- An Action Packed Running Career
- The Summit of Athletic Achievement - Chris Brasher
- It's a con game! - Confidence and running
- Is it the Thought That Counts?
- Attempted murder at The White City - Vladimir Kuts
- Mental Toughness on the Road to Big Ben
- The Miracle Mile
- Shakespeare in Love... With Running!
- The 50th Anniversary of the First Sub Four Minute Mile
- The Jim Peters Story
- The Tactical "Art of War"
- "Tune In" to a Better Running Performance
- The Locomotive and the Record Books - Emil Zatopek
- Tactics for all Seasons - Part 1
- Tactics for all Seasons - Part 2
- Risk - taking and running - Is it all in the run of the dice?
- How to beat the unbeatable runner!
- What is natural about sport?
- From Ancient to Modern: The Marathon Race and the Olympic Games
An Action Packed Running Career
by Gary Barber
Just for a moment, I want you to imagine that a film crew has decided to make a documentary of your running career. They are with you at your first race. They record your greatest triumphs and they are with you through the setbacks. At the end of your career they take you into a cinema and roll the film. Ask yourself this question: What kind of film would you like to see? Do you believe that you are the scriptwriter of your own film? Are there planned highlights in your film, or did the best performances just occur by chance?
Setting goals is an integral part of our sport. They motivate us to practise in foul weather. They allow us to dream of the athlete we might be (a legend in our own mind?). Our sporting goals drive us to reach deeper into ourselves and ask: Can I become a better athlete? What are the limits of my abilities? If we can push ourselves hard enough can we become like pioneers charting unknown territories in search of fabulous rewards?
Just like any explorer, a runner seeking to achieve a goal, must be courageous. There may be setbacks on their journey. Adversity can come in many forms: an injury, a defeat, uncooperative weather, the list could be endless. Dealing with that adversity requires faith and confidence, an inner belief that no matter what, the goal can still be achieved; if not today, then perhaps tomorrow.
The film crew has gathered and are now preparing to film your documentary. The Director (your coach) tells you that there must be lots of action. "Action and goals you reply!"
Ready with the lights!
Roll the cameras!
Are your running goals measurable? Sports Psychology theory suggests that it is better to state that your goal is to run a race in a certain time rather than stating that "I just want to have a good race."
Compatible with your mission? Is your racing plan compatible with the goals that you have set for yourself for the season? Too often we can lapse into the habit of racing too much and this defeats the conventional wisdom about performance peaking.
Time specific. When do you wish to reach your goal(s)? Short term goals may focus on the next few races or weeks of your programme. Longer term goals will likely deal with the next few seasons, where would you like to be 3 - 5 years from now?
In writing. Committing a goal to words adds a contractual component to your planning. It can serve as a gentle / or brutal reminder of the direction you have decided to go. I knew of a runner who painted his goals on his bedroom ceiling. If he didn't feel like running early in the morning he would just stare at his ceiling for a less than subtle reminder of his obligation to himself.
Ownership of goals is important. These are your goals, nobody else's. They are what you believe will help you become a better runner. Sharing these goals is also important for it allows you to form a mental contract with yourself; "now that other people know my goals, I am going to have to do my best to reach them."
Never give up. How did you decide upon your goal? Running to success can be a solitary path sometimes. For a few runners that path seems paved with gold and there is nothing that can stop them. For us other mere mortals the path can be strewn with obstacles: injuries, losses of form, staleness, and other personal demons that limit our performance. Chart a path around these obstacles and never give up!
Is it time to reconsider your goals? If so, which "film" do you plan to make. Hopefully not a horror story or a farce! Why not make it an ACTION packed film. Enjoy your creation - it's what you've made it!
Shut off the lights!
Stop the cameras!
That's a wrap!
The Summit of Athletic Achievement - Chris Brasher
by Gary Barber
The great poet Robert Browning once wrote "ah, but a man's reach exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for." In 1956 a short, bespectacled runner named Christopher Brasher extended his athletic reach toward the Melbourne Olympic Games. His chance for success in his chosen event - the 3000m steeplechase - was rated slim to none. He had never won a national championship, his contributions to running at the international level had been enthusiastic but certainly not stellar; and although immensely strong, Brasher possessed average speed. He barely qualified for the British team (behind John Disley and Eric Shirley).
Chris Brasher, however, was a man who always seemed destined to make an impact, to leave a footprint on society. He was called a man with a bucaneering persona, a raconteur, a ceaseless advocate for issues that he believed in; but he was a man with - by all accounts - an ordinary talent in running. How can this be? This man won an Olympic Gold medal. Chris Chataway - the great 5000m runner (see previous edition of British Runner) - once whimsically summarised Brasher's talents: "He is 5% ability, 95% guts!"
To understand more of Chris Brasher's achievements and the personality of this man we have to leave the running track and head for the rugged slopes of the world's great mountain ranges. Mountaineering and running have much in common. Taking risks are an inseparable feature of both sports; these risks, some might call opportunities, carry great intrinsic rewards; the satisfaction of conquering the most difficult of challenges. They require you to face your fear and brook no compromise. They can be solitary sports that test the mettle of the athlete. It was on the granite slopes and ledges of many tough mountains, and on the cinder tracks of England, that Brasher forged the temperament that would drive him to success throughout his life.
Brasher had a great talent for climbing and was selected as the first reserve for a team that eventually conquered Mt. Everest. Brasher may have missed out on participating in one of the great accomplishments in history but within a year he was given another chance. Acting as pacemaker, Chris Brasher helped to propel Roger Bannister to run under four minutes for 1 mile. Bannister's achievement was incomparable and it is not surprising that Brasher started to feel that his desire for personal achievement would forever live in the shadows of the famous day in May, 1954. "I wanted, and needed, to prove something to myself," said Brasher; and so he turned his attention to the Melbourne Olympic Games - 1956.
Brasher received the expert tutelage of Franz Stampfl, the legendary coach who had guided Roger Bannister towards his great races. Stampfl placed Brasher on a programme rich with interval training and a heavy emphasis on aerobic conditioning. The plan was meticulously designed to have Brasher reach his peak at the 3000m steeplechase final. While his teammates, Disley and Shirley were struggling with illness and injury, Brasher was quietly rounding into the form of his life.
There were two formidable opponents in the steeplechase final: Ernst Larsen from Norway and the Hungarian, Sandor Rozsnyol. Larsen immediately stated his intentions for the race by surging into the lead. He had established a gap of 15m by the first kilometre and he looked in impressive form. The world record holder, Rozsnyol, tracked the leader and also appeared to be comfortable with the pace. Brasher seemed like an anonymous participant; one of those spectral characters that leave little impact on the race other than the appearance of their name on the entry sheet. However, as each lap unfolded Brasher steadily moved through the field until at the bell lap, he was positioned to take the lead.
All of the tactical manoeuvring of the favourites had played right into the hands of Brasher. Larsen was struggling to cope with the effects of his impetuous front running, Rozsnyol also seemed to lack the zip that had defined his world record breaking runs. Brasher surged into the lead and with each step pulled on the strength that he had garnered on the slopes of the Himalayas and the Alps. He started to move away from his rivals. The gold medal was his. Brasher ran 8.41.2 beating his best by 6 secs - he had reached his peak performance in the race that mattered the most.
Hours later the victory was taken away as Brasher was disqualified for "interfering with another athlete."
In move that is hard to imagine in today's Olympics, Larsen and Rozsnyol lobbied the judges to have Brasher re-instated. They said that he had not impeded them and it was not fair that Brasher not be awarded the gold medal. The appeal took many hours to process, eventually the judges reversed their decision and awarded the victory to Brasher. When news that he had won the race reached England, his clubmates sent him a telegram, "Well done the old scrubber!"
Meanwhile, Brasher had been initially drowning his sorrows then celebrating his re-instatement; thus, he became one of the few Olympic athletes to receive a medal in a completely inebriated state: "I was completely blotto and had an asinine grin on my face." Brasher retired after this race even though Franz Stampfl believed that his athlete could run under 8.30 for that event.
Many people would happily fade into obscurity after a modicum of the success that Brasher had enjoyed; but he was yet to make an even greater contribution. In 1979 he participated in the New York marathon. Brasher was energised by the experience and saw an opportunity to bring running to the masses. In 1981 he - along with John Disley - overcame immense bureaucratic obstacles to launch the London Marathon. It was an overwhelming success and over the years has produced not only some of the finest marathon races of all time, but has helped to contribute millions of pounds to charity.
Chris Brasher, sadly, passed away in February, 2003. As a man who appreciated literature, Brasher would have loved the poignancy of Browning's quote. Throughout his life, Brasher had aimed high and celebrated its spirit to the full. He was an inspiring example for all.
It's a con game! - Confidence and running
by Gary Barber
The Sydney Olympic Games marathon was about to begin and the tension and excitement was almost palpable. Razor-thin athletes stared out toward that famous harbour believing or hoping that it would be their athletic destiny to claim victory. For those of us watching the final race preparations unfold it was apparent that several athletes were seeking to gain an edge, some sort of advantage over their rivals even before the race started. Some athletes growled about the warm-up area eager to slap down a rival with a vicious scowl. A few were more subtle; a smirk, perhaps a reductive remark. The body language of several World Champions was suggestive of a gauntlet: "You haven't got what it takes!" While a few athletes were poker-faced neither wishing to display bravado nor mask insecurity - "I am going to keep everyone guessing about me throughout the race." It is interesting to compare these various styles with the actual results: Jon Brown of England wearing a look of determination, a man preparing to spring a surprise. The Kenyans and Ethiopeans: A quiet but intense confidence preparing to infuse their strides.
To compete at a successful level athletes know that they must bring many elements of their training into sharp focus on race day. The hard workouts have been replaced by a taper, then rest. Careful thought has been given to pre-race meals and early nights in bed are planned. The execution of this performance is, however, heavily dependent on the athlete's level of confidence. Confidence is both a belief system and a way of carrying yourself; but confidence wears many masks and is not always easy to understand. It can be imperious at its celebratory best, modest in words before and after an event, and yet arrogant in its actions. Confidence for some athletes can also be difficult to acquire and yet easy to lose. The belief in yourself may also vary across the race; for instance you could be calm at the start, edgy in the middle of the race and a nervous wreck at the finish. So how do you develop confidence given its everchanging qualities and become a better athlete?
