Thursday, 4 June 2015

Distance Running's Generation F(ollow)?

Unlike our science-phobic Prime Minister, I am not afraid to "commit sociology" to explain novel patterns of human social behaviour when I see them in my area of expertise. I refer in this instance to the current epidemic of so-called "tactical" racing among elite/serious (but, interestingly, mainly male) runners at every level above that of junior high school. While the old fashion "tactic" of attempting to outrun one's opponent with superior pace is still deployed from time to time, the default racing strategy at every level, from the global to the local, is rapidly becoming that of "sit and kick", as it used to be called. So much the default approach to racing has this strategy become (and I sometimes fear that I may never see any other kind of race when more than a few serious competitors are gathered-- unless their are financial time bonuses!)that it is really no longer a "tactic" at all: it betokens the complete demise of actual tactical deliberation. When there is only one acceptable tactic, there are no longer any tactics at all!

What used to be known as the "sit and kick"-- the tactic in which the athlete or athletes possessing what he/they believe to be the best top-end sprint speed, best acceleration, or whatever else it takes to win a race run at extreme sub-maximal paces, decline(s) to lead, hoping the pace will remain slow for as long as possible, making the effective distance of the race as short as possible-- has now been simplified by the current generation to something like "never lead, under any circumstances, no matter how slow the pace!". Leading a race at ANY pace has now been deemed, whether by rational choice or the simple lack conscious choice-making, automatically the least favourable racing tactic for almost every runner in almost any situation.

Again, it's not that "sit and kick" is a new tactic. It's been around since the dawn of the sport as one among an array of possible race strategies. The first time I witnessed it in its purest form was in the late 1970s (a World Cup 1500 race, in which some of the best runners in the world ran five seconds a lap slower than they were capable of before unleashing a furious last 250m). I had seen races that were not run full-out from the gun, but I had never seen world class runners choose to turn a distance race into a pure sprint in quite this way. And while I would see it again from time to time, it remained relatively rare, until just a few years ago. For the next 25 years, I would be just as likely to see (and to participate in) races in which an athlete ran well below goal pace for the first few laps of a race, injected torrid mid-race surges, attempted to maintain a steady but manageable pace, cooperated with another athlete to ensure an optimal pace, or launched a sustained finishing drive from several laps, or kilometers, from the finish. In other words, I would, within a given season or year, witness the full array of possible race tactics, as per the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the various dramatis personae in each instance. What was obvious, and what appears to be increasingly rare today, is that athletes at all levels were willing to take direct action to ensure that the race played to their strengths, even if this entailed a deliberate and forceful seizing of the initiative. Even when they knew they could not win, athletes in earlier decades seemed to be more willing to take action to shape a race in ways that seemed to ensure the highest possible finishing place. Today, even the slowest footed athletes often seem content to remain in lockstep within a dawdling pack, waiting for someone else to make the first move, knowing that their chances of the highest possible placing are being reduced with each meter run. And why? Simple reluctance to ever assume the lead, it would seem. And here is where the sociology, or probably more precisely, the social psychology, can be brought to bear. Why have runners today become more reluctant to lead races than in the past?

But first, some anecdotal support for my basic claim that something new is indeed happening when it comes to race tactics (or the increasing disappearance thereof). In my career I have run over 1000 races covering all distances, in all conditions, and on all conceivable surfaces-- from 800m to the marathon, from midday tropical sun to winter snowstorms, and from state-of-the- art Mondo to glare ice. And I have watched at least twice as many races at every level live, on TV, and, increasingly, on the internet. After all these years and races, what are the odds I would see any really novel event or pattern when it came to race execution? Not great, one would think; yet, in just the past few years, I have indeed seen a few things I've never seen before. And I've seen some things I had seen only very infrequently in my first 25 years in the sport begin to happen with greater regularity, and at all levels.

To wit, from the global to the local, and from the grand to the tiny:

1.Four consecutive global men's 5000m and 10,000m races (two Olympic and two World Championships) in which, despite not unfavourable weather conditions, a dozen or more of the best runners in the world were content to run at a speed that all but guaranteed victory to the fastest middle distance runner in the field, and that turned earning a medal into a crap-shoot based on top-end sprint speed, positioning in the final 400m, and plain old luck-of-the-draw. At least one half of the the tactical brilliance of the winner of all four of these races (Mo Farah of GB) was the unprecedented, repeated, tactical paralysis of the rest of the field. In the 2012 Olympic 5000, run less than a week after Farah's sit-and-kick win in the 10,000, athletes allowed the pace to slow such that the winning time was reminiscent of the 1960s-- the slowest winning time in 34 years, when the race was run in Mexico City, altitude 2,250m.

2. Two high level men's cross country races in the same season (2014), run in nearly ideal conditions, at paces approaching 20 seconds per mile slower than the all-out ability of the average participant until well past the halfway point. The most bizarre and telling of the two-- the 2014 NCAA Championships-- saw 90% of the field still in contention past the halfway mark of the race, and the front group spread 25-30 wide as runners gathered at the front but refused to set foot in the actual lead. The NCAA XC Championship, famous for decades for its hell-bent front running and wars of attrition, was for the first time in its history turned into a so-called "tactical" affair. What was remarkable was the unwillingness of any of the 50 or so top contenders to ensure even the kind of moderate pace that would have winnowed the front pack down to a manageable size before the final push. Even with plenty of room to run, every athlete, the slow and the fast alike, it appeared, favoured his chances in a kick more than his chances off of a moderately fast pace-- that is, if he himself had to play a leading role in setting that moderately fast pace. And even at a pace that must have been conversational at times, no team of runners (and XC is at some level a team sport) attempted to hatch a plan to shape the unfolding of the race in ways favourable to it own fortunes-- unless every team somehow wanted the race to come down to a 2k free-for-all.

3. A final leg of a relay race (the 2015 Penn Relays college men's distance 4x 1mile, featuring several teams of athletes all capable of sub-4 mins) in which, in order to avoid setting foot in the lead, the two frontrunners nearly came to a standstill on the back-straight of second lap, and in which the rest of the field, now having caught up to the jogging leaders, also declined to take the lead, even when doing so would have entailed simply maintaining the pace they had been running up to that point! So unusual was this spectacle that the experienced crowd gasped before commencing the boo the athletes. Some observers later pronounced the whole thing "entertaining", but none seemed to deny that they had seen something probably unprecedented in the 100 year history of the meet.

4.An IAAF Diamond League meet (the 2015 Prefontaine Classic in Portland, Oregon) featuring many of the world's best distance runners, racing in ideal conditions and at a time of year (late spring) when most would be ready to run at personal best levels, in which whole fields of athletes repeatedly chose NOT to follow the paid pacers agreed to by the athletes themselves, their coaches, and agents! Only in the men's 10,000m did the top athletes all attempt to stick with the agreed upon early pace-- but even they would slow down shortly after the exhausted rabbits quit the scene.

5. A national championship 10,000m (the 2014 Canadian Championships) in which, in a tiny and fragmented field, two athletes with superior seed times remained in single file for 20 laps behind a less experienced leader, and in which one of the two followers completely ignored the eventual winning move in favour of continuing to sit on the shoulder of the old leader and now second place runner till the final lap, in order to take as little risk as possible in ensuring, not the win, but second place!

6. A midwest NCAA Conference meet (the 2015 Big 12 Championships) in which the men's 1500m was won in 4:05 (a time more than 25 seconds slower than the personal bests of the top athletes in the field), after an opening lap of 83 seconds-- slower than the typical opening pace for a primary school girls' 1500m!

7. Heat two of three in a routine spring all-comers meet, featuring 15 nameless teenage and 20-something male athletes, held in perfect weather conditions, in which the athletes, having selected their own seed times order to ensure an opportunity to run fast against suitable competition, decide, not 50m after the gun, to run "tactically", so as to avoid having to lead. The result was that only one athlete equaled his seed time. Apparently, even when nothing matters but finishing time, young athletes today will sometimes abandon their pre-race goals seconds into a race-- if, that is, pursuing them entails taking any individual initiative!

