Meeting Rasmus Ankersen, the High Performance Anthropologist

A few months ago, whilst leafing through Athletics Weekly, I came across an advert for a seminar that was going to be presented by a chap called Rasmus Ankersen, known as the High Performance Anthropologist. The talk was going to centre around a project that Rasmus had undertaken, called the Goldmine Effect, which lead him around the world visiting locations, often remote and usually very unassuming, from which had emerged world beating athletes. And not just one from each location, but dozens if not hundreds from each place. This examination of the forces that create these pockets of excellence dovetailed perfectly with some of the books I had been reading; Bounce by Matthew Syed, Drive by Daniel Pink, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Gold Rush by Michael Johnson.

So I bought a ticket and waited for the date to come around. But I also tweeted Ankersen (@rasmusankersen) asking whether he would give me 15 minutes before or after the seminar so I could conduct an interview. Well if you don’t ask you don’t get, and I was delighted when Rasmus replied to say that he would have time for me.

Here is my interview with Rasmus Ankersen.

I asked Rasmus to tell me a bit about how he became interested in high performance and specifically the apparent clustering of excellence around certain nodes. He told me that when he was younger he harboured an ambition to play professional football, but injuries put paid to that. So, as he says, like many players with unfulfilled ambitions, Rasmus started coaching. During his time as a coach he encountered situations where apparently talentless players turned out to be world-class and others, who were great performers, fizzled away and never reached the heights expected of them.

Fascinated by why it is so difficult to identify talent and untangle performance now from future success, Rasmus quit his coaching role and identified five locations around the world where excellence thrived;

  • Seoul, South Korea, where 137 of the world’s 500 best female golfers come from
  • The MVP Track Club in Kingston, Jamaica which has produced the vast majority of the world’s best sprinters
  • Iten, Kenya from where almost all the world’s best marathon runners come
  • Rio de Janiro, Brazil from whose residents every second World Footballer of the Year has been chosen
  • A run-down tennis club near Moscow, Russia which in the last 10 years has produced more Grand Slam winners than the whole of the US and UK put together

Ankersen then travelled to these locations and interviewed the athletes and coaches in these special places to try to understand how they consistently created such excellence.

Elite performance and science

When we started talking I asked Rasmus what were the main drivers for him taking on the challenge of identifying the features that linked the Gold Mines of performance. Rasmus started by saying that he thinks there is a curious relationship between elite performance and science. He pointed to the fact that in Kenya, whilst training with the greatest distance runners in the world, he never saw a heart rate monitor or found an athlete who knew, much less cared, what their VO2 Max was. In fact the only HRM strap he saw was strung between two posts and was being used to dry running kit!

Ankersen went on to talk about the ‘tale of the tape’ – a concept commonly found in boxing circles, where certain physical characteristics are identified as being optimum for different weight categories, despite the fact that arguably the greatest boxer ever – Muhammed Ali – deviated from pretty much every measurement that was expected of a heavyweight boxer. With such blind adherence to pointless ‘science’ it is no wonder that sport desperately need people like Rasmus Ankersen to unravel the myth from reality, especially when so many of the myths are based on apparent science!

The mental muscle and the power of the mind in elite performance

With an obvious interest in how the brain and not the physical characterisitics of an athlete have such a fundamental impact on performance, I asked Rasmus what he thought about the comment that Ben Johnson made during his recent appearance on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, when he said that once he had reached a certain level of fitness, racing became almost equally mental and physical? Rasmus responded with the story of one Kenyan athlete who, when he heard on the radio that all the runners in the Kenyan Olympic team that year had returned with gold medals he assumed that was normal and that he was therefore destined to get a gold medal. Obviously huge amounts of hard work were required, but it was the belief – the mental element – that would, in the end make the difference for this athlete.

From talking to Rasmus, it seems clear therefore that it is this power of belief and the use of the ‘mental muscle’ that creates pockets of outstanding performance where genetics cannot possibly be the reason for the clustering of high performers. The examples are too numerous to list here, but in Mattew Syed’s book, Bounce, he talks about being at the centre of a clustering of world class talent in table tennis around a tiny area of a suburb near Reading in Berkshire. This cannot be explained by genetics. Looking further afield, Rasmus is quite clear that whilst, when we see the best endurance runners in the world coming from east Africa, the assumption is that their dominance is down to genetics, the reality is that their dominance is not down to genetics – it is down to sheer bloody hard work and a belief that they will be the best in the world.

