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Right on Track

Posted on December 17th, 2016 by

This week we had our last Thursday Track Session for the year. Many thanks to everyone involved, either volunteering, supporting or running. Congratulations and well done to all, who managed to reap the benefits of hard training and made strides towards achieving your running goals and running better than ever before. The end of 2016 is near and the road running season comes to an end. It is time to take stock and review what has been achieved.

In this week’s Hare Brain Blog, we evaluate the effectiveness of the Thursday Track sessions by analysing the attendance statistics, how session attendance correlate to performance improvements and the impact on raising standards within the Mornington Chasers Running Club.

Two weeks ago, I had an impromptu conversation with Stephen Sash. It went like this. “What are you doing?”, he asked. “I am just ticking off those who attended tonight, trying to work out what makes folks train and coming back every week.”, while holding tight to my clipboard. “Do you know the concept of cause & effect?” he said in a challenging manner. “Sort of, but go on …”. Stephen concluded, “I believe folks come back because of they want a PB and want to get better!” “Maybe, but I don’t know for sure. I am interested in triangulating behaviour, level commitment and performance improvement. Looking at attendance is a good starting point.” We don’t want to embark on a big number crunching exercise or a formal hypothesis test. Let keep it simple and look, let’s have a look at the data.

Session Attendance

Unfortunately, I do not have a full record of attendance for the whole year. I started coaching in April. It took a while to get to know those who take part in the Thursday track session. Initially, I tried to record who attended the training session on a best endeavour basis, though failed to do it consistently. The purpose of maintaining a record was to be able to address everyone by name. A couple of months later, a core group emerged who attend most Thursday track sessions, so I expressed an interest how their performances progress throughout the season.

Since April, we delivered 37 track sessions. Many thanks to Chris, John, Adrian, Louise and Alice helping out when I wasn’t on duty.

I recorded the attendance of the last nine track session. The sample size is incomplete. On every occasion, there were a few more members taking part than I managed to record. Further, I did record those who could not attend the session but did the same session on their own. Recording the attendance served the purpose of getting an understanding who attends on a regular basis or those who do a few sessions and then have a break. A couple of years ago, I did a similar exercise. There are multiple reasons for why folks attend or not attend. It’s highly individual and in many cases having the time available to take part is the biggest constraint. Let’s focus on the positive and look at those who attend on a regular basis.

Between October and December, 66 Mornington Chasers took part in the Thursday sessions. Glad that not all attended in a single session, that would have been hard to manage. Given the membership subscriptions have increased to 300, more than a fifth of the club has been to Parliament Hill Athletics Track on a Thursday. There have been slightly more male members than female members to the session. 58% of the attendees are male, while 42% are female, a good sign that we have a well-balanced training group.

Our busiest period within the last nine weeks was the end of October and November. Attendances peaked at 30. Seasonality, in the run up to Christmas with all the important races out of the way, December is a  busy time for most lead to a drop in attendance levels. On average 24 members attend every week.

There is a pool of dedicated runners who attend the sessions on a regular basis. This trend is very reassuring. Those who train consistently without getting injured are reaping the benefits as their speed develops. There is not a single athlete, who managed to attend all the nine sessions. Two athletes who attended eight out of the nine sessions have done well. A further two athletes attended seven sessions. A third of the Thursday tracksters attended at least more than five sessions. The majority, approx. Two-thirds are more opportunistic in their attendance.

Attendance

Figure 1: Attendees by frequency

Next, we looked at the level of commitment by ability. We could not identify a trend within the group who attend more than five sessions. Hence, there is no major difference based on those who come more than 50% of the sessions. There are higher numbers for the sub 50 and sub 60 minutes 10k runners who only attend once. This suggests that the training is less suitable for runners new to track training.

Attendance by Ability

Figure 2: Attendance by ability

In future, we will continue to record attendance. This allows us to understand, who takes part in the training and helps us in our planning when dealing with the Corporation of London. We pay an annual fee for using the track and our fee is based on an average number of athletes training on the track. Understandably, we want to make the best use of club funds and don’t want to be over charged.

