Helen Squirrell is a member of our CoachParry Online Training Club and has been on our sub 3:30 marathon programme, she managed to get a substitution entry to Comrades and has decided to take the plunge into running Comrades this year. Markus gives her some advice on how to adjust her paces and training from the marathon to Comrades training.

Helen lives in Clarens which is at a high altitude and is very hilly and so they also discuss some ideas around adjusting training for altitude, hills and time trials not on flat routes. Markus also gives some great advice on how to adjust training programs when you do training on both road and trail to ensure you are still getting in enough mileage.

Brad Brown:  Welcome back on to another edition of run with Coach Parry. My name is Brad and I’m going to be with you for the next half an hour or so, as we catch up with another member of the Coach Parry online training club. We head to one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa today, after a couple of weeks where we were in Australia and in the UK.

We head back home and we touch base with Helen Squirrel today who is training hard for Comrades some great questions we joined by coach Marcus on today’s podcast.

Coming up on today’s show, we’re going to be talking Comrades qualifying ,we’re going to be talking about training just generally when you live in a very hilly place, and will also touch on altitude training a bit. A lot of people do or I should say lucky enough to live in a place of high altitude and the benefits you can get from that in your training are pretty amazing. So, that’s all coming up on today’s podcast as well.

We head to the little town of Clarens, one of the most beautiful parts of South Africa now to catch up with our next guest and it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome Helen Squirrel on to RUN with Coach Parry. Helen, welcome.

Helen Squirrel: Thank you Brad, very good to be here.

Brad Brown: It’s good to catch up and we’ve got Markus van Niekerk, one of our learning coaches with us as well. Markus nice to touch base with you once again as well, how’s it?

Markus van Niekerk:I’m good and you Brad?

Helen’s running background

Brad Brown :Very very good. We’re going to get to you in a second you can you can sit ‘vas’ and listen to to myself and Helen shoot the breeze a bit. Helen let’s let’s touch on your sort of running background and and let’s touch on Clarens. First of all man alive. You are so lucky to live in their part of the world. It’s one of my favorites.

It’s literally in the middle of nowhere for people listening to this around the world. It is magnificent. It’s beautiful. There’s not there’s nothing around you. It’s quiet. It gets cold in winter, let’s not make it sound like it’s heaven on earth. If you don’t like the cold, Clarens isn’t for you in winter, what took you to Clarens?.

Helen Squirrel:10 years ago my husband was hijacked, three times, and we had the kind of business where we could operate from anywhere in the world. We came to Clarens a few times and holiday, fell in love with it and landed up here.

Brad Brown: From a running perspective, you don’t get much better?

Helen Squirrel: No. The running’s hard. I come from a mountain bike background, actually. My husband and I actually met on bicycles. Look Clarens is beautiful, but the mountains are big. These nothing flat about Clarens.

Brad Brown: No, that’s for sure.

Helen Squirrel: The training is hard plus you’re at altitude.

Brad Brown: But what they say ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, so you must be you must be quite a beast?

Helen Squirrel: I don’t know

Brad Brown: How long have you been running? You say you come from a mountain biking background, how long have you been bitten by the running bug?

Helen Squirrel: I’m a bit of a late bloomer. I’m 46 now, so I’m in my golden years. I only started running approximately 10 years ago seriously. Before that while we’re in Johannesburg I used to do mountain biking, road biking and I ran a bit but not a lot. So pretty much when we move to Clarence, we bought some dogs and they happen to be pitbulls and they needed to be exercised and yeah, as they say the rest is history.

Running goals

Brad Brown: What’s the goal, what are you training for at the moment?

Helen Squirrel: So, the training programme I was on was a sub 3:30 marathon training programme. I missed all the Comrades entries but I managed to get an entry on Friday, so all of a sudden everything shifted to Comrades. It will be my first Comrades and probably be my only Comrades.

Brad Brown: Can we get that in writing now because everyone who’s run Comrades is having a good chuckle to themselves. Helen, that’s never gonna happen.

Helen Squirrel: I’m really good. I’m a trial run about heart and if you speak to all the people that know me in the trail running circles. I only ever do a race once.

