March 2002

Coach's Column - (from Max) - What’s Gone Wrong?

VSN Leads . . . Your Editor has made space in recent years for several of us to air our views on how best to fit training schedules aimed at improving our PBs into busy working and even busier retired lives. After Paul, George and I have said [almost] all there is to say, the Opinion and Letters pages of Athletics Weekly these past 3 months have been positively bulging with the writings of coaches and runners – the former mainly of the Track variety, the latter Road and Cross-Country – extolling the exploits of those who carried the WAL, SCO and ENG flashes on their kit 20 to 40 years ago.

. . . AW Follows. In its issue of January 23rd under the title "Endurance Debate", Athletics Weekly first devotes two pages which detail the grim figures. Such as the 10th fastest for a marathon by a GBR man was 2:19:26 in 2001, 2:18:59 in 1970 ; for 10000m 29:10.98 now, 28:47.8 then ; for 800m 1:48.95 now, 1:49.0 then. That’s followed by a 2-page article by Julian Goater, winner of the National in 1981 by a record 2-minute margin, headlined "Don’t blame the athletes – we’ve got what we deserve".

By eliminating the top nine best performers, these figures show the strength in depth of GBR endurance running to be very similar to what it was 30 years ago. Disregarding the fact that the rest of the world has moved on to set WR times 3 to 5% faster in these events now than 30 years ago, it could be that we are about to see a renaissance of British domination of the front end of middle distance races. Equally it could be that, to use the old maxim, "if you keep doing what you did, you’ll keep getting what you got".

Several of the earlier writers had criticised runners for not training hard enough now, but Goater maintains that that is not all. "I accept that today’s athletes are training and racing as hard as they think they can, but many of them should be training harder". He continues "I don’t believe this would provide the complete answer. I believe that it is the basic psychology of most of today’s top British runners which is so different when compared with 20 years ago".

That’s in the same vein as was attributed to Zola Budd, now Pietersee, winner of the International X-country twice in the mid-1980s, i.e. "on race day, it’s 20% physical, 80% psychological". And to Juma Ikangaa, Tanzanian marathoner second in the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982 and in Boston in 1988, 1989 and 1990 who then went on to win the New York City race, who said "on race day the will to win is important, the will to train for the previous six months to win on race day is fundamental".

Goater then traces the rise of British distance runners in the 1980s to the example set by David Bedford, who, off 200 miles/week training, had famously won the 9-mile Southern Cross-Country Senior title in 1970 by 55 seconds before starting in the Junior 6-mile race 20 minutes later and winning that by over a minute. Goater doesn’t mention that Bedford never won a international Championship medal on the Track. In that closed arena he was the ideal pacemaker – like Paula Radcliffe is now for the little Africans – who equally famously finished 6th in the 1971 European 10000m after leading for 24 laps and then losing out to Juha Väätäinen’s 54 seconds last lap. Bedford said afterwards that he couldn’t run just one lap in 54s, let alone the 25th of 25 !

"It’s the System" cries Goater. Quoting Mike McLeod – AW, January 9th – he traces the problem back to schools "and a society which produces fat unfit kids raised on a diet of junk food", but he then goes on immediately to "but don’t blame the kids, there is an abundance of talent out there. It is our "system" which is destroying it. The Government, Sport England and UK Athletics could be doing so much more to tackle the problem".

THE GOVERNMENT, it seems, should "show more consistent commitment to producing a fit and healthy nation and could give the necessary leadership to redistribute some of football’s wealth to develop young people’s fitness and interest in all sports . . " ;

UK ATHLETICS should "take responsibility for the development of the sport in clubs and schools, instead of concentrating their resources on the elite and leaving schools and club volunteers to develop the sport using a variety of uncoordinated schemes . . " ;

SPORT ENGLAND should "be more than a tangled bureaucracy, seemingly content to exert power and control by making it so hard for the people who really need lottery money to actually get it . . . then we might make progress".

