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If there is one thing we have all learned this year, it has been how to be alone, and for active people, how to train alone. Without a class, a coach, a group or clinic. While we can connect on line, we have had to do a lot of training solo. Easy for some, not so easy for others. This is where we are - how do we work with it?
Mindfulness and the Solo Runner/Walker
I believe it is valuable for people to develop the skill of mindfulness in training for several reasons. Mindfulness brings your attention to what is happening with your body in the moment. When you are mindful, you are more likely to be relaxed and without tension, and this will improve your body’s ability to move effectively. When you are paying attention, you will notice when something isn’t quite right - like a small ache or pain - and you can stop and stretch, slow down or stop before it becomes an injury. When you are mindful you aren’t distracted my multitasking, and this is both powerfully beneficial to your mental health and helps increase your intrinsic enjoyment for training. If you are mindful you don’t ignore a pain that will become an injury.
When you are on your own, you can cultivate the ability to be paying attention to what is happening right now, fully accepting of it, appreciating it, and not wishing for anything more, or for it to be different. Particularly, to not be distracted by ‘thinking’ - by music, your outside environment, or your unhelpful thoughts. I know that for some, music is distracting in a good way, and makes a session very enjoyable. To each his/her own. I never train with music, for safety (so I can be alert to my surroundings) and it's just how I like to run.
I feel there is a helpful correlation to mindfulness and learning to train by perceived effort. This is beneficial for beginners to aerobic exercise as it will teach you to listen to your body - and it is simple and gadget free. At first, even a slight increase in pace will feel hard and uncomfortable, but over time you will find that your body is adapting to lactate accumulation and you can go comfortably, for longer. The other benefit to training by perceived effort, and not heart rate, is that your body is not a robot. Sleep, stress, coffee, and other environmental factors can affect your heart rate, causing confusion and sometimes stress in athletes trying to attain unreasonable rates of work based on what they think they should do (that is, based on a quantitative system of improvement for the sole sake of compiling data). “I ran this loop at x pace last week so I need to run it at x pace this week, or I did x miles last week and I want to do x miles +n - no matter what). Learning your own effort levels in the absence of a coach is a solid start to training and staying healthy.
Spend some time training by feel alone
Training without a watch, or any technology will help you tune into your effort, and help you learn to trust your instincts about pace. Train on your own, without a watch, without HR monitors, music or any gizmos. Choose a route you know will take you roughly the amount of time you need for one of your aerobic easy training days. It doesn’t have to be exactly the 20 or 30 minutes, but close, within 5 minutes. If you don’t feel comfortable training without a watch, because you are new to the sport and do not know your routes, you can wait and do this session when you have some data for the routes that you do often - like in your neighbourhood or around a park. Another option is to do smaller loops - time yourself for one loop. Now you know how long it takes, roughly, to do this loop. Now go do the loop again as many times as you think you need in order to hit the prescribed training time. Or simply go out and back. Wear a watch on the way out, then take off the watch and train by feel and effort for the way home. See how this feels.
Aerobic development is important, but not to the point where you injure yourself.
To walk or run long distances, the development of the cardiovascular system through aerobic endurance sessions is necessary, but also unique to individuals. I learned early in my career, that my heart and desire were far greater and stronger than my muscular skeletal system.
While some of my peers were running 150 km/week, I rarely could hold greater than 80 km before I broke down or got sick. This limited my ability to do massive mileage and I eventually added triathlon to my career - using bike and swim mileage to boost my cardiovascular system. Some athletes can work their way up systematically into high mileage, some people will always break down after a critical point of volume.
Learn to avoid volume for the sake of volume, (which I believe is governed by the law of diminishing returns for anyone not training as a full time athlete, or over the age of 45). Avoid overtraining through too high volume, by listening to your body. Aches and pains that persist 24/7, fatigue, constant injuries to your knees, ankles and hips, and a general feeling (called intuition or gut feeling) that you are not making gains by training so much, means you need to limit your volume, or at least find a way to satisfy your aerobic needs by cross training. Long trail running hikes (where your pace is really easy, and interspersed with walking), hiking hills in the off season and pre-season in order to build aerobic capacity and lower limb strength and resiliency (Mt Doug, Mt Finlayson, Caleb Pike etc), and cycling will all give you the aerobic benefit you need, plus the strength required for fitness walking and running.
Don’t Be a Sheep
One of the greatest challenges to group training environments, is what I call the ‘highest common denominator effect”, where the pace of the group is dictated by the fastest participants. Been there, done that a thousand times. I have warmed up too fast, done long runs way too fast, cooled down too fast and gone out too hard over and over and over again. As a coach, I either encourage everybody to warm up at the slowest pace possible to keep the group together or in the case of particularly persistent ‘fasties’ I let the ‘fasties’ get ahead and learn for themselves that leaving their best training in the warm up isn’t the optimal way to get stronger. Of course with no group training happening at the moment, it's easy to work on being your own 'lone wolf'!
Good training habits have wonderful application to real life. Really listening to yourself is a huge confidence building skill. Knowing how to tune into your body, and just appreciate its movement and strength, and let the distracting thoughts go is a positive mindset in a world full of comparison and distractions. Learning when to back off without judgement from a too fast pace, a too energetic training partner or a too long long run, is one of the best skills and gifts you can absorb. For one, it is refreshingly free of ego, to be mindful and train at a pace that is right for you, instead of clinging to the idea that you have to ‘keep up’ to count. It reduces anxiety (will be keep up; will I be able to complete this?) and it frees you up for listening to your own body and perceived effort.
And finally, here are my Top 3 suggestions to being your own best coach:
1. Commit to getting good sleep; many studies have shown than consistent sleep and bed time routines enhance healthy bodies and ability to train. Training when energy is high is optimal. At least for key sessions.
2. Pay attention to eating well. Fuel with a good simple diet of nutritious food. Plan fuel for late day sessions. Drink plenty of water - your urine should be very light yellow at all times.
3. Make patience your mantra; hard work, routine commitment and practice are still the best guarantees to success.
Run For Joy!