I have a new post up over at hmmrmedia.com, entitled “Does Nurture Impact Your Nature?” In this article, I look at something called epigenetics, which is where our environment can alter genetic expression, and it’s potential effects on exercise adaptation.
Towards the end of 2006, I was in a record store in Bath when a simple cardboard sleeve caught my eye, emblazoned with the words Enter Shikari. The name made me curious, so I bought the single (it was only £2.99), and put it into my CD player. As the first guitar sounds from “Sorry You’re Not a Winner” came out, I was sure I had found my new favourite band. A month later, I saw them live at a bar in Bristol, and they were amazing. I bought everything I could from them (“Mothership” is still my favourite song), and spent all my time listening to them.
And then they got famous. They were everywhere – on the covers of magazines, at festivals. You couldn’t move for people who were Enter Shikari fans. And this annoyed me, because they were MY band. I had discovered them before they were cool and slightly mainstream, and I didn’t like the fact that everyone else had now discovered them for themselves. They were even on Radio One. Never mind that they had been slaving away for years looking for their break.
This bitterness inside of me is difficult to explain; I still really liked Enter Shikari, but I was cynical about everyone else’s motives for liking them. They were just jumping on the bandwagon, surely.
What does this have to do with Nike’s sub-2 hour marathon project? Well, since it’s been announced, there has been a lot of criticism regarding it. And this criticism mainly comes from well established runners and running journalists, who see it as a fake. They feel like it will make a mockery of marathon running. The sub-2 hour project is taking marathon running mainstream, which you can see from the amount of attention given to it in the papers, magazines, and online message boards. To hard core runners, the sub-2 project is bad because it’s taking their secret, something they loved before it was cool, and making it more accessible and interesting.
And it is definitely driving interest. Do you want to know how many marathons I’ve watched in my life? It is precisely zero. Any coverage I have seen of the marathon is the most important bit; the last 100m (because 100m is the only distance that matters) before the runners cross the finish line. And yet since the sub-2 project has been announced, I’ve devoured all the information I can on the subject. I read Ed Caesar’s great book, “Two Hours”. Next up is Phil Maffetone’s “01:59”. I’ve even started to read Tim Noakes’ “The Lore of Running”, which is 952 pages in length.
But that’s not all; I’ve also started to run, admittedly very slowly. Why am I doing this? Because the sub-2h project has captured my imagination. I’ve never cared about VO2max, lactate threshold, or running economy before. Now I’m training to see how these variables are affected by training, to use my own body to improve my knowledge in this area. I’m reading about fatigue, the impact of different pacing strategies on performance, and the psychological constructs that govern endurance performance. I’m curious about heat adaptation (running in the Queensland summer is difficult), and fats versus carbohydrates for fuel. These are all things I’ve only ever had a passing interest in previously, and yet now I’m getting all the information I can, and putting it to use on myself.
So why this sudden change? Because this project is incredibly exciting to me. The athletes and scientists involved are looking to innovate and drive forward performance. The only other time I’ve been excited like this is when, for the first and only time in my life, I watched someone parachute to Earth. The Red Bull Stratos project also gripped me; they wanted someone to jump from what was effectively space, break the sound barrier in freefall, and safely land. The thought of that is mental, and so I had to watch it. I read books about this too, including “Freefall” by a former SAS soldier who had previously tried to break the record. And so, on Sunday 14th October 2012, I watched a balloon travel far up into the atmosphere, transfixed. I watched Felix come back down, and there may even have been a little tear in my eye when he landed. Because life is about pushing the boundaries, and I am in awe of people like that.
The only disappointing thing for me about the Stratos project is that there wasn’t a whole lot of insight into the training and planning that went into the mission. This is where the sub-2h project should be different. Ed Cesar and Alex Hutchinson, two great journalists (check out Alex’s book) are going to be able to take us into the action, and afterwards, hopefully, give us some ideas into the science that went into it all, which will be fascinating.
So, cynics and running hipsters, my question to you is – what’s the worst that can happen? Nike can throw all their effort into this, and fail; in which case you’ll be vindicated and you can act all smug. Or they’ll do it, and even more people will become interested in running. This means better equipment for you, utilising whatever new technologies these projects unearth. It might mean a better understanding of the psychological aspects that impact endurance performance – which will enable you to run faster yourself. I’m struggling to see a downside.
Let’s bring this full circle, and end with Enter Shikari. They came to play a show in Bath a few months later, which had a capacity about 6 times that of the show I had seen previously in Bristol. It sold out; I had a ticket, but I wasn’t sure if I should go – it would be full of people who hadn’t liked the band, MY band, for as long as me; they didn’t appreciate them like I did. Anyway, I went, I met Rory C (I didn’t ask him what his thesis was) and it was far and away the best gig I have ever been too. As a result of their success, they made more money, and more albums, increasing my enjoyment from their music. Their becoming more recognised was a blessing in disguise for me. The sub-2h marathon project might be the same for runners.
It’s that time of the year again, where people tend to look back at what they achieved, and what they are looking to improve on in the future. My 2016 was pretty solid – I got married, travelled extensively – both for work and on holiday, was a named author on a published paper (my first), and started a Professional Doctorate, which I’m really enjoying. Those of you that know me will be aware that I very much enjoy reading, and so in the hope that I’m somewhat relevant (and also to allow me to revisit some of the books I’ve read), I’ve put together a list of the best or most important books I read in 2016.
My 2016 Reading List
- How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle by Matt Fitzgerald – 5/5
This was the first book I read in 2016, and it is outstanding. It examines the interplay between the brain and endurance performance through individual stories that keep you gripped. It’s a great example of scientific communication, and it’s also a subject matter that all coaches should become au fait with. Please read this book.
- Strength and Conditioning: Biological Principles and Practical Applications by Marco Cardinale (Ed) – 4/5
This is a textbook, and as such isn’t a typical bedtime read – I dedicated an hour a day to work through it and make notes. It’s very technical, but also rewarding, because you really do get an understanding of the scientific principles that underpin sports performance. If you haven’t gone through a textbook before, a better start point might be “High Performance Training for Sport”, which is a bit more practical, but if you want the theory this is the place to go.
- The Skeleton Cupboard: Stories from a clinical psychologist by Tanya Byron – 5/5
Sometimes it’s good to read for escapism, as opposed to learning. This book definitely achieved that for me; I read it cover to cover on a four-hour flight, which made the time fly by. The book is an autobiographical account of key cases from a clinical psychologist, and it’s a fascinating read.
- How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease by Michael Greger – 3/5
The main premise of this book is that consuming meat is unhealthy, and we should consume a plant-based diet. I eat a lot of meat, which obviously caused plenty of cognitive dissonance when reading this book. I found it interesting, and here are my main thoughts:
- I remain unconvinced that eating meat, in and of itself, is unhealthy
- The evidence cited in this book tends to compare meat eaters to vegetarians, which methodologically is flawed; meat eaters tend to eat fewer vegetables (sounds obvious), and are more likely to drink and smoke. So what happens if you eat meat, but also exercise, don’t smoke or drink (much) and eat a lot of vegetables? It’s not clear.
