The danger of generic – free – training schedules

One of my pet hates is people providing incorrect information or unqualified opinions without bothering to check what they are saying. I’ll give you an example – I know that the new film in the Bourne franchise is due out on DVD on Monday. I strolled in to my local HMV store today and asked one of the shop assistants when they would have it in stock…

Erm, It’s like not out for another three weeks or something – we’ll have it then

Why, if he clearly didn’t know the answer to my question, did he feel the need to tell me something patently not true? And worse, for HMV, he is doing his employer a massive disservice giving people false information that will potentially damage sales. Hrumpf.

But actually I don’t care about HMVs profits and to be frank, if a company employs people who stretch their earlobes and get ironic neck tattoos and think that is a good way to build the business, then they deserve what is coming to them.

What has that got to do with running?

Dis-information is all around us. Take running for example. Anywhere that runners gather, you will likely find someone spouting off about the importance of never stretching or eating your body weight in pasta every day or running around the streets of your city with no shoes on. And the internet only serves to amplify this tendency for some people to say whatever comes into their heads and expect other people to take it as the gospel truth… take free downloadable training plans for example.

A quick search of the world wide web will reveal thousands of ‘free’ marathon training plans that you can download and print out and selotape to your fridge door to guide you through the weeks and months of preparing for a marathon. The problem is that they are – to a greater or lesser degree – wrong. At least they are for you.

What is the problem with free training plans?

This little rant has been inspired by a conversation on twitter that I was involved in a few weeks ago. A contact asked a number of people for a recommendation for a training plan. I suggested a few books that I believe explain the principles of endurance training and provide useful sample training plans and then came the all too familiar response:

Oh I really don’t want to spend any money – I only want free training plans

Now why is that? Perhaps the answer is that the person looking for free plans doesn’t put any value of the years of experience and knowledge that the authors of good training manuals have acquired? Which means – and this is where I get really frustrated – that they don’t put any value on their training OR the end goal they are trying to achieve.

Can it be right that £12.99 and a few hours of reading and studying is more than our intrepid runner is prepared to spend on achieving their goal?

The truth is that generic training plans are never going to be exactly what you need for your training. How can they be? The author has never met you, knows nothing about you and doesn’t even understand the basics of you life and your goals, like whether you work in a manual job or you have three children or you are aiming to break two and a half hours for the marathon.

And I think it is stupid to expect anything useful from a free training plan that you download from a website, after all you would never expect to ask someone for directions without telling them where you are going, how long you have to get there and how you are going to travel, would you?

So what is the answer?

Which brings me back to the start – people, often without malice, will tell you rubbish from time to time. There is no way to avoid that. Worse, some of them will write down what worked for them – or what they would like the world to believe worked for them (“Oh I ran over 100 miles a week every week in training”) – and publish that as a plan for you to follow. You might get lucky – the author of the plan might be exactly like you, with the same time pressures, same biomechanical weaknesses, same unmissable social events on exactly the same days as in your training, same race date, same weather conditions… I think you get my point – but it is likely that anything you download for free won’t be exactly right for you.

What do you do? Well I think that if you are prepared to spend £100 or more on a pair of trainers and much more on a wardrobe of kit, then spend £100s on massage and physio before spending hundreds or sometimes even thousands on race entries, flights and accommodation for your chosen race, you should spend a few quid and some of you precious time working out a training plan that is right for you.

There are some amazing books out there – my favourites include Pfitzinger and Douglas’ Advanced Marathoning and Marathon Running by Richard Nerurkar – and if you read one or more of them you will know how to build a proper training programme that is right for you.

Or you could invest £60 and get half a year’s access to the tailored training plans available through the RunLounge*

The truth is that the best training programme in the world is the one that works for you. If you can manage a speed session, a threshold session, a long run and a couple of other runs each week and increase the duration and intensity of those runs as you build up to you race, you’ll be on track to do well. But beyond that, you must realise that the details of how, what and when you do your training will be unique to you. That isn’t available for free from the internet!

And then…?

And then when you have worked out exactly what you need to get you to the finish line of your key races in the time you want, you can post it on the internet and let people download it for free: you never know, they might be exactly like you!





* Disclaimer: I have a vested interest in the RunLounge as I edit and produce much of the content on there. Just so you know.

Competing or Completing?

