It’s December and officially winter in Finland. Especially when there is no snow I struggle to train, simply because the window to run outside when there is still a glimmer of light is only between 10:00 and 14:00 pm. The rest of the day is pretty much wet, grey and dark. It’s the time where I tend to sleep more and train less. Energy levels (despite eating more than normal) are low and my immune system is working 24 hour shifts for me not to get sick. I try to run every other day and focus mostly on “spending time on my feet” meaning:
I run everywhere and nowhere, stop many times on the way, change pace more than once from slow to walking, talk complete nonsense to Jasmina most of the time, try to climb a rocky hill on the way using my hands and feet, look at my cellphone to discover where the hell I am, find a deer staring at me 50 meters away, smell the fresh pine trees when they hit my face, practise my ballerina dancing act over some iced up lake sections. In other words it’s often completely random what we do. We tend to go out with the objective to do a loop of say a 2 or 3 hours and on the way we discover new forest areas, connecting trails, or beautiful hidden summer houses. Running long and slow on the road or easy trails can be boring when you run slow so we always “juice it up a bit” by spending about 50% off trail. That’s also because we manage to get lost in the forest most of the time when trying to connect trails…
The good thing about doing random stuff is that without thinking about it we actually develop a lot of different skills:
1) subconsciously getting closer to nature and learn to adapt quickly to unpredictable terrain conditions such as: jumping over half frozen ditches, slide down steep rocky descents , jump over roots, mud walk over some swamp sections, plough through knee high snow, slalom around trees in a dense forest. Let’s be honest these are typically things you (consciously) try to avoid when running on the road or easy trails in an attempt to keep a steady pace. It can be hard to let go of the feeling of speed and shift focus to moving effortless through your immediate surroundings. The obvious downside of running in predictable conditions is that you repeatedly train the same muscles in the same (concentric) way. The force always coming from the same direction which often means that the smaller (balancing) muscles remain underdeveloped. Guess what….these are often the first muscles that give up and burn out during race day making you run form “hunched or sitting” and therefore less efficient.
2) activate different core muscles in the body in an attempt to stay upright making them stronger and more fatigue resistant along the way. In fact over the years I have made it a bit of a personal mind game to run as relaxed as possible on lengthy iced up sections focussing purely on my stride. The objective being to build up trust in my own balance, reflex and motoric skills (without completely stiffening up as you tend to do). When done correctly I manage to react in a semi controlled manner enabling to keep running without falling to the ground when I slip. I do the same when running in the dark. Again it’s a bit of a cat and mouse game in the sense that you loose sense of true speed. Especially in undulating and uneven terrain it’s even more difficult to judge when your feet will actually hit the ground and if you have enough grip to stay upright and generate an effective toe push off. I feel after running in the dark that my smaller muscles and neuromuscular system are really tired, a clear sign that they need more attention and development. Luckily icy roads or running in the dark are conditions that are easily encountered in Finnish winter and I consider it to be just another type of running drill that teaches you to focus and improve on specific running (form) elements such as: stride length, frequency, ground contact time, body posture, range of motion and breathing.
3) learn to run slow to develop aerobic capacity (needed for swimrun events over 30km’s). For some reason running slow is difficult for me especially at the beginning of a long run. In fact it feels soooo slow at the start that I often fight with Jasmina and ask her to pick-up the pace…..she normally refuses in which case I blurt out something random like: “You are not running slow you are “SlowMo”. The fact that I struggle to run slow has perhaps something to do with my former “fast and furious” track and field life. I clearly remember the days when I was 20 years old and part of a select group of fast Dutch 800m runners. One guy who ran 1:43 even made it to the Olympics…..needles to say it wasn’t me….. In the weekends we would train together and after a 45 minute warm-up we would do something seemingly easy and futile like: 6 x 2min with 45 seconds break. I tell you……these guys were running at insane speeds of over 24km/hr or to put it into context (2:30 / km pace!). Hovering at the end of the group I killed myself trying to keep up and survive the rest periods. I always loved to run fast and even though my coach told me to run slow 1 hour recovery runs at home I always ran my slow runs flat out fast….so no wonder I never improved my aerobic capacity and fastest time of 2 minutes… I said it before: “if I only knew then what I know now…..I would have had a much easier life doing SlowMo runs instead of these flat-out fast runs.