- It’s definitely a good idea to eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, but I still think that meat can form part of your diet – provided that the meat doesn’t replace the vegetables you consume.
That said, it’s a good idea to read books that challenge your beliefs, and this book was an engaging read.
- Wicked Beyond Belief: The Hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper by Michael Bilton – 4/5
I’m a big fan of true crime, and have had a passing curiosity in the Yorkshire Ripper case for a number of years – especially as I grew up there. This book is probably the definitive account, and it covers the story from the first murder, through to Sutcliffe’s capture and subsequent appeals. It also looks at why Sutcliffe got away with it for so long; he was interviewed multiple times, but due to filing errors (this was before computers) he managed to slip through the net each time. As the senior policemen became more tired over the years, they made more mistakes which compounded these filing errors, resulting in more women being killed. Overall, a great read.
- Outrage: The Five Reasons Why O.J. Simpson Got Away With Murder by Vincent Bugliosi (4/5) and Without a Doubt by Marcia Clark (4/5)
Like the Yorkshire Ripper case, I’ve long held an interest in the OJ Simpson case, and given that this year there were two brilliant TV series looking at it, I thought I better do some reading up on it. Bugliosi is the prosecutor who got Charles Manson imprisoned, and he examines the OJ case and why he managed to be acquitted – looking at the mistakes of the prosecution. Marcia Clark was the lead prosecutor in the OJ case, so it gives a different perspective on things. Overall, this case is a good example of how emotions can triumph over facts (see Brexit later on), and how an inability to adequately portray these key facts to a lay audience can contribute to failure.
- How to Support a Champion by Steve Ingham – 5/5
Steve was kind enough to let me read an advanced copy of this book. You can read my full review here, but in summary, it’s great.
- The Pressure Principle: Handle Stress, Harness Energy, and Perform When it Counts by Dave Alred – 5/5
This book is so good, I wrote a full review about it here. Probably the best book I read this year.
- Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World by Kathy Eisenhardt and Donald Sull – 2/5
The key message from this book is to create simple rules that can be easily followed, which means that you don’t waste time or overthink. That’s useful information, but the authors pad out the book with such a huge number of examples that don’t add to the story – so much so, in fact, that I got bored and stopped reading; hence the low score. This presentation explains the key points really well.
- The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat by Tim Spector – 4/5
I really enjoyed this book, which looks primarily at the effect the microbiome can have on health – a subject that I’m becoming more interested in. The key take away, for me, was to eat a varied diet lower in sugary products and red meat. Spector also does a good job of debunking a number of other dietary myths, again just underlining the need for an uncomplicated approach to eating.
- When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi – 4/5
Again, this book was pure escapism, and again I read it cover to cover on a flight. It’s the story of a surgeon who gets terminal cancer, and decides to write a book about his life and experiences; the book is unfinished as the author passed away during the writing. It’s a very emotional book, and it takes you inside the psyche of someone who knows they are dying, and as a doctor fully understands that – which only makes it sadder. Not necessary a feel good read, although it will make you appreciate what you have.
- Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success by Phil Jackson – 5/5
Phil Jackson was coach of the Chicago Bulls and LA Lakers during their sustained periods of success, and worked with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill. This book provides an insight into the dynamics of these teams, and the interplay between coach and superstar athletes. It’s a very good book, and Jackson comes across as someone who can get the best out of people without having to raise his voice – giving responsibility to his players and watching them grow because of it.
- The Cure for Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages about Health, Fitness, and Happiness by Tim Caulfield – 4/5
I like Timothy Caulfield, the author of this book, who appears to have made it his life’s mission to debunk celebrity fitness advice and champion evidence based approaches to fitness and health – a very worthwhile endeavour. This book represents his journey through a myriad of complex health and fitness information, the outcome basically being that the simple, evidence based approach works, despite that not being “sexy”. It’s all useful information and well written – I’d guess my one criticism (not really a criticism, but more my own interpretation) is that, a) absence of evidence does not mean that something is ineffective, and Tim has a very high bar for evidence (this isn’t necessarily bad, but each person needs their own bar height), b) the placebo effect can have huge effects, especially in high level sports people, and c) sometimes spending money on a shiny gadget can increase motivation and adherence, at least in the short term.
- Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind by Robert Kurzban – 2/5
Another example of “great idea, terrible execution” (see “Simple Rules”). If I’ve understood this book correctly, the human brain evolved at different rates, and has created a somewhat modular system. Our ability to communicate, through speech, is controlled by one aspect of the brain, and the ability of other areas to communicate with the speech area impacts how well we can explain our feelings. Our subconscious can make decisions for us, but we can’t communicate why we have made these decisions, leading to us appearing to have hypocritical behaviour (although, of course, we don’t view ourselves as hypocrites). This was useful for me to get my head around, because it helps when involved in discussions with people – sometimes their behaviour seems irrational, but this model helps to explain that. The book is, in my opinion, poorly written and hard going – so perhaps watch the authors presentations instead.
Ronson is a great author, so for entertaining reading just pick up any of his books. Even better are the audiobook versions, which Ronson narrates himself; he has a very funny way of telling his stories. Great for relaxing and taking your mind off more serious things.
- The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker (4/5)
The biggest challenge I find with writing is successfully communicating my thoughts to a reader. Given that I write a fair amount of articles that deal with reasonably complex sports science issues, being able to do this properly is important. My Prof Doc supervisor recommended that I check out some of Steven Pinker’s work, as a way to make myself better at scientific communication, and as a result I came across this book. It was really useful, and essentially the key take homes are to try to avoid technical jargon, and instead try to take a more conversational tone. Authors of scientific papers would do well to take this advice, given how difficult some of them can be to understand.
- All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class by Tim Shipman (4/5) and Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Hilemann (5/5)
I’m not usually one for political books, but this year was a bit different. The first is the story of Brexit, which I was eager to read because I was so certain the UK would vote to stay in the EU, so Brexit itself was a shock. I enjoyed “All Out War”, and it gives you a feel for how politics really works. The second, “Game Change”, was recommend by my sister in law (shout out to Lynn); it’s an account of the 2008 US Presidential race that reads like a novel. I highly recommend it.
- Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (3/5)
The key message from this book is that knowledge workers (of which I am one), tend to spend too much time doing “surface” work – emails, travel, phone calls, etc., and not enough time doing “deep” work – learning, research, producing work. This is something that I’ve been frustrated with in my own daily life; I can often feel like I don’t have time to do good work because of my own surface work demands. Since reading this book, however, I’ve made a change. I try to schedule two blocks of deep work, free from distraction, per day, for between 90 minutes and three hours at a time – and I try to do this three days per week. As the name suggests, deep work allows you to go deep into a subject matter, which for me often involves reading and understanding scientific papers, and then pulling together various strands into one consensus that I can use, be that for work or my studies. So far, it’s been a revelation and has massively increased both my productivity and knowledge. So why the low-ish score for this book? It’s another of those simple ideas that gets pulled out over the length of a book, when really it could be covered it a few pages.
- Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon by Ed Caesar (5/5)
Given how much attention, both positive and negative, the recent announcement of Nike’s sub-2-hour marathon project got recently, I though it worthwhile to get myself up to speed to read this book. I read it in a day, sat by the pool in Vanuatu, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It doesn’t delve deeply into the science behind what would be required to run a sub-2h marathon (although certain aspects are mentioned, including genetics) but instead covers the history of marathon running, looks in depth at Kenyan marathon runners, and looks at a bit of context regarding a two-hour marathon attempt. Enough to further excite me about the prospect of a sub-2h attempt!
- Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
Tim Ferriss is like crack; I know he’s bad for me, and yet I buy all his books on release day. I found the Four-Hour Body to just be full of pseudoscience, and the same is true for a lot of his podcasts; and yet you can always find good bits of information or book recommendations from them (and the Four-Hour Chef is honestly a masterpiece). This book is comprised of the key messages from Tim’s podcasts over the past few years; it’s an easy read, full of recommendations, but probably best to take it with a pinch of salt.
When I look at my complete list on Goodreads, it’s clear to see the impact of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, which I signed up for this year. Whilst you can get some good books in there, a lot of them are click-bait-esque titles, which of course I fall for. This means that I seem to spend a lot of time reading in a procrastination fashion – choosing easier reads as opposed to more in-depth ones – which is something I want to work on for next year. In 2017, I’m aiming to read some big hitters from a list published on Tim Ferriss’ website on books most recommended by successful people. I also bought myself Taleb’s Icerto box-set for Christmas, so I’m hoping to work through those too. I’m also keen to hear your recommendations, so let me know!
Love it or hate it (and I personally love it), sports science is becoming a big part of sport – and not just at the elite level. It isn’t uncommon for even recreational athletes to have a VO2max test these days, and even personal trainers utilise sports science principles when it comes to training absolute beginners in the gym. We have taken great leaps forward in the last few years, with the study of sports science at university moving from something sports people did to get a degree, to an actual real recognised science.
But what makes a good sports scientist? Well, clearly, you have to have a good grasp on the actual science of it. But that is only part of the battle. No matter how smart you are, if you turn up and work with a coach or an athlete and immediately tell them everything they’re doing is wrong, you won’t be working with them for very long. Similarly, your knowledge of the science might be correct, but your application might be wrong – you might know what the athletes’ blood lactate reading is, but can you turn that into usable information?
There are an ever increasing number of sports science students graduating from university every year. Many of them dream of working in professional sport, but don’t know where to start. My course at university dealt with physiology, biomechanics, psychology, and research methods; I left with lab skills and some knowledge, but no practice in applying this to the real world. The same is true for many budding sports scientists – how can you become better at what you do? There isn’t a textbook that tells you this, and indeed it probably isn’t something you can learn from a textbook. That’s why I was excited when I heard that Steve Ingham, Director of Science & Technical Development at the EIS, had written a book, called “How To Support A Champion”.
Even the smallest amount of interaction with the sports science team can have a big impact on athletes. This was illustrated to me really nicely at the 2007 World Championships – every morning I would bring the sports science team a small container of my urine, step on some scales, and fill out a questionnaire. At those championships, I suffered horrifically with jet lag; most nights I got about 4 hours sleep. As a result, I ran pretty poorly in the 100m, and didn’t fulfill my potential. I was determined to learn from this, and improve on the whole process for the Olympics the following year, which had the same initial time change. Fortunately, the sports science team had the same idea, and used the holding camp at those 2007 Championships to monitor how we were responding to the time change. Using information on our hydration, weight changes, and response to questionnaires, they could plot on a graph how we were dealing with the jet-lag, and make recommendations to us individually on what to change. I took on board these recommendations, and then in 2008 at the Olympic holding camp, when I continued to provide the sports science team with a bottle of my urine, morning weight and questionnaire scores, he could give me real time on feedback on how I was adapting. This information was used to determine training intensity and load, among with lifestyle interventions. The end result was that I performed much better at Beijing in the 100m (not the relay, obviously).
The above illustrates really nicely the impact a sports scientist can have on an athlete. They collected data, presented that data, made recommendations, and then supported the implementation of those recommendations as part of a team. It had a big impact on my performance in 2008, and as such I remember it well. Steve was part of this team, but probably doesn’t remember it quite as well, as it doesn’t make his book, although that might just be because I’m not famous enough. It turns out that Steve has worked closely with a fair few incredibly high performing athletes; Steve Redgrave, Matt Pinsent, and a host of other incredibly successful Olympic rowers; Jessica Ennis and Kelly Sotherton, and World Class middle-distance athletes Hayley Tullet and Mike East. Throughout the first part of this book, Steve describes his journey with them; lessons he learned and mistakes he made. He gives examples of how he had to deal with athletes failing (and how he wishes he did a better job of it), his own shortcomings, and things he did incorrectly, but also what he did right; how he built rapport with athletes and coaches, getting them to buy into his ideas.
In the second part of this book, Steve gives practical tips on how to grow as a sports scientist, and how to truly support a champion. The last chapter is especially useful, as the lessons learned throughout the journey are condensed into smaller, take away sections, with bits of “homework” to do – including a reading recommendation for each section.
Overall, for me the book was very interesting. I expected a textbook, but it isn’t that at all, and I think rightly so. A textbook would have felt too dry and clinical, whereas instead here we actually get a feel of what it’s like to be part of a team as a sports scientist, with practical implementation strategies as opposed to theory. I very much enjoyed reading it, and would thoroughly recommend it.
Who might find this book interesting? Well, sports scientists for a start, but that’s obvious. The fact is that today the line between sports scientist and coach is blurry; its expected that a coach should have good knowledge of sports science principles, and be able to apply them correctly to their athletes. There is also a lot in this book that isn’t just sports science based, but instead deals with how to work with elite athletes (we’re an odd bunch), and also how to work within a high performance team and build trust and buy-in within that team. As such, anyone involved in sport, including sports scientists, or coaching in general, would probably find something useful from this book.
Full disclosure – I received a review copy of this book. Whether you think this impacted my review is down to you, but there was no expectation of a positive review from Steve. I have no financial incentive to promote this book.
Correction (9th May) – I initially thought that Steve was the Sports Science team member who collected my urine at the 2007 WC and 2008 OG, but my memory failed me. It was Marco Cardinale, another great sports scientist. Sorry Marco! You can check out his blog at marcocardinale.blogspot.com.au and his own book here, which again I would recommend!