Firstly, recognise that part of confidence is a mental skill that can be trained with the same principles of physical training. Do you practise building your confidence on a regular basis or do you hope that it will occur by chance? Why leave such an important part of your preparation to serendipity? A positive outlook on life in general is a good starting point but that in itself is not necessarily going to benefit your training and racing. Two techniques from sports psychology have been proven to be effective when practised on a regular basis: Mental rehearsal and affirmation training.
Mental rehearsal is where the athlete thinks about their ideal performance over and over in their mind. Like an actor rehearsing your lines, eventually, you will not need to "think" about being confident your performance, it becomes so ingrained into your thinking that it is almost automatic. Athletics using this technique could rehearse their race tactics. They may "see" themselves surging on a difficult part of the course. They might mentally practise fending off a challenge from determined rivals. If athletes have a confidence issue with part of their race, they might try playing that image in their mind and seeing themselves confidently conquering their fear. They could practise thinking about how their bodies will respond and they will "see" themselves competing with every step and stroke being powerful, controlled, and full of self-belief. It is important to practise the things that you can control; i.e. your effort and your technique. The results take care of themselves.
Positive statements, affirmations as they are called in sports psychology, will reinforce the aspects of your training (or racing) that went well. "Don't beat yourself up - build yourself up!" "As you believe so you will become!".
Evidence suggests that practising such statements combined with mental rehearsal training are useful tools in building an athlete's confidence. There are also some practical ways to give shape your mental training:
- Set yourself workouts where you know there will be a high chance of being successful. You may have to modify the workout, e.g. make the time trial over a shorter distance than race distance.
- Train with other athletes that will help to give you a positive benchmark of your level of fitness. Again, choose those that will give you a boost, not bury you on the road!
Remember that confidence contributes to success and this, in turn, enhances confidence. How you choose to display confidence is up to you. It is easy to step back and be critical of the more vocal athletes whom rely on bold statements to create their self-belief. Ultimately, they are no different from the silent gaze of the quiet athlete who is determined to kick your hide into last week. Choose your style, mentally rehearse and have the belief that it is going to work for you!
Is it the Thought That Counts?
by Gary Barber
I've never been a great fan of that most beloved of sports clichés: "It's all in the mind!" or its obnoxious twin "it's 100% mental!" If these statements were true, I wouldn't bother running 80 miles a week and spending hours ploughing through the worst that the British weather can hurl at us. Living the ultimate dream of the armchair athlete, I could just stay at home and think about it all that hard training. I could sit on my couch, massage the remote control, and maybe watch a video of the London marathon. I could keep hydrated with a six-pack of beer and think really hard about winning. And if somehow, I don't manage to win, it's only because the other athletes "wanted it more."
Almost all serious athletes will, however, acknowledge that mental skill training does play at least some role in the overall preparation and delivery of a great performance. Exactly how much of an influence is hotly debated by exercise scientists, sports philosophers, and armchair experts. Let's review some of the evidence and you decide whether there is anything to this "mental stuff."
An intriguing study with direct implications for athletes was conducted by exercise scientist Bill Morgan. Morgan hypnotised cyclists before they started to cycle on a bicycle ergometer. The cyclists were asked to pedal for 15 minutes at a constant speed against a constant resistance. For the first five minutes they were told that they were cycling on a flat road. As would be expected, their heart and breathing rates increased and then plateaued. They were then told that for the next five minutes they would be cycling up a very steep hill. When this happened their heart and breathing rates dramatically increased. In the final five minute segment of the test, the cyclists were told that they were cycling on the flat road again. Their breathing and heart rates fell back down to "pre-hill" levels. Physically the task had not increased in difficulty at any time throughout the test, it was just that the cyclists believed that things were going to be harder and their bodies responded accordingly.
You have to remember that a mental skill - just like physical training - is not mastered just by doing it once. Imagine practising for a race once or twice and then saying "the training didn't work for me, I've got to try something different." No serious athlete would do that with their physical training and yet, too often, mental skills are abandoned if they don't bring immediate results. The athletes who are interested in creating a mental training programme may want to consider including the following principles of training: Frequency - Practise on a regular basis. Just like physical training, you will need to practise regularly if you wish to see results. As you would lose fitness with extended inactivity, so you will lose the benefits of mental training without regular practise. Duration - Practise for a significant period (20 - 30 minutes per session). Intensity - Bring an emotional content to your practises so that you replicate (in your imagination) the race conditions. Specificity - Develop a range of skills that can be applied to the everchanging challenges of a running race e.g. relaxation for pre-race conditions, self control for the early stages of a race, discipline and perseverance when the race becomes physically draining. Progression - Improve the quality of your practises week after week.
Does mental training work?
Certainly you have to sift through the anecdotal and scientific evidence before arriving at your conclusion. Bill Rodgers - the great American marathon runner - stated that he used his mental skill training to visualize an enormous hand pushing him up the infamous HeartBreak Hill in the Boston Marathon. Was it then coincidence that Rodgers pulled away from his rivals at that critical point in his race? Then there are verified reports of deep sea divers who - using yoga techniques - have learned how slow both their heart rate (to barely a few beats per minute) and oxygen consumption rate so that they can stay under water for several minutes with only a single breath. Imagine the benefits of that kind of mental discipline in a running race: using your mind to relax a specific muscle that is repeatedly cramping toward the end of a marathon.
Further evidence of how we think and how are body responds to that thought can be found in the science of Psychoneuroimmunology. Studies have shown that white blood cells - which fight infections - function significantly better when people where given relaxation training. Also, these blood cells were found to be four times more aggressive in fighting colds when a person had positive thoughts rather than negative thoughts about the illness. Research by Richard Achterberg discovered that negative thoughts and emotions significantly increase muscular tension. As tense muscles do not work as efficiently as relaxed muscles, it is apparent how negative thinking could be to the detriment of a running performance.
Not to be outdone by the other experts, sports writers have long mined the riches of ancient philosophy looking for evidence to show that there is a connection between our thoughts, behaviour, and running performance. Aristotle believed that it was our experiences that shaped our lives: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then is not an act but a habit." If Aristotle had been able to trade his toga for some lycra and entered the local 10km, he would have relied on his physical training to give him the confidence (a mental skill) needed for a great performance. Descartes would have taken a different approach. He viewed our thoughts as the main influence in our existence: "Cogito ergo sum - I think, therefor I am!" For him, the confidence comes first and the athlete's successful performance will then follow.
So is it the thought that counts? To help settle this debate even Shakespeare offered some advice. If you are a confident athlete bursting with energy or a nervous bag of bones remember: "Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so."
Gary Barber is a Sports Psychology consultant who has been doing a lot of thinking recently!
Attempted murder at The White City - Vladimir Kuts
by Gary Barber
My name is Vladimir Kuts - people call me Killer Kuts, personally, I don't care what you call me for I have but a single purpose in life. I am a track race assassin and I will tear you apart!
I face mud - raw winds and don't complain.
My feet are as fast and musical as the fiddler's elbow,
Steeled muscles refuse to yield to mediocrity, why should I?
What would that achieve?
Just listen for my excitable pulse - it is bringing me another step closer and closer and
closer to you... the finishing line.
Race me if you dare!
I will not give up!
In 1954 a Soviet runner (Ukrainian) burst onto the scene with a terrifying instinct for destruction. Perhaps it was the years of deprivation while serving as a prisoner of war, or maybe it was the incessant indoctrination he received while serving in the Russian Navy, either way, Vladimir Kuts brought a ruthless quality to track racing. In an era of polite handshakes and courteous exchanges, Kuts must have felt like an angry wind of revolution blowing into the face of the athletic establishment.
Embracing Russian President Nikita Kruschev's demand that "all World records must be taken by Soviet athletes," Kuts was identified as a talented athlete and was pushed into a heavy training programme. Running 20 miles a day, sometimes in combat boots and sometimes carrying a sandbag over his shoulders, Kuts honed his fitness to a level that promised great performances. He duly delivered. In August, 1954, Kuts claimed the 5000m World record (13:56.6) in winning the European Championship.
It was apparent that Kuts was a maverick runner the like the sport had never seen before. His tactics bore no compromise and were suggestive of a hunter culling his prey. He would start a 10km race with a 60 second first lap; a strategy that even today's athletes would find extravagant. He would run slow, then fast, then even faster laps; all the while his strides seemingly mocking his rivals. All who attempted to challenge his superiority invited ruthless counter-attacks. He was a ceaseless, determined athlete with World conquest on his mind.
The silver medallist at that European championship was Christopher Chataway - a young Oxford student enjoying one of the finest seasons in his stellar career. Chataway was an ebullient character with a taste for the odd cigar and scholarly pursuits. He was the perfect foil to Vladimir Kuts. While Kuts was being pushed to intolerable levels of fatigue in training and racing (too often he was taken away from the track on a stretcher), Chataway was finding ways to squeeze the maximum amount of benefit from the minimum amount of effort.
Chataway's season had started in May, 1954 with the pacemaking duties for Roger Bannister's seminal performance over the mile. Chataway went onto to claim the Empire Games 3 mile title in Vancouver, and then followed this with a silver medal at the European Championship (defeating the amazing Emil Zatopek). As the season drew to a close an unlikely invitational match - London versus Moscow - brought these two great athletes together for a race of historic proportions. Chataway versus Kuts: a clash of form and fluency versus drive and aggression.
The White City Stadium in North West London no longer exists, but in 1954 it was the heartbeat of British Athletics. On a damp October evening 60,000 spectators poured into the stands; they were not sure what to expect: would the 5000m race feature an attempted "murder" by the Russian sailor or could Chataway find some way to cling to the pace?
Kuts lined up on the start line looking as intense as ever. He was dressed in a blood red Russian singlet with the hammer and sickle emblem on his chest bluntly reminding us that sport and ideology were the new weapons in The Cold War that had just started. Kuts was the epitomy of Nikita Krushchev's "man of the future today."
Chataway had developed great speed throughout the season. He had pushed the great John Landy to a new World record in the mile - the only question that remained was whether he had the strength to endure Kuts' inevitable surges and withering pace.
