Whilst the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 may have come as a crushing blow for the athletes and administrators (we’ll leave the organisers and sponsors out of this for the moment), in the wider scheme of things it is, of course, of minimal significance. That said, it will still be a disappointment for the fans and I am happy to park myself in that category when it comes to the Summer Olympics. However, I always find it really hard to watch the events as a fan without continually putting my coach’s hat on.
I recall pondering this thought in 2016, sometime between the main event and the Paralympics, although my initial train of thought then had been considering my concern that both Rio and Team GB may not be able to match the performances and excitement of London 2012 and of my inability to avoid the results on social media before I could watch the events on catch-up at a reasonable hour the following day. Of course, Team GB delivered the goods at Rio, and I still remain impressed by a couple of fans who, being unable to afford to travel to Rio, went on holiday to Canada to be in a better time zone to be able to watch the events live!
As ever, I tried to focus on my preferred sports; swim, bike, run in pretty much all its formats, but, as ever too, I found myself initially distracted by, but ultimately enthralled by other sports such as taekwondo, dressage and synchronized swimming. Always with my coaching hat on, of course.
Other than the usual expectations of any athlete or team preparing for such a high level of competition (something to which I will return in a moment) in each of these sports (and many other I am sure), there is evidence of the successful teaching of athletes to develop movements which are highly unnatural, and, in the case of dressage, in applying unnatural movements to animals. The degree of skill accomplished by the athletes is remarkable even considering the time that has almost certainly elapsed between setting out on their journey and successfully competing at this highest level of competition. Whilst we tend to marvel at the level of skill, the reporting, and therefore much of the focus, is nearly always based around the physiological demands of the sport. Even in most coaching environments, the need to develop the physiological aspects is nearly always the priority leaving developing the movement patterns as a secondary issue. Yet, in observing elite athletes, in nearly all cases it is the skill level – the biomechanics - that tends to set athletes apart. If taekwondo, dressage and synchronized swimming coaches can achieve this with their athletes and animals through developing extremely unnatural movements, we can all surely do better with our more basic movements which make up our own needs for swim, bike and run.
This is, of course, why I harp on so much about drills – whether they be running, cycling or swimming. At the onset of physical training, after the main physiological advancements have been made, it is developing the skills that enable the most progress. So please ponder that as we are considering how best to utilize our time during the lockdown and we attempt to prepare for the unknown date of the return to competition.
The other lesson I took from Rio, was the progress Team GB had made over recent years.
Those of you with slightly longer memories will recall our lonely Gold medal at Atlanta in 1996. Since that rather disappointing Olympics, Team GB has been on the rise in the medal table, however, the work for this – or at least the model that is now employed - started with preparations for Barcelona 4 years before. Whilst much credit is hoisted on the management and detailed coaching of the cycling teams of recent years, the level of detail in the preparation of cyclist Chris Boardman’s gold winning ride in 1992 set this train in motion. With coach Peter Keen, a man who probably did more than any for the recent success of sport in this country, achievements were made not just from the hard work of physical training, but from a highly detailed level of preparation through refining the data and processes that ultimately led to high performance. This system has since been instilled at every level of team management at British Cycling. We all, of course, now recognise the benefits of performing to prescribed data, but many sports have been slow to accept and allow for the need for such detailed preparation of processes. If anyone still doubts the merits, I would urge them to look back on the success of the British Women’s Hockey Team at Rio. The level of detailed preparation, the team spirit, the development of game plans and the confidence in the process at every level throughout the wider squad, all contributed greatly to the team’s ultimate success. The lesson we can learn from here, even at our amateur level of competition, is that detailed preparation which probably costs us little more than some time and focus, allows for us to maximise our performance and thereby make the most of all the efforts of training.
All in all, Rio 2016 was a fabulous Olympics for both the fan and the coach and I am really going to miss Tokyo 2020. I need my four yearly fix! Whilst I am pleased to see that we have a date for Tokyo 2021 and I can just about hang on until then, I remain fully aware of the uncertainties many of you currently face in terms of both training and racing. The uncertainties of when and how the lockdown will be released are of course unsettling, however, this is no time to lose your discipline. Where possible and safe to do so, please continue to use your time wisely, focusing on developing the skills to support your performances and prepare yourself as best you can for when our sport is able to continue again. Like our Team GB elite, there will be other years for you to accomplish your athletic ambitions.
Please stay safe.
Please accept my apologies for the multiple clichés in this piece, but in these challenging times I felt that I had better write something more practical than duplicate the well meaning but very simplistic messages that are regularly appearing on social media at present. Equally, I didn’t want to say that we simply have no idea how the immediate, middle or long term future is going to pan out and therefore I find myself struggling to find the appropriate balance of positivity versus negativity without getting too carried away.
In the rather narrow world of triathlon coaching, the current situation is certainly applying additional pressure on coaches and athletes alike whilst we try to seek a solution to the ever changing and challenging set of circumstances. The prime methodology of training triathletes is one of remote coaching and the pace of change to accommodate the changing situation of initially facility closure was challenge enough. Coaches and athletes now face the more fluid dynamic of the social acceptance of training outdoors. Balancing the very personal thoughts of risk and exposure probably create a more challenging moral and ethical situation that may well become even more difficult as the restrictions potentially increase - or at least social pressure begins to tighten. There continues to be much pressure on the coach to re prescribe sessions as the national athlete circumstances change and then change again. Selfishly in the greater scheme of things, these are challenging times indeed and, inevitably, professional coaches have been some of the first to see their businesses suffer due to the immediate and anticipated practical and financial climate. That said, professional race organisers are in an even worse position with a commitment to event overheads, being under social pressure to refund entry fees and with no guarantee of a sufficient audience as and when we all come out of hiding. Stress levels are riding high all round.
Almost prophetically, last year was the year when coach education woke up a little and began to focus on the psychological well being of athletes. This has long been an overlooked aspect of coaching. Fraught as it is with the delicacies and intricacies of individual behaviour, psychology is generally unchartered waters for not only the inexperienced coach, but for pretty much all coaches.
Historically, the sport psychologist was the last resort of the elite athlete and coach. Coming as it did at upwards of £250.00 per hour, this is hardly surprising. Despite the complexity of both, coaches had a tendency to focus on physiology and biomechanics not only due to the immediacy of the relevance of these disciplines to coaching their sport, but also due to the prevalent belief that quantitative research was more valuable than qualitative research. Regrettably therefore, sport science and sport coaching undergraduates were often steered away from or at least elected to pay less attention to sport psychology which then traditionally became the least observed of the sport science “ologies”.
Paying that arguably inflated fee for the first time should have been sufficient to stir further personal development in sports psychology, which it did for me at least for a while at Loughborough. However, this was as much due to the excellent tuition ( Dr Ian Taylor and Professor Brett Smith) and so the big push last year was a most welcome reminder to that tuition and that coaches have a responsibility to the psychological well being of athletes. As yet, however, there is little by the way of resource to support the remote coach in supporting the athlete beyond improving upon the relationships and opening and maintaining communication channels. Thereafter, coaches are on their own and as they are coming under increasing pressure to support their athletes, a large proportion of their business is heading towards coaching via social media.
With reduced opportunity to complete triathlon specific sessions, there has been a noticeable surge toward the watch and do exercise regimes now available on Facebook, Instagram and the like. Some coaches such as I have tended to steer clear of these coaching methodologies due to both the need for perfection in the delivery and the lack of control and support available to the athletes. However, in these unusual circumstances, there is a substantive case for any exercise rather than perfect exercise and so, I guess, they have now come of time. Perhaps therefore it is time for coaches like me to provide more brush strokes of training rather than continually getting bogged down in the detail.
Whatever the athlete’s preferred delivery, over the next few weeks and months we are all going to have to dig in. Those athletes who remain positive for the longest will be more likely to come out on top when the dust settles. Exercising little and often will probably be key to remaining sane and to assist both in making the best of the time and to allow the time to pass more readily. For some this may mean setting a timetable and sticking to it to ensure that training is carried out. For others this may mean waiting until the point in the day when that single trip outdoors has become a necessity. Which ever process works best although it may well be a case of the athlete continually moving between the two.
Whilst as yet we do not know when we will be let back out to play at triathlon, those who train regularly have a chance to turn this situation into an opportunity. Regular exercise will enable us to take advantage of the lifting of the lockdown soonest and, to the best of our ability, to hit the ground running and be racing as soon as events are rescheduled. We may of course not be at a level we would wish to be and we certainly will not be firing on all cylinders, but at least by entering events as soon as is possible, and by returning to a full programme of structured training, we will all have a sport to return to.
To finish on a brighter note, although it seems some time ago now, it is always fantastic to watch an athlete’s first race representing Team GB AG; and so it was with Tej Thaker who raced at the European Sprint Duathlon Championships in Punta Umbria. In a stacked field, Tej achieved a comfortable top 20 finish, was 5th Brit in his category and achieved a time of only a few seconds over the hour. A great performance and one that provides us all with a positive mental image to carry with us through these difficult times.
As ever when I am trying to write something salient about a particular coaching topic, my mind wanders to other matters; usually distracted by what ever sport is currently playing on-line, which philosophical topic is being discussed on the radio or contemplating next year’s potential A race as I plan yet another ambitious comeback to the world of multisport.
I had intended this month’s topic to be a continuation on the theme of working with women*, but this time focussed on why there are comparatively few women coaching and my experiences of developing women as coaches in both triathlon and endurance running. (*For those new to my monthly scribbling, a recent topic had been my thoughts, supported by academic evidence, as to why I tend to coach more women than men). My excuse for not staying on topic this month is that as I begin this piece, I am currently sat in a freezing cold barn watching sport coaching in action and, as ever, the coach educator in me can’t help but be drawn to the coach more than the participants.
I have been wracking my brains, but I think that this is the first time I have observed a horse-riding lesson at close hand. Seeing as I have fallen from just about every horse I have ridden, perhaps I should have sought out lessons for myself, but I remain not only in awe of these majestic animals, but also a little (a lot) fearful and that perhaps is why I have never progressed this particular activity further.
Like triathlon, or particularly the swimming element of triathlon, horse riding is a great leveller. Riding around the barn (arena? ring?) in front of me are a range of young women of various ages riding a selection of horses some of which appear to be completely unsuited to the task in hand, that of jumping. Whilst the horses, and the riders are of interest, I am of course completely transfixed by the coach and the coaching. So much so, that I miss much of the action and even the only horse and rider to refuse resulting in the horse clattering into the bars (does that not hurt?) and the riding flying over the horse and landing heavily on the ground (now that did hurt!). The coach’s response to this alarming incident? “That was useless!”
As an example of a skill in action, indeed the coach was possibly correct, who am I to judge. However, as a form of an acceptable critique, the coach educator in me might be forced to make a similar observation on the feedback. In fact, on this single opportunity of observing this coach in action, I would be marking far more of the ‘referral’ and ‘in need of additional observation’ boxes than ‘reaches the required standard’.
Stood like a slightly off-centre ring master, the coach is running the show by directing the riders and stable hand with an assortment of instructions at least some of which carry the full length of the barn to my seat in the stands. If all the actual words are unclear, their intent certainly is. After each of the instructions, there is a moment of silence whilst all of the half a dozen participants ponder both the content and the meaning. The contrast between barked instruction and bemused contemplation is asunderous. Sitting on the sidelines, the instructions are so unclear that I am not surprised when the young riders are unable to immediately comply and confusion reigns momentarily until the instruction is re-phrased with an accompanying demand for compliance. Even then there is a degree of uncertainty and perhaps even nervousness about the task in hand (although I am very cautious of not wanting to impose my own interpretation of thoughts and feelings into the riders).
The session continues in the same vein. Instruction. Pause. Demand. Reaction. With one rider responding at a time, it is clear that only one rider is active at any one time with the others active as passive onlookers. Certainly, there can be value in the participants observing and learning from each other, but there does seem an interminable delay between each rider getting to jump and thus being able to correct their faults as so damnably identified by the coach.
As anxiety levels increase (my interpretation), finally this resulted in the refusal and the rider being thrown to the ground. I had already observed this rider closely as she had swung by after her previous unsatisfactory performance and I was now awaiting her to arise if not in tears then certainly with crumpled face, especially after the double whammy of fall followed immediately by negative feedback. However, she arose in fits of laughter which were shared by the stable hand who came to reset the jump, and both received another volley of criticism for not taking both the process and the ‘failure’ seriously.
My initial reaction was that this was a display of nervous laughter but, as she swung by after remounting, her face was transfixed with a grin that would be hard to disguise. The session ended soon after, although not before the rider had been allowed an opportunity to try again and this time she was able to clear the jumps. As the riders led their horses away and were met by their parents, I couldn’t help but notice that each had beaming smiles on their faces and were talking enthusiastically about their experiences.
In contrast, the following day I was leading a group of Level 1 triathlon coaches on their practical assessment day. A very capable cohort, each coach led their sessions by placing the athletes at the centre of the process. The instructions were clear, the groups constantly active, the feedback was encouraging and the whole learning environment was geared toward enabling and empowering the athlete to take responsibility for their learning. What a contrast in delivery.
However, whilst taking account of the ages of the riders, the potential for increased risk with the involvement of horses and the pressure the coaches were under, none of the group participants walked away from yesterday’s sessions with the satisfaction of accomplishment or such big grins on their faces. What a contrast in outcomes. Despite the methodology used by the horse riding instructor, she delivered a far more positive and ultimately successful session than our primed and programmed athlete-centred coaches.
As I introduced my poorly received thesis by stating: “The philosophy of athlete-centred coaching has permeated coach education, receiving an enthusiastic reception without the usual checks and balances afforded most aspects of coaching theory. Whilst offering athlete empowerment as a means of achieving more holistic athlete development, the concept challenges coaches to place athletes at the centre of the coaching process. It could be argued that, as a result, coaches are prescribing less demanding training from their athletes.
A few criticisms have been raised over the complexity of power sharing and the lack of framework for delivery, however most research has focused on the poor coach behaviours now associated with its antithesis, coach-centred coaching.”