In case you missed it, and you almost certainly didn’t, Maria Sharapova was suspended by the World Tennis Association this week for using the banned substance meldonium. Sharapova claims that she was taking this medication for years to combat a number of health reasons, including an irregular heartbeat.
Let’s cut right to the chase. I would bet my life savings that Sharapova was taking this medication because of it’s purported performance enhancing effects. The same reason as a number of other athletes, including the 2013 World Champion over 1500m Abeba Aregawi, were taking it, and now have positive tests to their name.
Here’s the thing though – I don’t care if she was taking it for the performance enhancing effects. For the vast majority of the time that Sharpova was taking the drug, the substance wasn’t banned. It has only been banned since January 1st, a period of two and half months. If it isn’t banned, then athletes are allowed to take it.
Athletes take all manner of things to improve their performance. Take caffeine, for example. Caffeine definitely improves performance. It’s not banned, though it used to be. How about nicotine? Perfectly legal, and likely improves performance. I know for a fact a number of athletes use nicotine pre-race, and I guarantee they’re not doing it to try to quit smoking.
Athletes do plenty of other things that aren’t banned to improve their performance. Like training, for example. They hire a coach to tell them the best type of training to do. Countries and athletes with the most money can hire the best coaches, creating an uneven playing field. What about altitude training? If you’re lucky enough to live in a country with altitude, you’ve won the cosmic lottery. Or you can pay for yourself to go and train at altitude. I guarantee British Athletics don’t send athlete to Font Romeu because they like the view.
Athletes are always going to push the boundaries in order to have a chance at success. That is what happens when you introduce competition. But if it isn’t banned, then it isn’t cheating, and to say otherwise is incorrect. The athlete doesn’t set the rules of the sport, they just have to abide by them. Each athlete has to face their own moral and ethical decisions about whether they should or shouldn’t take a legal substance. Personally, I wouldn’t take meldonium, but I don’t despise the athletes that did before January 1st. As an athlete, you have to do everything in your power to stack the deck in your favour, to increase your chances of winning. That’s why we train, follow a strict diet, sleep, and sometimes take supplements. Every professional athlete has to look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves if they have done everything within the rules to win.
Recently, I took part in an 8km obstacle race in Australia. 100kgs of body mass rather overheats over that distance, so I used paracetamol to bring it down and enable me to exercise for longer. I definitely did not have a headache. I was using a substance to improve my performance in a race. Paracetamol is not banned. Am I a dirty drugs cheat?
Would everyone have been furious if on December 31st 2015, Sharapova revealed that she had been taking a legal substance for 10 years to enhance her performance?
So, my point is – don’t judge Sharapova for taking this substance before January 1st 2016. However, you can absolutely judge her for taking it afterwards. The fact that she didn’t check the email from WADA is absolutely ludicrous. I cannot imagine doing this myself. Furthermore, WADA would have been constantly re-enforcing this rule change through official communications to the athletes.
Do I think that she deliberately took the medication after January 1st in order to cheat? No, I don’t. I do genuinely believe that she was unaware of the rule change, as stupid as that is. You simply would not continue to take a substance that you know will be tested for, at an event where you know you are very likely to get drug tested at. That would just be asking to get caught.
So, go easy when you’re moralising against Sharapova. This isn’t doping to the same extent as Lance Armstrong. In my opinion, it is not a deliberate and organised long term implementation of a doping programme; it’s just an athlete taking something that was legal, and then not following the rules closely enough. She absolutely deserves whatever ban comes her way, however, simply because of the complete unprofessionalism she has shown towards the anti-doping process.
Testing is used a lot at all levels of sport – sometimes for the right reasons, and sometimes for the wrong reasons. There are a whole host of reasons why a coach may employ testing of their athlete, and there are also a wide range of tests that are available to the coach to use. In this article, I will examine the pros and cons of testing, the reasons behind it all, and the selection of tests that may or may not be useful.
The first things to discuss are the reasons behind testing. When deciding to test an athlete, it is important to consider why you are doing so. In my opinion, the main reason behind testing an athlete is to monitor the training response – are the changes you are putting in place having the desired effect, and improving the athlete’s performance? Their performance on the battery of tests used can provide some very valuable feedback on this, and utilised at the right time can allow for changes in the training programme to be made to reflect the current shortcomings of the athlete. In the same vein, tests can be utilised to see where the athlete is at that very moment in time, as a snapshot of their current state. This allows the collection of data that could be very useful – for example if you test an athlete at a flying 30m, you can compare that to his race performance during that year to see if there is any correlation between that athletes flying 30m testing performance and their 100m performance. If you decide that there is, then you can use the flying 30m during training blocks to see how close that athlete is to their peak condition, or even if they are exceeding it.
The correct application of testing can also be used to increase the motivation of an athlete you are working with. Athletes generally respond very well to competition and pressure, and the use of tests can motivate them to perform both above and beyond their typical training performance. If athletes know a particular test is coming up, they can focus on performing well on that. For example, regular use of body composition testing ensured that I took my diet seriously, and made a concerted effort to lose fat and score well on the test (whether this was actually positive or not is up for debate!).
As I mentioned in the previous point, athletes usually respond well to pressure and competition, and there is an importance that they can do this. Competition, especially at higher levels, tends to exert large amounts of pressures on athletes, and these athletes need to have the mental resilience to be able to cope with and thrive under this pressure. The timely application of performance based tests can serve to place these athletes under simulated competition pressures, and enable the coach and support staff to identify people that perhaps need a bit of a helping hand at dealing with this pressure. Mental skills training is something that is often overlooked, but mental skills are just as trainable as physiological aspects, and so monitoring this side of the athlete’s performance is important.
Why Not Test?
So far, it seems like there are some very good reasons for coaches to use testing as part of their training design and monitoring programmes. However, for each of the points discussed in the previous section, there are counter-points which need to be considered when deciding whether or not to test an athlete. Firstly, whilst tests can be used to monitor the training response, this is only true if the test is both valid and reliable. I will look into these concepts a bit later on, so don’t want to dwell too much on it at this point, but essentially validity means that the test measures what it claims to measure (and then the coach needs to decide whether what the test measures is actually important), and reliability means that if the test were to be repeated, the results would be the same. So, as an example, if you use one repetition maximum testing to monitor how well your athletes are responding to a training programme, this could give you a mixed bag of results. If your athletes improve their 1RM, what does this actually mean? It could mean that they are stronger. It could mean that they are more powerful. It could mean that their lifting technique has improved (this is especially true in highly technical lifts like the snatch and power clean). Does any of this mean that the athlete actually performs better in their event? Well, no, not really. A stronger athlete is not necessarily a faster one, and an athlete with better lifting technique is almost definitely not a faster one. This leads to the creation of surrogate markers, or markers that the coach or athlete use to monitor improvements in place of actually seeing if the athlete has improved in their event. We see this quite often, especially in the UK with regards to power cleans. Often, as athletes lift more weight in the power clean, they expect to run faster. The end result is that athletes can chase power clean improvements in the mistaken belief that these improvements are correlated with race performance, whilst in truth the correlation is probably weaker than they might have thought. So, misleading test data, through the poor selection of tests, can lead to improper variables being monitored and measured, giving a poorer indication of race performance.
