"We are what we eat", the Nutrition Police tell us as they quote the latest statistics : by their definition, 34% of all adults in the United States are obese and 30% in the UK are overweight. But we're more than just an accumulation of most of the chemical elements that there are, right through from arsenic to zinc. Homo sapiens is a thinking being, too, with a brain incorporating billions of tiny electrical circuits which enable us, inter alia, to imagine and develop ideas.
I've been wondering for some years now why I cannot run as fast as I did when I was in Birchfield's nearly-all-conquering first team squad. What has changed physically that I should now struggle to run sub-7 minute miles when sub-5's were no problem then? I didn't keep a training diary then, but the facts as I remember them are that I weighed 140lbs (63.5kg in new money) and the only time I recall taking my resting pulse rate it was 44. I was training 3 to 4 times a week, and racing, cross-country mostly, every fortnight or so. We did no weight training, no stretching before running, no intervals, no hill sessions. All we did at the Club, every Tuesday and Thursday after work, was to chase Club Captain and Scottish International Bobby Reid over undulating roads from the old Alexander Stadium 3 miles out to Sutton Park and back. On my own, I did another tempo run, as we would now call it, chasing the No.11 Outer Circle bus over about 3 miles of its route which included its stopping for a few minutes at the stage stop outside the King's Head. With that, we'd win the team golds on a Saturday, off a total training and racing mileage of around 20-25 miles/week.
Now, I weigh 134lbs/61kg; I have a resting pulse rate when I'm fit of 36 to 40; my pinch test measurements indicate that I have a body fat percentage of around 7%. I run a hill session and an interval session most weeks; a couple of tempo runs of 4 to 6 miles; sometimes a steady 8 miles; and a race most Sundays (in the 12 weeks leading up to my running "The Comrades", I ran 10 races ranging from 10km to 100km, including the London and Leeds marathons). I've been averaging 30 to 35 miles/week for the last two years, during which time I've only once run slower than second in my age-group - when I had Achilles tendon trouble in London '97 - and I've picked up 8 M70 ultra world records.
Summarising, I've no reason to believe that I have less muscle mass than I had in 1948 - I train harder and the 6lbs I'm lighter is almost certainly because of less body fat : at 2 seconds/mile/lb, those 6lbs off should mean I should run 12 seconds/mile faster now! - and my lower resting pulse rate indicates that my heart's stroke volume per beat is around 15% more (oxygen delivered to muscles) now than it was then. Why do I run 30% slower instead of 15% faster?
The missing factor in the equation is, I believe, elasticity. Or, put the other way round, lack of elasticity, otherwise known to many of us as stiffness (and hardening of the arteries!). So, now, the little fibres in my leg muscles don't slip past each other as easily as they used to, thereby increasing the amount of (useless) heat generated per stride and reducing the proportion of each burst of energy which is translated into forward motion. My range of movement is restricted because of the stiffness of connecting tissues and tendons. The end result of losing elasticity as we age, therefore, is that our stride length is less than it was, our stride frequency, steps per minute, declines, and , since the product of the two is the speed with which we cover the ground, we go slower. From the Age-Graded Tables, the increase in time to run any distance from 100m right through to 100km seems to be approximately 1% for each year after the age of 35 (excluding factors such as body weight, quality of training, etc).
The heart is the most important muscle in our bodies and, if our leg muscles get stiffer with advancing years, probably our hearts do, too, so that they cannot vibrate back and forth so many times a minute, either. By this reasoning, it will be lower heart elasticity which lowers our maximum heart rate, not just a simple formula such as "220 minus your age" which is solely calendar based. The man who put me through a treadmill test, all wired up to his instruments measuring heart rate as well as oxygen consumption, a few years ago told me that Seb Coe had registered a rate of 250 beats/minute when he tested him. Which, of course, could go a long way to explaining why Coe could run a mile in 3:47 and nearly a lap faster than I could at his age! 45 years on, I recorded a heart rate of 160 in the Wakefield 10k which would translate to 180 in a treadmill test, 20% higher than 220 minus 71, which is probably why I'm usually 1st or 2nd in my age group in races (on that occasion, despite running sub 7 minute miles on a hilly course, there wasn't a M70 prize, but I did win a bottle of rum for the oldest competitor to finish!).
