The long and the shorts of it

One of the most oft quoted reasons that running is so popular is that it requires very little equipment – a pair of shoes and you are off! Well as anyone who has been to one of the mass participation races in the UK or runs in an area popular with those out training will tell you, that is far from the truth. With the expansion in popularity of running has come a plethora of running kit innovations intended to make us faster and more comfortable. There are GPS devices, heart rate monitors, knee straps, ankle supports, MP3 players, hi-viz vests and every conceivable type of rucksack or waistpack. The list is seemingly endless.

And then there is clothing. The global sports apparel market is worth $122billion per year. It is a fiercely competitive market and as such there is a huge amount spent on marketing and innovating. So it is no wonder I have such an extensive collection of running clothing, the size and extent of which would make any fashionista blush with envy (and I am not alone in this – every runner and indeed sports person I know is the same). As runners we are encouraged, by every means available, to buy ever more kit.

One of the things that I see time and time again are runners wearing too much. I know that wearing exactly the right combination of layers can be a dark art (unless it is just a beautifully warm day – then it is simple), but one is far less likely to see someone wearing too little as one is to see someone wearing too much nowadays. The reality for many runners, I think, is that especially as the year turns darker and colder and greyer, there is a need to feel comforted by multiple layers to overcome the reluctance to get out of the front door. In the last few weeks – as we approached the weekend when the “clocks go back” – the over-dressed runner has become an ever more regular sight. Well that is fine with me. I for one am sticking with shorts for everything but the slowest run on the coldest day when I might pull on my well worn (but never holey) tights. And that brings me to the point of this post – shorts.

I think that for many shorts are a pretty big issue (although for some they can be a pretty small issue – more on that in a moment). OK, shoes are the most important bit of kit, but shorts are crucial to comfort, modesty and the image that a runner projects.

When I started, I ran in a pair of cut-off tracksuit trousers – the thick cotton sort. They were a disaster. Almost too hot in any weather, they absorbed all moisture like a sponge and after a rain shower they would feel like they weighed close to 10kg. And they were spectacularly unflattering for a red-faced, sweaty fatty like me plodding round my bi-weekly run. After a month or so I decided to upgrade to a pair of baggy, black Nike shorts that came to my knees. Massively more comfortable than the cut-offs they helped me take my running to a new level, although it is worth noting that at that stage – and probably for at least the first 6 months that I was running – one pair of shorts was enough as I was running so infrequently that I could wash and dry them after each run in time for the next one!

At this early stage the baggy black shorts were ideal for me. They covered a large proportion of my lower half thereby saving me from embarrassment and the general public from the need to hold down their lunch as I lumbered past. They were also made from wicking material and had a little pocket that was perfect for keys and a couple of coins.

However in time, as I started training for my second and third half marathon and I began to race in 10Ks and even contemplate a marathon I found that I needed more kit to keep up with the increased regularity with which I was running. Suddenly I was forced to make shopping decisions and I realised there are a lot of shorts out there.

I was still lacking the confidence to buy racing shorts so I stuck with the baggy ones but I did invest in a pair of tracksters (no tights for me at this stage). At the same time I started going to more races and I noticed that the fast chaps wore rather more racy looking shorts. It was inevitable that at some point – if I carried on running more and more – I would want to start to look more like a proper runner. And so I remember when I bought my first pair of ‘proper’ shorts. It was after the Brighton half marathon in February 2006. I finished in 1:40:37 in a monsoon. I think it had rained throughout the entire race. I was soaked and cold and tired and, worse of all, sore from the chaffing my big baggy shorts had administered. But I was a runner. And I knew that I wanted to upgrade my shorts.

I bought a pair of Nike drifit shorts that were racing cut but not too short. I felt like I now deserved to look like a runner and the shorts fitted the bill. After that there was no looking back. I have had some shopping failures – a pair of shorts so short that even now I feel too self conscious to wear them – although they are not as revealing as the shorts a friend of mine bought from eBay which were – oddly he thought – advertised in the ‘gay interest’ section… now they really were short!