The first mile was reached in 4mins 24 and Kuts, predictably, was forcing the pace. Chataway had one, very simple strategy: stick to Kuts like a limpet and then out sprint him over the final few metres. Kuts was a runner whom did not like company and he repeatedly tried to shake off his rival with his trademark surges. The second mile was completed in 8mins 54 and still Chataway stuck to the heels of the Russian. Kuts unleashed a devastating sprint and then slowed. The Englishman followed. The pain contorting the faces of both runners suggested that the pace was exacting an awful toll on their bodies, but neither would yield.
Into the final two laps and Kuts once again tried to break the spirit of his rival. Years later, Chataway commented on that final half mile: "at that point.. I had really given up hope. I was just living second by second... The final lap was terrible, terrible! Until that moment of hope in the last 50 metres."
There are times in a runner's life when they must look into their running soul and ask "what kind of runner am I? One who gives up, or one that truly digs deep and squeezes every last ounce of effort in a race." The last 50 metres was such a watershed in Chataway's career. Kuts had failed to shake off his rival and now a furious sprint would answer all the questions. The crowd roared Chataway on. Kuts responded, Chataway pulled level, Kuts fought back. They were two great gladiators battling to the bitter end. Did Kuts falter or did Chataway pull on some hidden reserve? With the very last stride of the race Chataway nudged ahead and defeated the Russian; the time: a new World record, 13:51.6.
Ten days later, Kuts responded in the only way that he knew how: a new World record, 13:51.2.
This story has an unhappy ending. After winning the Rome Olympic 5000m title (yet another World record 13:35) Kuts was carried away on a stretcher. A very serious heart condition was identified and soon he would suffer a series of heart attacks. Aged 29, Kuts was told that he would never run again. He died - 100lbs overweight - at the age of 48 - a tragic end for a brilliant athlete.
Chataway went on to enjoy great success as a businessman and served as a cabinet minister in the government of Sir Edward Heath.
Faster times over the 5000m have been run, but it will be hard to imagine that a more absorbing contest between such interesting characters will ever grace our sport.
Mental Toughness on the Road to Big Ben
by Gary Barber
After many months of training, tens of thousands of athletes recently took their fitness to the streets of London and faced that most difficult of running challenges: the marathon. As was expected, the crowd were treated to an intriguing and exciting spectacle; high performance running blended with participation, mid-race drama mixed with the circus theatrics of "juggling" runners. This was sport at its egalitarian best: the world's fastest runners placing their feet on the same start line as the Pantomime horse!
Despite the incredible support of the spectators, the desire to quit the race, ease off the pace or succumb to a "bad patch" effected some of the athletes that raced this distance. What separated those runners who enjoyed great personal success from those runners who were disappointed? Are those successful athletes simply immune to these doubts?
Mental toughness is an interesting concept in sports psychology. It is a quality that allows an athlete like Evans Ruttu of Kenya - the winner of this year's London race - to brush off a bad fall, mend a broken rhythm and position himself back in the pack of leading runners. It would have been easy for him to fixate on the scrapes and bruises but instead, he drew on his mental toughness to continue the race.
And then there is the story of Tracey Morris from Wales, winner of the women's London marathon race. She exercised amazing self-belief to emerge out of anonymity and claim an Olympic Games team spot. Dissenting voices might have given her no chance of success, but again, mental toughness allowed her physical training to be fully realised. These are just two exemplars of mental strength but, of course, they are not unique. These athletes, and others like them, recognise that effective racing requires you to train the body and sharpen the mind for the challenge.
How do you develop mental toughness?
Mental toughness is an interesting amalgam of many skills, some inherent in each athlete's personality. These skills include: determination, resilience, courage, confidence, and perseverance. Experience is undoubtedly a great educator and these qualities, or lack of them, can be candidly exposed in a running race. Many of these skills have their origins in our running habits. Failing to finish running sessions, slowing down when the pace gets difficult, self defeating thoughts are all symptoms that may indicate the runner needs to adopt a new attitude if they wish to take their running to the next level. Bad training habits readily transfer into bad racing habits. Somehow you have to find a way to break this cycle.
The phrase "if you continue to do what you have always done, you will continue to get what you have always gotten," is particularly poignant for the reflective athlete. This suggests the need to try something different if you wish to break old habits or acquire new skills. Here are some very practical techniques that can be employed that can help a runner become a mentally tough athlete:
Set yourself a difficult challenge in training - but one that is realistic and attainable, then approach with the resolve to see it through. Refuse to yield! This challenge might not necessarily be performance related. You might decide to do a 6 a.m. run every morning for the next week. You may decide to abstain from something that you cherish (tea / beer / cakes, etc) for a set period; a runners version of Lent! Whatever it is that you choose, the purpose is to strengthen your will power and resolve.
Mental toughness is reinforced when you praise yourself for achieving your goals. Some running workouts might simply be focused on the mental skill rather than the benefits of hard effort. Example: I used to set myself a hill work of 6 x 60m hard sprints. After the 6 runs were completed, I would dedicate 1 extra run for mental toughness - even though I had given my all on the previous 6 runs. I imagined my rivals doing the same workout and I knew that they would finish at 6 repetitions. I wanted them to "know" that I was prepared to push myself that much harder and that I had the "edge" over them. Such strategies were repeated over and over until that mental toughness became an automatic skill. When it came to race situations the confidence and resilience seemed to come naturally.
Practise being mentally tough before the race. Sometimes an athlete has to face a few personal demons - the little whispers in the mind that want you to believe that you haven't trained hard enough. These are insidious thoughts that drain an athlete's confidence. Affirmation statements - "I have trained hard and I am ready," could be repeated over and over in your mind. Those negative thoughts are the enemy, refuse to give them any voice.
Design your race plan. Include, not only tactics, but anticipate where the greatest mental challenges will come from. Experienced runners in the Boston marathon know that the infamous Heartbreak Hill is where many athletes have struggled. With sound preparation and anticipation, an athlete can concentrate on the skills that will help them overcome the challenge rather than folding under the pressure.
Whether you be Olympic athlete or Pantomime horse mental toughness is an integral part of our sport. Learn and apply these skills. Be tough! You deserve the rewards of all your hard training!
The Miracle Mile
by Gary Barber
They called it "The Miracle Mile" and for good reason. In August, 1954, only two runners in the history of distance running had broken the four minute mile - Roger Bannister from England and John Landy from Australia. They were the talk of the globe; two runners shattering records and leading humanity into uncharted regions of athletic potential. It seemed only natural that sporting destiny should demand that they should be brought together to race. The public had many questions that needed an answer: Landy had been beaten by Bannister to the first sub 4 minute mile by just 46 days; his place in history denied: Was Landy out for revenge?
Bannister had proven himself to be adept at chasing records, but how would he fair against such a fearless competitor and dazzling frontrunner as John Landy?
It was almost prophetic when Bannister said, "the mile has all the elements of a drama." "The "Miracle Mile" promised to be a race of epic proportions.
As the race approached, the opinions of the sporting public started to take shape. We generally love sharp contrasts in our sporting rivalries: the arrogant athlete versus the modest; the overwhelming favourite versus the underdog. With Bannister and Landy the contrasts were difficult to identify. Both were polite and unassuming; each athlete had a deep and genuine respect for one another. When asked how he felt when Bannister broke the record Landy replied "I wasn't disappointed but amazed." The bookmakers made Landy a 4:1 favourite based on the fact that he had reduced Bannister's record from 3mins.59.6secs to a stunning 3mins.57.9 secs. But everybody knew there was very little that would separate these great athletes come race day.
Today, it seems we want our sporting heroes to have a touch of pirate blood coarsing through their veins: a ruthless instinct to plunder victory if there is so much as a whiff of success to be had in a race. While the piratical motives were present in both athletes, they also exhibited a profound appreciation for the joy of movement. They viewed a favourable outcome of a race to be desirable but of greater value was the opportunity to measure their talent and fitness against the World's best. This was sporting competition distilled to its very essence: A man against another: A man against himself!
In August, 1954 the British Empire was celebrating its very last sporting festival, The Empire Games, although they were to be re-invented four years later as The Commonwealth Games. The magnificent city of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada played host and more spectacular site for "The Miracle Mile" could not have been found.
The games were held in Empire Stadium, a small wooden facility with clean and simple lines of architecture that did not minimise the performances on its track. The snow capped Coastal Mountains served as a powerful back drop; these majestic peaks stared directly into the stadium and reminded us that nature and pure sporting performance are kindred spirits. Pacific breezes should have cooled the summer air, but on that day they were absent. The temperature on the track soared, the eyes of the World watched and in this crucible two of the greatest athletes prepared to bare their sporting souls for examination.
The starter's commands brought the competitors to the line.
Landy took his position, his shuffling stutter-steps reminiscent of a sail cutting across the choppy waters of Sydney Harbour. Curiously, a runner next to Landy adopted a sprint start, what were his intentions for the race? Roger Bannister eased forward looking relaxed and confident. It almost seems strange that an experience of a lifetime (for athletes and spectators) can be condensed into just four minutes. Years of hard training, weeks of speculation had come to this... the gun released the runners and the crowd immediately knew that something special was underway.
There was some speculation in the press that the race might be anti-climatic, two brilliant runners nervously sparring, too frightened to lose that they fail to unleash their full potential. How wrong they were. After the initial gallop at the start, Landy took the lead and dispelled any notions of a tactical "cat and mouse" race. His pace was fast, powerful and carried the determination of man prepared to carry the challenge to his rival. Landy quickly established a lead that seemed to stretch with every stride. First it was 5 yards, then 10 yards, and by the half mile the lead had grown to 15 yards. Could Bannister recover such a deficit? Would Landy be strong enough to hold the pace? Another sub four minute mile seemed inevitable, would the record be broken yet again?
Bannister must have felt like a shadowy, almost ghostly presence to Landy, he couldn't be seen but Landy knew he was there. Landy once said "The mile has a classic symmetry... it's a play in four acts." If the first two laps were just setting the scene, the next two were about to bring high drama! Moving towards the end of the 3rd lap, Bannister realised that he would need to move onto Landy's shoulder if he was to have any chance of unleashing his devastating sprint finish. Bannister later said "I tried to imagine myself attached to him by some invisible cord. With each stride, I drew the cord tighter and reduced his lead."