Brad Brown: But there’s two different races at Comrades. You’re running the up run this year. Next year is a different, It’s the down run.

Helen Squirrel: I don’t know. We’ll decide then.

Brad Brown: I love it. Moving from basically the 3:30 marathon training programme over to a Comrades Training Programe, I mean goals, aspirations, what do you secretly hoping for?

Helen Squirrel: Nine hours, or just under. it’s a big ask. I think I can do hours, I’ll be happy with nine hours but I’ll probably get nine hours and one minute and be devastated. But hopefully nine or just under nine.

Brad Brown: I’ll tell you, it doesn’t matter what what your goal is at Comrades, just finishing that races is a massive accomplishment. I know you do have aspirations for that sub nine but anything is good enough in my mind. Markus, your thoughts, you’ve got Helen’s training questionnaire that we normally send out to our athletes. Your initial thoughts and then we can get into some back and forth with helping Helen put that plan together between now and race day.

Markus’s Initial Thoughts

Markus van Niekerk: Hi Helen, it’s good to have you on board. Just a few look mental notes from my side, ‘my qualifier last year was a 3:32 Marathon (I think) at the Wally Hayward and I managed to do a 8:46 Comrades. My preparation might not have been the best, but my previous years my qualifier was, I think about 12 minutes faster than that and I happened to run it a 8:22, if I’m not mistaken’.

What I’m trying to get to is, I don’t think you’re very far off if you aim for a sub nine hour Comrades and if you do follow the sub nine hour Comrades programme and coming from altitude, I can guarantee you you’ve got a bigger chance of being successful than the average person because you come from such a high altitude. When, just for interest sake, when are you planning to come down before the race?

Helen Squirrel:I haven’t really thought about it. I know my husband booked accommodation the night before, but generally it will probably be the day before. I can’t see us coming down any sooner than that.

Markus van Niekerk: Okay.

Helen Squirrel: Is it better to to go down sooner or is it better to arrive just before race day?

Markus van Niekerk: Look if you only going to arrive just before the race, I’d hang around a bit afterwards, not that you’ll be able to walk anywhere, but I think the shorter the duration between coming from altitude to your race the better. Because the oxygen is going to be something surreal when you do race from Durban to Maritzburg. It’ll definitely play a big role on the day. But I’m looking forward to working through your questions with you and just maybe giving you some advice that you can use going forward from you to Comrades..

Going from a sub 3:30 marathon training programme to Comrades

Brad Brown: Helen, let’s jump into it. What do you need help with at the moment? What do you what are you struggling with? What can Markus help you with?

Helen Squirrel: OK,  so the shift from the 3:30 marathon training plan to Comrades. I did the Surrender Hill Marathon on Saturday, and that was sort of my goal on the 3:30 Marathon Training Programme to get a sub 3:30 marathon. I have run it before, and I did I think it was 2015 or 2016 and I did it in a time of 3:30. I’m few years older now, but when I got the entry for Comrades on Friday, my husband said listen, don’t race it. Rather just use it the training, which I did on Saturday.

So, I’ve looked at the programme and I’m like, okay, what do I do now? Because everything slows down quite dramatically. You know, going from a sub 3:30 marathon training programme to Comrades, instead of running 5:20s and 5:15, it’s now all of a sudden closer to six. That transition is going to be a little bit difficult for me, but I suppose I’ve got to do it.

Markus van Niekerk: Just a quick one, on your on your PB’s that that you listed yeah when they run more or less?

Helen Squirrel: What do you mean the ones are the ones I’ve already done? I did the Sasol Marathon in Feb.

Markus van Niekerk: Was that the 3:20 marathon that you ran?

Helen Squirrel: Yes, and I was sick. I should’t have actually run it. It was a terrible race. I could’ve taken 15-20 minutes off that. I really had a bad race, I should have started.

