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.

I have decided once again to set myself an impossible goal.  It’s quite straightforward – I want to run an 18 minute 5k.  So why is this ‘impossible’?

  • I can run five kilometres in 22 minutes quite easily, and indeed did that on Saturday twice after having completed the swim and bike portions of a triathlon.
  • If I push myself, I can run five kilometres under 20 minutes, and have done so in a number of standalone races.
  • Once, I have run five kilometres in just under 19 minutes.   18:50 to be precise.

I am physically incapable currently of running a full minute faster.  This isn’t a question of willpower, it’s simply an honest evaluation of my body’s current ability to convert chemical energy into kinetic energy.

And yet I know that I am capable of changing my body so that it can achieve this goal.  I’ve spoken in the past about the process for achieving challenging targets, whether athletic, financial, or relational:

  • Have a clearly defined goal that you are passionate about.
  • Learn the steps needed to reach it.
  • Execute consistently.

So trying to run a sub-18 minute 5k gives me a wonderful opportunity to put this framework to the test again.  First, motivation.  I’m now in my late thirties, and I realise that even though it’s possible to be an outstanding endurance athlete well into your eighties, the body inevitable loses top end explosive speed and strength as it approaches forty. So now is an excellent time to try to set a ‘lifetime best’ 5k.

Also, I regularly train with other people that are trying to ‘achieve the impossible’, whether its running their first ever race or qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  Out of solidarity and respect for my training partners, I want to feel what they are experiencing as they ask their bodies to perform in ways that they never have before.


The second element of the framework is planning.  Running a fast 5k is different than training for a half-Ironman.  I’ve been inspired by what Mo Farah has achieved over this distance in the last couple of years, and have every intention of learning from the  training methods that Alberto Salazar has pioneered with him.  So I’ll be working on core strength to improve my form and top-end speed, but most importantly, I’ll be doing the one thing that most casual runners that I know avoid: interval training.   I started this again yesterday, running successive 1km loops in 3:30 with a two minute recovery.  I’ll probably tweak the exact structure of my intervals as I learn more, but I know that the only way I can reach this goal is by acclimatizing my body more to lactic acid buildup.

And then the third element is simply execution.  Doing one interval set is painful, but then it’s done. Going out and doing it again the next day on tired legs, and then again the next day, and then again the next, is something else.  And that’s partly why I talk about my training in public – it forces me to be honest!  One of the reasons I encourage people to sign up for races is because it is making a public announcement that you will take on a difficult challenge.  It’s much harder to back out when all your friends have heard you brag about that marathon you’re going to run.

Here’s to achieving the impossible!

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.

The weather was horrible during setup, but thankfully the rain stopped as we lined up at the start, and stayed away for the rest of the race.  The swim felt good, and I managed to draft my way to a 27 minute 1500m without burning too much energy.  Wasaga is probably my favourite place to swim; the water is perfectly clear and significantly warmer than Lake Simcoe.

It seemed to take the first 5k of the bike for my legs to warm up, but once they did I felt pretty comfortable, although I think I still have room for improvement here.  The course was well marked, and apart from a couple of disconcertingly wet corners, not too technical.

SportsStats tells me that my transitions are getting pretty good; with both of them under 90 seconds.  After T2 I headed out on the run – a 2-lap out-and-back.  Again, it took five minutes of running before my legs really started responding, and then I started ticking off the kilometers nicely.  This was a ‘fun’ race for me rather than a serious one, so I treated the run like a solid training block rather than a gut-busting effort.  Still, I managed a 4:19/km pace, thanks no doubt to the training I’ve been doing with my local Mudders For Mothers team and some hard tempo runs with my ultra-dedicated training parter Patrick Voo.

So, I finished with a PB, which isn’t really saying too much given that I’ve only run one Oly before, and I cracked horribly on the run that time.  But I believe that every race is a learning opportunity, so here are today’s lessons:

  • Habit makes things easier.  All my kit worked nicely, and I didn’t have to think to hard about the process of pulling it together and setting it up in transition.  Apart from dropping a couple of power gels along the course, there were no real glitches.
  • Muscle memory is a wonderful thing.  I haven’t swum nearly as much this year as I have in previous seasons, but once I had my wetsuit on and got in the water it all seemed to flow very naturally.
  • Running is a little bit like meditation.  When meditating, you’re apparently supposed to focus on your breathing, clear your mind from distractions, and bring your mind to a singular awareness of the present. Running at Lactate Threshold isn’t quite the same thing as relaxing in lotus position, but other than that the same concepts apply. I tell myself when I run that there’s no need to fret over how the race has gone so far, or whether I have the energy to hold this pace till the finish, or whether I’ll hit my target, but just to relax my limbs, keep my core strong, keep my breathing measured, and focus purely on the act of running, on the step that I am taking right now.  It isn’t easy, but it is necessary – when I stop doing that, I tense up and begin to panic. When I do it right, I find myself flowing easily towards the finish line.
  • 2z9jnrsFinally, it’s far more fun to attempt difficult things with friends and family around.  I hugely appreciated having my parents join me for the race, and it was great to see my friend and training partner Steve complete an Olympic distance race in his second ever triathlon.  Truly inspiring!




