(2/4/2018) Blog 3- Josh Harris- Marathon training & Injury

So readers, here we are with strava’s infamous Josh Harris, how many rest days are we at in a row now?

Thanks for interviewing me mate. I’m currently sitting at 240 days without running and that will continue rising for a while longer.

For those that don’t know, Josh Harris represented Australia at the 2017 World Marathon champs in London valiantly despite finding out days before he had a talus stress fracture. As a runner he is express; a 2:17 marathoner, a 64 half marathoner and 29 minute 10km man. Josh has become well known across Australia because of his incredible work ethic- well documented on strava; where he has 2000 plus and counting strava followers. Josh is a proud Tasmanian (but don’t hold that against him), and is just one of those all round happy nice guys that has got some time for everyone. It should also be mentioned that Josh is a casual relief teacher and also the former World Record holder for the beer mile.

Do you mind briefly filling everyone in on how the injury journey has gone so far and what the prognosis is? Sorry I know everyone must ask but this hopefully helps reduce some of the re-telling of what I’m sure must be a frustrating story.

I developed a stress fracture in my talus prior to the World Championships last year. I was 8 minutes into a key 90 minute training session 16 days out, when I had a really awkward and painful landing on one step. I continued training in pain but found out 9 days later that it was a stress fracture. Whether this was from that step, or something that I’d carried for years I’m not too sure, but either way my foot was different after that step and started causing different issues to what I’d felt through it in the 4 years prior.

I tried to compete in the World Champs, as it might be my only opportunity and I would forever regret it if I didn’t give it an attempt. I DNF’d at the 28km mark of the race as I was in a lot of pain and couldn’t get any power from the foot. It’s pretty rare for a distance runner to injure their talus, and my initial advice after the race was to rest in a walking boot for 6 weeks, and 12 months without running. Fast forward to January the bone still hadn’t healed, so I was advised to go to Melbourne to get surgery.

The prognosis from surgery was 6-8 weeks on crutches, 4 weeks in the moon boot and then gradually increasing strength work and introducing some walking on the injured foot. I’m currently transitioning out of the moonboot and have my next scan on April 17, which will be important to see how the bone is healing. I’m not overly confident about it, but I’ll find out soon.

Worst case scenario?

I may never be able to run again. I mean, I’m going to try running several times even if it doesn’t come right, so technically I will run again. But I may never be able to train and run regularly again.

Best case scenario at the moment?

That I get back to my best, and continue to improve my times and reach my goals for many years to come.

Is it true you were feeling your foot for a couple of years prior to it fracturing?

Yeah, it first started to hurt early in 2014, but it never really caused me any significant problems. After a few pre-activation exercises before every run and a couple of kilometres to warm it up it wouldn’t cause me any problems. For those that know me well, they would know that I was pretty much always in pain whenever I wasn’t running but as I said it wasn’t impacting my running potential so I just kept on training. I always joked that it would cause me to be in a wheelchair early in life but I guess I was willing to sacrifice that.

There was always something new coming up that I had set a goal to reach and the one time I took time off to rest, it was still sore day one of my return so I just kept pushing through it. I made the highest level on it, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I’d taken the appropriate time off during this last 4 years, so I definitely don’t regret that.

How much cross training are you doing?

I’m currently doing about 5 hours of deep water running in the pool, 3 hours of foot strengthening work which is split into a pool strength and a land strength program for about 15 minutes at a time. I’m also doing 1 gym session a week at the TIS and I’m now able to tick my legs over on the minimum resistance on a spin bike for 30mins a couple of times a week. This adds up to about 10 hours in total. This is the most time I’ve put in since the injury and over the 8 months it has varied between about 3 and 10 hours a week of cross training per week.

What are you allowed to do?

Similar to the above really. Deep water running with no impact is my fitness activity, and it definitely gets the HR up for a long period of time. I’m getting pretty good at it, I can do 2km in 56 minutes. A very basic strengthening program with some basic activities to try and get a bit of strength back in the area. Just starting some walking without the moonboot on, but I have to manage this load and put the boot on when I’ve got a bit of time on my legs to do. I walked with 2 shoes on for the first time in months last week. As I mentioned I’m able to ride at minimum resistance on the spin bike to get some range of movement through the area and some calf muscle back is now allowed too, but this isn’t hard enough to gain any fitness.

I guess the positive is you’d be working a bit more as a casual relief teacher?

Yeah, I’ve been working much more than I have over the last few years. I’m working pretty much every day that I’m free, so I’d be averaging a good 4 days per week including all the public holidays and what not that occur at this time of the year. I’ve never been one to really get motivated by work life, but I’m feeling pretty good about my relief teaching at the moment, and have planned to save up a bit of money this year, while I’m not focused on running at an elite level.

