Building up to a half marathon after rupturing your Achilles.

In five weeks I will be doing the Brighton Half Marathon. This will be my first half since rupturing my Achilles in June 2015, almost three years ago. I used to do races like this all the time, mixed in with an occasional marathon. If you’re a regular reader of this blog (don’t worry, I’m not offended) you will know that I have gradually been building up the strength in my Achilles along with pace and distance in my runs. It’s been a long and exhausting journey, and there have been a few things I have learnt along the way.

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The usual half marathon programmes recommend progressively longer runs once a week interspersed with tempo and easier runs. My first piece of advice is to focus most of your efforts on the distance runs. These are important in building strength in your tendon and confidence in yourself that your Achilles can handle 21km. I have been building up distance over the past year and this is an important aspect of with this type of rehab – ensuring you have the time to build up healthily. Rushing to build up distance too soon is dangerous, so pick a race that gives you more time to increase distance gradually.

Running every other day is a good rule to stick to in order to give your tendon time to rest. Often though it is best to take several days off in between runs, particularly if you feel any discomfort in your Achilles. This is time that can be used to cross-train or focus on sports which still build your aerobic fitness whilst allowing your tendon to recuperate.

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A problem I have found post-rupture is that my hips and knees have developed more niggling injuries due to the imbalance that exists between my good and bad leg. I’d also recommend Pilates, which has been good at building my core strength and has had a noticeable impact on reducing the niggling injuries. It provides focus on days off from running and has taught me exercises which activate long forgotten muscles which, like the rest of your affected leg, have fallen victim to wastage.

Tempo runs are important for building pace and can be done for as long as your tendon responds well to them. The flatter the route the better, to ensure you aren’t putting unnecessary strain on your ankle on the climbs (something to remember when picking which race to do). Having a faster running partners for these are immeasurably useful as they push you out of your comfort zone (see my earlier article). Be careful not to do too many tempo-runs – it’s important to remember that completing the race healthily is the most important thing. Faster half-marathons can come in time. At least that’s what I keep having to remind myself.

I continue to be mildly amazed at the ability of my tendon to respond to the increasing demands I put on it when for so long running seemed a far-off dream. It has been the ingredient of time which, fingers crossed, should see me over the line. If, like me, you have suffered a ruptured Achilles, I hope articles like these offer some useful advice. I would love to hear from you and how your rehab is going.

Cycling Diaries Part 1: Crystal Palace to Tunbridge Wells.

The first in a series of articles, unpicking the great (and not so great) cycling routes in and around London.

Distance: 82km
Elevation: 1310m
Highlights: Kidds Hill (The Wall) and Toys Hill
Start Point: Crystal Palace Train Station
End Point: Tunbridge Wells Station
Marks out of 10: 8

A good friend of mine said to me recently that he doesn’t do winter cycling – “unless the temperature’s above 15 degrees, I’m not coming.” Sage advice as a group of us cycled from Crystal Palace to Tunbridge Wells on a particularly biting Saturday recently. One of the best things about this ride is the relatively short time it takes to hit “proper” countryside once you leave Crystal Palace station.

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Heading south along the A214 you experience the usual drab, dreary, dingy concrete jungle as you pass through the soulless outer reaches of London. Within 15 minutes though, you pass through West Wickham, start climbing up Laynhams Road and in an instant, suburbia wilts away like a bad dream and rolling fields and wooded lanes begin.

One of the few joys of winter riding is that the hedgerows are bare which gives you a dreamy, misty view south towards the bigger hills that await. The traffic begins to disappear as you turn left down Hesiers Hill and begin the first climb up through Beddlestead Lane. The legs kick in to gear, warmth spreads through your numb fingers and you click down the gears until you reach the top, turn left and hurtle down the B2024.

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Scooting along parallel to the roaring M25 you turn off down Pilgrims Way, duck underneath the motorway and quickly find yourself in Brasted, at the foot of one of the major climbs of the day, Toys Hill. Make no mistake, this is no hair rising climb, but by South East UK standards it gets the body working as it kicks in at a steady 5% for the best part of 3km. On this day the climb was quiet and as our group spread out you begin to hear only your breath, with the warm steam from it rising up through the trees as you race your friends to the top.

