Knackered Downunder is knackered by running

As I discovered while training for the annual Sydney City to Surf run, what’s important is not only what advice fellow weekend athletes may give you, but equally — and often more crucially — what they don’t say. And what they don’t do themselves. The run, which took place last August 12, is 14 kilometers and starts from Sydney’s Hyde Park and ends at the iconic Bondi Beach. It normally attracts some 60,000 participants.

I had started training with 8km runs, but two weeks before the event had injured my knees and was forced to withdraw. Before the injury, I had discussed the schedule with other athletic types and no one seemed to have any problem. In fact, they were all very encouraging. But after the injury — which has since mended — I discovered that many of those who were most supportive don’t actually run, in fact strenuously avoid it.

The sporty types, who included swimmers, golfers, hikers and cyclists, all confessed that they thought running was, as one put it, “actually bad for you.” All had incurred at one time some form of injury from running, and consequently avoided it like the proverbial plague; hence their enthusiasm for their own sports. One even conceded that he thought running on pavement was “crazy.” Thank you.

The injuries included damage to the knees, calf muscles, feet and ankles. The list was exhaustive. The only person of the group who still ran did so in the safety of a gym on a treadmill, where he said there was little strain.

Another who signed up for the City to Surf said — after I informed him of my injury — that his intention was always to walk it. And in an article in my local newspaper, a veteran of 19 runs said that this year — his 20th — would be his last. His next stop was a knee-reconstruction operation.

The moral is: when swapping tips with other athletes, be sure to ask them if they actually practice the advice they are dispensing. And check on their own training schedules. Do they include the activity you are talking about? And more importantly, if they don’t do it, would they?

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Arthur Newton is not a figure many will have heard of, not even committed runners. But Newton is the father of modern endurance training method.

Born in 1883, Newton was a veteran of the First World War when he took up running seriously, aged 38. He won the 1923 South African 55-mile Comrades marathon, beating the existing record by two hours – this is regarded by experts as one of the greatest athletic feats of all time. During his running career he held nearly all the major distance records, including the 100 miles between Bath and London. His first Comrades win in 1922 was after just 20 weeks of training from his first painful two-miler.

This is a story of redemption and a man seeking reparation. Newton was an early example of someone who used his sport for political ends. He had returned to his South African farmstead from serving as a dispatch rider in the British Army, only to find the government had neglected his property in his absence. He believed that amateur athletics was a uniquely noble activity, one that could not fail to inspire sympathy for his cause.

For those of us who run for charity, the motivation is not dissimilar. Indeed, many take on the marathon following the death or illness of a loved-one, or as a means of overcoming some other life challenge as a statement of emotional and financial support to the organisations that have provided succour to us, our loved ones, or others whose plight has moved us.

By the 1950s the full value of his training methods was realised with the appearance of the great age of endurance running. What he understood in the 1920s was that you needed to do a lot of mileage, and most of it slowly, building speed and distance with small incremental steps. Indeed, his early training involved a lot of walking. Those first two miles caused him a lot of discomfort – he could not run for several days afterward, so he walked instead.

Newton’s approach was to develop what physiologists call “running economy” – something I’ve realised my own training has not yet established. My maximal test at the University of Bath highlighted just this. While I have focused mostly on the VO2 Max, which is above average, my report was much more critical of how well I use that capacity over distance. Because I have not trained slowly enough I have below average economy. Hopefully, as the miles pile on that will improve.
Resting Heart Rate 46

Weight 71.5 kg

Mood :-(

No exercise, insufficient time.

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“It doesn’t hurt me.
Do you want to feel how it feels?
Do you want to know, know that it doesn’t hurt me?”

Kate Bush clearly has never run up any of the hills in Bath. In fact, finding a hill with a gradual enough slope within jogging distance is a labour of Hercules itself.

But I did find one not too bad, except for the last 100 to 200 yards. On the third repetition, I’d developed a kind of athletic tourette’s, cursing the marathon. It was dark, and I still had not figured out how to programme the Polar RS800sd for such interval training, so there was no helpful beep to tell me when my heart rate had shot through the 170 bpm ceiling for the exercise and that I should slow down.

It was hill training I think that destroyed me when I last trained for the marathon in 2004-5.  I did too much, did not understand the process, and probably was wearing the wrong shoes. I overtrained and exhausted myself. And yet, it is probably one of the more valuable training exercises, because by pushing your heart-rate way up they say you start to experience neurological adaptation. That does interest me. At the end of the day though, it also is resulting in a crashing tiredness. We’ll see if tomorrow morning the Polar computer thinks I’m “Normal”. It was kind enough to wake me with those words of comfort the past two days.

Resting Heart Rate 46 bpm

Weight 71.5 kg

Mood :-)

Excercise energy consumed 514 kcal (10 mins, bike 36 mins hills 4 x 3 mins)

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Although this blog’s initial raison d’etre is to chronicle my marathon preparations and issues that seem to touch on an injury-free progress to Apr 22, the wider purpose is to explore how to safely increase workload to a sustainable higher level. This is a major issue in our culture, given arguments about work-life balance, educational achievement, and even income inequality. Why can some succeed and others struggle? What can we do if we are among the also-rans – at least to improve our personal best?

There was a tragic case of a City lawyer reported last week, where the cause of death was attributed to a long-hours culture in so-called “magic-circle” law firms. Unfortunately, it is one of those cases where the reader is left with lots of suggestion but insufficient information to draw any fair conclusions. But that should not prevent us from asking hypothetical questions as to how we should work, and expect others we employ to behave.

An ability to sustain a high work-rate is implicit in much success, and is part of what David Shenk is documenting on his blog, The Genius in All of US. The assumption of what I’ve seen of this literature is that success in more complex careers or elite sport requires an appropriate support structure (family, friends, coaches, colleagues, teachers), and a work methodology that avoids exhaustion, burnout and injury. There are other factors of course, like a facility for understanding and taking risk, and resilience in the face of failure. But not all of us are likely to start out with those support structures, or have thought about how we establish them for ourselves or for others – whether family, friends, colleagues or employees.

Continue reading ‘undulating route to higher performance’

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Bath University sports scientist and physicist Ken Bray noted recently in a talk about penalty shootouts that in the 2006 World Cup Owen Hargeaves was notable not just for being the only England player to score from the spot in the quarter- final shootout against Portugal. He also maintains that Hargreaves kick was the only properly taken kick among the England attempts.

Bray attributed this to Hargreaves playing for a German club (Bayern Munich) where such things are practiced. Bray says while penalty shootouts appear to many fans to be a lottery, they should in fact be a pure skill-based exercise. Given their predominance as a means to settling tied international tournaments, only by practice can teams hope to avoid chance outcomes and win.

There has been a widespread belief among many pundits in the UK that a professional footballer should not need to practice penalties. Bray argues, based on time of goalie reaction and various risk factors, it is best to aim for a slightly elevated kick wide to the right or left of the goalkeeper. It should take not much effort to perfect such a kick, but aiming in this zone removes the chance of goalie interception. The Germans, and Hargreaves, practice this. The rest of the England team, and some others don’t, leading to randomness. The Times, in an article today quotes England coach McClaren describing Hargreaves thus:-

“We need him,” McClaren said. “I always remember the first time he played in a World Cup warm-up match [in 2002] and Owen wanted me after the game to get the video out and go through it with him. That was very unusual. Most players you have to drag in. I thought, ‘This is a different breed, a different type of player here, a different mentality.’”

Continue reading ‘Hargreaves’ studiousness “not football”?’

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