Where’s Your Head At?

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I’ve been in a bit of a running slump recently, and a number of people have (very kindly) asked how I am.

Well, I’ve got my head together and I’m over the slump now. In fact, I’ve taken a rest week for the first time in months and come back absolutely revving with enthusiasm, and I feel a blog post to explain it all coming on. It’s also not something I’ve seen a lot of people tweet about or talk about in running, so it might be a different, real-world running viewpoint. Maybe even useful for anyone feeling the same.

And while some of it isn’t exactly super-motivational stuff – we’ve hit peak spring marathon season so apologies to anyone who could do with something to get fired up – it’s important to be honest.

So this is where my head has been the last few weeks.

As you know, I’m a big fan of the NFL (that’s American football, for the uninitiated). When the Super Bowl is over each year the teams go into roster-building mode via free agency and the college draft, re-signing their own players, adding new players, and cutting/releasing players.

Because of the financial limitations of the salary cap (the Premier League and Formula 1 could learn a lot) this time of year is as fascinating for its player transactions as the regular season and playoffs are for their game action.

(Bear with me – yes, this is a running blog, and I’ll bring it back to running in a moment.)

It applies to any sport really, but at the moment in the NFL – as well as the young prospects and superstars and excitement – there’s a lot of talk of veteran players in decline because of their age, or weighing retirement decisions. Players retire because their hunger for the game has gone, or age has caught up with them and they’re simply too old and slow or their bodies keep breaking down.

Classic examples would be two of my favourite quarterbacks, Dan Marino (my idol growing up) and Peyton Manning: phenomenal players, prolific passers, putting up staggering numbers early in their careers, rewriting the record books and redefining the position – but slipping through good-but-not-great years until they ended their careers as shadows of their former selves. Or, say, Franco Harris, the Steelers great, ending his career as a Seattle Seahawk. Joe Namath as an LA Ram. Jerry Rice and all those teams he went through at the end of his career – slipping from starter to situational player to backup to not even being able to make the team. Veteran savvy, competitive spirit and desire to play still there but physical gifts gone.

Anyway, you get the picture.

Bringing it back to running…

The common theme through all these examples is age. Age and decline.

Age has been very much on my mind recently.

This year I turn forty-five, and for some reason this has been messing with my head much more than when I turned forty. At forty I was still within touching distance of my thirties, and anyway, forty is the new thirty and all that. Plus I was much fitter, faster and in better shape than I’d ever been. But soon I’ll be closer to fifty than forty and I’m stunned by the speed with which this has happened. I can’t be nearly fifty. That just can’t happen. It doesn’t compute.

I don’t feel like I’m forty-five (I’m not yet, I’ve still got a couple of months, give me a break).

I don’t think I run like I’m forty-five.

But just recently…

Something’s Changed

So what’s gone wrong?

In short it’s injury, illness, loss of speed, loss of endurance, and a difficult-to-describe shift in outlook that is neither loss of motivation, mojo or love of running but is still a loss of… I don’t know, something. I keep breaking down before big races. I can’t fight off injury and niggles. I’m getting slower. My training has been inconsistent. I’ve been in a slump.

(Again, bear with me. This all sounds very downbeat and defeatist. I come out of this in a bit, and come back fighting.)

Since January this year, running hasn’t come as smoothly or as easily as it used to.

To start with, like the NFL players, I keep breaking down with injury. Last autumn I tore my left hamstring and highly aggravated my piriformis on my left side. I lost a month of running to these injuries, and nearly missed out on the New York Marathon. I lost a huge amount of fitness while I was out of action and I haven’t been able to get it back. Since January I’ve been injured again with plantar fasciitis (PF) in my left foot – debilitating, ongoing, and getting worse until I severely cut back my mileage. And in cutting back my mileage, I lost more speed and fitness.

Until I cut my mileage and resumed some specific strength and conditioning (S&C) I was in foot pain the day after every run, hobbling and grimacing, rolling my left foot outwards in exaggerated and unnatural fashion, tense and uncertain whether I’d be fit and pain-free enough for my next scheduled run. For someone who loves the discipline and structure of training, finishing each run wondering whether I’d even be able to run the next one got me questioning myself.