So how far can that belief take us? I asked Rasmus about one of the athletes he interviewed for the Gold Mine project; Bridget Foster-Hylton, who trains at MVP Track Club. She says in the video that she trains differently and more than anyone else. That she believes that statement is undeniable. But I asked Rasmus whether he thought that Foster-Hylton did in fact train more and harder than anyone else and this was the key to her astonishing improvements and recent results, or was it simply that she believed that she trained harder and more and that belief gave her the mental edge?

Rasmus’ answer was intreaguing. He said that he believed that Bridget Foster-Hylton probably did do more training and harder training than the people she competes against. However without the self-belief and mental strength that she possesses, she wouldn’t train to the degree she does. It seems that it is a virtuous circle.

The future for the Gold Mine Effect

And at this point Rasmus and I had to wrap up so that he could get ready for the seminar. So I had one last question – I asked Rasmus what he is planning on doing with the research he is conducting for the Gold Mine Effect project? Rasmus, it seems, is not a man afraid to test himself and his theories for real. He is planning on opening a football academy near Rio in Brazil, where he will utilise all he has learned to help create a gold mine of football talent. From there he will focus on education and helping parents understand how to tap into the talent that every child has, but in so many cases is unfulfilled. So if you are reading this in 2030 and the greatest footballer the world has ever seen is thanking his coach and mentor, Rasmus Ankersen, for helping him reach his or her potential, you will know that Rasmus was indeed right and he has really struck gold in that mine of his!

Next week I will publish my thoughts on the seminar itself and there is a very special treat – Rasmus has allowed me to publish a section of his book, due out in the UK next year, which deals with the difficult issue of how to keep athletes hungry for success. Keep checking back for that.

 

 

A world record… or is it?

I recently re-read one of my favourite books ‘The London Marathon’ by John Bryant and in one chapter, the author describes a fictional scenario for how the 2 hour barrier will be broken in the marathon;

It is 6 May 2024, London Marathon Day, the date set… after detailed discussions with the Ministry of Climate Control – the day when running 42.2 km should be perfect.

Millions are gathered around the course and a battery of television cameras are focused on the bright orange strip of all-weather running track two metres wide that snakes the miles from Blackheath to Buckingham Palace… Tufimu [the fictional athlete in this fantasy] is not wearing shoes as such for this marathon. His feet have been painted just 90 minutes before the race with a tough, flexible weatherproof coating – and one of the latest wafer-thin energy-return soles have been laser-glued to the bottom of each foot…

Bryant goes on to imagine that the runner will have an ear-piece plugged in to a feed from his personal hypnotherapist and that micro-chips under his skin will feed data back to a control centre, etc, etc. All very amusing.

The 2-hour marathon

But it makes a serious point. The 2 hour barrier for the marathon will, I have no doubt, be broken (hopefully in my lifetime) and it will also probably require a series of developments in both the way the athlete prepares and the kit they use. This was the case when Roger Bannister broke what many considered to be an impossible barrier – the 4 minute mile. In the case of Bannister’s historic run, it was the use of pace-makers that was the new (and in some quarters highly controversial) development, and one which has changed the face of athletics ever since. But does that mean that Bannister didn’t run a mile in under 4 minutes? No, it doesn’t.

That is part of sport. Things develop. Cars get faster, balls get lighter (or heavier or rounder or whatever), tracks and pools get ‘faster’ and sport should look forward. But I don’t believe that sport can, with one obvious exception, look backwards.

Paula Radcliffe’s world record

So how is it that the IAAF has announced recently that Paula Radcliffe’s world record for the marathon – 2:15:25 – set on 13 April 2003, will no longer be recognised as a world record (it will instead be listed as a ‘world best’ what ever the hell that means)? And the reason that this record is being down-graded is that Paula ran it in a race where there were men alongside her. Not men that Paula asked for and not, as we saw in the men’s race in Berlin this year, a peleton of runners in a ‘V’ formation in front and to the sides of her. The pace-makers in 2003 were just in the race, at most offering a target to help with the psychological challenges of keeping up the incredible pace Paula ran at.

