The Fan Dance-Training & Running with Weighted Backpacks
By no means I am not a natural born runner, I simply don’t have the physique and body shape to excel in fast paced road running. I veered into trail running to stimulate the senses and ease pressure on an existing back injury. The constant changing length and frequency of your stride changes off road stopping a repetitive high impact of road running which can have a negative impact on your back.
This is where I came across the Fan Dance (http://www.thefandancerace.com/ ). Whilst out walking in Pen-Y-Fan I came across people running in a trail event and searched on line for trail events in the Brecons. I stumbled across the Fan Dance run by Avalanche Endurance Events (AEE). An organisation run by former SBS/SAS in delivering a replica of the exercise high walk test march the SAS carry out in their final week of selection which is a 15 mile 1000m elevation out and back run or TAB (Tactical Advance to Battle) over Pen-Y-Fan. This race has two categories where you carry either the essential survival equipment, food and water (approx. 6-8kg) as a Clean Fatigue category. Or a heavier 16kg Bergen (plus water + food – approx. 20kg total) as a Load Bearing category carrying more equipment for being self-sufficient, as it would be in the SAS.
This is a truly authentic event with the Directing Staff (DS) providing its own mountain safety team on the mountain over the whole event to deal with any incidences and doesn’t compromise on integrity. After gingerly entering for the 2017 summer Fan Dance as a Clean Fatigue entry I started my training.
Training & Running in the Clean Fatigue Fan Dance -Summer 2017
So how do you train for an off-road trail race with a pack? Assuming you can run at least 80% of your race distance on the flat that would be a good starting point. If not then building up from your longest run distance by 10% on the long run each week would be a good start whilst doing 1-2 shorter 3-8mile runs mid-week. Start adding hills into the shorter tempo runs. Once you are happy with the distance and hills in the shorter run you could start adding hills into the longer runs and keep the shorter runs flat. This will start getting your legs ready for the loads. Once you are hitting a couple hundred meters in elevation you could start adding weight into a pack on one short run a week. Start with 2kg and you may already be doing this with carrying a water bladder. You can then increase this by 10% each week in a shorter run until you reach 60-70% of the required weight. Only increase weight or weight by 10% at a time.
It is really important that you have a good fitting running pack. My preference is a Salomon 5litre race vest for lighter weights (https://www.salomon.com/uk/product/adv-skin-5-set.html?article=396874) but for the clean fatigue kit of the summer 2017 race I used a 20l Inov8 back (similar to this https://www.inov-8.com/catalog/product/view/id/315/s/all-terrain-25l-running-pack/category/126/ ) to be able to fit the extensive survival kit necessary to run.
So after not the best training leading up to the race, in hind sight not enough hill reps, and really struggling with the heat, considering lack of fitness I came in 1st in category at 2h 48m and ranking approx. 50th in the overall category rankings since 2013 when it was first started. I learnt a huge amount from my training, the event and gained a massive sense of achievement however more of a respect for those that were doing the Load Bearing (20kg) category. My next goal the Woodhouse edition in winter 2018.
Training & Running in the Load Bear Woodhouse Edition Fan Dance- January 2018
The rest of the summer was focused on cycling, building up to walking the national 3 peaks and cycling 470 miles in-between them in 4 days. That broke me for a month and was November before running pain free again. The race was on. Having not run with a heavy weight on my back before I took and read all the info AEE sent on types of Bergens, what to pack, how to pack and more importantly how to train for such a feat. One thing is that they do not skimp on, advice or information, if you follow it and prepare, plan then you will achieve it. However impossible it seems. Starting off with very similar training as before, building the long runs and doing my shorter runs as hill repeat sessions. I added in weighted intervals (walk/run) at first into my running commute into work with 6kg weight. Building from there reducing the intervals until running and then adding weight once happy with short runs with 6-10kg. Their advice is to only load up to 60% of weight for the majority of training and add gradually. You only need to run maybe 1 loaded run a week or a heavier or longer loaded run every two weeks. The main reason is allowing the body time to recover. The same was with running in walking boots, a requirement of the load bearing category. This training is totally different to me and surprising that with the correctly packed Bergen and adjusted right with the weight high up on the shoulder and none on the lower back/hips you can comfortably run with 20kg.
It took a process of trial and error in working out how to run with a bergen but most importantly the focus is on the fitness and hill reps without weight. The faster and fitter you are without the better you will adapt to carrying load.
Gym work was really important, having an old and long-term back problem it was key to keep strength and importantly endurance in the para-spinals, gluts, abdominal and upper back (trapezius, rhomboids and lats). For this I was working on a 2-3x 30-45 min sessions in the gym with the main focus on endurance 20x 2 in opposite & balanced movements in every session. Within one of the sessions during the week I added an element for strength (12x3) at a higher weight that rotated week on week. This served really well. Another major focus was on pec & trap flexibility with an emphasis on movement patterns on unstable surfaces to help proprioception and balance.
Nearer the event (6th Jan) I attended a Special Forces (SF) Fit hill fitness session in the Brecons on the 16th Dec, primary to test out kit and also gauge expectation and fitness for the event to come 3 weeks later. A great event that was held by AEE to help with navigation of the FD route and boost fitness. A hard 15 miles with stops for intervals, bodyweight exercises and races which all catered to the varying fitness levels (3 small groups in total) which made for a balanced competition between all. I would highly recommend this if you are thinking of loaded running or the FD as you can ask the DS directly any questions and get a taste for what it’s like.
The Woodhouse edition of the Fan Dance, a 18.5 mile alternative route taking 3 different ascents of Pen-Y-Fan incorporating off the beaten track routes through gauze and marsh land. Even with all the training this was a totally different beast. 5 hours and 28 minutes later I came in after snow, rain, icy paths, boggy ground and wind. They say you never climb the same mountain twice and completely agree with that. I was just thankful to have finished a true challenge and to finally take off the bergen, surprised to have come in 1st in category (1st male, load bearing winter woodhouse edition 2018). The hand shake, finishers woven patch and nod of acceptance you get from the DS makes it all worthwhile.
The gradual intro into weighted running from the summer clean fatigue to the heavy load bearing of the winter Fan Dance was definitely the way to get the most out of the events and building up the intensity. Surprisingly loaded running has improved my unloaded running speed. A few weeks later I was able to hold 7.38 min/miles for 15 miles which I have never been able to do. So I am going to keep elements of load bearing in my running training leading up to a 100km race in June but with light weights (5-8kg) of essential kit.
In conclusion if you are looking for a challenge of true mental and physical toughness that is different from your run of the mill trail off road races, whether load bearing or clean fatigue, I cannot recommend this race series enough. Truly humbling to take part in a race that is so steeped in military history and conducted with precision and integrity. Surprisingly it really does improve your running speed without load too, so maybe a strategy to employ to improve your road running.