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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Bonking. It’s not such a good idea to mention this in polite company, unless you’re amongst cyclists. You’ll find that “bonking” means something quite different to these athletes. Whilst for most of us (in the correct circumstances) the idea of “a bonk” would normally be welcomed, for the cyclist it’s something to be avoided.

I used to understand “the bonk” as a sensation felt by a competitor towards the end of a Tour de France stage, where all the glycogen or fuel stores in their muscles has been exhausted. They’ve hit what marathoners call “the wall”. They are basically out of gas*.

For many years I commuted by bike between Twickenham (in West London) and Fleet Street. I would ride hard and fast. I knew nothing about modulating effort or recovery. And this intensity of a monotonous daily activity, I now understand, led to overtraining syndrome.

On occasions I’d cycle home late in the evening, perhaps delayed by a transatlantic conference call. I’d have eaten a chocolate bar (usually Snickers) earlier in the afternoon. By halfway, where I crossed the Thames at Putney Bridge (the famous start of the Boat Race) I was in an unexplained state of collapse, as if I had rowed stroke to the Mortlake finish for the Oxford eight. My head was light, my legs were leaden, like I was pedaling through treacle. Ready to faint, I’d dash to the nearest gas station and stuff my face with potato chips*.

I used to joke that these episodes were “the bonk”, thinking that I was probably misusing the term. Because how could 6 miles pretty much on the flat equate to a professional stage over the French Alps? However, while reading Art De Vany’s blog only a few weeks ago, I saw the term “bonk” applied to just such a modest implosion, and it gave me pause. It seemed to be saying something about my metabolism which confirmed a growing intuition that I had been, was, or was becoming, somewhat insulin-resistant.

The really bad part of all this is that there are a lot of high insulin people out there who can “bonk” from low blood sugar if they don’t get their carb hit. And then after the hit wears off, they may “bonk” again. They may be driving when this happens and are easily angered and lose concentration. They can be a danger to themselves and others when this happens. I would bet a fair number of auto accidents could be traced to blood glucose/insulin surges.”

And when you’re on a bike, you don’t want to meet those people coming the other way.

So, since Christmas I’ve been trying to apply De Vany’s paleo diet strictures (which have informed some of my thinking for a while now) with much greater observance. The effects on my current health — as far as I can determine — have been tangible, and arguably dramatic.

Way back in those glorious days when I used to dash home on my hand-built pillar-box red Condor racing bike, with its 27 gleaming Campagnolo gears (see below) I figured out a strategy to see off the bonk.


I called it “bringing the banana forward”. This terminology caused much mirth among my Canadian in-laws at the time. But I’d realised one thing about diet through this experience: the mid-afternoon Snickers bar was the principal cause of this strange loss of fuel-supply by late evening. I cut that out and ate a banana just before leaving the office instead. But that did not immediately do the trick. I guessed this was because, depending on how ripe a banana is, it can break down into sugars quite slowly. Timing the banana became an obsessive-compulsive ritual ahead of my evening departure. I eventually solved the problem by eating the banana a little earlier – i.e. bringing the banana forward.

Now, what De Vany’s blog was describing was in the context of hypoglycaemic episodes. The essence of much of this is that you don’t have to be diagnosed diabetic to experience wild swings in energy, attention, and perhaps even consciousness. In short, too many carbs at the wrong time can drive you bananas.

* I have self-consciously americanized this post, so apologies to all my British readers who expected to see the words “petroleum spirit” and “crisps”.

Photo credits: banana -eko- , campag: knackeredhack

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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 […]

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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Behavioural economists have shown that we overestimate how much gym time we will use when signing up for monthly or annual health club membership; we’d be better off paying for individual sessions.

That’s certainly my experience. I was a member of a gym behind Fleet Street for a number of years, and never lifted a single weight. Membership was subsidised (modestly), but this was not complete profligacy, or an egregious triumph of hope over experience; the purpose of my membership was really to use the showers. My exercise regime involved riding a bike to work 130 miles a week in all weathers, so access to a shower was mandatory. I rode flat out, had no concept of rest and recovery, and would end up knackered, or — more scientifically — suffering from overtraining syndrome.

The idea of modulating effort and choosing to have rest days never crossed my mind — the mutant puritan gene at work. Progressively, after riding home from 12-hour days late in the evening following frequently pointless conference calls with New York head office, all the benefits of this excercise started to go into reverse. Continue reading ‘gym fees require heavy lifting’

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