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Friday, July 03, 2009

Happy 60th Birthday Tim Noakes

Happy 60th Birthday, Tim Noakes

In sport, one's legacy is often easily identified as the number of medals or records won in a career - Usain Bolt's legacy, still young, may be his three golds and three WR in Beijing, Haile Gebrselassie's his 30+ world records, Olympic title against Paul Tergat in 2000 and his never-failing smile.

In science, legacies are often equally obvious. Albert Einstein's is summed up in one equation - E = mc squared. Stephen Hawking's, to me as a lay person, is "Black holes and baby universes", and Jonas Salk's legacy is encapsulated by celebrations in the street after the polio vaccine was discovered.

For Professor Tim Noakes, who is my boss, and was both our supervisors when we did our PhDs in Cape Town, legacy is difficult to pin down. Tim turned 60 yesterday, and we celebrated his birthday this morning at the Sports Science Institute. It is appropriate, at such a time, to congratulate him on his birthday and use the opportunity to thank him for what he has done, for us, for the field of exercise science, and for the countless others who have been inspired, informed or influenced by him.

His contribution to science might be found in the 400 research articles when you search for his scientific publications on PubMed. It might be his famous and best-selling book, Lore of Running. Or perhaps it is the fact that he is one of few exercise scientists to have a Wikipedia entry about him!

It's easy to try to sum up a life of achievements in a single, measurable thing like number of publications. But that misses out on what may be even more important, and that is the number of people inspired through his work and personality. And what Tim has done, for us, as well as for countless others, is to make exercise science applicable, accessible and understandable, and in so doing, inspire people like the two of us to pursue it as a career.

Jonathan and I both arrived at where we're at because of Tim's inspiration. In my case, it was reading Lore of Running at the age of 14, since it was the only book on running or science in my local library. A career decision was made then, and my journey to UCT, as well as my PhD thesis topic, was decided for me by that event. For Jonathan, Tim's "pull" was enough to see him leave the state of Texas, and pursue a career of research in fluids, taking on the likes of Gatorade and dehydration.

For both of us, the initial draw to sports science at UCT was followed by many years of inspiration, during which time he taught us the value of critical, logical thinking, how to challenge paradigms, and speaking for myself, the value of translating scientific ideas for those who have an interest in what we do, but who do not have intensive scientific training.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that this website, and the way we are trying to relate science to sport, is inspired by Tim's approach to the world. Those who have seen Tim present his work will understand that merely doing great science is not enough, one has to communicate and apply it for everyone else.

Tim has, over the years, ruffled feathers and even offended many, and I've no doubt some people will view him as almost heretical - his willingness to challenge paradigms, to call out flaws in thinking, and to put himself out with theories has invited much criticism from those who feel most challenged by his views.

And of course, he has been incorrect, which he himself is the first to admit - he is fond of a quote saying that "50% of what we know is wrong; the problem is that we do not know which 50% it is". And so, looking back, his theories on matters such as the central governor and fatigue have developed as new information has come to light, with theories from less than ten years ago now left behind as knowledge evolves. Unfortunately, there are many who have refused to evolve with it, and so much of the criticism (and I can relate this from my own experience, having done my PhD in the area) is based on work that we ourselves have moved on from.

Regardless, Tim has pressed on, and his greatest achievements to date include his contribution to our understanding of fatigue, introducing the role of the brain and the so-called Central governor to the argument. He is known for taking on Gatorade, and for challenging the theory that dehydration should be avoided at all costs. He was the first to point out how drinking TOO MUCH was just as likely to be dangerous, even fatal. He is also known by many as the author of Lore of Running perhaps THE seminal book on running, which has no doubt inspired many and informed many more.

But for us, as two former students, he is an inspiration who has pointed us in what we believe is the right direction and provided the impetus to move forward.

So here is to Professor Tim Noakes, a very happy 60th birthday, congratulations and "be perfect"!

Ross & Jonathan


Anonymous said...

A great post.

I think a great follow-up would be to discuss how 'Lore' has changed over its editions, especially about what experiments proved to be pivotal in changing the direction of the book.

The distinguishing part of the book for me is how it provides a history of sport and training (rather than a 'do as I say' approach). It demonstrates how with more knowledge, training has become more efficient and performances have improved.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi there

Good idea. The plan I actually have in mind for the follow-up post is to do a short interview with Tim and I had the idea of asking how he'd seen exercise science evolving, what the biggest mistakes made were, where he saw it in 15 years, 40 years, and so on.

But your suggestion is a good one - to ask about the book, since that's what most people outside of the academic world know (and they're in the huge majority!).

So good suggestion, I'm going to ask if he has time to answer a few questions in a "guest" post in the next week!


Anonymous said...

Happy birthday indeed from a huge fan of DR. Noakes ...very impressive and deep scientist.
All the best and keep with the great work.

Anonymous said...

After reading many of Dr. Noakes papers I was inspired by his work. After first hearing him speak at a conference in Helsinki my appreciation of his free thinking grew.
Thanks to Dr. Noakes I will continue to attempt to figure out which 50% of what we know I believe.
Happy Birthday.

Anonymous said...

Dr Noakes has changed the way we think about exercise. Of course his radical views have been met with considerable resistance from the scientific community, but isn't this the "law" concerning all great new discoveries?

Thank you Dr Noakes for the enlightenment you have provided to a mediocre athlete like me, I wish you many happy years full of exciting discoveries.


Unknown said...

Congratulations and all best wishes to Prof. Noakes! He has done a tremendous service to all runners who are willing to read and think!

I'd be very happy if Lore of Running (and the book you two recently published, The Runners Body, with Matt Fitzgerald) were available in amazon Kindle format, so I could carry them with me, search within them, and refer to them wherever I go. I have them in print format, but I'd love to have them in easy-to-carry-and-search e-format as well.

All of you, please keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Every discipline needs an iconoclast like Tim Noakes.

I think his work on dehydration, health and safety and performance was brilliantly conceived. It was much needed.


Sakaerat said...

Indeed! And many more birthdays to come, Prof. Noakes. Now he is one teacher I CAN believe!
Look forward to sequel/further editions of 'Lore'.

Best Wishes,

Dave Weeden said...

Happy birthday from me too. I read 'Lore of Running' years ago, when I'd already been running for a while. Now I've come back and more or less started again after a period of injuries, I've been dipping into the most recent edition. It's been an inspiration both times. The science has always impressed me, as has the common sense.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

To ThumbRunner (and everyone else, too!),

Our book is indeed available for your Kindle. I think initially it was not, but I see on Amazon.com that now it is.

Thanks for all your support and I hope you get to enjoy the book in digital format!

Kind Regards,