"The first time I ran Race to the Stones all I had was an old backpack, a pair of cotton shorts and a t-shirt." Runner Rob Forbes' approach to preparing for a race has changed somewhat since he first took on the 100km ultra trail marathon that culminates in a finish at the Avebury Stone Circle.
Forbes, who grew up in Wiltshire where the Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones takes place, won the race in 2016 with a time of 8 hours and 9 minutes. That record was beaten by Benjamin Poiraton last year who posted a sub-8 hour time on the course. Forbes wasn't too far behind, also posting a sub-8 hour time to beat his own previous record.
Forbes won't be taking part in this year's race, but having now completed the Stones course three times, he knows how tough it's going to be for runners this year. Especially with temperatures set to soar over the two days of running. "It’s going to be a brutal two days for people," he said. "Staying hydrated is key. Make sure you carry enough bottles of water with you. I’d recommend taking salt tablets, because you are going to be sweating a lot and losing electrolytes, which can cause cramping. Go for the salty snacks at the aid stations too. Remember suncream too obviously.
"It's important to rein in the pace because of the sun and the conditions. It’s quite exposed out on the Ridgeway, there’s no shade at all. You want to pace yourself well and go slower than expected. Get to the finish no matter how bad it seems on the way."
The serious running watch effect
Now that Forbes is posting course-winning times and starting to take his running more seriously, he's also beginning to appreciate the benefits of having a sports watch strapped to his wrist during races and training. Forbes currently uses a Garmin Forerunner 630 and believes it has played its part in the improvement he has seen in his performances. "My running has definitely come on a lot since I've been using my Garmin," Forbes tells us. "As soon as you’ve got GPS tracking you can benchmark how your performances are improving over time and also setting paces during races, particularly for something like Race to the Stones. I can keep track of how fast I’m going and get a sense of how sustainable it is. If I’m running a load of six-minute miles, I know I’m not going to be able to keep that up.
"My watch is also useful for being able to gauge how you're pacing and preplanning for events. So you know that looking at previous times and historical times on the course you can look at where you should be at certain splits and at certain stations. More serious guys will work out exactly how far they should be at different parts of the course. I guess with ultra running it’s quite course specific, you have undulating terrain, you might be running at altitude, it’s hard to gauge what's an appropriate pace to be at. A lot of runners benchmark with what previous runners have done on the course, previous people that would be at a similar level to them and then use that to inform the feeling on the day. That’s more at the front end of the field. The key to ultra running is to keep a consistent pace."
Like many other runners, Forbes has discovered the great competitiveness that lies within social networking app Strava – and finds the additional metrics on display here, like elevation data, have proved useful for his training. "I recently got into Strava mostly because my mates kept banging on about setting course records or when people stole them," he said. "I had an alias and went on Strava to piss people off and steal all of their records and they didn’t know who it was. So I was nicking all their Strava segments but I got rumbled, as I was obviously starting the tracking from my house."
Metrics that matter to an ultra runner
If you want to look beyond running data basics like pace and distance and even recovery status, we are currently spoiled by the current crop of high end sports watches that can now also delve into cadence, vertical oscillation, lactate threshold and much more. That may be data too rich and overwhelming for the average Parkrunner, but for someone like Forbes, it has the potential to unlock greater insights into his race performances and the effectiveness of training. Forbes himself likes to keep things simple on this front right now, but is aware that there are other ultra runners who seek guidance and assistance from other metrics that are now available on wearables.
"Some runners will use heart rate monitor straps and watches with heart rate," Forbes said. "I just found with the watch, the technology wasn’t quite there yet to give an accurate reading.
"I have friends that use the straps and use heart rate as opposed to pace to monitor performance. With variable terrain it’s more accurate to look at your heart rate. If you know your HR threshold and the aerobic rate you can sustain and you can keep your heart in those thresholds then you don’t overcook it. When you go beyond that you start to build up lactic acid and start using the anaerobic system and you’ll get issues like cramping and burning up."
There's now also a growing trend in wearables and data to look at running biomechanics – something that Forbes has been paying more attention to recently. "I met Shane Benzie in the winter, who coaches people on running technique," he tells us. "He looks at running form and cadence and the idea of using the simple idea of using metronome to increase running cadence. It’s not a tactic I employ myself, but it’s something he recommended. Then there's aspects like stride length and vertical oscillation. We've got to the stage where we have the tech to train running style."
Putting your faith in an AI coach
Forbes doesn't use a coach and, with training a bit ad hoc in order to work it around time spent with his young family, he has relied on what his body can cope with and tried not to run without a purpose. But the idea that he could put his training into the hands of an AI-powered coach is something that does have some appeal. We are already seeing it happen with wearables from the likes LifeBeam and its Vi sports headphones (pictured above). So more personalised coaching is already happening.
"It could definitely be handy," he said. "My training is not very structured, and part of that is down to my work and family setup. If there was tech available where you could input your goals, running history and provide training output it would provide a useful framework for training. Sometimes though you have to do these things with feel. With a coach, you can say you’re knackered and they can get a clear sense of your condition. It's that fear of losing that aspect of a coach knowing you and your strengths and weaknesses. If that can be replicated then it could well work."