I’ve been interested in the concept of athletic injury — why it happens and how to avoid it — since my early attempts at distance running went wrong. My failure to properly manage the progression from half- to full-marathon training scuppered my enjoyment at the full distance and cost me no small amount of time, money and pain at the physio clinic.

Last year I asked the London Marathon folks how many places they allocate each year, and how many drop out before the day, but answer came there none. Many runners, I’m sure, tough it out on inadequate training and recovery, just as I did in 2005, with a virus or other illness that seems marginal in the context of the joy of getting a place in this massive mobile folk festival, or the sense of obligation to one’s sponsors. The latter, of course, is very powerful.

But during all my middle-aged attempts at higher fitness, I think the most interesting concept I’ve come across appeared just the other day in the sports science newsletter Peak Performance:-

There is a price to be paid for developing specific robustness, and it goes some way to explaining how highly trained athletes can still be susceptible to injury. As training and strength progress we become increasingly adapted to the stimulus our body expects. However, high levels of adaptation to a familiar stress may conversely leave you potentially fragile to an unexpected stress. And as the highly adaptable and complex being that you are, it is often tiny unexpected stresses that may prove catastrophic. This is referred to as the robustness-fragility trade-off.

The concept is new to me, but presumably it will not be to those familiar with complex systems, be they biological or technological. I’m guessing here that it should also resonate in the workplace, school, the home and even the family. The more we become good at the specific skill, task, business or market orientation, the more vulnerable perhaps we are to some not entirely distant butterfly-wing flap – the tooth that cracks while biting on nothing more than a lettuce leaf.

Well, I’ve heard in business the suggestion that the big non-linearities are kind of unavoidable, and that their impact will be evenly distributed, so there is not much competitive advantage in laying down tools and tinkering in some other less defined direction, which is what the Peak Performance article advocates for physiological purposes.

I think they are telling us to do a bit more than just cross-training, the benefits of which are well-documented, but try and incorporate a range of movements into your life and workouts. For example, the article recommends introducing a “bandwidth of variability” in the way we run or exercise, and do things that challenge our coordination.

For runners (which is mostly where my interests lie) exercises like skipping and even hopscotch are recommended. It seems a far cry from what we conceive of as the serious business of piling on the miles.

Perhaps a bit more corporate hopscotch, and some of our currently endangered institutions might now be looking a little less vulnerable? But I doubt the stock analysts would be able to reduce it to a metric for discussion, so it is only through the wisdom of failure that most managers are likely to allocate any time or resources to such a pursuit.

The difficulty is that we prefer to focus on the task in hand and see ourselves progress directly at the sport or discipline in which we will be measured. The greater discipline required to step back and spend a little bit of time filling in the gaps seems to come at the cost of specific progress on that road to greater robustness in our chosen sport or business endeavour. That less-travelled training road is also likely to leave us feeling that we are falling behind our colleagues or competitors.

For example, if the choice exists between dropping some miles on the training path and some core stability training, the closer to an event the more likely that non sport-specific activity is going to be foregone if there is some other pressing work or family responsibility.

Very early readers of the Knackered Hack will recall my focus on rugby player Jonny Wilkinson‘s return to competitive sport, and his own comments on the mismanagement of his early training regime.

Up to now I have perhaps not had the strength to make these tough decisions because I always believed the toughest decision was to stay on the field and “tough it out” for an extra hour or so. The tough decisions for me now are about getting the most out of my training while still being able to rest and recuperate for the weekend’s game. I still train numerous times every day but I try now to train better and smarter, which does not necessarily always mean longer.

It is for this reason that, rather than focus on a specific event goal like the marathon, my training approach is now holistic, trying to put together some of the things I’ve learned over the past several years. This may mean a slower, more varied route to robustness. All that said, my opinion of my current regime is that it is still too monotonous. So, inspired by Peak Performance, I will be ringing the changes in the coming weeks with weights, tennis, badminton, skipping, basketball, and maybe even some hopscotch (corporate and otherwise).

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Tweet Times columnist Simon Barnes has endorsed those of us who wear our hunter-gatherer-ness on our sleeves. In a short essay on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Barnes spoke of the fans he has been accompanying on assignment while covering the Rugby World Cup in France:- The rest are here in pursuit of […]

Tweet “It ain’t over till it’s over,” Yogi Berra famously used to say. If you’re an English rugby fan, there can be no truer words to reflect your recent experience. I normally don’t follow rugby very closely, for various family reasons, but have a habit of walking in to watch the last 5 minutes of […]

Tweet The Frontal Cortex, a great science blog on matters cerebral if ever there was one, points to a story in Newsweek asking “can Exercise Make You Smarter?“. The answer very obviously turns out to be yes. The precise mechanisms are complex, Newsweek says:- Researchers are realizing that the mental effects of exercise are far […]

There is a great book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb called Fooled by Randomness, which examines the role of luck in all areas of life, particularly business and investing.

Taleb is a professor of mathematics and a derivatives trader. Not much to do with sport. But his business is complexity. There is something in statistics called “survivorship bias”. There is a danger that what we measure excludes those that have fallen by the wayside, distorting our view of the world.

Sport is a bit like that when it comes to injury and overtraining. The winner is the best on the day, and not necessarily the best over time. What we certainly don’t see at all are the no-shows, the non-runners, the might-have-beens. Imagine England’s rugby performance over the past few years if Jonny Wilkinson had not been injured.

Taleb is a fitness fanatic and keen cyclist. He says he is not interested in competitive sports, so he does not offer much to help an athlete understand success, except to offer the proverbial observation that a baseball hitter is normally cursed when he appears on the front of Sports Illustrated as it is normally followed by a reversal in fortune. (Mathematically, the previous winning streak was in fact an unsustainable run of luck).

In competitive sport, luck is not very likely to take an average athlete to a gold medal. But bad luck will certainly remove good prospects from the population of potential winners. Reducing that component of luck is what athletes strive for. In my own more modest marathon ambitions, I’m trying to do the same. Except there is not any pressure to win, just a pressure to turn up. That is not a small pressure, and if you are raising money for a charity, that pressure builds the nearer you get to the day. I ran my first marathon injured and while still recovering from a virus, dangerously toughing it out so as not to let down those who’d sponsored me.

Continue reading ‘luck, latent talent and training’

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