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.

 

 

The answer; run more

Recently I posted a question on Twitter; “I love reading about running and writing on my blog. Any suggestions for what I should write about? Reviews? Training?” and I got a fairly consistent response

I’d like to read about what it takes to go from simply finishing a marathon to consistently smashing them out in sub-3hrs. (@nickersan)

I’d like to read about how to get my legs as strong as my heart & head over 26 miles. (@alphabetbyrne)

Tips on how to bring your PB down from 3.30 to 3 & beyond! (@stuholliday)

So it is clear to me that what people really want to read about is practical advice for running faster. And that is fair enough. That is what I want and am constantly searching for, but I may have forgotten that a little bit when it come to writing on my own blog. Thank you to everyone on Twitter who reminded me. So let’s start with the best bit of advice I was ever given.

A breakthrough

By April 2010 I had run a few marathons under 3 hours. In fact I had done that enough times that I was confident that I could run the distance quicker than 6:52/mile (8:32/km) every time I toed the line at a marathon. But I wasn’t really sure how I had arrived at that point. I was also getting quicker more slowly and each PB was becoming harder to achieve. Nevertheless I was improving and went to Paris to run the marathon and had a breakthrough finishing in 2:43.

On returning to London I went to the London marathon expo with my wife so that she could collect her race pack and I could receive a prize I had won in a competition set by ASICS – the opportunity to meet the members of the ASICS Pro Team of advisers. Actually I was interested in meeting one person – Bud Baldaro. A legend in the world of endurance running, former national marathon coach and a man with more accolades and coaching successes than I could shake a foam-roller at.

Brilliant, if simple, advice

When I got my moment with Bud, I whipped out my note book and asked the burning question: “How do I get quicker at the marathon?” Bud fixed me with a very steely gaze and after quite a long pause said…

Run more

Bud Baldaro is not this cheesy normally

What?!?! That was it? Run more? I felt a bit deflated to be honest. Here I was, sitting opposite the man that I believed had all the answers and he had given me… well, nothing very scientific really. Just “run more”. But actually there was a lot more to this than first met the eye. I didn’t let it rest and I probed further: how much more? what sort of running should I do more of? when? at what intensity? And the answers to these questions revealed that the answer was to add a specific type of training in a controlled and well thought out way.

Bud asked me quite a few questions about what I had been doing up to the point that I had just run my breakthrough time in Paris a week before. From that he was able to give me quite a few pointers and strongly advised me to seek out Nick Anderson and talk to him about coaching. Which I did. But at the heart of what Bud told me, and what Nick has subsequently got me to do, has been the simple premise of running more.

What can you do?

The difference has been made by how I have added miles. And this is the advice I would like to pass on;

add slow miles to start with – there is a high likelihood that if you add more miles at threshold or tempo pace you will breakdown
recover runs are a great way to add miles – I have 2 runs on three days of the week and those runs are easy, recovery runs in the morning before a session in the evening
don’t set a mileage target – chasing a certain number of miles for the week is not sensible. Instead add a little to your current runs and then add in some easy time-based recovery runs (for example 30 minutes three times a week as an additional run on a day when you already have a session in the evening)

Then it is possible to ease up the training – increasing the recovery runs from 30 minutes to 45 minutes. Increasing the speed, intensity and duration of sessions. Increasing the length of long runs (although I don’t base long runs on distance now as I will explain in a future post). But all of this is done very slowly and with plenty of periods of reduced training volume to allow recovery. After all, it’s a marathon not a sprint, right?

I’ll leave the final words to Bud Baldaro. When asked for a piece of advice for advanced runners looking to go one step further, his suggestion was to:

Take yourself out of the comfort zone on a gradual and realistic basis.

I think that the way to do that is to add miles and intensity but in a very gradual way so that it is sustainable. Slowly add recovery runs if you have multiple rest days in a week, so that you are running six days a week. If you are already at that point, think about one or two recovery runs on the morning of a day when you have a session in the evening. If you already run more than six times per week, slowly increase the length of your easy runs. You’ll be amazed at what a difference a little more can make.

The finished product

Inspiration from ‘The Perfect Distance’ by Pat Butcher

I have just finished reading Pat Butcher’s excellent book on the golden era of British middle distance running “The Perfect Distance. Ovett & Coe: the record breaking rivalry” (published by Phoenix and available here). I’ll write a specific review of the book soon, but in the mean time there was a theme running through the book that I found interesting because it spoke to me about my own current predicament.