Have you maintained your TIS and Brooks sponsorships?

My supporters have continued to put their faith into me through this tough time. I haven’t been able to promote my sponsors much through the past 8 months but I am really thankful to the TIS, Brooks, PhysioTas and Van Dieman for their support. They have all been pivotal in their own way through the last few months with access to financial assistance, TIS facilities, access to Physio services, quality Brooks apparel to support my feet and also for a few quiet beverages from Van Dieman.

What else are you doing to keep busy, as marathon training was such a huge part of your life? Xbox getting a run?

I’ve been spending most of my free time with my girlfriend, Caitlin. We’ve been together for 4 months now and I don’t know if we would’ve met had I not got injured, so there’s definitely been some major positives to come from the injury. I feel like there’s a good life to live without running and I feel like a more rounded and selfless person without running. I’m hoping to implement this mindset back into my running if I can get back. I have been playing some Playstation, but not as much as I would when I was running.

Mate, I’ve been looking forward to asking you some marathon training questions as I know for a number of sub elite marathoners you have been very inspirational. I know I for one have taken a number of your sessions and diluted them down somewhat to suit me and really found them beneficial. What’s your view on ‘the system’, the traditional Australian way of marathon training? What does ‘the system’ get right?

For readers that don’t know ‘The system’ is what has become a traditional Australian way to train for the marathon, established and made popular by the success of Australian distance running royalty, the likes of; Chris Wardlaw, Pat Clohessy, Rob Decastella, Dick Telford, Steve Monaghetti and many to follow. ‘The system’ includes; a ‘Mona’ fartlek on Tuesday, ‘quarters’ (8 by 400 meter intervals with 200 meter float recoveries) on Thursday, a 20 minute tempo on saturday or a race. A long run Sunday with hills and a second medium long run on Wednesday. Pending on the individual usually 3-6 double runs of 35 mins are also included.

I think the traditional way was very good in terms of many key elements. The old school guys were really disciplined, consistent and seemed to have strong group training cultures. I think there was a good ratio of really hard: easy running and I’m sure they utilised a range of challenging terrain types in their training runs. It clearly worked for many runners, as the times they ran don’t lie. I’ve tried to use more of a traditional approach before and found that I just couldn’t get marathon fit without doing a significant time of training at marathon pace. Doing those traditional sessions would always seem to translate to me getting fit to race a 5km, rather than a marathon.

For the readers, please detail in what ways your training differs to ‘the system’ and perhaps list and justify 4 of your favourite/recommended marathon specific sessions? You have been inspired by guys like Steve Way, Renate Canova etc….What gave you the guts to train as these guys recommended? What advice would you give me if I was a good 10km runner aspiring to train for a debut marathon? Should I just aim for consistency and a slow build with more ‘the system’ focus, or could I do some watered down versions of your stuff? Or is your training more for the seasoned marathoner who’s done a few and use to the workload?

The traditional Aussie system would include about 200km per week, which includes a long run Sunday. Medium long Wednesday. Hard sessions on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and easy days on Monday and Friday. These hard sessions would often be between 5 and 10km of volume at a really high intensity.

I don’t like to set a 7 day structure like this, and prefer working on a schedule that allows me appropriate recovery based on the sessions that I have planned. If I do a marathon specific workout then I generally won’t do my next hard session until 3 days later. Just because it’s Sunday doesn’t mean that it has to be a long run. This is the flexibility that your program can have when you do the majority of your training alone.

I like to split my marathon training blocks into 3 phases. As I get closer to the Marathon I will do my highest percentage of work at marathon pace. In the initial phase I focus on efficiency and incorporate more speed work than marathon paced work. I build my long run to a reasonable distance but at a really easy pace. As the marathon gets closer I generally start to do my long runs at a quicker pace, I’ll gradually start to include some sessions up to about 90 minutes at marathon pace, and I’ll hopefully maintain that initial efficiency work. I like this periodised approach and it means that I’m only really ever super switched on and in marathon mode for about 8 weeks at a time.

I’ve found that in order to run a good marathon I need to spend a decent amount of time running marathon pace, and that makes sense to me. If I go into a Marathon on the traditional Australian approach which I have before it really hasn’t worked for me. That’s when I decided I need to try and develop a system that works for me, and being an interested person I did a fair bit of research and analysis of some of the other coaches out there. I knew when I’d ran well in the past and started to play around with that. I’d never felt like I was doing that much training, so I continued to adapt and strive for that consistency of high mileage over a long period of time.

