Learning from the best: Kristin Armstrong

Cyclist Kristin Armstrong won three Olympic Gold medals in the Time Trial in Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016. After each Olympic Games she retired but came back 18 months before the next Olympics. Performance in Mind chatted to Kristin about her drive to keep coming back, the injuries that nearly scuppered her chances and how she now finally has closure.

Why did you retire the first time round?

The first time around I stopped because I wanted I wanted to have a family and I was 37 years old and I thought if I wanted to have a family I should get on with it.  [she gave birth to son Lucas in October 2010).

Why did you return after having your son?

I was active during my pregnancy. That competitiveness never really went away. I could play games indoors with my family and I still want to win. So, I’m pregnant, I’m on my bike and I had a text message from my coach. I was three weeks before delivering and you are just hot and you are disgusting and sick and he text me and said ‘22 months – wouldn’t that be an amazing goal.’ I said ‘what are you talking about.’ He said ‘London’. I am so pregnant and said back ‘are you kidding me – you should see what I look like right now. There is no way I’ll ever be able to compete again’.

After you have your child you feel like your life is out of control. It takes you a few weeks to even think you want to go for a walk or do anything physically cause you are so tired. A few weeks went by and I’m like ok I get this and then once you think you’ve figured it all out your baby changes again. Then my coach hit me with it again and said what do you think?  I’m thinking I need a goal. Even if it doesn’t work out I’ll have a goal and I need to start training again. My only goal for the first three months was fitness, it was just about being active. And I was like oh my gosh this is amazing.

So once that transition happened I remember everything changed. When I did get on my bike I was in a hurry to get home because I had this mum anxiety – I felt like after an hour I had to be home and whenever I went out for a ride I’d never felt this before but I was always looking around. I felt like a car was going to hit me or there was this whole thing around now I am finally responsible for something that isn’t myself and it was a little bit scary actually. I announced I was coming back in November and by January I had a lot of regrets. I wanted to quit. I don’t know why I had made the decision because I just felt so guilty. I had a discussion with my friend and ‘how do you work full time and get through this because I feel so guilty’. She said you just have to embrace mum guilt cause it is never going to go away. I don’t care what you do, you will always have mum guilt. You just have make sure when you are at home be present and spend quality time with your child and be really present with them. You still have to go after what you do want to go after and it is a really great example for your child because you have to work hard. That conversation really helped me and coming back after having a child was very different cause I would travel with the team but instead of having massage after a race I would breastfeed my son because I was racing on the road at six months so before I stopped breastfeeding him. I had my pack and play and my stroller. I always prioritised that I was a mum first and a cyclist second and when I go to do public speaking engagements I talk about how everyone felt sorry for me being a mum and I learnt it became my strength, my balance. Because when I got home from a really bad training day, or a race, your child is there smiling. And Lucas is like I don’t care what kind of day you’ve had, it never really mattered. So what it did was it kept me positive and it lifted me so those athletes who are completely embraced; they don’t work or volunteer; they don’t do anything else apart from their sport; if they have a bad day they dwell upon it and for me if I’ve had a bad day within two minutes of walking in the door I’m having a great day cause nothing matters but your child. Nothing. That was the cool power I had. Nothing really matters cause if cycling didn’t work out I had this amazing family. People who aren’t in that position, if cycling or sport doesn’t work out, they are stressed about what job they are going to have. The stress is enormous, so for me it felt like a secret weapon.

Why did you return for Rio?

I always got asked: ‘Why?’ You won Beijing. You won London. What more do you need in your life. Why would you even risk going after the pinnacle of sport and lose it’ (for they always say you are only as good as your last race) but in the moment that didn’t matter to me.

As a woman athlete you don’t make a lot of money, so I’ve always been an athlete that believed you have to prepare yourself for life after sport because any day you could be finished as an athlete. So I always used to work part time throughout my career and I was engaged in the communities I lived in. Prior to London I was working for a hospital here in the United States and right after I finished London I had a job offer from the hospital and I took it. I was so excited. Finally, normal life. I took the job and for the first year and a half I was in a position that challenged me every day and I could hardly come up for a breath. I had to have a couple of surgeries and after that my position changed within the health system and it got a little slower, I moved too quickly for the new department. My old department did it yesterday and my new department was like, let’s talk about it for a little while. I found that I wasn’t moving the dial I wasn’t reaching anything. I had a vision but I knew at the pace we were going I might not live to see the vision. And I knew in sport I’ve been trained, for every four years you are going to have some huge outcome and some little check marks along the way. I decided to start riding more. My old position my boss was so fast. My pace. Id be up super early and home late. I’m not saying that is healthy but for my personality and as a cyclist I’m so driven and competitive that as much as my mind thinks it would be nice to chill out and relax for a little while that is not who I am. So as much as I wasn’t being pushed enough. I didn’t feel like I was being stretched or challenged enough in life, relative to going to the Olympic games and what I realised was in the business world it is similar to the peloton in cycling you are surrounded by a lot of people who are still trying to find success in life and I found that while every day I was working I was in amongst individuals who had not yet found their success in life and they are always fighting for the credit and I’m like, I don’t really care about the credit. Let’s just do this. It can be your idea, lets go. I just wanted it done. Compared to this I realised being on my bike I found so much joy.