Another aspect to consider is that, whilst tests may increase athlete motivation, they can also be incredibly stressful for the athlete. This effect can be further compounded if the athlete is using a large amount of surrogate markers in a bid to monitor how fast they are going to run in upcoming races. In these situations, testing takes on an even greater importance in the mind of the athlete, and performance in these tests becomes the main focus. What if an athlete performs sub-par in these tests? How will you enable them to bounce back? Can they regain their confidence? All things to consider when deciding on whether or not to utilise testing.
What to test?
Let’s be honest here – the only real test that holds the upmost value is when your athlete lines up on the start line, is started by a gun, and is timed on how long it takes for their chest to cross the finish line. If the time that elapses is shorter than the athlete has ever done before, they have improved; if its longer, they haven’t. Obviously, this is affected by environmental factors, such as wind and altitude. And also, at the elite level, running a personal best is actually less important than just running quicker than everyone else; arguably, in major championships your actual performance relative to your previous performance doesn’t matter, all that matters is your performance relative to other people.
Now we have got the obvious out of the way, we can discuss the actual tests that are used. It seems logical that we would want tests that would mirror very closely the competitive requirements of that event; so for sprinting we might test start performance, acceleration performance, maximum velocity performance, and speed endurance performance. As such, some tests that we might conduct include 10m from blocks (and thus test reaction time and start performance), 30m from blocks (reaction time and acceleration), and flying 30m performance (maximum velocity). These are pretty common performance tests, and they mirror quite nicely to demands of the sprint event. A test for speed endurance is a bit more difficult – in the past I have used time trials over 100m, 150m and 200m, or repeated sprint ability over 100m/150m, or even a double flying 30 (30 acceleration, 30 flying, 20 float, 30 flying). I liked the double flying 30 as you could compare the differences between the two flying 30 segments, but it was incredibly tough!
The above are all pretty specific performance measures, and can also be quite accurately measured – you can buy electronic timing very cheaply these days. Electronic timing is more reliable than hand timing, which depends on human factors, and can also differ between individuals. One small downside of electronic timing is that it is quite easy to cheat – I could throw my arm out in front of me to break the beam, for example.
We all know, of course, that these aren’t the only tests used. Quite often standing long jump is used to measure power. If you improve your standing long jump, it could well mean you’re more powerful, but would that improvement pass over into improvements in sprint performance? What about weight-room activities? If you improve your back squat personal best, you’re clearly stronger – but are you faster? Same with medicine ball throws – I’ve never had to throw a ball in a 100m race, so I can’t say with much certainty that adding 2m to my medball throw personal best will lead to any improvements in my 100m race performance. In fact, all I can say is that my medicine ball throw is better. This comes back to those surrogate markers I discussed earlier; markers that we use in place of actual performance data. Take VO2 max for example. Improvements in VO2max might be ideal, but VO2max in and of itself isn’t an event. So, improvements in VO2max aren’t really all that useful is event performance (say 5000m race) decreases. There is actually an interesting study from Andrew Jones looking at Paula Radcliffe’s VO2max against her 3000m performance, and the faster her 3000m race times became, the worse her VO2max score was. This illustrates nicely that direct performance measures are far more valuable than these surrogate markers. A similar example in the sprints might be that of standing long jump.
Even selecting the right performance tests can lead to misleading data. In 2005 I ran a flying 30m personal best of 2.95 seconds, and ran the 100m in 10.22. In 2010 I ran a 2.78 flying 30, and clocked a seasons best of 10.38 in the 100m. Even between members of your training group, tests can give misleading data. During my indoors season in 2007, out of the three sprinters I had the slowest times to 10m and 30m from blocks in training, but the 2nd fastest 60m time in the world that year.
The more you test, the more stressful this can become for the athlete, because they know they are being tested, and they also perceive that if they perform poorly on this test then it looks bleak for their upcoming competitive season. The first time anyone does a test is lovely, because you have no data to compare it to. The second time you are likely to improve just as a matter of practice. But the tenth time? The twentieth time? Now it is starting to become more stressful. Testing is also really tiring – it involves a maximum effort, so too much testing in too short a period of time can cause problems. Tests involving external loads, such as 1RM testing, can also place the athlete under greater loads than they have ever experienced before – and so you have no idea how they will respond to this! It would be bad news if your athlete ended up injured because of the testing process.
What about timing of the test? As discussed, testing can be risky, both in terms of fatigue and injury. It might be a good idea to avoid testing close to competition. From a psychological point of view, it can be very tempting to test close to competition, as a good result here could increase the athletes confidence at the race; I know from experience that having run a flying 30m personal best 5 days before a big race that it can make you feel really good. But if the test doesn’t go well? How will the athlete bounce back? Again, having run a reasonably slow flying 30m a few days before a race, I speak from experience when I say it can be a weight on your mind. The best time to test is determined by your reasons for testing – if you just want a base line, then test at the start and end of each training block. If you want to collect information on what your athletes training performance looks like when they are in really good (or bad) shape, then testing closer to competitions might be a bit more useful. Testing can also increase motivation for the athlete, so a well-timed testing session can result in improved training performance.
What do I mean by testing? Traditionally, testing refers to a specific session or group of sessions in which athletes can prepare for, and data is collected. But what happens when the electronic timing gates start coming out on a regular basis? Is this testing? It would be naïve to think that athletes don’t pay much attention to their times in these sessions, and compare them to their best ever. Whilst you might think it reasonable and understandable for an athlete’s flying 30m performance to drop off a tenth or so in a training block, is the athlete mature enough to place it all into context? I know I wasn’t. And this then further increases the performance for a good performance next time, when fatigue might be even higher, creating a downwards spiral.
In sports outside of track and field, testing should also take into account positional differences. Another sport in which I was involved, bobsleigh, uses a specific set of performance measures in squad selection. One of these is a trolley push over 45m, with 15m-45m (i.e. 30m) timed, and comparison across individuals made. Consider for a second the individual performance requirements within a 4-man bobsleigh; the pilot tends to push for about 20-25m. The second man generally won’t push for more than 30-35m, whilst the last man (number 4) could conceivably push for the full 45m in competition. Is it therefore fair to hold all the different positions to the same standard – especially when what makes a good second man is not that same as what makes a good fourth man? Will the second man’s performance suffer in training for a good test performance, when instead he should be focusing primarily on the first 25m? Again, I’m not sure of the answer, but it’s certainly something to consider with squad based testing. Similarly in soccer, you wouldn’t expect a goalkeeper to outperform a full-back in a repeated run test, so why subject them to the same test?