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.

Accept weakness.  Unfortunately, injuries are a part of training.  I don’t think I’ve ever met a serious athlete who hasn’t had to deal with them in one way or another.  But how we deal with them is important – the worst thing to do is to ignore them.  We frequently have to adjust our training plan, or re-evaluate our goals.  I have had to to take long periods away from running, and indeed had to re-learn how to run, to cope with knee pain and ITB tightness.   I have friends who have had to undergo invasive surgery.  But we always do better when we acknowledge the problem early.  Small niggles can be fixed before they become serious injuries, even if it takes humility to recognise that your body has a problem.

On a related note, I’ve learned that not all pain is good, not all pain is bad.  The ‘No Pain No Gain’ mantra is not helpful.  To become a good endurance athlete you must become intimately familiar with different types of pain.  It hurts to do interval workouts, and yet they are amazing for improving your lactate threshold.  It hurts to tear a muscle, and that does you no good at all, and must be acknowledged and treated immediately.

Our weakness do not need to define us, but they must be acknowledged and respected.


But I think the most important lesson I have learned is know your mission.   Training for a 5k is very different than training for an ultramarathon.  The former requires tempo runs and interval training, the latter require packing a bag with plenty of water and sandwiches and going out for a day-long run.  But I have found that once you are clear about what your mission is, no matter how difficult a task you have set yourself, the way forward suddenly becomes straightforward.  I’m fortunate to have friends that have gone from sedentary lifestyles to running marathons and triathlons.  These challenges often seem daunting at first, but I’ve observed that once a commitment is made to a specific mission, it then simply becomes a question of working methodically through a known process to arrive at the goal.  And it’s great to be surrounded by a friends who are just as passionate about achieving excellence as I am.  It is hard to be on a mission by yourself.  In this, and every other area of life, I’m learning just how valuable it is to find a community that is oriented around a mission that you believe in.

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.


Running Wisdom from Georges St. Pierre

UFC Champion Georges St. Pierre spends a surprising amount of his book The Way of the Fight talking about feet.


My feet are the most powerful, important parts of my body.  We’re too busy wearing shoes we think are comfortable – shoes we believe “support” our weight- to even think about the meaning of our feet.

Shoes kill the sensations in our feet, which affects stability.  You start compensating for your lack of balance with your knees, hips and other parts of your body.

Feet are the genesis of all movements, especially in mixed martial arts.  It’s where most of our power comes from.

There are 7,200 nerve endings in each of your feet.  Yet every time you wear shoes or sandals, you’re breaking your connection to the ground.

Some people will say “Georges, it hurts when I run and my heels hit the ground!”  That’s because your heels aren’t even supposed to hit the ground when you run – even if you’re wearing a shoe.  The whole idea of a heel strike is a mistake.  It’s counterproductive.

In my stance, my heel almost never touches the ground.  For me, this brings my weight onto the balls of my feet, and that’s where I have an advantage over most of my opponents: I’m always ready to explode or change directions.


I wasn’t expecting to get minimilist running philosophy from a book on mixed martial arts, but I’ve rarely heard it put better.

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.

I tbackpackook it for a quick 20km trial run down to Heritage Park and back.  Firstly, I was very pleased that despite a light training load over the winter I still have the fitness to pull of a half-marathon just for the fun of it.  And secondly, I found the pack very comfortable.  With any kind of water-belt, I start getting stomach cramps after a while, because of the pressure on my abdomen.  The Salomon pack fits so well it’s almost unnoticeable.

And unlike packs designed for hikers, all the equipment pouches are at the front, so you can easily grab your gels or iPod without breaking stride.  This has been my major complaint with my other pack; the fact that I have to take it off to access food.

And finally, the hydration system itself works well, and I like the under-the arm layout of the tube.  The only thing that remains to be seen is whether the ultra-light construction results in less durability.

How to win Paris – Ancaster

I’ve been enjoying this documentary series on the Paris-Ancaster bike race.  As well as serving as inspiration for me since I signed up for the race, it’s a nice example of SLR film-making, something that’s really becoming more accessible these days.

So, go watch the video and then sign up for the race – there are still a few spots left.