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A visit to the Accelerate Performance Centre, for a fitness test and technique analysis, led to some startling findings for Damian Hall – and an MOT fail

MY RECENT RUNNING results included some PBs and podium placings. But my performances seemed to indicate I was starting to plateau and I had spent more time than ever injured. Running more miles was simply leading to more physio appointments. I needed fresh, expert input and the best place to get that is from whoever is the best. Mo Farah was too busy arguing with people on Twitter, so I approached Marcus Scotney.

Marcus has represented England and Great Britain at ultramarathon championships, won five ultra races in 2014 (setting four course records) and has a marathon PB of 2:32. He’s also a sports therapist and part of the experienced coaching team at Sheffield’s Accelerate Performance Centre. Plus he has a brilliant beard. After an initial consultation on Skype, he suggested I come to Sheffield for a “running fitness zero assessment” and a look at my technique – a runner’s MOT if you will – before providing a training plan for my year’s A-races. The visit was a revelation.

Putting some heart into it

Accelerate’s philosophy is to train with a heart rate monitor (HRM). They believe that’s the most accurate way to know how hard your body is really working – otherwise it’s guesswork based on numerous factors, such as terrain, fatigue, weather and other variables. I had never used a HRM before because it seemed too scientific, too serious, and a bit like wearing a bra. Would it take the joy out of running? Well, injury was already taking the joy

out of my running, so I was ready to try new things. It also occurred to me that amongst all my running friends, the only one who uses a HRM happens to have represented her country.

To determine what heart rate levels to train at, I needed to do a lactate threshold test. The test shows when the body stops using lactate as a fuel efficiently and it starts to flood the blood stream – at this point your lactate or anaerobic threshold is reached.

The test involves running on a treadmill for three-minute intervals, the speed increasing by 1kmph each time. It was easy at first but got considerably sweatier and by the end I was banging into the sides and struggling to stay on the treadmill. A surprisingly painless blood sample was regularly taken from my ear lobe to see how much lactate was in my red stuff.

Podiatrist and technique specialist Colin Papworth filmed me at different speeds and tiredness levels. As Marcus pored over figures and created a

lactate graph, naturally I assumed he would voice admiration at my bull-strength heart and stamina akin to an Arabian thoroughbred. “Yep, there’s plenty of room for improvement there,” he said. Oh… “Your energy efficiency could be better,” he continued. “We need to get you a better running

economy – the body’s ability to utilise energy – both glycogen and fat. You’re overproducing lactic acid, because you’re inefficient.” Just like my car, I’d failed my MOT.

My “top end” speed could be improved (which I’d expected), but so could the bottom end – and my ability to burn fat. I had been running too much at medium speeds. “A common mistake,” he said. “There’s this obsession with miles per week and minute-per-mile-speeds. But it’s brutalised training, forcing the body to do more than it’s capable of, leading to over-training and injury. By running hard, after a short-term gain over perhaps four months, all we do is burn glycogen and then plateau or get injured.” Which is pretty much what was happening to me.

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Go slower to run faster

“Your muscles and heart need to be strong and your energy systems need to be taught how to work properly, and that takes time and care,” said Marcus. To my surprise, amongst other things, I’m prescribed with lots of slow running, at a really easy heart rate. “Slow work gives you a long-term gain as it builds up the foundations. Most clients come to me to run faster,” he continues. “I tell them to run slower. They’re usually reluctant, but they

always get faster because of it.

Almost everyone could benefit from running more slowly. This aids more capillary – i.e. more oxygen creation – growth and more mitochondria, which are like building mini power stations. When you run fast, you’re destroying muscle capillaries.” I’m given a training programme that doesn’t even mention miles. Instead it’s all HR zones and hours on feet.

Let’s get technical

While I was at the “garage”, it made sense to get a full service too, and I sit down with Colin for technique analysis. Watching slow-mo video of myself running is both dismaying and illuminating. I thought I ran like Steve Cram. I’m more like Seasick Steve. Colin delivers my second dose of bad news in a kindly, avuncular way.

My bad habits include the dreaded overstriding. I’m also overloading my calves (indeed they’ve been sore for most of the past year), meaning I’m missing out my hamstrings and glutes – far bigger muscles that aid stability and provide power. My unstable posture forces my body to compensate elsewhere – my torso slightly rotates, which is energy wasted. My left arm swings out further than my right – Colin and Marcus detect a problem in my right ankle.

A quick if ouchy bit of manipulation and some tape sorts that out. While a resistance strength test confirms my under-used hamstrings are indeed feeble. “For muscles to work efficiently they need to go through their full range,” explains Colin. The body is full of connective elastic tissue and if we

stretch them properly we get a natural energy return. “Various things can block this – shoes, joint restrictions, poor technique, for example, and this leads to the muscles working in a short range – always contracting and not being able to lengthen. Muscles don’t like to keep contracting and eventually they go ‘blow this’ and just lock up and get damaged.” We’re not starting from scratch, thankfully.

Colin’s keen to emphasis that small changes to the right bit of gait can lead to big improvements. “If you stand taller and stretch out properly, the energy is used for forward momentum,” says Colin. “When it works, the results are amazing – some call it free speed. Get the upper body sorted out and the rest should fall into place.” In my case, Colin also suggests I need to put a bit of a kick in my stride to allow my leg muscles their full reach.

I’m also wearing the wrong shoes, he says. “A lot of running shops fear pronation – the heel rolling inwards – and they’ll sell you a shoe that prevents pronation. But biomechanically it’s essential, for shock absorption.” We get on the treadmill and work on my technique, while trying on various shoes – with less “blockiness” and no anti-pronation. The different treadmill noises, different shoes – and slight technique tweaks – make is amazing. It’s the quieter the better.

It’s too soon to know if training with a HRM, running slower, new shoes and technique tweaks will work for me. But the theory seems sound and I can’t wait to find out. I leave Accelerate with my head buzzing with fresh ideas and renewed appetite for training…

Sheffield’s Accelerate Performance Centre (accelerateuk.com) offers a wide range of services for runners, from coaching and technique workshops to physiotherapy and a lot of appealing shoes and kit.