How To Achieve Your Personal Best

How To Achieve Your Personal Best

TRAINING FOR A PERSONAL BEST – Interview with Mark Williams. Official Running Coach for the Standard Chartered KL Marathon (SCKLM) and Co-Director of The Running Plan (


What you need to do for the 10k, 21km and 42km

Distance running is a great sport for pushing your limits. While running itself has many documented health benefits, the idea of pushing yourself to finish longer distances is a great motivator which also helps to sustain your interest in running. Another great way to motivate yourself is to run faster. Recording ‘personal bests’ at a certain race distance can definitely incentivize your running and even help you to discover your limits. But how do you go about trying to shave off seconds or even minutes from your current time?

  1. What’s the first thing you should do at the beginning of your training for a personal best?

The first priority is to make sure that you have the time AND commitment to try and achieve a new goal in your life. A new personal best for a certain distance in running will be the culmination of a long and arduous journey; one that has taught you a lot about yourself; one that hopefully has made you into a better person. If you feel that you have both the spare time and commitment to achieve what you want to do then you are ready to go!

  1. List the key areas to focus on and why?

Planning is essential to achieving any goal. Anything or anyone that wants to progress must have some sort of structure in place in order to get into the routine required in order to achieve ultimate goals. This is where a structured plan comes in that for most people will be constructed by a professional coach.

The second most important thing to do is to train within your means. Start easy and build up your mileage each week. Start putting some quality workouts into your programme as you progress forward. Find an appropriate training partner or appropriate training group to work with on a regular basis. This really helps when you are trying to push beyond your limits.

Finally, make a diary of everything that you do along with important aspects of your training such as pace, temperature, terrain and RPE (RPE stands for ‘Rate of Perceived Exertion’ and is a great way of judging how difficult a run was. I usually work on a RPE of 1-12 with 1 being ‘feeling the best’ and 12 being ‘I am about to die’.) RPE helps to locate weaknesses, not necessarily to do with internal factors in your running but with regards to external factors. For example, do I get affected by the heat? Do I run better in the morning or evening? etc.)

  1. How important is nutrition to a Personal Best attempt? What would you recommend to maintain optimum energy levels?

Just like all the other variables that are important to a runner’s welfare such as hydration, adequate rest and sleep, nutrition is very important, especially as this is where a runner will get their energy from. For distance runners, the main energy system utilized is the ‘oxidative system’ which uses a combination of stored carbohydrates, fats and protein to make energy. Carbohydrates tend to be the most important fuel that can be utilized for energy by distance runners. Carbohydrates release energy into your system through insulin secretion and certain ‘simple’ carbohydrates such as sucrose cause a higher insulin secretion than eating more ‘complex’ carbohydrates such as starch. Diabetes is a metabolic disorder that prevents you from producing enough insulin and therefore if you eat too many carbohydrates some of the sugars do not metabolize and this can lead to you feeling dizzy or even put people affected into a diabetic coma. Some runners, including my good self, have to be careful of something called ‘reactive hypoglycemia’ which is where eating carbohydrates too close in time to exercise, causes this dizziness; however, this does not mean that the affected person is a diabetic; it just means that you have to be careful with not just what you eat but when you eat it as well. I will stay clear of ALL foods 3 hours before a run just to make sure that there are no unmetabolized sugars in my system before I run.

Therefore, in order to maintain optimum energy levels, keep track of what you eat and drink as well in your ‘running diary’. Your RPE for your run COULD be easily affected by what you are eating!