Into the final lap Landy still lead. He piled on the pace making his move for the finish from 300 yards out. Bannister, who had overextended himself just by closing gap, found that it was all he could do just to stay close. The crowd were almost hypnotised by these two great athletes who were battling the fatigue pinching their muscles; their minds refusing to yield. Onto the top bend they charged and Bannister then made his move. Mustering all his reserves, he flung himself toward Landy and then one of the great moments in sports history took place. Landy sensed that Bannister was close and mistakenly looked over his left shoulder to see where his rival was. At that very moment, Bannister surged past on Landy's right shoulder. Bannister was in-front and raced on to victory with Landy in valiant pursuit.
The Miracle Mile had delivered. Both runners ran under the four minutes (Bannister 3mins 58.8 secs, Landy 3mins 59.6 secs) but were just outside Landy's world record. After the race, Bannister saluted his magnanimous rival: "John Landy has shown me what a race can really be at its greatest. He is the sort of runner that I could never become, and for this I admire him."
Today, there is nothing left of the old Empire Stadium, the track and its memories long surrendered to property development. However, a bronze statue of two great runners can still be found; one runner looking over his left shoulder, the other preparing to pass. It will remind you that miracles do come true.
Shakespeare in Love... With Running!
by Gary Barber
When William Shakespeare was a young man, like everyone, he was faced with difficult career choices. Not many people know that prior to his success with penmanship, he had tried his hand at Sports Psychology. However, his lyrical musings on sport did not attract mass appeal in Tudor England. Thus it came to pass that Sports Psychology's loss was English Literatures gain. Today, however, if you comb the voluminous works of The Bard, there are still many hints of Bill Shakespeare: Sports Psychologist.
"Nay, if you get it you shall get it with running" (King Lear). From the pinnacles of human achievement, to the depths athletic defeat, Shakespeare seemed to understand that complex emotions often accompany a running race. He understood running's power to shape character, to define the courage or failings of an athlete. As a sports psychologist, Shakespeare also knew that the mind could sabotage the possibility of a great performance: "Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt."
Although there are many skills that an athlete needs to bring to the start line, a key skill is the determination to "Fight till the last gasp." Bill Shakespeare also believed that athletes who focused on their effort rather than outcome gained a strong sense of personal control over their performance: "Things won are done. Joys soul lies in the doing."
The nature versus nurture debate has perplexed scientists and philosophers for centuries: Are we born the way we are or does our environment (our experiences) create us? There is an old adage in coaching that bluntly states "you can't put in what God left out." Can a runner without talent train hard and become a successful runner? Shakespeare eloquently summarised his thoughts on this matter by stating: "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them." He believed that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on" that is, athletes with immense self-belief and hard training can overcome a deficit in natural talent.
"Now bid me run and I will strive with things impossible" (Julius Caesar). Some athletes run with the purpose of participating; they run the race and take whatever result it brings. But there are a few athletes who have a much more lofty goal: they strive to re define our perceptions of the attainable. In the late 1970's a Kenyan athlete named Henry Rono traveled to Europe with the record books firmly in his sights. He was the thin end of the wedge; a trickle of African athletes that would soon become a tidal wave of talent sweeping aside the best distance runners in the world. Rono was considered a man ahead of his time. With remarkable front running, he broke 4 four World records in a matter of weeks. His performances were so fast that many people believed that no-one would be able to improve on his times. Rono had taken the 5000m standard down to 13.06. Enter Haile Gebreselassie who has made Rono's feats seem quite ordinary by comparison. Shattering every conventional thought about pacing and endurance, Gebreselassie has taken the 5km record to a stratospheric 12.39. Will it end there? Unlikely; there will always be other athletes striving to achieve the impossible!
"No pain, no gain!" "When the going gets tough the tough get going!" Each of these cliches has become the rallying cry for athletes and armchair analysts. The reality of the struggle for our successes in sport and life is somehow tempered by the view that we can win if only we can cope with the pain. Shakespeare had already written about this; "pain pays the income of each precious thing." Certainly as runners we expect to have to fight our fatigue, face our fears, in order to meet the challenges of each race. In fact sometimes we feel robbed of the experience if the success comes too easily. The thrill of success often comes from staring down those personal demons and elevating our performance to previously considered unattainable levels. As Shakespeare alluded, it is the struggle, the pain that helps us to define ourselves and give meaning to our efforts.
If Shakespeare had stayed in Sports Psychology he might have written something like "Let not your race be a Comedy of Errors." He might have been honoured for his contributions to sport by having a race named after him: "A MidSummers Night Dream Mile!" But alas ("poor Yoric") he didn't and lost to the world of sports science was a man with a keen understanding of the runner's soul.
The 50th Anniversary of the First Sub Four Minute Mile
by Gary Barber
The commemorative plaque at Iffley Road Stadium, Oxford, England is small and unassuming. The letters carefully carved onto its marble surface are clean and simple. With elegant understatement this plaque - fastened to the wall at the top of the spectator stand - gazes down on the running track and asks us to remember a race held on a blustery day in May, 1954....
Great Britain in the late 1940's was a place struggling with a persistent depression. The end of the 2nd World War had brought a short lived euphoria, but as the nation realised that the economic and social healing (let alone human healing) would take many years, a fugue fell over the country. In the early 1950's, however, there was a spirit of optimism sweeping the land. Queen Elizabeth II was coronated, Mount Everest was conquered, and the beloved Winston Churchill had returned from a brief political exile. It was hoped that this optimism would effectively counter balance the uncertainties posed by the dismantling of the British Empire.
Bursting into the nation's awareness were three young runners: Roger Bannister, a promising young miler, Christopher Chataway, an excellent distance runner, and Christopher Brasher - a young man with his sights firmly set on Olympic glory in the steeplechase event. The three runners attended Oxford University and quickly became friends. They were bright, erudite and each possessed a sense of purpose that they believed would propel them to remarkable achievements. They had powerful goals: Olympic medals, record times, but equally, if not more important, each young man was dedicated to the pursuit of a life of contribution and service. Bannister was to commit himself to medicine, Chataway a career in politics and charitable projects, and Brasher was to become a successful business man and the director of the London Marathon.
The desire to be first has been a powerful driving force for many-a-athlete; and in 1954 Bannister found himself compelled to focus such energy and chase a unique opportunity in the history of running. The world record for the mile had steadily dropped over the previous decade and stood at 4minutes 1.4 seconds. Bannister fortuitously found himself rising to prominence as athletes all over the world raced to be the first human to run under four minutes for one mile. Winning a mile race in less than four minutes is one thing, but being the first ever was both a place in the record books and a special place in sporting history.
A race can be truly exciting if there is a strong possibility of defeat and Bannister faced many challengers in his quest. The American Wes Santee was setting the tracks on fire with some devastating front running while John Landy, the Australian, threatened to break the record in every race.
Bannister realized that a more scientific approach to his training would be needed if he was to break the record. With his coach, the legendary Franz Stampfl - Bannister referred to his medical knowledge of human physiology to bring fresh approaches to interval training, endurance recovery, and pacing. His preparations went well but balancing the demands of medical school and athletics was challenging. As the race approached, Bannister found himself tired and stale; qualities hardly conducive for writing your name into athletic history. Packing their ropes and climbing gear, Bannister and Brasher headed to Wales and vigorously ascended mountains for several days. Their spirits were rejuvenated and these "Miling Musketeers" (as they were called in the press) returned to Oxford with a renewed passion and urgency for the challenge before them.
The annual match between the Amateur Athletic Association and Oxford University was to be their chance, however, the weather conditions on May 6th, 1954 could not have been worse. A howling gale blew stinging cinders into the faces of athletes jogging around the track. Fast times seemed to be impossible. Bannister spent the day agonising over one key question: if he postponed this attempt would another runner (somebody like Landy) beat him to the record? Sometimes great moments are borne out of serendipity; as Bannister looked out of the window from his hotel room he noticed that the flags hanging stiffly from the flag poles momentarily sagged, the decision was made: "the attempt was on."
Three thousand spectators packed the stadium and there was a sense that something special was about to occur. It's not hard to imagine John Landy sitting by a radio waiting for news; the question "would Bannister do it?" undoubtedly sending adrenaline fizzing through his body.
Breaking the record required laps of 60 seconds or faster and it fell to Brasher to set the pace. Brasher might not have possessed the raw speed of Bannister, but he did possess the metronomic skills of an athlete who knows how to set a good pace. The first lap was reached in 57.5 seconds and Bannister, full of running, urged his friend to run even faster. Brasher ignored the request, thus preserving hopes of cracking the record. The half mile was reached in 1:58. Chataway, sensing that Brasher was starting to tire charged into the lead. Bannister followed lock and step. The sonorous clicks of the timekeeper's stopwatch were lost in the roar of the crowd; for some observers time moved faster, for Bannister it seemed agonizingly slow. With 300 yards left Bannister surged by Chataway, his final charge towards athletic destiny had begun.
"My body had long since exhausted all its energy, but I went on running just the same. The physical overdraft only came from greater willpower. This was the crucial moment when my legs were strong enough to carry me over the last few yards ... with 5 yards to go the finishing tape seemed to recede. Would I ever reach it? ... I leapt at the tape like a man taking his last spring to save himself from the chasm that threatens to engulf him." Had he done it? "The stopwatch held the answer. Result of the one mile... time, 3minutes, the rest was lost in the roar of excitement. I grabbed Brasher and Chataway and scampered around the track in a burst of spontaneous joy. We had done - the three of us!"
So why do we place so much interest on this world record? It only lasted 46 days, yet Sebastian Coe's World 800m record which lasted 16 years (it is still the second fastest ever) is seldom talked about. Perhaps it is our fascination with pioneers, people who have been the first to conquer a seemingly insurmountable challenge. Whether it was Sir Francis Chichester sailing single handed around the world (1966); Sir Edmund Hilary hiking towards the summit of Mount Everest (1953) or Neil Armstrong (1969) walking on the Moon, we are attracted to stories about people who change our perception of what is attainable.
Prior to Roger Bannister's run, the generally accepted belief was that no man could ever break a four minute mile. Now, such is athletic progress, we are disappointed if the race fails to yield such a time. Fifty years later the record has improved to an amazing 3minutes 43.13 seconds by Morroco's Hicham El Guerrouj!