Furthermore, I can’t get my speed back. I’ve tried running more miles, less miles, changing up my intervals and hill reps, club reps, solo reps, treadmill sessions, road sessions, dedicated sessions, mixed sessions with varying pace… nothing has worked. In fact, I’m getting slower. A few weeks ago I ran my slowest Parkrun in eighteen months. Each run seems to finish with an interrogation and inquiry as to what went wrong, and yet another vow and declaration to completely revamp my training.

And the inconsistency! I’ve been unable to stick to a set schedule for more than a few weeks. I’d have to shift sessions here, move runs there; everything became an effort to fit in; with the result that I missed runs. As long ago as last summer (2016), I would set off for twenty mile runs and come back after seventeen. At the time I put it down to improvising my routes a little short rather than planning them meticulously (too much listening to the “just run for fun” brigade on Twitter). I would justify this by telling myself seventeen was plenty, that I already had good base fitness, but I know an excuse when I make one.

In March I came down with a cough and chest infection that knocked my capacity right back. With no prospect of a sub-90 PB at the Silverstone Half-Marathon, I withdrew from the race. I then pulled out of the Lincoln 10k which was to be my sub-40 PB attempt. I had nothing left in the tank. I couldn’t even hold half-marathon pace on a six-mile club run.

Alright, enough of this. What’s going on? Well, I think there are a couple of possible explanations.

Explanation One: Age

This is the one that got stuck in my head. This is what I’ve been talking myself down into.

In recent years I’ve been uncomfortably aware in my running that I’ve been up against the clock, that at some point soon my best runs will be behind me, because age simply does that. I’ve stepped up my training and run harder and harder, aware of the need to run my best times while I still can.

Over the last three years my times have tumbled and I’ve set PB after PB. I’m really only a mid-pack runner, but I’m right at the front of that mid-pack and I’ve been mixing it with – and, let’s face it, hands-down beating – people in their thirties and even their twenties. But it’s inevitable, simply a fact of life, that at some point my times will start to fall away.

I think it’s started to happen.

Like the veteran NFL players, it’s inevitable that I won’t be able to perform and produce at the same level as I grow older.

Now, this might all sound like a mid-life crisis but it’s not – actually, and though this is far too much information to put out in public, I’ve been there and done that and finally finished with it. This is more like what comes after; the resignation and acceptance that I really am growing old. I’ve had a few setbacks, knockbacks, rejections and let-downs in particular over the last few years; life’s way of saying to me, nope, you’re too old mate, you’ve got to face up to it and lower your expectations.

But should that mean lowering my expectations in running too?

Until recently I’d have argued not. As I said, I’ve been busting out PB after PB. But it is what it is.

It’s not a loss of ‘mojo’ – that much-mentioned mysterious force that moves and motivates so many runners. That’s where the parallel with the NFL players comes in. My mojo hasn’t gone. My desire to run hasn’t gone. My competitive spirit hasn’t gone (there’s some fighting talk coming in a bit). I’ve still been training hard (well, until recently, and when my body has allowed me to).

I just don’t seem to be able to run as well as I used to. I seem to be in decline, and I keep breaking down with injury. In my slump, I became convinced that my body was sending me all the signals that if I were a sportsperson this would be the time to retire.

So my first conclusion was that it’s age catching up with me…

Explanation Two: Hunger, Winter, Overtraining

…or is it?

It might just be turning forty-five that’s messing with my head. And I can hear you now, protesting all the examples of people in their fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond who continue to excel at running. I can hear you now telling me how running is a lifelong hobby that prevents injury and illness, rather than exacerbates it.

And you know what? You’re right. I know you are, I know it is, I know it does.

It’s just that… something’s changed.

So, if not age then what? Well, it could simply be hunger. Now, as I said earlier, my mojo hasn’t gone. But I’ve been running for years – longer than a lot of the runners I hear proclaiming (a little too loudly; a little too often) how much they love running in the dark/cold/rain/winter (delete as appropriate) – all those years I’ve been doing it are bound to have some effect.