I spent a happy hour browsing running related videos online yesterday and one that I watched really struck a chord with me. It was the highlights of the 2010 Chicago marathon. I thought that the video was rather nicely made with sweeping panoramas of the runners and some great shots of the city. It really made me want to run the Chicago marathon one day!

But the thing that really made me think about all this marathoning, when I watched the video, was the difference between those who were there to compete and those whose aim was to complete the course. I thought about the difference between the elite and the fun-runners and the relative positions of those in between these two extremes.

Paula Radcliffe is a racer, putting everything on the line for the win

For most people in a marathon, running is something akin to a hobby: a way of staying fit. A personal challenge to rank alongside succeeding at work or going on exciting holidays. An item in their bucket-list.

For some however, the marathon is much more than that. It defines who they are. It shapes what they do, when they do it and why. Career advancement is sacrificed for the chance to train more and more effectively. Relationships are moulded around the everyday requirements of training and racing. These people strive and strain and put as much as they can possibly afford into running.

But where is the boundary? Is there a point, somewhere down the field, where racer turns into runner? Where competitor becomes ‘competer’? Or is it more a state of mind that can be found all they way through the field?

My personal feeling is that there are racers and competers all the way through the field of a race. I will always remember standing on the start line of a cold, wet and wind-blasted 20 mile race a couple of years back when the man next to me – a tiny, lightweight runner in a saggy vest and ancient running shorts – informed me that whilst he might finish in the final few of the race overall, he would make damn sure that he would beat “that bloke over there” – a similarly tiny, lightweight under-dressed chap who I was informed was the current holder of the over-70s winner’s medal from the year before (by the way, my compatriot did indeed win the Vet 70s race that year – apparently he and his nemesis swapped the cup almost every year!)

Taking time to high-five spectators = enjoying, but not racing.

For me, racing is a state of mind. It is wrapped up in the desire to be the best one can be. It is about looking at every aspect of one’s training and preparation and working out how to make it better. It is about making choices, every day, that are designed to result in being a better runner.

I believe that those whose aim is simply to complete a race aim to do what it takes to get through the distance. Time and position in the race is a secondary issue to actually finishing.

For racers the equation is slightly different – certainly, finishing is important, but achieving a PB or achieving a certain position or a time that qualifies the runner for something like the London marathon’s Good For Age entry system, is equally if not more important and not finishing or blowing-up before the end, is a risk worth taking for the chance of achieving something greater than just finishing.

So what are you? Completer or Competer? Do you have goals that feel at the limit of your reach? As my coach is fond of saying: anyone can cover 26.2 miles if sufficiently motivated and fuelled. It might not be pretty, but it is manageable. But for a racer, just getting around is not enough. Are you one of those runners not satisfied with just getting round?

And that was what struck me about the Chicago marathon video. The camera showed the entire gamut of runners as the film cut from those who were most definitely competing – Sammy Wanjiru and Tadesa Kibedi dueling it out in one of the most thrilling races I have ever seen – to those who were just looking to get to the end. I wondered why some people choose to race whilst others choose to get round? And what do you choose?

Runner at the Sharp End #4: Ben Wickham

I first met Ben at the Hackney Marshes ParkRun where it became immediately obvious that we were quite evenly matched. At the time I was living in Hackney so Ben and I were neighbours and ended up running the same races a few times. I was immediately and really hugely impressed by Ben’s level of dedication (as well as his amazing sun glasses – more on that later) and it was obvious to me that Ben would be someone that I would find myself chasing quite often in races. He had already set himself the target of a sub-75 minute half marathon and a sub-2:45 marathon when I met him and at a couple of races where we both ran, he came fiercely close to the half marathon target. Then with the London marathon 2012 looming on the horizon, it clearly all came together and Ben ran 73:19 at the Paddock Wood Half Marathon on 1 April and then cruised to an eight minute PB with 2:42:19 time in the London. Truly a runner at the sharp-end, here is what Ben had to tell me and if you want more from Ben follow him at

To begin with could you give us some background about yourself and your running? What distances do you run? What are your personal bests (and what were your first times for those distances)?
Ben in full flow... in a triathlon (but we'll forgive him for that)

I used to occasionally run the odd 10k. Maybe once a year. I always wanted to do a marathon, but badly strained my IT band whilst training (badly) in 2009, making it almost impossible to run any distance. From there I took to swimming and cycling to rehab it, and built the miles slowly to get to the start line of the 2010 London Marathon. Along the way I sort of turned myself into a triathlete.  My previous best time was somewhere around 55mins for a 10k. In training for that marathon I realized I had some potential to run pretty well, and by the time I got to the start I was shooting for sub-3. However, I exploded, running the 2nd half in 2hrs 10min, posting 3:39. Rather than put me off it fired me up to see how fast I could go. So far I have a 16:38 5k, 34:45 10k, 73′ half and 2:42 full. Those last two took some doing 😉

How long have you been running and why did you start in the first place?