Overall I think that investing in good kit is worth it. I don’t really have a brand affiliation although I tend to wear Nike most often as they seem to be the easiest to find in the sales or reduced online. I’d like to try Adidas after I saw quite a few elites and top club runners wearing them at recent races and I really like the matching shorts and vest combinations that Adidas seem to do so well, but shorts don’t wear out very often and so justifying buying new ones is difficult. I am also a big fan of Ronhill which seems to produce really good quality, comfortable kit at a reasonable price.

Overall then, I think that a few things are true for me when it comes to shorts; function first, fashion second; pockets are pretty much useless, so less is more; baggy shorts are less flexible and less comfortable; and unless it is really freezing, in the UK at least, shorts are the best for most conditions, especially in the wet.

The talent myth and Matthew Syed

I have just finished reading an extraordinary book and I would like to share how it has had an impact on the way I think about my running.

The idea that natural talent is the primary factor when it comes to athletic ability cannot be new to most of the people reading this (whether or not they believe it). I am a victim of assuming that those I look up to – especially runners who I admire for their speed and endurance – must be genetically superior or somehow more gifted than me. Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, argues that this is untrue.

When I met my coach for the first time I told him that I was sure I was too old to improve significantly or that – given my genetic limitations – I would not be able to run much faster than I already do. My coach gave me the same response as I heard from Bud Baldaro when I first met him: that I could improve with hard work, dedication and more running. It was a very straightforward message and I realise now that they were telling me that talent had very little, if anything, to do with how fast I could run a marathon. Hard work was the answer. Sadly the message didn’t sink in immediately and it has taken the beautifully crafted words of Syed to hammer the point home – we all have huge potential and all we need to tap into it is hard effort.

The thing that struck me most about Syed’s assertion that talent is a myth is the amount of evidence he is able to call upon to support his arguments. I won’t go into very much detail here (I’d encourage you to buy a copy and read it yourself) but naturally the really interesting passages for me are those where he writes about endurance sports. He explodes the myth that the dominance of long distance running by athletes from east Africa is something to do with their genetic abilities – he points out that indeed it is not east African’s who are ‘natural‘ distance runners, nor is it Kenyans in general who have the right genes for endurance and speed. In fact the majority of successful runners come from a really tiny region called Nandi District which contains only 1.8% of Kenya’s population but has produced about 90% of the top Kenyan runners (and about 50% of the world’s top-class Kalenjin athletes). The dominance of this region is down to opportunity and inspiration – this is a region where many, many children use running as the primary transport method to  get to and from school and where their local heroes are the stars of long distance running. To cut a long story and a very good book short, these factors along with the desire to work bloody hard at their chosen sport is what makes these people special.

So how does that relate to me and my running? Well I think that Syed’s book makes it clear that one of the reasons the talent myth is so widely believed and so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the majority of people is that it offers an excuse for mediocrity. It is all too easy to look at someone who is better than oneself in any field and reach for the consolation that we could never be as good as them because genetics have dictated that they would be better no matter what (and that therefore trying is a waste of time and effort). It is a much more bitter pill to swallow to acknowledge that the reason they are better is that they practice more or they train harder.

So for me this means that I have to shrug off the mantle of inferiority. I have to face up to the fact that I can run faster – much faster – if I dedicate myself more and train harder. It becomes a question of motivation, because it now is apparent that if I get up earlier to fit in an extra run or turn down a social invitation in order to rest before a key session or race, my running will benefit and I will get quicker. Whilst running with two club mates on Sunday this was brought home with some force when, after describing how much more running I am doing now in comparison to what I did for my last road marathon (in Paris), I was told that the modest target that I have set for Florence in November is inappropriate – his point was that if I am going to put in this much effort then I should aim for and expect a much larger improvement. So I’d better finish this off now and get to the club… I’ve got the second of my two runs today to do and a new target to set for November!