So I would go home and I would be thinking about what is a good answer about why am I doing this. I didn’t mind the question but on the flip side of the question I got ‘oh my god she’s a mum, she’s the flip side of 40, I can’t believe she is doing this. It is so selfish.’ So finally I just came out with ‘it is because I can. I’m healthy, I love to compete and I can still do it at a high level.’ I didn’t need to give any more answers.

I just felt I just need to ride my bike. I don’t mind the pain [she had had three hip procedures by this point]. I just need to ride my bike cause I’m going crazy now. So I started riding my bike. I went to my husband and said “I really miss having a goal. You know like marathon runners pick one of two goals in a year and they work full time. I’m not asking to quit my job or change our lives again but maybe if I chose nationals at the end of May that would be a good goal”

So, I trained for nationals and I win. And when you win nationals in America you qualify for Worlds. In all my years of competing, Worlds have never been in the United States. And it happens to be in Richmond, Virginia. So, I train and show up to Richmond and we have this deal. If I don’t get top three we are done. And I go to Richmond and I get fifth. But I say I am top American. I’m fifth, and I’m going back into athlete mode. I say to my husband ‘I’m fifth because I’m working full time. All it showed me is I’m trying to take short cuts and you know where short cuts take you – they never get you to the top. I’m working full time, I’m being a mum and I’m training half the time I was before and I got fifth.’

I came home from Richmond but by the second week of November I had spine surgery. I didn’t ride my bike again till January 1st 2016. Everyone around me was like ‘why are we going through this?’ But the more of a challenge in front of me, I just respond with more determination. So, January 1 I get on my bike and I train very very hard and I go very part time at my work. I go to Rio. I win. By barely anything, five seconds.

Do you have closure now?

How do you define closure? I don’t think you know what it is until you find it. So right now I’m coaching some of the top athletes in America, two of which I think can medal in Tokyo. That’s closure, I’m not coming back. I ride five days a week. I love riding my bike but the closure I have is that I can sit and love watching a race. I can coach somebody to become a gold medallist. Three years ago if someone had asked me if I was willing to coach somebody who could win a gold medal I don’t know if I was ready to pass it on. Now, as someone said last week, I can’t believe there is an international time trial in your home town that you are organising and you are not racing. Is that not tearing you apart?. I said ‘I have no desire’. And I define that as closure. I feel so fortunate. It is amazing. I love riding my bike but I have complete closure from competing. I’ve done everything. I have everything I have ever dreamed of in sport but it is a really cool feeling cause there is no unfinished business.

I can’t explain why closure didn’t come at two gold medals or after just going for London because after having a kid London was enough for me but it is hard to put my finger on why closure didn’t come and I had to keep going back other than the fact that I could do it and I had the drive. Someone did tell me is you are physically going to be able to do it as long as you want but once your mind goes and you don’t want to hurt every day and turn yourself inside out that is when you know you are done. To train for the Olympics or to be a professional cyclist your brain has to want to hurt every day.

I am starting to see with the athletes I coach it is not about whether they are going to do the physical workout, it is me saying ‘why don’t we work on hurting a little more today’. I have gotton more out of people I coach now because I’ve recognised that not everyone knows how to hurt. As a coach I’m trying to teach people how to hurt and it is ok.

Could the time out between each Olympics have helped you?

I always said my secret was my balance in being a mum but my other secret which I do laugh about is that each time I retired I gave my body a two year break. Think how hard it is to go inside out for four years, 365 days a year. It is incredibly tough on the mind and if we are saying the mind is what takes you to the top I also think back and for those last eight years I really only was on for four years because the other years I rode but it was not intervals or anything that killed my mind. It only helped my mind. And I recovered my body. For two years I was doing healthy exercise. I wonder what would it be like if endurance athletes did take an 18-24 month period where thy totally regrouped, refreshed and recovered and then went forward again. How much stronger would they be? I have always been intrigued by what did those breaks do for me.

 

Athletes online: Research finds technology is fuelling exercise addiction

Twitter_Logo_WhiteOnBlueHeadline points:

  • My research has found that the risk of exercise addiction in ultra-endurance athletes (marathon runners, long distance cyclists, half / full Ironman triathletes) is 44.7%. This figure is higher than has previously been reported in other sports.
  • My research also found that endurance athletes using connected health technologies (such as fitness trackers) and social media in their training are increasing their risk of becoming addicted to exercise.
  • Athletes who use lots of technology and are at risk of exercise addiction are often using technology to seek out an online community to cope with the loneliness of their training. These online communities support athletes, but also facilitate them in extensively comparing themselves against other athletes which can cause them stress, increase injury risk, lower potential performance and reduce enjoyment in their sport.

