain came from nowhere; it looked set in, but the wind was strong enough that within minutes the shower had passed and the sun was breaking through again. This pattern of sun and showers reigned throughout the rest of the day, with the rain generally returning just after I decided to take my waterproof off! We were soon joined by a few more runners (approaching from the rear!) and between us managed some of the more difficult route finding decisions of the day, enduring more muddy trails before finding ourselves at the top of Cherhill overlooking the chalk white horse. 

Climbing up Cherhill. Nigel, from Bolton, on the left
The white horse as the rain returned

At this point I was feeling a little better and soon dragged myself to the front of our little group to take my turn to lead us on. After a couple of miles we hit the A4, the route following the road for a mile or so. Someone else took the lead and we were moving well but I quickly realised I was being dragged into someone else's race at a pace I couldn't sustain. I deliberately stepped aside and let those faster runners go on, lest I find myself in trouble again. At the rear of the group I met my mate from Bolton again and we soldiered on, soon arriving at Avebury.

Stones at Avebury

From here a long gradual hill led up to the Ridgeway and before long to the final checkpoint. The last three miles wound down through a race course and would have been easy going but for the preceding thirty. Still it was all in the bag and I was happy enough. At last the finish line came and we were rewarded with a lovely mug from a local pottery - better than a T shirt I reckon! We were also entitled to a hot meal a drink and a shower. Its a shame we had to run so far to make mundane things like a hot shower seem so good. Refreshed, and only smarting slightly at Simon beating me by half an hour we headed back to the camp site via a brief but enlightening tour of the pubs of Marlborough.

My prize!

On reflection this was a great day. Things had not gone as expected but the course was challenging and led us through some beautiful countryside. The navigation had been easy enough - better than expected in fact. I had spent some time in good company, shared stories and suffered together with people I met along the way. And I had been reminded of another lesson for running ultras; that you will feel bad but if you keep pushing on then sooner or later it will pass. 

Thanks to the organisers, the marshals and all those other souls who helped to make this a great day out. Maybe I'll see you next year for another shot at that sub 6 hour finish!

Friday, 9 May 2014

5 Lessons from the Trail Team weekend (and how to use them)

This weekend is my first race since I attended the Trail Team 2014 weekend in the Lake district. I've been thinking a lot about everything I learned there. I've also been getting very excited about running the Marlborough Downs Challenge this weekend. I want to try and push myself to set a half decent time, rather than just get around and will be taking some key lessons from the trail camp with me on Saturday. So in no particular order, here we go:

1. Navigation is a skill. If you need to navigate, ensure you can. Hearing Berghaus athlete Helene Whitaker talk about how she was crap at navigating so learnt the course in full before the Dragon's Back reminded me of something I'd read when I registered for the Marlborough Downs challenge. Oh yes, its a self navigation route, map and compass advisable to compliment the SEVEN PAGES of route notes. Oh dear. One hasty reminder on how to orient a map and take a bearing later, followed by an hour or so drawing the route onto the map and I'm ready to go. Hopefully I won't be posting on Runner's World how I got lost as many evidently have done on previous years (we'll see).

2. Manage negative thoughts. Steve Birkenshaw, also sponsored by Berghaus, gave us some good tips on how to get through those low points. Concentrating on the next check point, next mile, next hill, next step; counting to a hundred; talking to others were some of the options. It all sounds good, but the one that scares me the most is the one I aim to put into practice on Saturday: Shorten the pain. In the last few miles I'm going to try and run faster and cut short the suffering by getting home quicker. Big words, but its got to be worth a try.

3. Maximise nutrition. Torq energy gels are formulated to allow ingestion of 30% more carbs than taking glucose alone. I intend to make the most of this toward the end of the race. I can't stomach too many gels and will still be taking on flapjacks and other real food at the start of the race but I will slowly switch over to more gels at the end. If I can, the last two hours I'm going to try and get three gels an hour down my neck and have a couple of the Guarana ones ready for when I need a boost.

4. Stretch it out on the downhills. This was a bit of a personal epiphany really. A first time mountain runner and more used to the short sharp ups and downs of the coast path it was incredible to run downhill for up to two miles over technical terrain. I like downhill running and like to think I'm reasonably good at it (compared to my uphill "running"). But until this weekend I hadn't really got it. I found myself stretching my legs out for the first time and really flying downhill. I just seemed to get into a stride where I was moving efficiently and it felt great.

5. Thirty three miles is not that far (except, of course, it is). Spending the weekend in the company of some really very accomplished and talented runners left me motivated and brimming with confidence. Many people there had run fifty or a hundred miles many times (some further still). The confidence is still there but what I really want to take into this weekend is a reminder to myself that thirty three miles is, for me at least, still a very long way. Sure I know I can do the distance but I mustn't underestimate the challenge. Its not a doddle and it isn't in the bag, especially as I've set myself a goal to get round in a certain time.

And what time am I aiming for I hear you cry? Well if I had any sense I keep it a secret but where is the fun in that? I want to finish in under 6 hours. Not a winning time for by any means (last year's winner came in at 4:13!) but a step up, pace wise. If the navigation doesn't let me down I think I can do it.

So check back in a few days to see how it all went.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Gel wars

Just after Christmas I noticed that the Ultra Marathon store were offering box discounts on pick-n-mix orders of any combination of make and flavour of gels. So I bought some of everything to see what works best.

I should point out at the start that the results of this review are one man's opinion having carried out a non-exhaustive test on a sample size of one. I'm also generally a lover of "real food" which for me is usually flapjacks & potatoes, but I will almost always alternate with gels to avoid getting too full up.

