Starting from zero (almost)

Starting from zero (almost)

We all agree that it is hard for a newbie to start running. But I also think that in some ways it is almost harder for those of us who are experienced runners, to get going again after a long lay-off caused by a setback such as an injury or even laziness.

We think of ourselves as we were in the past, of our glory days, and meanwhile the clock is ruthless, and it doesn’t stop ticking as we get slower and as we get older (Hint: I ran my first ultra back in 1977 as a 15-year-old, so there have been many years and many miles in these legs of mine).

A wonky right knee caused by worn cartilage, and a dodgy lower back courtesy of a narrowing of two vertebrae, have conspired against me, to keep me off the roads. This is (hopefully) a story of redemption as I get back into my running, a week by week diary as such. Let’s see how this story unfolds.

Week 1

Monday: A morning 1 000m swim in an indoor pool. It is great for cardio, but actually I am hoping that this upper body work will transform my weedy runner physique, as I am all legs and nothing above my hips. That was great for running, but I am now trying for a more balanced look for the beach.  I started with the swims in November, and I have progressed to using hand paddles to increase the upper body workout. It’s the swimming equivalent of running uphill. 

It is possible that my swimming technique is not that great, as I think that my bum sticks up in the air. In the afternoon I do strength exercises and stretching, followed by a 4km walk along the sea in the evening, enjoying the sea breeze and a sighting of a seal.

Tuesday: The running starts with a 5km morning trot along the cliff top path here in Hermanus, enjoying the sunrise over the sea. Average pace is 6 min 56 secs/km with a stop at Ficks Pool for a breather and stretching to try get the kinks out. I don’t bother putting my contact lenses in for such short runs, and as I am stretching, I see a seal floating around in the tidal pool. It has a funny red thing on it though. Two American tourists stop to chat, and I tell them, check the cool seal. They walk on and I go down to have a closer look, and the seal is a person in a black wet suit, wearing red flippers, and snorkeling. Good thing I did not take a photo and post it on Facebook, I think. This run was good, I can do this. Knee and back seem okay, so I am happy for now. I try not to think about the fact that my average pace was almost 7 min/km. Maybe I need a new pair of running shoes, as these are five years old.

Wednesday: A morning 1 250m swim with the hand paddles, with three stops to rest my arms. Back home and the temptation is too great, and I go shopping for running shoes, and that spikes my heart rate when I see what running shoes now cost. R2 900 later, I walk out dazed, clutching a pair of Asics Cumulus. The moment I get home, I put the shoes on for a test run and klap a 5km at average pace of 5 min 26 secs/km. Shoes do make a difference. But by the afternoon I am feeling buyer’s remorse.

Thursday: Feeling a bit drained and rest, and then fit in an evening strength and stretching session, lying on a mat in the lounge, while watching Netflix. Strength and stretching is mind-numbingly boring, and I would rather shave with a rusty razor blade.

Friday: A 5km morning run with a detour to the new harbour to see if the seals are there. There is a 110m hill going down to the harbour, that is perfect for hill repeats. I do 10 x hills, but with a twist to it, doing a bounding session. These are plyometric and great for muscle strength and elasticity, and really work the hip flexors. If you shuffle when you run, these sessions will help you. The hill mustn’t be too long, as this is a form of resistance training, and about 100m is fine. A gradient of 6-8% works well, but a steeper gradient would provide a harder workout. This session is not about about how fast you can run up a hill. Instead you work your arms, with a high knee lift and “bounce” your way up the hill. You can try to get you quads horizontal. This will strengthen feet (plantar), Achilles, calves, quads, and hip flexors.  This added power translates into a faster runner.

 Middle of the day I do a 1000m swim and manage not to swallow water, happiness.

Saturday: A morning strength and stretching session. In the afternoon I do my first trail run in many years, in the Fernkloof Nature Reserve.


It’s more for fun and for the climbs up the Adder Stairs, presumably named for all the snakes lying in wait for me. I stop for a breather and spend some time sitting on a rock, just enjoying the breeze and the views of mountains and sea.

On the way down the mountain, I take the trail to go past the Three Dams for a swim to cool off.  It is a scenic dam, bordered by mountains. The water is refreshingly cool, and it is at times like this that I feel so alive.

The run is just 8km, but half of that was up the stairs with stops to enjoy the views and this was all about getting out and having fun. Mission accomplished. 

Sunday: Rest

Week 2

Monday: A late morning swim, and it is my longest swim so far, with 1600m. Using the hand paddles, so it really works my arms and shoulders and I stop for a rest every 10-12 laps. I think I must try look at YouTubes videos on technique. In the afternoon it is another strength and stretch session. My right pelvis is my weak side and it kept dropping. The exercises with elastic bands, side plank, etc and stretching are starting to work, as I have less less back pain now.

Tuesday: A morning 5km run with a repeat of the hill bounding session on the 110m hills at the new harbour.  In the afternoon it’s another strength and stretching session. I have also discovered some great videos on YouTube using dumbbells for upper body and some of them work muscles that I never knew that I had.

Kenny (my brother), and I,  join the local running club, the Whalers AC. We are opposites, as I am trying to gain weight, while he is trying to lose weight. In 1991, I was doing the Empangeni marathon as a training run, while Kenny was doing the 21km. But then he decided to carry on and make it his first marathon, finishing with me in 3hrs 04 min. A great first marathon for him! But back then he weighed 54kg, and we were young. Pic is of us in a race back in 1992(Ken on the right).

Wednesday:  I do a 1500m swim in the indoor pool with the hand paddles. The inside lane is full of elderly woman doing some sort of exercises to loud music, while the instructor jumps around energetically outside the pool. It makes think of aerobics and ladies in leotards back in the 80s. I plod on, lap after lap until my 60 laps are done … do swimmers plod I wonder?

