Guest Blog by Bryan:
At Emma’s suggestion I joined the United States Strengthlifting Federation (USSF) and entered their Spring Open competition. It was a virtual meet - you video your lifts and send them in to be judged. Then they get posted on a competition board. There is a chat-room, the whole thing takes a week - and everyone just wears regular gym kit; so no embarrassing lycra necessary.
Brilliant fun in the way only Americans just seem to know how to run competitions. What is interesting for me about the USSF is that it uses a handicap system to modify the weights lifted in the masters sections (i.e. 40+) to even things out - it multiplies the weight by a number that gets bigger the older you are. Half way through the competition I actually qualified for my State pension - so that definitely gave me a bit of an edge against the younger beasts I was competing against. And competing we were, I was surprised just how much I wanted to do well - and I don’t think anyone was holding back against the older dudes.
Needless to say, I didn’t win - but nor did I come last - I was 4th (out of 6) in the Open Masters, and all of the lifters were putting in serious numbers. This was definitely a very competitive meet with some amazing athletes - and I don’t include myself in that list even though I hit two PB’s during the meet. Fun or what.
I was wondering what I learned other than to feel childishly pleased with myself. Well, nothing new really that hadn’t dawned on me over the past 18 months of being coached by Emma. But the public competition and a great result for me just makes my conclusions feel more solid. Lifting weights definitely makes you stronger and it also makes you harder to kill -which is not a joke when one gets older and its time that’s the grim reaper. I feel like a different person to the one who walked in to see Emma at the start of this journey. So clearly the health thing is good.
But more importantly it definitely addresses the invisibility issue that plagues more experienced people. If that hasn’t happened to you yet don’t be too upset, you reach an age where you simply disappear from public consciousness on an increasingly regular basis. Despite this affliction and having taken a chance and competed publicly (and risked looking daft and doddery) it so makes me feel a lot more opaque. Surprisingly that was a great safe space to just have a go and try to do as well as I could and just have fun. And that makes me feel more alive and - well, just: myself. And a good deal more visible - feeling sort of day-glo orange this week. But hey - guess that’s just how us Baby Boomers roll. At least when they have a great Coach. Thanks Emma.
I’ve always been a sporty one; track and field, netball, hockey, rowing, dance, skiing over the years I’ve tried a lot of sports, I enjoy being active, and competing, training to be better than before. Since 2017 my focus has been on running when I ran my first Marathon (Yorkshire in 3:43:43), I hated it but loved it all at the same time, I wasn’t happy with the time and knew I could be better, I had unfinished business and wanted to find the limit of exactly how fast I could go; but in 2019, I took it too far, my body couldn’t keep up with the training I wanted it to do. I misread bad sessions as a need to train harder instead of the warning signs that I needed to give myself a break, or at least learn how to recover better. After the high of a massive Marathon PB in the spring; not just breaking 3hours but comfortably running 5minutes inside that dream time, by the summer I was struggling to run inside 20minutes for a 5k - a pace I could maintain for a Half Marathon in the Spring. As I headed into the Autumn, a niggle in my knee became absolute agony. I started September in a place where I couldn’t walk without pain and my knee would swell up when I tried to run.
The rest I had to take helped my body heal. I had my first period in 6months. And that was when I realised what a mess I’d let my body get in. Recovery became my new training, food plans, rehab, time on the cross trainer. I wanted to be ready to go again when my body was
healed. I signed up for the Berlin Marathon for September 2020, I was determined to not just be fit enough to run, but I was going to run a PB, I was going to break 2:50. The problem was although I got better at matching my food intake and recovery with the time I was spending in the gym. The rehab protocols I was doing religiously 3-4 times a week wasn’t getting me any closer to running again. As autumn became winter I still wasn’t running, the trainer I was working with was moving house and I was lost.
The search for a new trainer near my office began. Profound had been mentioned as a nice quiet clean place to train. I sent an email. Byron came back to me. I met him. I wasn’t totally sure that strength training was really what I was looking for, but I knew a couple of days before that first meeting I’d been sat in the gym crying because I couldn’t half squat an empty bar without my knee being painful enough that I had to stop, just him showing me the low bar technique and form had 30kg on my back without too much discomfort, so I arranged another session. Those first few weeks were hard, the training I was doing with Byron didn’t match the training I thought I was ‘supposed’ to be doing as a runner. I told my step dad I’d give it 12 weeks and then review how it was going.
At the time I was walking about a mile to the office. In December just that mile was uncomfortable. In January I was able to introduce short jogs into that commute, slowly gradually adding a minute or two each time and building up the number of days in a row I was running. February had me running 4 days in a row, and my longest run of the week was now an hour. Things were creeping, inching back towards the training I loved. By March I was ready to start training again, with interval sessions and everything. Obviously, we’re now in March 2020, and the world is about to get turned upside down with a Pandemic. No more gym, no more office… but over those 12 weeks I’d gone from not being able to half squat an empty bar and walking a mile being uncomfortable to squating something like 75kg, a deadlift of over 100kg and being able to run continuously for 70minutes without any pain, swelling or discomfort.