8. A local high school boys championship 3000m featuring 2 competitors-- technically four, but the other two fell over a lap behind before the 2k mark-- in which one athlete literally hid behind the other until the final 120m in order to avoid taking even a single step in the lead, and in which the frustrated leader nearly came to a complete stop on the track in order to force his pursuer assume duties (which he refused to do)! The winning time was the slowest in the history of the championship, by more than 30 seconds, and the winner was subsequently beaten handily by the loser in a faster paced race not one week later.

I could go on. Most of these examples are taken from just the past few months.

How do we explain these phenomena-- both the increasing frequency of once rare events (such as the sit-and-kick global track championships, or the failure of world class athletes to pursue appointed, paid rabbits) and the truly novel variations on the theme of "lead-aversion" (such the mass sit-and-kick XC championship, or the "tactical" all-comers heat)? As a seasoned observer/competitor and an erstwhile social scientist, I offer that there is a narrow, sport specific explanation, and a broad sociological explanation, with my preference being for the broad one.

The narrow explanation is that the current extreme preference for following over leading in almost all race situations is due to the influence of the era's greatest distance track athlete-- the aforementioned Mo Farah of GB. In this account, younger athletes have recently been engaging in a fad-like (and over-literal)following of the example of this highly successful athlete-- a fad that that will abruptly end along with his dominance, at which point the racing style of the new dominant player, whatever that may be, will become vogue. Supporters of this sport-specific explanation will point to the earlier influence of athletes like Emil Zatopek or Steve Prefontaine, who made courageous (sometimes to the point of foolhardy) front running the preferred tactic of the young in their respective eras. They might also point to the more recent craze for incautious marathon pacing ignited by the example of the late Olympic Champion Sammy Wanjiru (which, interestingly, now seems to be giving way to the old orthodoxy of even or negative-split pacing).

The broader explanation does not deny this narrower one, but rather absorbs and expands it.

The example of top athletes-- whether in the area of personal style, training methodology, or race tactics-- has always had a trickle-down influence on the behaviour of younger athletes. And, this narrower, sport-specific explanation would account for the fact that aversion to leading seems to have become something of a cross-cultural phenomenon, at least when the various national and ethnic cultures that make up distance running meet in global competition (and the sport is mainly what members of these different cultures have in common). But, I think a broader, more sociological explanation is required to account for apparent extreme affinity of the current generation for this passive race tactic (at least in some places), and for some of its particulars.

First of all, there is evidence that aversion to leading has not taken hold in the national strongholds of the sport-- Kenya and Ethiopia. Athletes from these countries are as familiar with the exploits of Mo Farah as anyone. Yet, at least when they are racing one another at home or on the roads and XC courses of North America and Europe, they seem just as inclined as ever to attack the lead with abandon (their torrid front running in every race at the recent World XC Championships in China shows that they still prefer fast starting and hard racing). The same appears to be true of Japan-- the non-African world's centre of distance running excellence and popularity, where the post-race collapse (whether feigned or real) remains a requirement. Second, aversion to leading is a distinctly gendered phenomenon, whether at the global or local level. Extreme sit-and-kick women's global championship races are not unheard of, but they are not nearly as common as men's, and are often weather related. And this kind of racing is almost unheard of among women at lower levels. Women and girls in almost every situation still appear far more inclined to default to maximum sustainable pace in race situations offering favourable atmospheric conditions. For instance, at the 2014 NCAA XC Championships-- venue of the infamous sit-and-kick men's race-- the women's winner soloed to a near course record in the same somewhat windy conditions as the men faced an hour later.

So, a broader more sociological explanation would seek to explain why extreme aversion to leading races is becoming primarily a North American (and possibly European-- I'm not sure) male phenomenon!

Could it be that the general lassitude, risk aversion, and penchant for conformity that have led some to speak of a crisis of masculinity in North America (which has its mirror in the increased relative academic and general leadership performance of girls and women in the past quarter century) is now being expressed, however perversely, in the tendency of male distance runners to freeze up and refuse to take the initiative in race situations, even when doing so would be in their individual interest (perversely because male distance runners are gender and generational non-conformists in the very fact of being distance runners)? As a coach of many serious young male distance runners, and as an acquaintance of many more, I have been privy to their accounts of races in which the pack freezes and soldiers along at a pedestrian pace. In some instances they will offer than they did not lead because leading is always the worst option ("the early leader always gets out-kicked"). But most of the time their response will be passive. They may say that they had wanted to run faster, but that the race "just didn't go that way", as if races are things apart from the runners who make them up. And when asked how they feel about their result after such a race (if it wasn't the finish place they had wanted or hoped for) they will often just say that "the race was tactical", implying that finish places other than first in such situations are rendered somewhat irrelevant, because an extremely tactical race isn't actually a "real" race. Sometimes, though rarely, they will say that no one generally tries to lead anymore, because the younger generation is tactically savvier, having learned from earlier generations the grave folly of pushing too hard from the front (as if running all out from the front were the only alternative to jogging and kicking the final 200m). In all but the last instance, the common element in these responses seems to be that no one bears any personal responsibility for the way a particular race unfolds-- except perhaps, in instances where someone does try to force the pace and does not win, "that idiot who tried to lead". Here it would seem that failure in a group, if such thing is even considered possible, is always preferable to failure as a risk-taking individual (even when it is impossible to say whether the risk-taking individual actually finished further back than he might otherwise have, and hence actually "lost"!).

If this broader explanation has any credence (and I'll admit to a little facetiousness, born of frustration, in offering it), I leave it to the reader to consider its deeper cultural underpinnings;-)And, I offer a challenge to the current generation of distance athletes to reconsider their fear of leading. For many athletes, in many different circumstances, it is the highest percentage tactical option.

PK POMs/POY: They're Back

After some uncertainty around prizing (and, yes, falling too far behind in monitoring performances in 2014) I had suspended the POM/POY feature. I'm pleased to announce that it's back for 2015, meaning I have some catching up to do!

Race participation was at its usual very low ebb in January, so there is no POM for that most wintry month.

The winner of the February's POM was junior Branna MacDougall's very fine bronze medal performance at the Pan Am XC Championships in Barranquilla, Colombia. It's rare when an athlete of Branna's calibre does anything truly surprising, but a medal at one's first international competition is most certainly POM worthy! Congrats, Branna.

Branna would go on to lead the National Junior Team at the World Championships in March, but the March POM (which is based on the scale of performance relative to the athlete's abilities and personal circumstances at the time) goes to the amazingly renascent master's runner Steve Blostein, for his win at the provincial master indoor championships (50+ 3k). Steve is a model of tenacity and has rebuilt himself after years of injury, such that he is now seeing race times he has not seen since his mid-40s. This was more example of his recent rebirth.

April's POM was uncontested. Again, while age class performances by talented young athletes are usually not the stuff of POMs, some such results cannot be ignored. Brogan MacDougall's front running 9:39.9 3k in her first ever track 3k, and first high track race period, was simply off the expectational charts. No Canadian girl of the same age or younger has ever run the distance faster. Congrats, Brogan!

May's POM came on the month's penultimate day, and was put up by none other than the 2013 PK Performer of the Year, Blair Morgan. Following a solid but unspectacular (by his standards) 2014, Blair notched a significant PB over 5k at the Penn Relays in April (a 21 second improvement of his best of 14:57, set in 2014). A month later, in rainy and windy conditions, he peeled another 16 seconds from this best, reaching a whole new level of lifetime performance. Can he repeat as POY in 2015 with this, or perhaps another jaw dropper!?