Goater concludes that "perhaps we need to take an urgent look at countries like Spain, France and Morocco, whose governments do appear to have the vision and the organisation to produce top level world performers, based on grass roots promotion of sport coupled with some serious coordinated investment". And finally, in what appears to be an afterthought to fill up the page, he adds "not just on facilities, but on coaches too!". Nice to think we're not forgotten entirely!

On Points of Detail, Goater is, to say the least, somewhat wide of the mark in his criticisms of "Them". In reverse order, I presume that his praise of the Spanish, French and Moroccan governments is based on results other than those achieved in Track & Field events in the 2000 Olympic Games, to do well in which, one might suppose, had been a major objective of every Minister of Sport in the world for the previous four years.

In Sydney, the GBR haul of medals was 2Gold/2Silver/2Bronze ; that of Spain one bronze in the women’s 20k Walk ; of France, a silver in the men’s wheelchair 1500m ; of Morocco, one silver – El Guerrouj’s in the 1500m – and three bronzes. Overall, though, with four Cycling golds France did well with 13G/14S/11B to GBR’s 11G/10S/7B. Spain, well, not so good : just 3G/3S/5B, a big let-down from Barcelona ’92. And Morocco, since you’re wondering, just one more Bronze to the T & F total to make it zeroG/1S/4B and in 58th place out of the 80 countries which went home from Sydney with at least one medal.

Part of the job of Sport England – as is that for its athletes of Sport Scotland, Sport Wales and Sport Northern Ireland, Julian – is to dispense the grants which the Lottery allocates to UK Sport. If Athletics were more telegenic, instead of being as boring and as incomprehensible to the many as is the whole Winter Games schedule bar Curling, then it wouldn’t need Lottery funding of athletes at all. Call it, pejoratively, a bureaucracy if you must, but there has to be some organisation for the dispensing of public money, one which is fair, free from corruption and whose staff were not born yesterday.

The position of UK Athletics is just as vulnerable as that of the athletes. If it didn’t, quote, "concentrate its resources on the elite" – i.e. those who bring home a hatful of medals from the Olympic Games– then it would rapidly lose what little support it gets from Central Government now. And to imply that UKA is not taking "responsibility for the development of the sport in clubs and schools" ignores the fact that it has invested an enormous amount of time and effort in setting up a new coaches’ support scheme which, in my opinion, is far better than the old BAAB one. But the fruits of it will be seen in five years time, not now.

And to suggest that "the government should redistribute some of football’s wealth to develop young people’s fitness and interest in all sports" is bizarre. One cannot imagine how tangled would the bureaucracy become which had to keep 28 Olympic sports, plus as many others besides, from getting their greedy snouts into that particular trough !

Times Have Changed. 1981, when he won the National, was the year when the name of Julian Goater went into the history books of Athletics. An event took place over 5000 miles away that same year, though, which changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of athletes in the past 20 years and will do so for many more to come, too.

Portland, Oregon, is famous in Athletics circles for two things. First, it was where Philip Hampson Knight, "Buck" to his friends, had acquired in 1967 a warehouse, "filled with dust, rodents and very little heat", to stock Tiger brand running shoes from Onitsuka – later to become Asics – made in Japan and which Knight was selling through a little company he had called Blue Ribbon Sports. He and Bill Bowerman, the celebrated University of Oregon Track coach, had set up BRS three years earlier, a week before Knight placed his first order for 300 pairs of Tigers at a cost of $1107, $3.69 a pair, which he had then sold for $6.95. A hefty mark-up, but that retail price was still $2 a pair below that of the long time market leader adidas. Blue Ribbon Sports was later to become better known as Nike. By 1981, its total annual revenue had grown to nearly $458million, not far short of that of adidas.

