Fractal Training (why streaking is bad), and how to enlarge your vessel

Q. So what separates race winners from the bulk of ‘eventers’?

A. The degree of selfishness. If you want to be a winner you need to be selfish with your energy. The less you give your energy to others and the more razor-sharp expenditure you put into your own pursuits the more winnier you’ll be.

As might be evident from my event results I don’t race to win (not saying I could actually win races if I wanted to). That’s not to say I don’t relish competition, quite the opposite. I’d rather be beaten in great competition than win a race in its absence. And that’s what makes the ethos of the MEC great, the internal rivalry is fierce, engaging, and absolutely committed getting the best out of each other. Personal performance here is a collaborative thing.

So the aim of the game for us non-winners then is to figure out best and most enjoyable training for your buck. Leaving enough energy to endure or enjoy everything else on offer in life that week. So two principles (I just kinda made up – other people may have too, I’ve done zero research) to make the most of training are keeping it fractal and managing your vessel.

Fractal training means, like coastlines and clouds, the ever changing shapes or patterns of training look pretty similar no matter if you are zoomed in looking at a couple of training sessions or a whole season. Intensity, duration, and specificity are always shifting. In other words exactly the opposite of a monotonous 30 day streak. Streaks are good for breaking habits, but bad for athletic improvement. I’m not talking about absolute chaos here, you’ll still have patterns and repeating a lot of the same stuff, it’s how you throw it together.

The basis to this are the tried and true components of improvement – overstressing, specificity, and recovery. Push beyond comfort training (overstress), work on demands specific to your event (specificity), and pull back to let your body compensate and adapt (recovery). So there are solid physiological and psychological benefits to going fractal, namely being fresh enough to be capable of and want to hit your training targets (specificity again). Plus if you do everything in primes numbers you’ll never get injured (so I really-really made that last bit up).

Which brings us to your exercise vessel. You should think of events as sets of external forces which relentlessly attempt to crush you. Your vessel is that container of training and preparation you take to your event. You want your vessel on race day to be big and hard. Obviously.

Good fractal training will make your vessel bigger and more resilient to the specific forces of the event in question. Overstressing, or plain overtraining, will temporarily crush your vessel. It’s the recovery phase in which your vessel actually expands, so keep them in balance and sync’ed against your events. All those specific training sets you mix in, the speed-work, strength sets, and endurance sessions act to make your vessel harder and less crushable.

You also want to stuff your vessel with all the other preparation you’ve been doing, like practicing eating/drinking at the frequency required while exercising at simulated race pace, carrying the same load you’ll be hauling on race day, running in the dark, or technical trail, etc, etc.

The art of it all is getting the mix of it all right in your realistic available time. If I do the same events as Mike that’s pretty easy as he cooks up great event-specific sets, all I need to do is build around them and make sure I’m fresh enough to hit them at the required intensity.

Now, making the most of your vessel on race day is another question, just having it bigger and harder than everyone else at the start line counts for little if you don’t know what to do with it.

Ps. this advice has been penned in the absence of MEC or parental oversight or professional coaching advice.


So you want to run minimal?

I have no idea if you want to or not, but a colleague asked me if I could help him transition from the ultra-support/cushion models he current runs in. Thought I’d share an adapted version here.

My own course to minimal running started a couple of years back now – I’ve got Mike Hale to thank (again). I’ve gone from that collapsed ankle kid in plastic moulded orthotics, to an occasional runner in Brooks Beasts some years back, to where I am now – loving the barefoot.

Personal perspective

My view on shoes now is that they need to extend my brilliant in-built running apparatus, aka feet and legs, not inhibit them. This principally means grip and protection, not support and cushioning. The purported benefits to moving away from the big shoe (loads of cushioning/support) are: better running economy, less injury, increased comfort, and more fun. I say purported because it largely rests on theory and anecdote at the moment, formal studies are still coming in*. My personal experience has certainly been injury free, with improved comfort, and I smile more often while running now.

*Looking at it the other way, we’ve got 40 years of the development of the big feature shoe (more support, more cushioning). You’d expect a big body of evidence to back up the idea that more of these technical features are a good idea (you know, lower rates of injury, better performance, etc). Nope. So for all the heated debate, and entrenched opinion on either side we got nothing but marketing and ancedote. But I digress.

Note – racing Xterras and barefoot are not a sensible combination (some structure & cushioning are required for those nearly-in-control descents).

So what were the sage words offered to someone interested in starting down this path? Things have certainly changed a little to when I started, what with everyone now offering minimal models. Though there still remains two general schools to transitioning – both of which recognise the significant injury risk in transitioning, but from polar opposites.

School 1 “big shoe-to minimal shoe”. Philosophical underpinning: shoes are still desirable but minimal is better, ultimately we run to race

School 2 “big shoe-to barefoot-to minimal shoe”. Philosophical underpinning: shoes are sometimes a necessary evil of the modern world, we run for fun in the hot hot sun

Non-hysterical background on why minimal/barefoot running is back (and they are not selling anything)

Though these guys appear to ride both transition schools a bit, its possibly best not to ignore Harvard University’s Skeletal Biology Lab when considering the theory,  benefits and dangers of barefoot and minimal running. I’d start here for a rational, non-emotive background on the ‘why’ question.

