20 minute pace bunny, I'm on your tail!

From the beginning of Mission StrongFast, my goal has been clear. I want to run a 5 k race in a time of 18:45, or faster. I want to be elite, and this time will qualify me as being just that. In 4 weeks time, at the Army Run on September 22nd, 2013, I will run my first 5 k race since starting this mission.

After a spring and summer full of running, strengthening, refueling and recovering I can confidently say that I am stronger and faster now than I was 4 months ago, and probably than I have ever been. I can also confidently say that, though I have moved towards my goal of a sub-19 minute 5 k, I am not there yet. My current personal bests in fewest segments and shortest elapsed time to 5 k at the 3:45 min/km pace indicate that it is unrealistic to think that I will be able to run sub-19 in 4 weeks time. Keeping this as my race goal for Sept. 22nd would be unrealistic, and would likely to lead to disappointment on race day.

Following this realization, it was time to establish an intermediate goal for the Army Run! Having a goal that is difficult but achievable will provide me with training motivation during each workout over the next 4 weeks. It will also help to guide my training leading up to the race, as I work to gain every bit of training effect possible.

The goal that I have set for myself is to run sub-20 minutes. Based on where I am at currently, I feel confident that I can run the 5 k in under 20 minutes, but that I will have to continue to train hard in the weeks leading up to the race, as well as race hard the day of the race to be able to do it. Establishing this goal has very much had the desired effect on my motivation. I feel excited before each training run, and as I'm pushing myself and feeling the exertion or fatigue, I know that I am bringing myself that much closer to my goal. If I had not set an intermediate goal and instead used my long-term sub-19 goal as my goal for this race, my current training would likely have felt too distant from my goal to have the same effect on my motivation.

This motivational effect is a major reason why it is helpful to go through the process of creating goals for yourself, and then establishing sub-goals along the way. It builds a ladder to bridge the gap from where you are presently to where you want to be, and by building a tangible path to your goal, you can then start working towards it.  

I want to be an elite level runner. To be able to achieve that, I need to run a sub-19 minute 5 k, which will involve various forms of physical and mental training to get me to that level. Having the intermediate goal of running a sub-20 minute 5 k has increased my drive to put in the physical and mental work that is required to reach my end goal. 

On September 22nd, expect to see me sprinting past the 20 minute pace bunny in the final few hundred metres of the Army Run, as I plan on concurring this goal, on the path to StrongFast eliteness! 



It is a Golden Week!

In my previous blog discussing CNS fatigue and over-training the main point was this, if monitored and followed by an appropriate recovery period, training into and through mental and physical fatigue can be useful and result in significant performance gains. The evidence in support of this message came during my first week back at full training, a week I have taken to calling my Golden Week (this week actually being an 8 day period, Saturday-to-Saturday from July 6th to July 13th).

The first workout of that week was a new addition to my training plan, seeing how far I can run in 18:45, the amount of time that I want to be able to complete a 5 k race in. This workout was a way to ease back into full training, with it being a workout that challenges me to empty my tank, but without the pressure of trying to beat a previous personal best. It would also provide useful information regarding where I am currently in relation to my goal.

I ran 4400 m in 18:45, a result that I was very happy with, showing that I am 600 m away from my goal.

The next workout that I tackled was running 5 k at a 3:45 min/km pace in the shortest elapsed time possible. My previous personal best was 26:58. On Mon. July 8th I was able to do it in 26:45 min, win number one. 

On Wed. July 10th I tackled seeing how long I could run at the 3:45 min/km pace. I completed 1700 m, win number two, beating my previous PB of 1600m. This workout is the one that I had been feeling the most anxious about leading up to it, with nervousness getting in the way of my performance on previous occasions. It felt amazing to beat the PB that I had set way back in May.

The final workout of the week on Sat. July 13th was completing 5 k at a 3:45 min/km pace in the fewest number of segments. In order to get a win in this category I would need to complete it in 5 segments. Success! I completed my first 5 x 1 km repeats at 3:45 min/km, win number three! 

