Category Archives: Sport

Cut Me Some Slack

This weekend I’ve been learning all over again what it means to be a complete beginner at something.  You see, I went out and bought a slackline.  If you’re ever wondering exactly what it must feel like to be a young toddler learning to walk for the very first time, then I can’t recommend this sport highly enough.

There’s something wonderfully refreshing about tackling an activity you’ve never tried before.  Every little achievement feels like a major triumph.  To be able to stand on the line for a few seconds feels amazing; to manage to take a step or two before falling off can lead to wild applause from the bystanders.  And it’s also very egalitarian; the 10 year old in our party was making progress every bit as fast as me.

It got me thinking about the nature of fitness.  I often hear people say that they ‘want to be fit’, without ever really unpacking what that means. At it’s most fundamental, fitness refers to the body’s ability to perform a task.  And I realise that I can be exceptionally fit in one area and completely unfit in another.  For example, the months and months of training that I put in in order to be able to run an ultramarathon did absolutely nothing to prepare me to walk across a two-inch wide strip of webbing strung between a couple of trees.   Nor does it improve my ability to, say, perform push ups or hit a golf ball.

So the concept of fitness obviously encompasses a number of physical abilities.  I think they could be broken down as follows:

  • Endurance.  The ability to perform a repetitive action without becoming fatigued.  My marathon-running friends like Patrick have this in spades.
  • Strength.  The ability to apply force to an object.  Typically, we runners don’t do so well on this.  Ask me to do bench-presses or pull-ups, and I’ll tire out pretty fast.
  • Flexibility.  To be able to move limbs through a wide range safely.  Again, running doesn’t really do much to improve this.  My Yoga poses leave a lot to be desired.
  • Balance.  The ability to control your center of gravity on an unstable surface.  As the slackline is teaching me, I may be able to get myself around a triathlon course, but taking two or three simple steps can be a daunting task when the surface you’re on is swaying, bobbing, and responding to your every move.
  • Technique.  The ability to perform an action correctly and efficiently.  Every sport requires a commitment to learning correct body mechanics.  If you run incorrectly, you will hurt yourself.  It’s as simple as that.  If you learn to swim correctly, you will glide through the water nearly effortlessly, and still outpace those around you who are spending far more effort than you are.

There are probably more that I haven’t thought of.  I’m sure that diet fits in here somehow as well.  If I can perform well athletically but I’m not giving my body the food it needs to recover quickly and maintain health for the long term, then I’m not sure that I can claim to be truly fit.   So perhaps the final element of fitness is humility, the ability to adopt a lifestyle of continuous learning.

Today I got another taste of that on the slackline.  Tomorrow, who knows, I may stay on it for a few seconds more!

Cycling is Back

It’s back!  It might be -20 outside, with huge snow piles lining my driveway, but in Australia the sun is beating down an the cycling season has formally begun, with the first stage of the Tour Down Under.  This feels like the first hint that Spring might one day return.

Cycling might be a terribly tainted sport, and it has certainly suffered a ridiculous number of scandals over the past few years.  The Tour de France records no official winner for the years 1999-2005.    And even laying aside the well-know doping habits of Lance Armstrong, many, many other names from that era are also tainted: Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Llandis, Tyler Hamilton, David Millar, Bjarne Riis – the list goes on and on.   I sometimes think that the only good think to come out of that decade was the book The Secret Race,  by Tyler Hamilton, which documents in-depth the length that competitors felt they were forced to go to to remain viable competitors.

And yet, despite all that, I still love the sport.  I love the spectacle of it, I love the many-races-in-one format of the Grand Tours, I love the interpersonal dynamics of the racers, as sprinters and climbers and GC contenders make alliances of convenience and conduct diplomatic negotiations at sixty kilometers an hour; I love the thrill of the twisting descents of the final kilometers of Milan-San Remo, I love the mud-splattered brutality of the Paris-Roubaix, I love watching the peloton snake its way through the Flanders countryside I used to live in, and I love the rare occasions when I get to attend a race in person and feel and hear the hum of derailleurs inches from where I’m sitting.

I can hope that with the introduction of the biological passport, and with new leadership at the UCI, that the sport is slowly becoming a place where athletes can genuinely contend on their own merit, and I can also hope that the UCI adopts the egalitarian spirit of the International Olympic Committee and re-instates a Women’s edition of the Tour de France.

But for now, enjoy some highlights from the first stage of racing of the year.


Achieving the Impossible

One of the interesting things about becoming a runner is that it gets you in the habit of achieving the impossible.

What do I mean by this?  I mean that many of us have had the experience of declaring that sometime in the future we will do something that we are currently physically incapable of.  And then we do it.

Perhaps you can’t run down the street without getting winded, and yet you sign up for a 5k.
Perhaps you’re getting used to your 5k training runs, but you sign up for a marathon.
Perhaps you can’t swim, and yet declare to your friends your intention to complete a triathlon.

In each of these cases, there’s a task that you would find physically impossible if you tried to do it today.  And yet, you sign up, you put in the training hours, and a few months later you find yourself achieving it.

You run your first 5k without stopping once.
You complete that daunting mud run.
You get that Boston Qualifier marathon time that’s been eluding you.

And in the process, you discover that the impossible can become possible. Continue reading

Wasaga Beach Olympic Triathlon – Race Report

This morning I raced the Wasaga Beach Olympic distance triathlon.  The first triathlon I ever did was at Wasaga, a half-sprint distance ‘give-it-a-tri’, in which I emerged from the water looking like a drowned rat after doggy paddling 400m, and then struggled around a 10k bike ride on my clunky old mountain bike.

