Early in 2019, I was approached by an athlete (let’s call her Lucy ) who wanted to run the length of New Zealand and set an FKT in doing so. She had some decent results in some shorter 50ish km ultras but no experience in running anything longer. Yet she was serious in wanting help to run 3000km in less than 70 days over tough and challenging terrain.
I also had a conversation with another athlete of mine (let’s say his name is Jeff) who had some very good results in 30-50km trail races but his last marathon was 2:53 and he wanted to run a sub 2:40, maybe quicker.
For both athletes, their goals were going to require a significant commitment to training. It was a case of all in or don’t bother. I outlined what I thought would be required of them and they were on board without hesitation. ‘Tell me what to do and I’ll do it’, was pretty much the response.
In today’s blog, I wanted to discuss what it takes to achieve something really special. Many of us are drawn to goals that are maybe just outside what we think is possible, but for some reason, we keep getting drawn back to them. A 3:05 marathon yep but sub 3 – mmm not so sure, 100km race yep but the 100-mile version – mmm that might be pushing it a bit. The harder goal has a magnetic pull about it that we can’t shake off. Then reality sets in and we think about all the extra training required. For many, that’s where the goal ends. The extra training seems too much, and for them, the time sacrifice involved and training required is not worth the potential rewards of achieving the goal.
But for Lucy and Jeff, they made the training a priority despite both of them having busy lives. They both had the support of their partners and would do whatever it took.
But I wanted to discuss a few key areas that allowed them to achieve their goals (Jeff ran 2:29 and Lucy smashed the record by 11 days).
The biggest factor for both of them was consistency. Neither Jeff nor Lucy missed a single session in the three months leading in to their events. Not a single one. Keep in mind volume was up high for both of them – well over 100km per week for most weeks and in the last three months, neither of them had a day off running. That’s right not a single day off.
Neither of them had any significant injuries at all when training – early on Lucy had some minor hip issues but was able to keep running through it – we just modified the higher intensity sessions to not flare it up and whilst Jeff had an occasional niggle here and there, he had nothing that meant more than moving a hard session back a day or two and doing an easy run instead. For Lucy, a big part of staying injury-free was doing the Mile 27 Dynamic Strength training program
Big goals require consistency – I’ll write in-depth on consistency in my next blog but if you want to achieve something special then showing up every day and getting the work done is key.
2. Shelving their egos
To run that consistently without an injury means easy runs needed to be easy. It meant not chasing Strava segments on easy runs. It meant keeping the pace down even if feeling good. It meant if running with others to be prepared to be the one that says I need to slow down as this is meant to be my easy run. It meant accepting that on some days doing the hard session is not the best idea and reverting to an easy run and doing the hard run tomorrow is the best course of action.
3. Getting outside their comfort zone.
Jeff trained for his marathon throughout the Hong Kong summer – which for those of you who don’t know is brutal. Think mid 30-degree temps and high humidity. Just running at all is hard – let alone doing fast finish 30+km runs. Jeff employed the help of some of Hong Kong’s fastest marathon runners to keep him honest in these runs, making sure he kept the pace up when it needed to be up. Lucy had a few weekends where she would do 6-8 hours a day 3 days in a row and would sleep in a van to prepare for what life would be like when running the Te Arora Trail. Both of them would fit runs in when they could – even if it meant a 3 am wake up call or finding a treadmill in a hotel in Bangladesh to make sure the run got done. Not once did they ever balk at any session I suggested for them. Imagine how you would feel if this is what your coach prescribed for you:
Friday – 4 x 12 minutes hard efforts 90 seconds recovery
Saturday – 6 hours hills
Sunday – 4 hours all runnable
32km progressive run
– 15km easy
– 5km at 4 minutes kms
– 5km at 3:50
– 5km at 3:40
– 2 km at 3:30
or 5 x 2000 at 3:30 pace with 90 seconds recovery ( in 35 degrees and 80% humidity )
There was never any discussion on whether the session was possible – they just went out and did it. Trusting both their coach and themselves that is was possible.
Looking at their weekly mileage below you will notice that there aren’t any real easy weeks, sure some weeks were a little easier but in general, the volume stayed up. This is only possible when the athlete ensures easy session is easy, they back off hard sessions when the body isn’t up to it and prioritise sleep and recovery. The coach also needs to ensure the athlete can handle the training load each week before increasing it further. If you over step the mark then you need to compensate for that with a much easier week. Fortunately, through good management and good communication between athlete and coach, this never happened and we were able to keep the training load high throughout.
If you want to achieve something beyond what you have done before then you have to train as you have never trained before. That means getting outside your comfort zone and trusting that you will have what it takes to do it. If you can’t do it in training you will have no chance come the event.
4. Prioritising recovery
Hard training means recovery is super important, good food and sleep are the main factors. You simply can’t train that hard if not sleeping and eating well. As the training ramped up Lucy and Jeff made sleep a higher priority to ensure they got the maximum benefit from their training and minimised injury risk. Addressing any sore spots before they become niggles is also key to consistent training. To stay on top of things Lucy and Jeff used a number of different strategies; massage, a trip to the physio, foam rolling or self-massage. If you catch niggles early on and take action you can prevent them from becoming severe enough that they affect your running. Sleep is where a huge percentage of recovery takes place – sleep less and you are more likely to get injured.
5. Self belief
In talking with both athletes there was never any question in either of their minds that their goal was anything but achievable. Jeff started with a sub 2:40 goal to which I suggested that sub 2:35 was definitely possible and later in the program, we realised that 2:30 would be possible if all went ok. There was never any thought of playing it safe – Jeff was all in.
With Lucy, despite having no experience in any ultras longer than about 50km, she had the belief that she could break the FKT even before she started coaching with me. Throughout the months of coaching and seeing the adaptations her body made over the months it only increased her belief that an FKT was possible.
Neither of them had any thoughts that finishing in their goal time was beyond them. Both knew that things had to go right for it to happen but the funny thing about training hard and consistently for a long period is you make your own luck. You minimise the variables that can negatively affect your performance – Jeff knew he could run 2:30 pace on tired legs in Hong Kong summer conditions at the end of long runs so holding it in perfect running weather in Berlin on fresh legs would be possible. Lucy knew that having not missed a session and run every day for 3 + months that doing the same in New Zealand would be possible.
That self-belief was there at the start though – neither questioned their ability to complete the training despite some very gruelling training weeks. If you don’t have that self-belief when approaching big goals then the lack of it will sabotage you at some stage. You’ll question if it’s possible, start missing sessions and before you know it you haven’t done enough work to make it possible.
If you want to achieve something beyond what you already have achieved then you need to have a degree of self-belief that it is possible. That might be based on your running history or something completely outside running – you may have achieved goals in other areas of your life that were a real stretch – you can take that mindset into big running goals.
I hope you can see that with the right commitment, self-belief and training plan it is possible to achieve results that are beyond what you may have initially thought possible. Mile 27 coaches a range of athletes from elites like Lucy and Jeff to mid to back of the pack runners whose goals and results are no less amazing – its all relative to you and what you want to achieve. Never underestimate what is possible!