In addition to 3 out of 3 wins in my running workouts, I also had strong week in the gym. When squatting on Wed. July 10th, I increased my poundage to a total of 8640 lbs, completed as 4 x 16 with 135 lbs. 

On Sat. July 13th I performed an Olympic clean and press workout. Each week during this workout I am trying to develop both strength and power, as well as getting in some back and upper body cross-training. In the previous week I progressed my volume to 4 x 18 with 65 lbs. My goal that day was to complete 4 x 15 with 65 lbs, with each set being timed. The results were as follows 1st set = 1:18 2nd set = 1:14 3rd set 1:08 4th set = 1:06, with me taking a comfortable seat on the gym floor at the end of the fourth set. 

All of these results were wonderful reinforcement that my training to-date has increased my overall strength and speed. This is not to say that another way would not have been better or equal, or that this method will get me all the way to my goal of 18:45, but for the next few weeks/months it's progressive overload and striving for more wins as Mission StrongFast continues!


CNS Fatigue.......and then RECOVERY

It is a well recognized and often implemented training method, to push yourself to failure, go until you cannot go anymore, and then allow your body to rebuild itself to be stronger than it was before. 

My StrongFast training program is designed around this principle, a planned overload. I want to maximally task my system, with minimal rest. It's the razor's edge balance, running farther and faster, without over-training . There is no recipe for optimal overload and when you are still within your current limits, you cannot tell how close to the edge you are. 

What you do need to be able to tell is if you are over that edge and entering into a state of being over-trained. This was the state that I was in a few weeks ago, after a 10 week period of overloading my system.  My over-training came not in the form of injury, but fatigue of my central nervous system (CNS). In the week and a half leading up to my acknowledgement that I was over-training, my performance during both running and strengthening workouts showed either a plateau or a regression, as well as having a heavy feeling in my legs. More noticeably, I had the symptom of a heightened level of anxiety, which increased before any training session, with the lead up to two of the sessions including a quivering lower lip and teary eyes.

These two symptoms of anxiety and decreased performance are common when experiencing CNS fatigue, a term related to over-training. To simplify, your central nervous system consists of your brain and spinal cord and works to regulate and control not just the movement and performance of your muscles during a workout, but all of the bodily systems (endocrine, cardiovascular, etc) that are working in harmony while exercising.

During a set of squats, for example, your CNS system is producing and sending the message to your muscles to fire and contract with the appropriate amount of force. It is also regulating the level of dilation or constriction of your blood vessels, heart and respiratory rate, hormonal levels and many other factors to facilitate the force production of your muscles. Regularly requiring this system to work at or near its maximum level can lead to fatigue of the system, meaning that it will not be able to efficiently coordinate your body during exercise, resulting in sub-maximal performance despite a maximal effort. In addition to this primary indicator of decreased performance,  sleep disturbances, loss of appetite and change in mood can also be present. 

Having come to the realization that I was in a state of CNS fatigue, the next two weeks were treated as a recovery or de-load period. The aim during this time was to allow for full recovery and adaptation from the previous couple of months of progressive overload, while trying to minimize the loss of training effect. I still completed runs, squats and lifts, but without tracking my pace or trying to break any person bests. The duration of this recovery period was planned as one week, but was extended to two when it was apparent that I was not fully recovered after one week.

It was an interesting experience to feel this new level of fatigue. Because it felt like my brain was foggy, it made it hard to judge how tired I was. This is the risk regarding over-training, when you are in the midst of it, it can be challenging to identify. Quantitatively tracking your performance, as well as tracking fatigue, sleep patterns and mood can help when monitoring yourself. In my case, having a friend act as my better judgement and recommend a light week was very useful.


Likely, the combination of a rested brain and body, following a period of significant running and strength training, led to significant gains in my first week back at full training.

Here are the numbers from the last three weeks' squat workouts as an example (each week the goal is to complete more squat repetitions than the previous week, at 135 lbs).