A poet once wrote "even the stone that is kicked shall outlast Shakespeare." Great running careers will amaze us, mile records will be broken, but the stone plaque that hangs in a small stadium in Oxford shall outlast them all.
Gary Barber is a teacher who has run a sub four minute mile but secretly wishes he was the first to do it!
The Jim Peters Story
by Gary Barber
I want you to imagine this: You have gathered in an Olympic Stadium to watch Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett battle over 1500m. The pre-race hype fills the airwaves and covers the front pages of every newspaper. The race is as exciting and dramatic as any that you have ever seen. 20 minutes later you await the arrival of Paula Radcliffe in the women's marathon. She has a massive lead - perhaps 15 minutes - and the gold medal is a certainty; all she has to do is enter the stadium and jog a lap of the track. Instead, what you see is deeply shocking; she staggers into the stadium and then falls on the track. She pulls herself up very slowly and resumes running. She falls again, and again. All sense of coordination has fled her body. The stadium is silent. Somebody help her! She is lifted off the track and fails to complete the race.
As the weeks pass sporting history focuses on her valiant attempts on that infamous last lap. All but forgotten are her magnificent world records, her championship medals, her contributions to our sport. This is a terrible injustice that the media will fail to correct for the rest of her sporting career. She was the athlete that fell, not the athlete that ran. Is this fictional tale unrealistic?
Skip back 50 years.
You have just finished watching "The Miracle Mile," (see previous edition of The British Runner) and the atmosphere in the stadium is electric. Bannister has defeated Landy and both men have run under four minutes for the mile. Does sport get any better than this you ask? Soon the marathon runners will enter the stadium, this will be a fitting end to a spectacular sports festival (The Empire Games). Jim Peters of England has an unassailable lead - estimated to be at least 3 miles over his nearest rival. But something is wrong ......
Our story starts in Dagenham, Essex. Like many young boys in the 1930's Jim Peters had a keen interest in sports which he developed when he joined the Dagenham Boys Club. Soon he displayed a talent for running. Even though he would run races in his house slippers (he couldn't afford to buy spikes), he set county records on the track. Within a few years he was the British 6 mile champion. When turning 30, most runners in the modern era would probably believe that their best years are behind them. Not so, for Jim Peters. He was just getting started.
After years of developing his strength in cross country and distance racing, he turned his hand to marathon running. This event was a natural fit for the optician with a slender physique. At a time when rest, light training, and moderation were key principles of training, Jim Peters brought a determined, almost brusque attitude to his race preparations. He did not believe in easy running. In his autobiography he stated "the body has to be conditioned to stand up to the stresses and strains which it is going to met in a race."
In 1952, Jim smashed the world marathon record with a time of 2hours 25:39. He headed into the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games as the obvious favourite but would face an amazing runner from Czechoslovakia: Emile Zatopek. Zatopek had just won the Olympic 5000m and 10,000m titles; his trademark crunched shoulders and distorted expressions of fatigue masked the ease with which he ran. He fixed his sights on the marathon title and a clash with Jim Peters.
Peters was brimming with confidence and laid out the challenge for Zatopek. With aggressive front running, Peters quickly established a 16 second lead at 10km, but by 25km he seemed to be struggling. The first of a series of intense cramps were rippling through his body. Zatopek moved alongside; this was his first marathon and he was unsure of the pace. He turned to Peters and asked "are we going fast enough?" Peters' cheeky response suggested that Zatopek would have to run much faster than this pace to beat him. Zatopek promptly changed gears and ran away from Peters! The Czech became the only runner in Olympic history to claim 3 distance running titles at the same games. Jim was forced out of the race at the 30km, he would have to focus his training towards another race.
Today, the London Marathon has grown into an enormous cultural and sporting festival, but for many years - before marathon running became popular - the closest the capital came to its own race was the Polytechnic Marathon. This race weaved its way around West London and finished in Chiswick stadium. Fueled by his disappointment in Helsinki, Peters was determined to prove that he - and not Zatopek - was the fastest marathon runner in the world. He stamped his authority on the race and finished in 2hours 20:42; a new world record by almost five minutes.
Applying his personal motto: "Train little, hard and often," Jim prepared to take the marathon to a new level. In 1953 he became the first person to run under 2hours 20minutes as he recorded 2:18.40, again at the Polytechnic Marathon. The next year he repeated his record breaking feat by running an amazing 2:17.39.
Four world records in four years; a remarkable achievement that was recognised when the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) identified Jim as one of the three best marathon runners of all-time (along side Abebe Bikila of Ethiopea and Carlos Lopes of Portugal).
In 1954 Jim had the chance to add an international championship title to his achievements as The Empire Games were held in Vancouver, Canada. Race day was scorching hot (86 degrees in the shade) and the 16 runners that lined up at the start were to face challenging conditions. Dehydration quickly effected the runners - one athlete, Stan Cox, ran into a telegraph pole and knocked himself out. Peters ran at great speed seemingly in defiance of the conditions. He took no water and did not let up on his torrid pace, even though he had established a huge lead.
By the time Jim entered the stadium, his body had overheated, it was dehydrated and he was in a state of near collapse. He kept falling to the track but such was the man's courage and determination that he pulled himself up, again and again. With 200m left to run Jim Peters collapsed and was rendered assistance by team managers (incidentally, Dr. Roger Bannister, fresh from his victory in the Miracle Mile just minutes earlier, administered medical treatment). This was a heart wrenching experience for the athlete and the crowd that willed him to finish. Such was the trauma that Jim Peters retired from running soon after. With cruel irony it was later suggested that the course was 27 miles long and Jim had in fact successfully completed the marathon distance.
There was, however, a delightful turn of events. Jim Peters was held with such great affection with the people of Vancouver that several years later he was invited back to complete his final lap around that famous track.
In 1979 I had the privilege of meeting the great Jim Peters. I was a young runner and completely ignorant of the man's achievements. Introducing myself I said rather crassly "you were the runner who collapsed on the track." His shoulders dropped and for a moment a tinge of sadness came across his face, he then graciously offered words of encouragement for my running career. This article is my apology. Jim Peters was more than a man remembered for collapsing, he was more than a man who broke four world records, he was simply Jim Peters: A great runner!
The Tactical "Art of War"
by Gary Barber
Some athletes prefer to sit and kick. Others, are unabashed front runners wanting no company in their race. There are some athletes who will choose to execute a sustained surge to the finish line hoping to take the away the finishing speed of the sprinters. A few simply hope that they can hang onto the pace long enough to stay in the race. The perfect race can sometimes be an elusive cocktail of fitness and strategy. Correctly blended, and the performance can be truly memorable. Get one of those elements wrong and its bitter taste lingers. Never is the "recipe" the same for each race. As runners, we have to formulate our race plans, not only in anticipation of our rivals, but also in consideration of the weather, the course and distance. We all know athletes who had the fitness to win a particular race and yet made poor tactical decisions and underachieved.
Olympic history is replete with examples of athletes who won titles through the masterful application of their tactical plan - Sebastian Coe is a prime example. And then there are the stories of "favorites for the title" who can only look back and ask: "Why did I do that?" At the Los Angeles Olympics (1984) women marathon runners were advised that there would be furnace like conditions during the race. Most athletes, including heavily favored Grete Waitz (6 time winner of the New York marathon) who ran the early parts of the race cautiously. But as the thermometer failed to reach its feared height the more cautious athletes were forced to recognise that Joan Benoit had built up an unassailable lead. Benoit's correct tactical assessment of what was needed to win this race had secured her the Olympic title.
Keeping to a strict tactical plan requires faith in its design, patience in its execution and an unwavering commitment to see it through until the end. When an opponent races off far into the distance the seeds of self-doubt can easily undermine an athlete's plan. The successful athlete rises above this and stays confident that their plan will work. Paula Radcliffe's world record breaking performance of last year is an example of tactical excellence. Working to a meticulously detailed plan brought this athlete magnificent prize in her stellar career.
Historical examples aside, how as athletes can we improve our tactics during our races? An interesting reference book on tactics is Sun Tzu's "The Art of War". Written 2000 years ago by a Chinese warrior philosopher, this book offers a remarkable insight into the strategies and tactics of performance. Sun Tzu stated that "victory in war is not repetitious, but adapts its form endlessly." A runner's plan should never be predictable. When an athlete's performance becomes predictable they are better understood by their rivals who in turn adapt their strategies for success.
Prior to breaking the World 800m record Sebastian Coe had experimented with a variety of tactics. These included fast first laps (48-50 seconds), slow first laps (58 -60 seconds), mid race surges, accelerations over the last 100m of the race. The rehearsal of these tactics, which were generally in low key races, enabled Coe to either respond to, or dictate, the tactics of the race. When Coe raced he was never predictable.
In examination of another tactic Sun Tzu stated "defence is for times of insufficiency. Attack is for times of surplus." Tactics in sport convey a message and as an athlete you can either send the message or try to interpret it. If you are below your usual level of fitness you might chose a tactic that confuses your rivals and doesn't expose your weakness. Assertive tactics, front running for example, issues the "beat me if you can" ultimatum. Clearly this should only be used if you have the fitness and confidence to carry it off.
Any athlete who has competed in a distance race will identify with the thoughts, the doubts, perhaps even the fear that arises when someone throws in an unexpected surge. How long will it last? Should I go with them? Is it too soon or will I be making my move too late? The great Kenyan and Ethiopean runners of the 1990's have revolutionized running through both front running and devastating mid race surges. It is not uncommon for them to inject almost a 4 minute mile into the race mid way through a 10k. If surging is to be one of your chosen tactics, I believe that it would be most effective when delivered with an element of deception. Sun Tzu stated that "a military operation involves deception. Even though you are competent appear to be incompetent, though effective appear to be ineffective." Deceive your rivals by surging at a point in the race that makes them question whether you are really fit enough to maintain this pace, or is this just an act of desperation? Only you will know the answer.
Sun Tzu even offered some good old practical training and racing advice. "When your forces are dulled, and your supplies are gone, then others will take advantage of your debility and rise up." Knowing when to race and when to rest, that too is part of a sound tactical plan.