This weekend, I have once again had the opportunity to challenge and to re-examine my beliefs and definitions of athlete-centred coaching and to consider how to maximise its value as only one type of approach in coaching practice. In the sports with which I am usually associated, we seem to have lost some of the direction and urgency brought by using alternative methodologies and, perhaps as a result, we no longer achieve as much by placing less demands on and being less critical of the athletes under our charge.
Food for thought as we enter our busiest season to date. However, sometimes the new approaches are also successful, and I am delighted to report that Hayley Newman ran a 22 minute PB at the London Vitality Big Half Yesterday. We were aiming for a sub 1:40 and she ran a very impressive 1.34:42. Chapeau!
Another year is upon us and, as has become the norm of late, the year has begun with a flurry of coach education courses. One of the key subjects covered, usually early on Day 1 of each course irrespective of the level of qualification, is the topic of developing a coaching philosophy. In the very time crunched world of coach education, priority is assigned to two other key subjects – what to coach (discipline specific knowledge) and how to coach (coaching pedagogy). Therefore, exploring and developing a personal coaching philosophy is often relegated to a bit part in the syllabus and the learning coach rarely appreciates the benefits to their coaching practice from this practice.
To understand why I believe this lack of priority to be a mistake, we must first try to unpack and understand what a coaching philosophy actually is. To do this, we need to be aware of what coaching is and to produce an appropriate and workable definition of the terms coaching and philosophy.
Defining coaching has been the work of academics for several years and no one has been more prominent in trying to create a professional framework for coaching than John Lyle. His work can be a little dry for some people’s tastes and his model of the coaching process appears designed to confuse and to frustrate rather than enlighten, lacking, as it does, any outputs. However, when you are one of the first to step up to the plate, then your work forms the foundation from which all other work can follow. It is also very easy for us relative newcomers to the scene, supported as we are with a broader range of resources and ideas, to cast a critical eye.
The term coaching is often used indiscriminately along with other terms such as leading, teaching, training, instructing and, more recently, mentoring. Lyle dedicates 24 pages of his book, A Framework for Coaches’ Behaviour (Routledge, 2002), to the subject defining coaching. In doing so, he highlights the complexity of defining the concept of coaching, mainly due to the range of distinctions between the role played by the coach and the intentions of the participants. In simple terms, it is the demands of the situation rather than the capacity or competency of the coach which defines the role of the coach and the coaching is bound by a contract (or understanding) between the coach and athlete.
If we can agree that, in general terms, the rationale for sports coaching centres on the improvement of athletic ability, then the method for this is through the coach influencing, either directly or indirectly, factors that affect performance through an intervention programme. The role of the coach is therefore to direct and manage the process with the aim of achieving (usually) agreed objectives. Thus, the component parts of coaching will embrace the performer, the coach, the form, nature and extent of the relationship between them, the intervention programme specific to the sport and the context in which the athlete is competing.
So, that, apparently, is coaching. Although I should point out that the process must lead to the achievement of goals for it to meet Lyle’s definitions. Whilst I don’t think that is exactly what Professor Lyle meant, I always take every opportunity to critique aspects of the model of coaching, even if I couldn’t have written the whole framework myself!
What then of the philosophy and why do I have concerns surrounding its limited exposure in coach education? We can again turn to John Lyle for an initial working definition: a coaching philosophy should provide a set of guiding principles for coaching practice. That seems straight forward enough, and this is the crux of the question generally asked in coach education. Responses received from coaches usually follow a familiar path including statements such as setting challenging sessions that are both inclusive and differentiated, delivering athlete centred coaching, being honest, playing fair, being a role model. However, these answers are in just about every case indicators of coaching outcomes and, as such can be described as preferred (and hopefully actual) coaching behavior.
Coaches are of course identified by these behaviours, however Lyle goes on to say that the coaching philosophy should include the values which are felt most strongly. Therefore, the coaching philosophy should identify a more comprehensive set of values that drive the coach’s behavior and practice. A period of deep self-reflection is required to identify this value framework and, in practice, reviewing critical moments from coaching experiences can help lead back to and thus identify the values that guided the decision making.
These personal values, although not usually listed, are general conceptions about what the individual finds important about their world. They are more deeply held than opinions and beliefs which may change more readily and have less influence on behaviour. Values, which change more slowly, provide a meaningful context for the actions of both the coach and athlete. They are therefore the means through which coaches evaluate their experiences.
Highlighting the importance of this framework in coach education is therefore an essential element in reflective practice since it has the power to explain why coaches act as they do. Coaches must realise that a complete understanding of coaching practice is not possible without identifying a personal coaching philosophy.
So, it has been a philosophical start to the year. Returning to the more practical, the Her Spirit training camp has gone live and is taking bookings. We have a small number of novice, intermediate and advanced women triathletes booked on and the coach:athlete ratio will allow for much individual coaching and guidance. If you are interested in attending, please do not hesitate to contact Mel or I.
As we lead into the early season, I am still taking calls and understanding athlete objectives and February will be mainly geared towards this. Hopefully from March onwards I will be in a position to begin athletes testing and video analysis once more. If you wish to talk, test or be analysed, please let me know so that I can ensure that I allocate sufficient time in my diary.
Enjoy the training but please stay safe.
As the season of new year’s resolutions approached, I began to consider my own trials and tribulations of setting and sticking with the many promises I have made to myself on the first day of the year over recent decades.
For many people, resolutions have a tendency to be centred around losing weight, drinking less alcohol, quitting smoking and exercising more. All contributory factors in developing a more healthy lifestyle. Thankfully, I was able to put the dreaded nicotine behind me some years ago and, although my mass has often fluctuated as much as 10% above my preferred former racing weight, some of the additional body fat would be replaced by muscle mass if I returned to a full training schedule. Therefore, along with the visceral fat, I think my body weight is now pretty much here to stay.
For many years, every year started with an ambitious plan to get fit. This may sound surprising for someone who could be considered to have been quite athletic in my day (nicotine and alcohol intake not withstanding). However, as with everything else, fitness is relative and no matter how fit you are, there is (or possibly should be) the desire to go further or faster.
Even with setting racing objectives, that these plans never seemed to survive beyond January, despite diligently logging the miles in yet another new training diary, I assumed was the result of my lack of self-discipline. The speed with which inappropriate food choices and excessive alcohol always crept back into the picture both confirmed this realisation as well as hastening the downfall of the latest comeback.
In a similar vein, for many years, those who chose not to exercise and suffered resultant medical complications from the consequences (with notable exceptions) were considered to be lacking the self-discipline or desire to take the solution into their own hands and simply begin exercising. These perceptions were fuelled by the fact that our consciousness is capable of the meaningful choice between exercising or not or eating the wrong food stuffs or not. Sadly, however, we now discover that much of our cognitive behaviour, and thus the freedom to make meaningful decisions, is conducted outside of our cognitive control.
The reality is that we don’t really know what we think until we have thought it (or, better still, spoken it out loud or written it down – albeit, sadly, with some degree of risk in this post-modern vitriolic world). We therefore have less control over our meaningful choices than we would imagine and probably would prefer to have. This can be observed playing out in the daily conundrum we face when simply choosing what to eat. The conversations we have with people in his situation mirror the conversations we hold in our own heads. This rational part of our consciousness knows that we should eat healthily and, in the short term, is capable of steering a path towards this preferred outcome. However, this conscious good intent is quickly lost when superficial demands come on-line to challenge it. Part of you wants to eat the extra mince pie(s) and part of you doesn’t. In the hierarchy of decision making, no matter how much the frustrated part of you wants to stay on the diet, the final decision is seemingly, outside of your cognitive control.
So, is there a potential solution to this internal conflict? At this juncture, science does not seem to have an answer to, or method of, training the conscious mind to play a bigger and more meaningful role in decision making. Additionally, although there are clues that point toward consciousness being expected of Darwinian evolution, the subconscious is another matter altogether. What we can conclude however is that the simple fix for anyone struggling with diet, drink or seemingly lacking the will power to exercise is to replicate the work of serotonin agonists through more positive methods – this can mean eating appropriate food such as nuts and seeds or even turkey at this time of year – or by simply taking that first step out of the door. The brain chemicals produced by exercise - dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin - play an important part in regulating your mood and raising your levels of serotonin will boost your overall sense of well-being.
To help matters further, of course you can remove the temptation by not buying so many mince pies or wine (or taking any surplus to a food bank) and thereby reduce the likelihood of your spirit weakening. Additionally, you can have the running shoes ready to go so that all you need do is slip them on and get out of the house. No one regrets taking that first step. If you still need more encouragement, then finding a like-minded friend to join you in your endeavours either physically or remotely can be an invaluable exercise. Communities such as Her Spirit can make all the difference in making these New Year resolutions stick with the support of their members, ambassadors and coaches.
On the topic of Her Spirit, please note that the Club La Santa triathlon training camp is now available to advanced, intermediate and novice triathletes. Please contact me for more information on training in the sun with Mel, Holly and I in April. Her Spirit are also charged with raising the percentage of women participating in Sports Tours International’s Etape du tour on 5th July 2020 and I am honoured to be a part of the coaching team for this event too.
So, a new year is underway and a new decade too. Our aim is to hit the ground running with the first set of training plans under way from the tomorrow so that you too can hit the ground running. We will be back on office hours from next week, so please start booking your calls and providing feedback so that we can make the best use of the time when preparing your training.
Best wishes to you all for 2020. Whether we will be seeing you in Punta Umbria, Lanzarote, Viborg, Malmo, Almere, Zofingen or you are just taking the first step out of the door, let’s make 2020 our year!
Spurred on by all the athlete success of the summer and the promise of a range of potentially very interesting and challenging competitions over the course of the next 18 months, I finally managed to do what I have been threatening (but failing) to do for many years. I started training again.
Without any specific plan in mind, I simply started running, and what a pleasure it was to do so. Typically only making the decision on how far and over what terrain the run should be at the point of shoe selection, even then I allowed myself the luxury of only deciding the distance and route as I turned the next corner. All was dependent on how I felt at the time. With no weight of expectation and no pressure, apart from sore legs during the first few weeks, what started as simply finding the time in a busy day to enjoy a daily run, quickly became a plan to run every day. Every day for 100 days.
Whilst I wouldn’t recommend this as a strategy to anyone who has specific performance goals in mind or does not have over 40 years of endurance running under their belt, this became a wonderful way of rediscovering a love for this simple, but effective way for stress relief and a rebalancing of lifestyle. With no pressure of performance and no immediate need to run at a certain pace or intensity, I was able to let my legs do their own thing in accordance with the conditions, my energy levels, my motivation and the time available to enjoy (mostly) being outdoors.
With all the pressure heaped on people to not only run but to run either a particular distance or specific time (read Park Run or Sub 4 marathon etc…), is it any wonder that the number of people taking up running has recently begun to decline? Whilst running in Asia continues to grow, the decline has primarily been in the US and Europe and a 13% decline (from a peak of 9.1m amateur runners racing) at a time when western society really does need running as an antidote to modern day physical and mental stress makes alarming reading. The data accumulated in The State of Running 2019 report (email@example.com), includes 107.9 million amateur race results from 70,000 events which took place between 1986 and 2018 and is probably the most accurate description of runners and running available. (Data from 96% of US races, 91% of EU, Canadian and Australian races, and a large proportion Asian, African and S American events). Jens Jakob Anderson is to be commended for the idea, the diligence, the detail and the subsequent analysis in completing this report.
Other than the decline in participation, what else can we learn from the headlines of this extremely interesting and powerful set of data, even if I do not have sufficient time and space to do it justice? Runners – and especially men - have apparently never been slower. Average marathon finishing times have declined from 3.52:35 in 1986 to 4.32:49 in 2018. A 40 minute (17.29%) reduction in performance which, in part, may be accounted for by an increase in participant age (35.2 years to 39.3 years).
Much of that marathon performance decline occurred by 2001 (4.28:56 – 15.6%), and, not surprising for those of us who still argue strongly that a marathon is too far for many runners, both male and female runners perform at their best over a half marathon distance (marathon: men = 6:43 min per km, women = 7:26 min per km; half marathon: men 5:57 min per km, women = 6:40 min per km). The numbers are of course slightly skewed here, simply because so many beginners and returnees to running target 5 km races (men = 7:21 min per km, women 8:44 min per km) and 10 km races (men = 6:36 min per km, women 7:50 min per km) or go straight up to the marquee event, the marathon. The half marathon, it seems, remains the preserve of the prepared runner.
Interestingly however, after a decline in marathon performance for women of 38 minutes to 2001 (14.8%), the pace has picked up with an improvement in performance of 4 minutes (1.3%). Swiss women are the fastest (4.04:41), but you will actually see less women racing in Switzerland where, along with Italy, women are under represented in running races. You can expect to see more women racing in the US, Canada and Iceland. Spain has consistently been the fastest nation for marathon racing, but the Swiss are 2nd fastest at the marathon, third fastest for 5km races and fastest at 10km races. On average, the Swiss are the fastest runners in the world. Unsurprisingly, the US have the most runners, but they are, on average, the slowest.
Any sport that has a large increase in participation will always reach a peak and thus some of the decline may well be accounted for there. However, Jens proposes a number of potential reasons for the decline in numbers – fewer runners are targetting milestone age participation (too late for 50 at 50 for me!) and the emergence of competing sports (Ultra running and triathlon) possibly appearing more attractive to more focused participants. This would also support the reported decline in performance too, if some of the more able – the achievement focused - were being challenged elsewhere. Runners are apparently now participating for the very reasons I have suggested as necessary above – the greater health benefits of running and for social reasons, which, of course, is an important contributor to psychological wellbeing.
So, what happened to my 100 days of running? Well, I got to about day 93 or 94, with several days simply being practicing drill sets with athletes, or completing a very quick blast at 10 minutes to midnight on the Air Runner before I left the office, before yet another Friday night turned all to quickly into a Saturday morning and the opportunity was gone. On a couple of the days I had completed two runs, and so I carried on to Day 100, feeling not too disappointed and reminding myself that it was an arbitrary number anyway. I feel (felt) a whole lot better for the experience and it is a good platform from which to continue my development, if only I could get out of the office and pick up the challenge again before the progress is lost. I need to set myself another objective!