Markus van Niekerk: Okay. That’s what make these calls so good because when it comes to our time based programmes, we have to cater for someone that’s just going to make Bill Rowan and someone that’s going to make a Bill Rowan quite easily, so there’s quite a wide spectrum you know of people that we have to take into consideration when doing these programmes. Let’s say we work with your 3:20 marathon, just for arguments sake, I can give you your easy. recovery and long run paces following the sub nine hour Comrades programme. I just quickly want to open up my my calculator, just give me second.

Helen Squirrel: While you’re doing that, living at altitude and training at altitude I don’t have to change anything so if you say to him a long run is 5:50 or 5:40 to 5:50 per km. I can keep it at that even though at altitude?

Markus van Niekerk: You know it’s a tricky one Helen, because obviously you didn’t run your marathon at altitude. Tell me, the 21 minute five k was that done in Clarens?

Helen Squirrel: Yes and I think it might have been a trail run as well.

Markus van Niekerk: Oh goodness, okay. So what I’m trying to get to is if you can do some sort of time trial or give me the time for your most recent hard run that you did or race for that matter in Clarens, then obviously that was at the same altitude so I can work with that number and then work out your training places for you. Look, if you say you could have gone easily easily think 10 to 15 minutes faster on the 3:20 marathon that you did there today, we can work with that as a reference just for…

Helen Squirrel: On Saturday, I ran the Surrender Hill Marathon, my husband said run it slow I did it in 3:44, that was an average pace of 5:20 minutes per km and I felt extremely, extremely good. He actually drove up to me and told me to slow down! So, I probably could have done a 3:30 on Saturday but he wanted me to use it for training so…

Getting the pacing right

Markus van Niekerk: Looks, so let’s just for argument’s sake work off 3:20 and a 3:30.

If we work off a 3:20 Marathon, your easy run pace could be anything from a 4:50 or 5:25 minutes per km.

Helen Squirrel: Yes

Markus van Niekerk: Your long run a 4:50 or 5:35 minutes per km and then your recovery run from a 5:20 to a 5:50 per kilometer. If we go one step back and we work with the 3:30, then influence the paces as follows: your easy run will be a 5:00 to a 5:30 per km, your long run will be a 5:00 to a 5:40 per km and the recovery runs will be a 5:30 to six minutes per km. That should be a good reference for you just to work off because this to me there’s a bigger risk in doing your easier runs too hard as opposed to doing them too slow.

You’ll know full well when you’re doing them too slow, but hopefully I just gave you enough information for you to be comfortable with your training places from here on to Comrades. If you do a time trial within the next few weeks leading up to Comrades obviously I won’t mind you’re contacting me and I can just adjust those paces for you. What I just gave you now should give you a good you know nudge in the right direction.

Training in a hilly area

Helen Squirrel: Okay. Getting onto the time trials, Clarens. Mountains. There’s nothing flat. We’ve got one stretch of road that goes past the golf course, it’s on I would say it’s probably two kilometers long. You sort of go down two kays, then you turn around and come up a bit of a drag the other way. There’s nothing flat in Clarens and all the time trials I do have got like 200 meter elevation. It’s really difficult to try and figure it all out.

Markus van Niekerk: Ja, tell me if you drive up the big hill towards Bethlehem. Look that road isn’t entirely flat either but it’s not really hectic, I’ve run there quite a few times myself. Will it not be worth it to to maybe do a do a warm up in that area and then do an out and back time trial.

Helen Squirrel: I can try that. It’s a similar gradient to the road from Clarens to Fouriesburg, along past the Golf Course. It’s pretty much quite similar.

Markus van Niekerk: Even if you find a short stretch of road and let’s say it’s even 1500 meters then you can try and make it around number that you either get 4, 6 or 8km in my opinion. I’ve trained in Clarens quite a bit and if you need to manipulate the way that you’re going to run that time trial that’s fine as long as you run on the same stretch of road always. By that you’ll be able to distinguish whether you’re improving or not.

Helen Squirrel: I’ve got a time trial route through town but there is a single track and stuff which is an ideal. I took Kate Roberts on a time trial the other day she said I’m crazy.