New research I have just published has found that technologies which are often designed to help those with poor fitness to increase their exercise levels are also being used extensively by ultra-endurance athletes and the ‘stickiness’ of these tools is pushing some of them into exercise addiction. Those using a large number of technologies in their sport were found to have the highest risk of exercise addiction. There was a significant positive correlation between the level of use of fitness technology and risk of exercise addition. 4.6% of the variance in risk of exercise addiction could be explained by the level of use of fitness technology. While the strength of the link was not large it is important as fitness technologies, especially trackers and social media, are now used so much by athletes.

The same research found the level of ultra-endurance athletes who are at risk of becoming addicted to their sport is 44.7%. Across the key sports this breaks down into triathletes (46.1% risk), runners (44.3% risk) and cyclists (39.6% risk).

Exercise addiction usually begins as a beneficial activity but over time progresses to a state that is pathologically excessive. When the person uses exercise to modify their mood, requires increasingly higher doses, gets frustrated and angry at the thought of missing a session, sees physiological changes if they try to withdraw and then relapses when stopping, they risk losing self-control over their exercising. The tipping point is often when the compulsion to exercise is prioritised over other parts of the athlete’s lifestyle; harming their social relationships, work focus or family time and causing conflicts. It can have damaging effects such as injury, personal inconvenience, marital strain, interference with work or reduced time for other activities.

The research found the most commonly used technologies by ultra-endurance athletes were; GPS watches or trackers (92.2%), online trackers (84.3%) and Facebook (70.2%).

In my research I found that exercise addiction is a really under researched area, but one which is important for sports psychologists, coaches and athletes to know more about as it can cause such distress for athletes, and sometimes their families too. Diligence and focus is necessary in order to be a great endurance athlete but when we get too absorbed and inflexible around our training, particularly if we are intently tracking our data, we can lose sight of our real goals and cause ourselves harm.

The study saw that the high technology using, at risk of addiction athletes, were often using technology to seek out online communities to help them cope with the loneliness of their training. The in-depth interviews with these athletes found while they really valued these communities, the technologies also allow them to extensively compare themselves with other athletes. This comparison is causing them stress and pressure, increases their likelihood of getting injured, lowers their potential performance and reduces their love of their sport. A particular risk on relying on the online community for support comes when an athlete gets injured. It can increase the isolation they feel and prompt feelings of jealousy or despondency about what they cannot do. If they are training as a coping mechanism for other things (often stress or mental health issues) then not being able to train, and losing all support mechanisms at the same time, could exacerbate the original issues.

I also found that the gamification of some of these technologies, alongside personality traits which see athletes work incredibly diligently towards their sporting goals, means that they can get fixated by the data and have a strong adherence to using the tools. What was eye-opening in this study was that technologies like Strava or Garmin were driving some athletes to deviate from their own ‘real life’ goals. This reduced their chances of achieving success and, far worse, increased their risk of injury. The way these technologies allow athletes to compare their data to others can cause some to worry about what others think and is pushing them to question themselves or second guess their coaches or training plans. In some cases, the athletes reported this had caused them to become injured or to burnout. Others stopped them enjoying their sport and began to label themselves a failure.

Q&A:

Why do you only talk about ‘risk’ of exercise addiction rather than exercise addiction?

In studies like this we tend to assess risk of exercise addiction rather than diagnosed exercise addiction as an addiction needs to be diagnosed in a one to one situation directly with a qualified psychologist or psychiatrist. It would be irresponsible to try to do this online. What we can do online however is identify if the indicators of exercise addiction are evident.

What can athletes who are worried they are addicted to their sport do to tackle this?

Athletes worried they may be too absorbed in their sport in a way that could be causing them harm should read the following statements and consider how many apply to them:

  • My exercise is incredibly important to me
  • I have increased the amount of training I do
  • I use exercise to improve my mood.
  • I struggle when I can’t exercise
  • I feel guilty when I can’t exercise
  • When I stop exercising for a while I always go back to it and often with more intensity
  • My sport gives my life a focus and I can feel aimless without it
  • Competing in my sport has caused conflict with friends, family or work.

If they recognise themselves in a significant number of these (particularly the point about causing conflict) then it would be beneficial to seek treatment. Currently CBT and motivational interviewing are the suggested routes to try.

What are the main risk factors for exercise addiction?

Previous research has found an athlete’s addiction risk increases:

  • When race distances get longer
  • When training hours increase
  • When the level of competitiveness rises
  • As athletes get older
  • If an athlete has a higher BMI
  • If an athlete has an eating disorder
  • When certain personality traits (narcissism, extroversion, conscientiousness, excitement-seeking, perfectionism and achievement striving) are strong

Who took part in the study?

  • 255 amateur endurance athletes (average age 41 but ranging from 19-70) completed an online survey in the summer of 2017.
  • Eight of these athletes who have a risk of addiction and use a lot of technology in their training were also interviewed in depth about how they use technology.
  • On average the participants:
    • Had been competing in their sport for 9 years and 3 months.
    • Train for 10 hours and 16 minutes a week.
    • Have a risk of exercise addiction of 22.74. The measure use gives scores from 6 – 30. Anyone scoring 24 or over is considered to be at risk.