I’d say I’ve been seriously running since the build up to VLM in 2010, so maybe just under 3 years, but I’d done a little bit of fun-running before. I always enjoyed the racing and the act of seeing how hard you could push you body over a given distance. As my limits expanded I just kept on looking for the edge, and still am.

Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

I’m not coached, but I read a lot, and listen a lot. I tend to try and absorb every detail about anything that interests me. I have a number of people who I bounce ideas off and discuss anything sports related. Top of the list are Mark Sheppard, who taught me Tai Chi, and coaches a variety of sports, and Hilary Ivory, who is a journalist, author (collaborating on Paula’s latest book), personal trainer, and has a marathon PB of 2:40.

(Aside from your coach, if you have one) who or what has been the biggest influence on your running and why?

Ironically, I’d say the biggest influence on my running was the injury to my IT band. It forced me to take up swimming and cycling, which have been vital in allowing my training to continue injury free, and it forced me to forensically examine my technique. The memory of not being able to run also keeps me sensible when I develop niggles.

What is the best piece of running advice you have ever been given? Who gave you that advice?

Stretch your calves. So many injuries and niggles that I develop can be traced to tight calves. They tend to feel OK, but pull on other bits of your legs, and you develop an injury that seems unrelated… and it’s not until you do a decent stretch you actually notice how bad they are!

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

Definitely my Oakleys. I think it’s vitally important to keep your face relaxed, as tension creeps into the shoulders and down into the hips and legs. The ability to keep your head up and eyes open is crucial to reducing tension. They also put me mentally in race-mode… physically feeling like a barrier to the outside world. And let’s face it.; I’m a triathlete too… They look cool.

What has been, or where is, your favourite race?

New York Marathon 2011. It was the first time I felt controlled and relaxed all the way through a marathon, allowing me to soak up the sights. Lots of friends on the course, simply the best start I’ve ever seen, and coming down onto 1st Avenue is spine-tingling.

What do you think has had the biggest effect on you improving your times?

Specific training. Lots more slow miles, and less, but more targeted speed work. I leave it really late these days to tailor my training for races and as a result arrive much less burnt out to the start line, and have less injuries.

With the benefit of hindsight, if you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be and why?

You have depths and abilities you cannot imagine right now. I was never picked for any team at school, and was bottom of the class at music. These days I happily play guitar by ear and blitz marathons. I’m not sure I would change my past, but if only I’d known I may have found out sooner.

Do you stretch enough?

See my answer above. Calves, calves calves. And some IT bands for good measure.

What do you think about the general state of running in the UK and, assuming you don’t think it is perfect, what could be done to improve it?

Running at elite level to me seems to be coming out of a bit of a low patch. Whilst we aren’t up there with the east africans, there are certainly green shoots. It’s always going to be a hard sell as a lifestyle, but improvements will take years, and there are genuine characters in the sport to help. We need to push these characters. Use the interest that they generate with sponsors and race directors to create massive events, and media coverage off the back. Athletics is starting to get huge coverage these days, and it’s likely that in 3, 4 years time we may see the benefits of that. However, at a grass roots level, I think it’s never been greater. Parkrun, running clubs and local races all combine to make it a genuinely mass participation sport, and one that brings me into contact with all sorts of people. At my level, running has everything I ever need.

What is your overall ambition for your own running? What do you think you need to do to achieve that?

Simply to keep on pushing that edge. I’m aware that my limits will occur before I can set the word on fire with my running, but as long as I’m on my limit, I’m happy. I need to be honest with myself, and push more when I can. You need to learn the difference between your body saying no and your mind.

Please complete the following: I run because…

… by looking for the outside edge of your performance, not only do you learn  that edge is much further away than you ever thought possible, but quite probably all your self-imposed limits.

Top ten reasons to go on a training camp

I am just back from my second ever training camp and this one was a belter. My coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, spends three weeks in the Algarve, Portugal and for 10 days the athletes he coaches or knows through running, are invited to come out and ‘enjoy’ the benefits that a running camp can offer.