To be a successful athlete requires sound physical preparation, mental fortitude, and the tactical skill to deliver your performance. Of course the reality is that there are no magic formulas for success. But if Sun Tzu were around today he might also suggest that one of the most effective weapons against bad tactics is better tactics!
Gary Barber is a sports psychology counselor
"Tune In" to a Better Running Performance
by Gary Barber
Another race has been decided and the winners have practically galloped across the finishing line; the envy of many-an-athlete. While other athletes stagger to the line like drunken metronomes, this rare species of humanity is busy collecting their accolades. These are the athletes who can churn out miles on the road with the efficiency of a well-oiled machine. They can flow across the pavement apparently oblivious to their fatigue. And yet, they are the one's who endure the discomforts of a hard race for the least amount of time! 2/3hours of hard racing is tough, but isn't 4/5 hours tougher? These athletes - the ones that you will find on the 18th page of the results sheets - are the ghostly spirits of the sport; their presence is felt but not always seen. They are the athletes that fade away from the finishing line to have their blisters popped by a loved one - not an athletic trainer with an alphabet of qualifications after their name.
Throughout the long hours out on the course well-meaning spectators will be offering a plethora of cliches to help these weary athletes through their fatigue. The origins of these cliches vary: there is the bar-room inspired "suck it up, buddy!" There is the sports psychologist's couch "keep your focus!" And of course, the locker room "when the going gets tough..." Does any of this advice really help? 4 hours is a long time to "focusing," and it's definitely a long time to be "sucking" (I guess you could interpret that one in several ways!)
Sustained concentration is difficult, especially when your body is pouring fatigue into every sinew. As the mind wanders, thoughts of despair polluting the possibility of a great performance, it is not surprising that an athlete can miss their predicted times by many minutes, if not hours. Is there any way that an athlete can use their mental skills to improve performance, to shove aside these demons and let all their hard training bring the rewards that they deserve?
Two techniques from sports psychology offer fascinating possibilities.
Association is a mental technique that requires the endurance athlete to concentrate on many aspects of their physical condition. The athlete repeatedly runs through a mental checklist of body signals ensuring that everything is operating in a range that will allow the athlete to complete the race at top speed. For example, the athlete might ask themselves the following questions: Is my breathing relaxed? Is this a pace that I can hold for the rest of the race? Are my muscles coping? Is there any sign of cramping? Can I increase the pace? Etc.
The athlete concentrates on these physical signals and responds with either a tactical adjustment (slowing down, speeding up, surging, etc). The purpose of this technique is to help keep fatigue at the greatest intensity the athlete can cope with before there is a decrease in performance. Research suggests that this technique is most effective for elite athletes.
Dissociation is a technique that trains the athlete to block thoughts of fatigue. The athlete is encouraged to think about anything... play their favorite cd in their mind, recite their favorite poems, recall fun times... that will distract them. Several studies have shown that novice athletes who use dissociation strategies improve their times much more than athletes (doing the same physical training program) who primarily use association strategies.
Tests with athletes that have been trained to use the dissociation technique have found that their perception of exertion was manipulated; they learned to ignore their fatigue. This may be advantageous in competitions but it is not without its risks. There have been cases where athletes suffered serious dehydration because they failed to recognise their bodies' signals of distress. Dissociation may also reduce the athlete's ability to make rapid decisions in response to race tactics. Athletes becoming too absorbed in their thoughts may start to lose their sense of pace judgement and find that they have been slowing down without realising it. Another study has suggested that dissociation may contribute to an athlete "hitting the wall" the reasoning being that the athlete ignored the physical signals that indicated they were running too fast.
A combination of both techniques is probably the most effective. Try this strategy next time you race: "Tune in" to your physical signals by monitoring your breathing, learn to relax when tense, relieve muscle tension by adjusting your pace, read your energy levels - be honest in your assessment - can you really keep this up? If all is well then "tune out."
The Locomotive and the Record Books - Emil Zatopek
by Gary Barber
This Summer the Athens Olympic Games will undoubtedly showcase many outstanding performances. The Olympic motto "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - swifter, higher, stronger - will be embodied by athletes who will prove to us that they are the pick of the human gene pool. Many will be the epitomy of a supreme model for movement; a blend of speed and grace, athleticism and technique. But occasionally the Olympic Games will throw out a raw, almost jarring exception to the rule: an athlete short on style but high on talent; an athlete who seems to defy the conventional logic that technique is critical to performance.
In 1948 a diminutive Czech runner called Emil Zatopek bemused the running scene with his appalling style but brilliant performances. He quickly earned several nicknames: "The Locomotive," "The Bouncing Czech," and the less charitable moniker, "The Beast of Prague!" He was a runner taut with muscle and sinew but possessed the balletic poise of a prop forward attempting a pirouette. With his crunched shoulders and faced contorted in pain, Zatopek conveyed the look of a runner barely able to complete the next step. He was, however, fueled by an insatiable desire to prove to the world of athletics that determination is indeed a defining quality when it comes to racing. It could be argued that nobody had more determination than Emil Zatopek.
Zatopek's introduction to running could not have been more propitious. At the age of 19 he was employed in a state run shoe factory and a condition of employment was participation in a fitness run. Several hundred employees begrudgingly lined up for a 1500m race. Zatopek was reluctant to run but decided that if he had to run, he might as well run to win. Zatopek claimed 2nd place (and somewhere in the Czech Republic a retired factory worker will still claim that he once beat one of the greatest runners in the world!) Emil's talent for running was quickly identified and he was made to join the army; from there the state would control his career.
In 1948 the London Olympic Games were held; a brave attempt at normalcy after years of suffering. Zatopek - who was fluent in 6 languages - was not only a great athlete but was clearly a man with a deep humanitarian commitment. He was quoted as saying "after all those dark days of the war, the bombing, the killing, the starvation, the revival of the Olympic Games was as if the sun had come out. Suddenly, there were no more barriers, no more frontiers. Just the people meeting together." Zatopek won the first of his many Olympic medals by claiming gold in the 10,000m and a silver in the 5,000m. Many athletes would consider that to be the highlight of their career, a feat they would never repeat. But "The Locomotive" was just getting started; with unbelievably hard training as his fuel, he was building up a head of steam and he carefully made his plans to rip the world of athletics asunder.
In 1952, Zatopek approached the zenith of his career. The Helsinki Olympic Games afforded him the opportunity to stake his place in athletic history and he knew that he would have to be supremely fit. His training - 60 repetitions of 400m at 60 seconds - was at an intensity that few could imagine let alone cope with. Zatopek understood that physical preparation was only one component of his preparation, he would need to train his mind to cope with the extreme demands he would place on his body. "When a person trains once, nothing happens. When a person forces himself to do a thing a hundred or a thousand times, then he has certainly developed in more ways than physical... Then willpower will be no problem."
At the 10,000m race, Zatopek was quite simply unstoppable. Despite the attempts of his rivals to break the Czech's natural rhythm, Zatopek executed a race of remarkable pace judgement and won the title with ease. The Locomotive was tearing around the track: Next stop, the 5000m.
In this race Zatopek faced England's Chris Chataway, a young runner in good form, the mercurial Gordon Pirie (who would soon be breaking world records), Alain Mimoun of France (who was to claim a gold medal in the marathon at the Melbourne Olympics 4 years later) and the German, Herbert Schade. This proved to be an absorbing contest. Each runner seemed determined to stamp their authority on the race and the lead changed constantly. Surges were met with counter-attacks, relaxed running was followed by intense changes of pace; each athlete trying to position themselves for the final sprint for the line. Schade led at the bell but Zatopek - the agony written across face mistakenly suggesting that he was a spent force - struck for home. Zatopek's trademark grimace must have given encouragement to his rivals for they sensed a weakening of their prey and prepared to pounce. With 300m to run, Chataway unleashed his sprint but was followed stride for stride by Schade. Zatopek fell in behind and was himself passed by Mimoun who charged to the front. The Helsinki crowd stood to their feet; this was high drama, electrifying the senses. Who would win?
Around the final bend Mimoun held the lead but with Schade still poised to challenge. Chataway took the inside lane and tragically clipped the track inner rail; he came crashing down onto the track. The crowd roared ever louder. Seemingly out of nowhere, Zatopek sprinted past everybody. With his arms thrashing wildly he drew on that battery of willpower and propelled himself to victory.
A few days later, Zatopek sealed Olympic immortality when he claimed his 3rd Gold medal (at one games) by winning the marathon title (see The Jim Peters Story in The British Runner for more details). Zatopek's wife, Danova, also celebrated Olympic victory when she claimed the javelin title.
After he retired from serious competitive running, Zatopek faced some troubling and uncertain times. He was an outspoken critic of the Soviet suppression of a Czech up-rising (1968). Consequently, he was sent to a uranium mine for 6 years and was forced to complete menial tasks. His spirit, however, was unbroken and in an act of selfless generosity, he donated one of his gold medals to the Australian Ron Clarke who had broken many world records but had not won an Olympic title. In 1975, Zatopek was honoured by the United Nations with the International Fair-Play Prize.
Beauty and grace were highly valued features of movement at the ancient Olympic Games, but it is not hard to imagine the Gods of Olympus enjoying the irony that one of their greatest athletes, ever, would be the antithesis of this ideal.
Tactics for all Seasons - Part 1
by Gary Barber
After months of training you are ready for your race. You feel fit and focus your thoughts on the challenge before you. Have you decided how you will run your race? For some people the pace doesn't matter, the completion of the distance will be reward enough. Other runners may plan to compete; perhaps it will be against another determined rival - someone you have raced before and cannot seem to defeat. Some runners will compete against the stopwatch - a time will tell them if they have been successful. Then there are those runners who will compete against themselves - they will measure their performance against a self-imposed standard and will not be satisfied unless they give a supreme effort. Whatever your motives for competition, each runner must decide on the tactics that will best help them achieve that goal. Here are some suggested tactics - they do not suit all styles of runner - only you can decide which is the most appropriate for you.
