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Monday, March 23, 2009

2009 Lisbon Half Marathon

The stars come out to play on record-setting new course

Well it has been another forced hiatus for us here at The Science of Sport as Ross's duties to the Rugby Sevens team and my teaching load take center stage in our professional lives. Apologies for the gap, but with the Spring marathons approaching rapidly we will definitely be back in action to break down the racing as you have been accustomed to.

In the mean time there is plenty of news in the swimming world Re swimsuit rules, a new "tell all" book by Dwain Chambers, and the start of the classics in cycling (which Mark Cavendish kicked off by winning Milan-San Remo in his first attempt). And let's not forget about running, as today was the Lisbon Half Marathon. It comes five weeks before London and the other Spring marathons, so it is a bit of a proving ground for the runners to check where they are and how effective their training thus far has been.

Fast, fast, and fast

That is how one can describe this race. Previous years have seen no fewer than 23 sub-60 times, although until 2008 the course had a net elevation loss and was not sanctioned for records. That all changed last year when the organizers altered the elite runners' course so that it started and ended at sea level, this qualifying it for legal world records. So far the new course has not produced any records, though, as last year Haile Gebrselassie clocked a 59:15 even though he ran away from the field and was already 35 s clear of everyone else at 15 km.

This year I am sure the race officials were hoping for fireworks as they brought in Sammy Wanjiru, he of Olympic Marathon fame and also the (ahem) half-marathon world record holder, clocking 58:33 two years ago in Holland. They pitted the record-holder against arguably the best road racer around in Martin Lel, multi-marathon champ Robert Cheruiyot, and perennial favorite Jaouab Gharib, not to mention several other relatively unknown 60-min runner to round out the pack fodder.

In the end Lel proved once again why he is the best road racer on the planet. He simply stuck around until about 500 m to go with Cheruiyot, Gharib, and another Kenyan before unleashing his trademark finishing sprint and dropping Gharib over the last 150 m to take vicotry in 59:56. It was a well off record pace as the top four all finished within 10 s of each other, but that is typical of Lel, who likely has the pure speed to break both the half-marathon and marathon records but seems quite content to "only" win---and take home hugh paychecks each time, at that---but who can blame him?

Kara Goucher: Eyes bigger than her legs?

On the women's side both Kara Goucher and her coach Alberto Salazar were talking about a possible world record, and she was close until 17.5 km but in the end clearly ran beyond her training. At 17.5 km she was pretty much on WR pace (<3:09/km, style="font-weight: bold;">about 9:40 to run the next 2.5 km, which is a pedestrian 3:52/km.

Admittedly her PB is just 32 s off Kipligat's WR, but Goucher ran that on a course with a net elevation loss, so I can see why she and Salazar thought she might be good for it. In any case she gets full marks for attempting the record. It was definitely a "win-win" for her as she was 30 s clear of 2nd with less than three km to go, and so she walked away with a pretty prestigious victory, a payday, and also tons of feedback about how her training is going for her Boston debut next month.

The absence of Wanjiru: beware the ides of April!

The other big news from the race today was how record holder Wanjiru tanked and was off the pace by the time the real racing started. Does this mean the Olympic phenom is now washed up? After all he has failed to break 61 min in both half marathons he has finished in 2009, and for a sub-59 runner a 61-min half is pretty relaxed. So what gives? There are two plausible explanations.

Wanjiru had a massive year in 2008, and it is possible that we are seeing the cumulative fatigue that comes with the kind of racing schedule he kept last year. However we must put his 2009 performances in context. He is entered for London, which is five weeks from now, and dare I say it but he is probably training for a win there. He was second last year, right on the heels of a 2:06:39 debut in Fukuoka. He is an ambitious athlete, telling reporters in February “in five years’ time I feel capable of clocking a sub 2 hours time for the Marathon.”

So you can be certain Wanjiru is leaving no stone unturned in his training for London, and for elite runners this normally means insane amounts of volume. . .which in turn cripples their performances over shorter distances. However seeing as how London is still five weeks away, we would not expect Wanjiru to be at a peak level right now. I suspect that he is right in the middle or end of a massive training period in which he has probably clocked numerous 100+ mile weeks. The timing is right for this kind of training in the lead up to a big race.

For now we have to wait and see what happens in five weeks. Wanjiru will either turn in another historic performance or get dropped as the racing heats up in the last 3-5 km. After all, he has proven that he has the speed, and that he can run guys off his heels even in the heat of Beijing. So this is just more reason to anticipate an incredible race in London!