Adjusting your hills repeats

Brad Brown: You were also asking about the hill repeats as well. With it being so steep, Marcus I think this is a great question. It’s probably not exclusive to Helen. Staying in a place where the hills are also steep. Helen was saying some of those hills are like eight percent, that’s how steep they are. Should you shorten your hill repeats? Do you like lower the amount of reps or intervals in that set? How can you adjust to heal sessions, if you do generally live in a very hilly place?

Markus van Niekerk: Referring back to our recording a few months ago, usually we work on a gradient of 4 to 5% and about 10 seconds per kilometer pace slower than your ideal 10km race pace or than your threshold place. So, ideally, if I were you, I would look at anything between a 4:16 to a 4:25 per kilometer pace. But it’s quite tricky once again, because I haven’t really experimented on hills that steep but my suggestion would be to not shorten the number of repeats, just rather add another five, even if necessary, 10 seconds to that pace. Having said that, that’s also only true to certain point because once the hill gets too steep, then you obviously slowly but surely leaning towards picking up some injuries.

Helen Squirrel: On the 3:30 marathon training programme, I think Lindsey had me do eight intervals of two minutes or 400 meters. I did it out on the Fouriesburg road. It was the only stretch of road I could find and it gravitated between 6 and 11%. I did them but it killed me. I did then 4:30, but I was completely exhausted for a couple of days afterwards.

Markus van Niekerk: I hear you. Look, it is tricky, even if you even if there’s a stretch of road that’s got a very very slight gradient to it. That’s also acceptable because four percent isn’t really that steep. Like I said I’ve tried that before, but I don’t know the place that well to say, you know, go to point A and do ti there. But you’ll find out quickly if it’s too steep. You probably going to feel at first either in your Achilles or the bottom of your feet, your plantar is going to flare up a bit. That’s already too late before you realise it. Keep that in mind. Rather slow it down and if you feel that’s not making a difference either, only then do you start playing with the rep count.

Helen Squirrel: Okay.

Doing an Ultra Marathon in the build up to Comrades

Brad Brown: Helen, you were also talking about an ultra marathon and it’s one fairly close to you that I actually know quite well because my dad has run it numerous times. That’s the Arthur Cresswell, the Bergville to Ladysmith. I think it’s a 52km and you asking is that too late in Comrades preparation? When exactly is that on the calendar? I actually can’t remember.

Helen Squirrel: it’s on the ninth of April.

Markus van Niekerk: That’s perfect.

Brad Brown: One thing I know is that a lot of people like Arthur Cresswell because it’s 52km. You get the same amount of time, if I recall correctly, for an ultra that you do for like an Oceans. Your’re basically buying 4km, so if somebody’s listening to this and they’re a marginal qualifier for Comrades, that race is actually a really good one to do. It’s not easy and there’s also not massive crowds, so it’s not like you have this huge amount of support on the road but you are buying yourself a bit of extra time if I recall correctly on the qualification side of things. If you look at the oceans is this year as well timing wise, I also think it’s, it’s perfect.

Helen Squirrel: Okay. It makes sense to do it. It’s just down the road and you know, I haven’t done an ultra. A couple of years ago, I’ve done an ultra trail running, but I’ve never done an ultra on the road. I know I’ve got to do one and I wasn’t sure if it’s just too soon or too late. So if you say perfect then I’ll definitely do.

Travelling before Comrades and how it affects your training

Brad Brown: You’re also going to be doing some traveling between now and Comrades. Tell us a bit about that. You were asking about how that’s going to affect your training

Helen Squirrel: We are away for five days over Easter. We’re going to the UK to visit family. I’ve looked at the weekend and it’s quite a big training weekend so I’m not too sure what I do. Do I try and stack up my training before I go or I just forget about it and get on with it when I get back?

Markus van Niekerk: it’s quite a tricky one Helen. One can either swap the week before with the week that you’re in the UK. Just give me the exact date if you don’t mind?

Helen Squirrel: And we’re in the UK from the 17th until the 22nd of April.

Brad Brown: That’s the Easter weekend Markus. In our programmes there is a big block in there for Two Oceans or whether it’s the Easter 100 in Randburg. Because Helen’s doing the ultra slightly earlier, how would that affect things? Or does it?