In the closing pages of the book, Butcher writes about the Los Angeles Olympic Games 1500m final in which Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram all ran and which provided British athletics fans with one of the most iconic images ever; the three of them in a line at the bell (see right). The result of that race is that Seb Coe became the first man ever to successfully defend a 1500m Olympic title. But perhaps more extraordinarily, he did it despite battling with injury and illness almost his entire career. Butcher tells us that;

After almost three years of illness, half an elite athlete’s lifetime. He’d [Coe] done it [defended his Olympic 1500m title]. Against all the odds. He had done it.

Perseverance

And that is extraordinary to me in one very clear sense. How many people would have persevered through the sorts of trials and tribulations that Coe had endured? Stress fractures, crippling toxoplasmosis, sciatica and a host of other injuries? I have had a very fortunate ‘running career’ of 5 years during which time I have managed to avoid any serious illness or injury (save for a broken wrist that was the result of being knocked off my bike) whilst friends and contemporaries have suffered all sorts of set-backs. But the remarkable thing is that Coe kept coming back. He took his time, got the treatment and worked his way back to top form.

The same is true in so many walks of life – it is all too easy to see a finished product in any discipline and not realise what had been going on in the background for months, years or even decades. In terms of my interest in running, it is easy to think that sporting greats arrive on the scene as the finished product. But that is never the case. I think that arguably the greatest distance runner the world has ever seen is Haile Gebrselassie and he himself acknowledges that it was decades of running, starting with 10km a day to school and back, that set him up for his achievements in later life. One story that I love, which may or may not be true, is that of Picasso sketching a woman in a cafe;

A woman was strolling along a street in Paris when she spotted Pablo Picasso sketching at a sidewalk cafe. The woman asked Picasso if he might sketch her, and charge her accordingly. Picasso graciously obliged and in just minutes, there she was: an original Picasso.

“And what do I owe you?” she asked.
“Five Thousand Francs,” Picasso answered.
“But it only took you three minutes,” she politely reminded him.
“No,” Picasso said. “It took me all my life.”

The point of this story is obvious, but one that it is easy to forget – achieving greatness, whether that is objective greatness or simply being the best we can be, takes years or decades or even a lifetime of dedication. So how does that relate to my predicament?

The lesson learnt

For the last few months I have been struggling to train at the level that I think I need to, to achieve what I want to, especially in terms of achieving new personal bests. Now I am not suggesting for one minute that there is anything to compare between me and Sebastian Coe, but I do think there is much to be learned from his example – he rolled with the punches and dealt with the set-backs. And in my mind that is one of the things that makes an athlete great. Like all injured runners I need to stop feeling sorry for myself, find out what I need to do to get back to my best form and get there step-by-step . Thanks for the inspiration, Lord Coe!

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?

A Mo-tivating Interview

It is not often that one meets their hero. Tonight that is exactly what I did; I met and interviewed Mo Farah.

Mo was the guest of honour at an event that Nike organised at the track at St. Mary’s University College, Twickenham in London. Mo was there to provide advice and inspiration to a select group of youngsters and he was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk to me.

Talking to young people and encouraging them to strive to be the best they can be is clearly close to Mo’s heart. At the question and answer session after our interview, Mo was asked what must be one of the most common questions he hears now: how did you first get started in athletics? The answer is simply that the PE teacher at his first school, a man by the name of Alan Watkinson (who incidentally was on hand tonight to receive a generous round of applause) saw some potential in Mo and encouraged, bribed and coerced the young, football-mad Farah to join a running club in Houndslow. From there it was simply a matter of his fitness, dedication and enthusiasm combining to create the superb runner we see today.

Mo has a singular belief that anyone, especially any young person, can get into sport. When I asked him what he would say to youngsters who say that they can’t run, he looked a little puzzled for a moment before stating simply that they can run, they just have to try. He went on to say that he thinks that the answer to getting kids involved in sport is to make it fun for them.

So does Mo see himself as a role model? Actually I’m glad to say that he told me that he does, especially to those who already run. And that was apparent from what I saw tonight. The kids surged towards the stage he was due to appear on – giving the Nike organising team a bit of a headache as they tried to get everyone to move back to make it easier for the whole room to see Mo in the Q&A. And when Mo sat down to sign autographs after the Q&A session the line seemed endless. Nevertheless Mo shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures long after the PR people would have whisked him away. He really seemed to love interacting with the young people present.

My interview with Mo was a very rushed affair – I told him that I was going to try to get through the questions in a 3,000m PB time (which for him we didn’t, but I would have been very happy with 8 min 20 secs!) and in that time Mo reminded me again of why I love this sport of ours – he is warm, engaging, enthusiastic and very, very successful.

