Talk to anyone preparing for a sports competition and soon the conversation comes round to the amount of training.  For strength trainers its how much they are lifting, for team sports it’s the hours in the gym, or hours of fieldwork and for endurance athletes it’s the kilometres cycled, swum or run. Truth be told we become obsessed with how much we are doing, how many games we play, or races we run. We are focussing on the wrong end of the equation, which is the problem with many South African sports including many of the runners preparing for the 2003 Comrades Marathon.

We need to reconsider what happens when we train. It is true that we use up energy much of which comes from carbohydrate, but what few people are told about is the micro-damage inflicted to the muscles. In fact this is exactly what we are trying to achieve through training. The reason we train in running is that we will inflict this micro damage into the muscles used in running. Similarly cyclists will cycle to damage the cycling muscles.

When these damaged muscles are allowed to rest and recover they will repair and become stronger. It’s exactly the same as the repair that occurs when we break a bone. The only difference is that we put the arm of leg in plaster to ensure that it is given sufficient rest, but in training there is no plaster so we go out and inflict more damage, which is why so many runners are over trained by the time they get to Comrades.

The second component of ‘recovery’ is nutrition. Although we need carbohydrate for energy we need protein to repair and rebuild the muscles, and it is unfortunate that most endurance athletes are only ever ‘bombarded’ about the needs for carbohydrate. Ironically by taking a small amount of carbohydrate immediately after exercise we can increase the absorption of the protein and hence the efficiency of the recovery.

It should be clear that our focus of attention in preparing for Comrades, or any sport, should not be on how much training, but rather on the combination of minimising the amount of training to inflict the necessary muscle damage, and then maximising the efficiency of the recovery process with the correct mix of rest and nutrition.

In the same way that it is impossible for any rugby, soccer or cricket player to perform at their peak for 10 consecutive months, (has anyone told the administration?), it is also impossible for runners to run hard sessions, or long races for months on end without breaking down. The idea of training should be to build up the body, (and mind), to the peak event you are training for be that a World Cup, or a Comrades marathon. It’s a case of choosing what really matters and focusing on the true goal, not the side attractions and stepping stones along the way.

Over the next 9 weeks we will discuss the different aspects of successful preparation for sport. These can be classified into 4 modules; Physical, Nutritional, logistic, and Mental. Planning in each of these can minimise the risk of failure and maximise the chances of success. Our motto is to take control of the controllable, have plans for the uncontrollable (such as weather), and have an ‘attitude’ plan for the unpredictable.

With 11 weeks to Comrades 2003 many runners are using the marathons and short ultras such as next weekend’s massively popular Loskop 50km, as either training or qualifying events. Bearing in mind the above it is important to recognise that these events should only be one of the stepping-stones, or rungs on the ladder, to your ‘goal’ in Comrades. For this reason it is important to put these runs into perspective.
If you are using the events as a qualifier then you should aim for the slowest time that will put you in the seeding batch you need for Comrades.

Using the Loskop 50km as an example:
To be capable of a Comrades Silver medal you need to be a sub 3:06 marathoner, and should line up in batches A or B at Comrades.  A 3-hour marathon would be capable of 3:40 for Loskop’s 50km, but if you are using this as a qualifier you should only aim for a 4:00 hour finish to ensure a B seeding place. Instead of racing at 4 mins 25 secs per km you need only run at 4 mins 48 secs per km which will reduce the muscle damage inflicted in the run and hence reduce the amount of recovery time required before normal training can be undertaken.
Similarly those targeting a sub-9 hour Bill Rowan medal should ease through to a 4 hour 50 min finish at Loskop for a D seeding, and those wanting a Bronze in the traditional sub 11 hour finish should aim for a 5 Hour 30 minute Loskop finish.

Of course those looking to secure the new Vic Clapham 11 to 12-hour medal must duck under the 6-hour cut-off or their entry will not be accepted.

In each case these times will put the runner in the second batch that is applicable to the medal being targeted. In the majority of cases this is a better bet than being in the earlier seeding batches, simply because far too many runners go off too fast in comrades and that alone virtually guarantees failure to achieve their chosen goal.

If you already have your qualifier secured, then these long events should be used as easy training runs and the opportunity to try things out for the real target Comrades. This means they should be run at a pace at least as slow, or SLOWER, than Comrades pace. It is only by running at Comrades pace that you will train those muscles and joints to work in the manner you want on 16 June. Many runners run virtually everything at marathon pace and then are surprised when they cramp after 64km in Comrades. So Silver medallists should run Loskop at 5 minutes a km or slower (4:10 finish), Bill Rowan medallist at 6 mins per km (6 hour finish), bronze medallist at 7:15 per km (6 hour finish)  and those who have already qualified and are looking for a long training run should ideally run at 8:00 minutes per km to finish in 6 hours 40 minutes, but will inevitably have to run slightly faster to dip under the 6 ½ hour cut off at Loskop.

Remember the key to achieving your goal, be that in business, life, rugby, soccer, cricket or the Comrades marathon, is to keep focused on what really counts which means using other events as rungs on the ladder to the true goal.

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