I think it really depends on the individual. I think for most people the marathon specific work would be beneficial in their program at a level that can be gradually progressed and can begin with watered down versions as you say. I think it’s all about progressing to the level where your body can tolerate it. Add 5-10 minutes to your tempo run every fortnight for example, and make sure it’s at a pace that’s comfortable and it won’t take too much out of your body. It’s all about doing it at an appropriate progression though. When I first started implementing this I had to increase my typical long session from 40 minutes, gradually out to 90 minutes. I didn’t just jump from 40-90 in a week. 90 minutes might not work for everyone, but it’s about figuring out what you respond well to and can manage without feeling like you’re overdoing it, as consistency is the key and if you can’t maintain your consistency because your sessions are too taxing then you’re overdoing it.

4 key Marathon specific sessions

1. 90 minute tempo run

This is a bread and butter tempo run aimed to practice running marathon pace and to practice race nutrition strategies. I like to settle into marathon pace and monitor my heart rate and effort levels throughout. I’ve usually built up to this over a few months and they feel easier every time.

2. Power Hour

This is a session that goes for an hour. It incorporates 1 minute at half marathon race pace, with a 30 second float at marathon pace or just slower. The session can easily be tailored to suit the shorter distances or less familiar person as you can do anywhere from 10 reps (15 mins), up to the full 40 reps (power hour).

3. Long run

I like to include a couple of key long runs during my specific phase of training with a couple of different variations. I’ll occasionally do a long run where I run easy for most of the run, but finish at marathon pace or just slower for the last 5-15km of the run. I have also played around in the past with 2 hour runs at about 90% of race pace. My most recent example of this was a 2 hour long run at 3:33/km where I averaged 150bpm before the world championships, which is a comfortably hard, controlled effort.

4. 30 mins @ MP, 4x5mins @ HM, 30mins @ MP

This is another 90 minute variation and I find it is tougher than the standard 90 minutes at marathon pace. You have to run 30 minutes at marathon pace and then you add in some shorter 5 minute reps at half marathon pace, which really fatigue the legs. It makes it really tough to try and hold marathon pace for another 30 minutes at race pace to finish the session off. I got this session idea off Steve Way, who has been known to do some pretty big workouts. The first 30 minutes and each of the 4×5 minute reps have a 2 minute slow jog between them which makes it 90 minutes total.

As a shorter variation you can do 20 mins @MP, 3×4 mins at half marathon pace, 20 mins @MP with 2 minute jogs between, which adds up to an hour in total.

All 4 of these are pretty taxing sessions, and I wouldn’t recommend doing sessions like these any more frequently that weekly. Like I said before, if a session like this is too taxing then you’re probably overdoing it, as I think consistency and allowing enough recovery time are the most important elements in the training program.

Is there such thing about a magical session or is it more about the week as a whole? Is it easy to lose sight of this?

Consistency is definitely the most important thing. I remember Lee Troop telling me in Sydney after my disappointing debut, that if I train like an elite marathoner for 4 years he thought I’d make an Australian team. That was in September 2013 and in 2017 I made the Australian team. People often see the big sessions that I’d do and think that these were some kind of magical sessions, but they’d often not realise the work I’d do in the 2-3 months beforehand, and years before that which allowed me to handle those sessions comfortably. It also comes back to how the training program on the whole is structured, and as I’ve said before I like to start my programs less marathon specific with a higher emphasis on speed work and efficiency, with basically no work at marathon pace. By the end of the program I aim to have that efficiency and I’ll be adding in a higher percentage of marathon specific workouts, enabling me to hold 3:15/km for over 2 hours.

In saying this, there are some key workouts that I use to determine whether I’m in good shape, but I like to mix these up a bit and have a few variations of key sessions that are often about 90 minutes in length. I like to follow the key principles of training in my programs so there needs to be progression and variety in what you’re doing, or you’ll stop getting the key training adaptations.

I feel like you trained yourself into a 2:17 runner. Do you think you could of achieved the same off less mileage and fewer monster sessions?

Yeah, I agree with that. I don’t think i’m the most talented athlete out there, but i’ve worked hard to run the times that I have, and I feel like there have been several athletes recently that have seen what I’ve achieved and believed they can do similar things themselves. The number of Aussies running 2:17-2:18 for the marathon has increased so much in the last 12 months and it’s great to see. It’s possible that I could’ve ran the same times off less, but I always thrived off higher mileage and I believe that the best gains occur when the athlete fully believes and buys into the training they are doing, which for me is higher mileage, including specific sessions for whatever event I’m aiming for.