Last year was a novelty for me, but this year I have been able to survey the whole concept of a training camp with a more experienced eye and I think there are quite a few benefits to getting away to a training camp or even a running weekend. Here are my top ten;

1. the weather

The group that trains together eats together...

– there is always going to be the chance that the weather won’t play ball. Indeed on our camp there was one day when a storm blew in and we all went for a run in the rain while the UK basked in sunshine. However in general finding a spot where the weather is generally better than at home makes training more pleasurable and can even allow runners to acclimatise in case they have hot weather on the day of their key race.

2. a change from the old routine…

The reality is that for many of us, training – and especially marathon training – can become monotonous. So going away for a few days or a week or even more can provide new places to train, new people to train with and even new training sessions to ward off staleness

3. … a new routine!

There are few, if any, distractions, on a camp. No meetings being put into your diary. No need to travel for business. No family commitments. No issues with public transport. In short, not very much that requires a training schedule to be re-jigged. So if the plan is for a morning and evening run every day, that is what you end up doing.

4. company

Training in a group = harder, faster sessions

– the romantic notion of the loneliness of the long distance runner might be embedded in the minds of many runners, but the reality is that in Kenya and Ethiopia, running is a team sport. One of the benefits of a training camp is the opportunity it train in a group, to surround oneself with positive people with a similar focus and drive, to watch and learn from others and to get immediate feedback from others about how we are doing. The only problem is that solo pre-breakfast runs the day after you return from camp can tend to be very, very lonely affairs!

5. food

– one third of the training triangle is fuel and a training camp is the ideal opportunity to get nutrition and hydration right. All too often I find that I end up eating on the go on the way to a meeting, bolting lunch after a midday run or squeezing meals in around runs or sessions. On a camp, with no meetings to go to and the chance to run at the optimum time, rather than when work or other commitments allow, eating well and regularly is much more possible. Which results in feeling strong enough to run more or harder. Virtuous circle!

6. rest and relaxation

– as with nutrition, the lack of time pressures plays a crucial part in allowing more training but also more of the things that support more training: rest and relaxation. Anyone who has read about the way that the worlds most elite runners, from east Africa, train, will know that when they are not running, they take their rest very, very seriously, spending hours sitting or reclining out of the sun or taking long snoozes between sessions. A lack of stimulus and an appalling choice of TV channels, as well as the aforementioned good weather, means that all of us on the camp spent hours on sun-loungers or stretched out on sofas, recovering from one session whilst preparing for the next one.

7. hands-on coaching and advice

is a luxury that we all really benefited from on our training camp. It is rare for runners, except for the most elite, to have as much contact with their coaches as we had with Nick and Phoebe from RunningWithUs on this camp. The opportunity to ask those things that you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask over a coffee after a morning run, was priceless (well, not quite – there was just the cost of travel and accommodation…)

8. the opportunity to try something new

– for me the new-ness on this camp was running twice a day every day except the two days when we went for a long run. So 13 runs in 7 days, brought to you by the ability to spend the majority of the day eating, sleeping or resting.

9. positivity

– I have yet to meet someone who goes to the effort and expense of going on a training camp to moan or whinge. Sure, there were points where injuries flared up or sessions didn’t go to plan, but in general the mood was massively positive and the closest I came to an injury was a side strain from laughing so much.

10. the aftermath

– having returned I am pleased to report that all of the things that I think about my training camp have an effect after the fact – I am back in the UK and despite the terrible inconvenience of work and the worse weather, I feel fit, lean and positive. And ready for my marathon in three weeks.

So in conclusion, I can only say that I think that camps, whilst undoubtedly indulgent, are hugely useful and great fun, so if you have a chance to try one, I suggest you do. It might be the key to unlock a new level of running.

When less is more.

If you ask any of my friends or colleagues, they will probably tell you that I am fond of drawing parallels between business and running (in fact at a push I can draw a parallel between running and pretty much anything) and every so often I read something that is ostensibly business related but which really resonates with me as a runner. Recently that happened with a blog post from my favourite business advisor Seth Godin.

Seth wrote a pithy short post about the fact that in the old world order, working longer hours was what got you ahead:

In that world, it’s clearly an advantage to have a team that spends more time than the competition. One way to get ahead as a freelancer or a factory worker of any kind … was simply to put in more hours.

