Prior to my primal switch, I was just a 10km runner that didn’t really have any aspirations other than beat my current 10km time. I started running in 2010, and between then and summer 2014, I’ve set a few new 10km personal bests by chunks of seconds. My 10km time was always above 57 minutes, and secretly, I had always wanted a faster race time, but no matter what I did, how hard I ran or how long I ran, that never happened.
Looking back to my pre-primal running days, I didn’t really do much at all to get the personal best I wanted. I thought PB’s just happened as a result of frequent and regular running, or were a result of running to maximum effort, which for me, during a race, would fizzle at about mile 4.
When I went primal, things dramatically changed. Not only did I get that sub-57 minute 10km time at the River Ness 10km last September, but I crushed my previous 57:xx PB by over three minutes. I also ran my way to two 5km personal bests that race, beating previous PB’s by a minute.
The PB pursuit didn’t end there. I broke my 10 mile PB in November 2014, at the Dundee Roadrunners Templeton 10 (mile) race, beating my previous time by over five minutes to set a new time of 1:34:xx. When we were in Berlin, and ran 10 miles in Potsdam, I bested the Templeton time by a minute. And then in March, at the Smokies 10, I set my current 10 mile PB of 1:32:56, improving by another minute. I also set a new personal course record, down seven minutes from the previous year.
Lately, every race I’ve run, I’ve set either a personal best or a new personal course record. Even my trail times are even improving, and nearing my current road personal bests – anyone that runs trails knows that trail times don’t equal road times. This kind of progress is telling.
All this improvement is down to hard work because personal bests don’t just happen. They don’t get served to you on a silver platter. You need to work for them.
So the burning questions:
What did I do to get faster?
How was I able to chase and set PB’s?
1. Weight loss: from May to August 2014, I lost 24lbs of body fat. Although many people tell me they never thought I was overweight, at 76kg (167 lbs or almost 12 stone) I was in fact the heaviest I’d ever been in my entire life. Removing 24lbs of excess weight was definitely a contributing factor to my increased speed, but definitely not the only factor.
2. Building muscle: Since making the primal switch, I have gained lean muscle mass through a series of simple body weight exercises. I follow Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint Fitness, and employ his rules for lifting heavy things (my body), on a weekly basis. Twice a week, I do varying push ups, squats (sometimes one-legged), planks, as well as other body weight exercises like burpies, mountain climbers and jumping jacks.
My legs and core have become more defined and stronger, which are both essential for running. And all a result of lifting my own weight for short workouts that last no more than 20 minutes.
It also helps that low-carb diets, where one eats protein at every meal, result in natural increased muscle mass.
3.Cross training: body weight exercises are one way to cross train, but I’ve also used swimming and cycling to help increase and improve my overall fitness. This worked especially well when I trained for my first triathlon.
My favourite type of cross training, though, has to be trail running. I love the challenge it presents. I love running up and down the big hills, sometimes having to walk for a bit because of the gradient. I love how the footing always changes and it feels like you’re skipping on stones. Trails are more undulating, challenging and very dynamic. They definitely work your body more than a road run!
4. Hill running: you may have noticed that my Instagram profile describes me as a ‘Conqueror of big hills.’ Part of the reason for this is that I live in rural Scotland, where you can’t escape hills. The other is the fact that hills do so much for us as runners: they help build stamina, they’re great for muscle strength, and they’re both a literal and figurative barrier that we can overcome. They’re the deciding factor between safe running and daring running, sticking within one’s comfort zone or reaching for more.
My hill running typically consists of incorporating large hills into my running routes: these are over 400 feet elevation gain. My favourite place to hill train is over 800 feet! Most of my runs are hilly and I like that.
I also do hill repeats, where you run uphill for a short amount of time or distance, then turn around to run back down the hill; this is done repeatedly and at about 80%+ maximum effort. In the past, I’ve done 10 sets of 30 seconds up, and lately, I just did my first hill workout with 3 x 1 mile repeats.
Hills are tough, but it’s true: life does happen on the hills.
5. Running long: Long runs have been part of my running vocabulary since I started mixing things up with my running back in 2013, long before I went primal. These runs are done a conversation pace, much slower than shorter runs; if you’re running and you can’t speak without becoming breathless, you’re running too fast. Your effort for this type of run should be 55-65%.
The purpose of the long, slow run is to build stamina. It may not make sense that a session of basically jogging will make you a stronger runner cardiovascularly, but it works. My long runs are a minimum of 8 miles, but usually between 9-11 miles; when Pat and I trained for the Glacier Energy trail race, our longest run was 14.5 miles. All were done at a slow, conversation pace. I do one long run per week, always on the weekend.