Parallel to this, the Physios who couldn’t work out why their exercise prescriptions weren’t helping me return to running had sent me for imaging. The reports were available towards the end of January. Basically the MRI showed I had/have a fairly sizable amount of damage to the cartilage at the end of the long bone in the top of my leg (femur). The purpose of cartilage in joints is to act as a shock absorber and allow bones to slide over one another. But when cartilage is damaged it doesn’t really heal. The scan and report concerned the physio enough that I was referred to a consultant. My initial appointment was in late March and with everything going on the appointment was postponed and wasn’t able to be rebooked until November 2020. At that meeting the consultant was surprised that I was able to walk into his office without a limp, let alone run 45miles a week. From the imaging he was expecting to be booking me in for a cartilage graft which in his opinion was my best chance of returning me back to the sport I loved. But given the fact I was happy with my current quality of life and my knee wasn’t stopping me from doing what I loved he discharged me and told me to keep doing what I was doing.
So it’s mid March. I’ve just started what I think of as running properly again. A double digit mileage long run, and two run sessions in my week that are faster than a steady jog, they aren’t long, and they aren’t particularly fast but it’s the beginning of the next chapter. There is a pandemic in the wind, we’re told to cancel no urgent business meetings, not shake hands with people when we meet them, I start taking my own sanitizer to the gym and then the gym is closed. I was sold on barbell training enough by this point that it was something I saw as part of my training routine, not really training I enjoyed, but the training I needed to do so that I could do the training I wanted to do. I was lucky that I had the space and the money to invest in a home gym set up, and it was probably one of the two best panic impulse buys I made in 2020.
Throughout lockdown I was able to keep training more or less as normal, I couldn’t meet Byron in the gym anymore but I could still train with my squat rack, video the sets and he could send me feedback. I’d always had a remote relationship with my running coach and thankfully getting outside for exercise was never banned in the UK. The routine of weights on a Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, run workouts on a Tuesday and Friday and of course Sunday Long Runs helped me keep track of the days which all blended into one. I was working from home, living on my own, training on my own. There would be days where I didn’t speak to another person. It was hard. But the routine of training kept me going. There was something in my life that was still moving forward, still progressing. The weight on the bar kept going up, the runs got longer and then they started getting faster. As things started to open up a bit again in late summer and races (or glorified time trials) appeared on the calendar I was over the moon to pin a number on and be back to being able to run a 10k in under 40mins at the first attempt at the start of October. By the beginning of December I’d taken another minute off and was back close to my old PB. I was also now able to deadlift more than twice my bodyweight.
I’ve been following more or less that same structure ever since. Just consistently working. When the winter lockdown started ending I entered my first Half Marathon in over 2 years. Training in the run up went well, but of all my pre injury PBs I thought of my half time as the hardest one to beat. I’d run it in the build up to that awesome Marathon, it was one of those runs I just enjoyed from gun to tape, I didn’t care about the time, I just wanted a strong and confident run and that rewarded me with a fabulous time. This time out I just wanted to see what I could do. It was going to be my first mass start race since both Covid, and my injury. My first half marathon. I’d told myself sub 85 was acceptable. A new PB would be a shock. And shocked I was, 30seconds faster than that time I thought was phenomenal. I had proof I really was back.
So what do I think of strength training for endurance running should look like 2 years later? It still isn’t the circuits, plyos and rep counts in the routines and articles in Runners World point you to, but I do believe getting classically stronger has made me a better runner. Strength training has been the framework which I’ve been able to build a truly consistent training block around. It hasn’t made me (that much) bulkier, but I’m definitely able to generate a lot more force than before. I don’t think it's a secret that you can’t run a fast marathon without a fast 5k time, more force is more power, more power becomes more speed. As for all those single legged exercises on a wobble board… I’m happy giving my legs that stimulus running on mud, sand dunes and uneven paths taking my steady miles off road as much as possible and use those miles to enjoy the world around me as well as build ‘strength’ in my legs.
At the start of 2022 I had a bit of a moment writing my new year goals. I realised that the idea of picking up 150kg from the floor and squating 100kg+ gave me more of those excited tingles than aiming for that come back Marathon or breaking the 80min mark in the half. Having had a super successful cross country season, 2nd senior lady overall in Westard League and seconds off top 100 finishes at both the English national Champs and Intercounties I've taken a break from my running to go all in with my strength training. Great changes have occured in my life as a result of me meeting Byron and picking up that barbell for the first time. I can get on the scales and watch the numbers going up without being scared. I've learnt new movement, coaching and programming skills which in turn I'm using to help other people. Having qualified as a personal trainer myself in 2021 I’ve turned this into my career now. I'm so much more confident and learning to lean into the fear of trying new things and dare I say it, learning to fail.