This Sunday, 22nd October 2017, Anna Boniface will be running her international debut representing England over the marathon distance. Anna smashed her PB in this year’s London Marathon to record an outstanding 2:37:07; over 8 minutes faster than her previous best (and debut) in 2016. This incredible breakthrough performance has been rewarded with a call up to run for England in the IAAF Gold Label Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I caught up with the Diet Coke-loving athlete to find out a bit more about her running.
Name? Anna Boniface
Where are you from? Berkshire born and bred!
Occupation: Respiratory Physiotherapist
When and why did you start running?
My first memory was running laps around a cricket pitch when I was around 5 and my Dad’s friends laughing at me as I wouldn’t stop. I think this showed my early talent for endurance. I’ve always been active but when my mum did the London Marathon in 2001 it really inspired me. I wanted to do that someday. I did cross country at secondary school but didn’t really get into running properly until I was 16 when I joined Reading Athletics Club.
What was your first race?
A school’s cross-country race in year 7. I must have come around 30th. I know a lot of my old school friends beat me in this race, something they like to remind me of 😉
Describe your progression from beginner to elite, and now international runner?
Joining a club was key. I then started to train a bit (no more than twice a week) and I made the county team for the English Schools Cross Country and Inter Counties but only managing to scrape in to the top 150. I then had time out of the sport with injuries and didn’t start training again until the end of 2010 when I started Brunel University. I then started training more regularly. However, I had season after season of lack of progression. It wasn’t until 2015 that I started to improve. I was getting in consistent mileage and was focusing more on half marathons. I had worked with the medical team at the 2014 London Marathon and I really got the bug for wanting to run it. I told myself I would wait until I ran a sub 90 minute half marathon, which was the championship qualifying time. It happened at the Reading Half in 2015 – an 8 minute PB. As from then I really stepped up my training and focused on training for the marathon in April 2016. I debuted with a 2.45 and subsequently teamed up with my coach Rob Mckim. With more specific training and a great training group “the Rob Squad” I continued to improve over the cross-country season leading into this year’s London Marathon. The aim was to extend 6 min/mi from the Great South Run (10 miles) over the marathon distance – and that’s what happened. From running 2.37.07, it opened doors to my first England vest, teaming up with Saucony and Forte Sports management.
I understand you are coached by Rob Mckim. How do you find having a coach helps you? Have you always been coached? Are there any disadvantages to having a coach?
Having Rob is important. He has great knowledge and expertise. Without him and having a great group to train with I wouldn’t have progressed the way I have in the last year. I’m the type of athlete that needs to be told not to train and the guidance to keep a lid on progressing mileage/volume. However, at times even having a coach doesn’t stop me from the over-training tendencies. I haven’t always been coached and spent a lot of time being my own boss, which makes having a coach for me challenging as I’m quite a stubborn person and like to do my own thing.
What does a typical marathon training week look like?
Winter training example from London Marathon build up:
Monday: AM: 5 miles easy
PM: 10 miles easy
Tuesday: AM: 5 miles easy
PM: Winter training session on grass with group – mainly tempo reps varying from 10 mins to 2 mins.
Wednesday: AM: 5 miles easy
PM: 10 miles easy +/- Strength and conditioning.
Thursday: AM: 5 miles easy
PM: Track tempos plus 3-4 mile steady or progression run. Drills and hurdle drills +/- group exercises.
Friday: Recovery run or easy run 4-8 miles or rest day
Saturday: Cross country race or marathon session: 5 miles steady, 10-13 miles marathon pace (built up nearer to goal marathon pace through marathon build up).
Sunday: Long run (mileage depending on Saturday session. Between 12- 20 miles and strength and conditioning.
You wrote a great blog about balancing work and running. In your current circumstances how do you fit in training?
I’m really lucky that where I work is incredibly supportive and are willing to be flexible. For Toronto I have been working 30 hours a week – having Tuesday and Thursday afternoon off. This gives me that little bit of breathing space to get to training on time, recover and meet with my sponsors/sports management team. I commute into London so I always take running kit with me in case I get stuck in town and can train there. Working and being an athlete is tough as you are constantly very busy. The key is being incredibly organised. I think it gives good balance having both my athlete and physiotherapy careers. Both of which I am very passionate about.
You mentioned that you use strength and conditioning? How often? Do you see the benefits?
I do strength and conditioning (S & C) usually on Sundays. Ideally, I would like to do it more as it’s really important from an injury prevention perspective and to ensure good movement patterns when running. I’m not a biomechanically efficient athlete and I’m working with the biomechanics team Run 3D to improve my running gait. Most of this transpires through strengthening exercises. After all, you’re only as strong as your weakest point.
I try and keep S & C functional, which involves a lot of single leg exercises and movement patterns replicated in running cycle. I don’t lift heavy weights – it tends to be mostly body weight exercises.
Do you use heart rate data in your training? How?
I’ve had a few tests in the lab to give me guidance of my training zones. I wear heart rate monitors for running sessions. I mainly use it as an indicator to how fit I am. I know that my marathon pace effort heart rate is around 170bpm, so it gives me an idea of what my marathon pace is at the time.