6. Running at steady pace: if I’m not doing specific hill workouts or long, slow runs, all other running is done at steady pace, about 65-75% maximum effort. This is another Primal Blueprint Fitness concept – to move slowly, often. Did you know that running at 80-100% maximum effort only burns glycogen (muscle energy)? By running at a lower intensity, you’re not only using fat as a fuel source, but also becoming more efficient at tapping into your glycogen, which means you won’t run out of it so quickly and hit the wall, a long distance runner’s nightmare.
Despite running at steady pace and doing no specific speed work – like I’ve done in past half marathon training programmes – I’m still able to run at an increased pace come race day. And this is with running only three days a week.
7. Train low, race high: this is one of the most important aspects of my training, and again, it comes from former elite marathoner and triathlete, Mark Sisson. This means to train in a glycogen-depleted state, and then, leading up to race time, carb-load with primal-friendly complex carbs (sweet potato, white potato, butternut squash, white rice, even quinoa) to the point where your muscles are chock full of glycogen, waiting to be used race day.
As mentioned above, glycogen is the energy our muscles store, ready to be used for high intensity exercise and to make running up hills that much easier. Our muscles can store about 2000 calories (or 300-500g) of glycogen in our muscles; this looks like around 90 minutes of higher intensity running. This muscle energy is created through carbohydrate intake; it’s what runner’s build in their muscles when they carb-load for races, albeit usually with pasta. Our liver can also produce glycogen, about 100g. The problem with glycogen is that it’s finite, and depending on the type of physical activity and intensity at which you’re doing it, you may need large amounts of glycogen, more than your muscles can store. Sugar-burners tend to run out of glycogen much faster because their bodies rely exclusively on carbohydrates for energy. Fat-burners like myself are able to use their fat stores as a primary fuel for runs instead, allowing the body to conserve more glycogen rather than having to depend exclusively on it. Imagine being able to use two fuel sources instead of one?!?!
How does one become glycogen-depleted? Eating less complex carbs, of course. To train low, I eat primal-friendly complex carbs about four times a week. I’ll make sure to have some of those servings one or two nights before a long run, to give my muscles some energy. Then, in the week leading up to a race over 10km, I start eating these complex carbs at lunch and dinner, every day. I also increase my fruit intake from three a day to five per day, including high carb bananas. Come race day, I’m sick of these complex carbs but it has paid off: my muscles are fully stocked with energy just waiting to be used. For 10 mile+ races, I also include the use of mid-race fuels, like Honey Stinger energy chews, for that extra help.
This fat-glycogen efficiency, coupled with glycogen-bursting muscles come race day, leads to strong running, steady racing and personal bests. I employed Train Low, Race High for my Balmoral race weekend, and as a result, ran two very strong races.
The only downside to this strategy is that during training, you may find your legs feel heavy – this means there’s barely any glycogen in your muscles. You will need to eat more complex carbs and experiment with an intake that allows you train well and run up hills without this heavy feeling, but without having to rely on these carbs on a daily basis. It is about trusting the process, and trusting the training.
8. Primal diet: I’ve come to learn this past year that diet is the greatest contributing factor to our health and wellbeing, but also our ability to train and recover well.
I’ve spent the last year eating real food, made with real ingredients, and transforming my body into a fat-burning, hill-running, trail-seeking beast. I did go through a process of experimenting with foods to eat that not only make me feel great all day, but also while road running, trail running, hill running and doing body weight exercises. In preparation for a big run or race, I eat more primal-friendly complex carbs and fruit. While doing a big run, I usually eat bananas and drink water; during a race, it’s Honey Stingers energy chews, which are made with non-GMO organic ingredients, sweetened with honey and are gluten-free, dairy-free. Post-race, I’ll have protein and carbs to restock my muscles and help them recover. I also eat some high-glycaemic fruit or dried fruit to boost my lowered blood glucose levels, and drink some bone broth to replace lost salts. Finally, I drink plenty of water post-long run or race to keep me feeling energised the remainder of the day. This is all on top of my daily meals of protein, vegetables, and plenty of healthy fats.
Eating a primal diet allows me to have level energy all day, which results in injury-free optimal running, and more importantly, optimal living.
There really is no secret to my current running success: it’s all a result of complementary actions that combined together, produces some fantastic, ongoing results.
What changes have you made to your training that are showing fantastic results?
Would you try train low, race high?