Markus van Niekerk: If it wasn’t for for the ultra on the 9 April, I’d be slightly concerned. But I’d say if you just try and do some running that week with at least one decent long run. I think it’s more than sufficient, obviously banking on the fact that you will definitely do the ultra on 9 April.

Helen Squirrel: And I’m sorry, the ultra I think is on the 7th. I’m looking at the calendar and I’m giving you the wrong info

Markus van Niekerk: I was about to say. People down there do it differently. They do it on Tuesdays.

Helen Squirrel: There’s no oxygen up here! I’m supposed to do a three hour thirty and a two hour on the weekend that I’m away.

Markus van Niekerk: If you can commit at least to one of the long runs. The weather shouldn’t be too bad then. But if you can try and commit to at least a three hour run on that weekend, that’ll be perfect. And maybe get up a bit earlier, and then try to do at least do one long run instead of missing both entirely. I think it’ll count in your favor.

Can you do your long training runs on the trail as opposed to the road?

Brad Brown: Helen you also asking about the trail versus road. Obviously, where you live there are some amazing trails. Markus does it make a difference if you do the long training runs on the trail as opposed to on the road?

Markus van Niekerk: No it doesn’t Brad, but one thing. Lindsay and I are quite sensitive when it comes to just spending time on your feet. When I look at all my athletes, I have to draw a line between some of them and say, there comes a time in the Comrades preparation, where I don’t give my long runs in duration anymore. I feel that there’s not enough mileage being covered. So, what I do then is rather focus on mileage then. You don’t strike me as someone who runs to little in a in a prescribed time.

But I would say rather than mix it up, as opposed to just doing your long runs on trail. Because for me, it’s about two things actually getting the mileage done. It’s a big psychological thing as well, knowing that I did a 36km running my three hour long run as opposed to, and I know it can be very, very challenging when you do or very exhausting when you do a trail run. But I’ve also done trail runs of three hours and only cover 12 kilometers. So that’s the first thing and then the second thing is, is just be very, very careful that you don’t hurt yourself. That’s also happened to many people. But if you do mix it up, I’m sure it’ll be fine come race day.

How to alleviate boredom when running by yourself

Helen Squirrel: One quick question. You’d think there’d be a lot more runners out here but there are not. I am always on my own. How do I alleviate boredom?

Markus van Niekerk: It’s a good question, especially if you’re not a big fan of music.

Helen Squirrel: I do play music

Markus van Niekerk: That’s always my go to remedy. I also do majority of my runs by myself. And I know it gets really, really tough at times. But every now and then I treat myself with either a new CD that I buy or a podcast or whatever I’m listening to at the time. I also try and switch it up that I don’t run the same routes.

I know it’s tricky, especially when you live in a hilly area that you should certainly have certain routes to avoid, you know, to avoid coming back half dead. I always try and mix it up, especially my long runs. On long runs I’ve got a rule that I’m not allowed to run the same run the same route that I did in the last two to three weeks and it just generally just keeps it interesting. New sights, new sounds so I just try and keep my mind busy while I run.

Brad Brown: Helen, unfortunately we are out of time but great to catch up and best of luck. We look forward to to following your progress and we’ll chat in the forums. If you’ve got any questions, you know where to post them. Thanks for your time today. much appreciate it.

Helen Squirrel: Thanks, Brad. Thanks, Markus.

Markus van Niekerk: It’s a pleasure all the best and good luck with your ultra and the training and all those good things. Hope to see you at the expo come Comrades

Success Story in the Coach Parry Online Training Club

Brad Brown: And that’s it for this edition of the podcast. Thank you so much for listening and thank you to to Markus as well as Helen for their time.


With a passion for high performance sport – Lindsey Parry is one of South Africa’s most widely recognised coaches. Having led a team to the London, Rio and Tokyo Olympic Games as well as the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, the Gold Coast & Birmingham, and coached both triathletes and runners onto podiums of some of the world’s most illustrious races, Lindsey has a unique ability to understand what it takes to succeed at any level and thrives on coaching, motivating and inspiring others to do the same – whether it’s on the track, on stage or behind a mic.

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