Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The Incredible Aluminium Runner

In my quest to become a better runner I have to face reality.

I am no “Iron-Man”.

And at 42 I am definitely not a “Man of Steel”.

But I think I might just be an “Aluminium Hero”.

A story about Alcoa Inc., the third largest aluminium producer in the world, might just hold the key as to how we can all become better runners, running longer and faster way into our old age.
Like running, aluminium production is nearly always beset with injuries, many people almost view aluminum work related injuries as a necessary evil. It’s similar to the way runners talk about impact injuries, shin splints and runner’s knee as an unfortunate side effect of training.

In 1987 Paul O’Neill became the CEO of Alcoa. When he took over he didn’t talk about profits and shareholder dividends and the type of things a CEO normally talks about. Instead he talked about safety and how safety was going to be his number one priority.

Of course everyone thought he was insane and the share price of Alcoa immediately dropped.

But it turns out that the best way to create a safer work environment is to make sure workers do the right thing every single time. And of course, if you do it right every single time, if you create the right procedures, then not only is it safer, it's also more efficient. Very quickly after O’Neill took over Alcoa was producing better quality aluminium, for less, with happier injury free workers. Oh and the share price quickly exceeded what it had been when he took over.

All too often as runners we view injury prevention; stretches, ice baths and recovery days etc. the same way many CEO’s view worker safety – an annoying add on that we’d prefer to forget if we could. All too often a runner’s primary focus is on achieving that new Personal Best time (PB) or to run longer than we’ve run before (the CEO’s profits and share price).

But what the story of Alcoa clearly demonstrates is if you put safety at the very centre of what you do you achieve all your goals.

A well stretched, healthier and rested body will be able to run faster than muscles and tendons on the constant brink of injury. Like Paul O’Neill prioritise safety and everything else will fall into place.

As far as I am aware there is no superhero named after aluminum but from now on all readers of this blog should feel free to call me the “Amazing Aluminium-Man” – putting safety first.

(The picture today is pretty self explanatory)

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Do You Run Or Do You Race?

About a year ago I ran my first 10km race – “The Cumbernauld 10k” - just outside Glasgow.
I was running as fast as I could, trying to pace myself and aiming for a sub 40 minute time. About midway through the run I felt someone running quite close behind me.  With two kilometres to go the race entered a park area where the path narrowed to single file running. I could feel myself tiring and the other runner was now right on my shoulder. Thinking I was actually getting in his way I motioned for him to pass me, but he just stayed behind me. 
With one kilometre to go I could literally feel his breath on my neck and I knew I was slowing down. I thought to myself; “I’m stopping this guy from getting the best time he could get” so I turned around and said “you can overtake me” and deliberately ran on one side of the narrow path to make room for him, but he just kept running behind me. 
Then with a few hundred meters to go he shifted his running up a gear, overtook me and seemed to sprint to the finish line. 
I realised later; I was “running” and he was “racing”.
Most of us runners when we enter races - from 5k’s to ultra-marathons - are not actually “racing”, we are “running”. We are running the best we can run, we are running to get a new Personal Best time (PB), we are running to complete a marathon for the first time, we are running to enjoy the personal challenge, we are running to lose weight. In fact there are any number of reasons to run. 
What we are not doing is “racing”.
Ask most people where they came in a race and they don’t have a clue (27th or 127th?). We are running “in parallel” with the people that are running with us, we are not running “against them”. When you are a “runner” you are not trying to beat your fellow runners, for non-runners this might seem a little strange but we are not actually racing them.
The man running behind me for most of the Cumbernauld 10k was “racing” me, he wanted to beat me. As a “runner” and not a “racer” I had completely missed the point. Offering him the opportunity to overtake me was as strange to him as it would have been to Ibrahim Jeilan if Mo Farrah made a similar offer at the recent 10k World Championships (for those who don’t know Mo and Jeilan are arch rivals).
I only realised this difference between “running” and “racing” last week when for the first time I crossed the Rubicon and became a “racer”. Again it was at another 10k race – this time the RunThroughBrixton 10k. I entered the 10k as a runner but after one kilometre I found myself in third place, and at that point I became a “racer”. Where I came in the race mattered to me and as it was quite a hilly course I realised a PB was out of the question. 
The race was on! 
Throughout the race I knew how many people were in front of me and I occasionally looked behind me to see how close the next runner was to me.
In the end I came forth. 
Since I started taking running seriously a few years ago it continues to surprise me and teach me new things about myself. I had not raced since I was 15 and had not taken part in any competitive sport for over twenty years. The experience of competing when I was younger (both winning and losing) taught me valuable life lessons. Now as an adult entering mid-life I wonder what lessons it will hold in store for me.
(The picture today is of Mo Farah "racing" in many ways the opposite of "running"). 

Monday, 12 August 2013

Religion For Runners

Sometimes I run well sometimes I don’t.

Sometimes I push myself really hard and at the end I look at my GPS watch and find out that I’ve gone slower than average.

Sometimes I seem to be able to run with completely ease and clock a new Personal Best time.