So, yes, we do run slower than when we were young, even if we weigh less, have less fat and more muscle, and train more effectively than we used to. It's because we're not as supple as we were. When I was 20, I could stand with my knees locked, bend down and put the palms of my hands on the floor; now I can't even touch my toes with my fingertips without bending my knees. And quite apart from general stiffness, I guess that all that residual scar tissue from strained hamstrings, torn calves and Achilles tendons, which even Maureen hasn't been able to massage away, reduces my elasticity even further.
It would appear, therefore, that the single most important factor in athletic success is the acquisition and retention of superior soft tissue elasticity. Acquiring it in the first place was because, by chance, we chose our parents well : retaining it is probably more a question of care than luck. There will be two developments which lead to reduced elasticity, one mechanical, the other chemical.
We have to stress our muscles mechanically if they are going to grow bigger and stronger : overstrain them, however, and damage will lead to scar tissue and (some) loss of elasticity. A balance has to be struck : all training carries the risk of overstrain and injury - if it didn't, we'd not be training, only jogging - but, if every time some soft tissue started to hurt we were to abort the training session, we'd never complete one! But run on the same injury for two or three days, never mind for a week or more, without proper physiotherapy attention and you're asking for trouble and a DNF (or a DNS).
A digression. All those 50 years ago, I obtained a university degree in metallurgy and I learnt a little about the mechanical properties of soft metals such as aluminium and copper. Stretch these materials slightly, in a testing machine, then let go : they'll return to their original length. It's called Elastic Deformation. Do that dozens of times and the test piece always returns to where it started. Stretch it beyond its elastic limit, though, let go and then measure what has happened, the test piece does not return to where it was initially because it has suffered Plastic Deformation, it's harder than it was and it's no longer elastic. I don't know whether soft tissue reacts like that, but I don't risk finding out : the only stretching I ever do before training and racing - and gently, too - is to warm up my leg muscles and connecting tissues (because warming up my whole body, i.e. until I start to sweat, takes about 2 miles of running in the summer and 3 miles in the winter). The elastic limit of materials is usually higher when they're warm than when they're cold.
For another plausible reason for age-related stiffness, I turn again to materials science. Just as other carbohydrate based materials, generally known as plastics, oxidise very gradually becoming harder and more brittle - and crack eventually, which is why uPVC double glazing is only guaranteed for 10 years! - exposure to oxidation - air outside, "free radicals" inside - gradually hardens up our skin and connecting tissues. Interestingly, in a survey carried out in the USA a couple of years ago, half a dozen nutritionists were asked which of the supplements they had been recommending in their articles in the athletics press did they take themselves. The only common factor was Vitamin E, one of the most powerful anti-oxidants there is. I recommend it to you : Boots stock it on the open shelves; strength 300 international units of E per gel; 100 gels for £5.70. There are also 100 i.u. tablets, 100 for £3.50. How much does one need : don't know, but 5.7 pence for 300 units sounds better value than 3.5 pence for 100 units, so I take a gel a day.
One last point so that I can take out of its stable a hobby-horse I've been riding for over five years now, namely that the IAAF itself is destroying the appeal of track and field athletics to youngsters and, more importantly, to their parents by its policy on so-called performance-enhancing drugs and techniques. There are so many things that are wrong, but to name the worst:
It was at this point that your Editor decided to consult his lawyers. He was advised to write "Note that articles in Striders News reflect the opinions of the individual contributors and are not necessarily shared by others in the Club"
So what's all that got to do with our getting stiffer as we get older. Just this : suppose I'm right and the onset of age in athletes could be delayed by some even more powerful drug than Vitamin E so that, say, ordinary couch potatoes could, for a few pence a day, retain their heart and artery elasticity well into what is now thought of as old age. In Track and Field, M and F 50's could compete on (nearly) level terms with M and F 25's, who, deprived of their Olympic berths, would complain bitterly about old people using performance enhancing drugs. They would call in the IAAF to ban the new Extra E, so clearly more efficient than all the anabolic steroids, stimulants, EPO etc etc currently costing the IAAF over $3 million/year for its Drugs Police's testing programme. My guess is that the IAAF would ban it, discovering some side-effect - all drugs have them - such as high blood pressure, low blood pressure, anything, so as to preserve its current position and its not-so-little list of banned substances.