With the dark days and declining weather, this is a good time for you all to be setting your own process and outcome objectives for next year to assist with your focus. Please try to make them more specific and less capricious than mine; the more arbitrary the aims, the less likely you are to achieve them. If you haven’t already done so, please send me your wish list so that we can schedule in a conversation and make the necessary preparations. As some of you are aware, changes in my personal life (and therefore, due to the nature of the business, my professional life also) have been underway for a little while and this has made communications a little more challenging of late. Planning is underway to overcome this, however, in the meantime, we both fully appreciate your patience and discretion. I will update everybody at an appropriate moment.
Finally, I found a little gem that was hidden away in the data which follows on a little from some of my recent newsletters. Last year (2018), was the first time in recorded history that there were more women running than men.
Keep training hard!
It has been an absolute pleasure to not only enjoy a few working days fixing some business issues with the late autumn Balearic sun, but also to catch up over some drinks and even some racing at the Long Course Weekend, Mallorca with some old triathlon buddies and good friends from the Worcester Triathlon Club.
Back in the day, the Long Distance Duathlon scene was watched over, inspired by and sometimes, out of necessity, mothered by the efforts of the ever present Michelle Parsons, from Worcester Tri. The camaraderie, mutual understanding, team spirit and esprit de corps generated was welcoming, supportive and downright infectious; race in, race out, year in, year out. And there was much to be excited about. As the team raced long distance duathlon around the world, you could find yourself sitting next to Martin Yelling on the flight out, Jess Draskau-Petersson on the airport shuttle bus, cycling next to Paul Amey on the bike course recce and sharing an unauthorised pre-race drink with Annie Emmerson at the hotel bar (oops…who said that?).
Shameless name dropping, for sure, but in a few short years the above athletes all raced elite for Team GB at Fredericia, in Denmark; Barcis in the Dolomites and Richmond, in Virginia. As did Catriona Morrison, Oliver Mott, Michelle Lee, Mark McKay, Phil Mosley, David Benton, Dave Brown, Sara Gross, Bella Bayliss, Matt Moorhouse, Wayne Smith, Lee Piercy and, of course, Michelle Parsons. Many of these were serial medal winners too.
Whilst it was great to see Peter ‘Oz’ Ellis racing long distance duathlon in Zofingen again this year, in the 9 consecutive years since the event returned to Switzerland (having now hosted an ITU race for 13 years in total which I must assume is a record number of occasions), we have only seen Peter, Lucy Gossage, Julian Lings, Flora Colledge and Emma Pooley joining their illustrious ranks. Yes, Emma has rather spoiled us with 4 starts and 4 wins, but certainly the dynamics of racing long distance duathlon have changed over recent years.
The objective of this piece is not to try and understand why the change has happened – the reasons are multiple and we can probably point fingers at the economics of the sport, athlete perceptions of the challenge presented by the race location and the politics behind the scenes – but to return to that central character, Michelle Parsons.
When I joined her merry gang about 16 years ago, it was her energy and drive that not only helped to link the then (greater number) elite team with the (smaller number) age group team, but actually made the boundaries between the two evaporate; hence the outstanding team spirit that existed. Such was her passion for helping athletes that I even found myself joining her for a few summers’ worth of very, very long and very, very fast training bike-run bricks before I succumbed further and joined Worcester Tri on a couple of spring training camps.
Joining Worcester Tri on a Riccione training camp was like stepping into a boxing ring; not for several rounds, but more like several days. Those first few rides would be at such a punishing pace that they left you not only exhausted and bewildered but a little punch drunk too when you sat down to supper at the end of many long miles in the saddle. And it was in these sessions that you saw the other side to Michelle.
With the same levels of positivity that she used to hustle and badger the Team GB athletes into a collection of like-minded, serial winning, team mates, she focused on her own training with a single mindedness and energy that, at times, belied belief. Any yet, rather than standing out as elitist or unapproachable at these times, her personality was such that it carried the positive vibe of success and team spirit through to everyone, whether you could hang on to the pack that day or not. There is a lesson in leadership here for anyone worthy of investigating it.
By day 4 or 5, I had usually found my legs and the extra energy (and benefits of drafting) that this brought was always worth the tears of pain and frustration brought by the preceding days. Encouraged, my thoughts would immediately turn to how I could carry this hard-earnt form into the forthcoming races. The future, as I set out on my last ride with Worcester Tri in May 2009, was looking bright.
So, why such a break from training in Riccione with these friends? That last training day had started out so well. Despite a chilly, damp morning, the pace was, as ever, electric and bode well for another good day in the saddle. The objective that day was Cippo, or Monte Carpegna as it is correctly known. This 120km ride takes you up and down what is also lovingly known as Pantani's climb; 6.5 km of 11.25% average gradient climbing, with a 20% step early on - always a challenge to a team of riders on time trial bikes.
Heading to the climb, we had caught up with Team Milton Keynes and we gave them a head start on Cippo. We had again caught them by the top and there exists a rather grainy photograph of our group, huddled together for warmth by the memorial to il Pirata. We gave Team MK a further head start on the first descent, and joined them again for a cup of welcome hot chocolate at the usual mid descent stop.
Once more we gave Team MK priority as we enjoyed the hot treat after a cold descent before setting off after them. The pace was fast, but well disciplined, and we reeled them in again due to our stronger riders taking multiple turns on the front. There was barely time to offer a friendly nod before we had left them behind and, now back on flatter ground, we were all enjoying one of those special days in the saddle.
I was never quite sure how the accident happened – and I heard several versions back then and several more this last week from a couple of the riders who were there then and out in Mallorca this last week. But happen it did, and my season never really recovered from there. In fact, I only did 1 triathlon over the following 6 years and my training came and went in fits and starts but never with the same frequency and intensity that gave me one of the best, and most talked about, training rides of my career.
It was a pleasure therefore to see both Kevin May and Michelle Parsons back in the groove at the Mallorca Long Course weekend and it was just like old times watching them disappear up the road leaving me for dust. So, what really went wrong with the long distance duathlon team? Michelle Parsons learnt to swim and took her talent, hard training and success to the world of tri! Ride safely my friends.
A couple of weeks ago, I began to reflect on how I interact with athletes. This is usually an ongoing but superficial process, however, every so often I take a step back from the stress of the operational workload and conduct a deeper analysis. I had made some progress with what I considered to be athlete expectations, but was toiling a little over my own expectations of my coaching. These behaviours, conditioned by internal factors relating to coaching knowledge, beliefs and agency, combine with athlete expectations to define the nature of the coach:athlete relationship. Easily distracted as ever, when an email arrived, I was not unmoved to read the following:
I wanted to say a massive thank you for all your knowledge, help and support over the A2A training. I couldn't have done it without you. I will admit, I never felt confident I could do it until around late June/July, at which point it all seemed to come together, and I felt great. Doubt I will ever feel that great again, a testament to your plan.
According to interdependence theory (Rusbult et al., 2004), coaches and athletes develop relationships in which the coach is expected to lead, instruct and provide support. In return, the athlete is expected to execute the scheduled practices, to learn from the process and to accept the support offered. Typically, therefore, an athlete selects a coach and develops the relationship with a view to learning skills, techniques and tactics to, ultimately, become competent and achieve success and satisfaction.
In contrast, the coach is challenged to develop a relationship with the athlete from which to share their knowledge and experience, to support the athlete reaching their potential and to help facilitate the athlete achieving personal success and satisfaction. This makes perfect sense, however, thus far, it all seems very athlete-centred and mostly focused on the outcome. As I am sure you are all aware, here at Applied Tri, I have argued for some years for my preference to focus on the process above the outcome. Also, at what point does the coach begin to consider their own need for satisfaction? (For those amongst you who are recent arrivals, the thesis for my Masters was an attempt to challenge the priority of athlete-centred coaching.)
Sophia Jowett’s 3Cs model provides a framework and defines how the coach:athlete relationship develops. In this model, relationships are defined by three constructs: closeness, commitment and complementarity. Closeness refers to the affective ties between coaches and athletes and includes mutual trust, respect, appreciation and interpersonal attraction (Jowett & Nezlek, 2011). Commitment appreciates the level of motivation held by both coach and athlete in maintaining the relationship, their thoughts of attachment and long-term orientation. Complementarity refers to the level of readiness and responsiveness of both parties to co-operate and interact. In the 3Cs model, interdependence in the relationship is presumed to increase as each of the constructs increases.
There is ample further research on which outcomes contribute to increasing this interdependence, particularly for the athlete, such as satisfaction with individual performance, understanding of instruction and the perception of treatment by the coach. Indeed, delving deeper into the coach:athlete relationship, academics argue that the higher the standard of athlete competition, the longer the duration of the relationship and, selecting a coach of the same gender, all contribute toward greater levels of interdependence.
Unsurprisingly, I disagree. I would argue that the athlete is always working towards or is at the pinnacle of their personal standard of competition. Therefore, assuming the 3Cs constructs are increasing then the level of interdependence will increase. As a result, increased athlete satisfaction should lead to a continued relationship with the chosen coach. However, in reality, all coach:athlete relationships have finite durations which are often based on achievement of athlete performance (or participation) objectives.
Research on coach:athlete gender composition suggests that female athletes seek greater gender similarity to affirm self-concept – the collection of beliefs about themselves – and promote self-mental representations (Jowett & Clark-Carter, 2006). This similarity-attraction hypothesis (Byrne, Clore & Smeaton, 1986) has also been confirmed within business where academics argue that gender similarity in subordinate-supervisor dyads is positively related to job satisfaction and performance (Green, Anderson & Shivers, 1996). Some years have passed since this research was undertaken and my intuition is that this interpretation of business relationships may now be changing. In coaching, I would argue that it is the perceived similarity that is more important than actual similarity (Montoya, Norton & Kirchner, 2008). In a male coach: female athlete dyad, for example, it is the coach’s ability to encourage and relate to the disclosure of information and the expression of athlete feelings that underpins the development of the 3Cs, and thereby results in increased interdependence.
It is also worth adding that female athletes report higher levels of interdependence with their coach than male athletes (Jowett & Carolis, 2003), and therefore are perhaps more comfortable with allowing levels of closeness, commitment and complementarity to develop (Cowell, 2019). Just for the record, the ratio of female to male athletes at Applied Tri has been consistent for several years at 2:1. Perhaps, in time, I will return to why this may be the case.
All the above research points toward athlete-centred outcomes as being paramount to athlete satisfaction and thus greater interdependence. With my determined stance on process and coach-centredness, am I therefore misunderstanding the nature of the constructs or the facets that contribute toward delivering effective coaching? I have discussed focussing on the process at some length in previous communications (most of which are available here) as well as during one-to-one sessions, and so it is not my intent to recreate that argument here. However, perhaps I have been too dogmatic in favouring process over outcome all this time.
In supporting the athlete to achieve their objectives, from the athlete’s perspective the coach has to be both proactive and responsive. In preparing the sessions, the coach is creating training to enable the athlete to achieve the desired outcomes. However, when the athlete does not, for whatever reason, follow the process or achieve the individual session objective, the coach must not only analyse the data to understand what took place, but must also enquire, as deeply as the coach:athlete relationship allows, as to why this was the case. (The increased flow of information is perhaps one reason why I work more effectively with females.) Available feedback interpreted, gaps guessed at and judgements made, the coach may then consider how better to support the athlete in achieving the adapted session objective the next time. Therefore, behind the scenes of the neatly packaged, seemingly rational, progressive and linear Training Peaks session, the coach is remotely operating in an unguided, imprecise and very complex interpersonal system; working at the edge of chaos as Bowes and Jones so eloquently put it (2006).
With such an imprecise and stressful role, what therefore provides satisfaction for the coach in this coach:athlete relationship? Of the many challenges that we have embarked upon over the last 12 months, none was more daunting than agreeing to support Daniel Coughlan in taking on the Arch to Arc, arguably the hardest triathlon in the world. The experience was not without its complications, as I am sure Daniel will not mind me sharing, and the coach:athlete relationship at critical times probably hovered between concern and despair.
However, Daniel accomplished exactly what he set out to do, and, in time, he will come to terms with and appreciate just what an outstanding achievement this is. Very athlete-centred. We had struggled for months with the process and how Daniel must have tired of my seemingly dogmatic approach to coaching. Very coach-centred. Obviously, I can wallow in the appreciation of a grateful athlete; however, as much as my coaching ego values the first and especially the second sentence from his email, it is the third and fourth which have provided me with my learning from this experience. I was right all along; it is about the process, but it is about the process and consistency of training. As Daniel has reminded me, if the athlete is consistent in their following of the process, then the training will, at the appointed hour, come together. The process and consistency.
That, therefore, is what I get out of coaching; the challenge of a new enterprise that stretches my coaching ability to the limit (and extends my supporting networks – thank you Anna Wardley), an overwhelming sense of pride in all athlete achievement, as well as my own personal growth through continuous improvement. And, on reflection, the realisation that my coaching behaviour was nearlyright all along!
Thank you, Daniel.
My apologies for the length of this month’s missive. I appreciate that reading an extended newsletter is an impingement on your time, and if you would prefer not to receive these newsletters then please do let me know.
Before I finish, however, I must take the opportunity to congratulate World Champion Lise Soerensen, Bronze medallist, Bryan Vaughan and the rest of the Team GB LD Duathlon team. I am still reflecting on Powerman Zofingen and may return to this subject later.
Athletes, please prepare yourselves for the new dogmatic approach to training. Process and consistency. Process and consistency.
As ever, I seem to present a rather peculiar picture, lying by a Tuscan pool on the occasion of Toni’s wedding with multiple communication devices active whilst trying to multi task – tracking athletes at today’s ITU World Sprint Tri (11th, 11th, 15th, 22nd, 29th and 32nd since you asked), tracking and feeding back on the preparations of those racing in the Standard Tri tomorrow (1st and 1st, I hope), following Matt at the Brutal Extreme Tri, providing feedback on the training of other athletes – and all the while thinking about what decisions I need to make next to ensure that I continue to have athletes to track tomorrow, next month and next year.
