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UK Athletics

it's all about the heartbeat

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Geoff Wightman

We took time out to talk to former Commonwealth Games finalist and British Athletics commentator Geoff Wightman. Geoff uses a Polar heart rate monitor when coaching his son Jake and also works closely with the company in his role as Managing Director of runbritain.

How does training with GPS and heart rate help you get ahead in training and reach your goals more quickly?

Heart rate and GPS take the guesswork out of how endurance training works these days. When I was training in my 20s’ the only things you could put in your training diary in respect of effort were ‘hard’ ‘steady’ or ‘easy’ and these were based entirely on perception rather than being able to measure performance empirically. I now coach my son Jake, who ran a 3.35 1500m the day after his 20th birthday last summer. With the use of a heart rate monitor and the fitness tests that he has twice a year, I can say to him “Do six miles in the morning at 130-140 beats per minute” and he has all the information on his wristwatch to keep to exactly that level of effort and distance. The value of this will become particularly important when he undertakes his first two altitude training camps in 2015. The first of these in January at Iten in Kenya will be a shock to the system. It’s 2,400m of altitude and very warm. I know from my own experience that for the first couple of days in thin air, you feel like you are running with a fridge on your back. That plodding feeling passes as the body adapts but while that happens, there’s no point saying “run steady” because seven minute miling could feel like maximum effort in those circumstances. That’s when you retrench to what you know and have calibrated, so it will more likely be “20 minutes at no more than 130 beats per minute” to achieve the right workout effect.  

In your experience why is rest and recovery important for endurance runners?  

Jake does a hill session once a week in the winter. As the weeks go by, we can build the training effect by increasing the number of hills run, improving the speed for each one or reducing the amount of recovery time between each effort. I think this last one is the area that is often overlooked in blending an endurance programme, especially when you are training in a group and the recovery period for the interval isn’t timed but might be how long the fastest or slowest runner takes to jog back to the starting point again. Winter training can be really hard. You are dealing with cold air, wet or slippery conditions, dark nights – sometimes all at once. You will often feel completely wiped out at the end of a session and you don’t know whether that reflects your fitness level, the accumulated fatigue of previous training sessions or the underfoot conditions. A coach can spot some of those things but when you download the heart-rate feedback after the session, the key indicator will be how quickly the elevated heart rate came down to approaching normal levels. Similarly, your everyday resting heart rate as the weeks go by, should come down as fitness increases. Signs of over-training can include loss of appetite, insomnia, excessive loss of weight and slightly elevated heart rate when resting. You can only really know if it is elevated if have established your ‘normal’ range with regular use of a heart rate monitor.

How can you balance and measure your training load to avoid over training?

Two of the best known British coaches in the 80s and 90s were Peter Coe and Frank Horwill. They were advocates of ‘five pace training’. That is to say that during the course of your running week you should have five different speeds at which you can operate, ranging from top speed in track or interval workouts to the more leisurely speed of a long Sunday run or a recovery jog. But what are those speeds? One man’s sprint is another man’s jog. If you combine the intuitive approaches of those two great British thinkers with someone like Jack Daniels who, despite his spirited name, remains one of America’s foremost distance coaches and is extremely technical in approach around heart rate/VO2 max/lactic thresholds, you would come up with personal zones and percentages that would keep you the right side of over-training. It might be that for January your week involves 5% of your running being at 80%+ of your maximum heart rate, 15% of it at 70-80% of your maximum heart rate, 40% of it at 60-70% of max heart rate etc. To do this effectively you need to know what your maximum heart rate is. The historic calculation is 220 beats per minute minus your age in years. So if you are 30 years old, your maximum heart rate would be 190 beats per minute. These days you can find out exactly what it is with the use of a Polar Heart Rate Monitor. It makes everything that bit more precise and less random..  

In your view how much are runners engaging with software and the ability to analyse their runs beyond the data on their wrists?

I would say that these days even a three-or-four-times-a-week runner is more sophisticated in their approach to training and fitness than some players who make their living playing team sports. That’s a sweeping generalisation but running magazines and websites are jam-packed with advice on nutrition, hydration, stretching, speedwork so that newcomers start to soak all that up as part of the culture. Football magazines are crammed with great goals, 4-4-2 tactics and fashion photoshoots. The extension of this is that runners are very quick to take advantage of technology and gadgets. I regret this when it is in the form on an MP3 player used during a race. The individuals concerned are missing out on the whole atmosphere of the race and, more crucially, can’t hear marshal’s or other runner’s shouting instructions. In the case of training with GPS and heart rate monitors, I think it’s a brilliant development. It’s part of the mix for building to personal best times. It’s motivating, progressive, accurate, bespoke and adds a whole new dimension to the running experience, way beyond scribbling the number of miles run in a WH Smith diary.

Has technology changed the way you do things at Run Britain?

When I first came into running in the 1970s, if you were lucky a race organiser had printed out a hard copy of results in purple ink on a Gestetner drum and pinned it on a notice-board before you left the venue. Otherwise you had to wait until good old Athletics Weekly published them three or four weeks later. These days, results are generated by electronic chip timing almost instantly and have also been tweeted or listed online within a short period of the race finish. runbritain lists the results of all 2,500 annual UKA-licensed races plus 250 parkruns each week and the peak time for viewing these is Sunday evenings and Monday mornings. Beyond that period, attention moves on to the following week’s races or training. We require all of our runbritain licensed races to have an up-to-date course measurement certificate if the race is advertised as a specific distance. The Association of UK Course Measurers (AUKCM) is very meticulous about this process so we know they are accurate to within 1%. In the past, this would have been taken as read by participants but these days we regularly get correspondence querying the overall distance run from people who have completed the race with a GPS. Usually it is because they have missed out on a personal best time by a few seconds. The answer is almost always that both the runner and AUKCM are correct. The professionals have measured the racing line that the leaders will have followed, a set distance from the kerb on bends. The runner, often in among thousands of others will not have been able to keep to the tangents or even see where the inside bends are. The mid-pack runner further down the field may have zig-zagged their way along the route to overtake people or get to drinks stations. Over a half marathon or marathon those extra metres add up. That’s why they have run a few seconds over-distance. Sorry, folks. Train more. Use your Polar more. Get quicker. Come back next year and run the racing line with the speed merchants.