There is an opportunity to convert those between 30% to 60% of attendance towards a higher attendance. However, this would mean that on a single night there would be 30 to 40 runners, a situation hard to manage for a coach, an additional session or  2-3 support coaches would be required for delivering safe sessions.

Runners like to come if they know what is expected, sessions are suitable, structured and if there are part of a conducive environment. If it is a good experience and if the support is in place then runners will make up the time, commit and attend on a regular basis. To make this happen, leaders within the various ability groups create a sense of cohesion and shared purpose when training together. When that is in place, everyone benefits.

Personal Bests

During the last six months, many of the regulars recorded personal bests over the 5k, 10k, 10m and half-marathon distances. A closer look at those who attended more than 50% of the last nine sessions reveals that there is a strong correlation of those who attend on a regular basis achieve more.

3 of the most regular attendees, all at different abilities of the Thursday track night managed the triple, i.e. to run a PB in the 5k, 10k and ½ marathon. This goes to show, that willing to train hard, regardless of ability will see improvements of their personal bests. There has been many more PBs too and likely others as well, though there were attending less than 50% of the sessions.

There were a couple of more candidates, though they either didn’t do a ½ marathon or have not done a 5k. Regardless, very well done to those who managed to get close to their best times or improved on their personal bests. It’s always a big confidence boost and opens up new possibilities. As one former coach said, champions are everywhere, they just need to be trained properly.

How we are doing as a club?

Let’s look at the wider context and how the club is positioned. There is no nationwide club ranking system as such or an agreed measure what good or bad means. For the sake of simplicity we applied the same model England Athletics has been using for their ‘Club Run’ campaign, which is typically targeted towards Road Running clubs. The model was suitable, because the majority of the membership compete in road running events. While the club has active triathletes and a small, enthusiastic track & field athletes, the Mornington Chasers classify as a Road Running Club. In terms of performance, there is no difference to many other road running clubs. There are many clubs in the South East of England at a similar size.

The club has a solid base and the majority are novice and recreational runners engage the club’s training offerings. 10% of the members achieve a notable higher standard, 1% are getting close to a regional/national levels, those typically engage in more structured training and take part in the coached sessions. This split is not unusual and very similar to many road running clubs. In comparison, Serpentine RC, one of the biggest running clubs in the UK, while strong at the sharp end of the performance spectrum have approx. 6% senior men with a sub 40 minutes and 2% senior women running sub 45 minutes for the 10k. Relative to its size, Mornington Chasers stack up well.

It is encouraging that membership subscriptions went up and current members keep on renewing their membership. This means more runners get engaged in training, more compete and more will progress, resulting in raising standards across endurance events. Important, here is that an inclusive training platform is provided, this means that there are pathways for those training at similar ability levels and providing opportunities for runners to improve at all ability levels. For that reason we have tailored our track sessions based on ability.

Performance 2016

Figure 3: Performance Level 2016

In comparison to the previous year, 2016 has been a very good year for the Mornington Chasers. More members engage in 5km and 10km events. The uptake on 10km races has almost doubled, which is very encouraging. Our training throughout the summer focused on improving over the 5k and 10k distances. The Chase the Pace 30th Anniversary event was a great opportunity to get members running a 5k and 10k on the track. Overall we have now more sub 45 10k runners than before, 29 of them are sub 40 mins. There are few women close to the 40 mins mark, who will continue to develop and progress further.

Taking part in the half marathons has increased too, the club’s more coordinated approach towards selecting half marathons engages more runner. The overall uptake and the number of top performances for the marathon has slightly been down compared to last year. However, we have not yet completed a full year and plans have been put in place to raise the standards for the marathon.