  1. What are the key differences in preparing for a 10km, 21km and 42km Personal Best?

In my mind there are too many runners who go into their first Marathon unprepared. Not only is this going to mean that the runner is going to be in for an uncomfortable ride during the race, it is also dangerous. I would only recommend a runner doing a Marathon for the first time if they can run under 2 hours for a Half Marathon. Now I have been accused by some of being demotivational with this advice but I hold firm with this viewpoint. As I said earlier on in my article, training is the journey and the race (and hopefully a personal best) is the culmination of the hard work on this journey. The journey towards the Marathon should involve moving up the distances from 5km, through 10km and 21km towards the pinnacle of the Marathon distance. With regards to the training for all distances between 10km and 42km, there are many similarities with regards to training but also some key differences. Obviously the longer the race, the more weekly mileage a runner is going to have to put into their training. However, the longer the race, the stronger the runner needs to be in certain facets. A Marathon runner, for example will need strong ‘supporting’ muscles (as opposed to ‘agonist/antagonistic muscles) Agonistic and antagonistic muscles are those that take a runner forward by contracting and extending such as the muscles in the hamstrings and quadriceps areas. These, of course, need to be strong but the supporting muscles such as those in the abductor and adductor areas at the sides of the legs and the core area also need to be able to ‘support’ the working muscles over the period of time running so weight training (or bodyweight training) is essential, especially as the racing distances increase and this is very often overlooked.

Although speed work is important for all distance runners to do, the runner training for a 10km race should be doing a higher percentage of their weekly training doing speed work than the runner training up for a Marathon. The designing of plans for all distances is a very complex process especially if we want the runner to achieve their best AND avoid injury.

  1. How much mental preparation is required? What can you do to focus your mind to the task at hand?

Mental preparation is AS important as the physical preparation especially for the Marathon. The long run is the classic run which is as psychologically important as it is physically. I am always a fan of quality over quantity as a coach, especially training here in the tropics where recovery from a long run tends to take a longer period of time. Most people here in KL tend to run their long runs ‘too long’ for my liking. I would much prefer only two or three runs of over 2 hours 30 mins in one training schedule and more longish runs with some quality thrown into the session. For speed work, most people finish their sessions too early so all they do is maintain fitness NOT increase fitness. Sometimes, this is why a professional coach overseeing certain aspects of a runner’s training is essential to maximize the training performance of the athlete.

  1. Can hill running or weight training help? How?

I have already discussed the importance of weight training for a distance runner and, in a way, hill training is a form, if not the best form of bodyweight training for the runner. The engine for a distance runner is the glutes and hamstring area. I am always preaching to my runners that they should feel as though you are being pushed from behind when they run. I will sometimes tell my runners to visualize themselves running on ‘broken glass’ as this is a great way of helping the runner to activate their glute area. This creates a shorter contact time with the ground and increases cadence, both very important attributes to help a runner to work more efficiently. Hill running helps a runner to do these two things automatically so actually helps improve the efficiency of the athlete.

  1. How can you get the most out of your rest and recovery periods?

Most people do not do their Gear 1 (recovery runs) slow enough. There is a lot of debate about the importance of recovery runs in training and really, only people running more than 4 times a week should be doing recovery runs as part of their programme. If an athlete is doing a recovery run then they should make sure that their feet are flat on the ground when they run (more like a shuffle), so that they are not utilizing muscles that they are trying to ‘recover’. As for rest, well, I will sum it up from a Kenyan athlete who I sat by in the ‘pre-race pasta meal’ before the Macau Marathon in 2003. He said, “In Europe, when an athlete rests this means that they do the gardening or go shopping; resting to them means no running. To the Kenyan, rest means staying in bed all day.” Then, sure enough, he shuffled towards the buffet as even at that point in time, he was trying to conserve as much energy as possible!

  1. How do you deal with disappointment in order to try again?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be disappointment. You can get ‘Post-Marathon Blues’ whether you have done well or not! If you have been concentrating on something for 16-20 weeks (if you are following a structured training programme), and then suddenly that structure is taken away from you, it can be very difficult to adapt. However, a runner must give themselves adequate rest, especially if the race distance has been the Marathon, and then be prepared to sit down with a coach and go through what went well and not so well in the last training programme in order to push forward and start on the road to a fresh goal.

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