In conclusion, it might seem like I am against testing. I’m not. I think testing is a powerful tool, especially for testing the mental ability and resilience of your athletes through graded exposure to stress. I do, however, think it can often be overused, or used for the wrong reasons, or even incorrectly. Hopefully this article has given you some questions to consider when it comes to testing, so that the performance of your athletes can be enhanced.
Another year, another venue, a similar story.
Last night, the GB men’s 4x100m team once again failed to get the baton round. What went wrong? I caution that I have been unable to fully analyse the changeover on video (I cant get the BBC here), but I’ve seen enough. I’m also not privy to the biomechanical data, such as speed of incoming and outgoing runner, and checkmark reaction, which would make things clearer. Anyway, I don’t think it matters, because I have a good idea of where it all went wrong, and who is to blame. Essentially, last nights DNF could have been down to four factors:
- CJ Ujah left too early
- James Ellington was coming in too slow
- The checkmark was incorrect
- Some combination of two or three of the above factors.
In all truth, #4 is the likeliest reason the team were unable to get the baton round. None of this is Ujah or Ellington’s fault.
Firstly, I think it’s important to state that athletes don’t want to make mistakes. In an ideal world, they would do their best, and be rewarded for that. None of the athletes in the GB relay team have ever deliberately got disqualified. Yesterday, Ellington or Ujah didn’t wake up and go “Do you know what would be great? If I didn’t get the baton round. I don’t want medals anyway.” Instead, the failure of the relay team is a failure of the coaching staff. The job role and responsibilities of the coaches are to enable and empower the athletes to complete what is a pretty complex skill in a high-pressure situation. Time and time again, they have failed to do this. Let’s look at the GB Men’s relay team results from 2000-present day at the World Championships and Olympic Games (note, that a DQ and DNF are different things – however, the end result is the same, so I will class both as DNF).
2000 – DNF
2001 – DNF
2003 – Silver (retroactively disqualified)
2004 – Gold
2005 – Bronze
2007 – Bronze
2008 – DNF
2009 – Bronze
2011 – DNF
2012 – DNF
2013 – DNF
2015 – DNF.
Spot a trend here? When the team compete, there are one of two scenarios that occur. Either the team a) get the baton round and win a medal, or b) don’t get the baton round. I’m to blame for one of those statistics. I’ve written quite extensively in the past about my part in this debacle, and what lessons I have learnt from it all.
In fact, in pretty much every single one of those DNFs the outgoing athlete leaving early has been a significant causal factor in the team not getting the baton round. Is it the mistake of the athlete if the same mistake continues to happen, or is it a symptom of a coaching issue?
Why does an athlete leave early? This is usually down to the ability to handle the pressure of the situation. Although the general public might think that relay running is relatively easy, it isn’t. To be in with a chance of winning a medal at a major champs, GB need to exchange the baton at around three-quarters of the way through the changeover zone. The incoming runner will be moving in excess of 11m/s. The outgoing runner is rapidly accelerating away from the incoming athlete. The outgoing runner also cannot see the incoming runner, and so is essentially blind to the changeover. Add to the fact that you’re running in a stadium against the best people in the world, in a race where you might be able to win a medal, and the sound is deafening, it’s easy to see how mistakes do happen.
So, why do I think that this is the coaching staff’s fault and not the athlete’s? Well, the coaching staff have to train the athletes to be able to handle and withstand this pressure. There needs to be pressure applied in training. The correct competitions have to be targeted, and the athletes have to compete in those to learn how to deal with the pressure. If the athlete shows signs of not being able to handle the pressure, or chooses not to race in the targeted races, then the result is simple: DO NOT pick that that athlete. GB have enough of a pool of athletes capable of running 10.1 or quicker that one substitution here would have a minimal impact on the overall speed of the team. And, if you can’t get the baton round, you can’t win a medal, so why take the risk?
The second reason athletes sometimes leave early is because they genuinely have issues seeing the checkmark. When you’re in the 3-point position, with your head upside down looking in-between your legs, spotting a white bit of tape 10m away can be hard. Then, under pressure, you have to do mental calculations, matching up the speed of the incoming runner, a moving object, and deciding when he reaches the checkmark. Remember, this athlete is moving at 11m/s, and if you leave 0.5m early or late relative to the checkmark, you’re likely to botch the changeover. This gives less than 0.1s for the outgoing athlete to decide that a) the incoming runner has reached the checkmark, and b) now is probably a good time to run. The athlete has to do this under considerable mental stress, whilst also filtering out the seven other incoming runners, some of whom may have very similar kits to your athlete. Oh, and they also could be running round the bend, which means that your incoming athlete might be obscured for a good period of time. How can you deal with this? Same as the previous point – expose athletes to competitive changeovers, either in training or competition. Film the changeovers, and then you can see if an athlete is leaving late or early. Are the consistently doing this? Then make them change this behaviour. Have they not changed this behaviour? Then don’t select them.
So, that’s point one covered. Hopefully you can see how the coaching staff might have been able to avert this problem. Now, there is point #2 – James Ellington was coming in too slow. This might be correct, or it might not be – I haven’t seen any data on the splits, so I can’t really comment. What I will say is this – running two relay races on the same day is quite physically fatiguing, so some drop off is fine. In fact, it is probably to be expected, or at the very least considered. It isn’t James’ fault if that did happen; he is a fantastic athlete and an incredibly reliable third leg runner, and I would pick him every day of the week. The issue here is whether or not the coaching staff predicted the drop in James’ speed (if indeed it existed), and made adjustments for that in the checkmark. Add this to the fact that Ujah didn’t run the heats, and so was fresh, and you can see how this might be problematic.
Ah yes, Ujah didn’t run the heats. Lets address this issue, because it is a really, really major one. In the heats, GB ran Kilty – HAA – Ellington – Talbot. So, the three changeovers were Kilty to HAA, HAA to Ellington, and Ellington to Talbot. In the final, they ran Kilty – Talbot – Ellington – Ujah, so the changeovers would have been Kilty to Talbot, Talbot to Ellington, and then Ellington to Ujah. See an issue here? NONE of the changeovers are the same? This is absolutely criminal, and a schoolboy error. The heats of the major championships are a perfect time to test your checkmarks, and then refine them for the final. It allows you to see what shape athletes are in ON THE VERY DAY of the race, and how the track is affecting their speed. Here is another key aspect – athletes generally fatigue at very similar rates, so if you decide to refine a checkmark from heats to final, you can be as sure as possible that both athletes will have a similar speed degradation (if any) come the final.
