As some of you will know I had a 24 hour ECG tape on during this week and someone suggested that it was unlike me I wasn't planning to "push" it - I reacted with a modicum of sarcasm, mainly because the individual involved should know more than most my approach to exercise.
However, as they obviously didn't get it I spent the 5 and a half hours I spent wandering up Skiddaw either itching the re-growing hairs on my chest, looking at the awesome views, panting and working out a new model of fitness.
This may not be completely new, so apologies to whichever guru I'm ripping off... I give you the balloon model of fitness.
I have one big fitness balloon - that's me in total, all of the walking, running, climbing, gym work etc. Each of those elements is a balloon within the bigger one.
My baseline fitness, my usual get up and go stuff is what the Fitbit tends to measure - its the minimum 10,000 steps I do, expect when ill, its the two climbing sessions a week. Basically, its what I'd call a normal week.
When I'm following a training plan, I'm basically expanding the specific balloon I'm training on and as that grows the big overall balloon grows as well. So if I follow a marathon training plan, my cardiovascular fitness and leg muscles will improve. Gradually, and this is the frustrating element for me. I would say I have very, very rarely "pushed" my limit. Over the years I've have blown the balloon of my general fitness up a lot, but that only takes me so far - say a 70min 10k - to overlay a training plan takes time. So I follow, for the runs, a classic periodization pattern - I slowly build up distance, and try and increase speed. And surprise, surprise, the sports scientists are right - it works. How do I know, because if I train I get faster, and don't feel as tired at the end of a run.
My first run of this "year" was a 10km on the 31st Dec - it was the start of the London Marathon training plan, and it hurt and it was slow, a 78min 10km is a full 16 min slower than my PB. It was cold, bleak and painful - and I remember it 11 months later. Because it was the start, and 41 runs later I destroyed my Marathon PB - by doing the plan, blowing up the balloon little by little expanding my running balloon to the best its ever been.
That balloon, with little top ups and some specific training on hills, kept me going through the Liverpool Marathon and the Peak District Ultra. Then the balloon started leaking, I got injured - my ankle, and a touch of plantar fasciaitis, which meant limited running. So the balloon started shrinking, it wasn't being topped up. Rest, recuperation, orthotics, friends giving me inspiration to keep focusing on the future rather than dwelling in my fugue of being unable to do something I enjoy.
But the balloon shrinks slowly, and the baseline fitness I had by the end of the spring was much better than I had at the start of the year. So when I started back from injury it was knowing that I had the endurance, but probably little of the speed was left... a slow GNR followed by 3 and half glorious days walking along Hadrian's Wall proved that.
Then comes the planning for next years adventures, the concentration on half marathons and endurance walking - what do I need to do to my balloons... Another training plan, this one for a half marathon in Cambridge. I know I can do half marathons, I could do one tomorrow. It'd be ugly and it'd be slow but I could do one. This is about trying to expand the speed balloon - Cambridge is pancake flat and as close to a to a PB course as I've ever run without getting a PB (2 minutes and 30 seconds over 13.1 miles!!!).
The training plan is printed and on my desk - each run, each expansion of the balloon, is ticked off. They are run sequentially, specifically so no run is pushing it. If you push too much air into a balloon too quickly it bursts, springs a leak through an injury. Hence my sarcastic reaction to the suggestion of pushing it. I've built my fitness over the last decade, with periodization for events, and I can only remember one or two occasions of "pushing it"; the mad headlong sprint for the PB, the exhilaration of chasing down another runner on the home straight... but they are the sort of "push" that anyone who straps a number of their chest will feel from time to time and just let rip.
But on a damp day in November, pushing it is not on the agenda and the suggestion that I push myself is deeply irritating, I blow up the balloons with deliberate care, long practice and dedication. Pushing it is an instantaneous action, instinctive, everything I suggest any runner can only do so often and runners with dickey tickers should be more wary of than some. If my deliberate care and dedication looks like pushing it to you, then remember for how long I've been balloon blowing, expanding them specifically and generally with the implicit and explicit agreement of my cardiologists.
Enough of the rant - I had a delayed birthday weekend of walking, and it was glorious...