The two transition approaches to running minimal

School 1 – Advocates of the gradual shoe transition (no barefoot required)

School 2 – Advocates of the big shoe to barefoot to minimal direction (its all about the form)

My non-sponsored product endorsement

In making a school 1 transition, the manufacturer I can recommend from personal experience, are locally available, and do the transition thing specifically (and now also do ultra minimal stuff).

Available locally from Shoe Science or

What not to do (aside from attempt to transition too quickly)

Seems the only approach that nobody endorses is going directly from a big shoe to an ultra minimal, aka ‘barefoot shoe’, say from the Brooks Beast to the Vibram Five Fingers (VFF). It seems you really do need that tactile feedback from ground to skin to safely make such a big shift (plus the fact that green feet are likely to give out before you blow something). I can attest to that, even now I need to do proper barefoot to stop any sloppy habits coming back into my VFF running.

Recommendation on the best school?

If I had to sum it up, I think school 2 gives the better ultimate outcome (ie. changed form/stride), but requires somewhat more time and dedication. Effectively you learn the correct form from the bottom up that you can then apply to any minimal shoe. School 1 is certainly the easier option, though is unlikely to completely overhaul (‘correct’) your stride to the point of being good in ultra-minimal footwear (eg. VFF).

Whaka100 Why?

The Whaka 100 is a 100km MTB event in Rotorua. It’s also the only event that is a permanent fixture on my ride calendar. It’s truly a beautiful thing.

A hilly 100km on a singlespeed MTB is clearly something you should take seriously in terms of preparation (they do have geared, team, and shorter formats if you are interested). I certainly did in the first edition with a solid, and targeted training schedule. Unfortunately it all came undone with a mechanical in the first 30min.

Since then, however, the pattern has been more akin to seeing how little training one could get away with. This year it all came together with the wonderful combination of woeful on bike training (two 3hr hilly road rides, one fast roller session, and a mix of run/ride work commutes), the decision to ride a fixed MTB (no gears, no freewheel), and an early mechanical.

So I’m hanging out at the start line at 0845, shooting the breeze with the organiser, wandering round the stalls. Meanwhile the race had started at 0800. I was there too, though only for a couple of km, then I snapped my chain in two places. Damned if I drove all this way for a DNF!

A quick trot back to event HQ where the mechanics were without a chainbreak or new chain. Nice. Wait for the bike hire guy to show up, have a coffee, find and start up the generator to run his eftpos. Chain acquired. Supplied my own chainbreak.

Off I go again, this time head down with a bit more haste (got a 40th b’day in Auckland to get to). A quick track-back for a bit of navigation security as I’d lost a bit of focus. Didn’t even see another rider until 1100, 3hrs into the event.

Then the frankly preposterous notion of making up time on this course, this bike, and this lack of training, became evident. I was cooked by the 50km mark. And that was the easy half.

A quick rest and feed at the 64km refuel station saw me start to perk up at around the 75km mark. Just enough to grind round the rest of the course, little engine style, I think I can, I think I can…

By now I had the motivation of a constant stream of broken riders to ride through. Interestingly I passed more on downhill sections, despite(?) the fixie setup. Riding a fixed MTB downhill feels like the bike is literally pulling you down the hill. Best approach is to fully commit and cross your fingers.

In the end my ride time was a full hour longer than I was hoping, and the event time recording another 1.5hrs on top of that. 7hrs of fixie hill riding was rather more than was sensible given the limited training I’d done. I’m totally busted today, hands, fingers, arms, core, shoulders, legs all got the deep burn on.

Hopefully, I’ll come right to get back into the West Coaster Marathon training. Being out for a week not really an option at this point… eeak.

Whaka 100 Profile
Whaka 100 Profile

A Filthy Downhilling Guide

At the risk of giving away any racing advantage I have, thought I’d share my approach to mucky downhill running (also applies to any sketchy trail conditions). Think I’ve boiled it down to four easy steps. Don’t know if this is the endorsed approach, but it works for me and is nearly as much fun as fixed wheel MTB’ing.

1. Stay low & centered: Try to keep your feet under you not out in front, stay vertical, and ‘sit in’ or stay low by keeping your knees a little bent (don’t lock them up)

2. Maximise contact with ground: Increase your leg speed, decrease your stride length, the more time your feet stay on the ground the more control you have

3. Don’t fixate: See that obstacle you want to avoid, don’t look at it!! Look ahead at the general line you want to take

4. Relax: Don’t stress if you start deviating from your expected line or sliding around. Unless there are real hazards around, aim for general direction not total control

Simple eh? If you give it a go you’ll see that 2 is a natural outcome of 1. Sure, there is terrain where gazelle style bounding is your best bet, but doing that in the sketchy stuff and you are asking for trouble. If your foot starts sliding when its way out in front of your centre of gravity you’re on your arse, if it starts sliding when its under you you’re skating (weeee!).

In a word it’s about balance. Not only in terms of posture, but also control vs letting loose. Possibly the best way to improve your technique is do some of the MEC barefoot events when they come up, or run as fast as you can on wet grassy/muddy conditions on gentle slopes in low grip shoes. One thing you’ll quickly figure out is you’ll need to land on your forefoot, as heelstrikes are asking for trouble (including rolled ankles).

Now learning to get your leg speed up and forefoot strike resistance down while running down steeper slopes is another matter altogether… Do feel free to join me for some Glendowie off  road runs which I post at