Friday, 20 February 2015

George's Pictures

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

-Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

What, I asked myself, is so mesmerizing about George Aitkin's vast trove of amateur (but sometimes excellent) photographs of runners doing what we do? George's collection began when he himself took up the sport some 40 years ago, and it includes many shots of me and people I knew well as friends and competitors(including some of the people whose exploits hooked me on the sport, and kept me hooked all these decades). What exactly am I looking for when I stare at these old shots, I wonder. Like my old training logs, gear, and body weight, George's photos are yet another reminder that running remains my strongest link to the past-- and to young adulthood in particular, as I imagine it does for my fellow lifers, whose comments and mute "thumbs up" accumulate in the spaces beneath each shot. Beyond eating and the usual daily ablutions, there is nothing I have done with the same frequency my entire life as train for and compete in the sport of foot racing. I am vividly reminded of this fact every time I see my much younger self in one of George's frames. But I realize I'm in search of more than this when I scan the faces of athletes (myself included) featured in these old pictures. When I study them closely, the racing shots in particular (and the vast majority are racing shots) seem to me to offer are glimpses into the minds of runners at what were, at the time, moments of utmost importance, requiring intense and earnest focus. Younger runners will be inclined to see these these photos as perhaps odd and funny. They will recognize the activity clearly enough (cross country courses and tracks still look largely the same, and running form is timeless), but they are likely to be drawn to the 70s and 80s fashion, hairstyles, and terrible footwear on brilliant display in many shots-- the styles are old, but not yet old enough to look classical, like Bannister's long forelock and Oxford all-white uniform. Or they might notice the cars in the background of the road race shots, all strange angles and skinny tires. I see these things too, of course. But what I mainly see is what Dylan Thomas, the language's most famous, and perhaps best, poetic nostaligist sought to convey in the above lines: heartbreaking innocence and courage in the face of a decline whose imminence is much greater than the young athletes pictured can possibly be aware. There's plenty of joy and fun on display too, but what draws me in is the poignancy of young runners giving so much of themselves in moments of, at the time, utmost importance. I know I have this response because I have now lived through it all as a runner and seen how it ends up (and perhaps also because there are so many fewer photographs of me and my generation of athletes than there will eventually be of subsequent ones). The race we are doing, or about to do, is always the most important one, particularly when we are young and still breaking new ground, wondering how far our abilities will take us. But then it is over, and we move on to the next one, until, eventually, whole swaths of particular races are blended into a single period, their particulars often forgotten or conflated. In bringing these particulars back into relief, and from a then anonymous spectator's point of view, these pictures both jar and fascinate us. We see ourselves as we were then seen, and as we now see younger runners still totally immersed in training and competing. The effect is a genuine kind of nostalgic wonder (not a sentimental one) uniquely available to us because our youthful striving was highly public and physical, and could thus be clearly represented visually. Old photos always hint at what beneath the surface of their subjects, or outside the frame, but old running photos seem to suggest these things in especially stark and poignant ways, at least to an old runner like me.

Here are a few of my favourites:

A group shot of four of our best ever as juniors-- a great mix of shy, awkward, and confident.

A front pack shot featuring four of our then most outstanding junior women runners. As is so often the case, only one (Emily Mondor) would become a senior elite. Emily died in a car accident back in 2006.

Another front pack shot, this one of a junior boys 10k road championship (all but unthinkable these days), featuring mostly anonymous (to me) but very brave and earnest faces.

A much more recent shot of team mates Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis, in the final meters of a National XC Championship race, fighting hard for the win.

This one of recently retired all-time great Simon Bairu as a junior, but looking much younger.

Enjoy! And thanks, George.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Form and Substance: The Logic and Style of Workout Design

Beginning and veteran athletes alike might occasionally find themselves wondering how their coaches come up with the workout designs they do-- and, the truth is, the formula is often unequal parts science, habit, personal idiosyncrasy, and sport psychology, with the relative size of each constituent part reflective of the degree and quality of effort the coach in question has applied in his/her design.

Athletes (and readers) might be surprised to learn that "science" is often only one consideration in the design of any one workout. Good coaches have always intuited what exercise science is now revealing to be true-- that the body is not all the precise in the way it responds to any particular training stimulus. When it comes to training to run long distances, the basic stimuli (easy aerobic running, interval training at maximum oxygen consumption, and running at "anaerobic threshold") overlap considerably to produce what we commonly refer to as racing "fitness". Runners will often be surprised when they, for instance, run a personal best for 5k after a long period of mainly easy aerobic running, or when they enjoy a great cross country season after a long spring and summer season of racing middle distances on the track. Sometimes these anomalies are the result of seasonal "carry over" (e.g. benefiting from the specific training one may have done two or three seasons back), or simply of ongoing athletic maturation. The fact is, however, running is, largely, running; if we can stay healthy enough to do it effectively, almost any kind of training is helpful.

So then why bother with precise workout design-- and, indeed, with seasonal periodization-- at all? If there are indeed many routes up the mountain of distance running success, why not just work "hard" however and whenever we feel like it? In fact, why bother with coaching at all?

The answer is that, while perhaps less important than some coaches and athletes may have believed, and than some may still believe, the degree of specificity in each kind of training stimulus remains important in the longer term, and when attempting to truly maximize lifetime performance. But, just as importantly, the psyche of athletes must be protected from the inescapable stress and monotony of serious training for the sport. Varying workout venues and terrain, and the normal variation in seasonal training conditions, can provide some relief; but, more crucially, the type of training stimulus must be varied seasonally, and, within seasons, the dosing of this stimulus-- including, on the quotidian micro level, the actual design of workouts-- must offer sufficient variety to keep athletes' interest, and to forestall as long as possible the "not this again" moment that we all experience when faced with the identical difficult task for the nth time. There are always exceptions (of which a little more below), but the general rule is that athletes need things mixed up a little in order to stick with it long enough to reach their full potential.

The Substance:

Thanks to the great Arthur Lydiard (and a few more minor figures), we know that different running speeds and durations produce different physiological adaptations, and that the basic aerobic conditioning derived from easy running is the secret of success at all distances, from 800m to the marathon. And thanks to the perhaps less seminal, but equally great in his own way, Jack Daniels, we have a pretty good idea how to target these different stimuli in the basic design of training sessions (their pacing and duration). If Lydiard showed us roughly the correct proportions of each broad kind of training stimulus within a yearly training plan (the now famous 80/20 formula), Daniels provided an excellent guide to measuring, and thus better applying, these stimuli within a given workout.

Thanks to Daniels' brilliant translation of his laboratory research on elite distance runners-- encapsulated within his VDOT training tables-- we have a clearer understanding of precisely what we are (or should be) striving to achieve in each of the basic kinds of running workouts we do within a given phase of training, and thus roughly how much stimulus we should be attempting to apply in a given session.

Our running is "easy", according to Daniels, when we are not producing lactic acid in our muscles. Within this broad range, he argued, we should consider the optimal pace to be that which produces maximum cardiac stroke volume (i.e. at which the left ventricle reaches capacity, but not stroke rate). The actual amount of easy running within a given plan he understood would be a general function of the athlete's longest competitive distance, level of experience, and demonstrated capacity to recover from training (usually a function of age and experience, but also of personal physiological makeup).

When performing typical "interval" training-- shorter bouts of running at efforts approaching or exceeding race speeds-- Daniels cautioned us to understand that athletes typically achieve their maximum levels of oxygen consumption (MV02) at the pace they average when attempting to cover as much ground as possible in 11 to 13 minutes-- i.e. at personal best 5k pace for the very best in the world, and at P.B. 3k pace for the average recreational runner. Workouts designed to produce race specific stresses-- and, crucially, no additional stress-- on athletes preparing to race at MVO2 should maximize the amount of time the athlete spends running at exactly this pace (controlling as well as possible for conditions). The interval of rest between bouts of running, he thus instructed, should be just long enough to allow the athlete to maintain the correct pace, and the bout of running itself should be long enough to enable the athlete to reach MVO2 at the desired pace. By correctly manipulating these two variables, he showed, a coach could create a workout in which an athlete was able to run more than the 11-13mins he/she could run uninterrupted at MVO2 pace. Make the recoveries too long in relation to the work bout and the athlete would either run faster than required to produce the desired stimulus (and thus increase impact stresses), or else not achieve MVO2 within the work bout. Make interval too short relative to the work bout and the athlete would be unable to sustain the required pace beyond the first or second work bout. Either way, total time at MV02-- the purpose of the classic "interval" workout-- would be reduced.

We also learn from Daniels' lab researches that the maximum pace a rested athlete can maintain for 60 minutes is also the pace slightly above which his/her blood lactate levels would begin to rise un-sustainably-- the so-called aerobic/anaerobic "threshold" pace. "Tempo running" sessions, he thus maintained, should target this pace, and should typically total 20-40 minutes, not including brief recovery periods, when recoveries were employed. Attempting to go for long periods at faster than this pace would likely be counterproductive, because the accumulation of lactate would force a reduction of pace, distance, or both. Going slower, on the other hand, while permitting the athlete to go longer, would not condition him/her to run at this maximum sustainable aerobic pace (a very useful one in training for races from 10k to Half Marathon). Finally, the 20-40 minute guideline was in recognition of the fact that athletes typically do tempo sessions in the middle of a training week, and thus when not fully rested, making the full hour he/she could be expected to go at "tempo" pace when fully rested excessively stressful for a single training session.