In another part of the forest then, world-class Track & Field athletes on whom Nike’s prosperity had been founded were still termed "amateurs" and woe betide those who were discovered – i.e. informed on – to be accepting folding money in brown envelopes. In my young days in the early 1950s, Birchfield’s Track stars were paid expenses and £5 in the back pocket to run in meetings outside Birmingham, but that was very small beer compared with adidas which, 10 years later, was said to be paying runners $1500 if they were wearing the three-striped shoes when they broke world records.

The Cascade Run Off of 1981. Gradually market forces became more and more powerful until there was a "defining moment" in Portland at the Cascade Run Off in June 1981. The 15km road race started and finished close to where Phil Knight’s former warehouse had been, which was very appropriate because Nike had donated $50,000 to the Race Director, Chuck Galford, specifically for prize money for the leading, hopefully Nike-shod athletes. Galford had had the backing of all the top runners of the time before he approached Nike, of course, because he would have had no race worth directing if all the so-called "amateurs" had boycotted it because of the "contamination" rule.

This put the IAAF in trouble, big trouble. On the one hand, Track & Field had been the centrepiece of the Olympics since 1896 and it had survived the scandals of earlier years which had seen Jim Thorpe stripped of his 1912 Decathlon gold medal and Paavo Nurmi barred from the 1932 Games for being professionals. Even Jesse Owens had been so branded by the US Team Manager within weeks of his 4-gold triumph in 1936 and he never ran in IAAF-authorised races ever again. That US official was the same right-wing Republican Avery Brundage who was to become the IOC President for 20 years from the early 1950s, during which time the IOC remained implacably opposed to the idea of professional sportspeople being allowed to take part in the Olympic Games.

On the IAAF’s other flank, however, was the example set by the top tennis players. Tired of playing the game for the love of it while Wimbledon and the rest took and kept the money, they had interested the wealthy Texan brothers, Lamar and Bunker Hunt, in supporting a rival Circuit to be run by the players’ own Association of Tennis Professionals. It had worked. Wimbledon held out longer than Australia, France and the US – one year when all the top players were away, a Brit, Roger Taylor now our Davis Cup captain, actually got to the Men’s Final! – but the ATP won the day eventually.

The AAP Threat to the IAAF. There may not have been two billionaire brothers ready to support a breakaway Association of Athletics Professionals, but the IAAF was facing a graver threat. There were now two wealthy business corporations, adidas and Nike, who had everything to gain by raising the profile of Track & Field, via televised Track meets, to the point where their products, shoes particularly, would become fashion items worn by millions. The IAAF, on the other hand, would have no function left to it at all if an AAP were to take away its only real assets, the world-class athletes, and then to negotiate directly with the IOC for access to the Olympics. By the same token, the IOC’s whole future would be at risk if Track & Field were to boycott the Games.

It is an exaggeration to claim, as some athletes did at the time, that this road runners’ revolt at the Cascade Run Off started the fight against the forerunner of USATF, the Athletic Congress TAC, and the IAAF. In fact their leaders had been in discussions on the shamateur issue for years, but, as I have outlined, there was more to it than the average elite road runner was aware of. At the very least, though, Nike’s $50k must have strengthened TAC’s hand in its negotiations with the IAAF and, in turn, the IAAF’s case with the IOC that "we can’t go on like this otherwise we’ll all be out of a job". So within a year it was agreed that, as the Americans had proposed, Trust Funds would be established into which athletes had to bank their winnings. One might say it was a sort of sham professionalism, but it broke the mould of the amateur-obsessed IOC for ever.

The Trust Fund was a staging post towards openly declared prize money. In 1988, I won £50 for being second M60 in the BVAF ½ marathon Championships and, true to the discredited tradition, it was actual folding money in a brown envelope ! We’re told that appearance money is paid now also. Next, bookmakers will be allowed back trackside !

So What? "Nice guys finish last" said the American baseball coach, Leo Dorocher, many years ago. That being the case, the guys who are the paid coaches of the guys who win the cash are not going to tell how they did it to the likes of the half million readers of Runner’s World or of the thousands of subscribers to Athletics Weekly, so that some would-be elite runners could beat them to the finish line in races, are they?

