If you had told me on 23rd September 2017, just after I’d run my 5k personal best (PB) time of 18:23 that it wouldn’t be beaten for almost two full calendar years, I’d have told you there was no chance. I’d just completed an eight week training plan with three speed sessions per week and I’d improved by 27 seconds on my previous best time. I was going to be starting another training cycle with even quicker KM and mile reps and, surely, I’d be well placed to break my record again, right?
Wrong. I didn’t get close. I over trained with too much pace work in too short a period of time. I kept telling myself that I needed to be able to run quicker than my goal pace. I didn’t think that it would be possible to run at sub-6 minutes per mile on race day if I’ve not been able to do so during training. My target was to run 17:59, which would be an average pace of 3:36 per kilometre (5:41 per mile). I couldn’t get to this pace in training over a KM or a mile, and it was starting to get to me. Come target race day, I ran 18:30 – enough for my 2nd best ever time but not what I wanted.
Having failed to run a PB, I turned my attention to running longer distances but a series of setbacks and a loss of confidence in my running prevented me from progressing as I wanted to and running became an enjoyable pastime without there being any competitive element to it. I enjoyed training for a marathon and beating my old 3:29 record in running 3:10. My 5k times weren’t improving throughout the training cycle, however. I was struggling to even run sub-20 minutes (4 minutes per KM) at parkrun on a weekly basis. The training cycle for the marathon included two pace sessions per week, one high speed session and one controlled tempo longer run (usually 10 miles in distance). Every run had a minimum target of 8:00 minutes per mile and I was comfortably able to do so, whilst running a total of 30-40 miles per week.
The next training cycle is where things turned around dramatically. Having run 3:10, I had been bitten by the bug again. I wanted to run a sub-3 marathon and break all my existing PBs. I resolved myself to train for the Leicester Marathon as my target. This time, however, I forgot all about pace work. I believed I would be able to run the pace on the day at the culmination of the training cycle and I didn’t need to do every run at a minimum pace. I had done a lot more reading before this cycle than any previous training block and I wanted to change it up a bit. I wanted to take in more slow runs between 9 and 10 minutes per mile. I wanted to push myself hard when doing KM or mile reps, but not to be too worried about hitting x pace. I wanted to see how much I could progress, but I couldn’t have predicted the improvements.
The race was 6th October 2019, and I began my training cycle on 3rd August. This only gave me nine weeks to prepare, but I was going in with a good base of fitness having been doing plenty of gym work in the weeks beforehand. I started the training cycle with a parkrun at full pace to see where I was starting from, pace wise. I surprised myself by running 19:30, which began a period of consecutive parkruns all run under 20 minutes which would stretch until November and which would include 3 (THREE!) PBs.
I very quickly found that running slowly for longer periods of time was incredibly beneficial. I ran quickly for one speed session per week (plus parkrun on a Saturday morning!) but everything else was extremely controlled and with a lot of focus on form, technique and breathing. Week on week, my parkrun times got quicker and quicker (mostly), to the point that I was finding myself breaking KM records and mile records on a weekly basis. I couldn’t match parkrun pace during my weekly speed session (usually held on a Tuesday) but it didn’t matter because I could do it on the day. My training volume was 30-50 miles per week, depending entirely on how my legs felt day by day. I would always take Fridays off but run some slow and steady miles on the other days.
One month prior to the target marathon, I found perfect conditions on a pancake flat parkrun course, Hove Promenade. I ran it in 18:15, breaking the 2 year old PB which would only stand for another two weeks before I ran 17:56 and then 17:55 the week after. Without targeting the 5k distance, I was able to thrash my old PB and it was the volume of miles which led to my success. Not trying to run fast frequently, but running smart over an extended period of time. Recovery runs at a slow pace are crucial to developing endurance and that’s what you need to run PBs.
The twist in the tale is that the target marathon was cancelled due to flooding, so I’ll never know if I would have been able to run the sub-3 marathon or not – but I do know that I hammered my 5k time and also beat my 10k PB too. Train smart, not fast!