Not wanting to give too much away but I should also mention that the resultant winner may, in light of a recent sponsored trail camp in the Lakes, seem a little disingenuous but the results were in some time ago, I've just been lazy about writing it up.

I've rated everything on taste, consistency and nutritional value. However, to be fair I don't have any opinion on which products give the best results energy-wise; they all provide a similar amount of calories and its impossible to discount the many and various variables at play during a long run that affect how I'm feeling, making an objective decision on the effectiveness of a particular gel pretty much impossible. Something which makes you want to throw up though will definitely affect performance and is easier to quantify.

A word on energy source; it is recognised that high GI sugars such as Glucose and Maltodextrin offer the most rapid absorption rates when exercising, but recent evidence suggests that Fructose, which has a low GI is absorbed slowly and does not conflict with the absorption of Glucose or Matlodextrin. This means more energy can be digested where both types of sugar are ingested.

Products reviewed:

Accel Gel

"The Top Performing Energy Gel Just Got Better! Designed and scientifically-proven to deliver rapid energy to muscles. How? Patented 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein.  Accel Gel gives you more bang 13% more vs. leading carbohydrate only gel, and 50% better muscle recovery so you can get back to your next adventure."

Calories: 100

Energy source: Fructose, Glucose and Maltodextrin; 4:1 carbs to protein - this is one of two gels in the test that contained protein. I couldn't "feel" any difference over 20 miles...maybe on a longer run I would have? Some flavours are caffeinated (20-40 mg) but those I tried were not.

Consistency: medium. Liquid but not too runny. About right.

Taste: I tried Key Lime and Orange. Accel gel appear to have attempted to avoid the sickly sweet issue that many gels have by erring on the side of bitter. Key Lime was OK, Citrus Orange was rank.


"GU Energy Gel provides athletes with a dose of 100 calories to deliver high-quality, easily-digested and long-lasting energy for athletes in every sport and at all levels. Everything inside each packet of GU is engineered to do one simple thing: provide your body with the essential nutrition it needs to keep going for miles and miles and hours and hours. It goes down easy, and it goes to work fast so you don't have to slow down."

Calories: 100

Energy source: Maltodextrin/Fructose (7-80%/30-/20% ratios flavour dependant) Caffeinated (20mg)

Consistency: medium. Liquid but not too runny. About right.

Taste: Tried Lemon, Tri berry, Jet blackcurrent and Salted caramel. Slightly sickly, getting worse over time. Caramel is pretty nice but even this gets hard to swallow after a while

Gu Roctane

"We added more of everything that makes GU Energy Gel the category leader and added a few more things for ultra distance and high intensity efforts resulting in the most efficient, high performance gel you can use in training and racing."

Calories: 100

Energy source: Glucose/Fructose plus lots of branch chain amino acids (basic proteins) and extra electrolytes. Caffeinated (35mg)

Consistency: medium. Liquid but not too runny. About right.

Taste: Tried strawverry/kiwi and Cherry/lime. Not bad, tart enough to be palatable.


"TORQ energy gels are formulated to a 2:1 Maltodextrin:Fructose blend for optimal carbohydrate release. We only use natural flavours, no colours or artificial sweeteners."

Calories: 115

Energy source: Maltodextrin/fructose 2:1. Two flavours (banoffee and forest fruits contain natural Guarana Caffeine - 89 mg. 

Consistency:  medium. Liquid but not too runny. About right.

Taste: Oh my! Tried Rhubarb & Custard, Rasberry ripple, Black cherry yoghurt, Strawberry yoghurt and Apple crumble. They taste A-MAZ-ING. The only gels you will look forward to eating?


"CLIF SHOT® Energy Gel provides quick energy to athletes while racing and training. With our new formula and flavours getting energised between breaths has never been easier."

Calories: 96

Energy source: Maltodextrin (although also listed dried cane syrup?)

Consistency: Thick. Like chewy.

Taste: Tried Razz and Lemon. Bit sickly.

High 5

"EnergyGel is smooth with a light consistency and a dash of real juice for a great taste. It’s not thick or overly sweet. Easy to open and swallow, each sachet contains 23g of carbohydrate. EnergyGel is award-winning and proven in many of the World’s toughest competitions."

Calories: 92

Energy source: Maltodextrin/Glucose

Consistency: Runny.

Taste: Mild, contains fruit juice and quite palatable. Tried Citrus blast and summer fruits

High 5 Iso Gel

"IsoGel has a consistency more like a sports drink than a gel. It is smooth and has a dash of real juice for a great taste. It’s not thick or overly sweet. Easy to open and swallow, each sachet contains 23g of carbohydrate. IsoGel is award-winning and proven in many of the World’s toughest competitions."

Calories: 92

Energy source: Maltodextrin/Glucose. There is a "Plus" option that contains 23mg caffeine.

Consistency: Watery. Gets everywhere.

Taste: Tried Berry. Very mild flavour.


As I stated above I couldn't really make a call in terms of energy delivery. I didn't find any of the special extras such as amino acids made any real difference and all gels contain roughly the same amount of calories.

Consistency wise Clif are too thick, almost chewy and the High 5 offerings, which taste ok are too runny which means its difficult to get the products into your mouth without spilling it everywhere. This was especially true of the Iso Gels which were so runny they ended up all over my race vest.

 For me, taste is everything. Gels as a rule tend to be hard to swallow, especially after many hours of running and so anything that remains and attractive proposition down the line is a winner in my book. For that reason Torq wins, hands down. I actually look forward to eating them! Given they also deliver a dual energy type and have two flavours boasting the highest level caffeine of all the products surveyed they really tick every box. Since buying this selection I've moved over exclusively to Torq products.