Other paces, Daniels surmised, had their place as "practice" speeds, even if they did not correspond to specific, basic, physiological states. Running at, for instance, 1500m race speeds could help athletes preparing to race this distance learn to relax at, and thus better cope with, the required pace. But, it might also help athletes preparing to race at longer distances achieve more efficient muscle recruitment, maintain better balance, and relax more completely when launching finishing drives. Likewise marathon race pace could be used by both marathoners as highly specific race prep, and non-marathoners as a challenging recovery during fartlek sessions, or as an intermediate pace during longer "progression" (pace-cutting) runs.

Other coaches have tried to push the science of workout design beyond the systematic (but still somewhat loosely grounded) guidelines offered by Lydiard and Daniels. It is quite surprising, however, how little the substance of the most successful training plans of the past 50 year has deviated from the basic principles enunciated by these two figures, one operating through trail and error and the other on the basis of laboratory-based physiological test data. The majority of the difference between different training plans in general, and in the design of the specific workouts that are their bread and butter, concerns matters of form.

The Form:

The question of form in workout planning is largely one of personal coaching style, experience, and intuition. Workouts of equal effectiveness in terms of substance (i.e. the target physiological stimulus) can take an infinite variety of forms, based on a coach's own training experience, and his/her general understanding, or even "feeling", about what kind of design might work best at any given time for a particular athlete or training group. However, any coach at any time should be able to explain (in 100 words or less, or at least concisely enough not to delay the start of the workout!) both how any given workout design fits into the larger training phase, and why it is perhaps preferable to the conceivable alternatives. And if the answer is simply that the session is "hard", or that it's "what we've always done", it may be occasion to ask deeper questions about said coach's overall training philosophy.

This does not mean, however, that a workout cannot be very simple in its basic design (such as the classic 20x400m), or that a coach who uses the same basic design for every kind of session (e.g. 20-30mins straight for every tempo session, or 10x 800 for every interval session)is necessarily an inattentive or unqualified one. There ARE benefits to very simple workout designs (e.g. they work well for refining pacing skills, they and allow for clear tracking of fitness), and some athletes thrive using them. And, in fact, fancy workout design can be the hallmark of a certain kind of poor coaching (when design complexity is gratuitous, it can mean that a coach is attempting to cover for his/her lack of basic knowledge and experience, or that he/she is really an artist at heart, whose creative passion might be better deployed elsewhere). Some of the most poorly designed workouts I have ever seen were also the most creatively designed (e.g. a tempo session in which the recovery period was different for each athlete in the training group, and determined by the roll of a dice!; or, an interval workout in which no repeat or rest period was the same distance or time, but that had the supposed virtue of adding up perfectly to the race distance being trained for, and of finishing at the track's official finish line). Elegant design is of no real use in and of itself; and, if it makes a workout difficult for the average athlete to follow while executing the session (and I knew a coach whose workout designs were so ornate that he had to pass out cards before each session-- which he would eventually have to laminate, to protect them against the weather-- for his athletes to consult mid-workout, lest they lose the thread!), then this kind of creativity can actually be counterproductive.

Whether simple or complicated, a particular workout design, after it has passed the substance test (does it address the correct stimulus?; is it physiologically possible?; does it fit the training plan for the week?), should address the psychological problem of workout execution from the athletes point of view. As I've argued elsewhere, effective coaching in distance running is about empathy. When designing a particular session, a coach should be able, himself, to imagine in detail what it will feel like at each stage of completion. An effective coach will also be able to anticipate, based on her knowledge of her athlete's psychological makeup and propensities, the ways in which it is possible to fail to properly execute a particular session. Good workout design will thus manipulate the key variables of distance, recovery, and pace, such that a given athlete is more likely to achieve the targeted physiological stimulus. For example, and athlete who habitually likes to exceed the targeted pace will often do well with shorter or more active, fartlek-style recoveries (which can be set in a way that makes it impossible to run faster than the targeted pace); or with, and athlete who likes to ease more carefully into workouts, the session can be made slightly longer, allowing for a couple of early "throw-away" reps.

In my own practice, I like to use a mixture of sessions I have found to be highly effective over the course of my own career, and that I know from experience tweak the runner's brain in interesting ways, and that better prepare them psychologically to race. Typically, I favour sessions that induce a fairly high and steady level of aerobic distress throughout, and that reward precise, even pacing (on the track, interval sessions with active or minimal recoveries, and on the road and turf, farlek sessions, which mimic the often varied effort and blind pacing entailed in these kinds of races). Like many coaches, I like to alternate completely new sessions with "touchstone" sessions, in order to both offer variety, and prevent athletes from probing for precise feedback on their fitness before their fitness has actually had time to improve. And I sometimes like to prescribe a session that I know from experience will provide very precise feedback on race fitness (even if I don't let the athlete know this till after the session, if at all). Finally, I will sometimes prescribe a session that I know to be psychologically easier to complete for that reason alone (knowing that athletes just need to go through the motions some days).

Knowing that there is a fairly high degree of overlap in terms of physiological stimulus between different kinds of running, we shouldn't worry all that much when our coach's workout designs and preferences contain a degree of the personal, even the idiosyncratic (such as when some universities coaches have their teams do the same annual signature workout each season), particularly if his/her personality jibes well with our own. In fact, a little expression of personal style-- whether of the iron-willed, "every-workout-must-be-simple-and-hard" type, or the more loose and poetic "ever-workout-must-express-a-different-mood" type-- can be part of what attracts an athlete to a particular coach, and induces him/her to "buy-in" to the training plan-- which is itself an important variable in coach/athlete success. The purpose of any training plan is, after all, simply to keep the athlete healthy and consistent for as long as possible-- and there are many different personal styles compatible with achieving this goal.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Fan-ing The Flame

In a broader culture that values doing over watching (even if that culture doesn't actually practice what it preaches), being a sports fan tends to get a bad rap. And it's true that fans, with their sometimes excessive emotional investment in "their" team or favourite athlete, and their tendency to underestimate the difficulty of succeeding in sport at the highest levels, can be irritating to anyone with real skin in the elite sports game (i.e. athletes and coaches in particular). When a fan is serious and knowledgeable (when they have taken the time learn not only the technical side of their favourite game, but its history and lore), however, they can become, especially when massed within a community of fellow fans, an important resource, and, in some sports, an actual reason to persist for elite athletes themselves. As important as money can be in the pursuit of success, the existence of a community of non-elite or non-participating aficionados who recognize and affirm good truly good and bad performances alike, can be just as important an element in athletes' overall support structure-- call it the psychic or existential element. Top athletes make the sacrifices they do for the simple love of training and competing, and, for the tiny few, the material comforts; but, at almost any level, they also do it for recognition by the cognoscenti of their particular sport. (For proof, look no further than the fabulously wealthy and successful professional baseball player who considers his career a partial failure if he is not eventually inducted into that sport's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Ohio.) This peer group can include anyone from Hall of Fame selectors to fellow players and competitors. But, it can also include the broader sporting public, made up of recreational players and non-participating fans of the sport. And the more knowledgeable, involved, and enthusiastic this larger sporting public, the more meaningful their attention and moral support can be to the athletes whose exploits they follow.

Runners in particular, in part because they are largely un- or under- remunerated, rely heavily on the attentions and meaningful praise of this larger peer group when it comes to their non-material sustenance needs. And they tend to know and appreciate the difference between informed and uninformed fanship. For instance, any runner who aspires to more than simply completing a race for completion's sake will know the difference between the well meaning but technically baseless praise of the casually athletic family member or co-worker (e.g. the one who says your terrible race is still great compared to their inability to "run around the block!") and the acknowledgement of a fellow runner or running fan who knows how much they may have improved to run that P.B., or who's familiar with the credentials of the athletes they beat in doing it (even if there were only 10 of them in the race). And any elite level athlete will admit, if pressed a little, that part of what they think about when they imagine achieving their goals in the sport is the recognition they will receive for their efforts from serious, knowledgeable fans and media (and, on the flip side, the way their success will stick in the craw of the ignorant detractors and the unfaithful-- perhaps the most famous example of which may be Sebastian Coe's angry "believe in me now!?" taunting of the assembled British press not 20 seconds after successfully defending his Olympic 1500 title at the Los Angeles Games in 1984).