I would disagree with that. Now that attempted suicide is no longer a criminal offence, I do not believe the IAAF has any grounds - moral, legal or medical - for banning any athlete from using any technique or swallowing - or shock/horror - injecting any drug. Least of all, one which might prolong active life for the general population by 20 years!
Editor's note : the ink was just dry and the keyboard had just cooled down on this article before Juan Antonio Samaranch's amazing press statement on July 26th. So I thought I'd better let Max get in a "P.S" on this subject:
P.S. to Coach's Column
I was proof-reading this Coach's Column between watching the races in the AAA Championships from Birchfield's new Alexander Stadium on July 26, when, right at then end, Steve Cram said that news was just in that Juan Antonio Samaranch, head man of the International Olympic Committee, was calling for a review of the IOC's position on drugs. Cram told Sally Gunnell that Samaranch had said that the IOC list of banned substances was far too long and, he thought, the only drugs which should be on it were those which were likely to harm athletes' health. And, specifically, that performance enhancing drugs which posed no threat to health should be permitted. Mrs Bigg didn't quite fall off her chair on the infield, but she was clearly shocked into being at a loss for words. Well, almost.
The print journalists seemed also to have been wrong-footed, nothing appearing on the Monday on the matter. The BBC, though, did manage to get Steve Redgrave to the microphone - opposed; "it would give the wrong signals" - and Michelle Verroken, chief of the Sports Council's drug testing programme, who called on the UK Government, no less, to step in to legislate "if we are going to have woolliness, if some sports bodies can't be bothered to tackle drug taking". That breathtaking comment, I thought, ranked high up with those from other members of the Shadow Cabinet before the 1997 election, when Clare Short suggested that an open debate, no more, should be conducted regarding the sale and use of cannabis. I was particularly impressed by Verroken's dismissal of the IOC, the highest sports organisation in the world, which she described as "some sports body" which "can't be bothered" about drugs. Where has she been these last 30 years?!
It took until Tuesday's paper for the Guardian sports journalist to recover from the blow. He had his piece headlined "Positive blow to Samaranch line" reporting the positive A-sample tests on Americans Randy Barnes, shot putt gold in Atlanta '96, and Dennis Mitchell, 100m bronze in Barcelona '92. The fact that Barnes' positive was for "androstenodine, an outlawed nutritional supplement", and Mitchell's was for testosterone, the very same which led to Diane Modahl's false positive, seemed to me to support Samaranch's opinion that the list is far too long. The British Olympic Association Chairman, Craig Reedie was reported as "seeking clarification of Samaranch's remarks" and went on to say that "performance enhancing drugs have no place in sport, whether they are harmful or not. Imagine what the chemical industry is thinking this morning". The answer to that one, of course, is that the needs of athletes, perceived or otherwise, are so tiny that no chemical company could afford to develop any product just for us.
The news brings to mind two quotations. The first from soccer - which in Law 11, an attacking player is deemed to be offside if "in the opinion of the referee, he is in an offside position and he is interfering with play or seeking to gain the advantage" about which Bill Shankly said "if any of my players on the field are not seeking all the time to gain an advantage, they're not worthy of the Liverpool shirt they're wearing". So in track and field athletics : the very fact that a substance or technique appears on the IOC's / IAAF's long list will be an incentive, to some coaches, to try out something they'd not previously heard of.
The other advice, I recall, from "Anon" of the Balkans or Northern Ireland was that "any new idea recommending changes will be opposed by members of the Established Order who have vested interests, such as a secure job, which depend on the maintenance of the present state of affairs"
It would seem that this one, like us, will run and run - except for those banned, of course - until Sydney 2000 at the very earliest.