But Seth then goes on to say that “After hour 24, there are no more hours left. Suddenly, you can’t get ahead by outworking the other guy, because both of you are already working as hard as Newtonian physics will permit.”

What runners and coaches know

Well this is also true in running and I believe that athletics coaches have known this for far longer than business people. Coaches know that at the elite level the days when a runner could simply ‘do more’ than the competition and consistently improve have passed. In the recent history of running, up to the present day, the winner is the person who can do the biggest volume of quality training and recover the best for the competition. Training more than Geoffrey Mutai will probably not make you faster than Geoffrey Mutai – you have to train smarter and recover better.

What Bill Bowerman knew

In his excellent book Out Of Nowhere, Geoff Hollister – Nike founder, Bill Bowerman-coached athlete and ‘Man of Oregon’ – who sadly passed away recently, wrote about training at the University of Oregon under Bowerman:

[Jeff] Galloway had become a sponge as to what Bill actually had us doing out in Oregon. The fact that he’d rest us with light runs for a day after a high mileage workout had escaped the Wesleyan team, a team that in addition to Jeff and Amby [Burfoot] included a then unknown Billy Rodgers. They hammered all the time. Bowerman would indulge endurance only with a long Sunday run

And guess who produced the better runners and lead more teams to victory – the coach at Wesleyan or Bill Bowerman? Yep, Bowerman.

What can we do then?

Finding balance is not easy, but necessary

I believe that the top runners are all close to, or at, the limit of the amount of time they can spend training without making themselves ill or injured. So what do they do? They train harder and smarter: run faster reps, train at altitude, use under-water treadmills, recover more effectively. And maximising the efficiency of our training is something that we should all be doing.

The trick here is to work out how your 24 hours are split up. If you are a full-time athlete living in Iten in Kenya then you day probably splits up like this:



But for the rest of us, our lives are usually more complicated. So we need to work out our training budget, i.e. the time that we can dedicate to training. Then you have to sit down and consider how to create a three-way balance: trainingliferecovery. Recovery takes time and I’m afraid that the time you spend at work, socialising, meeting family obligations or commuting do not account as recovery. Recovering counts as recovery.

True, the best runners in the world train more than us mere mortals. But we all have the same challenge – getting the most out of the time we have available. So be brave and make sure that when you do train you train hard. And then leave plenty of time for recovery. And life. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve and you will be on the road to being the best runner you can be.

The runners guide to making the marathon feel easy

I believe that one of the keys to unlocking success in the marathon, is training in a way that makes running at target marathon pace feel easy. Obviously there is a requirement to train for endurance, but the more that we can make marathon pace feel ‘easy’ the more likely we are to avoid crashing and burning! So that begs the question, how to make marathon pace feel easy? Well most of the runners I know believe that training at a pace that is quicker than marathon pace is the answer. Indeed on RunnersLife Ben Moreau wrote about the importance of ‘shorter stuff’

it’s good to add in some 5k/10k pace running just to stress different energy systems and also to reset your pace governance so that marathon pace ‘feels’ slow compared to the faster work

Some of the key aspects of my training now are sessions that involve running faster than marathon pace. This can take the form of threshold or tempo running (my coach Nick Anderson doesn’t really differentiate between the two for the vast majority of sessions) or faster stuff either on the track or in shorter races. Below I have outlined some examples based on my target marathon pace of 6 min/mile*

Example sessions

Threshold session – 75 minute run including 3 x 12 minutes at threshold pace with 3 minute jog recovery between (i.e. 15 minutes easy running to warm up then 3 sets of 12 minutes at threshold and 3 minutes jog recovery followed by 15 minutes easy running).

Hill session – Warm-up and drills then 10 minutes at threshold effort then 3 x 12 minutes continuous hills (90 seconds up, 90 seconds down) then 5 x 2 minutes hard on the flat

New River stadium where I do most of my track sessions

Track session – Warm-up and drills followed by 6 minutes at threshold pace then 2 x (6 x 400m) off reducing recovery with 2 minutes between sets. Then 20 minutes at marathon pace.

5km time-trial – Warm-up followed by 5km road or trail race (typically a Parkrun) followed by 3 x 10 minutes at threshold then cool-down

It is not revolutionary of course to build speed work into a marathon training programme, but it is not something that I used focus on particularly or if I did I had no idea why I was doing the faster stuff and what training benefit I was looking for. I recall doing hill sprints involving 20 seconds sprints up a hill followed by as much recovery jogging down as we wanted to take. Or sets of 200m sprints on the track. As coach Roy Benson says there is a “principle of specificity” which means that “if you want to develop a skill, you need to practice it exclusively” so when it comes to training for a marathon, the speed sessions should reflect the nature of the race distance.