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Dubai Rugby World Cup 7s

Dubai Rugby World Cup. The World Champions are Wales

Well, it's now been the longest break between posts since we started this site almost two years ago - my profuse apologies.

As you may have read two weeks ago, I was in Dubai with the South African rugby team for the Sevens World Cup, and I found very little time or energy to write anything. So our series on aging was suspended (but not forgotten!) as was the debate about doping in sport (much to the pleasure of some, I am sure).

For today, I'm going to indulge myself in something of a "diary" post about the trip in Dubai, mostly because I need to get some things off my chest and gain some clarity of my own thoughts of that tournament, which was, to put it mildly, an enormous disappointment. It's a post that mixes sports science, management and my own personal reflections on my involvement with the team, and hopefully, some lessons that might be applicable to all sports.

Wales: Rugby 7s world champions

The appropriate starting point is to state that the World Champions for the next four years are not South Africa (the reason for my disappointment), not England (the joint number 1 in the rankings), not New Zealand (the historically dominant nation), not Fiji, not Samoa, not Argentina, but Wales.

The odds on Wales winning this tournament must have been astronomical. Ranked only 11th coming in, the Welsh exceeded all expectations and deserve credit for finding form and great rugby when it mattered. The big four all fell in consecutive matches in what must be one of the most astonishing sequences of upsets in all of sport - four matches, four favourites gone and the semi-final line up was a one in a million chance. Wales emerged World Champions, and congratulations to them.

South Africa - lost opportunities

As for my team, we fell at the quarter-final stage, beaten 14-12 by Argentina. As is always the case after defeat, post-mortem analysis is easy, and playing the blame-game is a routine that is done by everyone without much effect. The post-mortem often limits itself to on-field action and misses out what may be even more important than what happens off it.

On the field, knock-ons, missed tackles, refereeing decisions, lazy defence, ill discipline, kicking inaccuracies, lack of concentration - the list of possible reasons goes on, because in defeat, finding reasons is always relatively easy, no matter what the situation or even sport. However, the list may well be justified in our case, and we were incredibly disappointed in the manner of the defeat. It is a practice common to all sports, and any fan reading this can relate to how agonizing those defining moments can be when they don't go your way.

The real answers lie off the field

For South Africa, defeat came after going into a 12-0 lead, and looking completely dominant for most of the game. In sport, leads do slip and teams come from behind often. But when the same error occurs not once or twice but five times in the space of a few months, then it is a symptom of something else. That has happened to us in three consecutive tournaments, and I must acknowledge part of the blame for that. On-field performance and execution is part of this, but victories are secured not on the field, but off it, in the preparation and build up phase, thanks to the discipline of management and players.

That's where the answers need to be sought, but they are much more difficult to find, and it is easier to simply point to moments in the match that contributed to the result. Certainly, that is true, and but for perhaps three or four things that happened in the game, we would have won the match and at least given ourselves a chance of winning the World title. This is again true for any sport - moments swing matches, and "if only" is the most over-used yet ineffective review of matches. Dwelling on match performances, however, is to ignore that 99% of the effort goes on behind the scenes, in training and between tournaments, and so that's where we need to be looking for answers.

Sports science and my personal role

And here is where it is personal for me. My role with the team is that of scientific consultant and strategic advisor to the coach Paul Treu. It would be accurate to say that I'm in charge of details, finding the final 1% to add to the players' preparation and motivation to ensure that we take the field with the advantage. As many of you will know, I am firmly of the belief that sports science is not simply a VO2max and heart rate, but the integrated approach to athlete preparation.

I have written before that when an athlete takes to the line or the field, they must believe that they have done 99% of the work in training, and that the final 1% lies before them. The team that has prepared the best (99% as opposed to 90%) has the advantage. If you have done more than the opponent in training, then he needs to do more than you to win - you hold the advantage, both physically and mentally. I believe that sports science is the quest for those percentages, or millimeters, or milliseconds. It asks "What stones remain unturned, and how do we overturn them"? That is comprehensive, integrated sports science and management.

As a result of my PhD work, my personal interest lies in the role of the brain in performance, and an extension of this is an interest in the mental component to performance. I'm not a psychologist, nor do I wish to be, because I believe that the role of the mind is very much physiological. But in my role with the Sevens team, I've done a fair amount on the mental approach to training and matches, because it's impossible to separate this from the physical. "Mind over matter" is bogus, because they're the same thing.