Drug cheats

The obvious exception to all this, of course, is when it comes to drug cheats. And there the IAAF is in murky waters. I believe most strongly that if an athlete is found guilty of cheating by taking drugs, then all of their victories and all of their records should be disregarded. If they prove to be as capable clean, as they were when doping, then once they return after they have served their ban, they will surely regain their records. If they don’t… well then maybe the records weren’t legitimate anyway. But certainly in the case of many shorter distance events, almost all of the the women’s world records, mostly set in the 1980’s – before the introduction of mandatory drug testing was introduced – are so far beyond what the world’s current best are capable of, that there is a strong whiff of suspicion. There is a great article about this very subject here.

But Paula Radcliffe is not under suspicion of any misbehaviour. She is however in danger of having one of the most increadible feats of athletics, down-graded because of the occurrence of men on the course at the same time as her (ESPN have a great piece on this storm here). For what it is worth, I for one don’t think that is either sensible or fair and certainly brings into question whether ‘assisted’ marathon world records are going to be banned in which case Kenya’s Patrick Makau had better enjoy breaking the world record (2:03:38) last weekend, because he definitely hid from the wind behind a phalanx of pacers and if there is one rule for women, it is only fair that it should be applied to men. What do you think?

Success and motivation

I have just watched this video on the BBC website with Paula Radcliffe talking about running and her career in athletics and the power that the games in London in 2012 are having over the decisions she is making in her life. It really made me think. Personally I think that Paula is an incredible person and an incredible athlete. Where the media and arm-chair pundits do criticise Paula, it is usually because in their minds she has under-performed at major championships – most notably the last two Olympics. But I doubt there is a serious runner in the world who doesn’t know how hard it is to arrive at the start line of a key race in perfect shape, and it is absolutely true that the closer one is to the edge, the harder it is to get the training just right and arrive without either under training or, possibly worse, over training.

I am really pleased to hear that Paula does not consider the issue of her not being in shape for the last two Olympics to be defining in her career or in any way indicative of an unfulfilled life. And at the same time I was touched by the fact that she is clearly still so affected and concerned by the opinions of the people who turn their gaze on her once every couple of years when she races a high-profile event, but in all likelihood have no concept of what it takes to do what she does. She mentions in the video that when all is said and done, running was the thing that Paula did as a hobby and I think, from the couple of times I have met her (albeit very briefly both times) and from the hours of video footage that I have seen of her, that Paula is still at heart a runner who runs because she loves it. I hope that it may always be like that for her and that she can have her dream of performing at the Olympics whilst retaining her sanity in the face of relentless pressure from the media and sponsors and the public.

So three cheers for Paula. Let’s all get behind her and the other runners who will hopefully be toeing the start line of the marathon in 2012 and aiming to be the best runners they can be on the day.

An oasis of athletics

Watford. Not somewhere I go very often and when I have been there, the high street seems to resemble the identikit jumble of fast-food joints, cheap clothing retailers and disaffected youths just hanging around that is so typical of our town centres these days. On arriving in Watford last night, this prejudgement was not in any way altered by what I saw.

But I climbed on my bike and headed off along the A412 St Albans Road, for an appointment with pain and suffering – my first track race since school days and the first time I had ever raced over 3,000m. My coach, Nick Anderson, has been badgering me to come to the Watford Harriers open meet and run the 3,000m, in order – he says – to get out of my comfort zone. On arrival at a really lovely venue, I was greeted by a field full of athletes – a really wonderful sight.

There were a few older athletes, me included, but by far the majority as far as I could see, were junior athletes, up to 18 years old. As I weaved my way through the runners sprawled on the grass watching the action or warming up for their event or cooling down after it, there was a wonderful buzz of excited voices. Everyone was friendly, greeting those they were to compete with like the friends they clearly are, sharing thoughts on the nights races and talking about aims for the events that were to come.

My race came and went. I had a great time and I think I gave a good account of myself.