If the coaching staff, for whatever reason, wanted to rest Ujah for the heats and then have him replace HAA in the final, then they should have ran HAA last leg in the heats. That way, two out of the three changeovers are the same from heats to final. Granted, this wouldn’t have made any difference in this case, but it further reduces unnecessary risk. There’s an additional reason why Ujah might not have run in the heats – he might have made a strong case for not wanting to. I’m not saying whether this did or didn’t happen; I don’t know for sure – but obviously I’ve spoken to people involved in the team, and previous teams with some specific athletes. All I can say is, if I were the coach, he would either have run the heats or not run at all.
What confuses me further is that in all the pre-race videos posted by British Athletics, the order of changeovers is quite clearly Kilty – HAA – Ellington – Ujah. This means that either British Athletics are the king of pre-race propaganda and mis-direction, or someone has
seriously bottled made a major decision very close to the race itself by deciding to swap HAA for Talbot in the final. I’m not saying whether this is a good or bad decision, merely that, from the media released into the public domain, this was a very late change – which increases risk.
So, even if Ellington was slowing down excessively coming into the changeover (and I’m not saying he was), this isn’t his fault. Or, if it is his fault, something should have been done to correct and allow for this.
#3 – the checkmark was wrong. You can test whether a checkmark is wrong or right by running the same team in the heats and final. You can also build up experience between incoming and outgoing runner by giving them a ton of competitive experience by racing together at relays, either at World Relay Championships, Diamond Leagues, and European Team Championships. Athlete refusing to compete in these races? Don’t pick him. If you go into a major championships final with an un-tested or uncertain checkmark, you as a coach have failed at your job. Therefore, I can only assume that the checkmark was correct – although obviously the heats would have been a great opportunity to practice and check this, with almost real-time feedback on the effectiveness of the checkmark. If you’re relying on a checkmark from mid-July, you could see how this might be problematic.
So, that’s why I think #4 is the most likely scenario, and I’ve explained why I don’t think this is the fault of the athletes, but instead of the coaching staff.
Now, it would be unfair of me, with the benefit of hindsight, to write all these things and not propose a solution. I’m very confident that the coaching staff involved with the relay squad are going to move on and learn from these mistakes. The timing right now will be raw, but there is a year to correct everything before Rio. The athletes themselves will hopefully learn from the whole process and come back stronger. Here are some of the changes I would make:
I have no idea what it is like now (although, from watching the coverage on TV last night, and reading the comments in the newspaper and twitter, I can guess), the culture with the men’s team is dysfunctional. When I was involved, at times it was toxic, and certainly not conducive to good performance. Cliques were formed, people would slag each other (and the coach) off behind each others back. I don’t believe that athletes need to get on in order to perform well together, but there certainly needs to be a mutual level of respect. At one relay practice I was involved in, an athlete arrived three hours late.
This is what I would do:
1) At the start of the year, have a meeting with all athletes who have the potential to make the relay squad at the following years major championships. Here, the athletes would agree amongst themselves what the minimum attendance criteria for training and competitions would be, as well as a code of conduct. The coaching staff should guide and support this discussion, but ultimately it needs to be the athletes choice. This would then get placed into a contract, and signed by all athletes. Then, its simple – has athlete A met the criteria? If yes, he can be picked. If no, he can’t – but it’s not that he wasn’t aware of the criteria because he himself agreed it.
2) There’s also a sub-culture with some (not all) sprinters who believe that they do not need the relay. These athletes are deluded, but that is their own choice. I would extend an open invite to these athletes, and their coaches, to attend relay sessions and competitions. But, I would also make them aware that if they fail to meet the minimum selection criteria, I would be unable to pick them.
3) Invite former athletes to come and talk to the squad about their experiences, and about what the relay meant to them. 11 years ago we had four guys who won the Olympic Games – perhaps hearing about their experiences would help? For some people, competing for GB has lost its value; this could bring that back.
4) Create an athlete lead leadership programme within the squad. The designated leaders would take the lead on basic administration tasks, as well as form a go-between for coaches and athletes. These leaders would also be responsible for looking after an integrating new members of the squad to the team.
5) Create the ability to have open and honest feedback. This feedback should be two-way, from both coach to athlete and athlete to coach. Far too often ego gets in the way, and some people lack the emotional maturity to correctly receive (and deliver) constructive feedback on how to improve.
- Put in place a skill-ladder approach to changing the baton. Firstly, can athletes adequately pass and receive the baton at walking, jogging, and three-quarter pace. Are their hands always in the right position? Is the spacing accurate? Then I would increase the demands by doing so at a full sprint. Then add in the outgoing runner going from the correct start position, and monitoring whether they left early or late, and the position of the changeover. Next, I would add some pressure, such as competitive relays in training. The next step would be exposure to competition
2. Increase the “relay literacy” of the athletes. Athletes need to fully understand the rules of the race, what determines checkmark positioning, what a good changeover time is, etc. To be fair, most athletes are very good at this, but I’m still haunted by hearing one athlete respond to criticism about a slow changeover with “Yeah, but it felt fast, and that’s what really matters.” I shudder when I think of the job role this individual now has.
3. Consider what value added support staff could bring (budget permitting). I mentioned earlier the issues regarding spotting and assessing the checkmark – could an eye coach help here?
- Put into place a competition structure that allows athletes to be progressively exposed to pressure. This will also increase their confidence, as well as their problem solving ability. By problem solving, I mean developing a library of solutions to “What-ifs”, which can be cultivated through both training and competition. Examples include “what do I do if the outgoing runner leaves early?” “what do I do if he leaves late?” “What do I do if his hand isn’t steady?”. It also gives athletes chance to develop their experience. Let me give you a specific example of this – let’s imagine you are the fourth leg runner. At what point do you go into your three point stance? If you go too early, then your muscles might fatigue. Too late, and you will be unprepared for the incoming athlete. These are things that athletes can only really figure out in competitions, which is why it is crucial.
- Only ever make one change, on either first or last leg, from heats to final at a major competition. Where possible, run the same team in both races.
Now, I know some of you will lead with “But the Jamaicans and USA are much more relaxed about it all and blah blah blah.” All valid. Of course, both teams have much larger pools of athletes that can run sub 10 seconds than GB, which means they are under less pressure to stretch the changeovers. They can afford to chop and change members because the changeovers can be much safer. They also both have strong domestic relay competitions; in Jamaica kids go through “Champs”, which exposes them to high-pressure relay competition. In the US, there is the NCAA system, which again schools them in relays and dealing with pressure. Believe me when I say that, whilst the English Schools and BUCS are good championships, they are a million miles away from those two competitions.
A quick note on the post-race behaviour you saw last night. Two of the athletes in particular have come in for immense criticism. It’s important to remember that in the heat of the moment, people are exceptionally disappointed. Add to the fact that that the two guys getting the most criticism are the two of the athletes who are most dedicated to the relay programme, and you can understand their frustration. Admittedly, they have made some mistakes in the things they have said, but it’s important to know that there will be a lot going on behind the scenes that you don’t know about. I’m not necessarily defending them, but I am providing some context.