Do you blame your unparalleled in Australia training regime for your injury? What else does the future hold for Josh outside of running?

No, definitely not. The rest of my body has always coped so, so well with high training demands, and my talus started hurting in 2014 when i’d only ever done about 8 weeks of training over 160km. I have no idea why it started to hurt, but clearly running on it for 4 years left it vulnerable to fracturing properly. I’ve been able to cope with life without running really well so far.

Life outside of running depends on the next 12 months I think. I’ve got plans for income outside of running (see below). If I can’t get back, but the bone is strong enough to ride, I can see myself pumping out a few hours on the bike. I hope that once i’m not motivated by being an elite athlete that I still have enough motivation to exercise to stay at a healthy weight and all of that stuff. I’ve stayed at 67kg for the last 6 months, so i’m pretty pleased with that. I’m a pretty happy guy, and I just want to enjoy life and the positive people in my life once I can’t run fast anymore.

I know some specialists have said you may never run again but I have faith you will find a way and this is just a huge exercise in patience. What are your goals?

My two highest running goals are to make an Olympics and to redeem myself at World Champs level. I also want to run sub 14 and 29 for 5000/10000m and I want to be one of the best ultra marathoners in the world for 50-100km. That is trying to run as fast as possible on fast courses, I’m not interested in trail ultra marathons and that stuff. My main goal right now is to get back to running, and I’m satisfied with what I’ve managed to do if that’s as good as it gets for me.

When it heals and your back getting into it, will you train the same?

That’s a really hard question to answer and it really depends how it responds. I may be limited by volume or intensity so I’ll just see how it goes. I do intend to train in a similar way, and always thought I had room to train harder as a progression into the future. You’re only training as hard as what your mind thinks is hard, which is in the eyes of each individual. I’ll just have to see what I can do if I get back, as it’s going to be a pretty long term process.

You are a student of the sport and a teacher, have you thought much about delving deeper into a coaching career?

Absolutely. I see myself pursuing some coaching once my running career is definitely behind me, but I want to focus all my attention into my running while I can, as I don’t want to put a half-assed effort into the coaching. I want to put all my eggs into that basket so to speak. I think I can be very good at it, and I would like to earn my living from a mix of relief teaching, which I find very stress free and flexible as well as some additional income from online and face to face coaching to athletes. I believe I have a good supporter, knowledge and experience base and avenues to be able to follow these pathways into the future.

Mate, thanks so much for your time, you are an inspiration to so many runners out there, and such a ripper bloke. We are all wishing you the best with the hoof, you deserve some luck with it! You’re strength of mind in such a tough time is admirable. I, like many just want to see you back out there, keep ticking the boxes, let the body heal and you will be rewarded.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Josh ..thanks for your honesty I found it useful as I have found the same problem ( MRI showed fracture of Talus …xray didnt ) and identical led up to you with the final straw 3 weeks prior to the 2018 Melbourne Marathon . During our Sunday long run as a group 30 KM in something felt really painful in my lateral ankle to the point I could not walk for a couple of days and training was out of the question aside from bike and stride machine in gym. Now I am a 58 year dude who probably should know better I have done 4 marathons at the 3:30- ish and had a consistent swelling on the lateral ankle for years . Josh after the fracture heals do you feel there is a underlying problem that needs correcting as you say the problem has gradually built up over years?. I am thinking supportive taping …play around with shoes that help the foot roll front to back maybe

  2. Hey Kevin, just messaged josh to get his opinion! He has spent a long time resting his bit is slowly making some good progress in recent months! I like your idea of fiddling around with footwear, ankle strength/flexibility etc.. the focus atm should be too team up with a sports doc you trust and ensure you are doing all you can to promote bony healing/union, it can be a slow healer. I do love how you are thinking ahead though about cause and effect to ensure you de-load the area. If you have a video of yourself running it would be a great idea to go to a running physio/podiatrist (where are you based, I’m in parkdale at sspc) to work out a rehab program and shoe strategy going forward.

  3. Hey Kevin, Dane just notified me of your comment. Sorry to hear about your injury, hopefully yours has few complications as it can be a tricky one. I’m just eating back into some running now, I’ve been back running for 5 months and I’ve gradually progressed from the smallest amount of running up to about half an hour every 2nd day. I’m having some feelings I have to deal with in the area on my return but at the moment those underlying restraints from 2014 onwards don’t seem to be present. If you have any questions feel free to contact me mate. Josh.harris@education.tas.gov.au or Facebook or Instagram etc always happy to have a chat about it!

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