But the real eye-opener for me, was how many dedicated, fit and competitive young people there are who are prepared to come to Watford on a Wednesday night – and in the case of the runners in my race – wait until after 10pm before they get their opportunity for pain and suffering. After reading Christine Ohuruogu’s comments yesterday (you can read my response to that here) I had a bit of a feeling of despair; that the task of really exciting youngsters about athletics, the Olympics and sport in general was an impossible task – but after last night my spirits are soaring. Talking to the parents and coaches making up the very, very vocal support last night, I realise that for them the task is keeping children and young people engaged in athletics and for that I think we need super heroes and in that case the Olympics will, I’m sure, deliver. So if you fancy trying racing on the track for the first time or returning to the track or, if you are already racing on the track, you fancy racing at a friendly open meet, get yourself along to Watford and marvel at the fact that we have not lost an entire generation from sport… it’s just that the ones in Watford town centre don’t know what is going on 3 miles up the road.

Double or quits?

Recently I came across an article by Duncan Larkin on the Running Times website questioning the benefits of double days and instead singing the praises of only running once a day – you can read it here. Now many runners, me included, believe that the best way to increase mileage – which results in weight loss, improved running efficiency, capilliary growth, increased cardio-vascular efficiency, etc – is to run twice-a-day as many days as possible. Indeed I know that before Ryan Hall met Matt Dixon he was sometimes running three times per day. One of the things that Matt suggested to Ryan is that he reduced the number of runs he was doing. OK so I know that is an extreme example, but the article by Larkin describes the incredible results of Yuki Kawauchi, who became the first Japanese runner to cross the finish line at the 2011 Tokyo Marathon in 2:08:37. Kawauchi works full time and can only manage 1 run per day.

Generally my weekly programme is;

Monday – one run
Tuesday – double day: easy run and then session
Wednesday – one longer run
Thursday – double day: easy run and then session
Friday – rest day
Saturday – double day
Sunday – long run

However Larkin’s article quotes Marathon Performance Training Group’s elite coach Brad Hudson, who says that the key is to run for more than 80 minutes, which triggers certain physiological changes that are ideal for endurance athletes and especially marathon runners.

So what to do? I love my long and mid-length runs and would happily drop a 30 minute recovery run in order to fit in at least one more run of over 80 minutes. But then that could easily be the route to injury if the increased mileage is not managed carefully. Actually I suspect that my coach will increase my mileage as we approach the Seville marathon in February and that will probably mean at least two 80+ minute runs per week, so I probably don’t need to worry. But for those of you considering double days but wondering how to fit them in, how about adding to one of your existing runs and making that a mid-length run. Who knows… maybe 2:08:37 could be on the cards!

The law of diminishing returns vs. the aggregation of marginal gains.

Today I ran a personal best at the Reading half marathon (hooray)… by 20 seconds (oh) which equates to just over a second a mile (erm…) and that has made me think about running, diminishing returns and what it takes to continue to improve.

A couple of weeks ago a compatriot and training partner ran his first race after months of injury and set a new personal best. However when he replied to my text asking how the race had gone, he did so without mentioning the new benchmark (which of course I knew, but I was hoping he’d mention it). And he said he was a bit disappointed. I must admit that I felt like sending an admonishing text back saying that he should be bloody pleased with a PB, but I think I knew, deep in my heart, what was going on. I will explain.

In really simple terms (‘cause I’m a simple guy) the law of diminishing returns states that if you continue to add more resources to a process there will be an initial increasing return that, as more resources is added, will start to tail off. That is not to say that the addition of resources will result in a fall in output (that is known as negative returns) but the rate of returns will start to flatten. A common example given is that of people building a car – add more people to the process and you’ll get more cars. But continue to add more people and you will still get more cars, but not at a proportional rate.

If you apply this to running, it means (to me anyway) that if you add more training you should continue to get faster but at a decreasing rate. Most novice runners – me included – take massive chunks of time off every time they race. This could due to be a number of factors:

  • fitness increases
  • experience increases
  • running economy increases
  • etc

However as the runner races more, each beneficial factor has a less magnificent impact until we are scrabbling around for seconds here and there.

Now I recognise that almost every factor in racing is non-linear – we are not machines after all – and that it is impossible to apply this type of model to human behaviour, the effect of the weather, the impact of illness, etc but I believe that every runner will acknowledge that running is like ‘bungee running’…

Bungee running? I hear you ask. Last year at a festival in central London, my fiancée and I saw a bungee running sideshow – an inflatable tunnel where people are tied to a bungee cord at the open end and try to run up the tunnel to snatch a prize at the other end. The initial few meters are easy (in a running analogy this is the first few races that a novice enters) with little resistance to forward momentum but as the bungee runner reaches the furthest extent of the cord, the effort needed to go further (in our running analogy to achieve a personal best) increases… until they are flung backwards to the open end of the tunnel, exhausted and defeated. Nice.