What technologies are ultra-endurance athletes using?

The most commonly used technologies were:

  • GPS watch or tracker (92.2%)
  • Online tracker (84.3%)
  • Facebook (70.2%)
  • Twitter (39.6%)
  • Posting on a forum (35.3%)
  • Using an online training diary (34.5%)
  • Being in WhatsApp group (27.8%)
  • Listening to sports podcasts (18.4%)

Review: How to support a champion, Steve Ingham

InghMI attended a week long workshop a couple of years ago at the English Institute of Sport and one of the people leading it was Steve Ingham. He had some great advice on how to build our skills as applied sport scientists so I bought his book as soon as it came out. And then it spent a year sitting in my reading pile as it felt like it would be too heavy and ‘grown up’ to read.

Today I finally got a chance to read it and it was so easy to read I finished it in an afternoon. It was not at all what I was expecting. I bought it thinking it would give me lots of things I could do with athletes to make them better – what it gave me was lots of ideas and approaches I should be using with my attitude to be a better practitioner. This is far more valuable. It doesn’t tell you how to be a good practitioner – but it really makes you think about your practice, the questions you ask and the way you ask them. He is really clear that often it is not what you know but how you know it. He suggests that sometimes you have to question your grounding thoughts to build yourself a firmer evidence base and think critically around what you read. He is also clear that often it is not about the facts and figures but about the ‘so what’ – what should athletes do with the information you give them.

It is incredibly honest. There is no ego bursting out of the spine of the book here. Ingham is very open about all the mistakes he has made and how he would behave differently now. This gives a real authenticity to the book and all the suggestions he proposes.

I loved his advice for those already on the journey – here are a five nuggets which I hope he doesn’t mind me sharing:

  • Before you aim to build rapport and trust with your athletes ask for feedback from people you trust about how you come across.
  • To work well in a team then only push the ideas you are passionate about if they are something you would pay for yourself.
  • To think critically question everything including, and especially, the literature, and start to build your own evidence base.
  • To be truly accountable think about who your key relationships are with, what their needs are and what keeps them up at night.
  • If you are trying to influence others use reflective thinking and find someone you trust to share some of these thoughts with before you share wider.

If you work in any area of sport science or coaching; in fact with athletes in any way there is so much you will learn in this book. It will set your brain off on new adventures and force some really positive reflections. It should be on the reading lists of all practitioner courses.

Review: Mental Combat, Phil Pierce

Mental combatI bought this book on Amazon as a suggested read so didn’t realise it was self-published. I’m sure some self-published books are great but this isn’t. It really needed to have gone through the review processes that a publisher would have required. There are scant references, lots of statements which made my eye brows rise with ‘really’ and the book reads like it is written by someone who has an interest in sport psychology and recently realised the benefits of it but has never formally studied it. Unfortunately the author doesn’t tell us anything about himself or his studies or expertise to be able to judge whether they are qualified to write this or not.

It feels a little awkward to read, is very naïve, doesn’t explain concepts particularly well and regularly misses the ‘but how?’ A chapter on visualisation doesn’t once explain how to do visualisation. There are also the helpful(!) points like ‘remember to breathe’ or ‘remember to relax’ which are forgivable in a magazine article, not appropriate in a book promising to give you the secrets to sport psychology.

I’m sure this book has been written with the best of intentions but there are far far better ones out there that will have been written by psychologists who have got vast amounts of experience at translating research into helpful nuggets for athletes and working directly with those athletes on sport psychology techniques. Buy one of those instead.

Review: The Brave Athlete, Marshall & Paterson

Brave athleteNot your normal sports performance book.

The language is much jokier and friendlier than you’d usually expect from a professor (in public anyway) and there is a lot more swearing than I have spotted in any of the other sport psych book, or most books really! It is written by a world champion triathlete (Paterson) and her husband; a coach and psychologist (Marshall).

If you have tried to read Steve Peter’s the Chimp Paradox and struggled at all (I loved the theory – would have preferred it to be slimmed down to a chapter) then in The Brave Athlete, Marshall and Paterson sum it up really nicely (giving a clear hat tip to Peters for coming up with the concept) and succinctly explain how three parts of our brain (chimp, computer and professor) interact to sometimes help us but more often sabotage us.  He pulls apart how each area works for us; chimp (emotional and prone to acting up and having tantrums), professor (deals with facts, truth and logic) and computer (habits and routines) and for each dilemma and frustration that endurance athletes come up against (feeling like a fraud, low confidence, not fulfilling our goals, comparing ourselves, injury, being too fearful to try, quitting, lack of mental toughness, poor concentration and handling pressure) they explain how Peter’s Chimp theory explains what is going on, and give us a ton of strategies to use to overcome the issue. They spend a huge amount of space offering solutions so you don’t finish the book going ‘but how’ like so many other books.

