In his last report, Robert Dineen joins a running club and discovers what he has missed by training alone
A Wednesday evening at a quiet athletics track in Essex. I lean into the bend and work my arms faster to make up for the pain in my legs and lungs. Only 150 metres remain of a 400-metre run, but I fight the temptation to close the gap to the guy in front. This is our sixth lap at the home of the Woodford Green Athletics Club and three 200-metre sprints remain in my first interval session since I was a reluctant member of the school athletics team.
Entering the final stretch, I try to put into action the advice I received from Dawn Hunter, coach of the East London Triathlon Club, whose members I have joined for an hour-long workout. “Land on the middle of the foot and lean forward to allow gravity to help you,” she said. Crossing the finish line in relief, I lean perhaps a little too eagerly forward, but draw to a halt quietly pleased at finishing second out of about a dozen runners.
Encouraged, I put it to Hunter that my existing regime of two runs a week will provide sufficient preparation for my first duathlon in Chelmsford on October 26, an off-road event that I entered when the Essex Duathlon scheduled for a fortnight earlier was cancelled.
“It depends on what you want to achieve,” she says. “But ideally the minimum preparation for a race is three sessions a week.” They should comprise of a long run of more than 45 minutes to build up stamina, an interval session to increase flat speed and a tempo session where you run at 80 per cent of your maximum for about 20 minutes. “That raises your lactate threshold, which enables you to push your body to its boundary,” she adds.
I crossed the line second in the final 200-metres too but, with a little reflection, admit to myself that it is hardly a notable achievement. Most of the other runners are (I think) a few years old than I am and only about two-thirds are men. More to the point, they appear to be competing only with themselves.
A welcoming bunch, they encourage and compliment one another, creating camaraderie that I have not had training alone. I suspect that this jovial atmosphere makes the prospect of pulling on running gear and leaving the house on a chilly autumn night a lot easier.
Should a beginner, then, join a club from the start of their training? “It varies with the club and the runner,” Hunter says. “If you’re a complete novice and not at a stage where you can run 20 minutes without stopping then you’re not going to keep up with a regular running club.
“A triathlon club is a little easier but even then you should check to see what they expect. The best thing is to do is just get out and start running. You’ll pick up the fitness needed quickly: even a novice should be ready to race after two to three months.”
A triathlon club will also tailor its running training for the particular demands of the three-discipline event. Perhaps the most important of these is felt at the start of a run when your legs adapt to the switch from the bike. Even experienced competitors find it triggers a strange sensation in which their thighs feel almost like jelly.
“It is an odd feeling and never goes completely,” Hunter says. “You can help ease the discomfort by learning to adapt your bike cadence so that it matches your running cadence, but it is still important that you get used to it by doing brick sessions.” Those experienced in triathlon training will know that a brick session involves two of the three disciplines. To get familiar with the “jelly” phase, it is important to push yourself on the bike before the run.
We finished the session with a gentle two-lap warm-down, with runners breaking off into pairs, some to discuss an upcoming 10-kilometre race. I used the opportunity to adjust my running style further, shortening my stride length to preserve energy – only sprinters should extend it – and reducing my lean so that it felt comfortable but still left my back leg trailing behind. “Like the Kenyans,” Hunter says.
Hunter structured the workout with the 10-kilometre event in mind, calling on everyone to run each lap and half-lap flat out to improve their speed and cut an extra few seconds from their race time. A newcomer to the competitive running, I am still working on my stamina but feel confident now that I could dovetail my training with that of the club. I may even get fit enough to catch the guy who led from the front.