June 19th – 52 squats completed in 5 sets = total volume of 7020 lbs

June 26th – 53 squats completed in 5 sets = total volume of 7155 lbs

July 3rd – 62 squats completed in 4 sets = 8370 lbs!

That is a 15% increase in performance in one week! It is highly unlikely that my leg strength improved by that amount in a week, but it is undeniable that my body’s ability to perform improved significantly in a relatively short amount of time.

There are two points to take from this. Firstly, if you want to get stronger and faster, whatever your sport, you need to push yourself to what you perceive as being beyond your current abilities. Secondly, it is important allow your body to recovery after prolonged overload.

And then do it all over again! and again! and again!

Because. It. Is. Fun.

Here is the scenario, I'm having dinner with my parents and they inquire about what I have been up to recently. Part of my answer involves discussing my mission StrongFast. Included in this is talking about my running highlights, as well as my gym endeavours. In response to my descriptions of the mid-set grind during squats or the struggle and post-session exhaustion of clean and presses, I receive the question of...

 "Why would you put yourself through that?"

Multiple answers begin to form as I prepare to respond to a not uncommon question. 

I consider explaining the short and long term health benefits of strengthening exercise. In the short term, as I am trying to go faster and farther each week, I need to be strengthening my core, glutes, quads and hamstrings, as well as many other muscles that play a supporting, but very crucial role in injury prevention. By strengthening these muscles, primarily in the form of progressively challenging squats, I am preventing muscle strains by ensuring that the muscles that are propelling me are strong enough for the task. Making myself stronger also helps me to maintain proper running form throughout a workout. This prevents both muscles strains and excessive loading on inert structures, such as ligaments and joints.

The long-term health benefits are many. Included are prevention of osteoporosis and arthritis and maintenance of mental well-being, cognitive function and the ability to carry out activities of daily living. It saddens me when I encounter an individual during my day working as a physiotherapist who currently does not have the ability to get up out of a chair without arms, or get up off of the floor should they fall. This situation can arise for different reasons, but an all too common one is that they did not address the slow decline in strength and activity level until the point that their daily life is affected. This is not to say that people in this situation cannot benefit from strengthening exercise, but I would prefer to prevent this decline. I wish to be forever bounding up stairs, and keeping up my strength will be required to do this.

I also consider talking about  how I want to get faster, and in order to do this I need to get stronger. I easily could have rattled off my previous 10 workouts and the next 10 that I am likely to do, pointing out the increased stress and the muscular requirements, but that likely would have ended dinner early due to me boring them to sleep.

The response I went with was this..

Because. It. Is. Fun. 

The feeling of having strength is fun in itself. It is fun to progressively challenge yourself and be able to look back at what you struggled to do 4 weeks ago and think, "Wow, I can do so much more than that now". It is fun to hold a weight over your head in triumph. 

No matter where you start, if you challenge yourself to do something, even a little bit harder each time, you will get stronger. That is fun. 


And Runners Take Over Ottawa!

This past weekend was Race Weekend here in Ottawa. Over the course of two days races from 2 k to marathon distances are run by thousands of runners. Whether participating as a runner or an enthusiastic onlooker, this weekend has a way of stirring up and surfacing all of the joyful feelings that running creates in me.

This year I headed down to the finish chute for the 5 k and 10 k, as well as watching a portion of the half and full marathon participants as I passed by the route on the Sunday morning.  Being the sappy runner that I am, I felt multiple surges of warmth in my heart. 

Here are some of my highlights

The look on the faces of those 5 k runners under the age of 12. I can only describe it as pure joy. Red in the face, limbs flying everywhere and pride in their accomplishment

Watching El Hassan El Abbassi, Adugna Bikila and Geoffrey Mutai running the last 200 m of the 10 k race. It seems insufficient to say that their speed, form and power were breathtakingly impressive.

Hearing and being a part of the increased cheers as a 13 year old girl crossed the finish line in a time of 39:39 for the 10k, placing 26th out of the 5565 women running.