This week’s track session

I still don’t pretend to understand all the science behind speed work (although I’m working on it!) but what I do know is that by doing sessions which develop a greater lactate threshold and increase VO2 max, we increase our capacity to operate comfortably at slower paces like marathon race pace. The proof of this was made starkly clear to me last night at the track.

After a pretty taxing session of 6 minutes’ threshold running and then 400m reps at faster than 5km pace off a reducing recovery, I set off for 20 minutes at marathon pace (6 min/mile for me) and I felt great! Despite actually going faster than target marathon pace (I was running at closer to 5:50 min/mile) I felt easy, light, in control and holding good form. I really felt that I could have kept going for much, much longer (although I was definitely in a depleted fuel state from not eating all that well during the day and the hard track session, so a gel or two would have been required to keep me going).

Suddenly I could visualise race day. I could tell how my body will feel after a taper period and with good fuel from the days before the race and the morning of the race. Add to that the excitement of race day and I can start to feel that my predicted pace will feel great. Well at least for the first 20 minutes!




* please note that these sessions are built into a plan from my coach and are in the context of the other training I am doing, so they shouldn’t necessarily be copied directly because your training is likely to differ from mine.

The Runners At The Sharp-end (or the RATS!)

Like any athlete at the absolute pinnacle of their sport, elite marathon runners are amazing. As a massive fan of athletics and in particular running and especially marathon running, I love reading about the greatest runners in the world – past and present – or seeing and listening to interviews with them. But I almost always feel very slightly unsatisfied with what I learn. Being utterly narcissistic about it, I’m left feeling that there is little that I can learn from men who are running 2:04 or 2:03 for a marathon – their approach to training and life and nutrition and rest is so utterly alien to me, that there is very little, if anything, that I can adapt to use for my own success. So I decided that I would use this blog as an opportunity to do something about it.

The running community

I sometimes view the running community as a huge pyramid. There are very large numbers of slower runners who treat running as a hobby and as something that is far from central to their life. They form the base of the pyramid. As you get further up the pyramid the runners get faster, more dedicated to their running and less numerous. Until you reach the very top and there are the elite few. The pyramid is not static – runners move up and down the pyramid as their times improve or they slow down. And the analogy is not perfect because I realise that there will naturally be a bulge in the middle rather then a tapering from bottom to top (so maybe a better visual would be two pyramids base-to-base…) but I hope you get the image I am trying to create.

Runners At The Sharp End

My idea then is to interview people near the top of the pyramid, but not those at the very top. I am calling these individuals Runners At The Sharp-end (or R.A.T.S). Necessarily this is going to require some subjective judgement on my part, so please bear with me, but I think what I am proposing is that I try to interview people who have full time jobs, who started their marathon career with a modest debut (sorry Scott Overall, you’re out!), who know what it is like to not ‘be a runner’, but who have progressed to a point where they win smaller races or place in the top 50 or top 100 of big city marathons. They qualify for the roomy start-pens that you see at the front of some race fields. The idea I have is that these types of runners are more accessible than the elite men and women, they are normal (well, normal’ish) people and their training, whilst almost certainly further and faster than most, is something that we can aspire to moving our training towards.

I really hope that through a series of interviews with the R.A.T.S I will be able to gain an insight into what it takes to become a really good, in fact some might say great, runner and extract some tips from them that we can all use in our training to help us be the best runners we can be.

The route to success

In my other life – the one where I am not running, writing about running, reading about running or thinking about running – I work in the design industry. I subscribe to a blog written by a man considered by many in that industry to be a guru; Seth Godin. His daily emails are pithy and thought provoking, often helping me to think about the industry and business in which I work, in new ways. Today my two worlds collided, when I received this in my inbox;

Adversity and the route to success

Resource-rich regions often fall behind in developing significant industrial and cultural capabilities. Japan does well despite having very few resources at all.

Well-rounded and popular people rarely change the world. The one voted most likely to succeed probably won’t.

Genuine success is scarce, and the scarcity comes from the barriers that keep everyone from having it. If it weren’t for the scarcity, it wouldn’t be valuable, after all.