These days, when serious competitive running has all but disappeared from the cultural mainstream (to the extent that it was ever there to begin with), the aforementioned knowledgeable fan and media have largely merged into a single entity, in the form of the specialty running magazine (usually staffed by recreational runners), or, more often, the running oriented social media-- athlete blogs/twitter feeds, Facebook groups, and websites like, or its would-be Canadian counterpart, Magazines now have somewhat interactive web presences (message boards and twitter feeds), and running websites host forums that can become free-for-alls of serious fandom (and much else besides). It is within these virtual spaces, as much as within the athlete's own local running community and training group (if he/she is lucky to have one), that today's runners achieve the vast majority of whatever notoriety they will ever experience. Some elite athletes will deny ever having anything to do with the most unregulated of these spaces (the infamous "message boards", for instance), while others will freely admit to spending time in them, and will even cultivate their own direct contacts with the larger sporting public through their preferred social mediums; but, all elites train and compete in the full awareness that such spaces exist, that their actions are being closely followed and discussed via them, and that their fame or infamy will eventually be inscribed within them, like it or not.

Does the running public that is created by and that acts through these vehicles, with the incredibly close virtual proximity they can produce, have any responsibility towards the objects of their interest-- the flesh and blood athletes themselves, whom most of them will never meet in person? Do they have any obligation to consider the effects of the things they may write about the athletes of whom they are fans (or whom of they may decide they are not)? No, I would argue, even if such responsibility were in some way enforceable in a media environment where masses of simple, anonymous electronic presences can earn millions for social media companies. If they choose to take such responsibility for the quality of their fanship, however, there are some simple ways in which they can do so, the simplest of which being to just know what they are talking about.

If you survey serious runners, you will learn that they all have developed favourite places to compete and favourite races/venues (for the very best, Eugene, Oregon and Olso Norway are often tops). Generally speaking, U.S. road races are more welcoming and exciting places for pros than Canadian ones. And nothing can compare with the knowledge and passion of Japanese distance running fans; their love of the sport easily penetrates the language barrier. Much of the quality of the experience that athletes are registering can be attributed to the technical expertise of the average fan. Athletes are truly energized by the knowledge that fans actually understand the finer points of what they do, and can tell a great performance from a merely good one. And they like fans who can put the sport above parochial loyalties-- who can, in other words, support and celebrate performances by athletes of any nationality. When in one of these environments, the difference is palpable.

Even in the virtual sphere, the level knowledge and expertise of fans make some spaces more popular with athletes than others. Begun in 1998 by running super-fans Weldon and Robert Johnson, had gone global by the mid-2000s, using using up-to-the-minute reportage (much of is culled from the mainstream press and obscure corners of the internet)on all things running, combined with profiles of top athletes (including, and most notably, East African runners, who had often been considered nameless and interchangeable within the broader running public),and other fitness-related miscellany. By the late 2000s, its "world famous" message board had become the epicenter of serious fandom, attracting everyone from Olympic legends and coaching gurus, offering their opinions, stories, and training advice, to high school freshmen looking for tips on how to increase their mileage. The sheer concentration of knowledgeable attention that it represented made "LRC" the arbiter of fame in the sport, its denizens specializing in distinguishing the merely good from the great and the authentic from the ersatz at every level of the sport. Visitors could be counted on to understand how, for instance, Galen Rupp's latest win fit into both the larger scheme of his own career and that of the global scene, and to be able to see why an anonymous 2:10 marathon performance was infinitely better than the overblown, self-promotional stunts of a Dean Karnazes. While impossible to measure precisely, the existence of undoubtedly launched, and sustained, the running careers of many runners at every level in the U.S. and beyond. In any case, it almost certainly made up significantly for the almost complete loss of attention by the local and national mainstream press-- which, at one time, actually covered running as a competitive sport. Now well into its second (and much more financially lucrative) decade, LRC has not been without problems from a fanship perspective. While its top page reporting has arguably become better than ever, owing it its vastly increased revenue generation, its unregulated message board is suffering the scourge of such fora everywhere-- relentless trolling and irresponsible anonymous posting that drive away or bury the serious contributions of genuine fans. There is still gold to found within it, but it must be mined from ever greater depths of increasingly noxious ore*.

Whether it is in the flesh at races and meets, or online via social media, fans of running can, if they choose, help to lift up the athletes whose qualities they admire (and likewise provide negative incentive to those they don't) by simply learning the finer points of the sport, the way the best fans of any sport have always done, and by finding ways to let athletes know that they understand and appreciate what they're looking at. Millions of people compete in running events across North America every year; yet, the general level of knowledge of the finer points of the sport as a serious competitive undertaking remains lacking, as compared with that of even the most obscure pro sports, in which there are often far fewer recreational participants. In Canada, knowledge of the ins and outs of competitive running can never be expected to rival that of hockey; but, given the sheer number of Canucks who lace up and go for a run every day, we have reason to expect a little more. And, best of all, becoming a better fan of the sport you do and love needn't cost you a lot of (or any) money. Thanks to medium that brings you this blog, and a million other things running related, including livestreamed competition at all levels almost every week (courtesy of sites like Flotrack and Runnerspace, along with our own aforementioned, you can immerse yourself in the sport for no more than what you already pay for your connection. You don't HAVE to do this, but wouldn't you WANT to?

*The would-be Canadian versions of LRC-- the now defunct but still searchable TnF North and the newer have, at their best, played a role vis a vis Canadian runners and their fans similar and equal to that of LRC, as has, in a more old media way, the print and online magazine Canadian Running. Sadly,, now the almost exclusive venue for online running fandom, began succumbing to the same forces that undid the LRC message board before ever having had a chance to achieve the latter's greatness. This has been due largely to its decision to adopt LRC's commercially driven no-registration policy on its message board-- which, while good for the bottom line, has proven bad for encouraging knowledgeable fanship, particularly among younger participants, many of whom will never have encountered and an interactive social media space that wasn't used preponderantly for weak attempts at humour and other forms of narcissistic self-indulgence. It soldiers bravely on with its high quality top page coverage, but its true potential to create a fan base that can genuinely support Canadian athletes the way LRC has managed to for American runners remains as yet unrealized.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Raising Runners

Like most other sports these days, competitive running has become, overwhelmingly, a sport for children. While a significant (and perhaps growing) number of the adults who make up today's massive road race fields still approach the activity with finish time and place in mind,truly earnest competition in the sport today is mostly found at the age class levels, and in school races in particular (at least here in North America).

And where kids are involved, parents are never far from the scene. This was not always so. The often hilarious lack of understanding or involvement on the part of our parents is a staple of conversation among retired elites of my vintage. Like an athletic version of the famous Monty Python "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch, former elites of a certain age will inevitably attempt to one-up each other with tails of how little their 70s era parents knew or cared about their beloved activity, or how infrequently they ever actually observed them doing it (my own father watched me compete perhaps 3 times in his life, including a high school cross country race, which he proclaimed bored him, because I had won by such a large margin, and because he had only gotten to see me start and finish!). It isn't that our parents were necessarily unsupportive (although, truth be told, many weren't keen in running, some of them vocally so); it's that they did not feel they had to be involved, or to follow our exploits, beyond perhaps buying us the odd pair of shoes, paying our club fee, or asking us how we did when we got home from a meet. For better or worse, parents of my own generation take a wholly different view of their responsibilities where their kids' sporting activities are concerned. Today, if they don't actually coach their offspring, they feel compelled to be present every time they toe the line, from the earliest age group competitions to, in some cases, the end of their collegiate careers. I have been no different in this respect, and not just because I happen to be a runner and coach.

But, because I am a runner and coach, and one with a history of involvement that stretches back to primary school, I've tried to reflect on, and to critically evaluate, the effect of my involvement in my children's running-- both on their personal experience of the sport and on the sport itself. Below are some of my reflections and critical insights.