Fortunately I’ve developed a bit as a triathlete since then.  And although this is the only triathlon I’ve raced this year, I’ve managed to get a decent number of other races under my belt – a marathon, a half marathon, a 10k and the Paris-Ancaster cyclocross race.  And thanks to some friends that have just joined this sport, I’ve been cajoled into putting in a few decent training sessions over the last month. Continue reading

Reaching Goals

It’s no secret that I like to run.  Since I returned to this sport a few years ago, I’ve logged countless miles, run city streets and wilderness trails, in 40 degree heat and in blizzard conditions, on my own and with friends, and earned a few medals as well.  But I am learning that the for me, the point of running is about more than medals or races.  It is about the intentional practice of setting goals and achieving them.

So I have realised that running, for me, is the the laboratory in which I study the art of ‘optimal performance’.  What I learn in this lab has direct implications on the rest of life.  Running has taught me so many lessons.  Lessons such as:

Create a plan, track your progress, adjust as you go forward.  Learning to perform well in endurance sport requires continual small corrections.  Pay attention to your stride length and cadence.  Mind which part of the foot you are landing on.  Think about your swimming stroke.  Adjust the position of your elbows as you pull.  Change the height of your saddle.  Tweak your diet. Alter the balance between carbs and protein.  Training is never about mindless repetition, but always a mindful process.  In all other endeavours, we also need to continually readjust our habit to make sure we are on course for our goal. Continue reading

Maximum Performance

“Some people … are gifted with high trainability.”

I just read a fascinating article in the Guardian about athletic performance.  The concept of the ‘10000 hours’ of training needed to reach world class performance is well known, but recent research has shown another dimension to the equation, especially in the area of endurance sport.  There is, apparently, a big difference between individuals when it comes to their responsiveness to training.  In the studies, some people showed huge gains in their bodies ability to process and transmit oxygen to their muscles as a result of aerobic trading, but others, performing identical training blocks, showed little or no improvement.  This implies that a genetic predisposition  to adaptability is critical for the budding top level athlete.

This fascinates me.  I’m intrigued by the ingredients that go into excellent performance.  It seems that both natural giving and  disciplined, intentional training are needed.

You could find this research depressing, as it implies that people will never become too level marathoners, for example, no matter how hard they train.  But another way of responding to it would be to ask ‘what are my unique, inborn talents and abilities, and how can I nurture them to create my own excellent performances?’

Intentional Nutrition

We’re often been told that we should ‘eat healthy’, but I’m coming to realise that an intelligent approach to nutrition needs to be far more specific than that.  I went into the library the other day to look at books about diet and nutrition.  There were hundreds of books on the subject, and nearly all of them mentioned on the front cover the goal of losing weight.

I think that this is a terrible goal, for several reasons.

Firstly, it is expressed in purely negative terms.  I am convinced that we do well in life when we frame our goals and desires positively.
Secondly, it’s horribly unspecific.  If there is a theoretical perfect weight for every human being, then presumably some people are above that weight and some below.  “Achieve your correct weight” would be a better subtitle.

But thirdly, weight is a terrible proxy for fitness.  I define fitness quite simply as ‘the ability of the body to perform a required task.’  And this could mean very different things depending on the task and the individual in question.  When Ranulph Fiennes prepares for a polar expedition, he very intentionally tries to gain weight, both in fat and in muscle, to sustain himself over the long months ahead of trekking through a frozen wasteland with only what he can drag behind him on a sled for sustenance.  He is guaranteed to burn more calories per day than he can replenish from his food stores, so he has to have extra body mass at the start of his journey.

Scott Jurek is probably the worlds greatest Ultrarunner.  He needs to eat enough food to rebuild his muscles after each days training, and consume enough energy to propel himself for 100 miles over the Sierra Nevada mountains.

An expectant mother also wants her body to perform the task of growing and delivering a baby; and her nutritional needs will be dictated by this process.

A weightlifter or a wrestler or a UFC fighter needs to build sufficient muscle mass to compete well, and will need to have a protein-heavy diet geared towards growing and sustaining highly functional muscles.

Interestingly, none of these individuals have ‘lose weight’ as a primary goal.  And each one of them will need to have a different diet.  If a sedentary office worker eats like Michael Phelps, he will soon be very unhealthy, but Phelps needs to consume 6000 calories a day or more to support his workout routine.

When we know what tasks we want our body to perform – when we know what we mean by fitness, then what we need to eat will start falling into place.

Today I woke up, went for a 20km run, spent the afternoon in the pool and the evening on a group bike ride.

chia-seedsStrangely enough, despite being offered donuts several times throughout the day, I had no desire whatsoever to eat them, but I did find myself craving my hemp, chia-seed and buckwheat cereal.  I didn’t make those dietary choices out of some sense of guilt, but because my body was clearly communicating that in order to achieve the demands I was placing on it it required the correct fuel.

This is true in other areas of life.  What we choose to consume will be intrinsically linked with what we are trying to achieve.


Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set

So I splurged a little and got myself the hydration pack the pros use, the Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5 Set.  Catchy name, I know.  But I’m already very impressed with it.  Empty, it weighs basically nothing.  It fits more like a vest than a backpack, hugging very snugly around the upper torso, with no pressure at all on the stomach.

Continue reading