For athletes who choose this tactic, the strategy is a simple one: You run as fast as you can for as long as you can and hopefully, the finishing line will arrive before you are spent. This may be effective against athletes of lesser ability, but eventually the runner will come up against somebody whose fitness is equal to their own. Runners with only one tactic - front running - at their disposal are easy to beat: you know exactly what they are going to do and their rivals will plan ways to beat them. The athlete that constantly changes their strategy is very difficult to beat, you don't what they are going to do next!
Front running requires the athlete to exercise good pace judgment and self discipline i.e. not to panic if the race unfolds in a different way than they expect, and a large degree of mental concentration.
Common mistakes made by front running athletes
Starting too fast trying to run away from your rivals and expecting that a comfortable (and winning) lead should be established early into the race is a very common mistake committed by inexperienced athletes. Practice a fast start to establish a position and then learn to reduce your pace to something more sustainable
Self discipline Some athletes tend to be reactive in a race. When a runner passes them, many feel that they immediately have to respond and fight off the challenge by sprinting hard to maintain the lead. This is a very draining response and is one that an experienced distance runner would avoid. Have you ever noticed that some athletes may break into a furious sprint when they pass in-front of a crowd: a few metres later they revert back to a jog. Using the Fartlek and Paarluff methods of distance training will help such runners to use the benefits of good pacing.
A front runner has a problem if they face an equally devoted front runner. Sometimes these runners race at such a speed that both of them succeed in tiring each other out. There have been many occasions where a steady pace athlete creeps up and passes our fatigued frontrunners and claims victory. The front running athlete needs to understand that their tactic must be flexible - it is not always possible to run away from another front runner - and so the plan must be changed mid race.
Looking back Front running athletes may lapse into the habit of looking back (on a regular basis) to see if their rivals are catching up. Turning your head leads to very inefficient technique and can only diminish your performance.
Athletes who front run may sometimes concentrate more on their rivals than concentrating on their own running form. Train yourself to silently ask questions about your running technique, e.g. "is this a pace that I can keep up?" "Am I relaxed?" "When I am going to start my sprint finish?" Rather than focusing on whether the chasing pack is closing in on you, the frontrunner can maintain their form to the finish.
The Sitting and Kicking Tactic
The tactic that is known as "sitting and kicking" is easy to adopt but requires a firm belief in the athlete that they can out sprint their rivals in the race for the finishing line. The "sitting" aspect of this tactic refers to the way an athlete closely follows the pace of the leader (or a rival); they respond to every move, every surge or acceleration that the leading athlete makes, but they do not attempt to take the lead. Only when the finishing line is in sight does the "sitter" unleash their sprint finish.
Common mistakes made by athletes using the "sitting and kicking" tactic:
When the athlete adopts this tactic, they are stating by their action that they can outrun their rival in the dash to the finish. Of course, some athletes are much faster sprinters than others. Perhaps the most common mistake made by athletes whom use this technique is that they under-estimate the speed of their rivals. When an athlete devises their race strategy, they need to try to evaluate the finishing speed of their rivals. If you know you have much better speed, sitting and kicking could be a good tactic for you. If you know that you have poor sprinting speed, you must develop another way to beat your rivals.
There are occasions when an athlete becomes so focused on following their rivals that they leave their sprint finish far too late. The timing of a sprint finish is critical. If you start it too soon you may struggle in the last few metres, leave it too late and you deny yourself the chance for success. Have a plan - a decision as to when you will sprint and the belief that you can sustain this to the finish.
Tactics for all Seasons - Part 2
by Gary Barber
Creating your tactical plan
Many athletes will go into a running race and "just run." However, with a small amount of preparation, discussion with coaches and a sound tactical plan, each athlete is capable of running so much better. Previous experience is always valuable as long as you can learn from the successes and setbacks of that race. Ask yourself "what went well, and what could I do better?" Honest answers to those two questions are a good starting point in developing a race plan.
Consider your strengths - what do you do well? Are you an excellent sprinter? Can you run at the front with confidence, or do you need to apply a surging tactic to help you succeed?
What are your weaknesses? Do you allow yourself to drop the pace in the middle of the race? Do you allow your rivals to dictate the race and do you always feel that you are responding?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of your rivals? Do you see them using the same tactics every single race? How can you use this knowledge to beat them next time?
Emphasise effort, not outcome. You cannot control the pace or tactics of anyone else other than your self. If someone comes along and runs so much faster than you, do not view this as a setback or failure. If you have truly given your best effort, then you should take pride in your performance.
This distance running tactic can have a devastating effect on your rivals. When the running pace seems constant, all of a sudden an athlete may decide to "surge" - this means they accelerate and start running at a much faster pace for a distance that only they know. The other athletes in the race are then faced with some troubling questions: Can this surging athlete maintain this new pace to the finish? If I decide not to follow this increased pace, will I be letting my rival get a big lead that I cannot catch? Surging requires a high level of fitness and the ability to change pace without it robbing you of your chance to finish the race well. This tactic is particularly effective for an athlete whom has poor sprinting speed. Rather than leaving your final effort to the end of the race - and running the risk of being defeated by a fast sprinter - these athletes are encourage to practice surging. The surging tactic - if delivered at unpredictable times in the race - is a good way to take the "sting" out of the sprint finishers.
Common mistakes made with surging
This tactic is only effective if the athlete conserves enough energy to complete the race. Some athletes may surge so hard that their subsequent pace falls off to a slow jog. The idea is to be able to alternate between fast, faster, and medium paces.
Good mental discipline is needed with this tactic. If the athlete maintains the surge for too long, again, they might only succeed in ruining their chances. A surge is a temporary increase in pace, not a permanent one. Athletes who cannot control their impulse to surge and then keep running faster and faster are doomed to early fatigue!
Working your way through
In this tactic, the runner starts off at a slower pace compared to the rest of the field. It is not unusual for an athlete using this strategy to find them significantly behind the leader. As the pace of the fast starting athletes slow, our steady starting athlete now moves by one athlete after another. This tactic can give the athlete confidence as they steadily improve their position. This is a good strategy to use for the athlete that is not blessed with good speed. Relying on their strength to sustain a strong pace throughout the race will help this athlete to be more successful than trying to keep up with the faster starting athletes. The most common mistake is when athletes allow the leaders to establish such a large lead that they cannot close the gap before the finishing line. An athlete using this strategy must stay close enough to the leader to allow this tactic to work.
Remember: you are not the only runner in the race with a tactical plan. Sometimes an athlete does something that is unpredictable and forces you to change your plan in the middle of the race. Flexibility in the tactical plan is essential.
Risk - taking and running - Is it all in the run of the dice?
by Gary Barber
After a recent trip to Las Vegas I reflected on the sound of coins being tossed into slot machines as if they were electronic wishing wells. There were those images of the cards crisply falling onto baize and the nerve jangling uncertainty from the spin of the roulette wheel. I was reminded of the gambles that runners take in their training and racing.
In gambling parlance, the player needs to calculate the odds and see if they can "beat the house." The strategies used by runners in a race is no different. All runners need to assess their opponents, decide their best tactic for success, maybe put on a "poker - face" and prepare to call the bluff of an equally determined rival.
The thrill of a gamble carries the possibilities of rich rewards, but equally the chance of defeat or setback (the latter of which is quite likely if you're in Vegas!). A runner can choose tactics that "play it safe" and stay within their usual range of achievement, or they can take risks, try something different and explore their untapped veins of performance.
Some runners are natural risk - takers. They will surge to the front of the field with an unexpected tactic and wreak havoc on the pacing strategies of other runners. These athletes thrive on the thrill of running at the edge, they keep us all guessing (and themselves) to see if they can maintain that pace to the finish. There are also those runners who throw all caution away realising there is probably no chance for success but in the spirit of "give it a go" they race anyway.
For elite athletes like Paula Radcliffe, risk - taking is a well - defined skill, but unlike us "mortal athletes" she backs up her strategies with a supreme level of fitness that actually minimises the odds of defeat. For her the risk of a setback comes from not carrying out her plan.
While Buddha might cringe at the thought of being connected to an article on gambling and risk taking, a few of his words are particularly salient: "Deeds can become habits, habits can become character." The habits of risk - taking running - with all its intrinsic rewards - could become ingrained in the athletes racing personality if success is achieved. Drawing on the classic principles of behavioral psychology, an athlete that achieves success from a risky strategy is more likely to attempt similar behaviour next time out; i.e. the behaviour is reinforced. Thus, it is particularly important to set goals that give you a realistic chance of success rather than forming a pattern of continual disappointment. Runners who drop out of races increase the likelihood that they will drop out of future races if things become tough.
Runners that demonstrate a strong risk - taking profile tend to exhibit similar mental skills:
- Confidence - to apply a race plan even though it may carry the strong chance for setback
- Courage - to see the plan through to its conclusion and the willingness to accept the outcome
- Determination to execute carefully designed tactics
How do you become a risk-taking runner?
- Set goals that will take your training and racing to a level where you have never been before. The practise of repeatedly trying new techniques and strategies will eventually become a habit.
- Balance risk and realism - There are good risks - a goal that focuses on beating a rival that matches your own talent level, and foolish risks - trying to beat the world record holder when you are still a club level athlete. By all means, aim high, but setting unrealistic goals is not risk - taking running, it is certain defeat and can undermine your confidence.
- Try a new tactic. Experiment in training with a strategy that tests your limits. There will be doubts in your mind that you can sustain this strategy, but try to talk yourself through these and believe that this goal is attainable. Once again, this will become a habit and will seem like second nature when the chance to apply it in a race arrives.
- Race an unfamiliar distance and praise your efforts for trying something different.
- Don't allow the stopwatch to tell you if you have been successful. Gauge your success on the effort that you have made.
- Remember... and now for the cliches... Nothing ventured, nothing gained! No guts, no glory!
Running races can often be gamble, sometimes you just have to roll the dice and see what happens. Good luck!
How to beat the unbeatable runner!
by Gary Barber
There are many types of runners: there are the talented and the determined; there are the courageous and the plain crazy. But there is a certain type of runner that we all secretly admire and maybe a part of us also wants to hate. This is the athlete that appears at the top of the results sheets of every age - group race; they are highly respected and widely known as "the unbeatable athlete." Race in, race out, this runner always seems to have an edge over us. They are either that much fitter or just seem to make the right tactical moves at the right time. No matter how hard we try, they just seem to have our number. Once you get past the frustration of being beaten by this athlete, may be you should consider the following question:
Who is the unbeatable runner and how can I beat him?
