When I wasn’t getting slower
Back in 2019 I hit two PBs. One I’m happy with, the other I’m determined to beat.
The latter is a parkrun best of 20:05. It’s a frustratingly near miss of an ambitious target. Does it matter if I can’t go sub-20 minutes for 5K? Possibly not. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to.
On the other hand, my half marathon PB is good enough. It wasn’t my best race – I started too quickly and tired way before the end. With a little self-control I probably could have gone quicker. But the fact that I finished in under 100 minutes, means I don’t mind.
In the cold light of day, these milestones seen insignificant. But they clearly matter, otherwise PBs wouldn’t be such a big deal. And we all know they are. Even parkrun – famously and wonderfully inclusive – celebrates PBs.
So, my dissatisfaction with 20:05 is healthy. (At least in my mind.) And I’m determined to beat it. Although, right now, it feels out of reach. Right now, even 22:30 is a long way off. Right now, I struggle to better 25 minutes. Because, right now, I seem only to be getting slower. And I’m not entirely sure why.
Reasons you might be getting slower
Aside from my age, which I can’t do anything about, there are several possible reasons why I’m slowing down. Lifestyle, training cycle, non-running exercise (or lack of), even the weather. And, of course, there’s this big old global pandemic and the fact there aren’t any races to train for.
It’s possible to overthink these things – I’ve certainly been guilty of that. After all, running is inherently simple. To extend Maslow’s hierarchy to runners we only need to add trainers, suitable clothes and a bit of open space. But simplicity aside, it’s natural to wonder why we might be getting slower. Besides, overthinking is, apparently, in my nature. So, here’s a bit of overthinking that might be as useful to you as it is to me.
Bad eating habits can trickle into our lives even under normal circumstances. Like rising damp, you don’t necessarily notice until the damage is already done. In the grip of a global pandemic, those bad habits can burst their banks and completely flood our homes.
Too much food. Not enough food. The wrong sort of food. It’s incredible how easily and in how many ways your diet can slide. My problem tends to be greed. I gain weight like a runner acquires new trainers, then cling onto it with the zest of a puppy holding a stick.
Alongside food, alcohol often contributes to my burgeoning belly. When the nation first locked down, I responded with beer. Why not? I thought. We’re regularly reminded how unprecedented all this is. Surely, we’re expected to respond in our most precedented way? After all, we need some sense of normality. For me, that tends to be too much beer.
Herein lies one possible cause of my recent slowness. It’s no coincidence that both my PBs came within a few months of my wedding. It conveniently illustrates my point that I can’t currently fasten the trousers I wore on my wedding day. I think it needs no more explanation than that.
I don’t know about you, but when I have a drink (too many), I sleep badly. My ballooning bladder leads to fitful dreams where I can’t find a toilet. Of course, when I wake up desperate for a wee, I realise why my mind put so many obstacles between dream me and the facilities I needed. I hope I never successfully wee in a dream.
But it’s not only drunk sleep that affects your running. Any disruption to your sleep can have a huge impact. And there are many reasons why our sleep suffers: stress, loss of routine, staring at your phone just before you drift off.
Sleep sits at the base of Maslow’s hierarchy, alongside food, water and warmth. For runners it’s a significant factor in our overall performance and in our recovery. And yet we don’t always give it the priority it requires. If you’re slowing down, perhaps more focus on bedding down might help.
Bear with me on this. You see, sometimes you can train to the point where you start to slow down again. I know, it seems wrong. But it’s right. It’s called overtraining syndrome and it can affect us all. Dramatically increasing distance. Putting in too many hard sessions. Not factoring in enough rest and recovery between sessions. All of these can lead to overtraining syndrome. And overtraining brings a wealth of problems, including loss of pace.
Overtraining isn’t the only reason our training schedule might slow us down. Variety is important in building speed. After all, if you only ever run at one pace, you’ll become very good at running at that pace. When I pushed for my PBs, I included a mix of long runs, shorter interval sessions and a weekly parkrun. You can also throw in a few hill sessions, if that’s your thing.
At the moment, I’m doing none of these. Instead, I’ve fallen into a routine of two middling plods in the week, with a slightly longer plod at the weekend. It’s hard when there are no races to train for. But it’s also obvious why my current training regime won’t see me trouble any personal bests.
Strength and conditioning
It took me a while to appreciate how strength and conditioning could benefit my running. Surely running is all about legs, lungs and heart? Why should stomach muscles matter? Or so I thought. And, when I first started parkrun and I was relishing weekly PBs, planking couldn’t have been further from my mind.
Naturally, over time, the PBs became more elusive. Then they stopped altogether. Then, I got injured. And when I came back from that, I was slower, naturally.
It was frustrating, trying to return to my previous pace. Frustrating and slow. Then, through various chats and a little Googling, I was awakened to the importance of strength and conditioning. And not just for stomach muscles – glutes, quads, hip flexors, lats and all sorts of other things I’d never even heard of.
Since then, I’ve come to learn that strength and conditioning isn’t just for PBs. As a runner, these muscles help avoid injury. If neglected, they can also be a major factor in why you’re getting slower.
This point doesn’t need to be laboured – if you’re injured (especially if you’re still in stage one), your performance will suffer. Be honest with yourself. Are you getting slower because of weight, sleep or lack of variety in your training regime? Or is there an injury lurking somewhere, waiting to mess up your future plans?
Don’t ignore that niggle. Otherwise, your current slowdown could soon become a complete stop.
None of the above
It’s possible you don’t have any underlying issues at all. Perhaps your focus on pace is self-perpetuating – you believe there’s an issue, so you find an issue. If you are struggling for pace (and you’re definitely not injured), try adding fartlek to your running programme. An occasional, irregular burst of pace can trigger something in your muscle memory that gets you moving fast again. Just don’t do too much too soon, or you’ll be on your way to injury town.
Alternately, don’t worry about it. While there aren’t any races, it’s enough just to enjoy running – you can always focus on pace when the races return. However, much like coming back from an injury, finding your best pace takes time and, unfortunately, effort. So, don’t worry if your parkrun PB feels a long way out of reach. You’ll get there. And, hopefully, this little blog might help you find your way.
Header image by Nick Abrams on Unsplash