I hope to have video footage of the interview online in the next couple of days. But in the mean time if you need any more reason to make this man your hero, check out the footage of his 10,000m triumph in Barcelona on the BBC. Simply fantastic.

 

“More than a Game: Harnessing the power of sport to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people” A report by the Centre for Social Justice.

“More than a Game: Harnessing the power of sport to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people” A report by the Centre for Social Justice. Initial thoughts.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) is an independent think tank established by Ian Duncan-Smith in 2004 to find ways to eradicate the poverty that exists in pockets in the UK. The CSJ believes there are a number of paths to poverty; broken family, failed education, debt and drug and alcohol addiction and that once a young person has more than three of these in their lives they are on a slippery slope to poverty.

The report that the CSJ has published is entitled “More than a Game: Harnessing the power of sport to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people” and broadly looks at how sport can act as an agent to transform the lives of the least privileged children in the UK. It is a fascinating and challenging report that has started me thinking even more about the transformative power of sport.

There are a number of areas that the report delves into that I think are crucial in helping us to understand the role that sport can play. There are also a couple of areas where I think the report could have touched on.

1) The importance of coaching and coach development
This is something very close to my heart. My Dad still fondly recalls his coach as someone he had great respect for and from whom he learned not only how to box and get in shape to win, but life lessons. I know that my coach is closely involved with the development of a large number of youngsters not only from an athletic point of view, but also socially and academically. As a former school teacher he is well placed to do that. Even I, at my grand old age, benefit from some sound advice from my coach now and then about issues such as how to deal with stress at work or how to approach some of life’s big events.

I completely agree with the report and it’s findings that one of the weakest areas in coach development in the UK is the lack of modules focused on teaching coaches to interact with young people. The report seems to accept that current coaching programmes are sufficient when it comes to teaching necessary skills and developing training programmes, but that is not enough to engage with the people who stand to gain most from sport

2) The importance of the education system owning sport as a tool for development
I am happy to state that in my opinion many of the problems that the CSJ report aims to tackle and a few that it doesn’t are due to the destruction of sports in schools. My personal mission is to try to find a way to tackle childhood obesity (more on that later) and as such I think that successive governments have been responsible for the sell-off of school playing fields and the removal of meaningful sport from timetables so that now we are reaping the seeds sown over the last few decades. If there is an answer to the social problems that the report looks at, then it is only through engaging with youngsters at school that we have any hope of succeeding.

3) The value of long-term programmes, not just ‘taster’ sessions
I was initially surprised to read that the report recommends that taster sessions should be abolished. My feeling was that anything is better than nothing and that taster sessions are a good way to get lots of youngsters to try different sports and see what resonates with them. However my understanding of the report is that the authors believe that the money currently directed at taster sessions would be better spent creating programmes where the participants have longer-term and more significant engagement with… yes, you guessed it – well trained coaches who know how to teach the technical aspects of the sport as well as engage with the youngsters of the programme and help them develop. I can’t help thinking that this must be a more expensive proposition than the current taster programmes but then again if in-depth programmes have the effect of reducing the effects of poverty, then the money will have been well spent.

Throughout the report there was a theme that I found fascinating – that of using sport to connect disadvantaged youngsters to the mainstream. I never thought of connecting someone to mainstream as a desirable side-effect of sport, but my understanding of this is that sport can have the effect of giving youngsters a reason to steer clear of drugs and alcohol and crime – the paths to poverty – and engage with education (especially if education is the vehicle delivering the sporting opportunities) or employment. In that way sport connects those involved in it with the mainstream.

I mentioned that there were two areas which I feel the report could have touched on;

The first is my bête noire – childhood obesity. I believe that sport is crucial for health and particularly in the fight against obesity. I also think that poor health is inextricably linked with and therefore to some extent must exacerbate the poverty trap both for individuals directly and for society as a whole through the need to pay for the treatment of diseases associate with obesity. I would have liked the report to draw a connection between the ways that sport – more so than any other activity that might help disadvantaged youth to beat the five paths (like music, theatre, etc) – can help to combat poverty both through helping youngsters to engage with the mainstream and by improving general health.

The report also clearly states that it is not concerned with elite sport. I am not sure it is sensible to completely ignore this issue. In this context I think there is a value and importance in elite sport in that it is often the promise of fame and fortune that has excites and motivates youngsters in the first place and so it must be considered. I think that there is also the opportunity, by engaging with elite sport, to secure more funding and access to facilities that could create more opportunities for development through sport.

As might be clear from this write up, I have only really had an opportunity to briefly read the report and I would encourage anyone interested to download it from the CSJ website here. This is such an important area and I think that this should be a debate that we pursue as quickly as possible so that we can help as many youngsters as possible.