Sometimes my running feels great.

Sometimes my running feels terrible.

There often doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason. Frustratingly the good runs seem to appear as randomly as the bad runs. I try and decipher patterns and causality.

What did I eat the night before? - or - What did I eat in the morning?

Have I been getting enough sleep? - or - Have I been getting too much sleep?

Have I been running too much recently and fatigued my legs? - or - Have I not been running enough and I’m losing speed and endurance?

It is enough to drive a runner crazy.

And it's at the point that I just want to give up that I think it is useful for runners to turn to god for help. Or more precisely religion.

There is a beautiful book by the philosopher Alain de Botton called “Religion for Atheists”. The book explores some of the central ideas and institutions that have developed predominantly through Judeo-Christian thinking and how they are useful whether one is a believer, agnostic or “god forbid” an atheist.

One chapter titled “Perspective” is particularly pertinent to the dilemma of runners randomly experiencing good and bad runs. The chapter first outlines the Book of Job in the Old Testament. It is the story of a righteous man - Job - who starts off with a beautiful life and great wealth. In a single day he loses all his riches and his children. As if that’s not enough mysterious sores begin to cover his entire body making any movement painful.

Job’s friends try and figure out a cause for why this has happened to him. The friends suggest that Job must have done something very bad indeed because, as one friend puts it, “God does not reject a righteous man”.

Job knows he hasn’t sinned and admonishes God for afflicting him. Then Job goes even further and question God’s very existence - not the best thing to do in the Bible.

God finally answers Job with a series of questions:

"Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou has understanding...
By what way is the light parted, which scattereth the east wind upon the earth?...
Out of whose womb came the ice? and the hoary frost heaven... ? …
Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook... ?" (Job Chapter 38)

God’s answer to Job is meant to illustrate how little humans understand about the world, the limits to our understanding and instil in Job a sense of awe about the world around us.

Alain de Botton takes the story of Job and shows us that for millennia people have been struggling with the idea that bad things happen to good people (and often vice versa). Trying to reduce everything to a causal relationship will not help us and invariably flies in the face of our experiences. This is a lesson that religion teaches its followers but is often lost on us when we put on a pair of running shoes.

For me Job is the runner who has eaten right, who has done all the training, has tapered beautifully just before the marathon and then after months of preparation has run the worse race of their life. We’ve all been there and dare I say it for those of us who continue running it will happen to us again.

It's not just Judeo-Christian theology that has explored this problem. Islam has been able to distil this idea down to a single word: “Inshallah” (roughly translating as “God willing”). We can do the best training and preparation in the world but there will always be an unexplainable element that is out of our control. The believers might term this element "God's will" while atheists might call it "randomness". But for either group learning to accept it is one of life's hardest lessons.

So next time I run a bad race or find things not going my way in training instead of getting depressed I might just reacquaint myself with the Book of Job or at the very least console myself with the one bit of Arabic I know:

"I will run a PB Inshallah"   

(This blog post is for my friend @richardvadon who asked me on twitter “Why on some days do I run well and some days I’m awful?” Oh and the picture today is of me and my sister-in-law Lucy. We’d both just run a 10k race but Lucy ran a PB and my time was a full minute slower than my PB - I have no explanation why)  

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

How To Cheat Your Way To A New Personal Best

Recently the issue of drugs in sport has been making headlines with several of the world’s top sprinters being found guilty of illegal doping. First American Tyson Gay, the joint-second fastest man ever over 100m, was told by the US Anti-Doping Agency that his A sample from an out-of-competition test in May was positive. Then Asafa Powell, the all-time fourth quickest 100m runner, tested positive for a banned stimulant at June's Jamaican Championships. Fellow Jamaican Sherone Simpson failed a drug test at the same event. All of this comes in the wake of Olympic champion Veronica Campbell-Brown testing positive for a diuretic (which are banned because they can be used to “flush out” banned drugs).
All of this has got me thinking whether, as a simple amateur keen runner, what kind of effect these drugs might have on my ambitions to get a new Personal Best time (PB). Now, before you throw your hands up in the air and call me a cheat or think I’m advocating drugs in sport, hear me out… 
When one thinks of drugs in sport people usually think of something similar to the comic book character Asterix the Gaul and the magic potion he takes before fighting the Romans. For any Americans reading this blog unfamiliar with Asterix – think of Popeye eating spinach before beating up Bluto… We might realise that the banned drugs don’t give athletes instant physical strength like the cartoons do, but we often perceive it to be a difference in degree rather than kind.
The reality is, however, quite different. 
Precisely because performance enhancing drugs are banned, there is scant scientific evidence on whether the illegal drugs work and if so to what extent. It is very difficult for academics to get licenses to gather groups of elite sportsmen and women to take banned substances and measure their effects in a numerically significant way.  Not to mention that the sports people will worry about ruining their careers in the process.
But one theory of how some of the drugs might help athletes is increasingly gaining ground. Putting performance enhancing drugs to one side for a moment, a recent study in America of other types of non-banned drugs suggested that perhaps a third of medically approved drugs might be acting as placebos. Patients are actively helped, even “cured”, by taking the drugs, but the medicines are not actually interacting on them in any physiological way.
This finding has caused Fabrizio Benedetti and his colleagues at the University of Turin to wonder if the placebo effect might be important in sport too. The short answer is a resounding “yes”. Benedetti and his team gave a group of athletes pain killers to help increase their endurance (many pain killers are banned in sports precisely because of their effect on endurance). The team of scientists then substituted the real pain killers with a saline (placebo) solution but didn’t tell the participants. The results were striking. Those that thought they were taking pain killers were able to perform better!  