The profile of this seemingly invincible athlete initially makes for some unsettling reading. This runner is supremely confident and fully in control of all aspects of their performance. They seem to glide through the air as if they have invisible wings on their feet. Their technique seems so perfect that it appears to mock the rest of us shuffling hard across the ground in search of respectability. There can be a ruthless edge to their racing, some just want to win with style, a few (more maniacal) want to tear you apart. When they race there is an inherent confidence - if not arrogance - infusing every step that they take. An excellent performance, in their mind, is a certainty.
These "unbeatable" athletes have either earned or created a reputation that precedes them, and sometimes too much respect is afforded them in a race. The great Steve Ovett once stated that he had won many races by reputation alone. He was having a bad day and should have been beaten, however, his opponents lacked the self - belief that this great athlete could be defeated.
Athletes - such as Ovett - then manage to string together a lengthy undefeated streak. This reinforces the mystique and sentiment that this athlete is "unbeatable." One day, a runner comes along and springs a shock surprise, the un - thinkable happens, our hero is beaten. Other athletes sensing the weakening of this runner then line up to "have a go."
Tips to help you beat this runner
- Plan to defeat him; you have to start with the belief that that day will surely come. The belief system that states that this runner cannot be defeated can easily turn into a self - fulfilling prophecy for some runners. Rather than waiting for somebody else to come along and shatter that belief, why can't it be you?
- Accept the notion that reaching the top is tough, but staying there is even tougher. This unbeatable athlete has the knowledge that there is no allowance for a bad day. Everyone is out to get them. No matter how good you are, somebody wants to take your place at the top. This insidious thought is the Achilles heel of this great athlete. They know that sooner or later they will meet their match and this thought can have a corrosive effect on their confidence.
- Like a punter at the horse races you should be a keen study of the form. Has your unbeatable athlete been racing too much? Are they suspect over certain distances? Do they use the same winning tactics in each race? Have they made any mistakes in their racing strategy that you could exploit? Try to anticipate when they might have a bad day. Do they have to travel a long way for the race? Have they recently been ill? Do they seem to be struggling in their warm - up? With careful consideration of these points you can formulate a plan that might just spring that surprise.
- Deliver the tactical plan with courage and assertion. An "unbeatable athlete" has achieved their success by knowing how to read the tactics of others and counter them with a plan of their own. If your tactical move is not decisive they will believe that it is a weakly disguised bluff. When you make your move in a race, do so forcefully, no half - measures. Run with the commitment to break away from this runner.
- Test your rival's fitness with several probing surges. These are accelerations for short distances that attempt to measure your rival's response. You may steal a few yards, if they seem to be struggling maintain the surge for a few more metres then relax. You should gain confidence that your rival has been caught off guard.
Racing that unbeatable athlete is never going to be easy. They have earned that moniker; no - one has given it to them. However, perhaps you should comfort yourself with the thought that throughout history all empires - no matter how dominant - have eventually fallen.
Maybe you never beat your nemesis, but there is an old adage in running "if you can't beat the fellow in front of you, make sure that he breaks the record!"
What is natural about sport?
by Gary Barber
Athens, 2004. The runner has just completed his lap around the track and steps onto a podium in order to recite the oath that will bond the world's greatest athletes in a unified spirit. The Olympic Games are about to begin. The athletes will listen to the words and imagine that they will be the one to grasp a gold medal around their neck. "Citius, Altius, Fortius," the runner calmly pronounces, which in a contemporary translation could also mean "genetically swifter, artificially higher, un - naturally stronger." The Olympic flame is lit and the games begin... one question lurks ominously beneath the gloss and presentation: How did sport become so complicated?
The comparisons between ancient and modern Olympic games inevitably spark sentimental reverence; how could they not, the games have finally returned to their "spiritual home." The legends of ancient athletes, so beautifully depicted on pieces of pottery, or in the dancing lyrics of Greek philosophers tell a story of simple competition: one athlete against another.
This festival - originally a homage to Zeus - celebrated the beauty of movement, the test of character in competition, a measure of a warrior's skills in throwing, jumping and running. The modern incarnation of this event has somehow mutated into something that has only symbolic acknowledgement of its heritage.
Ever since Baron Pierre de Coubertin resurrected the Olympic Games (in 1896) athletes have found ever - complex ways to seek an advantage over a rival. At first, varying amounts of practise seemed to be enough to provide this edge; but other athletes quickly followed suit. No longer was more practise the key to success, different ways to enhance fitness were required. Sport started to dip into the knowledge base of science and medicine to provide training methods that would advance an athlete's fitness.
As early as 1920, some athletes were experimenting with stimulants to help jolt their body to an elevated level of performance. The British athlete Harold Abrahams - heroically portrayed in the Oscar winning film Chariots of Fire - was known to have experimented with Strychnine. With each passing decade the use of chemical performance enhancements have become ever more complex. Speed, success and steroids: an alliterative trinity for those that wish to cheat in track and field has threatened to undermine the very foundations of the sport. But even that now seems passe as cocktails of hormones, blood doping procedures, and the latest, and perhaps most sinister mode of cheating, gene therapy manipulation, are finding their way into the training regimes of some athletes.
Enhancing athletic performance through chemical intervention has not just been the playing ground of the biochemist. Sport and technology are now so closely connected that when an athlete of immense natural talent comes along; perhaps barefoot and poorly equipped, it is as if they are a throwback to a bygone era and we drop our jaws in disbelief.
The influence of technological enhancements in sport has elevated performances to such a degree that comparisons with great athletes from previous games is now meaningless. There are athletes with skin - tight suits that deflect the air resistance, this reduces the drag and can give an athlete an advantage over someone wearing shorts and vests. There are rowing shells that have been developed with the latest principles of hydrodynamic propulsion, boats that do not share this design do not stand a chance in competition. There are pole vaulting poles that can be specifically designed to bend and return huge of amounts of energy in a jump - a distinct advantage over an athlete whom does not have such an implement. This list is seemingly endless.
Watching an entourage of physiologists and psychologists, trainers and therapists practically carry an athlete with bloated muscles to the start line, it seems that sport has lost its simplicity. There is, of course, no way back; knowledge and discovery cannot be undone. These methods will always be used unless controlled by the rules of these sports. So far the various governing bodies seem only to be prepared to legislate against chemical enhancements (drug abuse). Will technological enhancements, which give massive advantage to wealthy nations that can afford the research and development, also be constrained?
While we will celebrate the achievements of this year's Olympians, sadly, we should also acknowledge that some of these performances have either been formulated in laboratories, shaped in wind tunnels, or designed by technologists. I doubt that is what Baron Pierre de Coubertin had in mind.
From Ancient to Modern: The Marathon Race and the Olympic Games
by Gary Barber
The modern day Olympic Games are replete with fabulous races, stories of runners who defied the physical odds to claim victory, tales of athletes overcoming injustice and prejudice to defeat the world's best. Our modern methods of recording history have allowed us to celebrate these achievements and possibly understand the personality and motivations of these athletes whom we admire so much. Less is known about the ancient Olympics. We tend to rely on the skillful interpretation of archaeologists to fill in the details of a story hinted at by a piece of broken pottery. However, many clues about great runners and their successes can be found in the letters and works of some the great philosophers. For a better understanding of marathon running let us start here...
"Swiftness of foot is one of the most highly prized qualities a man may possess" - Xenophanes, Greek philosopher
The great distance runners in ancient history tended to be messengers. As there were no easy means to get a message from one place to another, Kings, Generals and politicians came to rely on slaves or soldiers to carry their words to another. Perhaps one of the most famous messengers was a Greek (Spartan) soldier named Pheidippides. In 490 BC the Persian (today known as the country of Iran) King, Darius, invaded Greece with an army of 20,000 men. The Athenian army battled the Persians at the town of Marathona but were outnumbered 2:1. Realising that help would be needed, Pheidippides was dispatched to Sparta. Pheidippides was known as a Hemerodromoi, an warrior specifically trained to run very long distances - presumably to carry messages. Athens to Sparta was a distance of 229km which - it is claimed - that Pheidippides covered in 24hours. The Spartans were too busy celebrating a religious festival to send an army however. The battle raged on and the Athenians prevailed (killing 6,500 Persians while only losing 192 of their own men).
With the battle won, Pheidippides was told to inform the King who was in Athens - a distance of 40km - of their victory. The story goes that an exhausted Pheidippides staggered into the King's palace and declared "Nenikhkamen - we have won," after which, he died from exhaustion.
It is a popular misconception that the ancient Greeks held long distance races - such as the marathon. All of the races were in held in the stadium and the kings believed that exhausted runners displayed no beauty in their running.
When the ancient Olympic Games were resurrected in 1896 by Baron Pierre De Coubertin, a long distance race was held. The name Marathon was used to describe the run. The distance between Marathona and Athens is now the trademark distance (42 km or 26.2 miles) for this race. Fittingly, the Greek athlete Spiridon Louis won the first modern Olympic marathon race.
The loneliness of the (Greek) long distance runner!
Not all Greek athletes were brilliant runners, however. Nikarchos, a ancient poet (and presumably a man with a sharp tongue) wrote a letter to a friend describing the abilities of an unfortunate athlete: "Charmos, a long distance runner finished 7th in a field of 6. A friend ran along side him shouting "keep going, Charmos," and although fully dressed, beat him. And if he had had five friends he would have finished 12th."
Why is the Olympic marathon distance 26.2 miles?
When the London Olympic Games of 1908 were held, it was decided that the race would start at the King Edward VII home - Windsor Castle - and then run to the White City Stadium in the centre of London, a distance of 26miles. The finishing line for this race was, however, on the opposite side of the track to where the King and Queen Alexandra of England were sitting. The Queen spoke to the organizers and had them add point 2 of a mile to the race distance so that it finished directly in front of the King and Queen. Even to this day, marathon races all over the world are 26.2miles.
Copyright © 2004 Gary Barber
Gary Barber - A brief biography
Gary Barber has a Masters Degree in physical education and sport psychology. He has run in international championships in 1500m running (3:40 best), and has a 10km personal best of 29:00. He is the author of "Getting Started in Track and Field Athletics."