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Plummeting down the tougher southern side, your sweat begins to freeze and you start dreaming of coffee as the ride wiggles through increasing attractive villages – Four Elms, Hever, Cowden and Ashurst Wood. The ride undulates its way through muddy, sunken lanes with sudden steep ramps that bring you out to take a quick breath and look across the fields before quickly dropping you back down again.

Dreaming of food, you eventually arrive at Forest Row and find the table nearest to the radiator at Java Jazz Café. On bleak winters days this exotically named pit-stop is exactly what you need after a long cycle, with great coffee and a good selection of food (get the quesadilla, trust me).

By this stage you’ve broken the back on the day and thoughts turn to Kidds Hill (aka The Wall), just outside Colemans Hatch. I really enjoy this climb. It’s only 1.5km and dead straight, but becomes progressively steeper as you reach the upper ramp (over 14%) which gives you no-where to hide. It always hurts, and in hill climbing that’s what you want.

thumbnail_photo 2On dark winter afternoons like this, the densely wooded climb is almost spooky at the bottom and our bike lights flash brightly as you look upwards, light flickering at the opening to the top of the climb seemingly only a short way ahead. You arrive at the summit, dancing away on the pedals at the top of Ashdown Forest with a view to savour across Kent and Sussex.

Once you get your breath back, all that is left is to track your way east for 8 miles along the B2026 and B2110. There are a few truly lumpy sections along here too which, as darkness begins to descend and with traffic building caused spirits to begin to drop.

But before you know it you’re in Tunbridge Wells enjoying the warmth of a train carriage as you try and find something hot to drink. And as you speed back into central London, thoughts move away from numb legs and tingling toes and back to hustle and bustle of city life.

Finding a good running partner is tricky, but worth the wait.

Much like finding true love, finding a good running partner can be tricky business. Much like finding that special someone, it often starts with excitement before nagging and awkward long silences kick in.

People often talk of their ‘get-rich-quick schemes’ and mine would be a plutonic tinder-esk app for running partners. Instead of swiping through pictures, you’d have split times and favourite running routes… I think the idea needs a bit more work…

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Over the last few months I have begun running again regularly following a ruptured Achilles heel a couple of years ago. Despite the overwhelming joy of this, as I have mentioned in some of my earlier blogs, I have found it particularly hard to regain the pace I was capable of pre-snap. I have found a few things that have helped (see previous blog), but none have been as a good as running regularly with my older brother, Tim. We had often run together many, many years ago and back then were roughly the same standard. Since then it’s fair to say that he has become a lot faster whilst I, well, I haven’t. As a result, running with him over the last couple of months has been a revelation for several reasons:

Firstly, because we are brothers there is no need for any of that tricky running small-talk. You know where one of you of is struggling to stay alive and the other is merrily chatting along. Because we know each other so well we know the tell-tell signs of someone not wanting to talk – all it takes is a single look and the other person knows now’s not a good time.

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Secondly, and rather selfishly, running with someone faster (but not too much faster) than you is great for improving your pace. We often run routes along London’s roads and the narrow pavements mean one of us runs in front. I often find myself desperately hanging on as Tim happily jogs along and am surprised that whilst I am in large amounts of pain I do manage to keep up with him longer than I expect. In football people often talk about a player being ‘match fit’, and this is the same thing – by running with someone faster it creates an experience you cannot create on your own. Rather than slipping back to your basic pace you are forced to run faster. You could argue that you can create this pace on a running machine, but I would say that if you are a competitive person then the sight of someone just ahead of you provides far more motivation than a bleeping screen with slowly moving numbers and your sweaty, miserable reflection looking back at you.

One of the more surprising joys of having a good partner has been changing routes. Like other runners I tend to stick to the tried and tested paths which can often become more of a mental challenge than a physical one as the boredom kicks in. I have my 5km, 10km and ‘progressively longer’ route so engrained in my head that I can’t bring myself to come up with anything new. When you have a regular running partner you naturally start trying their routes too which makes the whole process more stimulating. This is particularly true in urban running where I am always surprised at what can be found if you look hard enough or even better, have a partner who knows them already.