First, a confession: In spite of my own heavy involvement in it, I never intended to have my kids take up running, and I became a coach of kids by accident (when another primary school parent guilted me into taking over her duties). Being intimately familiar with both the rewards and trials of the sport-- the great sense of satisfaction, well being, and camaradarie on one hand, and the frustration, heartbreak, and deep, sometimes unrewarded, sacrifice on the other-- the prospect of my own offspring becoming serious runners disturbed the parental over-protectiveness that is the burden of my generation-- better if they did decide to pursue something as totalizing in its demands as running (and parents my age all talk about wanting out kids to have a "passion" for something), that it be a thing whose dangers were unknown to me. Unsurprisingly, given the wall-to-wall status of running and fitness in our family (our kids grew up watching my wife and I train daily in any weather, on holidays, on the road, etc., and they had met a couple of dozen elite and former elite runners, including a half dozen Olympians, by the age of 10-- Dylan Wykes being like an older sibling to them), both of my kids would eventually try their hand at competitive running.

And what did I learn from raising runners (and watching others raise the ones I would come to coach)?

1. To understand that the sport looks far different to them in the 2000s than it did to me discovering it in the 1970s. To me, the sport was... a sport. The earliest images of competitive running for me were of thin, stern-faced men (and a few women) assembled in tight packs, circling tracks or navigating turf, in pursuit of some championship or other. My bedroom walls were covered in photocopied newspaper clippings and magazine photos of Olympians and top Canadian athletes, all of which were as readily available to me as material on pro sport athletes. Even my own kids, who saw their share of serious runners, and understood that running entailed competition, grew up seeing running primarily as a thing done either by school children, or by adults after their physical prime. By the late 1990s, and thanks to the eclipse of serious running by "fitness" running, kids were more likely to associate running with images of middle-aged people festooned with reflective jackets and ammo-belt water bottles than with that of Reid Coolsaet in his "short shorts" breasting the tape in some road race. Largely because of this, it was, and is, hard to make even the most athletically precocious kid see running as something to be pursued beyond the age of 22, at the oldest. The vast majority can't conceive of running as a thing anyone would do for life, even if only as a serious hobby, the way many younger adults approach hockey or golf. Serious, senior running (elite or recreational)is all but invisible to kids today.

2. That the rigours of even casual, entry-level training (and, in particular, going out alone for easy runs) are usually far beyond the daily experience of today's kids-- much further than they were to kids of my generation, who often had to make their own fun outside, on foot. Even those most keen on racing will find it strange and daunting to navigate long distances (i.e. 20mins or so) alone and on foot through their neighborhoods, since they rarely spend any time alone outside for any reason, and since most never walk anywhere more than a few hundred meters. Today's kids will gladly spend any amount of time at a formal "team practice", but they tend not to like to simply "go for a run" alone-- the basic component of any running program.

3. That innate talent does not drive interest among kids. Many kids with real aptitude for the sport would and do choose to warm the bench in a team sport rather than train for distance running. Even kids who have high levels of early success, or show great potential to improve, can't be expected to be any more likely to embrace running than other kids. Because they have a hard time envisioning what making the top levels of the sport might actually look like (and see point 1 above), the prospect of having above average aptitude for it does always excite them-- at least not in the way success in team sports seems to (and this is not just a matter of fame and money, because most kids realize at an early age that these things are not in the cards for them in any sport). I am no longer surprised when very talented kids quit early and without explanation, often to play sports for which they have less natural aptitude. Genuine enthusiasm for the sport (include knowledge of its stars and finer points) is rare among kids, regardless of their physical aptitude for it.

4. That very early age class success is usually a problem to be overcome rather than an advantage to be enjoyed for those kids who experience it. This was not a revelation to me, having for years watched these sorts of kids come and go, and be replaced at the top ranks by later-starting athletes, often with backgrounds in other sports. But, my experience with my own offspring provided me with an intimate picture of just how early success can create obstacles to be overcome, rather than opening doors. My son-- a confirmed non-jock with no real sports experience of any kind-- somehow found himself winning a provincial high school age-class cross country championship (and many other races besides) after only a smattering of training. Instead of feeling proud of his accomplishments and looking forward to more, he took them entirely for granted, yet also began to feel the burden of expectations that his demonstration of talent seem to impose on him. Knowing that he might have to work much harder to continue winning, and that anything short of winning might be seen as failure, he initially chose to abandon the sport, only to return (very tentatively) two years later. Meanwhile, his sister, having won nothing of note in the early age class ranks, and having run only slightly above average times in high school, fell in love with the challenge of the sport, and went on to make two U19 national teams . There were and are the inevitable differences in personality between these two young athletes, but there are also, of course, a great many similarities (including the same coaching and parenting). The main difference between them would seem to be their early experience of the sport-- immediate success on one hand, and a degree of early failure and frustration on the other. Whether it is from heavy, systematic training at early ages, or the luck of the genetic draw, early success in running does not seem, as it might in sports involving technical skill, to foretell future success, or even who will go on to love the sport for its own sake; or, if it does, it might well do so negatively. In any case, deliberate attempts to have kids win in the early years-- whether it be from actually targeting success through training ahead of the curve, or from simply from introducing precocious kids to very high level competition that they might not otherwise even know exists-- is generally to be avoided. It rarely increases kids' enjoyment of the sport in the short term, and it certainly doesn't increase their chances of success in, or enjoyment of, the sport in the long term (as much as it might increase the enjoyment of adults-- parents and coaches-- in the short term).

5. That, when it comes to kids sticking with and succeeding at the sport, what you do as a parent of runners is more important than what you say. In short, if you're the sort of parent who makes serious physical activity a part of your daily life, regardless of your level of competitive success, or if you're the kind of parent who has shown the courage take on difficult personal challenges in any area of life, whether this be quitting smoking, losing weight, or learning another language, your children are more likely to make competitive running a life long habit than if you only verbally encourage them to do it. Parents who perhaps used to be avid athletes as children or teenagers, but who now seek the "comfort zone" in every facet of their lives, should not be surprised when their kids, no matter how physically talented, choose to abandon running as soon as success requires real effort, or as soon as the more passive adult pleasures (socializing/drinking, shopping, looking at screens) become available to them without restriction. We teach kids what is most meaningful and rewarding in life by embracing it ourselves, regardless of our age, rather than by lecturing or rule-setting. This applies to running as to any activity that requires sustained effort, patience, and deferred gratification.


PKers, I'll be doing a separate post announcing all of the remaining POM winners and the POY for 2014 at the end of the month.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Antinomies of (Men) Coaching Female Runners.

If you're a male coach of serious female runners, and if you approach your job with even a flickering awareness of the history of women in sport, or of the many double-binds that still characterize the condition of being female in a world still made largely by and for men, you will already have some idea of what I'm getting at. And if you're not, get ready to hear about why, well intentioned or not, you might be part of the problem (and there is STILL a problem) where women's running is concerned.

What, in a sentence, am I getting at? To successfully coach female runners (and I define success here in terms of the total experience of the athlete in the sport) a coach must both attempt to recognize the differences in the way female athletes still typically come to, and negotiate their participation in, sport AND treat female athletes as athletes first. This necessity of balancing two seemingly contradictory principles arises from nothing less than the whole history of "female" existence (including women's emancipatory struggles) in the modern world. It arises, in other words, from the fact that, to simply live a tolerable life in a world in which they have been viewed, for the most part, as means to men's various ends, women collectively have had to remind men of their history of oppression, articulate the specificity of their needs, while at the same time demanding social, political, and economic "equality" with men. The heart of what came to be called feminism was largely a demand, both personal and political, that women (and things coded "feminine") be recognized as both different and equal (i.e. to men and to things coded "masculine"). As grandiose as it may sound to some, I would argue that, for a man to successfully coach women athletes, he must enter imaginatively into social world of women, and of female athletes in particular-- a world that has been and continues to be shaped by the reality of male dominance. Above all, this means recognizing and attempting to understand the seeming contradiction of needing to be treated "equally" while also having the gender-based specificities of one's life experience acknowledged and understood. To the shock, perhaps, of some coaches (both male and female) who have spent their lives in the ostensibly genderless and history-less world of jockdom, I would argue that coaching female athletes effectively is a feminist practice, with all of the challenges that the term implies.