These decisions about athlete training sessions are really judgements, and we all make similar calls in our day to day lives all the time about actions of greater or lesser importance, but often we do this without ever thinking about the process. Decision-making plays an important part of coaches’ everyday practice and is a significant part of coaching expertise (Lyle, 2010). With a new group of high performing coaches joining us through the mentoring scheme this year, it seemed an ideal opportunity to briefly summarise the decision-making processes within coaching.
The three golden rules of making coaching judgements are based on the premise that coaches should be creating a meaningful learning environment for the athlete. This is achieved by: making the sessions personally relevant for the athlete (in line with a long term development plan); promoting and checking athlete understanding, especially when working towards long term development; and where rapid, short term results are the objective, making the session mentally easy for the athletes (Collins, 2011).
However, the coach also has to consider this through a broader range of constraints. Known within coaching as the layered context, these may include practices, traditions, policies, pathways, resources and the broader coaching framework. Under an all-encompassing umbrella of creating purposeful deliberate and non-deliberate activity, the coach is challenged to consider athlete needs and motives, the sporting context, competitive level and athlete domain (children, participation, performance development or high performance) and all the while paying attention to the biological, physiological, biomechanical and social (bio-psych-social) needs of each individual athlete. This is some task and clearly coaching judgements are not unitary concepts – what works at one stage, level and athlete may not be effective elsewhere.
Successful coaching judgements therefore require two particular sets of knowledge which fall into the broad domains of declarative and procedural (Anderson, 1982). Declarative is the why knowledge and the knowledge of understanding. Procedural is the knowledge of doing or the ideas of how things can be done. And indeed, it is possible, and often quite common, for a coach to have one set and not the other – doing something procedural, based on ideas without having the declarative knowledge of why they are doing it.
We can credit Abraham (et al., 2010) for making a fine analogy for this in comparing a chef with a cook. A chef will have an in-depth understanding of the different properties of ingredients and operates by making continuous and deliberate adjustments to the ingredients to create a desired outcome. A cook however must follow a recipe and simply executes a set procedure. Now, whilst an enthusiastic cook may be able to create a dish which, on the face of it, looks and tastes the same, the appearances can be misleading. The surface does not always display the underlying conditions, and nor can a cook understand what to do if or when following the procedures, the recipe fails to deliver the anticipated outcomes. This really is a good analogy for those trying to alter running form without fully understanding the thinking behind each set of actions.
Similar to chefs, high performing coaches are constantly seeking to maximise effectiveness by challenging personal practice theories (ideas) through reference to formal theories of practice (understanding). Therefore, a high performing coach is able to present a personal, reasoned explanation for their strategies and goals, explain and provide reason for actions taken (judgements) and is able to evaluate the personal and collective effectiveness of their strategies (Thompson, 2000).
High performing coach practice rests on the coach’s ability to draw knowledge from several linked domains to develop optimal learning environments (Berliner, 1991), thereby creating a continuous process of decision-making about when and how to intervene in order to maintain athlete momentum and progression towards the achievement of specific goals.
This decision-making behaviour that high performing coaches exhibit is shaped and influenced by the context and will consider: the athletes long, medium and short term goals and development objectives. What the athlete will look like when these goals have been met. The methods of assessment to measure progress against the objectives. How each mesocycle will build upon previous cycles and contribute towards the macro cycle? How each micro cycle will contribute towards the mesocycle? What pedagogical strategies could be used to aid athlete focus and learning? What performance data could be captured to provide effectiveness of the programme and inform decisions regarding future planning and prioritisation?
Therefore, coaches are constantly problem solving as discrepancies between expectation and reality are identified. Resolving these key attractors (conflicts) is generally termed reflection in action (Schon, 1983) as opposed to the more usual reflection on action (post session evaluation). Often reflection in action is lost in the day to day background noise of coaching and yet this is a vitally important aspect of coach decision-making behaviour and, where possible, ought to be captured.
For the unpractised reflective coach, however, there is often a preference to do first and think later – if at all (Kahneman & Klein, 2009). Reliance on intuition, gut feel or any non-substantiated reason for decision-making can lead to mistakes being ignored or misdiagnosed and successes being misunderstood and incorrectly repeated. If a coach fails to identify why they become an expert, the expertise may be lost and biases quickly established (Abraham and Collins, 2011)
Therefore, a more deliberate planning process is required to develop coach expertise not only to encourage deep thinking but to provide a template from which thoughtful reflection can occur both during (Cowell, 2018) and after delivery (Abraham et al., 2014). Spending more time reflecting on the needs of the athletes and the learning environment allows for more informed judgements to be made. Ultimately, this helps to build on where the athlete has come from and prepare them for where they wish to go (Muir et al., 2011).
Well done to everybody racing today, I am delighted with every performance and good luck to everyone racing tomorrow and later on this autumn. Let’s round out the season with some more great racing!
I missed that brief glimpse of the UK summer many of you have been enjoying by once again being away in Russia with the Team GB AG Sprint Triathlon team. However, by all accounts, it was either so hot that training was either nigh on impossible or it was sufficiently uncomfortable to ensure that the training completed was significantly reduced from the schedule. Or did you all just collude with your feedback to put me off the scent whilst I was away!
These recent extreme high temperatures are certainly going to make training (and racing) a challenge. We assume that an increased sweat rate even before training takes place will be a factor in not only your performance, but also in your recovery and subsequent performance. Apparently, however, this isn’t the case if you follow the work of acclaimed science writer Christie Aschwanden, as reported by BBC Radio 4. Entitled, seven fitness fads you can afford to forget, and subtitled, recovery has become a sports and fitness buzzword, I settled down for what I hoped to be an interesting, thought provoking and all-important Moscow airport waiting time read.
Understandably, she may not have had full editorial control on the sound bites reported on the BBC website (I am yet to listen to the full interview – link below) and perhaps the article was designed for a very general audience, but I have been awaiting some form of update if she felt she had been misreported. None has been forthcoming and therefore, I think we can assume that the following is based on her opinion.
On the first fad, entitled electrolytes, Aschwanden claims that “no one has ever been worried that they are low on salt” and that “electrolytes is [sic] simply a term for salt”. Well, that certainly comes as a surprise to me; I regularly work with and speak to athletes that are worried about being low on salt. However, even with my limited grasp of chemistry, or more appropriately human biology, I can just about understand the difference between the salt she rightly claims that “doctors are counselling their patients to try and consume less” and the other electrolytes such as potassium (required for fluid balance, muscle contractions and the nervous system) and calcium (nervous system, muscle contractions and relaxation).
Potassium, for example, which regulates how much water is inside your cells, is not produced by the body and is barely present in a serving of table salt. We therefore need a regular intake of potassium from the food we eat. Rich sources of potassium include avocados, spinach, potatoes and water melon, however these really are awkward to carry whilst running and cycling. Therefore, for your convenience on those longer training sessions, sports drinks containing electrolytes are readily available and easy to consume. However, she claims that the encouragement of the use of sports drinks by drinks companies is “pretty much nonsense”. If the acclaimed science writer cannot differentiate between the excessive sodium intake of the general public and the need for additional potassium and calcium either during or certainly after long, hot sessions, to facilitate recovery, then we really do have a problem. However, if you need any further convincing, apparently if you don’t provide your cells with sufficient calcium then your body begins to take it from the bones to maintain appropriate muscle function. Food for thought.
The required electrolytes obviously need a delivery mechanism, usually in the form of water and here on the topic of hydration, the report reaches hyperbolic levels. Apparently, drinking to a schedule “…isn’t just a dumb ide…it’s actually dangerous”. Her research has identified 5 cases of death caused by hyponatremia, the clinical condition of low sodium levels in the blood (I assume that she meant in athletes, or at least runners), warning that “We’ve created a really dangerous situation where people are now dying from overconsuming water and fluids”.
Whilst I would not want to underestimate the risks of water intoxication – the mortality rate is indeed quite high – the condition requires the rapid intake of a considerable amount of fluid. Examples cited elsewhere report a 9 year old drinking 3.6 litres of water in 1 – 2 hours; a 22 year old drinking 6 litres in 3 hours and, in other cases, the consumption of 10 – 20 litres in several hours. However, Christie’s warning that she has never found an athlete who has died from dehydration and “the safest way to handle hydration is to drink to thirst” again misses the point. Whilst a dehydrated athlete may not die, they certainly won’t be able to maintain their performance level over a long period and we are endurance athletes, after all. Thus, maintaining your hydration levels in training (the kidneys can process between 0.8 and 1 lite of water per hour) will enable you to both train effectively and recover from that training ready to go again. “It really is that simple,” to quote the acclaimed science writer.
I was therefore quite pleased to get on my flight and thankfully, with appropriate hydration and electrolyte levels, our triathletes provided me with a fantastic display of their recent athletic development against the fabulous architectural backdrop of the city of Kazan. As regular readers will know, we only announce individual performances on occasion and usually report on Applied Triathlon successes as a group. However, when 5 athletes are at the top of their game, I think that we may be excused making a little extra noise. Therefore, we must congratulate category winners and European Sprint Triathlon Champions Jane Eaton and Angela Wray and Bronze medallists, Martina Tredgett and Jo Parker. Unfortunately, it was not to be Team GB AG Team Captain John Tredgett’s day, however he did exceed expectations at Ironman Lanzarote 8 weeks ago.
We are now only 2 weeks from the final qualifier for next year’s European Sprint Triathlon in Malmo, 4 weeks from the World Triathlon Championships in Lausanne and 6 weeks from the World Long Distance Duathlon Championships in Zofingen. Then we head in autumn and what I think will be a well-earned break.
As another month passes without me having written anything of consequence, I thought that I would take this opportunity to double up in reviewing a recent article concerning running with producing something that is hopefully of value to the athletes we work with.
I am often passed articles and papers concerning running with requests to critique, comment on, or, as often as not, requests to validate the findings of the author or researchers. As I have stated before, it has never been my intent to openly criticise the work of others. I prefer instead to use their observations and arguments to challenge my own thoughts and opinions. If in so doing I learn something new, then I adapt my understanding accordingly. If the idea holds no additional value, then the exercise will still have been beneficial in challenging me to understand why we know the things that we do.
My attention has been turned to an article written by Tony Guttman entitled, ‘Running barefoot or with new technology shoes?’ The over-arching aim of the article was to highlight the benefits of the Nike4% racing shoe. Research has shown that running in racing shoes is comparable in terms of efficiency to running barefoot with the efficiency benefit of the shoe’s cushioning counteracted by a penalty due to the shoe’s weight. With the insertion of a full-length carbon plate, Nike’s latest offering further reduces the energy cost of running by between 1 and 4% and, according to numerous documented commentary, increases performance by up to 4%. Thus, it has been used by the Nike Breaking2 sub 2-hour marathon project.
The paper aims to compare running barefoot with running in shoes and, at first glance, appears to support many of the views we believe are important in understanding running and, more importantly, developing running form. Guttmann rightly states that there is a lot of contradictory information out there and wishes to “separate demonstrable facts from heresay [sic] or the experience of one person”. However, scratch the surface of this paper a little and some of the cracks begin to appear and therefore, I thought that I would take this opportunity to unpack some of his observations and, in so doing, highlight some of the dogma surrounding running form.
They may well argue that point, however I would argue that they are confusing natural with subconscious. Running is a learned skill and thus poor technique can be identified and rectified.
In winning the 1960 Rome Olympic marathon running barefoot and the Tokyo Olympic marathon 4 years later wearing shoes, both in world record times, Abebe Bikila is certainly worthy of the mantle great runner. However, defining a great runner as an athlete who can run with or without shoes is fraught with complexity. Bikila obviously spent a high proportion of his time running without shoes. Whilst moving from barefoot to wearing running shoes is not without its challenges, habitually shod runners are far more likely to encounter difficulties transitioning to barefoot running. Learning to run barefoot for habitually shod runners takes time and the evidence suggests that the time required to successfully transition is based upon a host of factors such as current form, history of injuries, mobility and flexibility, miles run etc. This is why academic studies which compare running with shoes and no shoes without allowing for the need for running form to adapt, produce, at best, misleading results.
Running barefoot is not necessarily conducive to good form. The running shoe can certainly hinder running form however foot strike is only one, albeit important, aspect of good form. It is not inconceivable that a runner who otherwise displays the six or seven other components of good running form will successfully run without injury whilst heel striking.
I am not sure what a ‘serious heel striker’ is, but certainly the impact transient that can be caused by heel striking is a potential contributor to injury. Impact forces will vary according to runner and overall running form but, without good form, the forefoot runner is at a similar risk of injury caused by ground reaction forces.
Indeed, heel striking does cause a braking force however, so does forefoot and midfoot striking. Reducing the horizontal deceleration of the athlete is a key factor in improving running form and ultimately running efficiency. Thus, many elite runners do heel strike when they, out of necessity, are exceeding their biomechanical ability. However, other aspects of their running form are generally very good, and their training enables them to support this action.
I have not read Hoogmaker’s et al. (2018) paper on marathon racing shoes, it is one for the future. However, I am assuming that the outcome of the comparison of shoes and no shoes results in shod runners experiencing less knee flexion in stance (which we know is more efficient) rather than less knee flexion at foot strike. The point is not clear.
The message therefore, from here at least, is that it is not just about the shoe and foot strike. However, sadly, the dogma which surrounds running form remains pretty consistent. Certainly, shoes can and do contribute to poor running form. However, good running form is a far greater and more complex subject than foot strike alone. Good running form is the amalgamation of a number of component parts, none of which appear to work very successfully in isolation, and each of which require learning as a skill.
The question I know I will be asked is whether there is benefit in finding the £200+ necessary for a pair of Nike4%. (Or the £240 required for the Next%, the latest, and apparently, fastest generation of Nike racing shoe.). As yet, I am unsure whether these shoes are effective for forefoot running and therefore I would see that as an unnecessary financial risk. Additionally, the differential may make these a cumbersome shoe for forefoot runners and lead to unwelcome changes in running form during use. That said, for the low to moderate angled heel-striker, who wouldn’t want an extra 4% in performance? They would be particularly welcome for race day.
