If you are a parent of a state school pupil in the UK, it is sports day across the country this week. Even though it is already Wednesday, tardily I’ve decided that we’ll focus on sports this week; coming first is not important, it’s the taking part that counts.

Sports day itself presents a variety of hazards for the modern parent. On average you can expect to lose two afternoons of work. Worse still you may get caught in an on-again, off-again spiral caused by the British weather. There is also the obligation to join what can be the life-threatening race between parents that normally concludes proceedings.

It’s no joke. A friend of ours once broke an achilles tendon in the fathers’ sack race. As far as I can recall, it took a good year to heal properly. And there’s worse when you consider the headline on the front page of Peak Performance sports science newsletter that dropped through the mailbox this morning screaming “Why fit athletes suddenly drop dead, and how to stop it happening“. Even dedicated, fit parents will throw themselves into a thirty-yard dash without any thought of a warm-up, potentially jeopardising months of marathon or triathlon training for a few moments of juvenile competition and the kind of glory that may have eluded them when they were at school. Having just turned 42 last birthday, even my hopes of acquiring such cod-glory are now fading.

But I did threaten to attend in Lycra and running spikes after last year because it was getting so competitive. I don’t know what evolutionary principle is at play, but paint some white lines on a few short metres of a grassy field and the whole gamut of free-market capitalist behaviours becomes apparent. Last year, one class teacher cleverly mitigated against most of this by organising a team-based egg-and-spoon race, with the each class’s parents competing against the other. It was a way of enforcing the collaboration of, let’s say, diverse perspectives; and of course it slowed everything down. But that did not stop me landing on my April in Paris, to the amusement of several hundred kids.

But I needn’t have worried this year. The parents’ — let alone the teachers’– race never got started. There was no explanation — perhaps it was health and safety considerations? Some may have been relieved. But, on reflection, I think the kids get a lot out of pleasure out of seeing their parents give their all. And last year’s team competition was a lot of fun, despite the damage to my coccyx and pride.

I was also raring to go this week because last Thursday my resting or basal heart rate fell to 42. This is about the lowest I’ve ever recorded it. It indicates, in a way, that I am not knackered any more, but very fit.

For people not familiar with heart-rate monitoring, average untrained individuals have resting heart rates ranging from 60 bpm to 80 bpm. I’ve become sort of obsessed with heart rate, and the past few months, while very little has gone into the heart-rate category of the Knackered Hack blog, lots of work has been going on under the bonnet/hood.

Regular readers will recall that the kind people at Polar gave me an RS800 computer to prepare for the London Marathon, but a combination of viruses over the winter kept me from training for nearly two months. As I’ve been tentative about getting injured or ill again, I’ve been intrigued to use a particular feature of the watch/monitor which tells me exactly how hard to exercise. It stops me from getting too gung-ho. It sets a zone based on something called “heart-rate variability”, which the mathematically-inclined will probably understand has something to do with Mandelbrotian fractals. Basically, an algorithm can assess (through changes in the period between heart-beats) exactly how fit you are that day. The weird thing is that because heart-rate is correlated with mental function too, it appears to know you well, body and mind! More on that in another post.

So, I have patiently followed this computer’s guidance through its OwnZone function which has, for a couple of months, advised fairly cautious training in terms of intensity. It does not indicate duration, by the way, so the length of my runs has been extending.

But, in the past couple of weeks I felt fit enough for some higher intensity stuff. And so, inspired by Art de Vany’s guidance on the value of sprints and a beginner’s-guide-to-strength-and-endurance- training-for-runners from Peak Performance, I did two sessions in the past fortnight running flat out for 30 seconds with 15 second breaks to a total of six times in a set. This is followed by a minute and a half of rest before repeating another three times.

It takes commitment, and I would not have dreamed of doing it years ago when I first started making tentative steps to get fit through running. My previous attempts to do higher intensity training also ended in failure because I bit off more than I could chew.

So what does it all mean? Somehow, I’ve got my heart-rate well down by strengthening the heart muscle by about eight beats per minute over three months. But the benefits are more than purely physiological. I’ve more energy, and I’m more efficient. I get more done. Stuff that used to fox me — like figuring out how to use more than the basic default position on the digital camera — now comes naturally. There are other things I’ve been doing which have been contributing to feeling better, but this high intensity stuff has been the kicker. Just as de Vany and Taleb have observed, an exercise regime that includes some extremes of effort appears to work better than one of slow routine.

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