The placebo effect is not just limited to pain killers and endurance events. Studies done in the 1970's and more recently in 2011 found that atheletes who thought they were taking anabolic steroids also improved their performances. 
It goes without saying that when it comes to elite athletes where hundredths of a second can be the difference between a gold medal and no medal at all, the mental aspect of racing is critical. I know personally that how I am feeling emotionally just before a race often has far greater bearing on whether I achieve a PB than how I’m feeling physically.
In a few days I will be running a 10k and I would love to run a PB. Could the best way to achieve it be by taking a placebo even if it really has no effect on my body? Again the short answer is "yes"! According to Dr Mark Berdi it's not just fake drugs that can "trick" us into performing better, it can also be useless sports equipment or even unscientific nutritional supplements. We just need to believe they will give us an unfair advantage. 
But that poses its own philosophical question: 
Am I cheating if I believe I am cheating, even if I’m not?

(The picture today is of the jelly babies I often take on my long runs, now if I could jet convince myself that they were really anabolic steroids) 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Are Running Shops The New Record Shops?

At the back of my top desk drawer at home is a small badge (or a "button" if you're reading this in America). It's black and in small white letters is written "home is where the record player is". I used to be the definition of vinyl junkie and while the badge may have once been true if I were to buy a new badge I think it would now read "home is where my running shoes are".

A few hours ago I was in a running shop and it suddenly hit me:

Running shops are the new record shops.

For me, and I am pretty sure for thousands of men of my generation, running shops have taken the place of record shops in my life.

Here are a few of the parallels:

1.    When I was younger I used to find it hard to pass a record shop without going in. I would already know all the latest jazz, rap and R'n'B releases (that was my thing) but I'd still wander in "just to have a look around". Now I find it hard to pass a running shop without popping in "just to have a look around". I pick up Nike Flyknits, Adidas Adizeros and various other brands, turn them around in my hands feeling their weight and look at the price, even though I already know exactly how they feel and could tell you the price before even entering the shop. In the same way I used to spend hours flicking through record sleeves of records I already owned, pick them up and read the notes on the back - again half time I could recite the notes from heart before even entering the shop.

2.    I find a camaraderie with total strangers if they are in the running shop with me. I can spot a "real runner" and feel we have an unspoken bond. When I used to visit record shops I could see two people buying the same A Tribe Called Quest or Wynton Marsalis album. But instantly I just knew one was a rational person with a healthy relationship with music and the other was a fellow suffering addict! Now I see two people buying the same pair of Asics shoes and can tell if one is on their 5th marathon and the other is about just about to start their addiction (I often have to stop myself embracing the latter and declaring; "Welcome to my world, you will love it!")

3.    Just in my record buying days I now buy things to do with running I completely do not need by any objective or subjective criteria. The result of this is I currently have the following unnecessary running accoutrements:

·         Four sports iPhone armbands (one would suffice)
·         Three Nike running caps (for summer)
·         Three running skull caps (for winter)
·         Six pairs of winter funning tights
·         Too many running tops to count
·         Random running sports and running apps on my phone.
·         Back copies of running magazines I will never read again but still do not throw out.

This is by no means a definitive list but I am just too embarrassed to confess further.

Similarly I am far too embarrassed to list all the records I own but will never play. When did I ever think I was going to play the instrumental album of "Straight Out The Jungle" by The Jungle Brothers? And while some of Grover Washington Jr. earlier albums are great someone should have told me to draw the line at "Strawberry Moon"!

4.    Lastly, despite being relatively successful at my job and in other aspects of my life I find myself being deferential to shop assistants who are half my age and I suspect have run less than half the distances I have raced. But I tacitly seek their approval. The running shop worker - like the record shop worker before them - is like the village vicars of my religion, (the high priests are of course the elite runners and musicians themselves). In a two minute conversation about running socks I want to "prove" I know what I'm talking about and crave their approval. I have just one question for myself; "Why?!"

Normally when I write these blog posts I try and summarise what they really mean to me in the last sentence or two - the moral if you like. In this one I don't think there is any deep lesson or wisdom to impart.

I just felt compelled to write it as I suspect I am not unique and there is a whole generation of running men just like me.

So if you can identify with any of the above dont worry Im there for you.

(The picture today is of the Blackbyrds' album "Action" a rare example where my two addictions of running and Jazz collide).