We left you a little in the lurch when we last covered the concept of stretching. As with many of the topics that we cover, it is such a complex subject that condensing an opinion to 1,000
words, especially an accurately researched one, can never quite do it justice. (One reason why I never made much progress with the 140 characters required on Twitter!) Thus, the January
missive concerning acute stretching provided a lot of feedback, much of which simply added to the current debate. However, for once, I cannot describe this debate with the now common political
use of the term, polarized. Whether respondents were arguing for or against following an acute stretching regime prior to exercise, both sets of athletes fell into one camp. None of them
really did any, which, albeit by design or default, agreed with the findings from our brief review of the research.
To very briefly summarise our previous position; stretching before an endurance event reduces mechanical efficiency (Kyrolainen & Komi, 1994) primarily through the reduction in musculotendinous stiffness (Thacker et al., 2003), resulting in a decrease in force development and an increase in oxygen requirement within an hour following the stretching regime (Shrier, 2004). However, a post stretching 10-minute sub maximal warm-up run could reverse the reduction in active peak force and rate of force development and thus not impact running economy (Hayes and Walker, 2007). For many of us endurance athletes, this puts paid to that last minute, panic driven, quick stretch against the holding pen barriers as we impatiently await the race start. But we already knew that, didn’t we? It was perhaps more a guilt driven, reflex action in recognition of the lack of focus and attention we had paid to flexibility and mobility in our daily training regimes. As a generalisation, time crunched endurance athletes are far more likely to skip a stretching session over a conditioning session, any day. A quick tally of the red boxes on nearly every Training Peaks account is testament to this.
So, what of that long-term stretching regime and should endurance athletes feel guilty for prioritising the extra couple of miles out on the road or the pool above the daily session on the gym mat?
Certainly, studies have shown that following a long-term stretching strategy can significantly increase flexibility (Nelson et al, 2001), and long term strategies should not inhibit performance or decrease running economy (Godges, MacRae & Engelke, 1993; Nelson et al., 2001). However, coaches of elite runners have known for some time that inflexibility is highly associated with increased running economy and academic research is beginning to bear this out (Gleim et al., 1990; Posthumus et al., 2011; Sanders et al., 2004). Some academics go further in suggesting that there may be an optimum level of flexibility for endurance running economy. Although it isn’t clear where exactly this level of optimisation may lie, there must be a balance between muscle stiffness for maximisation of energy storage and return whilst also allowing for optimal stride length at high running velocities. This, then is an important point. Runners of any standard may not need lots of static muscle stretching, but probably do need to increase their ability to operate their key running muscles through a full range of movement; especially those who sit at a desk or in a vehicle for 8 hours of the day, or ride their bikes when not sat at their desks.
Another common theory in support of following a long-term stretching strategy, is in support of delaying or minimising the effects of post-exercise delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). DOMS is thought to be triggered by a series of biomechanical changes that occur as a result of muscle damage (Fridén, 2002). Repeated, high-force, eccentric contractions or even simply unaccustomed exercise such as interval training or running downhill with poor form, is determined to be the most likely cause of DOMS (Cheung, et al., 2003). The prescription of stretching to reduce the effect of DOMS was due to supposed muscle spasms reducing blood flow being the cause of muscle soreness (de Vries, 1966). Muscle stretching being seen as restoring the blood flow back into the fatigued muscle (Herbert et al., 2011).
However, study after study has shown that stretching regimes have little or no effect on reducing DOMS. There is no evidence to suggest that static or dynamic stretching either before or after exercise, as either an acute or long-term strategy, could reduce the severity or duration of DOMS (Dannecker et al., 2002; Herbert, et al., 2011). Herbert and Gabriel (2002) indicated that such changes as they were able to observe were too insignificant to justify athletes incorporating a stretching regime into their warm-up activity; and a survey of 2,000 athletes concluded that no variation of stretching had the ability to alter DOMS (Jamtvedt et al., 2002).
The academic research therefore appears to be sounding the death knell for stretching. As ever, however, in the same way that I like to investigate the bias of researchers when investigating studies on running form in particular, to be really conclusive, I would need to study each paper quoted above in far greater detail than I have to date. Unfortunately, this level of in-depth study will have to wait. We again find ourselves at the end of a month, with the clock changes behind us, and spring now definitely on the way.
For those coached athletes, and others awaiting reports or analysis, I thank you all again for your patience. What has stated out to be a very busy but exciting year has already taken some challenging twists and turns. I can however report that the surgery has been successful and, providing that I follow the prescribed recovery plan, then we will be firing on all cylinders again within a fortnight. Obviously, I have again lost several potential working days, however, I will not be taking on any additional work during this recuperation period which will allow me an opportunity to catch up with all outstanding actions.
Good luck to all those who are racing in the forthcoming weeks. This year has already seen some great athletic progress and success and I am looking forward to reporting more success as the season progresses.
A timely receipt of a research paper on the impact of stretching (Baxter et al, 2015) coincided with a coach-education question last week. Therefore, I thought that I would round up what has now become a recent trilogy on athlete recovery by adding my thoughts on stretching to that of the transition period (see August 2018) and rest & recovery (December 2018).
As those who regularly read my missives will know, I tend to support my arguments with terms such as ‘evidence based’ or, where no empirical evidence exists and arguments are supported by intuition or assumption, as ‘evidence inspired’. One of the more obvious examples of the latter is the argument for using stretching as a tool to aid performance or reduce the risk of injury in endurance athletes, and now we have a paper that sheds some further light on this subject.
Historically, pre-exercise stretching was the staple of endurance running groups, prescribed by coaches to prepare the limbs for exercise. Post-exercise stretching was also prescribed as part of a cool down programme to minimise the effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). For simplicity, stretching could then be described as being one of two kinds – acute stretching referring to discrete exercises conducted immediately prior to exercise (Wallmann, et al., 2012) or chronic stretching, conducted as part of a long-term strategy for increasing flexibility (Stone, et al., 2006). Due to the limited time available here, for now I will simply focus on acute stretching programmes and may return to chronic stretching at a later date.
Flexibility has long been recognised as a component of fitness (Bompa & Haff, 2009) and arguably stretching has been considered to be an appropriate if not important part of that strategy (Shrier, 2004; Wilson et la., 2010). However, evidence shows that elite endurance runners are anything but flexible, with studies suggesting that they tend to be less flexible than their amateur counterparts (Saunders et al., 2004). Whilst this statement appears to be at best counter-intuitive, research has shown that untrained people with the lowest levels of flexibility have the most economic running styles (Gleim et al., 1990). Although this study needs repeating across a broader range of athlete ability, it does support the findings of several other theories.
Increased mobility of the pelvis over the transverse and frontal planes during the stance phase of running requires an excessive energy cost to stabilise the pelvis. Certainly sprinters are renowned for extolling the benefits of having tense muscles and tendons to increase elastic storage and thus reduce oxygen demand. It has also been proposed that reduced flexibility could be accounted for by the hypertrophy of muscle resulting in a reduced range of joint motion. All good food for thought and certainly all worthy of additional study.
However, we do know that acute stretching prior to exercise as part of a warm up regime has been shown to decrease running economy (reflecting the energy demand of running at? a constant submaximal speed) (Saunders et al., 2004; Shrier, 2004; Thacker et al., 2003). The rationale for this theory is that stretching reduces the mechanical efficiency of the lower body through the reduction of musculotendinous stiffness (Thacker et al, 2003). In this instance, musculotendinous stiffness ‘specifically refers to the [muscle] unit’s ability to resist an applied change in length’ (Kuitunen et al., 2002).
Historically, muscular stiffness has been associated with increased risk of injury and an inhibitor of athletic movement particularly in the early stages of an event and yet, in endurance runners muscular stiffness is recognised as a desirable trait (Wilson & Flanagan, 2008). Inflexibility in the hip and calf regions are associated with improved running economy (Baxter et al., 2015). The ‘reduction of mechanical efficiency stems directly from the decrement of muscle stiffness that appears as a result of muscle stretching’ (Baxter et al., 2015). As we have postulated in our own research concerning running form, stiffer muscles around the ankle and knee cause an ‘increase in force potentiation when transitioning from the braking to the push off phase in running’ (Kyrolainen & Komi, 1994).
More effective elastic energy storage and return from a stiffer musculotendinous system is therefore favoured in endurance running (Gleim, et al., 1990). Without taking advantage of muscular stiffness, activation of increased numbers of motor units requires increased oxygen consumption and energy expenditure (Wilson et al, 2010). Additionally, acute stretching may strain muscles, causing a decrease in force development and an increase in oxygen requirement immediately following the stretching regime (Shrier, 2004).
All interesting stuff, but the research is not all negative. Some studies have identified that stretching isolated muscle groups prior to performance testing can increase the strength of that muscle group, (Akagi & Takahashi, 2014), however, as yet, there is no evidence to suggest that the same applies to endurance running (Worrell, et al., 1994).
Thus, according to the academic studies, not only is there no recognised benefit to acute stretching as part of a warm up activity prior to running, but there would appear to be disadvantages to doing so, not least to running economy through decreases in mechanical efficiency and increases in oxygen demand. However, whilst this evidence based theory makes academic sense, our own intuition on this topic which is associated with our experience of immobility, would suggest that some other strategy needs consideration. Also, this still leaves the question of whether there is an optimum level of flexibility required to maximise running efficiency. According to Saunders et al (2004), optimum flexibility is a balance between muscle stiffness to optimise elastic energy storage and return, whilst allowing for an optimal stride length (Saunders et al., 2004). I await with bated breath their definition of the optimum stride length because this is, of course, related to running form.
Whatever your current strategy, if it is working for you – minimising the risk of injury and maximising performance – then at this juncture I would advise that you continue to follow your plan but keep a watchful eye on future research. At some point in the near future, I will hope to follow this up with a brief look at chronic stretching strategies.
In the meantime, please go carefully in this weather and take no risks with your training. We have a full season of training and racing ahead, and so swapping the road bike for the turbo trainer or doing shorter running sessions at submaximal pace over the next few days, will minimise the risk whilst allowing you to stay active. A few days of power and heating outages at work have put us under great time pressure this month and we go into February with some outstanding work. Therefore, we have reduced the number of athlete bookings this month to allow for some consolidation and catch up. If you are awaiting reports or testing dates, please be patient and we hope to be back up to speed shortly.
One date that is confirmed is a further swim video analysis session at Tiddenfoot on Saturday 9th February at 12:00. More details on request.
A couple of months ago, timed to meet the seasonal athlete transition period, I wrote about the importance of scheduling active recovery to reduce the risk of physical and psychological
burnout. With judicious timing, I have just received a question from a British Triathlon Level 2 Diploma coach who is embarking on a period of one-to-one coaching. His chosen athlete is a
former elite squad member who was surprised to find not only a recovery day scheduled within the training, but also a recovery week. This was a unique concept to the athlete. I was
therefore asked to provide some guidance to support the coach in the athlete’s re-education, and the following text is mainly drawn, as ever, from
Bompa and Haff (2009).
To assist in maximising athlete performance in competition, the coach’s prime role is to understand the athlete’s very personal relationship between fitness and fatigue. Whether the athlete is an elite, undergoing multiple training sessions per day, or an age-grouper balancing the demands of training with the additional stressors of social activity and the day job, the coach must prescribe appropriate training to produce an effective balance between exercise and recovery.
The physiological markers of fatigue, such as changes in the intra and extracellular Ca2+ concentration, increases in inorganic phosphates and a breakdown in excitation-contraction coupling, are not readily measurable. Therefore, the coach must use feedback from the athlete in terms of training data, algorithms that accurately measure training load and resting heart rates, and the more subjective athlete markers such as mood state, quality of sleep and perceived recovery. Over time, the establishment of a close coach:athlete relationship will allow a developed understanding of such subjective feedback, and enable the coach to apply an appropriate recovery strategy based on reduced training volumes and intensity. During this time, the coach and athlete can also develop specific restoration techniques to assist in enhancing the recovery process. However, whilst developing that relationship, the coach must proactively control the training load through the systematic use of scientific training principles. Recovery strategies should therefore be structured within a regular training programme with a view to enable the athlete to tolerate a greater training load, or to maximise the training effects of a given load.
An athlete’s ability to recover is compounded by many factors, including the obvious – environmental, training load, sleep, nutrition and supplementation – as well as the less recognisable such as genetics, individualised physiology, psychology and the recovery interventions designed by the coach and athlete to overcome athlete fatigue. Fatigue can be classified as acute or chronic, with chronic being the accumulation of physiological and psychological stress from which the athlete’s ability to recover from training sessions is decreased. Ultimately, this decreases the athlete’s adaptations from training.
Acute fatigue, however, is specific to the task undertaken and the recovery is affected by the type of training and the muscle fibre type of the athlete. Every training session produces symptoms of fatigue from which the athlete will be able to recover and adapt relatively quickly. However, a training load of continued high volume or high intensity for a period of time can lead to overreaching, resulting in chronic fatigue through overtraining.
Overreaching is the short-term decrement in performance capacity from an accumulation of training and non-training stressors. However, overreaching is not accompanied by the signs and symptoms of overtraining, but the athlete will still require several days or weeks of recovery before performance levels will be restored. Functional overreaching will stimulate appropriate physiological adaptations which compensate for training related stress. After sufficient scheduled recovery allowing for supercompensation, the athlete will develop enhanced levels of performance. However, with insufficient scheduled recovery, overreaching eventually results in a state of overtraining.
Overtraining is defined as the long-term decrement in performance as a result of training and non-training stressors, and is associated with the physiological and psychological signs of maladaptation. Overtraining can be induced by the monotony of non-varying stimuli, resulting in a physical plateau or decline in performance. Alternatively, overtraining can be induced by chronic overwork when training volumes or intensity are sustained for too long. Chronic overtraining can result in sympathetic or parasympathetic overwork. Sympathetic overwork is a prolonged stress response whereas parasympathetic overwork is an advanced state of overtraining in which the neuroendocrine system is compromised.
Days - weeks
Weeks - months
Months - ?
Decrease or no change
Continuum of overtraining.
Adapted from Meeusen et al (2006) and Halson & Jeukendrup (2004).