Elvin and me also tested the food in the elk feeding stations.
Mjam mjam....maybe that's why they run so fast....
So…..back to running slow….our long slow runs are never within 2 minutes of race pace for good reason as explained above. It also means that we talk a lot at the beginning and reflect on anything and everything….so besides some irrelevant heated discussions it’s mostly quality time spend together. Towards the end of the run (when we are getting tired and the pace tends to drop) we always try to put in some extra effort. In hindsight it often turns out that even WITH the extra effort the pace is never faster than then the starting pace. It just tells you that long runs are consuming no matter how slow you run them….you will get tired towards the end and it will become harder and harder to keep a certain pace. During long runs you are training your body to get familiar with the sensation of stiff legs and general muscle soreness which you will also experience on race day. Just be aware that these kind of pains only really kick in when you run longer than 1 ½ hours. In order to amplify the effect we run without consuming energy gels or other sources of energy. It works for us but perhaps not for others. The following day is always a rest day or an easy swim allowing damaged muscle tissue to heal and get stronger.
As far as swimming in the winter is concerned every year I make a failed attempt to swim outside. All the Finns keep telling me it’s good for my immune system in combination with a hot sauna. I usually tend to skip the swim and run barefoot but screaming “COLD COLD COLD” straight to my little wooden sauna hut. I heard that swimming or even skinny dipping in 1-2 deg C water is a good alternative to get an adrenaline rush but it is still something that’s on my list of “Things to do in Finland”. The other things on my list are: ice fishing, cellphone throwing and “akankanto kilpailu” (woman carrying) race. Not surprisingly, most of our swim sessions are in the pool and they last for about an hour where we swim approximately 3km’s depending on the program. In the winter months we tend to focus more on technique and strength using swimming drills as the basis. Using swim aids like flippers, kickboard, pull buoy and paddles we mix up distances, intensities, breathing, swim strokes and rest time. So far I have not done two identical swim work-outs twice. It’s something that our previous IRONMAN coach Yves Cordier in France has taught us well. In fact we still use his swim programs because they are really good fun to do and very effective. Splitting up the distance into several blocks also helps to keep motivated. Our swimstroke technique is OK but not super smooth as your classical pool swimmer. The fact that you can use so many tools in swimrunning dilutes the need for a “perfect freestyle swimstroke”. In fact I think it’s more important to develop a “feel for the water” than chasing that perfect Michael Phelps type stroke in the pool. The reason is that when you swim in openwater with all your gear on (i.e. wetsuit, shoes, pullbuoy and paddles) the swimming dynamics are completely different. For starters your feet don’t kick anymore but merely flutter to assist in body roll. All forward motion is generated by your arms and paddles. The more you lay on top of the water the less water you have to displace. The trick is for your body to stay horizontal if not it will generate additional drag. Needless to say that a lot of our winter swim sessions revolve around getting a stronger upper body (i.e. shoulders, arms, upper and lower back). We do a lot of single arm drills, paddle work-outs but also flippers to build a strong lower back which you need to maintain a horizontal position in the water during long swims. We also tend to use the kickboard not so much for the purpose of swimming but more to develop functional leg and hip strength without having the shock impact of running. It’s only during some of our trips abroad when we have a chance to test and try our swimrun gear set-up in the sea. Other than that we have to wait until the ice clears (just like everybody else in Scandinavia).
Hey PJ and Nancy, I think we will be visiting you more often in Nice coming year to improve our saltwater gear set-up and prepare for Hvar swimrun. So see you soon!
Find below my short video link of running in the snow.
Me: Thomas Schreven
NEW!! Subscribe to receive notification to your email about our latest blog post.
info (at) advenu.fi