I always wear a heart rate monitor in races – I think it gives key feedback on your race, particularly if you blow up as you can see exactly where this happens in the race.
Hills. A scary word for many. Do you include them in your training and if so do you focus on hill sprints or incorporate hills in to longer runs?
Hills are absolute key. I’ve not done enough of them over the summer and I can feel the difference in my strength. I mainly get my hill training through regular racing over the winter cross country circuit. Cross country plays a key pillar in my marathon training and I know I get really fit from it. You don’t quite get an aerobic workout like it!
Interval training. Many people ask whether they should rest during the recoveries, jog or even run steady. What is your preferred method?
I like to keep on the move. I particularly like interval sessions with a “float” recovery – which still tends to be quite fast. For endurance running, I personally feel that short and active recoveries are better.
Obviously, the long run is a key day of the week for an elite marathoner. Do you run them Easy? Hard? Mix different paces in to the run?
My long runs tend to be “sessions” so they will be 18-20+ miles of fairly hard running (no quicker than marathon pace). I do a couple of easier long runs and also 20 milers of consistent pace around 10-20% slower than MP.
In a marathon build-up what would your longest run be?
The longest I’ve done is a 24 mile session of 3 x 3 mile steady, 5 mile at marathon pace – plus warm up and recovery made it a 26 mile day.
What does your diet look like? Are you eating super healthy? Are there certain foods or drinks you couldn’t live without?
Diet coke has always been my vice in life. However, for the last 2 marathon build ups, I’ve given it up (the first time I gave it up was much harder than the marathon training!). I try to stay pretty healthy. I get a lot of vegetables, salad and meat in my diet. However, like a lot of people I got a bit lost with knowing what was the best nutrition for athletes. We are constantly told so many different things about nutrition. High fat-low carb, vegan, gluten free, high carb-low fat – the list is endless. I’ve teamed up with Alan Murchinson aka the Performance Chef (www.performancechef.com and Twitter: @AlanMurchinson) who does my meal plans based on my training schedule and sends great recipes. Nutrition is vital for endurance sports and can be that small thing that can make a considerable difference in performance.
What sacrifices do you have to make to run at your level?
Aly Dixon (Olympian and World Championship Marathoner) tweeted recently how she doesn’t like using the word “sacrifices”. What we do as athletes is a choice and actually, I have to agree with her on this one. Being an athlete is an incredibly selfish and often lonely existence. It’s the only thing I dislike about the sport. I’ve made choices not to go to work socials, weddings, birthday parties, not to drink etc. I recently went away to Berlin with non-running friends – as they came in from their night out I would be going out for my morning run.
Do you use supplements? What ones?
I use MyProtein whey protein occasionally after workouts or add it to porridge/pancake mixes. I beetroot load before a race (I usually start 3-5 days prior) with beet it shots.
During races I use a mixture of caffeine and glucose gels. I’ve previously used High 5 but I’m now moving towards Science in Sport Iso gels.
What is your pre- and during- marathon fuelling strategy?
3 hours before I will have overnight oats and a beet it shot.
60-90 mins before the race I will have a milky bar. Don’t ask why. I’ve always done it.
Caffeine gel 20 mins prior to race start.
I have gels stuffed down my top which I’ll have every 5 miles or so timed with a water station (I go from looking like I have DD’s back to my AA’s throughout the race – HA).
At the London Marathon, I would usually also have a sip of lucozade but at Toronto I have the new experience of having fueling stations where you pick up your own drinks – this will be a new experience for me – I plan to use a SIS carb drink.
What recovery techniques do you use?
I aim to get some protein in 30 minutes after. I think keeping on the move is really important. I try and make sure I get some good nutrition in after a race, but after marathon I struggle! (I was violently sick for hours after the London Marathon). I would ideally like to get more massages in (my mum is a sports therapist) but I often don’t have time and it’s something that tends to get missed.
How do you approach mental toughness in training and races?
I use a pre-race technique called the “zone box” to get focused before a race. It involves visual imagery associated with a time I have felt really confident, combined with focusing on a key colour, soundtrack and trigger phase – it works really well to get into a confident focused state.
During the race, my marathon mantra is “Run Brave” which is a quote from one of my favourite athletes, Alexi Pappas. I say it to myself during tough parts of the race and try to smile (grimace).
How do you stay motivated? Do you ever find it difficult to get up early and go running in the cold, dark, and rain?
I just remember my goals. If I started making excuses today then it leaves the door open for excuses tomorrow. So I just get up and get it done.
Training is like building a sandcastle – lots of the small grains of sand are ones you can’t see to the external eye. They’re like the morning runs. No one sees you do them but they’re still just as important at holding everything together.
I see you are part of the Saucony Hurricanes Racing Team. How does this partnership help you with your training and ambitions?
It’s great having a brand like Saucony behind me. They are a true running specific brand with a great range of shoes to tackle all of the elements. Having support with kit is incredibly helpful and it’s a real privilege to be part of their team.