Performance 2015

Figure 4: Performance Level 2015

For 2017, we want to build on what has been achieved in 2016. The first couple of month will focus on the spring marathons and we aim to get more runners getting involved in a spring marathon. Then we continue with the 5k/10k focus before stepping up the half marathon distance in autumn again.

Feedback & Ideas to Improve the Track Session

During the last couple of weeks, a number of suggestions have been raised, which we discussed. For some members, starting the session at 7:30 pm is quite late, an earlier start would be preferable. A good idea and it would allow us to extend the session beyond 1 hour. However, for many of the regulars and coaches, it is already a stretch to make it to Parliament Hill on time for a 7:30 pm start. Often, I manage to arrive at 7:15 pm, which leaves just a couple of minutes to get changes and setup. On balance, 7:30 pm is a good compromise. For now, we will continue to start the session at 7:30 pm.

Some feel the warm-up takes up too much time and is too long. Typically, a warm-up can last 15 to 20 minutes. The proposal would be to skip the warm-up. Coaches plan the session and are responsible for the content. Personally, running a safe, fun and fulfilling session has to be a priority for all. Secondary, the warm-up plays an important part in the session and is often the only element of the session where any athletic skill development happens. My practical experience of coaching many sessions over a decade is that a group warm-up is always a safe option and prevents injury. When athletes don’t warm-up or when every athlete is doing their warm-up for themselves, then this often lead to injuries. Most weeks we do some intense training and the warm-up part of the session. As many come direct from work and rush to the track allowing 10 to 20 minutes window to refocus the mind is a good way to prepare athletes for the session. The warm-up is a mandatory part of the session. We cannot skip it!

The majority of the sessions are 5k and 10k speed development or speed endurance type sessions. The sessions are not specific for marathon runners or middle distance runners. If we would provide event specific sessions, then there would be fewer athletes available running in the same event specific session. Running long and middle distance sessions in parallel require more coaching support. My view is each event requires a coached session in its own righ. Mixing too many workouts in one session distracts what athletes/group want to achieve.

As you noticed, sometimes we go a bit longer until the flood light gets switched off. A few runners are keen to complete the session and like the challenge. I am supportive of this and don’t want to enforce restrictions. We usually plan the session and give guidance, that all can complete the session on time. We provide choice Group A/B type, though ultimately it is up to each individual what sessions they want to run.

We do a lot of interval training. Another suggestion was to run a 5k time trail on the track. From a coaching point of view, a great way to capture data and determine baseline fitness. However, many of you take part in parkruns and want to train on the track and not compete in another 5k. We may use a time trial for shorter distances, 2k, 1 mile or 1.5k, though not the full 5k race distance.

As you noticed, we never take enough time to stretch after the session. Some do a couple of static stretches, others get quickly changed and get on the bike and cycle home. I would advise after a short cool down to get quickly changed and perform a small number of static stretches. I have done many sessions, which include a stretching routine, though those sessions last typically 1h 15 minutes.

The attendance levels throughout the last six months have been good. Everyone is familiar with the structure. There is a good core of regulars. At this stage, there is no need to change the session arrangements.

Summary

Based on attendance levels and performances, the club progressed and raised performance standards. The majority of the Thursday track regulars set personal bests in almost all distances. In 2017, we will build on the successes of 2016 and continue to provide a training platform to those who want to train, compete and become better athletes. Having fun, the willingness and commitment to train hard, take part in the club’s targeted competitions, acquire new athletic skills, adapt to training, while remaining injury free should be our focus for 2017.

I hope you found the recent blog posts on the Hare Brains blog useful. If there is anything else you want to know then please get in touch. I am looking forward seeing you back on track in 2017. Well done to those who attended week in week out and worked hard to improve. I want to wish you all a merry x-mas and a relaxing Christmas break. Enjoy your running, start thinking about 2017 and I look forward to seeing you back in January for our Thursday track session.

Urban Bettag coaches for the Mornington Chasers and leads the development of their track training and mentors their junior coaches. He blogs and shares his wisdom about running on the Hare Brain Blog every Friday.