So it should come as no surprise that in all the recent articles and letters which AW has published on the subject, none has explained what the authors have meant by the "training harder" which "many of today’s athletes" should be doing. Apart from the implication that Britain is now so prosperous that today’s generation of children are not hungry enough, physically or psychologically, to succeed in competitive Athletics, there is no mention of what physical state of near-perfection of their athletes coaches should be aiming to achieve. Or why the training rotas they write will do just that, whatever it is.

The Fundamentals. The basic concepts governing athletic performance are very simple. Those on the start line who can generate the most energy per unit of time over the whole race distance and whose bodies use that energy most efficiently will be the ones most hard to beat to the finish line.

Energy is generated by the chemical reaction of fuels – carbohydrate and fat – in the muscles with oxygen, which has been extracted from air gulped into the lungs, absorbed into the blood and then pumped by the heart to those working muscles. The energy will be used only partly to propel the body forward : a large part of it, wasted in overcoming the friction between the moving parts of muscle and connecting tissues, ends up as a rise in body temperature (which must be reduced, by sweating, otherwise we would die).

These separate elements – fuel supply, oxygen supply, running efficiency – are the Basic Three. Get these wrong – too much can be as bad for you as too little – and you’ll not be in contention much beyond the first mile in a race of any great distance or consequence. Relative to them, everything else is of secondary consideration. But get them right and it’ll be those secondaries which will assume utmost importance in the last 0.21 mile of a 10k or the last 385 yards of a marathon. In Sydney 2000, for instance, Jon Brown finished 4th in the marathon and over a minute behind the gold medallist, but he was less than 1% adrift. Paula Radcliffe, swept aside into her 4th place in the last lap of the 10000m and head-rolling her weary way back down the straight when Derartu Tulu finished, was a tiny ½% slower than the winner.

Instead of the generalisations we are fed by the running mags, those in the active section of a Club need help in answering basic questions. Such as :

FUEL SUPPLY. We know, for the same amount of energy generated, that fat "burning" requires around 10% more oxygen than does carbohydrate and therefore that when the body still has ample supplies of both CHO and fat, the rate of oxygen supply to muscles is the primary limiting factor of racing speed. Bearing in mind, though, the percentage figures in the last section, is the extra oxygen required by fat 10%, 9% or 11%? We should be told.

Carbohydrate is said to produce 4 kilocalories of energy per gram, fat 9 kcal/g. To me, those sound and look like approximate figures for use by editors to save space. Indeed, one of my Exercise Physiology books – written by 3 American professors, for all I know eminent ones – first quotes 4.20 kcal/g for CHO and 9.45 kcal/g for fat, but then goes on to state that "Normally about 97% of carbohydrates and 95% of fats are digested and absorbed ... so the net kcal value is 4 for carbohydrates and 9 for fats". But, hey, world-class athletes are, by definition, abnormal. Perhaps those not-so-nice guys at the front have been taught how to digest 100% of the food they eat, a full 5% more than the "normal" volunteers in the professors’ labs? If so, we should be told how, too.

And there’s another thing which doesn’t add up. Well, multiply up. The Metric Martyrs selling bananas in pounds aren’t interested, of course, but in every pound there are 454 of what the rest of us know as grams. Nine times 454 makes 4086 of the little kcal beggars in a pound of fat, call it 4100, yet the March 2002 edition of Running Times, a US mag I get each month, says "Considering that a pound of fat provides 3500 kilocalories of energy . .". The kcal value of the raw fat, 9.45, times 454 is 4290 : that’s 22% more than 3500!! What’s going on here? We should be told.

OXYGEN SUPPLY. Blood is the basis of life, of its maintenance and also of athletic performance. It is very complex stuff, but for our purposes now it is basically a mixture of red cells and water. These cells are red because, just like some soils are red, they are rich in iron : the higher the iron concentration, the more the amount of oxygen each cell can carry. The weight of oxygen actually delivered to the muscles, however, depends on the volume of red cells pumped out by each stroke of the heart – i.e. on the size and elasticity of the heart itself and of the main arteries – the amount of water in the blood and, of course, the number of heart beats per minute.