Before the tournament, I spoke to the players about the "moments" that define them. There are ten key moments, I said, that determine the outcome of the game. We must aim to win at least six of them. But because so much of the result happens off the field, this means that we fight for every millimeter in training, every percentage in practice, so that on the field, those moments go our way. We also find these millimeters in our culture, our way of thinking off the field.

In the end, we lost all those moments. We succeeded at neither controlling what we could, or taking the chances we had.

So to lose a 12 point lead three times in three tournaments, to fail as a result of what is most definitely not a physical/fitness problem is a reflection on me, and just as I would expect every player to look first at themselves, I hold up my hand in acknolwedgement that I failed. I failed, and hence the team failed. I dare say many of our players probably did not even recognize my role or purpose with the team during the week, so spectacular was MY failure. When outcomes are determined by millimeters, I missed the mark by meters.

Now, every single player needs to do the same - "I failed, and in future, if I am to return to winning (because SA is the number 1 ranked team in the world, we are winners), then I need to look very, very hard at HOW I do things. And if I cannot do them better, then I am accepting failure, and have decided that I will remain a loser for the rest of the year". The player who does not seek improvement in defeat will remain defeated. Acknowledging failure is not being overly hard on yourself, it's being realistic and realizing that where you stand currently is not good enough to win. If you wish to win, you must move. And to move, you must work and improve.

That is fundamental to self-improvement in sport. If you are not challenging yourself to improve, then you will regress. This is the theory of overload and adaptation in physiology. If you wish to strengthen a muscle, you must acknowledge its relative weakness and then train it. If you wish to strengthen a sporting team's performance, you must acknowledge the weakness or failure, and then aim to be better. Accepting the status quo, especially in a competitive environment like the World Cup, means you go backwards.

And my impression is that most sports people and even sports scientists do not appreciate this ethos. And again, I submit myself as one culprit, with an admission of guilt and acknowledgment of failure. If the Springbok Sevens rugby team are to improve, I must improve. Hopefully, the players are adopting the same attitude, and will seek to improve ahead of the next tournament in Hong Kong (where I will also be, hopefully seeking a personal redemption for my failures of Dubai).

Accepting mediocrity is too easy

The other great lesson for me is that it's very easy to accept mediocrity. This was a tournament that comes once every four years. And while it's a odd tournament, because of its position in the calender and the other rugby going on, it's still a World Cup, and the opportunity to be a World Champion, which only arrives once in a lifetime for a select few.

As result, defeat should mean a great deal, for it represents the end of a four-year dream, with the possibility of never again returning to the same opportunities. However, having been on the receiving end of defeat, and feeling that disappointment, it becomes very easy to accept and rationalize it and resume with life as though "it's not that bad". Celebrate in the face of defeat, "it's not so bad after all". But I am grateful for the small things that remind me of the failure in Dubai:

  • Returning empty-handed to an empty hotel room, that only 12 hours before, I had left with aspirations of returning as part of the World Champion team
  • Queuing in an airport at 5.30 in the morning after the final, with no sleep and nothing to show for exhaustion other than a weak justification of why Wales, and not SA, were world champions
  • Arriving home to an airport in South Africa to be met by families and friends who offer words of consolation, when it might have been an army of thousands to welcome back the world champions
  • The knowledge that in 2013, I may watch the next World Cup and remember back to the moment that got away, when it might have been a celebration of a moment that was taken
These are the moments that sting and bring me back to the realization that Dubai 2009 was failure, both for me personally and for the team. I just hope that the players feel it as deeply. If they do not, then they have accepted mediocrity and failure. I dare say that the driving force behind the great sporting dynasties of the past is their love of victory and the absolute contempt they have for defeat. If you start to accept defeat, then you guarantee it in the future. Let's hope the Springbok Sevens team burn deeply as a result.

The bottom line - preparation is the entry point, and attitude is the key

I know this post is a personal testimony, mostly to get off my chest my own disappointments in Dubai. It is also a commentary on high performance sport, and maybe some insight for some of you into what it is like in elite competition, where the stakes are high and pressure is intense. It needn't be limited to that though.

And so whether you're an aspirational World Champion, or a weekend superstar or simply a fitness enthusiast, hopefully this post has stimulated some thought into what it is that you may be missing in your own exercise habits. The key point is that preparation does not simply involve hours a day of training to strengthen the muscles and heart, it is a culture of belief that the training brings you nearer to the finish line, so that by the time you start, whether it's a marathon or a 10km race, you've done the work. Your attitude determines your preparation, and preparation determines your outcome.

And if you are not hard on yourself, then you never leave the ground.