How do you use different trainers? Do you do easy mileage in different trainers to tempos/intervals? What do you race a marathon in?
I tend to have a morning and evening trainer (a neutral or slight stability shoe like Saucony Guide 10). Trainers need recovery too and it’s good to let their foam reset for 24 hours. I use a flat for track/tempo sessions which is the same I race in – Saucony Fast Twitch.
Do you use compression kit? Thoughts?
I use compression socks and sleeves occasionally – mainly for extra warmth rather than everything else. I do find compression socks help when I have calve tightness.
Do you use tape?
No, I don’t. I personally feel that it is something that is “in vogue” at the moment and I’m a little sceptical on the rationale behind it.
What are your views on easy or sometimes referred to as ‘junk’ miles? Do you run your easy miles slow or steady?
I like to take my easy runs very easy. My morning runs are often 8.30 min/mi. Running steady all the time makes you a risk of burning out. Steady is an effort. Easy running isn’t.
How do you decide what pace to run a marathon? Are there certain indicators in training/races that you use to tell what sort of shape you are in?
A key indicator for me is a half marathon a few weeks out from my marathon.
What does a typical taper look like for you?
Previously I have used a 3 week taper. Toronto has been a little different as there have been a few curve balls along the way. Also with an overseas marathon with travelling more rest is required than a domestic race. I hate tapering. I find it really challenging to sit still and do less training.
You won the championship race in VLM17 and will be representing England in Toronto, how are you feeling representing your country in the marathon? How has your build up gone?
It has been a really challenging build up for me, both physically and mentally. For my London build up, I didn’t miss a beat. It’s really hard coming off a major breakthrough and at times it’s been quite overwhelming. You also become impatient and maybe a little greedy on your goals and expectations. I am an ambitious person and with the sights on my international debut, I pushed too hard and pushed a little more, even when the wheels were falling off. I’ve learnt a lot from the marathon build up. Mainly around patience and the realisation that to have longevity in the sport, I need to be more careful in my training approach. I’ve strung together 3 weeks of better training and won the Bournemouth half marathon just before my taper. It’s taken me 6 weeks to even try on my England kit and it’s been a real battle to get to the start line. I’m looking forward to the experience and that is my main goal in Toronto. This whole process has been an incredible learning curve for me.
What are your future goals?
I would love to make a major championship.
And like any marathoner, I want to do all the majors.
Who are your biggest inspirations/role models?
Tracy Barlow – Tracy started from a modest 3.50 something marathon and qualified for the world championships with a 2.30. Similar to myself, she is a fellow NHS employee and worked as an HDU nurse. Her first international was also Toronto and she has also been part of the Saucony Hurricanes.
Aly Dixon – She has proven that 20+ years of hard work pays off. Aly has been really generous with her time and giving me some advice – she is a great role model for marathon running.
Paula Radcliffe and Alexi Pappas are also big inspirations for me.
Do you use social media with regards to your running? Why?
I’m not one to use social media as a training diary. I don’t have anything to hide about my training but I feel that social media can become unhealthy and competitive around training, with people be quick to make negative comments on what you’re doing. I can easily fall into the trap of ‘X’ athlete is doing this so I should be too – so I always think caution should be taken with things like that. Other than that, I’m pretty active on social media (Instagram and Twitter) with running posts.
Do you stalk other runners on social media? Prepared to confess who?
Ha! of course! That and power of 10 (a site where performances are recorded). I always like to have a cheeky glance at some of the marathon girls I look up to (Charlie Purdue, Lily Partridge, Aly Dixon, Tracy Barlow).
If you could go for a run with one person who would it be and why?
I’m going with the obvious answer and that is of course Paula Radcliffe – her mental toughness is something incredible and in my opinion her 2.15.25 WR is one of the most incredible sporting performances ever.
I wouldn’t also mind going for a run with the Kiwi Robertson twins (Zane and Jake) who moved to Kenya aged 16. They are pretty ballsy athletes and I can imagine they have a lot of banter.
Tell us something non-running related about yourself?
Before I took running really seriously, I’ve always been a bit of an adrenaline junkie. I did sports like snowboarding, wake boarding and mountain biking. My main sport was sailing – I remember getting into a lot of trouble when a friend and I decided to sail across to the Isle of Wight through the middle of the shipping lane without telling anyone where we were going. We were about 16 at the time in small single handed boats. Those tankers and ferries are pretty big up close and they don’t move out of the way for anybody! I taught sailing for several years, including at a summer camp in the states. I love being outdoors, particularly on the water. Doing a trans-atlantic sail is still really high on my bucket list – it would mean at least 3 weeks without running!
Thank you for discussing your running with such honesty. Good luck in Toronto, and with all of your future running and goals. I know I look forward to watching you continue to improve and running in a major championship in the future. You are an inspiration to so many runners, and you are proof that hard work can result in amazing results.
Anna writes a great blog of her training and her race experiences. This can be found at http://insights.annaboniface.com. Anna is also very active on social media and can be followed on Instagram as @annaboniface12 and Twitter @AnnaBoniface. Go wish her luck ahead of her race this weekend.