Because of the multitude of contributory factors, there are no reliable markers from which to identify overtraining. Therefore, both athlete and coach need to be acutely aware of athlete stagnation and/or a significant decrease in training or competitive performance. Thus, the importance of creating training programmes according to scientific principles, whilst continually monitoring athlete data and feedback, are vital to long-term athlete well-being. Algorithms built into modern training evaluation software are useful tools for evaluating training load. Also, the long-term evaluation of training and resting heart rates can be a useful tool in monitoring an athlete’s response to training load. Nocturnal heart rates are considered the most suitable measure and recovery periods should be calculated accordingly.
Coach - Planning
Coach - Monitoring
Athlete - Educate
Athlete – Monitoring
Create a plan using the theory of periodisation
Fatigue and response to training and testing
Keep training logs to include volume and intensity
Include periods of overreaching/increased loading
Quality of recovery, including sleep
Minimise non-training stressors
Duration of training and estimate of load
Include periods of decreased training to induce recovery
Mood changes and irritability
Attain adequate sleep
Individualise according to athlete training status and needs
Heart rate and hormonal patterns where known
Monitor training and performance parameters
Ratings of well-being and quality of sleep
Monitor athlete performance including regular testing
Occurrences of illness or injury
Recognise early warning signs of overtraining
Recognition of early signs of illness and injury
Steps to prevent overtraining.
Adapted from Mackinnon& Hooper (2009).
Athlete recovery takes place in three distinct phases – interexercise, post-exercise and long-term recovery. Interexercise recovery takes place, as the name would suggest, whilst exercise is taking place, with phosphagens mainly replaced rapidly via aerobic metabolism. The primary function of post-exercise recovery is to initiate the removal of waste products, to repair muscle tissue and to replace energy stores. This process is supported by a prolonged period of elevated levels of post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). The duration of EPOC is related to the duration and intensity of exercise and may last anything from several minutes to 38 hours and supports the resynthesis of ATP and PCr, muscle glycogen formation, and the regulation of core temperature.
Muscle glycogen restoration is directly related to the amount of post-exercise carbohydrate consumption. Adequate intake of CHO may restore muscle glycogen levels within 20 -24 hours, however recovery may be enhanced by consuming a post-exercise meal within 2 hours of exercise. Pre-exercise supplementation and supplementation during exercise are also recognised as important aids to recovery, depending on the specific needs of the event and athlete. Inadequate refuelling or excessive muscle damage may not only delay the recovery process, resulting in reduced performance, but may ultimately result in overtraining.
Long-term recovery is formed through the effective periodisation of training, formed to achieve supercompensation. Following a loading of training, a reduction in loading should be scheduled, based on the level of accumulated fatigue, to enable the athlete to perform at an elevated level.
Primary methods of recovery include passive and active recovery, and additional factors such as athlete biological age and training age, should also be taken into consideration when scheduling training. Ideally, each period of training should conclude with a cooling down activity to aid recovery utilising the movements of the exercise undertaken. There is a plethora of detailed academic study which supports the use of active recovery with evidence of both enhanced performance restoration and a reduction in the onset of muscle soreness. Recovery activity should be performed at 50% or less of VO2 max, although, as ever, I highlight the importance of retaining good form throughout all active movements.
Passive recovery should include sufficient quality sleep although, simply factoring in time for the athlete putting their feet up occasionally, particularly at this time of year, should also form an important part of the athlete’s recovery strategy. As those of you who follow our Facebook feed will recognise, we are establishing a close working relationship with our friends at ŌKHĀNE. Their vision of a worldwide community connected through and inspired by sport, health and wellbeing meets with Applied Triathlon Coaching’s strategy to further develop even greater awareness of the holistic needs of all the athletes we have the honour and pleasure to work with.
Enjoy your rest and recovery during this festive season and best wishes for your sporting endeavours in 2019.
Thank you very much for your patience whilst we dealt with matters closer to home this month. For the second time in a little over a year we have been reminded of the importance of our families and also the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle, with both our departed living well into their eighties. Health and fitness are obviously highly prominent in the message we are keen to promote to our athletes, but this has become a timely reminder that, in providing the services we offer, we don’t lose sight of our own well-being.
This is never more relevant than during the busiest month of the year, which for us is always November. As athletes begin to plan for next year, we invest a lot of time in screening potential athletes for their fit into our model of coaching. This process may sound slightly more stringent that at first glance would seem necessary. Although this is as much an opportunity for the athlete to screen us, as it is for us to determine the level of compatibility, our coaching philosophy is built purely around our coaching efficacy.
Much research has been conducted on self-efficacy in teaching which has been shown to be a vital ingredient in teacher effectiveness. Whilst coaches do not share all the characteristics of teachers, much of the function we perform includes elements of instruction, guidance in the development of skills and the provision of feedback, which is consistent with teaching practice. Further still, like a teacher, the coach also acts as a motivator, strategist, administrator and planner to the athlete, to enhance both the learning and the performance of the athlete. Coach education would go one further and suggest that it is the coach’s responsibility to elicit personal growth from the athlete. However, I have always baulked slightly at this because it predisposes that the coach operates in some superior plane to the athlete which, of course, may or may not be the case. I should add, however, that the development of athlete character in aspects associated with the sport is a function of coaching.
The principle study on coaching efficacy, conducted by Feltz et al. (1999), focussed on a programme of reductionism to produce an effective conceptual model of coaching efficacy. Evaluating previous studies on coaching confidence and the more widely known work of Bandura’s conceptualisation of self-efficacy (1977, 1986), they perhaps over-simplified the model. However, in so doing, they were able to identify the coaching specific sources of efficacy information and coaching efficacy dimensions, that combine in a multidimensional model to produce a set of outcomes.
As ever, I have added my own flavour to adapt this conceptual model into a practical model that operates in the real world of coaching. Thus, the sources of coaching efficacy information come in the form of coaching experience and preparation for working with any particular athlete for a specific outcome; the prior history of coach achievement, particularly in similar circumstances; the perceived skill level and performance of the athlete; and the support network the athlete has to achieve their goals.
Primed with the confidence that this information provides the coach, and thus the potential fit the athlete has for any programme of coaching, the coach is able to progress to the dynamics of coaching, or coaching dimensions. The dimension of coaching strategy is the confidence the coach has in preparing both a training and competition strategy that will draw the best out of the athlete. In the multi-event seasons demanded by many triathletes, this is where the skill in combining the science of periodisation with the experience of measuring training load and recovery is paramount.
Technique efficacy is the confidence the coach has in their directional, instructional and diagnostic skills. Again, experience is key here, particularly in utilising diagnostic skills to steer subsequent instruction and/or corrective action. This is why we put so much emphasis on our own development in understanding the key components of the three disciplines we coach, as well as making skill analysis and development sessions available for our athletes, where logistics and cost allow. However, it is a common observation of mine that coaches tend to intervene too quickly and there is a tendency to over-prescribe corrective action based on insufficient knowledge. An often-cited example of this, and one to which I may return in future, is the study of elite gymnast coaches in action and the range of unnecessary feedback they produced for one particular gymnast. Thus, knowing when to intervene is as important as the how.
Motivation efficacy is the confidence coaches have in their ability to positively affect the psychological state of the athlete. This may come in a multitude of forms but is not restricted to the measurable progress that athletes can see in either their performance or their skill level. Providing evidence for this when the athlete is in the midst of a demanding block of training can be a challenge in its own right. Therefore, regular conversations can be key to highlight aspects of data or skill development that may not be readily evident to the athlete.
The fourth dimension, no pun intended, is the controversial one – that of the building of athlete character. I don’t dismiss this as readily as my comment above may suggest, but, as a generalisation, an athlete will develop this if the correct approach to all other aspects of training and racing is taken.
Assuming all the above is in place, and it is a big assumption, then coaching efficacy will be displayed in many aspects of the coach’s behaviour. High efficacy coaches have been shown to display more effective coaching behaviours including positive reinforcement of desirable performance as well as mistake contingent encouragement combined with appropriate technical feedback. Together, these assist in the improvement of athlete performance and thus contribute to athlete satisfaction.
This, therefore, is why we spend a significant period of time in both the screening process and in creating a channel of free flowing communication early in the athlete:coach relationship. Ensuring that our coaching model will provide, or can be adapted to provide the perfect fit, reinforces coach efficacy and thus ultimately leads to athlete efficacy.
Driving from the pool back to The Depot one lunchtime last week, I was surprised to hear the dulcet tones of Dr. Vybarr Cregan-Reid on Radio 5 Live. As well as contributing an educated commentary supported by a vast literary repertoire, the prime reason for Dr. Reid’s presence as guest editor on Nihal Arthanayake’s Afternoon Edition was to promote his latest book, Primate Change: How the world we made is remaking us. As the School of English Reader in English and Environmental Studies at Kent University, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by either his 5 Live appearance or his publishing his third book in five years. In fact, I think that I should really come clean here and confess that my reaction was less surprise and more disappointment.
Two years ago, I had been invited by a former colleague from the University of Hertfordshire to attend a presentation by Vybarr to support the launch of his previous book; Footnotes: How running makes us human. Whilst very grateful for the invite, I sat amongst the small audience and nodded knowingly as he presented his thoughts with which I agreed, and unmoved for those with which I did not. At that time, my disappointment was not that I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, but that I really wanted to have the opportunity to discuss and debate the topics with which I didn’t necessarily agree.
Whilst his presentation was not the most polished I have heard (he came over better last week on the radio), enough of his content was consistent with that of my running workshops to reinforce my confidence that the underpinning theory of Natural Running Form was heading in the right direction. As I joined the short queue to purchase a copy of his book, I decided there and then that not only would I use his tome to further inform my workshops, but that I would use my additional knowledge and experience to write my own book on running. My disappointment last week was with myself in that I had only reached page 76 of this book during which time Vybarr has been published again!
There are, of course, plenty of mitigating circumstances for the slow progress on my part, and some of them are almost justified. However, the intent has always been there and, to compensate for the lack of scheduled time set aside for such research, I have diligently carried his book with me to each of the countries I have visited in the ensuing period. That’s some air miles for one book! In reality, however, the real reason for this tardiness is that unlocking the science behind running is proving to be a spectacularly time-consuming experience. Whilst not quite the vade mecum that I am intending to publish, every page of Vybarr’s work is so well informed that it leads me on to make additional research, either to understand the primary research that informs it or to find conflicting studies and thus make a better fist of the explanations. This practice is consistent with every other book and research paper I pick up; hence the ponderously slow progress.
This then is proving to be the problem. Much of the basic mechanics of running have been well known for hundreds of years and well documented since at least the 1960s. As a general guide, Geoffrey Dyson’s The Mechanics of Athletics provides an accurate enough model for running that should have informed running coaches since its first edition. What Dyson didn’t account for, however, was the second running revolution that led to jogging and with it, the birth of the modern running shoe.
Poor daily footwear choices were already a feature of modern culture and, combined with a changing and more sedentary lifestyle, this was a problem that was simply waiting for its time. Before this second running boom, in the main, runners were those who diligently toiled away on running tracks and, in so doing, further developed and reinforced the biomechanical movement patterns that they had established whilst they were young. This was a progressive process because whilst running is a natural behaviour, running form is a learnt skill.
In encouraging the population to go outside and take exercise, the jogging revolution came with good intent. However, all cultural revolutions have a tendency to become the victims of unexpected consequences and three things were to quickly overtake the positive ideals. The end quickly became more important than the means; a common result of the human nature of always being in a hurry to achieve. In the process, and unknowingly because we had yet to fully understand the risks involved, we sacrificed running form for speed. And, in so doing, we made the outcome, the performance, the only indicator of progress.
The net result of this attempt at a fast track process was, of course, the evolution of the modern running injury. The running shoe with its built-up heel and motion control support enables poor running technique – including heel striking – and contributes toward muscle atrophy whilst providing only limited sensory feedback (Cregan-Reid). Without the modern running shoe, jogging, which is an extension of walking, would have not been possible. This hybrid walk/run locomotive pattern is unnatural both in terms of posture and forces (Saxby) and, although not solely responsible, modern running shoes are a contributory factor to this phenomenon and reinforced the regular cycle of running injury. Such is the rate of injury, Christopher McDougall quipped that “the real mutants are the [runners] who don’t get injured”.
As we accelerate and progress from a walk to a run, the foot is meant to inform the brain of the changes to both impact and pace. Proprioception - our body’s sense of its own position, balance and movement - uses stretch receptors and pressure receptors situated in our muscles, joints and skin to inform our brain about our interaction with the physical environment (Saxby). Often called our sixth sense, I refer to proprioception in running as our forgotten sense.
A large percentage of these receptors are in our feet, the part of the body where we should be fully engaged with the physical environment. When our feet are masked by “inappropriately constructed and excessively cushioned footwear” (Saxby), our brain is deprived of the necessary feedback that would otherwise influence running form. Thus, by enabling the runner to exceed their developed biomechanical ability, the modern running shoe has led to a regression in running form which, more often than not, has led to injury. The process of heel striking is thus a cultural adaptation of learnt behaviour rather than a biological one which is only possible as a result of reduced proprioceptive feed back to the brain.
To consider something like running to be a skill, you have to believe that there is a right and a wrong way for it to be performed. If we are to find the solution to this problem, then we must believe this to be the case. In fact, the alternative, would now be to hold a position against all the evidence.
The further and deeper that I dig into the mechanics of running, the more I discover that the real work is not so much in understanding how we should run – Dr. Cregan-Reid and others got the easy job there – but in trying to deconstruct how we currently run. Understanding this will allow running coaches to identify and prescribe to runners the necessary changes to allow a safe, effective and permanent transition to Natural Running Form. This perhaps over simplifies what has become such an all consuming task for me. However, as yet, we still do not have the ultimate model of running which remains my work in progress.
Yet another month comes to a close with too much rapidity and things are already shaping up well ready for next year. The race calendar is filling quickly, and so is our weekly schedule of athlete testing, analysis, feedback and coaching along with multiple weekends of coach education. Whilst it is difficult not to already be drawn into preparations for 2019 (and in multisport this actually means qualifiers in preparation for 2020!) we still have much to do this year and much to be proud of too. Thus, I will close on Dr. Chris Taylor’s total domination of the Seriously Brutal Duathlon. Now that is going to be a tough act to follow next season!