There are many variables here. It is not at all clear what are the major controlling factors or what we as aspiring athletes should do to improve on what we have now. What can we change for the better – e.g. build a bigger heart and hence a higher stroke volume – by training methods (and what would be the most effective)? What can’t we change – e.g. the gradual hardening of the arteries because of ageing – but the ill effects of which we might slow down if we knew what to do or take? How come my heart rate was over 160 beats per minute by the halfway turnaround in the Dewsbury 10k when 220 minus my age is only 146? What had I done for my heart rate in a race to be 10% higher than the running mags and Polar say is its maximum? I should be told.

What should we avoid because it would result in a poorer performance, e.g. the thickening of our blood, either due to training too much "at altitude" in the Pyrenees, being injected with EPO or, much less expensively but just as catastrophically, overdoing weight-losing dehydration prior to a race. What about overhydration, due to drinking the sometimes recommended 3 litres a day, which would seriously reduce the volume of red cells, i.e. the amount of oxygen, each heart beat delivers? We should be told.

In 20 years of reading running magazines, I cannot remember a single questioning article on any of these topics.

RUNNING EFFICIENCY. I believe we can take as given that, unless it is stated to the contrary, published research on sports-related studies will have been carried out on volunteers who were not world-class athletes. This is not only because there won’t be enough of them to take part in the studies for the results to be significant, but also they would be neither ready nor willing to do so for the reasons I gave earlier.

I also noted that a large part of the energy we generate in our muscles is wasted in heating us up. The figure quoted for the energy cost of running is 100 kilocalories per mile for a 140lb person, with every 15 pounds, plus or minus, another 10kcals, but my experience in running 24-hour track ultras – and becoming severely hypoglycaemic in the process – can only be explained if my energy cost was nearer 120 kcals/mile than just over 90. Which may be because the elasticity of tendons and ligaments reduces with age, so more power than before is needed to stretch the connecting tissues. And if, even then, they don’t extend as far as they used to, both stride length and stride frequency will become less the older we are, it’s the simple multiplication of those two variables which determines speed, so the old run slower than the young. That’s another huge difference from "normal" which needs explaining so that we can cope with it.

And what is the ideal weight for a given height for a person who wants to run a good marathon? Is it the same for a 10k, or does the quicker race require a greater muscle bulk for us to be competitive? And, if so, how much more? We should be told.

Summary. The writers of articles in the running magazines are themselves receiving remuneration also as coaches of professional athletes, the size of whose bank balances depend on their not sharing their knowledge with other coaches or athletes. That’s called "a conflict of interest". It follows that we shall get little of value from their published advice or recommended schedules. There are so many variables that we cannot expect them to get it right for their own athletes very often – why so many different runners win Big City marathons, perhaps? – it’s impossible for them to get it right for us even if they were minded to do so. They cannot because they neither know us nor wish to know us.

So we’re on our own. If we’re interested in racing to PBs – be it only Age-Graded percentage ones now ! – what we need to do is to record diligently how we trained, what our physical condition was at the time and, based on comparisons with previous training days and times, plan to run the next race accordingly. And, because we can learn about racing well only by attempting to race well, we shall learn the more rapidly the more races we run. That’s what the Experiment of One is all about.

Racing is the best form of training there is. Try to average at least two races a month. If you want a role model, I suggest you look to fellow Valley Strider John Keston. He broke one M75 age-group world record last year and five single-age M76 WRs, including a road 10k in 41:12, all of which were over 90% age-graded. He averaged six training sessions a week, in two of which he ran and in the other four he walked. For his main speed endurance training, he ran 39 races in the 12 months, from 800m to the marathon.

And remember: "if you keep doing what you did, you’ll keep getting what you got".