Thursday: A morning strength and stretching session, while watching the news. This will be become fun, someday. In the evening, Kenny fetches me and we drive to the Whalers AC for the time trial. Kenny hasn’t done a club run in maybe 20 years, and I haven’t done one since I last ran at the Irene Club. The Whalers time trial route is run under the shadow of the mountains, with glimpses of the sea now and then, and options of 3km, 5km and 8km. A friendly crowd welcome us and make us feel at home. We do the 5km and average just under 6min/km, with the club captain, Tom Stabler, kindly staying with us to make sure that we don’t get lost. I am fairly comfortable at this pace, but Kenny is working hard, and he keeps telling me to go ahead. But I have decided that we do this run together as it has been maybe 20 years or more since we last did a run together. Suddenly with 500m to go, Kenny skriks wakker and picks up the pace, with me cursing him.

Friday: Still feeling the enthusiasm from the time trial, so I decide to see if my knee and back will hold up for a 8km. I go out late morning and take it relaxed. I had noticed a kopje, called Hoys Kopje, with stairs and a circular concrete path near the centre of town. It’s been on my list of places to check out. It is apparently named after a Scottish captain, Alexander Hoys, who arrived here in the 1800s. It’s a great workout going up, so I go back down and repeat it.  At the top I take a breather at the graves of Sir William Hoy and Lady Gertrude Hoy. It must have been quite a job doing the graves at the top. There are spectacular 360 degrees vistas of the town, bay and mountains, with a sea breeze in my face.

I run back along the sea front, and get to 8km feeling fine, and I am still some distance from home. So I carry on, now aiming for a 10km. I finish the 10km at average 6.09 min/km, feeling chuffed as knee and back feel fine. But by the afternoon, I am feeling my knee and I know that I should have stopped at 8km. For some reason I always seem to go a bit further than I should. I should practice what I preach as a coach. I normally try not to take anti-inflammatories, as we tend to use them as a quick fix , but I take a cataflam.

I have worn cartilage on my right knee, and had arthroscopy years ago to mend a torn cartilage, but the knee is also unstable.  For a while last year,  I had a personal trainer at the gym to show me the correct technique with weight training. He cracked up laughing when he made me do a reverse lunge, as my right leg wobbles. Dude, said the trainer, you can’t do weight training on your legs if you can’t even do a reverse lunge.  NOTE TO SELF: I will add some quad strengthening work for it from now on, as our quad muscles stabilise the knee and I can feel that my right quad is a bit weaker. It’s all part of the right hip/pelvis issue, and all on the same side. 

Saturday: I take an early morning stroll along the Grotto beach to the lagoon and back, with a coffee flask, and really enjoy it. I take off my plakkies and jog barefoot a bit along the water edge. Maybe I should try a beach run here soon as well.

When I get back, I do a mega 1hr 29 min session for strength and stretching. My knee is a bit sore all day, so I decide to make it a rest day with no run. Instead in the afternoon I go to the Voelklip beach for a swim, and lie on the grass with an ice cream cone and a book, a tough life here.

Sunday: I go out late morning for my first speed sessions in many years and do a 5km run with 4 x 75/45 intervals. It is such a great session to do, as it can be adjusted to make it quite easy when starting, or we can make it really difficult as the options on it are endless. I have coached runners who did 20 x 75/45 intervals.

It is a great combination of speed and speed endurance, where you run hard for 75 seconds (1 min 15 secs) and then jog slowly to recover for 45 seconds. This means that it works on a 2-minute cycle. This was a key session of the great New Zealand runner, Peter Snell, who broke the world mile record back in 1962. It remained the New Zealand record for 20 years.

I am cautious on the intervals, not trying to get to max effort, and just increase the pace to 4.30-4.40 min/km and that feels about right with maximum heart rate hitting 158 bpm. If the intervals were longer or faster, my maximum heart rate would have been higher. Hmm, it would be nice to get under 4 min/km again, dream on …

Week 3

Monday: Morning swim doing 1500m using the hand paddles. Quite chuffed as I do 450m with the hand paddles, and then sets of 250m. It is always amazing how the human body adapts.  A light stretching session in the afternoon.

Tuesday: A morning run with a 3km warm up along the cliff top path to the harbour. Then 10 x 110 m bounding drills on the hill, and a trot out to the jetty to do some stretching surrounded by sea and the harbour. Finish on 7.5km and all good. Afternoon is strength and stretching, and I use slightly heavier dumbbells and it intense. But in the evening I reward myself,  take some wine and pasta to Kwaaiwater beach for a sundowner.

Wednesday: Wake up with a sore right knee, and it stays like that all day, not good. A 20 min stretching session to get me ready for the day, and I am starting to enjoy this morning stretch session as I used to start the day very stiff and tight. Late morning I do a swim and stop at 1000m as my right shoulder is feeling yesterday’s strength session. I am falling apart today and must be careful.

Thursday: I do a big strength session in the morning, with a lot of work to strengthen my quads, such as lunges, reverse lunges, squats etc. But then my knee is sore all day from it and have to cancel running the time trial in the evening. 

Friday: Knee is still sore from the strength work. It’s a catch 22 situation, as I have to strengthen my quads to protect my knee. So it comes down to either focusing on the strength work for a while and stretching, foam roller, icing etc, and then not worry about the running to much, to give my quads a chance to get strong fast. Or balance it and try do some strength and some running. It is hard to be patient!

Later morning I do a 1000m swim with the hand paddles and declare the rest of the day to be rest and some stretching. Then hoping that I can do a trail run tomorrow.






Coach Neville

For the past 22 years I have helped hundreds of runners achieve their dreams, using the Recovery Based Training System I have developed. 

Want to know more?

Get in touch with us today!