If you like a lot of chocolate on your biscuit

Running the London marathon was my first motivation, but I also started running because I wanted to keep fit and it was convenient. At first, I would run for a couple of weeks, but soon get bored, so stop for about a month, until guilt would take over and the cycle would repeat. At the time, I was at university and lived with athletes, so was surrounded by positive influences.

None of my housemates drank much alcohol, so we were almost as far from the student stereotype as possible. Save for the rare occasions where I would have an urge to go on a binge with people from my course. Other than to demonstrate those positive influences, I digress.

As time passed, we would talk about training and the benefit of doing different things – and much of what I do now is based upon the knowledge that I gained during this time. We were all very opinionated, but I was ignorant on the subject of running, and respected everything that these ‘experienced athletes’ from their various backgrounds (1500m, 400m, 100m, steeplechase, triple jump and long jump) and their athletic friends could advise.

I graduated from university and moved back home, but still hadn’t run the London marathon; however I had a place for the following year – which would be four months later. I believe I trained reasonably well, but ‘suffered’ a pain in my ankle about 6 weeks before the race and reluctantly decided to defer my entry. Each application may only be deferred once, so the pressure was on for the following 12 months – even if I picked up an injury, I would be unable to defer my entry again.

This is the point at which my electronic training diary (here) begins; everything before this date is on paper, somewhere in storage.

I trained consistently the following few weeks and months, anxious that something might prevent me making it to the startline once more. By now, I was more determined than ever. But I needed something else; something that would stop me from taking weeks off ‘because I feel like it’. So I questioned whether or not I should join a running club.

I had always resisted – I didn’t like the idea of joining a running club. I didn’t class myself as a runner. After all, why would I want to associate myself with people who run because they enjoy it? What would these people be like? What if I couldn’t keep up? What if I couldn’t last the entire distance? What would they think if I were to turn up and slow them down? How bad would I feel?

All of these things put me off. And I believe that these things continue to put many people off running in organised groups.

On the positive side, I would receive lots of advice. There would be other people running the marathon that I might be able to run with. That could provide a source of greater motivation. Most importantly for me running the marathon the following year, they could advise me if I were to pick up another injury in the future – something that only my housemates from university had previously been ‘qualified’ to do, as I was still ignorant of the subject.

There are many other good reasons to join a running club that I have subsequently discovered, but I don’t intend to use this post in order to promote running in an organised group. In fact, I believe the best runners train hard on their own as well as with others.

I thought about it for a few weeks and I increased my training to build up my own confidence. In hindsight, this wasn’t necessary, but it helped psychologically. I reckoned I needed 6 months to get myself ready for a marathon so, on 5th October 2004 (that’s what my diary says), I ran my first club run (my diary even states where I ran).

Seven years down the line, and I have now been a member of three different running clubs. I can’t imagine running without being a member of a club and am now in my fourth year of being on a committee (including one year as chair). But, I still have one major difficulty; how can a running club act to break down some of those barriers that prevent people (like me eight years ago) from signing up.

Furthermore, some people who are members of a club are reluctant to make the transition from one type of session to another – for similar reasons to those which I describe. People regard running clubs as elitist. And people within running clubs regard different factions of clubs as elitist.

I believe that while some individuals may be elitist, the clubs are not. And those elitist (note the distinction from ‘elite’) individuals are those who don’t partake in club activities – they train on their own, and benefit least from being part of a club.

As an active committee member, I believe it is one of my duties to help break down some of those barriers at a running club. It may not be appropriate that every session offered is open to runners of all abilities, but everyone must know what each session is designed for (long/fast/beginner etc.), what the requirements are in order to be able to attend (how long/how fast/how much of a beginner etc.) and what can be done in order to be able to reach the necessary ‘standard’.

In an ideal world, a club will offer a beginner’s session, for the complete beginner (e.g. 0-30 mins); an improver’s session, which prepares a beginner for running with the club’s best athletes (e.g. approx. 30 mins of varying pace/distance); a short interval session (e.g. track); a long interval session (e.g. km/mile repeats); and a long run (90 minutes to marathon training distances). In an (even more) ideal world, sessions could be offered that include fartlek, hills, gym, plyometrics and so on, however, as with many things, these all depend on the personnel available.

Train in vain

By their very nature, running clubs contain a wide variety of runners, all wanting different things from their training. Many large clubs cater for the variety by putting on different types of sessions but, in smaller clubs, it may not be uncommon for middle distance and long distance runners (and sometimes sprinters or field athletes) to train together more regularly.

This blog entry refers to one of the issues surrounding smaller clubs where a smaller variety of sessions means that every published session has to be inclusive.

Some runners like to focus their training in a way that a more general (more inclusive) session doesn’t always allow. As an example, I am a marathon runner, and like to run longer intervals with shorter (or faster) recoveries. But there aren’t many people who would be interested in joining me for 4 * 15 minutes with 3 minutes jog recovery on unlit country lanes with dangerous ‘loocal’ [additional ‘o’ intended] drivers for company. Among my ‘training partners’, it is relatively widely known when I train, and anyone who wants to join me is welcome to do so.

All running clubs thrive upon having enthusiastic athletes, coaches and volunteers who are able to increase the variety of training sessions that are on offer. The more people, the more enthusiasm, and the more focussed the club’s publicised sessions can become. This increase means sessions can be designed for more specific disciplines and, as such, may not be recommended for everyone. Furthermore, it could be argued a more focussed group, containing a small number of runners of a very similar ability, has a greater (positive) impact on training, because each athlete can work closer together to push the others further.

In an ideal world, a running club would offer more sessions like this, tailored to groups of people with more specific needs in addition to the more inclusive, general runs. These could be extended to include beginners’ sessions, gym/weights sessions, long easy runs, short easy runs, middle distance track/interval sessions, long distance track/interval sessions, hill sessions and so on. However, they require enthusiastic people who are prepared to take them on.

So, for all the club members out there, whatever the size of the club, I urge you to be enthusiastic, organise your own thing (that suits your own needs), and give a little back to the sport by inviting others along with you at the same time. If it proves successful and the times tumble, celebrate it. If not, learn from it and move on. What’s stopping you?

Meanwhile, I’m about to discover if my own training plan has been a success and is worth pursuing…