On top of the issues listed above that many of us suffer from I love that they have been brave enough (I guess they had to with their title) to include a couple of issues which most sport psychologists would firmly place in the clinical psychologists’ basket: eating disorders and exercise addiction. The more these are discussed in endurance sport the easier I feel it will become to help the athletes dealing with them.

A real highlight for me is around the way the authors highlight the importance of knowing your self-identity, or identities and understanding if ours is based around our sport. This can have a big impact on how you behave in your sport, the importance you give to it and how you cope when you can’t do your sport (perhaps through injury). Our unique individual characteristics and how we all bring something different to our sport is something that continually shines out from all the athletes I work with and yet many sport psych books lump all athletes together. Marshall and Paterson don’t do this. They regularly remind us that our differences mean the same tactics won’t work for everyone and we need to find what works for us and our own identities. It is really refreshing to see.

I found this to be a great book that should help athletes become more aware of their barriers to success and find some strategies to deal with them.

Review: Faster, Fitter, Happier, Tony Westbury

Faster Fitter HappierThis author of this book, Tony Westbury, a Sport Psychologist, aims to answer 75 questions that athletes or coaches may be thinking about.

Westbury is both an applied sport psychologist and a lecturer so spans the world between academics and consulting. In this book he brings the academic theory to try to answer some of the common questions that receives when working with athletes. In doing this he offers a gentle introduction to many of the processes, ideas and theories behind sports psychology and the ways they can be used to support athletes. It covers a wide range of subject areas (particularly helpful ones included retirement, perfectionism and youth sports) and a huge number of popular theories, explained simply but effectively, making it a great general introduction to sport psychology in an accessible format.

I really like the emphasis on wellbeing with the word ‘Happier’ in the title as the wellbeing of athletes once you get into a performance setting can sometimes be forgotten but in my opinion is the most important element, for both their mental wellbeing and success.

Undergrads interested in going into sports psychology, coaches, PE teachers, physiologists, physiotherapists, parents or trainee psychologists would all be able to take something from it, but a specific audience was not obvious and this made the book a little hard to follow at times.

Westbury definitely succeeds in spanning the gap between research and practice, but you do come away with questions of ‘but how would I actually do that,’ and you would need alongside this book a practical, intervention focused book to help you put these well explained ideas into action.

Review: Endure, Alex Hutchinson

Endure pictureAs soon as I opened Endure the green-eyed monster snuck out. This is absolutely the book I wish I’d written. If you are an endurance athlete, curious about how to go faster or longer Hutchinson has collated all the research that you should be relying upon. What he does so nicely is package it up in a way that makes it compelling to read, leaves the academics behind and pulls out the points that will pique your interest. The book is really well referenced but in an unobtrusive way. It is detailed enough to know you are getting the latest well researched evidence but well written enough you don’t feel like you are wading through ketchup to find the nuggets.

He explains the debates between the biologists, physiologists and psychologists as to how our bodies work when we are attempting endurance sport and then focuses on the individual limiters to improved performance; pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst and fuel. He neatly finishes though by looking at the elements which are attempting to bypass those limiters; training the brain, zapping the brain (something I recently tried with the Halo system) and mental skills.

If you are a runner, or interested in running extremes, Hutchinson was also involved in the Nike Breaking two project so includes some insights from that project within this book which give a real insight into not just how research says things happen, but how this research actually translated when applied into practice. It reminds us the research usually takes place in sanitised labs. Real life races are so much more complicated. Even in controlled environments like the Nike 2 project interference is everywhere and it is only when we learn to manage those interferences which uniquely destabilise us will we be able to endure more; whether that is more speed, or more distance.

There are lots of books which cover the physiology of performance, and more coming out all the time focusing on the psychology of performance. Hutchinson neatly merges the two giving a much more (I believe) realistic picture of what happens in our bodies where the mind and body work (in the main) together rather than as separate systems as older-fashioned books have suggested.

CW picture

I was lucky enough to interview Hutchinson for a piece I wrote recently on Brain Training for Cycling Weekly and could only use a little piece of the interview in my article. So here is the full interview so you can see what really stuck out to Hutchinson in the 12 years he studied this area. 

Interview with Alex Hutchinson, author of Endure: Mind Body and the Curiously Elastic limits of Human Performance.

Was there any specific study you came across during your research for the book which really changed your mind about the role of the brain in modulating performance?

There has been a bunch over the years which have been significant to me. In chronological order one of the ones which really stood out to me was in 2009 Samuele Marcora’s study on mental fatigue and physical performance. He had people do a Stoop task, basically a computer based cognitive task for 90 minutes and the control group just watched a documentary and then they did a cycling time to exhaustion test. Right from the start the people who had done something mentally fatiguing had a higher perception of effort, it stayed higher and they reached exhaustion earlier so that was pretty interesting and people have been talking about the brain forever, but that was a good example of something which effected only the brain, it wasn’t physically tiring and yet it had a very immediate. In 2013 there was a study from Brazil on Transcranial Direct-Current Stimulation which had an immediate impact on perception of effort and also on performance and that was to me another watershed demonstration of that you can manipulate the brain in a way that should have no effect on other parts of the body and that can change your endurance. And the third that made me confident that the brain was really was not just a placebo effect was another Samuele Marcora study where he did subliminal images, unconscious visual cues and I know that is a field where people have doubts about the replicability of studies, but he found subliminal images of smiling faces increased endurance by 12% compared to frowning faces and the cyclists weren’t aware of the intervention. They didn’t know there were faces were being flashed again so in theory really it was placebo proofed.