It’s difficult to change an industry, set a world record, land big clients, or do art that influences others. When faced with this difficulty, those with other, seemingly better options see the barrier and walk away.

Why bother? The thinking is that we can just pump some more oil or smile and gladhand our way to an acceptably happy outcome.

On the other hand, people who believe they have fewer options take a look at the barrier and realize that even though it will be difficult to cross, it’s the single best option they’ve got.

This is one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies. Without an astute CEO in charge, they begin to worry more about not losing what they’ve already got than the real reason they started the project in the first place.

I think what Seth describes is not only “one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies” – it is also one of the dangers for overfunded and undertested athletes who live very comfortable lives in societies where there are much easier (and let’s face it, more reliable) ways to earn a very comfortable living. So what is it that drives the best to be the best? It must be pretty powerful, because if you believe what Matthew Syed, Daniel Pink, Rasmus Ankersen and others say (you can read my take on that here and here) then it is only due to hard work that they will succeed, which is difficult in a comfortable world.

The Mental Muscle with Rasmus Ankersen

I recently attended a one day seminar called the Mental Muscle, presented by Rasmus Ankersen, the High Performance Anthropologist. The seminar was billed as an exploration of the factors that create environments where high performance becomes the norm, and that is exactly what it delivered.

The Gold Mine Effect - out soon!

To begin Rasmus Ankersen offered the delegates a brief background to his life and how he ended up starting a project that would take him around the world trying to find common links between ‘gold mines’ of high performance. Having harboured ambitions of being a top-flight footballer, Rasmus’ career was shortened by injury and so he found himself coaching. He was part of the coaching team in charge of an academy in a rural part of Denmark.

At one point Rasmus was coaching a player called Simon Kjaer, who at the time was considered to be disruptive, lacking discipline and low on talent. He was not one of the players picked by any of the coaching staff when they were asked to nominate the five players they thought would ‘make it’ in the game. Several years later, Simon Kjaer is now considered to be a world class footballer.

Simon Kjaer - hidden talent

This inability to spot Simon Kyaer’s talent by a team of highly qualified and experienced coaches, forced Ankersen to ask what it was about talent that was so elusive. What Rasmus found is pretty exciting.

Genetics vs application

Ankersen said that in many cases there is a temptation to assume that dominence in a particular sporting field by a national or even regional group, must be down to genetics. Or in the case of individual prodigious exponents of a particular field, down to natural talent. But Rasmus told us that he was doubtful that this was the answer to the question of why these groups or people were so much better at whatever it was they did than everyone else.

He pointed out that in the case of Moses Kiptanui – the 3,000m and 5,000m world record holder as well as steeplechase world record holder and World Championship and Olympic medal winner – none of his extended family of 500 showed any ‘talent’ in running, despite obviously being closely genetically linked.

And when it comes to individual prodigies, such as Mozart or Tiger Woods, they were the products of environments where their fathers introduced them to the field they would become renowned in, at preposterously early ages.

The key in all these cases, was starting early and working continuously and as hard as possible.

Talent as the entry ticket

Who's holding the entry ticket here?

Rasmus acknowledges that a certain degree of ‘talent’ is the entry ticket required to put individuals with potential in a position to become exceptional. Much like basketball players who need to be tall to start with or sprinters who need to be blessed with a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres, only those who work the hardest actually excel.  Tall people or people with a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres are actually pretty universally evenly spread. But the will to turn that initial advantage into excellence, is not.

Rasmus went on to introduce us to a theory proposed by James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who has suggested that in fact the existence of pockets of excellence is less to go with the distribution of talented people and more to do with how good any particular society is at capturing and nurturing a talent.

Capturing and nurturing talent

For example, Rasmus believes that the east African dominence of middle and long distance running is less to do with an uneven distribution of genetics and more to do with an uneven distribution of self belief and the desire to work hard.

This uneven distribution of the desire for hardwork – what could be commonly called ‘hunger’ – is key to Rasmus’ argument and to the concept of the Gold Mine Effect. After the seminar Rasmus was kind enough to allow me to publish a section from his up-coming book, which explains the important of hunger:

Hunger factor 4: Spartan and simple facilities

I still remember my meeting in Iten, Kenya with one of the world’s absolute best 1500 m runners, Augustine Choge, as though it were yesterday. I’m watching his training on a running track a couple of kilometres outside Iten. Choge has just launched into the last of his merciless interval runs which he has been forcing his body to endure for the last 45 minutes. Stony-faced, he rounds his last corner and accelerates towards the finishing line, where I’m sitting in the baking hot sun watching them train.