To make this argument, some generalizations are inevitable and some provisos are in order. First, gender is blurry, and times have indeed changed (although not as much as some would imagine). There are many more women today whose entry into sport and experience of it has been similar to that of boys and men than even 40 years ago. Still, I would argue that women in general still face significant barriers to serious participation in sport, both material and social-psychological, and that the world of sport is still largely a male-dominated one (sports being examples par excellence of a world made by and for men). Second, where sport especially is concerned, the experience of womanhood is not universal. The fact is, most women globally have no access to sport and recreation at all; and, when they do attempt to gain access, resistance is sometimes brought to bear in forms far more virulent than male coaches who don't get it (reportedly, even Kenyan women, who are among the most successful distance runners in the world, have to endure sexist taunts-- such as "get back home, running is for school girls"-- along with the rigors of their training). My comments here refer to the realm of my own experience (that of North America), and can be generalized probably only as far as the developed world, including parts of Asia (e.g. Japan and China).

Now for some specifics. What are some of the typical problems associated with a non-feminist approach to coaching female athletes, and what are some of the familiar styles associated with this approach? In general, I would say that the mistakes we coaches make when coaching female athletes result not so much from being unaware of, or of intentionally ignoring, the above mentioned antinomy as from attempting to "solve" it by coming down exclusively on one side or the other-- i.e. either insisting on a thoroughly "gender-blind" approach, in which there are only "athletes" and not male and female athletes, or, tailoring every aspect of our coaching practice to what we perceive to be the specificities (social and biological) of female athletes. Even the best intentioned coaches of women athletes can sometimes come down too heavily on one of these two sides (and the most experienced among us will recall times when we have erred in one direction or the other). Some coaches, however, choose to come down deliberately (and sometimes adamantly) on one side or the other, often with unfortunate consequences.

In general, the first approach-- that of treating female athletes as "simply athletes", read: simply male athletes, albeit in female bodies-- leads to ignoring certain real (albeit largely socially determined, of which more below) differences in the ways in which girls and boys come to the sport, experience it, and imagine their future in it. It remains a fact, for instance, that more girls than boys come to running out of an interest in what we have come to call "fitness", including body image maintenance, than boys, who often come into running as an extension of their involvement in competitive sport. This is yet one more in a long line of ways women and girls have come to negotiate the social demands of femininity in the modern world, and it remains an important consideration in coaching female athletes. To ignore it completely is to risk misunderstanding, for example, why the pursuit of the sport is more likely to lead to disordered eating (usually under-eating) among female athletes than among male athletes (and that male athletes are closing the gap in this respect-- i.e. because they are now increasingly induced by media images to concern themselves with the minutia of physical appearance-- merely proves the point re: women, who have long been exhorted to carefully manage their physical appearance-- originally, and still to some extent today, as an economic asset in a world where men quite literally owned everything). Ignoring girls' often different routes into the sport, and the gender specific meanings participation can often have for them, can also sometimes lead to misunderstanding and frustration about why girls and women choose to abandon the sport before having reached their full athletic potential (and the vastly lower numbers of serious post-collegiate female versus male competitors attests to this fact). Having been less likely in the first place to see running in terms of its competitive dimension, women are often less likely to want to continue pursuing it competitively, once subject to career or reproductive pressures (again, in a world where women own less, wield less managerial authority, and are frequently structurally punished for choosing to have children before the age of 30).

The second approach, on the other hand, can lead to the ghettoization of female runners, based on the belief, for example, that elements of their biology and social-psychology are universal, immutable, and prevent them from pursuing the sport with an eye towards risk-taking in the pursuit of maximum performance. Here, too much emphasis is placed on the differences between female and male athletes, leading, in many cases, to: the under-training of women versus men; inordinate vigilance against the risk of eating disorders, such that the topics of nutrition and weight often become taboo, and thus more potent than they might otherwise be; and, the belief that women will be always be less likely than men to want to pursue the sport into adult maturity (i.e. because they are "naturally" less competitive and more concerned with getting on with their "real" lives, including procreation). The risk, in general, of this ostensibly gender-sensitive approach to coaching women athletes is that damaging gender narratives are reinforced and individual women are often sold short, by being under-trained because assumed to be physically and psychologically more "fragile", or by being subtly made to feel as though their desire to be serious athletes beyond the age class ranks is anomalous, even "unfeminine" or "irresponsible". This approach can also lead to the even more troubling phenomenon of male coaches engaging in intimate relationships with their female athletes (an all too common practice in the history of men coaching female runners-- with running being one of the few sports where men have almost always coached female athletes). Even when not obviously abusive (such as when the athlete is underage, or subject to the institutional authority of her male coach), the development of emotionally/sexually intimate relations between male coaches and their female athletes almost always exploits and reinforces gender stereotypes about female athletes and is thus almost always potentially damaging to them as both athletes and women. Whether between people of the same or different genders, the coach always relates to the athlete as bearer of specialized knowledge and experience, and thus as a figure of authority. Intimate relationships between athlete and coach-- which are vanishingly rare between female coaches and male athletes-- thus always entail coaches viewing their athletes as other than simply athletes (but not in ways that make them better coaches). In the case of male coaches and female athletes, it entails coaches seeing-- and treating-- their female athletes as gendered in very specific ways (i.e. as potentially available to them emotionally and sexually) in ways that they typically do not see their male athletes. In my long personal experience in the sport, I have observed that male coaches who have indeed gone on to develop intimate relationships with one or more of their athletes are more inclined to take a stereotypically gendered approach to their work with all of their female athletes. This kind of coach typically develops more intense emotional/personal bonds with his female athletes, allows himself to be privy to more personal information about them, puts greater emphasis on the emotional/psychological aspects of racing and training, and generally cultivates a stereotypically emotional dependence on the figure of himself as a source of knowledge and support in relation to his female versus male athletes. Sadly, this kind of coach often takes less interest in his female athletes competitive success, and sometimes even trivializes women's running in general as compared with that of men.

How then to best negotiate the antinomy of (men) coaching the female athlete; how to recognize the specificity of women's typical approach to and experience of sport while also supporting their desire and right to be treated equally as simply athletes in pursuit of top performance?

In short, coaches of women athletes need to recognize that, while the factors that shape and sometimes limit women's entry into and experience of competitive sport are "real" (that is to say in their effects), their origins are social, political, and psychological-- and thus subject to change-- and not "natural"-- and therefore immutable. Historically, sport has been liberating activity for women because is has frequently been an arena in which all that was thought to be solid and "natural" in terms of society's beliefs about women's minds, bodies, and characters melted into air once women had the opportunity to take to the field, track, or road. As coaches, we can work to reinforce the liberating potential of serious competitive sport for women by recognizing and acknowledging the barriers girls and women face in entering into and sticking with it, while also encouraging them to challenge those barriers. This often means simply reinforcing female athletes own often hidden instincts and desires (the image conscious "fitness" runner may indeed want to find a safe way to unleash her competitive drive, and the female athlete who grew up believing uncritically that women should quit sport after school in favour of getting on with their "real" lives may actually want to be encouraged to see things differently and to a take chances with her early adult life). Too often coaches of female runners will belittle them for not being competitive enough (but then also call them "crazy" when they try-- quite reasonably, if often disastrously-- to reduce their weight in order to gain a competitive advantage); or, they will decry their lack of commitment to serious post-collegiate running, as if there were no basis at all to women's reservations and fears in this regard. Or, coaches will take these barriers as given and, instead of working with their female athletes to challenge or negotiate them, will adapt their coaching practice to them, helping to reinforce them in the minds (and actual practices) of their athletes. The alternative approach is to challenge ourselves to see coaching women athletes as an inherently political practice, and one with the potential to liberate all concerned-- as, in short, a feminist (or pro-feminist, if you prefer) practice.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Talent or Drive: That is the Question (or is it?)

We in the coaching business are often asked: What is more important for success in the sport, "natural" talent, or a willingness to go the extra mile in training (aka "drive")? After all these years of training, observing, and coaching, I think I'm ready to furnish some kind of answer. As I'll try to explain, it's really neither, once you've addressed the more important meta-question of why we run at all.