Was there a mental training technique or a piece of technology that wowed you when researching?

Brain stimulation really wowed me, but I have a lot of misgivings about its use. From a safety perspective it feels a little odd particularly if it becomes widespread you have young people using it with still developing brains. And maybe using it day after day. So, I have misgiving from what is the purpose and mean of sport, what is the point of pressing a button to get faster. I think it is cool and I understand the argument of Halo to tap into the strength in your body but personally I would rather see sport develop in a direction that doesn’t involve zapping your brain.

From the other perspective after spending a decade covering and writing and researching science of endurance if I had a time machine to go back and give my 20-year-old self advice to maximise my running career what I would probably tell myself is take techniques like motivational self-talk seriously. Don’t laugh them off. We had a sport psychologist for my university team and we just through it was a joke and again people have used motivational self talk for decades but the studies by people like Marcora and others have done in the last few years helped to convince sceptics like me that this is real and not just a placebo effect. The one that really stood out for me was Stephen Chung’s study in heat chambers where he found that motivational self-talk not just improved endurance but allowed the cyclists to push their core temperature half a degree higher because it really is allowing them to dig deeper into their physiological reserve. That is my number one take away and I think it is a widely applicable one for athletes but also to keep in mind in life in general.

The results in studies are impressive and I can remember from my competitive days that my internal monologue was not positive in a lot of cases and that probably had an impact on my performance.

If, now you have done all the research for the book, you could design a study to clarify your thoughts on what limits us, what would you test?

I haven’t thought about that but I guess in the book I lay out the different theories; the general governor, Marcora’s psychobiological model, and the more traditional physiological models and a lot of that is probably skewed towards Marcora’s work because he is such a good experimentalist. A lot of people have theories and good ideas and he is a master at testing those ideas and I think that’s a really powerful role and if I had some research money to spend I would want to try to replicate rigorously some of Marcora’s results. Independently. Like the subliminal one. The self-talk one, the brain endurance training one because I think these results are a lot more revolutionary than he maybe get credit for they are potentially game changing experiment but I have a lot of trouble saying you should do this about any of them with the problems of replication in studies like this are challenging so all these studies have to be considered tentative until they start being replicated, in studies of more than 8 people and last a long time and are done by people who don’t have a stake in the confirmation of the theory. No matter how good a human you are and how good a scientist you are that it is very hard to design an experiment where the results are totally immune from your hopes and your expectations. Particularly in psychology.

Are there three things would you advise a cyclist to do from a mental perspective to improve their performance now you have done all this research?

Self talk is top of the list. It is important to learn to consider pain and to reframe what discomfort and pain. To be able to consider pain non-judgmentally, non-emotionally. To consider pain as information. There was a study from Oxford Brookes last year which compared two training programmes one of which was moderate pace and longer and one of which was high intensity intervals and they were designed to create the same physiological changes and the same improvement in VO2 max lactate threshold and the people who did the high intensity training they had a greater increase in pain tolerance and also a greater increase in top speed performance. From a cycling perspective often the emphasis is on long rides and maybe some hills now and then but including some real sprints even if your races are several hours long there is a role for including some acute discomfort in your training to learn to cope with it. Yes, you will also increase your power but even if racing at a steady pace you should be including some discomfort in training through high intensity work.

Could any of the techniques you covered in the book; mental resilience training, Halo, VR headsets etc be considered doping?

I guess my take is cheating is breaking the rules because it is impossible to, even with the WADA code is 2 of 3 with it enhances the performance of the athletes, damages the health of the athlete or dilutes the spirit of the sport and the spirit of the sport is difficult to articulate as everyone has different feelings about it so it is really hard to make arguments based on natural law that one thing is wrong; that baking soda is right and caffeine is right but pseudo-ephedrine is a wrong. But ultimately my take is that we have to understand that there is no line that is obvious of what is right and wrong and there is always going to be a grey area and what we have to do is agree on a set of rules accepting that the rules will be semi-arbitrary and then adhere to those rules so we are all playing on the same playing field – knowing that this is allowed and this isn’t. And if you adhere to those rules it maybe a little unsavoury if you are going right up to the edge of the rules whether it is Team Sky or Alberto Salazar seem to do but the rules are the rules are the rules and if you are not breaking the rules then that is fine. The bigger question is what should the rules be? For me, looking at things like brain stimulation I would like to live in a sporting world where brain stimulation isn’t a part of that. Where I don’t feel that if I want to be competitive with my peers that I need to be doing things like that because they are going to be doing things like that but I don’t think it is the only way.