Mr. Choge is the very man I have come to meet. He was the fastest man in the world in the 1500 m in 2009. After training we sit for a while in his big white Land Rover, the only sign of his success, and trundled back towards his home. Twenty minutes later, Augustine Choge turns in onto a grass field between two trees and parks in front of two dilapidated shacks.

Somewhat taken aback, I ask him: “Is this where you live?”

He nods. By Western standards it looks more like a chicken shack than somewhere people would live. And certainly not the world’s fastest 1500 m runner. The rusty hinges let out a high-pitched squeak as he opens the wonky wooden door into his living room. Here, an old massage couch and a sofa with a cover full of holes come into sight. An old 15 inch television set is chattering away on the table. The walls have been papered with old newspapers. Behind the tiny living room is an even tinier double room with a bunk bed and from the ceiling hangs a small electric bulb which struggles to light up the room.

This is where Augustine Choge sleeps. But not alone, it transpires; he shares his accommodation with David Rudisha, Kinnear’s best 800 m runner, who this year managed to topple his fellow countryman Wilson Kipketer’s 15-year-old world record.

I have great difficulty believing what I see as I sit in Augustine Choge’s living room as he boils water on his humble gas cooker to make the Kenyan tea he drinks after every training session. This man has made an absolute fortune from his sport. He drives around in a big Land Rover and could easily buy himself a fashionable flat in Nairobi. Nevertheless, he isolates himself in this little chicken shack a few hundred metres from the centre of Iten all year round – interrupted only by the few months when he is competing in Europe. These are, as he puts it, the optimum conditions for doing what it takes. Sleep, train, eat, sleep, train, eat, etc.

I saw the same thing at MVP Track & Field Club in Jamaica, where the world’s best sprinters trained on the diesel-scorched grass track – not the hypermodern running track I had expected for athletes of that calibre. But as Stephen Francis puts it:

“There’s no need for anything that is not absolutely necessary. A performance environment should not be designed for comfort, it should be designed for hard work.”

This seriously challenges the modern American/European mindset. In poor, rusty and overcrowded facilities in the West it’s almost impossible to create world stars. We instinctively strive for groomed fields, top-level technology, comfortable surroundings. It’s just that the burning question is: Do we develop better performance in fine, fancy and comfortable facilities? Or is it possible to imagine that it may be advantageous to train under primitive, humble conditions like Augustine Choge certainly does, and which Stephen Francis insists on at the world’s most successful athletics club? Perhaps these are in reality perfect facilities for developing World class performance because they really test people to find out whether they have the will to maintain their focus, which is what it’s all about, and at the same time send a clear signal that the road to the world elite is far from easy or comfortable. Perhaps luxurious surroundings diminish effort. The Gold Mines deliver the point that if you want to create and maintain drive, then aim to make and keep facilities spartan and simple.

This idea confronts anyone who works on a day-to-day basis with talent development with a number of urgent questions. If hunger is created and reinforced by spartan and simple facilities, does this give certain parts of the world an advantage? And if it does, then how is an English boy growing up in an affluent and comfortable society ever going to match the hunger gnawing inside the belly of the Brazilian boy growing up in a São Paulo favela? It important to emphasise here that the message about simple and spartan facilities does not mean that we in the West should tear down our ultramodern training centres and train in rusty old fitness centres and on uneven grass tracks. Nor does it have anything to do with Roger Federer not being able to win a grand slam if he stays at a luxury hotel. But we must understand that creating World class performance does not necessarily require World class facilities. The Spartan conditions at the Gold Mines make sure that nobody falls asleep in comfortable surroundings and constantly reminds their performers of the humbleness and laser-like focus that is required to get good and stay good.

(reproduced with kind permission of Rasmus Ankersen. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Cultivating my hunger

So where does that leave me? Well, it is always going to be a challenge to replicate the conditions necessary to create Rasmus’ hunger for success in a comfortable society like ours.  But I do think that it is possible to create deep intrinsic motivation if the concept of competition and self-development is put at the heart of the ways in which we educate our children and if as adults we accept that we must be live the change we want to see in future generations. So on that note, I’m off out for another run… if I keep going, I might just become the world class runner that I know I have the potential to be (maybe!)