Advent Running 2015: Run Streaks, Speedwork, and Training

During December 2014 I tried “advent running” for the first time. This is a run streak specifically for December where the goal is to run at least 3 miles or for 20 minutes every day of Advent (although not strictly true due to the nature of how advent falls in the calendar). So what this means for me is to run every day from December 1st up until and including December 24th, but I add the challenge to myself of seeing how many miles I can get in during the streak.

You may read in places that a running streak is bad for you, will make you more prone to injury, and just generally isn’t worthwhile. My experience of a run streak in 2014 was tough, but what I did find that a few weeks after the running streak was over (whilst back to normal 3-4 runs a week) I was starting to run faster. Whether this was the run streak, the cooler weather, or other I couldn’t say. I felt that having a run streak to provide motivation to keep me running after the marathon, and through the cold weather was a positive. This then led to a couple of months of repeatedly setting new PBs and feeling more confident about my next marathon.

So after it feeling like a success in 2014 I decided to have another go at it for 2015. This time though I wanted to put more thought into what I was doing as this time it would form part of my training for an ultra marathon. In my mind though I also wanted to continue on with speed work in an attempt to get faster. Whilst I feel it’s good to have a plan, what is more important is being able to adapt – be like water.

You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.

It is fine to have a goal, but to use Bruce Lee’s quote (out of context) what I find useful is to change your plans based upon how training is feeling. The week before starting the advent running I decided I’d do a 4 mile run with the last mile pushing hard to see how fast I could manage on “tired” legs. This was then followed by a 5.5 mile run on the Wednesday which would then become a weekly fixture to monitor how the run streak was affecting me. Having this baseline and then a “test” each week it would allow me to adapt my plans each week as necessary. My only real requirement was to get in one long run each week which would get progressively longer, but with a mini-taper every other week.

To clarify my point about the taper – tapering isn’t just something people do for marathons, and when it comes to marathons what usually happens is a more extreme taper than what is really required. A taper during training is when you cut back on distance or intensity for a period of time – though it’s not uncommon for people to reduce both before a major race (though personally I like to only taper in one way). However, during this running streak I was already planning to cut back on mileage for every second week to help with recovery but also a couple of runs following the most intense being at a slightly slower pace.

For the first six days of the streak what I was mainly thinking of was my goals outside of the streak and based on this I was convincing myself that if I saw the streak negatively impact them then I’d abandon the run streak. However, the first six days did go more or less according to plan. Over the space of these days I did two runs I’d consider slow for me, one at what would be slightly slower than 10K race pace (which I would consider to be speed work) and three long runs. These days were hard work in convincing myself to keep pushing when it happened to coincide with a week of strong winds and heavy rain, though I persevered and managed to reach just over 50 miles in this time.

On the seventh day I realised I couldn’t carry on with that sort of intensity and then did the next two days of running at a slightly reduced distance and pace to give my legs some time to recover. This was then followed by the second 5.5 mile run to check on progress and I found that despite the winds on the day I’d only slowed down by 7 seconds per mile. This left me thinking – it’s probably quite normal to gradually slow down during a running streak as your legs never get a chance to properly recover. Though I also wondered if with careful planning of my next week’s worth of runs whether I could manage to do the next “test” run at either an equal or faster pace.

As it happens the next run was slower – I’d slowed by another 6 seconds but it also felt that I was putting more effort in to get that close to the pace I wanted. Despite the cutback week I still found this third week of the run streak to be progressively more difficult than the weeks that preceded it – a clear indicator that I’d misjudged how quickly my legs would recover during the lighter days. This however had the knock-on effect of my legs then not having recovered enough for a couple of long runs at the weekend. I had hoped for an 18 mile run followed by an 11 mile run, but instead I found myself unable to do more than 11 miles on the first day in a time that would be comparable to what I normally do 13.1 miles in). At this point I then decided I would end the run streak early – a short lived thought. For the first time since the run streak began I found that although I was still keeping to what I needed for marathon training, I’d fallen behind on ultra marathon training. Somehow though I convinced myself to go out to run for a few miles, my legs still feeling the previous day’s long run, and 15 miles later I was done.

Although I missed the 23rd December due to feeling unwell, with what would have been the 24 day run streak almost at a close I decided it was time to reflect upon how useful the past few weeks had been. In the first 14 days I’d reached my initial target of 100 miles and somehow managed 150 miles in twenty days of running. I think although it felt like my running towards the end was a struggle and that I was failing it was probably a good base number of miles to continue ultra marathon training from.

So, there was one benefit – I’d got plenty of miles into my legs and had gotten in around three long runs per week. I’d had the experience of running on tired legs again, something that I really tried to push through with on that last Sunday run and hopefully something that would help me to run a full marathon in April without walking.

This time I’d been more analytical about what rest my legs were getting too. A gentle run after a long run seemed like it was enough to recover for another longer run, but in order to get enough rest to manage a faster run I had to do at least two short slow runs. If I only did one recovery run after some hard work then my legs weren’t recovering enough without a rest day – something useful for me to bear in mind. Experimenting with distance and pace on these gave me a good idea of how what to include as weekly runs during the proper ultra marathon training.

I had hoped that it would help train me to persevere on hard runs again, but as I mentioned earlier, whilst it seemed like a good idea I did find on my hardest runs of the streak I just couldn’t keep going and had walking breaks. I think though that it may have helped to a degree but won’t truly know until “normal” training resumes in January.

As always it’s important to remember that what works for one person may not work for the next. To repeat a cliché, everyone is different but also what works for you is likely to change over time. To quote an old TV series, “What might be right for you, may not be right for some” and “It takes Diff’rent Strokes to move the world”.