What technique or technology did you find most valuable to access hidden reserves, that can pull little bit extra out of somebody?

Self-talk and brain stimulation are the two things that seemed most powerful to me. With Marcora’s brain endurance training, I have heard rumours that there is an unnamed pro cycling team that have been trying that approach but it is only rumours. That is something that has produced some great results in studies and a PhD student at Birmingham has just replicated the results so this is something that again could be a powerful technique but having tried the Brain Endurance Training my take is that it is so hard and boring there is nothing elicit about getting gains that way. Anyone that does that they have worked for the gains, it isn’t a short cut or anything. If you are a top cyclist it is your body that is unable to take any more than the five hours of training you put it through but you still have another hour in the day so you can push your brain if you want but I don’t envy the people who are taking that route.

 

Review: Run Smart, John Brewer

RunSMartProfessor John Brewer is known as a go to guy for marathon running. He works at St Mary’s University in Twickenham where they have some fantastic running programmes (Mo Farah was a such a regular when he lived nearby they’ve named the track after him) and unusually Brewer specialises in applied sports science. The applied bit is particularly exciting because it means his work crosses the researching theories vs implementing theories into practice divide. So, I had high hopes for his book.

The book has a nice angle; exposing the running myths while giving you the most up to date knowledge of what science is telling us on how to run a marathon well. It is packed with pictures, beautifully designed, very easy to use and much more like a handbook than something you would read cover to cover. I think it would work well for someone completely new to running who is in that sponge phase of wanting to soak up all that they can about the marathon they have signed up to. It does bust some myths. It does give some good information on racing in different conditions, the kit to use, nutrition to think about, race day prep and training, but I think that causes a little bit of an issue in that is covers so many angles that Brewer has gone wide (to skim everything) rather than deep (and go into too much complexity). For me this means it felt like there was a mismatch between the way the book was pitched (to someone who is starting to take their running really seriously) and the information, tone and presentation (which was more suited to someone just starting out).

As I read every book from the perspective of what sport psychology can I take from this to help my clients I was quite disappointed. The sport psychology elements were neither incorporated fully into the individual elements or given (in my opinion) substantial enough sections within the wider chapters. Completely understandable when going wide to cover everything but it didn’t feel there was enough specificity for someone to be able to draw out any specific suitable tactics to use.

Having said all that, if you are pretty early on in your marathon journey, and looking for some basic, evidence-based knowledge to build your training plans and prepare for your race this book could be very helpful. If you are really taking a step up and wanting to work seriously at your running this book will definitely help you learn a few new things about how to run smarter, but you’ll need to go elsewhere for the specifics to get you actually running faster.

 

Review: Irongran, Edwina Brocklesby

Irongran

My plan to read 25 sports books in 2018 is way behind schedule but one I managed to read in under 24 hours (to the joy of my little one who got to watch far too much CBeebies that day) was Irongran.  I was involved in the early stages of the book and am quoted in it a couple of times but I promise it was not ego driving me to read it. Eddie is actually a really lovely storyteller, and she has an amazing story to tell. Growing up with a grandma who was Winston Churchill’s cook during World War Two gives us an amazing insight into a historical period of British life, and gave Eddie an inspiring role model to look up to. A career in social work gave her an insight into those struggling with some of the toughest starts in life. And then her husband’s early death from cancer inadvertently changed the course of her life when she found the most effective way of dealing with her grief was through running. Having only started running at the age of 50, Eddie found her running club friends gave her the space and inspiration she needed to get back on her feet and, supported by them and her three children, she signed up to London Marathon. 23 years later (she is now 75) Eddie has run at least three London Marathons, completed some of the hardest Ironman races in the world including the world championships in Kona and competed internationally for the GB age group team many times, rarely coming home without a medal. Oh and she has also cycled across America. As you do.

Much of her sport has been done to give her a platform to talk about her passion; getting older people active. The book includes her research on the importance of being fit to allow you to age healthily and the benefits it gives it terms of friends and mental wellbeing. Eddie has bought her passion to life through the Silverfit charity; a project setting up active sessions in parks across London to give those over 45 exercise, company and fun. She’s even set up a Silverfit cheerleading team!

Each chapter in the book brings to life a well-used phrase (age is just a number, dreams don’t always live up to your expectations) with a great experience behind it. I really loved reading about Race Across America where Eddie forgot to load up her iPod properly before heading off and had to listen to the same album (Billy Joel) for 3000 miles! I also loved her tenacity at tripping over during London marathon, knocking out a tooth, popping it in a bag of milk and finishing the race. These stories of how Eddie doesn’t even consider stopping when in periods of adversity are a great when you need a kick up the bum to go out for your own training. A run after a couple of chapters of this book and you’ll be running 30 seconds a mile quicker out of sheer guilt that you are half her age and far more lazy!

Learning from the best: Matt Jones

Matt Jones Frames of MindA few weeks ago I got the chance to interview the freestyle mountain biker, Matt Jones. I work with lots of cyclists but none of them are yet doing the kind of tricks that Matt routinely fits into his rides and I was fascinated to find out how he approaches something that is so risky.

