Swinging For The Fences

Far better it is to dare mighty things – to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure – than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much; for they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory, nor defeat.”       Theodore Roosevelt

Strategy and considerate preparation have almost always been crucial factors in most true athletic achievements to date. We collectively marvel at the perfect execution of a carefully constructed game-plan on the big stages, and rightly so. Countless NBA titles, heavyweight championship belts and Olympic medals have been won and defended due to strict adherence to a calculated strategy, capitalising on an opponent’s weaknesses or one’s own strengths.

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Alex Hutchinson raised what I thought was a very interesting point in the closing chapters of Endure (his most recent book, mentioned several times here so far), reflecting on both his own experiences as an aspiring Olympic middle-distance runner, and as a life-time spectator and colour-commentator for elite road running events. He explored the idea that, while indeed adherence to pacing strategies has been behind some of the most consistently successful distance running careers, and has prevented many an amateur runner from metaphorically falling apart mid-race, perhaps pacing in this manner places a self-imposed barrier in the way of an athlete achieving their full potential.

Logic would suggest that having minimal variance in average pace, for both elite and non-elite athletes, would produce a more even and predictable finish time – saving an athlete from the heartache of a race falling apart. With this in mind, setting out with a premeditated idea of what a realistic sustainable pace is for the individual, and adhering to it, would be more likely to produce a favourable result.

Hutchinson recounts, in his commentary of the 2011 Toronto Waterfront Marathon, that this approach is far from the ‘kamikaze’ style pacing variability of the East African champions who dominate the sport.

There is a certain ‘do-or-die’ attitude that surrounds elite Kenyan and Ethiopian distance running; perhaps motivated by national and personal pride, by the economic importance that prize money and endorsements hold in the developing world, and/or innate confidence stemming from the legacy of great athletes originating from the region.  Enormous group fartlek sessions in the thin airs of the Rift Valley are renowned for both the brutal speed at which they are performed, and the complete willingness for up-and-coming athletes to suffer, even if only briefly, alongside the established champions.

African distance athletes are known for this variance from ‘traditional’ Western approaches to running strategy – where North Americans and Europeans are typically methodical and deliberate, East Africans employ an unrelenting and seemingly unsustainable pace. When 96 of the 100 fastest marathon times in 2016 were run by athletes from East Africa, it would surely be a mistake to be dismissive of their unconventionally risky pacing strategies.

Hutchinson argues that performing in the traditional approach of carefully calculated kilometre splits may be unnecessarily confining – stating, “there is something inherently limiting about the fetishization of even pacing”. Modern sports science has for a long time distanced itself from the twentieth-century view of the ‘the body as machine’, understanding that more nuanced and often intangible factors affect athletic performance rather than just sheer measurable cardiovascular output.

Long distance races, subsequently, are more than just “plumbing contests, measuring whose heart can deliver the most oxygen to their muscles” – and yet why do we apply this old-school, limited looking-glass when discussing pacing for maximal performance? Why do we forget the very real role that abstracts like motivation, pain tolerance and sheer willingness have in such sporting achievements?

The criticism of traditional pacing, put simply, is if one decides how quickly one is going to run each mile split, then one negates the possibility of a faster finishing time – “you’ve put a ceiling on your potential achievement… if you execute the perfect race pace, that means you have effectively decided, within the first few strides, how fast you could complete the full distance.”

Certainly, over the course of a career, one might have better average finish times by sticking to careful pacing plans, but could it not be argued that the capacity for having one of those ‘run of your life’-type days is self-denied?

There is no opportunity to surprise yourself with an unexpectedly good day; you’ve put a ceiling on your potential for achievement, from the moment the starting gun fires. As a result, this approach may produce better results on average, but it is less likely to produce dramatic outliers – jaw-droppingly fast (or slow) times.”

I should perhaps have prefaced this article by stating that I’m not entirely sure myself what to do with this idea, rather than simply trying to rewire how we think about our own limits. Pretty stock-standard Misogi writing, undeniably.

What I found perhaps most useful in Hutchinson’s investigation, and the application of his findings to his own relatively successful running career, was his speculation that perhaps he never really reached his own physiological limits, as he had sometimes believed to be the case. After a perfectly executed pacing strategy at the 2003 Cherry Blossom 10 Mile, which saw him run impeccably-disciplined splits and surge past struggling athletes in the late stages to finish eighth place, he was comfortable in the belief that, even on his best possible day, he simply lacked the sheer speed and cardiovascular engine to ever beat the seven athletes in front of him – and he was fine with that. It was simply biological, and as much as anything is, out of his hands.

Later, following decades of research and publishing in the fields of human physiology, he questioned the accuracy of his conclusion concerning his biological limitations. What might have happened if he had thrown caution to the wind and ran to win, despite the pacing plans? Sure, if he applied this brazen attitude at every event, his career would be littered with disappointing results – but is it possible that among the blow-outs, there may have been some truly extraordinary outcomes?

And what about ourselves? How often do we impose these unnecessarily low bars on ourselves? If we never swung for the fence, we might go our entire lives (safe from embarrassingly unimpressive results, but) never realising our true capacities.

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Speaking only anecdotally, I do find it interesting how improved my testing results generally are compared to my training results – for instance, when pushed to do as many strict pull-ups as I possibly can in one maximal effort test, I find myself almost comfortably doubling what feels like almost my maximum when in training. I’m not one to ignore hard work whilst training, but the difference is undeniable. Somewhere along the way, I’ve conditioned myself to feel like twelve repetitions is nearly the most I can complete for a set of pull-up exercises, as part of a training session. Although the metaphorical bar here feels appropriate, my testing results would suggesting otherwise – I’m selling myself short, and I don’t even realise it.

I suppose this is just something to think about, next time we are setting goals for ourselves – both in the big picture, and the small. Is that really as fast, or as heavy, or as as long as we are capable?

I’m now three weeks away from my first training attempt at the full, thirty-five kilometre distance for the Channel-length swim – a dress rehearsal, of sorts – so the time to put my money where my mouth is draws ever closer.

 

 

 

 

 

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