I’ll sum up by saying that clearly last night wasn’t GB Men’s finest hour. It comes off the back of a history of making very similar mistakes. Mistakes are fine, so long as you learn from them – but if the same mistakes are being made, this is an issue. Hopefully now the squad will be able to learn, because they have the individual talent to be a successful relay squad. This could be a turning point for the team.
“Witch!” yelled the crowd outside the courtroom. “Witch!”
They had evidence. Other convicted witches had said that this woman was one of them. Parishioners had stated that, when this witch was around, their children had fits. Others had seen her image appear to them. There was physical evidence too – ‘witch’s teats’, a mark on the body that was insensitive to touch. Today, we might call these moles, or birthmarks. In the witches homes the investigators found pots of ointment, and books. Sure proof of sorcery.
Prosecutors used the best scientific methods of the day to catch the witches. They baked a Witch Cake, made of urine from people afflicted by witchcraft, and fed it to a dog. As was well known at the time, when the dog ate the cake, the witch herself would feel pain, because of invisible particles she had sent to the afflicted which remained in the girls’ urine.
Still, not everyone was convinced. Some of the witches claimed that they were accused because of a previous family feud, or jealousy. Some court staff resigned over doubts about the validity of some evidence. Experts cautioned on taking the claims at face value. The accused attempted to publicly show that they weren’t witches. But the mob knew best.
Rumours spread like wildfire amongst the villagers. Bridget was a witch because she didn’t go to church. Someone else had seen Sarah’s spectre in her home. Fingers were pointed at likely suspects who fit some of the criteria of witches. Just being linked to another witch was proof enough.
Overall, 150 people were accused of witchcraft. Nineteen were executed, and five others died in prison.
We know better now.
We wouldn’t make the same mistakes again.
I’ve thought long and hard about whether or not I should write this blog. Doping is an emotive subject, no matter what side of the fence you sit on. When addressing a subject like this, and trying to address people who don’t agree with your point of view, a certain amount of cognitive dissonance will occur – which can create an angry backlash. So go easy on me please.
- Do athletes take drugs?
Yes, some athletes take drugs. In anything where success is at stake, a certain amount of people will attempt to gain an unfair edge or advantage. In high profile sports, with more at stake, it seems likely that more of this would be happening. If countries put a large amount of emphasis on success in these sports, then a state-sponsored doping system may well be in place – think the GDR from 1960-1990, or Russia in more recent times. The effect of taking drugs is also going to be much more apparent in individual events, such as those found in athletes, which are not subject to team based factors that might dilute performance gains. The recent revelations further illustrate that athlete’s can, and sometimes do, take drugs.
- Do all athletes take drugs?
So, we can probably all agree that some athletes take drugs. The point of contention, therefore, is how many athletes take drugs. From my own experience, I believe this number to be very low. In my career, I can think of one incident that I have seen related to doping – I once found a discarded intravenous drip in a toilet at an athletics competition. Certainly, no-one ever offered me drugs, or even had a conversation with me about it. I would have been a perfect candidate for a doping regime too – someone on the cusp of being pretty good. If I had taken drugs, I might well have run under 10-seconds, possibly being the first white man to do so. And yet that conversation was never had with me. Should I be offended by this? Or is it indicative that, within the UK at least, there isn’t really much of a drug culture (or at least there hasn’t been since UKAD was launched).
- Why is there a perception from the public that all/most athletes take drugs to compete?
Think about the narrative that investigative journalists need to have in order to create a story that people want to listen to. Would you have watched Panorama the other night if it were about some athletes who hadn’t taken drugs? Or does controversy increase viewership? I think we all know the answer to that question, and if you are looking at a skewed sample, of course you are going to get skewed results. We see a similar narrative in programmes like “Benefit Street”, which further the notion that everyone on benefits is so because they can’t be bothered to work, and instead live an incredibly cushioned life. The reality is somewhat different.
In addition to my point above I’m going to offer a slightly more controversial reason on why there is this perception: It provides a ready-made excuse for people who aren’t successful. If you believe you didn’t win because the people that are better than you are on drugs, then your own personal narrative is that you were cheated out of it, as opposed to just not being good enough. This is protective to that individual, as it stops them from viewing it as a failure. The pervasive belief in our society is that hard work triumphs over talent, and that is just not true. More often than not, people who outperform you in sport do so because they are better than you, or more talented than you, and not because they dope. I heard whispers during my career that I was doping – well if that was the case I’d want my money back, because they certainly didn’t work.
A friend of mine whom I used to train with has a 100m personal best of 10.7 seconds, making me 0.6s quicker than him over 100m. And I was a good athlete, but I certainly wasn’t exceptional. I’m not incredibly talented, I’m not that tall, I don’t have long legs, I wasn’t incredibly strong. In a lot of aspects I was far from the finished article. And yet I was significantly faster than my friend, without taking drugs. So, it isn’t that hard for me to believe that Usain Bolt can be 0.6s faster than me and also be clean. He can outperform me in so many factors, I’m actually surprised that he is only 0.6s faster than me!
- Is there a doping conspiracy in sport
Erm……. Maybe. I believe that some countries will either deliberately dope their athletes, or turn a blind eye to them doing so. History is full of this type of situation. But some countries actively have a great and effective anti-doping system. Do big sponsors enable their athletes to dope, or at least turn a blind eye to it? If we believe Steve Magness’s claims (and he seems like a very credible witness, and is someone that I have immense respect for) then it seems like this could be the case. But is this prevalent in athletics? I genuinely don’t believe so!
In the UK, we have an incredibly good anti-doping system. I used to be tested on a very regular basis (my record is 3 random tests in 5 days), and at various times. I never knew when a test was coming. I honestly believe that all high-level athletes that are based in the UK are not taking drugs.
- What level of evidence do we need to determine if someone is cheating?
Unfortunately, passing drugs test appears to no longer be enough to illustrate that an athlete isn’t taking drugs; we’ve had far too many cases of people not failing drugs tests, and later being shown to have been active dopers. So, it’s really hard to give a black and white answer on this (sadly). But, also, pure conjecture doesn’t really help. Comments such as “Well he was a bit tired and waiting for the end of the season, then a month later he broke such and such record, therefore drugs” are far below the threshold of evidence required, in my opinion, to illustrate doping. On more than one occasion I’ve felt very tired, and then quite soon after run a personal best. I’m not saying that the person making those comments is wrong (in fact, I believe they are probably correct), just that we need harder evidence of that. But I don’t know what that evidence should be.
So, there you have it. Yes, athletes take drugs. No, it’s probably not as many as you think. Deciding whether people are doping or not is difficult. With a lot of things, we will probably never know the full truth of it all, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But please don’t think that drug use if rife in athletics, because I firmly believe it isn’t.