The volume of parents running across the finish line, holding the hand of their child.

See the runners with mobility aid or physical disability cross the finish line. Their journey to the line serves as motivation to me that isequal or greater than watching the elite runners cross the line.

And with these, and many more highlights in my mind, I start my training week on a high note. I attempted a longest segment at the 3:45 pace, stopping short of a win at 1.2 k, having had some pacing challenges. Determined to get a win of some form, I then added on an additional 3.8 k in 5 segments at the 3:45 pace. This gives me a win of 5 k in 6 segments! One less segment than the 7 segments I completed in last week.

Working Towards Elite Body and Mind

With Mission StrongFast moving towards the end of the fourth week of progress tracking, I'm continuing to enjoy my new plan. I love feeling like I'm edging towards my goal, as well as trying to figure out why some days that progression is more or less than others.

I have had a number of successes, pushing my longest segment at 3:45 min/km to 1610 m, my fewest segments in a  5 k to 9 and my shortest elapsed time to 27 min and 38 secs. 

I have also had a number of struggles, with two failed attempts at longest segment (including this week's first attempt to complete 1800 m at 3:45 min/km) and two failed attempts at fewest segments along the way.

Though I most definitely prefer the wins, the failures help to highlight what I need to work on in order to become elite, and the different factors that can affect my performance. 

As discussed in a previous blog, my largest challenge in continuing to improve is learning to embrace the struggle and push to the point of failure, learning to keep going when it feels tougher than tough. This weakness is highlighted by the difference I feel when completing 5 k at 3:45 min/km in the shortest elapsed time possible versus 5 k in the fewest segments and in the longest segment at 3:45 min/km.

During the elapsed workout, I'm pushing my fitness level by decreasing my rest time. Just as my heart rate rockets and my legs burn, I'm able to stop and rest for 30-50 sec before going again. I feel comfortable with the type of discomfort that this creates. During the longer segment workouts, the goal is to continue as my legs are burning and my heart rate is soaring. On a couple of occasions, in the moment of the workout, I have felt that this is it, I've pushed myself to my limit. That is partially true. I reached the limit that my mind created for myself. It is not my actual physical limit. My tank is not empty. For each future workout, I must remember this and convince mind and body to keep going as the discomfort mounts.

Another factor that I have become aware of is the potential danger in attributing weaker performances to different factors. My mind is a powerful thing and by stating that I believe an association between a variable and a performance may exist, I may in fact create that association during future workouts. By stating early on in week 1 that I was both tired and intimidated by the longest segment workout, I raised the height of the mental barrier during that workout.

A theme seems to be appearing. When training an elite body, it is of equal importance to train an elite mind.

It's numbers time...

When the time comes and I'm crossing the finish line, it's going to come down to a yes or no. Yes I finished a 5 k race at or below 18 minutes and 45 seconds, or no I did not. The numbers matter. In the first 4 weeks of mission strong fast, I was monitoring my pace and keeping track of the numbers, to some extent.

From here on out that changes. I now have 5 specific training numbers that I am tracking and looking to improve upon each week. The categories that I'm tracking are listed below, along with the numbers I produced during the week of April 29th.

1) Longest Single Segment - 1290 m

2) Total Weekly Volume - 50 k

3) Weekly Volume at or above 3:45 min/km pace = 16.5 k

4) Elapsed time to complete 5 k in 3:45 min/km segments = 33 min 23 sec

5) Fewest segments taken to complete 5 k in 3:45 min/km segments = 13

The process of establishing these numbers went, overall, fairly smoothly. Just a few minor hiccups. I was slightly frustrated with my  result in the fewest segments category. Due to a combination of lack of attention and getting used to using a Garmin, my official attempt for fewest segments ended with 9 segments, but an average time of 3.49 min/km, meaning it does not count. The 13 segments recorded above comes from how many segments I ran during the elapsed time 5 k.