One of the biggest challenges of trying to use a low resolution narrative when presenting a natural running form workshop, is that when it comes to the detailed discussions, only a high resolution narrative will suffice. The difficulty here, however, is that these sessions are nearly always time pressured in trying to condense what would ordinarily be several hours of theory into a short delivery window. And so it was when I attempted to do just this at the recent Duathlon Hub training weekend.
Every time I teach this particular part of the theory, the content changes and thus no two sessions are ever the same. Depending on the interests and prior knowledge of the participants or, more importantly, on the questions or feedback I receive, the delivery always meanders off the script in unique ways. In this most recent case, the question I received was not only worthy of a diversion during the session, it prompted me to go back to my notes to ensure that I had got my story straight.
In the high resolution narrative, there are multiple contributory biological factors in our ancestors’ ability to survive the transition from inhabiting the tropical forest to the savannah. In fact, there are probably somewhere between a half dozen to a dozen factors which are deemed critical to this success and thus, our survival as a species. In the low resolution narrative, I have a tendency to use one key example – that of our ability to sweat - to simplify the delivery and make a key point.
To support this example, as most people haven’t heard of a kudu (a kind of antelope inhabiting the savannah), I ask the audience to consider what happens when they take their pet dog or a horse out for a run on a hot day. The explanation is that their inability to sweat as a method of heat regulation offered us an advantage over other mammals. This provided our ancestors with a critical adaptation that enabled them to source food with the necessary high calorific content that ultimately fuelled (no pun intended) our rise from failed forest dweller to masters of all we survey.
However, as was rightly pointed out to me by workshop attendee Gill Fullen, horses certainly do sweat. Indeed, of course, horses sweat, as do dogs, and so the sound bite is factually incorrect. Gill’s comment therefore sent me scurrying back to my notes to work out why and how I had reduced the high resolution explanation to this simplified version.
It is not just our ability to sweat that is a key evolutionary advantage. It is our capacity to sweat more than other mammals that is significant here. We share apocrine sweat glands with our mammalian cousins, which form their prime effective sweating apparatus, however humans also have an abundance of eccrine sweat glands (between 5 and 10 million) that cover our body, particularly in the palms of the hands, the soles of the feet and the head, that provide the prime cooling system for humans.
As a result, we are able to secrete more than a litre of liquid an hour which evaporates from the surface of the skin cooling the blood beneath, and the body as a result. In contrast, not only does a horse lack the volume of sweat glands, it is also covered in a fur coat which, whilst reflecting solar radiation, stops the air from circulating and prevents the sweat from evaporating. To supplement the cooling system, in extreme conditions, animals such as horses pant to increase evaporative cooling. However, one of the additional evolutionary advantages that comes from bipedalism, is that we have an adaptive breathing system that allows us to breath independently of our walking or running cadence. Equally critical for our survival, is that our endurance running pace forced our prey to increase its pace from a sustainable trot, to an energetic gallop. At a gallop, quadrupeds such as antelope and wildebeest (and horses) are easily able to outrun us. However, they are only able to take one breath per leg cycle and thus, whilst galloping, are unable to pant, the process of taking short, sharp, shallow breaths.
This limitation comes from the movement of the internal organs against the diaphragm in accordance with the rhythmic timing of the animal’s gait. Thus, whilst galloping, the animal must synchronise the breath with each stride, an insufficient process to enable both breathing and cooling to effectively take place. To complete the story, all our ancestors had to do was to track the chosen (probably the largest) animal in the midday heat, ensuring that it never had sufficient time to cool, thus forcing its body temperature to a critical level when the animal would collapse.
For those who wish to learn more, the primary source for this theory is:
Bramble, D. M., Jenkins Jr. F. A. (1993). Mammalian locomotor-respiratory integration: Implications for diaphragmatic and pulmonary design. Science, 262: 235-40.
For the low resolution narrative, I would urge you all to read The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, health & disease by Daniel Lieberman. It’s a thoroughly absorbing book.
Slightly closer to home, we have had an excellent month with athlete successes at the Powerman Zofingen ITU World Long Distance Duathlon Championships, taking Applied Triathlon Coaching’s overall medal tally to 30 medals in multisport competition! Additionally, our regular marathon runner Deb Self successfully completed the slightly longer 112 mile challenge that is the Rat Race Coast to Coast. The photos from this event are simply stunning! Well done to all.
We are now heavily engaged in planning for next year and would like to welcome those athletes who have recently joined our ranks. This is always an exciting time for us as we get to know your objectives and ambitions and learn to work with you. Please note however that we are heading to the Lake District for our annual week-long retreat this weekend and therefore will be preparing training plans to see you through this period. Although we will have internet access, the connection can be slow so please do call if you need any assistance.
Happy training in these beautiful early autumn days.
Invoices are on the way.
All of a sudden the greater part of the summer is behind us and, bar a few hardy souls now tapering for Coast to Coast, Powerman Zofingen, the Brutal, the Multisport Festival in Ibiza, or those final club races, this is now the time for what was historically termed the transition period. I write historically, simply because the word has obviously taken on a whole new meaning with the advent of multisport. However, this minor confusion aside, the transition period remains an important aspect of any annual periodisation plan.
The transition period is essentially a recovery period that allows the athlete to recharge the batteries. This period can sometimes be a shortened break to allow a brief recovery phase in the midst of a double (or triple) periodised plan, between races, readying the athlete for the next preparatory phase of training. Or, more traditionally, the transition period is a 4 to 6 week full, but active, recovery linked to the next annual periodised plan.
I could try and write something from memory, or rather, from my own interpretation of transition in its practical coaching application. However, it is far easier to directly quote Tudor Bompa, who is regarded as the father of all things periodisation: “After long periods of preparation, hard work, stressful competitions, in which both physiological and psychological fatigue can accumulate, a transition period should be used to link annual training plans or [the] preparation for another major competition, as in the case of [multiple] periodised plans.”
The training during the transition period should be low key with a reduction in all loading factors – intensity and volume, technical and tactical – with allowances for general training only. The objective is to allow for the facilitation of psychological rest, relaxation and biological regeneration. Failure to allow for a full recovery before embarking on a further periodised plan is likely to impair performance in future training cycles whilst also increasing the risk of injury.
However, this phase of training requires a similar level of consideration to every other week within a training cycle. If nothing else, this is to ensure the avoidance of the most common mistake of the transition period – that of the athlete allowing the training to come to a complete standstill. Any abrupt interruption of training will lead to a significant detraining effect resulting in a “substantial loss in the physiological adaptations established in the previous months of training”.
For endurance athletes, short term detraining can result in a substantial reduction in both time to exhaustion and overall endurance performance. “Maximal aerobic capacity can be reduced by 4% in as little as four days of detraining, by 7% [within] three weeks and by 14% in as little as four weeks of inactivity.” Similar reductions in output occur with physiological markers of power and strength also. The initial phase of the next training will therefore be required to regain this lost ground before further progression of athlete performance can be sought.
Recovery from injury aside, active recovery is therefore preferable to ensure that athletes continue to engage the bioenergetic characteristics of the sport being trained for. Training should be low key with volumes and levels of intensity set to be approximately 40 – 50% of those achieved during the peak periods of the competitive phase. Additionally, with the ever increasing range of events that athletes need to prepare for and thus the need for athletes to be up to speed earlier and earlier every season, there is a serious call to start back onto full training without allowing for the full 4 – 6 week period. Thus, the transition phase, particularly for those with early season qualification races, is often reduced by at least two weeks. This allows for an early reintroduction in particular of form drills and skill redevelopment before embarking on the first phase of the next annual periodised plan. The progression should be carefully considered, however, with a carefully crafted, gradual rebuild in volume and intensity.
This is also the ideal time for athletes and coaches to review the progress made in the previous 12 months and begin to plan for the next. Additionally, the end of the transition period is the ideal time for the athlete to re assess current performance levels through physiological assessments to set the benchmarks for the forthcoming training. We are currently busy scheduling for this important task with both our long term athletes as well as those who are coming on board in preparation for the 2019 season.
With the increased numbers of athletes passing through the Depot requiring assessment and testing, particularly bike lactate testing and running video analysis, we are delighted to announce that we have moved! We are now to be found about 20 feet from our previous location, still in Building 86 at the Royal Ordnance Depot in Weedon but now in the main building on the left. The additional space will hopefully allow more opportunity for coaching, with additional services to come on board in the next few weeks and months. Please keep an eye on the website or Facebook for further details or email to make a booking.
I am heading off to the 2018 ITU Powerman Long Distance World Championships in the morning and then to the Duathlon Hub Peak District weekend to present both a Natural Running Form workshop and an introduction to Team GB Age-Group racing. Busy times before we head to the Lake District at the end of September for our own transition period.
Keep up the hard work please, unless your own transition period has already started, in which case, please enjoy a little active down time before we begin the training full on once more!
There is one month in each year that we await with bated breath and this year it was July. Despite having the European Sprint Triathlon Championships in Glasgow still to come in August and the World Long Distance Duathlon Championships in Zofingen in September, plus a multitude of other competitions, July saw the culmination of a year of hard work for many Applied Tri athletes.
A big challenge for many in July was Ironman Bolton. Whilst we have probably had the best weather for long distance training in recent memory (if you think long bike rides in the heat is bad, you should try them in the rain!), this brought unusual problems to the race venue. The fires on Rivington Moor were very sad to witness and the race organiser did well to re-route the bike course at short notice. Equally, the triathletes did well to take these last-minute course adjustments in their stride and to cope with the extreme weather conditions. Well done to not only the Applied Tri athletes taking part, several completing an Ironman for the first time, but to all.
July also saw a first visit for many to Estonia. I had the honour to be asked to team manage the Team GB AG Standard distance triathlon team at the European Championships in Tartu and what a fantastic event we had. Despite some logistical issues, the event location and administration was top drawer. The compact site allowed athletes to not only enjoy their own race, but to witness some excellent racing from the para athletes, juniors and the elites too. Once again, Applied Tri athletes acquitted themselves very well, representing two of the many nations who were racing.
Top of the bill in July, however, was the World Duathlon Championships in Fyn, Denmark. The Multisport festival over the course of a week was always going to be a real treat of racing with Applied Tri athletes competing in most of the events that took place. It has been several years since I took part in a race at such a high level of competition, and I really miss the adrenaline that such close fought championships serve up. Our best performance in Fyn, was a fabulous 5th place in the ladies 35 – 39 Sprint Duathlon by Helen Sahgal. Despite having the now 9 time world champion Kirsten Sass in her category, Helen beat her on the opening run and matched her on the second run, only sadly losing out on the bike. This great performance provides Helen with automatic qualification for the 2019 World Duathlon in Pontevedra, Spain and has inspired me to dust off my bike and get fit for the qualifier in Bedford in the autumn and return to the fray!
Thankfully, we are not going cold turkey after all these exciting performances and I am fortunate to be packing my bags in a couple of days to watch yet more Applied Tri athletes in action in Glasgow. As soon as this event is complete, we will begin to turn our attention to Powerman Zofingen and assisting athletes in the final preparations for the autumn races. We have much work still to do with marathons, the Brutal Tri and Brutal Du, autumn duathlon qualifiers, autumn duathlon weekend in the Peaks, Natural Running Form workshops, athlete testing and analysis, coach education and, just occasionally, some training of our own.
Please keep up the hard work and keep the great results coming!
In the same way that May Week is now in June, our recent monthly newsletters are making their appearance in what could technically be described as a month late, even though effectively they have just tripped the calendar by a day. And so, we therefore find ourselves in July with half the year now behind us and, for many athletes, crunch time is the weeks now ahead. The events are coming thick and fast with the world duathlon championships, the European standard triathlon championships and Ironman Bolton all taking place in July.
Whilst this is therefore no time for some athletes to be making substantial changes in their exercise regimes, we have received several questions of late concerning nutrition and, in particular, from athletes seeking guidance on how to set themselves up for the day. Therefore, Sarah has therefore given this some thought and presents her case for breakfast.
‘Breakfast cereal’ has become a modern paradox. There is now so much evidence for the benefits of eating a substantial and low GI meal at the start of the day and yet food manufacturers continue to market refined carbohydrate as the ideal breakfast. (GI = glycaemic index; a ranking of foods based on their immediate effect on blood sugar levels).
The idea of eating grains for breakfast dates back to the late 19th century when food reformers called for a cut back on excessive meat consumption, and explored vegetarian alternatives. Corn, oats and wheat were cheap to grow and methods were gradually found to make these grains palatable, with a certain amount of cooking involved.
With advances in food processing in the 20th century – hulling, rolling, puffing – breakfast cereals, which could now be eaten without cooking, became big business. The more sophisticated processing increased the shelf life of the cereal, but also robbed the grains of their nutritional value. The bran and germ were refined out – at the time, these were thought to interfere with digestion and nutrient absorption – but this process also removed important nutrients such as vitamin B and iron. To improve the flavour, sugar was added.
Nowadays, breakfast cereals are likely to be fortified with minerals and vitamins in an attempt to boost their nutrient value, but many are still the result of over-refined grains, and so don’t provide much in the way of fibre and tend to be relatively high GI.
Eating breakfast early in the morning kick-starts your metabolism, the energy production process, and starts fuelling for your muscles and brain. You should feel more alert following this first meal of the day and, by making it a substantial and low GI meal, you should feel more satiated for longer and avoid possible blood sugar and insulin spikes following your next meal.
Previous research has also shown that the thermic effect of food (calories burned due to digestion) is lower in the evening than in the morning, possibly due to slower emptying of the stomach. A review of this and related research has led to the creation of the Big Breakfast Study, funded by the Medical Research Council. Among other objectives, the study aims to assess the impact of meal times on the body’s energy expenditure processes. The outcomes will contribute to improved nutritional guidelines, based on optimising the timing of calorie consumption. The study will measure the effect of meal times on body weight, as well as blood pressure, blood glucose, insulin and cholesterol levels, and appetite.
