Nov 2002


Coach's Column: "Stretching a Point Very Slowly" (from Max)

For about 20 years, now and again, on and off, I've been searching for, to put it grandly, a General Theory of Training for Long Distance Road and Track Racing. I didn't make much progress for the first dozen years or so - following as best I could in the time available to me what Runner's World recommended - but it has all been coming together in the last eight, culminating in what I have written in the Coach's Columns this year. This time, though, it won't be 6 pages, just one of me re postscript length for me.

Every six months I see a Dr Heikki Vanharanta at St James's Hospital, he who had diagnosed the onset of osteoarthritis in my knees 18 months ago. This time I had just written the September CC, so I asked him his opinion on the worth of the stretching exercises I'm now doing which I'd described in that CC. Then we talked more generally about reducing the age-related loss of elasticity of muscles and connecting tissues.

He advised a two-prong attack. The short, 15-seconds duration, high stress, followed by 5-second, relaxation routine I had devised was O.K., but to benefit all the lower-body soft tissue systems, he also recommended a very slow, long duration exercise. This is to pedal on a stationary exercise bike at just one revolution in, er, THIRTY seconds - i.e., about ten times slower than race running pace - and for ONE HOUR A DAY. Worse, Doctor Heikki says that I shall see little or no improvement for at least tw o months. Oh!

But I'm desperate to get fit again, so I set up the bike in front of the television and I pedal. Sometimes the programmes are so little to my taste that it's almost as boring as sitting whilst watching them, but the London Marathon is in 21 weeks and the EverPresents will be down to 33 after it if I don't get in some hard work soon.

I thought the advice worth a go, though, because an hour per day slow stretching is exactly what I reported in the last VS News was what John Keston had told me is the way ballet dancers train. And it certainly works for them. I have always winced at the sight of dancers "doing the splits", but I have a newspaper cutting from some years ago which fills me not with apprehension, but with awe. It is of Sylvie Guillem, the sensational French ballerina who now dances with the Royal Ballet. She can do the spl its vertically, and with both knees locked, too. I bet she does an hour of slow stretches every day.

If I'd stretched like ballet dancers do, I would have had a longer stride and I might have won the inaugural English Junior National Cross-Country in 1948, instead of being only fourth. And, if I'd put in only, say, half an hour's stretching every day for the next 50 years, I might have won that track race in Hull at the age of 70 and reached the intended 200km in the 24 hours, instead of coming second and only 191km/118 miles covered.

It's not too late for you youngsters to start, though. If you haven't got an exercise bike, you could get a similar effect sitting at your desk in the office, by straightening a leg, then bring it back, grab an ankle and pulling up as far as space will allow. And so on until someone asks what the hell you're doing and then you just say you're training to win your age-group in the next London Marathon. And look as if you mean it !