The other challenge was that I completed the elapsed 5 k during a visit to my hometown of Kingston. I found a relatively long and flat road with houses lining either side, to run back and forth on, attempting to complete the distance with as few and as short a rest periods as possible. The difficulty was that I sparked the curiousity of the residents, as they went about their business, drinking morning coffee and cutting lawns. I will have to see what my elapsed time will be when I am not chatting with Kingstonians and answering questions as to what I am doing in between running sets.

Embracing the Process!

This past week, the fourth in mission StrongFast, felt transitional. The fatigue and heaviness in my legs was replaced by a feeling of strength as I was able to visualize my expanding fitness level. My grumpy mood from the week before was replaced with a feeling of joy. 

The training session that gave me the greatest sensation of improvement was on Friday April 26th, long run day. This included a total distance of 17 km, with an ascent of the 300 m incline behind parliament hill and the final 1.5 km at my 3.45 min/km pace. The completion of the hill and the pace interval felt easier than on previous occasions. (Note I said easier, not easy. I am striving for StrongFast progression, not ease)

Another aspect of this feeling of contentment is adopting the concept that to quit mid-workout is not productive, but to not be afraid of failure during a workout. Previously, when my legs were burning, heart rate soaring and the only thing I could hear was the sound of my breathing, I would consider and occasional quit mid-set. This only trains my mind and body that this response is acceptable. This is different than if I push through these feelings, but my physical strength and/or endurance prevents me from completing the set. It means that I haven't been successful in terms of completing my intended workout, but my mind and body will be that much stronger and I will be building for success in the next workout.

During a strength workout (some oh so fun clean and presses!) I went to failure, but not completion in my last two of four sets, leaving me feeling exhausted, but satisfied. Such a different feeling than the temper tantrum of last week. And what fun I will have this week, knowing that I will be going into the workout, that much stronger than before.

Week 3 = Temper Tantrums

It is the end of the third week of mission StrongFast, April 20th, and I’m taking away a lesson in the power of the mind. Mental preparation and toughness is going to be vital in achieving my goal. I need to be able to embrace the physical discomfort of high intensity exercise.

There was a specific occasion in the past week that my physical discomfort triumphed over my mind.

For many of my runs in the week, I was aware of the feeling of fatigue in my legs and tightness in my calves, as they adjusted to this new running pace. I felt tired. Despite this, I also noted that during my mid-week 5 k run made up of 3.45 min/km pace segments, my performance did not suffer. I did not have any aches or pains, and I successfully completed the session. My mind conquered my body.

On the Friday of that week my friend then challenged me to complete a series of hopping motions (a combination of frog-like jumps and tuck jumps), trying to do more than 40 repetitions in 5 minutes.

I accepted the challenge feeling confident that I could complete more than 40. My friend predicted otherwise. He predicted a meltdown, and possibly me storming off due to unhappiness from general body discomfort.

The first 3 minutes of the challenge were unremarkable. I was at a steady pace and doing alright. At the 3 minute mark, my heart rate was ramping up and my legs were on fire.  I filled these last two minutes with thoughts about everything I hated about this exercise. The fourth minute also included me wanting to stand still and cry.

At the 5 minute mark I had completed 37 repetitions. I immediately verbalized my hatred of this exercise. In the moment I am genuinely angry, fuming! Then feeling like they are not understanding how angry I am, I storm off. After 15 minutes, I return, having ran and stretched in an effort to regain some mental composure.  

It is hours after the fact that I am able to rationally discuss my meltdown. At this point the pain has faded and I am amazed at how real the anger felt at the time. This is because it was real, but brought on by the level of discomfort (Likely also not helped by the fact that I wasn't successful).

What this experience did highlight for me was the mental toughness that will need to be simultaneously developed in order for my physical capacity to continue to develop. Sometimes our brains need to get out of the way and let our bodies do the work.

Lastly, I can report that I have not re-attempted the challenge in the last two weeks, but have agreed to do so, provided that the challenger joins me so that I am not suffering alone.