Matt’s tricks got noticed by Red Bull who offered him an amazing opportunity to create a video showcasing his skills. However there was one problem. On the day he was supposed to start practicing and designing the course he was injured. He couldn’t ride. Here he tells us how he overcame that huge hurdle (and the daily hurdles which come with his sport) to make the beautiful film: Frames of Mind.

He prepares really really well so he feels more confident and relaxed…

“If you are very relaxed and not paying attention to risks and importance of doing everything properly you are basically putting yourself at risk. There are riders like that who go into things with very little care and it is quite amazing to watch them and they really go big but they have either very short careers or spend a lot of time with their feet up with broken bones! So I think to have the approach and go into things with a very focused mindset about where your limitations are and where you are very calm and confident within yourself as a rider and kind of maximise what you are good at that’s really important and then you can be more relaxed then and have faith and know what you are capable of. Whereas if every trick you are going to do back to back consistently feels high risk to you then you are going to be super stressed about the whole thing and that is a difficult way to be.”

He focuses only on his tricks, no-one else’s…

“Something I’ve found more useful lately is not look so much at what everyone else is doing because that is always quite hard, you are always comparing yourself to the competition so if you just stay in your lane and focus in your own thing and however you are judged, you are judged, and however well you do, you do, but as long as you do that it takes a massive level of stress away from the whole thing and pressure because you just do what you know you can and spend all day practicing.”

“It is super hard when you are all practicing for a competition and there is someone practicing the most amazing tricks in practice. It used to put me on a downer and think there is no way I could do that and accepting that you are not as good as someone is quite tricky especially when you are at an event, or just before but I sometimes find it easier now just to reframe things and if someone is doing a trick I know I would struggle to do or am not happy to do in practice, if anything it is an opportunity to watch them do it and seeing someone else do it makes you realise it is possible, you don’t have to be the first guy to do it.”

He sets really realistic goals…

“If I go to a contest where I think I can win and if you don’t win you are really on the back foot. Whereas I went to an event this year where I changed my outlook and I went for the top ten because I’d been injured leading up to it and so I thought what am I here for; am I here to win or would I be happy in the top ten. When I accepted that I was just going to chill out a bit and just accept the result I got and if it was in the top ten I would be happy it made everything so much easier. I even enjoyed the contest day because I was doing stuff I knew I would be happy with. I got ninth so really happy with that actually. It wasn’t my best result of this year but one where I was really happy because what I set out to do I achieved and that is the same as setting out to win and winning really.”

He uses lots of visualisation…

“With this video project I used visualisation out of necessity. I was injured at the start of it, when we went into building the course. I was injured so I couldn’t practice anything or even try out the jumps we were building so I was basically having to give dimensions and features I was telling the builders to make and I was having to look at them enough that I thought they were definitely perfect and trust when it came to filming on them they would be ready to go. But it was quite hard. Some of the stuff I did for the first time when we were filming. The day the cameras were set up and ready to go that was the first day I was doing the jumps. I had to do tricks I’ve never done before so it felt like real high pressure but I was pretty confident it was built to the right spec and that it was going to work.”

“It helped to be there and look at it with my own eyes and imagining it, definitely in slow motion and then speed things up. I found that if I did that enough, when it actually came to doing it for real on my bike it didn’t feel new. It felt almost familiar which is quite cool. Generally, if you do something for the first time you have no idea about the outcome but with these tricks it didn’t even feel new. When it worked I didn’t even feel surprised because it had worked in my head so many times.”

“I could lie on the sofa and I could go over and look at the course and use that time to visualise riding it. Now I’m not injured and I’m back riding every day I’m still using it now to bring that element of risk down and try to get to the end goal quicker. It is super useful to be honest.”

Uses other people’s confidence in him to build his own confidence…

“I’d be lying if I said every time I was starting to work on a new trick knowing the filming was coming up I could capture it. I never was 100% sure but I had to tools to make it work and a bit of mental strength to go with it but there is always that element of risk and some stuff doesn’t go. I think the confidence came from a bit of self-belief and the drive to make the most of the opportunity with this video. Because I’ve never had that before. If it wasn’t for this big project I’d probably have tried a trick a few times and if it wasn’t working I’d have left it but because everything had been built in a bespoke way and these tricks had been worked out it almost felt like I had no choice but to keep working on it and there was enough push from people around me to see it through which was really cool. On normal typical jumps I ride, if I wanted to do a trick for a video or contest and it wasn’t working I’d find the next best one and compromise but with this because everything was so specific and tailor made there was no compromise it was the trick I’d written down or nothing. There was a lot of pressure riding on ‘will it even work’ because if it doesn’t that is a whole idea gone out of the window. There was pressure but also opportunity with you have that thing you have asked for to make this work; let’s do it. So that was a massive benefit and a level of excitement that I had the opportunity to do it and I didn’t want to let that one away really.”