Lastly, and arguably the most important reason, is the motivation a good partner provides. Like all of us, I find it tough to find the enthusiasm to run on cold, dark week-nights and having someone texting to say they are already on their way over pushes you out of the door. More often than not the ‘let’s do 5km’ run turns in to far longer as, for Tim, 5km isn’t worth it. At the same time, because he’s my brother I feel no shame in saying that I can’t go that far and that I’ll do 7km with him and then head home.

Don’t get me wrong, running on my own is my something I cherish and look forward to. It is the one time of day when you are truly present and as a result I have always found it a meditative experience with as much benefit for my mental health as my physical. Having said that, if like me, you are keen to push yourself and be able to run faster and longer, I can thoroughly recommend finding a good partner. I have found that the best of these just happens to be in my own family.
Continue reading “Finding a good running partner is tricky, but worth the wait.”

Looking for cycling heaven? Then head to PyrActif…immediately.

There is nothing better to do on a bike than cycle up a mountain. No, not the Surrey Hills on a wet Saturday or the Ashdown Forest on a very wet Sunday. I mean a bright, sunny, 25 degrees kind of day, cycling up something over 1000m. I remember my first Col – Alpe d’Huez on a hot summer’s morning in 2012. The battle of body against machine, the stunning scenery, the knowledge that you are cycling in the shadows of the greats. I loved it.

In the summer of 2017 a group of friends and I stayed with the cycling holiday company, PyrActif, in the foothills of the Pyrenees, roughly 20km north of the famous cycling spa town of Bagneres de Luchon and about an hour’s drive from Toulouse airport. PyrActif is run by Dean Thompson and based in the sleepy hamlet of Bertren in a beautiful, large 19th century farmhouse, offering bespoke cycling holidays with some of the world’s most iconic climbs in easy reach. It offers complete cycling immersion.

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During our week at PyrActif, a typical day started with breakfast, laid out in the long, wooden dining area. Dean, the most modest and warm hearted of hosts, brought out vats of coffee and, in true cycling style, all the breads, cereals, dried fruits and jams you could need for a long stint on the saddle. Talk centred around the climbs and routes that lay ahead and our stomach churned a little with nervous excitement.

We cycled out from Masion Garrigou each day along a quiet road in the base of the valley, wide fields on either side, with the heat of the day starting to rise as we craned our necks upwards to look up at the mountain passes.

My favourite Col of the week and the one that best sums up the Pyrenees is the Port de Bales – a wonderfully grim and remote 19km climb with numerous sections topping over 11%. The northern base of the climb (Mauleon Barousse) is about 15 minutes ride from PyrActif and before you reach the start you find yourself cycling through sleepy villages with the Tour bunting still on display across the streets with flashes of yellow, green and red polka dots. There is a remoteness to the Pyrenees that is difficult to find in the Alps. Everything is more rugged, more down to earth, more humble. This was epitomised by us, with our carbon bikes, Garmins and isotonic drinks being overtaken by a middle-aged man on an old steel framed bike on the lower reaches of the Bales. His calves were like hunks of chiselled mahogany as he slowly cycled away from us after a friendly greeting with our envious faces following his path upwards.

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The climb winds its way up a narrow track, only made passable by Tour organisers in 2006 in their quest to find new climbs to challenge the riders. You find yourself snaking along up the gully with waterfalls spilling down, seeking stretches of merciful shade as the gradient and the summer heat take their toll. Eventually, a few kilometres from the top, the climb opens out to a wide, beautiful, bleak vista of farmland with the rattle of cow bells on the breeze. I don’t think a single car passed us on the way up and trust me, we took our time. Tour fans will remember Alberto Contador controversially riding away from Andy Schleck on this section in the 2010 edition when Schleck suffered an ill-timed mechanical. The climb tops out at 1755m and we spend a few minutes breathlessly taking in the view and scoffing down whatever was left in our back pockets before the bob-sleigh ride down the southern side of the Col, your teeth starting to chatter from cooling sweat as we plummet down into the spa town of Bagneres de Luchon – a sleepy, friendly place with a plentiful supply of great cafes to have lunch and weigh up the merits of taking on another Col before heading home.

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We finished each day exhausted back at the farmhouse, drinking beers in the back garden and sharing stories of the day before Dean cooked the kind of hearty three course dinner that you spend the final stages of the day’s cycle dreaming about. This was accompanied by a few bottles of local wine as we eventually crawled into our own bed to repeat the whole life affirming experience the next day.

 

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