But there is something on our side. Something that started being discussed in the GB cycling squad and (surprise, surprise after their results in the Beijing Olympics) made it into the lexicon of the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown; the aggregation of marginal gains. It is beautifully described here and essentially is the process whereby everything that could possibly have an impact on an outcome is systematically questioned and improved, if only by 1%. This, my friends, is where we find out improvement.

So what do I think this means?

I think it means making sure every training session is a close to perfect as possible (note I do not mean as fast as possible, or as long as possible. I mean as perfect as possible).
It means getting a massage.
It means stretching for a minute more or one more muscle than before.
It means going to bed 30 minutes earlier and making sure there are no distractions in the bedroom (well, apart from that obviously).
It means laying out your breakfast stuff the morning before an early run or a race.
It means thinking about everything that one can do that might have an impact in your A-race.

And where does that leave me? Well, I’m quite a long way up the bungee tunnel and the rope is quite tight. But I am not quite ready to slip back, not yet. I know that to get a little further up the tunnel I will have to work harder. But I am also going to work smarter. And I am going to accept that my days of 15 minute PBs are over and that from now on – if I am improving, I am improving and that is all I want.

Go hard, or go home – you decide.

Recently my friend and, dare I say it, sometime mentor Charlie Dark mentioned to me a motto he has adopted: ‘go hard, or go home’. Now I have been thinking about this quite a bit and I have come to realise that it means many things. But one thing in particular about this phrase has embedded itself in my mind. That is the implicit idea that we all have the opportunity to make a decision about our running within a framework – we decide to either go hard or go home. There is no option in this phrase for trying to go hard. Or going a bit hard. There is only ‘go hard’ or ‘go home’.

It has been well documented that the last 30 years have seen a rather spectacular decline in the standards of British male marathon running. In 1985, 102 British male runners ran under 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon, only 5 managed this same feat in 2005. In the same period there has been an incredible surge in the number of runners from east Africa, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia and more specifically from around the Iten Valley.

This is not the place that I am going to go into a long-winded discussion of why western runners have fallen so spectacularly from grace or why, almost at the same time, African runners have come to dominate the sport. But one thing is for certain – genetics do not play any part at all in either process. Quite simply the genetics of a population change over vastly long periods of time and it is absolutely certain that European runners are not now any less genetically capable of running fast marathons. So the only possible reason for the drop in standards I can see is that we have decided to get worse at running. We decided to ‘go home’.

Last night I was at a friend’s birthday party. It was a typically drunken affair but with my focus on my training and my goals, I elected to stick to fruit juice. Of course someone noticed and it soon started a conversation about running and marathons and inevitably about the people at the party who knew someone who had run a marathon and then – finally – to my times for the marathon. The response to me saying that my PB is 2:40 was verging on hysterical. One of the guests at the party turned to the girl opposite her and screeched “Oh my God, that is fucking amazing. That is like totally elite. I can’t believe it” and I felt angry.

Why did I feel angry? Because 2:40 is good – in fact I am very proud of it – but it is not “fucking amazing” or anywhere near “totally elite” and the overreaction is a damning comment on the state of running in this country. In today’s east Africa a similar time might get me a pat on the back, nothing more. In this country in the ‘70s and ‘80s I would be considered a reasonable club runner.

Today in the UK an ex-smoker and former junk-food eating, heavy drinker who has only been running for 5 years is considered to have done something extraordinary with a 2:40 PB. I think this state of affairs is wrong and I really want to find a way to correct it. I firmly believe that sports (or the lack thereof) in the school system is failing our children and has been for 20 years or more and that has contributed to the decline in middle and long distance running. I also think that the totally disproportionate rewards enjoyed by certain sport-people versus others is another crucial factor. But let me be clear here – the population of the United Kingdom today is genetically identical to that during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. There is no reason – save for opportunity and motivation – why we shouldn’t be producing runners at least as good, if not better, than in our golden period of marathoning. So this is my agenda and declaration – I want to understand why the decline has happened, what can be done to reverse it and then I want to do something about it. I want to contribute to returning to a situation where runners, quite simply decide that they are going to ‘go hard’. Simple, eh?