April 3rd: 5 kilometre run......300 metres at a time

I am happy to report that I have successfully made it through week number one of mission strongfast. It was an interesting first week, starting out with a battle against my stubbornness, and ending in a happy pile of endorphins.

On Sunday March 31st, as I sat down to plan out my week’s training, I found myself questioning the volume of running, arguing training decisions, and just overall being a bit of a grump. I was nervous. Like a lot of people, I like to succeed. I like doing well and being the best. Prior to beginning this week of training, I genuinely did not know how it would go. I have completed a lot of fartleks, intervals and hill training, but always without any form of timing device. Because of this I did not know exactly what a 3:45 min/km pace would feel like. This made me very nervous, because at that time I was not at all confident in the feasibility of my goal.

The Monday and Tuesday of the first week were low volume days, getting my legs back in the swing of running after a post-race rest period. I also used those runs to test out a new toy, my first Garmin.

The Wednesday marked the first real test. The plan was to run at 3:45 min/km and see how it felt, and how long I could maintain it for.

I am happy to report that in the workout I ran 5 k in exactly 18 minutes and 45 seconds.....split up into 300 m segments, all at the 3:45 min/km pace.

I finished feeling euphoric for a number of reasons. Firstly because the workout involved pushing myself physically to a level that releases endorphins into your system. Secondly, it was exciting to feel the pace of 3:45 min/km, feel the ability to cruise at that speed for a short distance, and then feel my muscles screaming at me as I continue. Lastly, I felt a combination of relief and excitement. Though I am not currently at my strongfast speed, with time and a lot of hard work, I will be able to get there.

From Complete to Compete: StrongFast Begins

This is it, the 6th and final set. I can do this. I’m feeling the blisters on my feet and the fatigue in my legs. I’m also feeling pride in my ability, and a wonderful stream of endorphins running through my system. This is the last of 6 sets, but it is also the last 5 km of Around the Bay, a 30 km race that has been run every year since 1894. As I complete this last 5 km, it not only marks the end of the race, but also a transition from a dabbling runner into a runner with a goal.

As my final dabbling goal, I signed up for Around the Bay, and spent the months leading up to it preparing my legs for the task. Included in this were squats and lunges to build up my legs, many long runs through the cold Ottawa winter (the highlight being an 11 km run in -38 wind chill) and intervals and pace runs across snow covered sidewalks. I worked my way up, so that on March 24th 2013 I was able to complete my longest run to date, 30 km, in a time of 2 hours and 36 minutes. A time that placed me 52 minutes behind the winning female, but also 23 minutes ahead of the average time and placing 365th out of the 3330 other women running that day.

The system (more accurately termed a semi-system) was the same used to complete a handful of half marathons, Olympic triathlons and 10 km races.  I did some form of strengthening, completed sport specific training sessions of increasing difficulty and recorded and tracked my workouts. This allowed me to complete various events, injury-free, and with decent results.

What I found over the course of 6 years of racing was that as I trained, I wanted to train more. As you would expect, as I trained more, I performed better, which always made me think, if I can do that with my current training, what could I do with even more? This led me to sign up for races of progressively longer distances, a pattern that many runners follow. And then I made a decision. I want to focus my training toward a specific time goal, not an event. Rather than think about how far I can go, I want to know how fast I can go!

Thus the creation of my StrongFast goal, to run a 5 km run sub-19 minutes, specifically 18 minutes and 45 seconds.

Why sub-19 minutes? Because this classifies a female runner as elite. I wish to be an elite runner and I am committing to the work required to reach this goal.

The process of reaching this goal will be running progressively longer intervals, with shorter rest periods, at a pace of 3:45 min/km. Along with this will be sprints, volume, strengthening and plyometrics, in various quantities. The layout of these sessions will be based on the current body of research relating to running as well running programs and advice written by sub-20 runners and coaches. As I move towards this goal, I will be reflecting and reporting on my progress and the research that I am basing my training on, as well as commenting on the many triumphs and roadblocks that I experience along the way.