I’ve been fast, I’ve set good times, I’ve hit (or come very close to) almost all my goals. I’ve travelled up and down the country, running races and meeting people. I’ve run the two greatest marathons there are, in London and New York, fulfilling another lifetime ambition of visiting America in the process. Feeling older and more settled, with a lot of boxes ticked, I’m questioning my raw edginess and hunger. It could just be that.

Especially in winter. It could also be winter. At this time of year I am always sick to the back teeth of stepping outside to run and being chilled to the bone. It’s as though my mind and body finally give in and say, until you give us warm sunshine and twenty degrees to run in, mate, we’re not going a step further.

It could also be overtraining. Although, how, when I’ve cut back my mileage and been running so much less? Simple. While I did cut back my mileage, because of the sub-90 and sub-40 PB attempts I kept the speedwork. So all the running I was doing was full-on intensity. After injury and illness, I think this was a shortcut to hitting the burnout button.

So Which Is It?

I need to make my mind up: is it age or hunger/winter/overtraining?

The answer is, fairly obviously, that it’s some combination of them all.

Age will be in there, but all that stuff about being ready to retire is probably a hysterical overreaction. I need to man up Nancy (as the saying goes). Or MTFU (I’ll leave you to work that one out, if you don’t know what it stands for already.)

Except…

Having said all that, I do need to be cognisant that age is still part of it. I have been breaking down, I do need to do something about it. I can’t keep barrelling on as though I’m still twenty-five, when I’m plainly not.

If I’m right, I’m about to enter a new stage of my running. I’m going to have to dial things down a little, take a step back. I’m going to have train more appropriately for my age. I’m not going to be that runner putting in the hot 10k times on midweek early-morning training runs any more. Running is not going to be all about the PBs (even though this is anathema to me). I have to stop looking at this new generation of slower times and seeing them as a failure. I might even have to start keeping a whole new set of mid-forties PBs to chase as my all-time PBs slip out of reach. My running is going to have to be more sustainable, and less focused on speed.

And I’m going to have to get used to this.

And learn to be satisfied by it.

Somehow.

What does training more age-appropriately mean, exactly? How does it look? I don’t honestly know yet, I haven’t figured it out. Probably more steady runs, less speedwork, not pushing myself all the time. Maybe less races. Maybe more cutback weeks. Maybe a proper offseason where I run a lot less during the winter (as I hate the cold so much).

However, the first person (and the next person, and the next, and so on) to tell me to “get out onto the trails” or to ditch my Garmin, forget times and “run for fun” gets a kick up the arse. That is diametrically the opposite of what I am trying to achieve here.

I have zero interest in trail running. Or ultras, where there’s “less pressure than big city road marathons”. I love pressure. I intend to be the fastest forty-five year-old, fifty year-old and sixty year-old that I can realistically be (bearing in mind all the things I’ve said I’m going to have to do differently). It’s just that it might not be as fast as I might like, and I have to achieve it on training that is more appropriate for my age. More sustainable.

Somehow.

There are other options too. I could get into coaching. I could do my qualifications – Leadership in Running Fitness (LiRF) and Coach in Running Fitness (CiRF) – and become a coach, especially at my club, sharing and making use of the experience and expertise I’ve built up over the years. I could become more involved at club; get myself onto the committee. We’ve just had our nominations and appointments for 2017, but I’ll look into this next year.

Secondly I’m hoping to do more writing; put a bit more into this blog. (Although something big has just come up at work and I may need the time to frantically get the tech learning done that I’ve been meaning to do for years. But that’s life.)

Conclusion: Let’s Go Racing

So, that’s where I am. That’s where my head’s at. That’s where it’s been.

Having had my break, I’m now back running, hoping to manage my way through the PF until the damn thing passes. I’m feeling good.

And I will say this. Even if it is age, don’t write this old veteran off yet. Veteran savvy and experience means I know a lot of the tricks, and I still have one more Super Bowl run left in me. Spring marathon season has me all fired up for my autumn marathon, I’ve gone back to basics with my training, and I’m absolutely in love with it again.

So I’ll see you at the Birmingham International Marathon in October, a PB in my sights and ready to go.

I’ll see you, but I intend to be in front of you.

(There’s the fighting talk; I told you it was coming 😉)

Let’s go racing.

D.

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