But, first, some definitions are in order. I define running "talent" as the package of physical predispositions that an athlete receives gratis from nature, a.k.a. genetics (and I leave aside the fascinating question of precisely how we come to receive these gifts-- e.g. how genetic cues can be activated by the lifestyle habits and other experiences of our parents and grandparents, as detailed in the study of epi-genetics, a good intro to which can be found in archives of Alex Hutchinson's always illuminating blog, Sweat Science. For distance runners, the two most basic features of our genetic endowment are our baseline aerobic capacity (i.e. our untrained aerobic capacity) and the robustness of our response to aerobic training stimuli once it's systematically applied. (Interestingly, the science now suggests that these are indeed discreet genetic endowments that can be easily isolated, and, for the curious, measured using a simple test-- for a fee, of course). Among other complex "natural" variables are our basic body-types and neurological/bio-mechanical make-ups, which, it stands to reason, can affect our basic aptitude for the sport, including our ability to avoid, and heal, common running-related injuries. (These variables are complex because it appears that we're born with some and can acquire others through our early lifestyles. In any case, we can't do much about these things by the the time we're old enough to be serious athletes, so we might as well call them natural gifts.) As with everything to do with our physical natures, our predisposition to run is bound to be a very mixed bag; and, as in the story of Achilles, all it takes is one weak link-- if it is weak enough-- to do us in, or at least make long term success much more of a challenge. We all know at least one example of an Achilles-like athlete-- one who is plagued, often to the point of despair, by a few centimeters of poorly designed anatomy (often, not coincidentally, that which felled the great Achilles himself-- the Greeks knew their running)! However, it's usually fairly easy to plot individual athletes along a rough "talent" continuum. Young runners who easily beat their peers on very little or no training, who dominate the early age-class ranks simply by showing up, and who possess both superior endurance and sprint speed, are the examples par excellence of what we mean when we refer to talent, or natural talent. But, we can't forget those older runners, who, never having had the opportunity to really apply themselves to running as children and youths, improve dramatically, seemingly at the mere mention of the word "training". Casual observation would suggest that majority of the world's best athletes appear to have been those possessed of most acute responsiveness to training stimuli (most were very good, but not particularly distinguished as youth and junior athletes, and some were really not very good at all until they began serious training), while a tiny few seem to have been double winners of the aerobic-potential lottery-- i.e. at the front of the pack from step-one, yet able to continue improving at the average rate well into adulthood.

The concept of "drive", a.k.a determination to improve regardless of the sacrifices entailed, is a lot easier to define, but a lot more difficult to explain in terms of origin or specific character. The desire to succeed in running, or in anything else for that matter, doesn't seem to have any clear heritable dimension. It seems to derive from an admixture of personality and biography that is as unique as individuals themselves. It can also be a very generalized or highly focused trait (some runners are driven only when it comes to their running, while others bring the same high level intensity to everything they do). Most interestingly, the determination to improve and succeed does not seem to bear any clear relationship to "natural talent" in distance running. In my experience, the most talented runners tend to possess only the average amount of drive to get better; in other words, their surplus of talent tends to make them neither particularly complacent about improving nor particularly driven to reach the highest level possible. And this seems to apply regardless of age. In running, "wanting it", whether the "it" in question is a spot on the Olympic team or an age class Boston Marathon qualifying standard, seems to be a fairly randomly assigned character trait, and seems unrelated to the naturally assigned traits that make up raw physical talent.

"Talent" and "Drive" are, of course, nothing but ideal-types, useful for conceptual purposes only. In the chaotic flow we call practical reality, the two variables are hard to isolate and almost impossible to quantify with any kind of precision. Everyone, it seems, has a complex mixture of both physical aptitude and drive; and, to make matters still more complicated, only the most basic elements of the "natural talent" variable (aerobic baseline, responsiveness to training stimuli, and basic body-type) seem constant over time. Both bio-mechanical aptitude and "drive" can be vary considerably over time in the case of an individual athlete. Both physical and psycho-social maturation can and often do transform individual athletes beyond recognition, for better or worse, athletically speaking.

The answer to the question "what's more important for success in the sport, talent or drive?" thus ends up being a pretty complicated one (and dependent on what we mean by "success", of which more below). What we coaches can say with some degree of certainty, however, is the basic type of athlete with whom we most prefer to work. In my case, since I get to work with many of both types, it's a very difficult call. On the one hand, it can be awe-inspiring, and deeply gratifying, to see at close hand, and be asked to help, very talented athletes do what they do. What many of the less talented among us often fail to appreciate is the intense psychological pressure that very talented athletes must face, starting at an early age, in order to be able to compete. Few notice the efforts of the less naturally talented but hard-working athlete as they attempt to make their way up the lower and middle ranks of the sport; but, many watch the very talented-- most, supportively, but some, jealously, in secret hope that they might fail, and thus be brought down to our more pedestrian level. This is true in relation to most human endeavours, and is the lifeblood of the always thriving schadenfreude industry. The very talented athlete who can successfully cope with this often intense scrutiny, whether or not he/she ultimately succeeds in fulfilling expectations, is remarkable to watch and a pleasure to know. And the athlete who does succeed in reaching the highest levels is, psychologically speaking, a unique human specimen, possessed of abilities beyond normal comprehension. Here I recall an anecdote related by the famous British coach, Harry Wilson, whose prize athlete was multiple world record-breaker and Olympic Champion Steve Ovett, one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time. From the age of 16 until retirement, said Wilson, Ovett would insist on speaking with his old coach on the eve of most races. By the time he had reached the pinnacle of the sport, Wilson said that he felt at a loss for anything of value to offer Ovett in these pre-race calls. What, really, could I tell him? said Wilson. He was, after all, Steve Ovett!

On the other hand, few experiences are more inspiring and humbling than watching an athlete unearth his/her unseen potential through hours and hours of difficult, and largely anonymous, labour. Often this kind of athlete will also have had to persist through serious injury, and in the face of the doubts (and sometimes ridicule) of those around them, including friends and relatives. My favourite coaching stories involve athletes like this, both because they are often the most moving, and because they are the most relevant to athletes of more modest talent-- i.e. almost all of us. It is not that the very naturally talented among us do not often work very hard to realize their potential; it's that, when they do, their efforts are much more likely to be recognized and validated in conventional ways. Winning, it seems, justifies sacrifices that seem otherwise absurd. By contrast, the athlete with less natural ability than sheer drive must believe, at least for while, in the value of what they're doing when perhaps few others do or would, and often must wait much longer before receiving validation of their efforts, if, indeed, validation ever comes. And when these kinds of athletes are young-- i.e. at a time when they're most insecure, and when status-consciousness is almost cult-like-- their examples are all the more powerful and exciting to me. If, as a coach, I were ever forced to choose between these two basic types-- the extravagantly gifted or the highly driven--, and all other things were somehow equal, I would ultimately choose the latter.

Luckily, however, I'm NOT forced to choose! And, in fact, the talent versus drive question is not the fundamental one. What's more important is the meta-question of why, as athletes or coaches, we should care one way or another about who has talent and who has drive, and in what proportions, when the more important question is why any of us bothers at all? Isn't it, after all, possible to be either miserable or fulfilled in the sport whether we're naturally and immediately great at it, or instead have to work very hard to do well? In fact, doing "well" at running must ultimately be measured in terms of the intrinsic fulfillment we derive from the activity, regardless of how well we stack up against the best (but, my bias is that I think these intrinsic rewards are greatest when we all strive to stack up as best we can, both against our own potential best, and against the ultimate best than human beings have achieved in the sport). An example of how the talent vs. drive question may not be relevant to the deeper one of how much it all matters, and why, can be found in the great American Steve Scott's admission that he had felt his career-- one that included over 100 sub-4 minute miles, a near world record, and a World Championship silver medal-- had been a "failure", because he had not reached the absolute pinnacle of the sport! In other words, the brilliantly talented and successful Steve Scott had found a way to be less than satisfied with a career of which not one in one million of us could ever dream. And I imagine it would be possible to find a reason for disappointment in the face of even greater tangible success (did Scott's more success rivals-- Steve Cram, Said Aouita, and Sebastian Coe-- worry about their status as all-time greats, and perhaps feel less than satisfied by the assessment?). From every starting point, and at every level of competitive achievement, it is ultimately the same: we create our own joy, or fashion our own sorrow and torment, based on our individual capacity to learn from, and experience as richly as possible, every facet of this very old and elegantly simple activity.