I haven’t yet found out when this study is due to conclude but I’ll keep an eye on it and keep you posted.
In the meantime, I’d like to encourage you to do your own research. The cereal manufacturers have conditioned us into thinking that the first meal of the day must be based on refined grains, but why is this when, at other times of the day, we are more inclined to eat balanced meals containing a protein source such as meat or fish, vegetables and complex carbs. I want to challenge that thinking and ask you, would you eat casserole for breakfast? Or rice? Or salad? Put your social conditioning to one side for a while and consider what a substantial and low GI breakfast could look like. By front-loading your day (consuming most of your calories in the morning), you will also be less reliant on your evening meal for refuelling. Especially for those of you doing the bulk of your training in the evenings, this is surely worth a try.
As with any aspect of your training regime, please make sure you introduce changes gradually; radically changing your eating habits can risk gastric discomfort. But if you decide to give it a go, please let me know how you get on.
A final word on breakfast cereals – there is still a place for some of these in your food cupboard. Those made without added sugar such as Weetabix or Branflakes, when served with milk, make a nutritious snack or small pre-exercise meal when time is tight.
For more information on the Big Breakfast Study read https://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2018/06/19/do-meal-timings-matter/
Food for thought, as ever. It may also be speaking the obvious, however, please also give some thought to your hydration strategy at present. This is important, not only for racing but also before, during and after your training sessions. The more effective your hydration strategy, the more effective your training sessions will be and the sooner you will be able to recover and get out on your next session.
As the numbers of coached and tested athletes at Applied Triathlon has increased, the range of experience of athlete has broadened. Therefore, we increasingly find ourselves trying to ascertain the most effective way of both establishing the most appropriate training for this widening range of individuals as well as redefining our justifications and explanations for delivering that training. Where running form is concerned, however, we keep going full circle. No matter how much we explore the current academic literature and coach education guidance, we become more concerned by the inconsistencies we find. Of course, we continue to make revisions to our coaching model as we discover more about this complex subject, and continuous learning certainly takes place. However, the more we read and observe, the more confident we become that our approach to Natural Running Form is heading in the right direction.
Running is often considered to be simple activity – what Olympian Ron Clarke once described as putting one foot in front of the other and repeat. It is generally understood that those with the best running genes who train the hardest are most likely to win. However, running can almost certainly be described as a skill and this means that there must be a right or most effective way to do it. Running is however a skill that is rarely effectively taught.
All runners have stylistic differences - coach education confirms this - but it is the similarities which are important. On closer inspection the best runners pretty much all do the same thing – foot contact, stance, toe off - with less able runners completing the same process but less efficiency and less effectively. Good runners are graceful; their running looks effortless and they (nearly) always look like good runners. Ancient Greek paintings of runners display a similarity of running form whether depicting fast or slow running which is very similar to how Mo Farah runs. There is an accepted link between consistency of training and performance but is there a link between consistency of form and consistency of training?
Conversely, less efficient runners look like poor runners and their running form often differs according to their running pace. Despite the development of modern running shoes, improvements in coach education (both in content and methodology) and increased scientific understanding, injury rates remain consistent across the endurance running community. Some of these injuries can be associated with differing form and therefore, is there a link with inconsistent form and increased risk of injury?
There are contradictory view points on what constitutes good running form, with opinion varying from “running style [being] ordained at birth” through to “stature and development” and thus currently there is no accepted (academic or coach) model of running that depicts good form. This lack of a model has resulted in the force production concept of running remaining in vogue in coach education for the development of endurance athletes. In simple terms, force is applied beneath and behind the runner to create propulsion. This application of force comes at the price of greater ground reaction forces however, and therefore modern running shoes are provided with appropriate cushioning to reduce the effect this has on the runner. This good intention of the added protection in the cushioned running shoe has however produced unintended consequences. It has restricted sensory feedback, increased muscular atrophy of the key running muscles and enabled maladapted people to allow running with a heel striking action. The increased impact transient as a result of heel striking is known to be a contributory factor in running injuries. Combined with the modern lifestyle, the modern running shoe has allowed us to exceed our biomechanical capabilities in the search of running increased distances and intensities.
The recent barefoot running trend (better described as the re emergence of the minimalist running shoe) was borne out of identifying the need to reduce the risk of injury for endurance runners. However, the trend is now pretty much gone, without establishing a legacy worthy of the initial noise it briefly made within the running community. Efforts by authors of such work as Running Form (Danny Abshire), Chi Running (Danny Dreyer) and The Pose Method (Dr. Nicholas Romanov), with additional research by evolutionary biologist Professor Daniel Lieberman, established a plausible case but this was perhaps undermined by academic researchers not finding sufficient supporting evidence for the barefoot concept within the laboratory.
It could be more strongly argued however that the failing of this movement was more in the inability of coaches and athletes to translate the drills and movements successfully into their everyday running without compromising their current level of performance. Or indeed risking injury, which was counter-productive to the initial objective of runners changing running form, especially by those who forced the pace of transition. Such impact as remains has probably been to encourage athletes and coaches to focus a little more on running form in training as opposed to outright performance, but it has been unclear which of the drills are appropriate for whom and how these drills are to be integrated into the actual process of running.
Lieberman states that it is becoming increasingly more certain that western society is suffering from two modern afflictions: a surfeit of highly calorific, readily available foodstuff and [leading] an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. For long-term well being, this is proving to be a deadly combination. Running remains the most easily accessible and potentially effective antidote to both. However, the misunderstanding of appropriate drills leading to the misguided coaching of running is not only unlikely to effectively support those who currently run, but is also unlikely to encourage those who really need to participate in this most natural of activities.
Therefore, we shall continue to try to understand which drills work and why and to offer an easy to follow, safe and appropriate model of running for our athletes and non athletes to follow. In time, with further understanding, there is no reason why running cannot be considered comparable to other skills. Runners could be taught to effectively tune into the process and learn to consciously control running until the new form becomes a part of the subconscious.
Here endeth the sermon for today! In other news, Applied Triathlon is now a Triathlon England registered triathlon club and all coached athletes can consider themselves to be club members. To take full advantage of this, please join Triathlon England as an individual member and annotate Applied Triathlon as your club.
We have events a plenty on the horizon, lots more athlete testing and analysis to complete and our Monday swim slot at Woodgreen Leisure open air 50m pool to look forward to! Please keep up the good training guys!
Well, what a month this has been. Sadly, in most cases, we have not been able to put all the hard work in training into practice this month due to the weather which has resulted in multiple race postponements. In duathlon in particular, we are used to the weather interfering with races, but I do not recall an occasion when so many events have been cancelled or postponed. Not only does this cause problems for scheduling the re arranged events, we lose out on the opportunity of proving the effectiveness of the winter training. All is not lost however, as you have all worked very hard to ensure that you have maintained your training wherever possible. Training indoors may not always be as effective as getting outside but I am confident that many of your fellow competitors have simply been striking through their training with another missed session and so I am very pleased that you have all continued to stick with it despite the conditions.
That said, we have seen some strong racing performances this month both before the weather deteriorated and yesterday at the National Duathlon Championships. Progress has been made across the board and, the training data has supported the potential for improved performance where athletes haven’t been able to race. Therefore, we must push on and realign the training for the next set of objectives and rely on the training data assuming that this would have translated into improved performances in every case.
What then still awaits us this year? Next up are the early season marathons with athletes running at both London and Manchester – good luck guys! Then the focus switches to the European Middle Distance Duathlon championships followed a few weeks later by the World Standard and Sprint Distance races, both events being held in Denmark. During this period, I will continue to run bike lactate testing from the clinic at Weedon and will be leading bike recces over the UK Ironman course at Bolton for those who are targeting this as their main event this year. For those aiming to race in the triathlons at Tartu and Glasgow in July and August (or Bolton) or trying to qualify for next year’s triathlons, I have now confirmed the booking at the 50m heated, open air pool in Banbury on Monday evenings. This session is available to all levels of swimmers with an emphasis on stroke improvement initially, followed by conditioning later in the season. There may be the opportunity for video analysis, but this is still being negotiated at present. For those awaiting a swim video analysis session at Tiddenfoot, this has been penciled in for Saturday 14th April. Any takers for either sessions should contact me soonest, please.
For the Long Distance Duathlon team, the first round of qualification has now been completed - congratulations to all. Please note that the next cut off for discounted race entry is in a few days’ time. Please don’t miss out! I will soon be trying to get confirmation of the second run course from the race organiser for this year so that we can prepare the appropriate training. The last-minute changes last year certainly affected performances across the board! More news on this will therefore follow.
A much less controversial newsletter this month and I will have to postpone the answer to the question received a couple of weeks ago as to why we test for lactate threshold and turn points rather than VO2. There is a short answer to this question, however, I would rather explain it in more length in my response. What spare time we currently have has been taken up with both coaching and reviewing my work on Natural Running Form. We continue to operate a programme of continuous improvement on all the work we undertake and I have recently returned to the topic of running form to both improve the quality of our analysis as well as improve the clarity of the reporting. The ultimate objective is to not only report on what we discover on each individual athlete within our analysis, but also to produce a visual model of what we perceive good running form to be. This is no small task and is certainly proving to be one of the most challenging and yet exciting tasks we have undertaken. It will certainly save me from having to do some of my own training for a while and so I will have to continue to train vicariously through all your efforts!
Please keep up the hard work.
Coaching News February
I had intended to write about other matters this month, however, I received a lot of feedback including some questions on last month’s musings (https://naturalrunningform.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/coaching-news-january/), and therefore I have decided to respond to this first.
I am reliably informed that the rats chosen for the experiments were young and male and the main question raised last month was whether the outcome would be the same had the rats been female. Sadly, I simply do not know. As yet, I haven’t had the wherewithal to track down any specific research (of which there is an awful lot with whole journals assigned to the subject) and in truth, I am not a fan of laboratory-based research on mammals. Rodents they may well be, but rodents form over half of the world’s mammal types, and over 100 million mammals are used in laboratory testing every year. This fact always leaves me feeling just slightly queasy.
My guess is that the result would be different with female rats. Exactly what form this difference would take, I do not know, but I do know that this answer exposes me to the risk of being accused of applying stereotypical beliefs to these complex biological and social interactions. In today’s politically correct climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to discuss differences between the sexes.
More here: https://naturalrunningform.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/coaching-news-february/
Coaching News – January 2018
My Facebook feed has been momentarily lit up by a podcast of an interview with a retired coach of elite athletes in the still small community of triathlon. The principal topic, according to the title, is developing running speed but, as yet, I haven’t found the time to listen to what this coach has to say. It’s not that I don't think that I can learn from his experience – although I note that despite his success, athletes in his charge have succumbed to more than their fair share of injuries – but I am disappointed that he waited until retirement before allowing others to share in his coaching methodology.
More to be found here:https://naturalrunningform.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/coaching-news-january/
We have confirmed the availability of our preferred chateaux at St Michel de Vax and can therefore provide a reduced price for early bird bookings for triathletes and duathletes seeking the edge in performance for next year. Based on either 4 males or 4 females securing a booking with a £300 deposit each, £995 per person provides 6 nights accommodation (double room each), 7 x self service breakfast all food supplied with fixings for packed lunch, 5 x evening meals with wine (the schedule allows for a self-funded meal out), airport transfers, transport to venues and pools, fully coached training sessions including swim video analysis, bike lactate testing and running form analysis. Not included = flights, 1 supper at restaurant 9transport provided), personal insurance, money for coffee stops and lunches. Dates flexible, please contact us for more details.
A new 'ladies only' triathlon training camp opportunity is available at our location in the Midi-Pyrenees from 22-29 October. All inclusive from touchdown to take off (including vegan option) with swim video analysis, bike lactate testing and run video analysis. Just pitch up and play to make the most of this outstanding training area. Designed for mixed ability. More details http://www.appliedtri.co.uk/training-camps/ or please drop me a PM. NB. Two dates including 4 day and 7 days training camps are currently being scheduled for 30 March - 13th April. Please register your interest with us.
Applied Triathlon Coaching athlete Ian Hanson started his 20:20 challenge today - that's 20 Standard Distance triathlons (1,500m swim, 40km bike, 10km run) in 20 days to celebrate 20 years since his successful remission from cancer and to raise funds for Stoke mandeville Hospital. you can donate to this excellent cause here: https://make-a-donation.org/fundraisers/ian-hanson
Despite some early sesaon setbacks with her running, Vikki's super smooth swim and super strong bike was enough to claim 3rd place at Eton Dorney Sprint triathlon resulting in qualification for the World Sprint Triathlon Champs in Rotterdam in September. Next up... the european Champs in kitzbuhel in June.
We are delighted to be joining forces with Britta Sorensen MPhil for our 2017 Triathlon training camps in Midi-Pyrenees. I met Britta at Loughborough University and we quickly developed a good working relationship and identfied our shared love of triathlon and all things endurance. Britta is currently mapping out bike routes and testing the swim facilities in france and sneaking in some extra training before our arrival next week!
A belated link to the February edition of Coaching News
Possibly the most comprehensive triathlon training camp is now available to you in March. Have your swimming analysed through video technology, complete a lactate test on the bike to establish appropriate training zones and learn the benefits of Natural Running Form to help set you p for your best season yet. Please contact us soonest for details.
Despite the challenging conditions, it was great to see Jo again and to assess how much her running has improved since she attended an LBTri Natural Running Form Group workshop. in between reading her book, the rather excellent Water Under the Bridge, I am now working on her analysis report and revised feedback with exercises and drills.
Vikki Voysey spent two half days with us specifically to work on her cycling and to assess her progress developing her running form. After a 20km test ride over the Big-Cow cycle route, she then rode 5 repetitions of Chicheley Hill working on varying cadences to help optimise her hill climbing cadence. Despite very difficult conditions - cold, wind and rain - we have some excellent early season data to progress her training for this season. Some quick video analysis confirmed that her running form has indeed improved and this was qualified further after a visit to Hannah Watkinson at Frontline Podiatry. Vikki closed a tough few hours of training with two climbs of Bison Hill.
We have just announced our inaugural training camp to be held in March 2017 in France.
Find out more about training camps.